Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Of Limited Interest #15 - "The Spaces In Between"

Hello everyone and welcome back to another edition of The Cardboard Witch.  As those of you who know me personally are aware I've been wracked up sick for several days and I've only managed to stagger out of bed to draft a couple of times and eat.  Winter and me don't seem to get along so well and I'm not exactly seeing this changing anytime soon.  I've also missed back to back FNM events because my breathing is a mess; head cold and a chest infection at the same time is a more devastating combo than Jace/Oracle of Mul Daya apparently!  I had originally wanted my next article to be about Standard but I refuse to be the kind of writer who posts/talks about deck-lists without testing them; the world already has far too many people guilty of this crime. Frustrated and discouraged I decided to get back to basics and write about the two drafts I *did* manage to participate in this week.  Purely by accident it turns out I drafted essentially the same deck archetype twice; except one was vastly superior to the other despite many of the cards being quite similar.  Naturally both of these builds were R/W Metalcraft; a deck that I'm thoroughly sick of playing but seems to haunt me like I owed it money in a former life.  Personal feelings aside however, I figured this would be a unique opportunity to compare and contrast 2 R/W Metalcraft decks; highlighting the subtle differences between a tournament winner and an also-ran here in the SoM environment.  First let's take a look at the winning deck and why it might have been the best deck I've drafted yet in triple SoM draft:

"Very Angry Birds" - R/W Metalcraft:

Creatures - 11 (15):

1x Origin Spellbomb
1x Embersmith
3x Glint Hawk Idol
2x Iron Myr
1x Myrsmith
1x Perilous Myr
1x Auriok Replica
1x Chrome Steed
1x Golem Artisan
1x Kuldotha Phoenix
1x Razor Hippogriff
1x Saberclaw Golem

Spells - 13 (9):

1x Darksteel Axe
1x Galvanic Blast
2x Sylvok Lifestaff
1x Contagion Clasp
1x Arrest
1x Dispense Justice
1x Tumble Magnet
1x Turn to Slag

Land - 16:   

9x Mountains
7x Plains

Whoah boy, now *this* is a picture perfect Metalcraft deck.  For starters this build has a grand total of 8 colored cards and every single one of them is incredible.  While some would argue that Dispense Justice and Turn to Slag are a bit of a stretch I honestly feel that all 8 of these cards are potential first picks in triple SoM drafts.  Even more incredibly 2 copies of Iron Myr allows this deck to run 16 artifacts; only 2 of which I'd classify as "sub-par".  This in itself is pretty spectacular; it's certainly more common for Metalcraft decks to either be running numerous questionable cards "just because they're artifacts" or simply less artifacts overall.  What really puts this deck over the top however is how it all comes together; cheap, aggressive and full of removal this deck literally has it all.  5 flyers, 3 power-boosting equipment cards and a Golem Artisan make for a pretty formidable "airforce" while 8 removal/control effects make it almost impossible for the opponent to keep pace.  Even if this deck can't knock the opponent out quickly it's more than happy to run a long game as well, relying on cards like Embersmith, Myrsmith, Kuldotha Phoenix and the Contagion Clasp/Tumble Magnet combo to grind out 10+ turn victories.  

In terms of the actual draft, my first 3 picks in pack 1 were the Kuldotha Phoenix, a Razor Hippogriff and then a Dispense Justice.  While this set my colors very early on I wasn't really that unhappy about that; the best time to pull Kuldotha Phoenix is Pick 1 Pack 1 because you can build around the triple Red mana in his casting cost while simply put the Hippogriff was the best card in the other pack by miles.  I didn't see very many White cards at all for the rest of pack one so I focused on Red and Artifacts.  My first pick in pack 2 was a Galvanic Blast, followed quickly by back to back Xsmiths: Myr and Ember.  I also grabbed 2 Glint Hawk Idols and a Turn to Slag out of this pack.  By pack 3 I was pretty convinced that I had cut people out of Red very well and that while I was sharing White with SEVERAL other drafters, I'd managed to get most of the good flyers.  My first pick in pack 3 was a Darksteel Axe, I got passed a Contagion Clasp and then a couple picks later I found the Tumble Magnet to go with it.

Ultimately I finished 2-0-1 (4-0) after a draw in the finals.  I honestly think I could have won that round but my opponent had a Carnifex Demon, a Sunblast Angel at least one Grasp of Darkness and at least one Arrest.  My deck was certainly faster but obviously his bombs were better than mine; it doesn't make sense to gamble away packs when you aren't sure.  It was also getting pretty late as a game in the first round went to full time and my 2nd round match with Beau almost did as well.  I also probably should have lost the 2nd game against Beau, he made a poorly timed play mistake that let me sneak the last little bit of damage across through the air literally *just* before he was about to take control of the board.  Sometimes it helps to be lucky I guess.

So now that we've looked at probably the best R/W Metalcraft deck I've managed to pull off in SoM let's examine a more "typical" version from a draft where everything *didn't* fall perfectly into place:

"Hornet Engines" - R/W Metalcraft:

Creatures - 16 (18):

1x Glint Hawk
1x Embersmith
2x Glint Hawk Idol
2x Gold Myr 
1x Iron Myr
1x Necropede
1x Auriok Replica
1x Kemba's Skyguard
1x Rust Tick
1x Snapsail Glider
1x Vulshok Replica
1x Blade-Tribe Berserkers
1x Oxidda Scrapmelter
2x Saberclaw Golem
1x Flameborn Hellion

Spells - 8 (6):

1x Galvanic Blast
1x Sylvok Lifestaff
1x Revoke Existence
1x Turn to Slag
2x Contagion Engine

Lands -16:

9x Mountain
7x Plains

Now before we get too far here I want to be clear about something; this is by no means a *bad* deck.  It's actually pretty solid overall and on a good day in a weaker pod you could win a draft with this deck.  It has 5 cheap flyers and 9 solid removal/control effects; including a couple of "bombs".  It also has 15 artifacts to fuel cards like Embersmith, Glint Hawk Idol, Galvanic Blast, Snapsail Glider and Blade-Tribe Berserkers.  3 Mana Myr make it fairly easy to run only 16 land in the build despite the presence of multiple 5-6 casting cost cards; allowing for a higher threat/answer density than normal.  Finally of course the deck has not 1 but 2 copies of the best mass board wiping card in the format; Contagion Engine.  I even managed to grab a late Glint Hawk to potentially replay one of the Engines in the late game; if 2 Contagion Engines are good 3 simply *has* to be better right?

As far as the actual draft goes this is a pretty good example of a "forced" R/W Metalcraft deck.  The first pack I opened in the draft was terrible; I took an Iron Myr and I honestly felt that it was the best pick by several degrees in said pack.  Thankfully my opponent to the right had apparently opened a Putrefax because he proceeded to pass me a Revoke Existence and a Turn to Slag.  I certainly wasn't going to complain about this and I happily accepted the invitation to draft R/W that he offered.  Unfortunately the first pack was pretty lukewarm in terms of Red cards overall and as it turns out the strength of the White cards had attracted too many people at the table.  I opened the first Contagion Engine in pack 2 and got passed a Scrapmelter by my opponent to the left; later on it turned out he was in Blue/Red but his rare had been pretty strong so he had to kiss the Melter goodbye.  Unfortunately yet again I didn't see a lot of great Red or White cards and started having to reach for Saberclaw Golems and Blade-Tribe Bersekers.  Things finally got better when I opened up *another* Contagion Engine in pack 3 and proceeded to gobble up a Galvanic Blast, a Rust Tick and an Embersmith in rapid succession.  I even managed to find a late Glint Hawk to combo with my Engines sometime around pick 7 or 8. 

During the tournament portion of the event I finished 2-1 (5-3) and managed 3rd place on tiebreakers.  I lost in the very first round to an opponent who exposed several flaws in my deck over the course of 3 games.  Beau's deck was built around removal, Walls, the Proliferate Mechanic and cards that featured counters; most notably Venser.  While at first this frustrated me a bit because I felt I had the better deck overall, the simple truth is that I was likely wrong.  Beau would go on to lose a tightly contested final against a W/G deck running Elspeth while I would spend the rest of the evening trying to scramble back into 3rd place.

So what exactly went wrong?  How did two decks that look so similar play out so differently on the table?  It would be easy to say I simply got unlucky; my round 1 opponent was playing a deck perfectly suited to beating mine and he had dropped both a Contagion Clasp and a Venser by turn 4 in game 3.  Careful examination of both decks however makes it painfully clear that luck wasn't the primary factor.  Despite outward appearances these two decks are fundamentally different  in two major areas; speed and durability.  The first deck is blisteringly fast; both in terms of playing/attacking with early threats and accelerating into it's mid game cards.  Easy access to Metalcraft enhanced monsters and 3 power boosting equipment cards magnify this advantage even further; pushing this deck to it's end game as early as turns 6-7.  The second deck by contrast is one of the slowest builds of R/W Metalcraft I've ever drafted.  Most of it's cheap creatures are either 2 power flyers or 1 power utility cards; making dealing early damage easy but also making it harder to "ramp" damage in the mid-game.  In fact another huge issue with this build is it's general lack of a mig-game in general; while it has excellent early creatures and some 6 CC bombs it's middle game consists of some marginal Hill Giants (Scrapmelter, Berserkers) and a couple of Saberclaw Golems.  During games this typically meant I would get my opponent down to 12-14 life before finding myself on the backfoot and trying to race 3/3-5/5 "ground pounders" with my 2/2 flyers.  Despite starting out with a slight lead this position would eventually become untenable, forcing me to sacrifice *my* smaller defenders just to keep racing.  Of course sacrificial blocking is no way to maintain Metalcraft which in turn made my deck less effective overall.  In the games where I survived this sudden loss of traction I'd eventually top-deck a Contagion Engine and one of my few finishing creatures to win but typically this would be around turn 10 or 11.        

The second major difference between these two decks is durability which I personally define as the ability to absorb damage/kill spells and win long games.  The first deck is one of the toughest/most resilient builds I have ever seen in a booster draft.  For starters when you're talking about grinding out long games it's pretty hard to beat a Kuldotha Phoenix in a deck that hits Metalcraft in it's sleep.  Killing the bird becomes a temporary but absolutely necessary solution; there aren't many decks that can survive a 4/4 hasted flyer turn after turn.  Another good example of how this deck dominates late games can be found in the Tumble Magnet/Contagion Clasp combo; 4 mana in the late game is *more* than worth always having an extra token on your Tumble Magnet to tap out your opponent's best creature.  I've even gone so far as to refuse to use up my last Magnet counter just to make sure I could Proliferate it when I finally drew my Contagion Clasp.  Throw in 3 Glint Hawk Idols that aren't even creatures on your opponent's turn and a Razor Hippogriff to fish back an artifact while gaining you life and you get a deck that's even harder to close games out against.  How about using a Golem Artisan to turn *any* artifact creature in play into a game winning monster once you have enough mana?  Darksteel Axe performs the same function and is especially strong when combined with flying creatures; something this deck certainly doesn't lack.  Speaking of equipment don't forget the important role the 2 copies of Sylvok Lifestaff play in this deck.  Not only does the +1 power speed up the clock in the early game but you can also use them to grind out longer games simply by attaching them to sacrificial blockers.  Your opponent's creature fails to get through *and* you gain 3 Life in the process; for added fun you can even do the blocking with disposable 1/1 Myr tokens created by your Myrsmith.  To sum it up nicely; this deck keeps coming all day and if you're going to beat it than you're going to have to put it down hard.

The second deck on the other hand is actually quite fragile.  Most of it's creatures have 2 toughness despite the fact that some of them are quite expensive.  You don't know pain until your opponent wipes out your entire board with 2 mana after you use a Myr to force out a turn 4 Saberclaw Golem and he untaps and replies with Arc Trail.  Even it's big beatstick is actually a little light in the butt; 5 toughness is worlds away from 4 in SoM and it's pretty tough when you lose a 6 mana investment to a Galvanic Blast or Grasp of Darkness.  This lack of toughness in turn made ground-based creature combat extremely difficult and ended up putting a lot of pressure on my 5 2/2 flyers to win games.  Making matters worse the deck had very few "disposable" creatures whatsoever and no way of making/recycling creatures from the graveyard.  Typically this made blocking in the early game impossible unless I stumbled across my lone Necropede, a somewhat irregular occurence as it turns out.  This inability to defend against early attacks combined with my smallish creature based to make racing with opponents even harder.  I only managed to win one game the entire night simply by outrunning my opponent and in that game he only played about 4 creatures total and I drew every piece of removal in my deck.  Most of my wins were entirely the result of a late game Contagion Engine after my opponent had already spent his artifact removal cards in hand.  In fact aside from the 2 Engines this deck has almost no late game either; ultimately it's just another deck trying to win before it loses with a bunch of tiny creatures somewhat ill-suited to that goal.

Ultimately the difference between these two decks lies in how they were drafted and built.  The first deck started out ridiculously strong in pack 1 and I was able to sculpt a deck around my first few choices.  The second deck was primarily a by-product of forcing R/W Metalcraft once it became clear that my opponent to the right was probably playing Infect.  These results pretty much line up with my theory that R/W Metalcraft is one of the best decks in the format if built properly but forcing it constantly is a good way to finish 2-1 and out of 1st place for the most part.  

Well folks that just about wraps it up for this time.  Hopefully you'll all surviving the pre-holiday rush as well as I am and thanks again for reading.  Until next time always remember to take what the packs are giving and keep it weird!

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