Sunday, February 27, 2011

Standard Deviations #12 - Fortunate Sun (A Combination Tournament Report and Valakut Primer)

"That's the secret. You gotta play this game with fear and arrogance." - Crash Davis, Bull Durham 

Hello everyone and please allow me to welcome you all back to another edition of The Cardboard Witch.  Before we get started I'd like to take a moment to give a big shout-out to local Magic organizer Mathew Harper.  Mathew is a regular customer at the game store I work at and is currently working on growing a casual Magic league here in Toronto.  You can find the league website here Magic League Toronto , email Mathew at or even following along on Twitter (@magicleagueto)!  Mathew has assured me that in particular the league will be a great place for new players to try their hand at Magic tournaments in a relaxed casual setting.  I'm all for growing Magic in our fair city and since Mathew seems like the reliable sort I'm glad to get behind a project like this.  If this league sounds like something that might interest you I urge you to check out the website and join the forums; the more the merrier is certainly a moto to live by when it comes to playing Magic the Gathering.

Okay with that out of the way lets dive right in and take a look at some post Mirrodin Besieged Standard action; after all tomorrow's Friday Night Magic events will mark the 4th week the new set has been legal for constructed play.  As I mentioned in the last "Standard Deviations" article I published I've recently been playing in FNM events locally at the Hairy T North; a store that's about 1 hour from my house by combined subway/bus ride.  While an hour may seem like a long way to travel for a Magic tournament I like the Hairy T North events for two major reasons: first they are run professionally by a tournament organizer who cares (Kelly) and additionally the playgroup there is both talented and EXTREMELY polite/easy to get along with.  While I'm certainly prepared to play a match against a "Magic troll" or two during a long tournament the fact that I never *have* to when playing at the HTN makes all the difference in the world to me.

Friday February 11th:

After playing U/B Control to a 3-0-1 finish the prior week I went into this tournament expecting to run a re-tuned version of the same deck.  While obviously I was still happy with the deck after drawing in the finals the week before I wasn't entirely confident in my matchup with either Kuldotha Goblins or Big Red Koth decks.  This naturally put me on finding better answers and eventually I had settled on 3 maindeck Vampire Nighthawks and a Wurmcoil Engine.  To help solve the Big Red Koth issue I'd upped my SB to a full 4 copies of Flashfreeze with the idea that they'd also be very strong in the Valakut match-up.  A funny thing happened as I arrived at the store however; walking into the back room about a half hour before the tournament started I saw somewhere between 12-14 other players practicing on the card tables.  This in itself was significant because I knew several more people would be coming that hadn't arrived yet making for a larger (and more interesting) tournament than we'd had the week before.  Additionally I counted at least 5 players in the room running either U/W or U/B control decks and a couple of guys playing new Tezzeret variant builds.  At this point I became suddenly disinterested in trying to win a tournament running a U/B control deck while facing off against numerous players I had never met before, multiple potential mirror matches and/or Tezzeret decks I was completely unprepared for (i.e. 4x Go For the Throat main).  Somewhat dismayed I asked my friend, fellow competitor and world famous Eh Team Podcaster Scott MacCallum for advice and he wisely recommended a quick "audible" to Green Sun Valakut.  Realizing that he was probably right I paid my entry fee and sat down to battle with the following list:

Green Sun Valakut - G/r Mana Ramp:

Creatures - 12

4x Overgrown Battlements
1x Thrun the Last Troll
4x Primeval Titan
3x Avenger of Zendikar

Spells - 21

4x Khalni Heart Expedition
3x Explore
4x Cultivate
4x Slagstorm
2x Growth Spasm
4x Green Sun's Zenith

Lands -27 

5x Forest
12x Mountains
3x Evolving Wilds
3x Terramorphic Expanse
4x Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle

Sideboard -15:

3x Gaea's Revenge
4x Summoning Trap
4x Pyroclasm
4x Back to Nature

To be fair this version of the deck turned out to be something of a work in progress (more of that later) even though I considered it a finished product at the time.  Going into the tournament however I'd already played literally a couple hundred test games with it around the shop and I felt extremely confident that I was running the "right' version of post-MBS Valakut.  In particular I felt the design rested on four central principles that simply made it stronger than other post MBS Valakut decks:

  • The inclusion of 4 copies of Green Sun Zenith and 0 copies of Summoning Trap in the main deck.
The key to understanding Green Sun Zenith's value in this deck is to understand that at heart Valakut decks are essentially "combo" orientated; albeit with multiple combinations that consist of playing card X and forcing Y # of lands into play.  Green Sun's Zenith allows you to tutor up both Primeval Titans or Avengers of Zendikar virtually at will thereby significantly increasing the consistency with which you can pull of your combos.  What's more this increased consistency goes a long way towards improving the endurance of the deck since it allows you to replace Titans/Avengers your opponents may kill or neutralize.  Having the ability to play 3 consecutive Primeval Titans means you don't need *any* of them to survive long enough to attack in order to win the game for example.  Alternately fetching a second Avenger to replace the one your opponent just dropped a kill spell on allows you to keep "growing" your Plant tokens every time you drop a land.  Finally while you'd be tempted to think that removing Summoning Trap for an expensive sorcery like GSZ would make the deck weaker against U based control decks in testing this simply didn't prove to be true.  Typically after my opponent had dropped a couple of counters on mana ramp spells and/or the first Green Sun Zenith/Primeval Titan they'd simply run out of gas; it's pretty hard to counter 8 Primeval Titans with a total of 7 counterspells when someone of them don't work on creatures.  The existence of GSZ simply allowed you to wear your opponent down long enough that you didn't care if he had a Spell Pierce or Mana Leak in hand because you could pay the cost.  The extra mana from Battlements also went a long way towards solving those cards out of U as well.
  • The inclusion of 4 main-deck Slagstorms and 0 creatures with toughness less than 4. 
    While I personally don't believe that aggro decks have actually gotten all that much better with the release of Mirrodin Besieged it's pretty hard to argue that they haven't become more popular.  Everywhere you turn these days it's seem that Kuldotha Goblins, Boros, Vampires or G/W Equipment decks are popping up out of the woodwork.  In the face of this new environment I felt that Lightning Bolt had lost much of it's relevance and that the only solution was to pack 4 main-deck board sweepers.  Slagstorm was chosen over Pyroclasm for two major reasons: first it gets through the 1st and sometimes 2nd "tribal lord" Toughness bonuses and second it's ability to damage your opponent directly makes it much better at dealing with enemy Planeswalkers.  In light of this I felt that Slagstorm's addition R casting cost was more than worth the potential upside the card provided over 'Clasm.  Naturally of course this decision influenced my choice of mana ramp creatures since Overgrown Battlements would still survive post Slagstorm and cards like Lotus Cobra and Oracle of Mul Daya would not.  Ultimately this would make my deck less explosive (I can't play Prime Titan on turn 3 for example) but more stable and significantly more resilient against extremely aggressive strategies.  Eventually further testing would prove that the deck still needed spot removal and I would later drop down to 3 Slagstorms to help make room for 3 Bolts.  For this tournament however I ended up running all 4 Storms and no Lightning Bolts whatsoever in the entire 75 card deck.

    • Keeping 3 copies of Avenger of Zendikar and to a lesser degree 4 copies of Overgrown Battlements in the main-deck to fight "swarm" strategies. 
    Early on in post MBS testing I found one of the strongest temptations was to use Green Sun'z Zenith as a "super-Tutor"; allowing you to toolbox up a variety of useful green creatures typically at the cost of "extra' Avengers and or Battlements.  Unfortunately once again during testing it became readily apparently that I needed both high toughness blockers (Battlements) but also *multiple* ways to spill out a bunch of token blockers onto the field (3x Avenger + 4x Green Sun Zenith).  Typically in games where casting an Avenger will both prevent you from dying and eventually win you the game your window of opportunity will close incredibly quickly.  It's a short walk from stabilizing at 6 life with 7 creatures in your hand to heading to game 2 looking for answers if you simply can't draw the Avenger.  While obviously not quite as effect this principle also applies to Overgrown Battlements; you don't *want* to blocking with your mana ramp creatures but sometimes the ability to do so is going to be the only reason you're still alive to win the game on turn 5 or 6.  1 and 2 toughness mana ramp creatures typically make exceptionally poor blockers.

    • Running 11 sources of Green mana while simultaneously maintaining 12 Mountains in the build.

    Lets be real here; 80% of the time the reason this deck wins is because of the way Valakut interacts with the basic land type "Mountain".  Simply put you need Mountains and quite a few of them to make Valakut a real threat; there's no point in wasting 4-5 turns to set up your combo only to run out of gas because your opponent somehow crossed 30 life in the early game.  This can naturally be quite a contentious issue in a deck with 29 Green spells; many of which actually have GG in their casting cost.  While it may not seem like much the mana-base for this deck has survived two set updates and a couple hundred games worth of testing minimum.  In my opinion you simply can NOT go below 12 Mountains without risking running out of ways to trigger your Valakuts against certain deck-types.  Additionally the inclusion of 6 common "cracklands" and 5 basic Forests gives you 11 chances to find a turn 1 source of Green mana; an absolutely *must* for succeeding with this deck.  Naturally of course this also works well with the 4 copies of Khalni Heart Expedition, allowing you to add extra counters to help fish out even more land as the game progresses.      

    Naturally of course I would end up changing this deck slightly over the next couple of tournaments but going into round 1 I felt pretty comfortable with my deck overall.  Due to a late registration mixup we entered the tournament with 21 players and I found myself hoping I wouldn't be stuck with the round 1 bye as pairings were posted.

    Round 1- Danny Goodfellow - G/W Aggro:

    As luck would have it I did manage to avoid the round 1 bye but instead found myself paired against an opponent who may well have been the best Standard player in the room.  I didn't know this at the time of course; I had just met Danny a half-hour or so earlier after being introduced by a mutual friend and longtime customer Brian Halls.  We chatted briefly for a few moments before the round officially began and Danny's friendly/charming manner gave little hint to the game 1 pounding he was about to administer.  I remember winning the die roll and keeping a somewhat mediocre hand only to watch Danny drop a Lotus Cobra and a Fauna Shaman onto the table in rapid succession.  I naturally responded by setting him back to zero with a Slagstorm and was feeling pretty good about myself until he dropped another Cobra and a Vengevine.  I don't actually remember very much else about this game; by the time I drew my 2nd Slagstorm he had already dropped a Fauna Shaman, cycled a 2nd Vengevine into the yard and had multiple Squadron Hawks in his hand.  Even if I killed his entire side I would be dead to the 2 Vengevines in his graveyard on his next turn anyways so I scooped without dealing him a single point of damage.  After boarding in all 4 copies of Pyroclasm I tried to settle down into game 2 but found myself mulling away my opening hand on the play for lack of a Green mana source.  My next 6 were much better however; containing both colors of mana, an Explore a Slagstorm and a Pyroclasm.  Unfortunately once again Danny came out like a ton of bricks and began putting pressure on me immediately with an early Sword of Body and Mind; his deck was starting to feel a lot like G/W Quest simply without the quest and for a little while there I thought I was going to lose round 1 in 2 very short/violent games.  At one point I was forced to drop a Pyroclasm to clear out a Fauna Shaman and a Lotus Cobra only to have Danny reply with a 2nd Lotus Cobra and a Leatherback Baloth.  Terrified of the potential Baloth/Sword combination I was forced to essentially skip my entire turn to cast a Pyroclasm and a Slagstorm; killing pretty much everything in play including Danny's Baloth and one of my Walls. This was somewhat fortunate as the game ended a couple turns later with me on 6 life and Danny capable of activating a Stirring Wildwood and equipping the Sword of Body and Mind for 5 damage before I would kill him on the next turn.  Unfortunately game 3 was far less exciting and I managed to luck into one of Valakut's many "I just win" draws while once again Danny found himself short on Vengevines and Fauna Shamans to help steer the match-up heavily in his favor.  When I thanked Danny for the games and expressed my feelings of having 'barely escaped" the match however he disagreed and told me that he felt his deck was the underdog in the match unless he hit a the nuts Vengevine draw.

    1-0 (2-1) MVP Slagstorm - This match was a perfect example of how I think Valakut has to adapt to the post-MBS Standard environment and I definitely wouldn't have won without running multiple board-sweepers in games 2 and 3.  That's not to say I was right in taking out Lightning Bolt for it but the obvious truth is that there's a place for 3-4 Slagstorms in the main 60 cards of this deck.

    Round 2 - Scott MacCallum - U/B Forgemaster Tezzeret:

    Naturally of course round 2 would find me paired against the man who recommended I play Valakut that night.  As it turns out Scott was rocking some new "experimental" tech in the form of a Tezzeret, Agent of Bolas deck designed by Martin Juza right before Pro Tour Paris.  This version of the deck varied significantly from the "Chapin/Grixis" edition and after playing a practice game against it before the tournament began I felt it was both faster and more consistent than other Tezzy decks I had seen.  Unfortunately I don't remember as much about the play-by-play for this match as I usually do; Scott and I are good friends and because both of our decks required so little interaction we actually had time to finish 5 games in one sitting.  I managed to win 2 out of the 3 games that actually counted primarily because I won the initial die roll and thus ended up on the play for both of my victories.  I would go on to lose the last 2 games rather soundly and end up 3-3 against the deck overall on the night.  After 6 games however I feel I have a pretty good read on the match-up between these two deck-types and I have to say the results are fascinating simply because the decks are so similar.  Like Valakut, the Forgemaster Tezzeret deck ignores it's opponent in the early game and spends it's first 3-4 turns establishing a mana base and playing out combo pieces (Tezzeret, Inkmoth Nexus, Forgemaster) before suddenly exploding out of the gates with a 1-2 turn "I just win" interaction.  Additionally the deck also has multiple ways to win the game once it's established the combo with Inkmoth Nexus + Tezzy X2, Forgemaster + Blightsteel Colossus or Tezzeret's -4 "Drain Life" ability comparing well to Valakut, Primeval Titan and Avenger of Zendikar with his armies of ever-growing Plant tokens.  Finally of course the sheer size of the threats the Tezzeret deck plays (Collossus, 5/5 Flying Infect Monsters, etc) makes it pretty easy for the deck to "go right over-top" most aggro strategies despite surrendering the first 3 turns of the match; just like Valakut.  Even playing *against* the deck is a similar experience to playing against Valakut as you constantly find yourself trying to steal the game before your opponent untaps and "just wins" through some ridiculous interaction you no longer have a way of stopping.

    In terms of actual games I recall winning the first game at 5 poison because I top-decked a timely Slagstorm to kill Scott's Tezzeret the turn after he cast and used it.  I then walked into back to back Primeval Titans and domed him for about a million.  Game 2 however was not even close as Scotty put me on the poison clock turn 4 and even after I killed his Planeswalker had no real problem finding another.  I quit with him capable of choosing to poison me out with either an active Nexus or a Blightsteel Colossus.  Game 3 was more "back and forth" but I eventually won because Scott attempted to "slow-roll" his Colossus into play rather than going for the quick poison victory.  At one point he said "so long as you don't have 2 more Primeval Titans I'm okay" while I had one already in play; a 2nd Titan and a Green Sun Zenith later I was "doming" Scott for 36ish damage the turn before he would kill me with a psuedo-hasted Colossus.  I walked away from this match with two very strong feelings; first that I had been rather lucky to survive that round and second that while Slagstorm was a necessity in the post MBS-environment removing Lightning Bolt from the deck to make room for it had been a mistake.

    2-0 (4-2) MVP - Green Sun's Zenith - While it's true that I only cast this spell twice in our 3 game match it's also true that in both cases it immediately won me a game I was about to lose if my opponent got even a single additional turn.  What's more in both cases I was OUT of other legitimate options to play meaning without the Zenith I probably lose this match; maybe in 2 games.  This card is the real deal.

    Round 3 - Shai Cramer-Hussey - G/r Valakut Ramp:

    As I was wandering up to the front counter to report my round 2 match I happened to bump into Shai on his way back from reporting his match.  I inquired if he had won or not and Shai stated that he had before adding "you don't want to play me next round Nina, I'm apparently very lucky tonight".  Naturally of course I couldn't resist the temptation to mess with a friend and potential round 3 opponent so without missing a beat I responded "that's okay Shai, I'm lucky all the time so it'll work out".  This exchange of course would then seal both of our fates as naturally the DCI Reporter found a way to pair us together in round 3.  Sitting down I suddenly felt a little bit light headed; while I'm certainly feeling better than I have been for most of the winter it's not entirely fair to say I'm completely well yet and at this point I was running a mild fever.  Thankfully Shai was pretty understanding and after waiting a few minutes for the round to start we agreed to roll 2D6 to see who would go first.  When I grabbed the dice and immediately spilled out boxcars I suddenly felt way better about the upcoming match.  Game 1 went pretty much according to plan as I spilled out an early Overgrown Battlements and a Khalni Heart Expendition in rapid succession.  This naturally forced Shai to overextend in an effort to regain tempo and he played out a Lotus Cobra and a "crackland" for an Oracle of Mul Daya before shipping the turn back.  Unfortunately for him I had the Slagstorm in hand and a couple of turns later was able to "dome" him out with Valakut Triggers.  As a side note it was early on during this game that both Shai and I noticed that one of my Khalni Heart Expenditions had a severely split sleeve.  I'd been playing with the deck all night and hadn't noticed it before so it's likely what started out as a small tear turned into a sizable rip sometime while I was shuffling up for round 3.  Thankfully Shai was pretty cool about it and we simply switched the sleeved for one in my sideboard but I  mentally decided to buy some new sleeves for the deck before I played it in another tournament anyways.

    Game 2 saw Shai go on the play and for the most part I mentally started preparing for game 3.  Typically it's very hard for a Valakut player to win the mirror going 2nd unless his/her draw significantly outclasses their opponent's.  While my opening hand was certainly promising with 2 copies of Overgrown Battlements and a Khalni Heart Expedition, I really had no reason to believe that was going to be enough to swing momentum back in my favor.  After both played out our early mana ramp spells Shai proceeded to drop a turn 4 (5?) Titan and load up with 2 copies of Valakut before shipping the turn back to me.  Naturally I had both of my Walls in play at this point and a Titan in hand but the ebb and flow of our game meant I could only fish out 1 Valakut if I wanted to kill his Titan this turn; something I considered an absolute necessity at this point.  What's more to accomplish this I was going to have to not only cast the Titan but blow up BOTH of my Khalni Heart Expeditions just to get the prerequisite number of mountains into play and all I would get out of the arrangement is 3 damage at Shai and a dead Titan.  With little choice however I proceeded to do exactly that and shipped the turn back with a Green Sun's Zenith and a random Cultivate in my hand.  Shai responded by casting another Primeval Titan and after optimizing his Valakut triggers proceeded to not only kill my Titan but to wipe my entire board by doing 6 damage each to both of my Overgrown Battlements.  While I considered this play curious I figured that Shai probably didn't have another Titan/way to fish Mountains in his hand so he was clearing out my potential blockers to go for the win on his next turn.  I proceeded to untap, drew a random Forest and cast Green Sun Zenith naming "Primeval Titan" but unfortunately due to my poor initial set up could only use it for 12 damage total on my turn; killing Shai's Titan and setting him up for lethal on my next turn.  Unfortunately Shai's decision to murder my Battlements on his previous turn would come back to haunt him as he topped either a 3rd Titan or a Green Sun's Zenith to go get a Titan; if he had simply directed the 12 Damage at me last turn this would be lethal but instead he was forced to split 18 damage between me and my active Titan.  I untapped and drew another copy of Green Sun Zenith and after showing both it and the Cultivate in my hand to Shai accepted his concession.

    3-0 (6-2) - Slagstorm/Overgrown Battlements - This is a tie simply because I don't win game 1 without killing Shai's weenie mana ramp creatures and I don't win game 2 without cheating out a Prime Titan a turn early and stealing my opponent's momentum in the process.  Frankly you could also argue that a timely topdecked Green Sun's Zenith deserved mention as an MVP candidate as well.
    Round 4 - Yvon Julie - Mono B Infect:

    Going into round 4 I knew that I was one of only 2 undefeated players and assuming my opponent was agreeable there would be little need to play out the finals; we could both draw into the top 2 and walk away happily until next week without risking losing prize money on tiebreakers in the event of a loss.  As it turns out my round 4 opponent would be another friend of Brian Halls who I had just met earlier today.  Yvon seemed like a solid fellow and happily agreed to draw in the finals when I offered but we decided to play out the match for fun anyways.  All day I had been hearing about this "awesome mono Black Infect" deck that had been tearing up the other side of the room and no way was I going to miss my opportunity to finally see it in action.      

    Unfortunately all 3 of our games were pretty much duds; despite running all kinds of cool black infect creatures (Vat Mother and Crusader at a minimum) Yvon mostly saw weenie artifacts (Plague Myr, Necropede) and an Inkmoth Nexus in game 1.  He got me to about 6 poison before I dropped back to back Primeval Titans for the win.  Game 2 wasn't much better although at least this time Yvon got to play a Crusader.  I ended up conceding on turn 5 after he hit me with back to back Memoricides naming Primeval Titan and Avenger of Zendikar respectively.  I missed a single land drop that game which in turn prevented me from casting both the Titan and then the Avenger the turn before he ripped them out of my hand and deck.  Unfortunately I don't remember much about game 3 except that I chose to side in all 3 copies of Gaea's Revenge simply to give me more threats in the face of Memoricide.  This apparently worked out well as I won the game on the back of an Avenger and a Revenge the turn after my opponent successfully ripped all 4 Primeval Titans out of my deck.  After our games I thanked Yvon for accepting my offer to draw anyways; he was clearly a very good player playing an interesting deck and I was grateful for the chance to play against it in a pressure free environment.

    3-0-1 (6-2-2) - MVP Drawing in the Finals.  Even though I won the "for fun" match after the tournament I was still happy to forgo the final round of Swiss in favor of a draw.  There's really no reason risk a loss in that position when a simple draw will give you either 1st or 2nd place and reasonable prize support.  I suppose if forced to name an actual card I'd have to go with Gaea's Revenge simply because I probably would have lost game 3 without them.

    Naturally after the tournament a number of players hung around the back room to trade cards, talk deck theory and generally "nerd it up" with other Magic players; including myself.  I was particularly happy to finally meet all of Brian's friends from Brampton and after playing 2 of them in my 4 rounds found out that we have a lot in common as Magic players.  Eventually however we had to depart and I started the long bus/subway ride home with my friends and fellow competitors Kelly, Tommy and Beau.  As a group we'd done pretty well; both Beau and Tommy were 3-1 and Kelly wasn't far behind at 2-2 as far as I can remember.  Once I finally did make it home the sheer excitement of the day finally caught up to me; I probably fell asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow.

    In terms of overall conclusions about the deck I took away from this event it pretty much comes down to "don't cut Lightning Bolt".  Whether your zapping Inkmoth Nexuses before they turn into 5/5 problems or making your opponent's Sword of Body and Mind Less relevant this deck simply *needs* an instant speed answer to key early drops your opponent may play.  Additionally considering that I played a grand total of 0 Blue based control decks it's probably safe to say that my sideboard was a complete mess.  As it turns out I would play a slightly different variation of this same deck at another FNM event on February 25th to a 3-0 finish.  Combining what I learned in this tournament with what I learned later on I'd probably run the following list if I had to play this deck in a tournament tomorrow:

    Creatures - 11:

    4x Overgrown Battlements
    1x Thrun the Last Troll
    4x Primeval Titan
    2x Avenger of Zendikar

    Spells - 22:

    3x Lightning Bolt
    4x Khalni Heart Expedition
    4x Explore
    4x Cultivate
    3x Slagstorm
    4x Green Sun's Zenith

    Land - 27:

    5x Forest
    12x Mountains
    3x Evolving Wilds
    3x Terramorphic Expanse
    4x Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle

    Sideboard - 15:

    4x Nature's Claim
    3x Pyroclasm
    4x Summoning Trap
    1x Avenger of Zendikar
    1x Pelakka Wurm
    2x Gaea's Revenge

    You can switch Thrun for the Avenger in the SB pretty easily if you want to be stronger against aggro swarm.  At one point I tried 2x Bolt, 2x Pyro and 2x Slagstorm as my burn suite with decent although inconsistent results.  The 4 copies of Natures Claim give you an easy/cheap way to win the "Sword" war with decks like Caw-Blade or Boros if necessary.

    Well folks that's about all my fingers can take for now; hopefully the next time I get the idea to write a combination Tournament Report/Valakut Play-Guide and Primer I'll remember the burning sensation I'm feeling in them right now.  Jokes aside I hope you've found this article useful and as always thanks for reading.  Personally I think it's safe to say that the early cries of "Valakut is dead" that rang across the internet after Pro Tour Paris may have been a little hasty; there are certainly new contenders on the block but by no means do they push Valakut out of the top tier.  Until next time always remember to shuffle your Green Sun Zenith back into your deck after resolving and otherwise keep it weird gang.

      Saturday, February 19, 2011

      Of Limited Interest #22 - Trifecta

      Hello everyone out there in Internet lands; I hope you're all having an excellent week and welcome back to another edition of The Cardboard Witch.  As some of you may remember I've recently been playing in a number of MBS/MBS/SOM drafts at the shop where I work; The Hairy Tarantula (comics and games) here in Toronto.  This of course differs slightly from the current draft tournament standard format which features a single pack of MBS followed by 2 packs of SOM.  This naturally allows our regular players to open more packs with cards they want (MBS) and less packs with cards they already have (SOM) but has the unfortunate side effect of producing a slower/wonkier draft environment to play in.  While I personally look forward to a time when we'll be playing the "normal" draft format I also don't mind playing with more of the new cards while my fellow drafters build their Standard collections; and *oh wow* is MBS a good set for Standard.   With this "variant" format firmly in mind I'd like to take a look at all 3 decks I played this past week with varying degrees of success.  Rather than the usual round by round breakdown however I'd like to focus more on how each deck was built, what it's trying to do and why the cards included helped it get there.

      First up I'd like to take a look at the deck I played Thursday February 10th to a 3-0 record; winning a 12 person MBS/MBS/SOM draft.  My first picks in this draft were a pack 1 Corrupted Conscience, a pack 2 Hellkite Igniter and a pack 3 Darksteel Axe; everything else was passed to me by someone else at the table. 

      "Fire Drill" - R/U/b Control + Equipment:

      Creatures - 14:

      1x Gold Myr
      1x Gust-Skimmer
      1x Myr Sire
      1x Plague Myr
      1x Blisterstick Shaman
      1x Brass Squire
      1x Miran Spy
      1x Bloodshot Trainee
      2x Ogre Resister
      2x Serum Raker
      1x Kuldotha Flamefiend
      1x Hellkite Igniter

      Spells - 9:

      1x Copper Carapace
      1x Darksteel Axe
      1x Burn the Impure
      1x Disperse
      1x Go for the Throat
      1x Nim Deathmantle
      1x Cerebral Erruption
      2x Corrupted Conscience

      Land - 18:

      8x Island
      8x Mountain
      2x Swamp

      Part of what makes this deck so special is the overall abundance of creature control effects; 2x MBS drafts don't seem to be as removal rich as 3x SOM drafts were so having a lot of control effects is even stronger than normal in this format.  This obviously starts up front with 2x Corrupted Conscience, a Burn the Impure, a Blisterstick Shaman and even a Kuldotha Flamefiend.  These effects are in turn supported by a Bloodshot Trainee, a Brass Squire and 3 equipment cards that give +2 Power.  Finally rounding out the package is a singleton Disperse, a splashed Go for the Throat and a semi-reliable board sweeper in Cerebral Erruption.  Assuming you can find an equipment card to turn on the Bloodshot Trainee or the Brass Squire that totals up to 10 removal (or removal-like) effects in a 41 card deck; almost a 1/4 ratio.  Simply put unless your opponent is running like 20+ creatures he's going to have a *lot* of trouble keeping monsters on the table to successfully defend against your attacks.

      The second major pillar on which this deck is built are it's amazing selection of mid sized "beatsticks"; namely 2x Serum Raker and 2x Ogre Resister.  While obviously the Drake is better than the "groundpounder" both of these cards worked fantastically well in the slower 2x MBS 1x SOM format.  In particular both cards allowed me to cast an early (turn 3-4) threat and then apply pressure by removing my opponent's potential blockers/answers to that threat.  While it may seem elementary it's pretty hard to keep up with an opponent who's bashing you for 5-9 damage a swipe while also killing your best blocker each turn from turn 5 on!  This effect becomes significantly magnified when you throw in one of the deck's 3 excellent power boosting Equipment cards and the occasional Gustskimmer/Blisterstick Shaman-type body to help bring the beat-downs.

      Finally of course no draft deck would be complete without a "Finisher" or 2 and this deck obliges with a Hellkite Igniter and a couple of copies of Corrupted Conscience.  While this is not really an "infect" deck per se, it's actually quite easy to "poison" an opponent out with his own huge monsters once the Conscience gives them the Infect trait.  To be fair I also won a game or two by sacrificing a random piece of equipment to a Kuldotha Flamefiend thus "finishing" the game; even if the Flamefiend isn't exactly big enough to be a true game finisher in it's own right.

      In terms of the tournament itself my round 1 opponent was playing G/B Infect and had a very inconsistent draw; playing quite literally 3 creatures over the course of both of our games.  While he did have some control elements to slow me down not drawing any monsters is a pretty easy way to lose in draft.  My 2nd round opponent was playing W/R Aggro with a splash of B but he too had a terrible draw; no land and mostly expensive creatures.  In two games he played a combined 4 creatures and I went into round 3 having faced a total of 7 creatures in my first two rounds; very light lifting for a control deck.  The third round was more exciting as I faced off against a U/G/b Infect deck with lots of control elements.  I managed to win a long "grindy" game one after my opponent and I traded copies of Corrupted Conscience and Go for the Throats for several turns.  Game 2 seemed to be going completely in my favor behind a horde of cheap/effective flyers and at one point I dragged my opponent down to 4 life with lethal "several times over" damage on the table.  My opponent then untapped and began counting numbers in his head before informing me that he could only get me to 9 poison this turn and showing me how (Virulent Wound, Piston Sledge, Pistous Strike and Giant Growth type effect as I recall).  Laughing I accepted my opponent's concession and soon found out that the last other 2-0 player had lost his match on the pair down: thus making me the winner of the tournament after 3 rounds.

      Final Record: 3-0 (6-0)
      In the final analysis it would be pretty easy to say I won because my opponent's had poor draws/mana screw issues.  That would however be overlooking the overall strength of this deck which in my opinion is considerable.  I came away from this draft especially impressed by Brass Squire, Ogre Resister, Gust-Skimmer and Serum Raker who I feel are *all* being currently undervalued at the tables I'm drafting at.  I was also able to confirm my initial impressions of Kuldotha Flamefiend; it's absolutely first pickable and qualifies in the "not quite a bomb but better than marginal removal effects" area that belonged to Air Servant in M11 drafts.  Of course the draft wasn't all gumdrops and lollipops; I probably didn't need to splash the Go for the Throat and doing so pushed me up to 41 cards to accommodate the 2nd Swamp I needed to make it a reliable play.  To be fair I usually had the Swamp and the G4tT in hand at the same time, I just typically didn't need them to win the game and I was often short of either R or U mana for turns at a time while having a Swamp or 2 in play.  I also found the Mirran Spy underwhelming and Cerebral Eruption was only slightly less awkward in this format despite the significantly higher average casting cost of MBS cards.

      Wednesday, February 16, 2011

      Standard Deviations #11 - Better Dead Than Red

      Hello ladies and gentlemen; welcome back to another edition of The Cardboard Witch.  First of all let me apologize for the recent lack of updates; between playing Magic, work and some housekeeping I needed to catch up on there simply hasn't been a lot of time for writing.  Making matters slightly worse I also seem to have fallen into a bad case of writer's block; by the time you read this I'll no doubt be over it but I'm not exaggerating in the slightest when I say I've started this article at least 10 times already.  Thankfully however due to a recent upturn in both my health and the weather here in Toronto I *have* found myself with more opportunities to play in some sanctioned Magic events.  In fact as some local readers may be aware I've spent the past two Friday evenings up at the Hairy T North playing in Friday Night Magic Standard tournaments.  While I'd hardly say I have my finger on the pulse of Standard after two tournaments I did learn a few things about the format and more importantly I had a great time.  In today's article I'd like to take a look at the first of these two tournaments in closer detail; not only was this *my* first Standard tournament in months it was also held on the very first day Mirrodin Besieged was tournament legal.

      Friday February 4th:

      I have to admit that boarding the subway I was kind of nervous; I hadn't played in a Standard tournament since November 25th because I'd been sick all winter.  Naturally of course I'd been practicing at work and within my playgroup but there's always something a little different about playing in an actual tournament; a certain tension that you just can't replicate practicing around the kitchen table.  Additionally of course I found myself hoping we'd have at least 8 players at the tournament; there's nothing worse than traveling an hour north on an overcrowded subway only to play 3 more games of casual Magic before heading home.  After all that practicing I really wanted a chance to compete in a "real" sanctioned tournament, even if it was only going to be a local FNM event.  Thankfully when I arrived at the Hairy T North with a couple of friends (Tommy and Casey) we had 13 players and after practicing a few games with my Kuldotha Goblins deck I got ready to battle.  I'd already decided to play U/B Control on the subway/bus ride to the HTN because it was the "new" deck I felt most comfortable with so I agreed to loan Beau the "K-Gob" deck instead and entered round 1 with the following list:

      A Cold Dark Place (Ver 1.5) - U/B Control: 

      Creatures - 5:

      2x Abyssal Persecutor
      1x Frost Titan
      2x Grave Titan

      Planeswalkers - 4:

      4x Jace, the Mind Sculptor

      Spells - 25:

      4x Preordain
      3x Duress
      2x Disfigure
      2x Brittle Effigy
      4x Mana Leak
      3x Go for the Throat
      2x Into the Roil
      2x Black Sun's Zenith
      2x Cancel
      1x Stoic Rebuttal

      Lands - 26:

      4x Creeping Tar Pit
      4x Darkslick Shores
      4x Drowned Catacombs
      5x Island
      3x Swamp
      4x Tectonic Edge
      1x Marsh Flats
      1x Scalding Tarn

      Sideboard - 15:

      4x Spreading Seas
      2x Smother
      2x Ratchet Bomb
      2x Flashfreeze
      1x Negate
      3x Memoricide
      1x Frost Titan

      Ultimately I went with a more "anti-aggro" version of the typical U/B build because I expected to see more red/Goblin/aggro decks in the early post MBS environment.  While typically Toronto trends towards U based control decks and ramp combo decks I also knew that aggro decks were ALWAYS more popular at the beginning of a new format.  It's almost as if most players (in a state of confusion as to which decks are now the best choices) assume that simply "going faster" will accrue wins until the harsh reality of tournament play prove to them otherwise.  I felt this tendency had shown itself both in recent large tournament results with the success of Boros and Vampire decks at the most recent Star City open and even at my workplace; we had been selling components of WW, Elves, K-Goblins and even Knight decks pretty much the entire week after the pre-release.

      Thursday, February 10, 2011

      Of Limited Interest #21 - Under Siege

      Hello everyone and welcome back to another edition of The Cardboard Witch.  Hopefully you've all had a wonderful release weekend; Mirrodin Besieged is now fully legal and drafts/release parties/standard tournaments were held all over the world.  As for myself I attended the Friday Night Magic event at the Hairy T North this past week (going 3-0-1 with U/B Control) and then drafted at the downtown Hairy T on Sunday and Monday.  Unfortunately due to work obligations I was unable to attend a Saturday release party anywhere in town and thus missed out on cracking open a few more packs and getting a promo foil Thopter Assembly.  This of course meant that by the time Sunday evening rolled around I was going through borderline "opening new packs" withdrawal.

      As regular readers of this blog can attest I'm a bit of a draft junkie; there was simply no way I was going to miss my first chance to draft Mirrodin Besieged this weekend. Naturally of course Super Bowl Sunday would happen to fall on the same day and while you wouldn't think there would be a huge crossover between Magic Players and people watching football at parties there apparently is.  When only 3 other players showed up to draft I found myself discouraged a little but determined to persevere; when they all voted to use 3 packs of MBS for the draft however I briefly considered begging Leon to take my place.  While I certainly understand the desire to open as many packs as possible of the new set when it first comes out as a drafter I know using too many packs of a small set can sometimes produce *insane* results.  For example during the Eventide release draft my friend Brandon managed to draft 4 copies of Shorecrasher Mimic and something insane like 5 copies of Snakeform; needless to say Brandon didn't exactly lose a lot of games that draft.  Unfortunately when it comes to wrestling the monkey over a draft, the monkey always wins and after a little bit of prodding I agreed to battle with 3 packs of Mirrodin Besieged.

      In terms of the draft itself I sadly don't remember a whole lot; new cards were flying by so quickly and my primary focus was making sure I read and understood all of the cards before I made my selections.  I do remember first picking a Shimmer Myr without having a clue if it was good simply because I hadn't opened 4 for my "playset" yet.  This caused me to pass a Burn the Impure to my left which I felt would likely cement the opponent beside me into that color; without question this was a bad choice as ultimately I wouldn't end up running the Myr and my round 2 opponent would use the Burn the Impure against me in both of our games.  My next two picks were Go for the Throat and Blightwidow however so ultimately it worked out fine in the end.  I opened the Black Sun Zenith in pack 2 and while my pack 3 rare was pretty terrible (something awful and U) I managed to recover nicely with a Flesh-Eater Imp.  The only other thing I remember about the drafting portion of the event itself is that the Blightwidow seemed almost criminally undervalued by my opponents; while I took my first one early the 2nd copy actually came out of the same pack I took the BSZ and tabled.  Naturally of course I would later find out that none of my opponents were playing green; a fairly lucky stroke for me.
      Once we were finished drafting I sat down to build and discovered that while I was the only Infect player at the table in a 3x MBS draft the truth was the my infect pool wasn't that deep.  I'd taken almost every single creature with the Infect trait printed on it that I could during the draft and had somehow ended up with only 14 playable monsters (I did have a Flensermite but he seemed pretty bad maindeck).  While this ultimately meant my Sideboard was pretty awful and that I would have to run more "Giant Groswth" cards than I'd normally like (3) the truth is I was happy enough with the deck I eventually built: 

      Kingdom of Vermin - G/B Infect

      Creatures - 15:

      1x Viridian Emissary
      1x Phyrexian Digester
      3x Rot Wolf
      2x Septic Rats
      1x Viridian Corrupter
      3x Blightwidow
      1x Core Prowler
      1x Flesh-Eater Imp
      2x Scourge Servant

      Spells - 9:

      1x Mirran Mettle
      2x Unnatural Predation
      1x Black Sun's Zenith
      1x Go for the Throat
      1x Silverskin Armor
      1x Pistus Strike
      2x Skinwing

      Land - 17:

      8x Forest
      9x Swamp

      Initially I was very worried that this build was far too slow; in triple SOM drafts you could often judge the quality of an Infect build simply by how many 2 drops it had and how many 4 drops it was forced to run.  With zero 2 drop infect creatures, 7 monsters that cost 3 and 7 more that cost 4-5 this deck certainly *looked* both slow and clunky.   Alternately however with so many doubles and triples of "strong" (Rot Wolf) to "amazing" (Blightwidow) cards I felt pretty confident that the deck would be incredibly consistent once it finally did get to 4 mana.  In particular I was fascinated with the idea of having 3 Blightwidows because I felt it would be almost impossible to kill them in the format; most of the common/uncommon removal spells were geared towards smaller creatures and I had snap picked the only Go for the Throat I saw in the entire draft.  Additionally while there certainly WERE 4 power monsters in MBS an absolutely huge number of creatures (including most of the flyers) would be stopped cold by the Blightwidow's 4 toughness and Reach ability.  In terms of removal I was satisfied but certainly not happy; Go for the Throat, Viridian Corrupter and Unnatural Predation were all excellent cards but having to run a main deck Pistous Strike and a Mirran Mettle with very little chance of obtaining Metalcraft was hardly my idea of a strong removal suite.  Despite my overall reservations however I had to admit that the deck felt pretty strong; having two potential game winning "bombs" in Black Sun's Zenith and Felsh-Eater Imp certainly did nothing to subdue that feeling.

      Friday, February 4, 2011

      Standard Deviations #10 - Stating the Obvious

      Hello everyone and welcome back to another edition of The Cardboard Witch.  Unless you've been trapped in a country without internet service (too soon?) you've probably had a chance to read some MBS pre-release reports and peruse the spoiler a little bit.  You probably also noticed that while Mirrodin Besieged doesn't appear to radically change Standard at first glance there *are* several obvious upgrades to pre-existing decks in the format.  I'd like to kick of the post MBS-era here on The Cardboard Witch by taking a look at what I believe are 3 of the more obvious deck upgrades in the format.  While these decklists are only one woman's opinion on what the post-MBS versions of these decks may look I feel pretty confident throwing them out into cyberspace.  I honestly believe that all 3 of these upgrades are so "plug and play" that they'll become environmental standard in a matter of weeks; feel free to bring this up a month from now when PTParis proves me completely wrong.

      First up lets take a look at the deck I expect to define early game aggro for at least the early part of this format: Kuldotha Goblins.  Prior to the release of MBS I personally felt Kuldotha Goblins was a good example of a tier 1.5 or even tier 2 deck.  While obviously very competitive on it's best draws I felt the deck lacked overall consistency; too often you'd "wiff" on the early Kuldotha Rebirth combo and be left either holding a dead sorcery or worse still with a bunch of bad artifacts in play.  You can find a pretty good example of what these decks looked like before MBS here ; personally I think it's quite telling that when I searched for a tournament winning list to show as an example all I could find is a deck that won it's Game Day in the Philippines.  Now compare that list to what the deck looks like after Mirrodin Besieged:        

      Gobpile - Mono Red Goblin Aggro w/ Artifacts:

      Creatures - 26:

      4x Memnite
      4x Signal Pest
      4x Goblin Guide
      4x Goblin Bushwhacker
      4x Goblin Wardriver
      2x Phyrexian Revoker
      4x Goblin Chieftan

      Spells - 12:

      4x Lightning Bolt
      4x Kuldotha Rebirth
      2x Galvanic Blast
      2x Tumble Magnet

      Land - 22:

      15x Mountain
      4x Teetering Peaks
      3x Contested Warzone

      What's Improved?:  First and foremost the Battle Cry mechanic is pretty snapped; prior to MBS this deck was incredibly dependent on drawing well timed Goblin Bushwhackers/Chieftains to mass push incredible amounts of damage through on turns 2-4.  With Battle Cry the deck now has 8 additional ways to replicate the +1/+0 effect and a stunning 19 cards in total that mass pump your creature's power.  This of course includes the "Battle cry-like" effects of  your 3 Contested Grounds; a card many will be tempted to cut early in the format but one that has been testing out *very* well for me in this deck so far.  Obviously if having 8 ways to mass pump your weenies/gobos is good than it's safe to say having 19 ways is considerably better.  Secondly and almost as importantly; playing artifacts that are good in their own right instead of crappy low cost trinkets who's only purpose is to feed Kuldotha Rebirth is a significant improvement.  Say what you will about the value of cards like Panic Spellbomb and Ornithopter but they pale significantly when measured against a card like Signal Pest.  I've already won a number of test games on this little guy's back without ever even sniffing a Kuldotha Rebirth which is certainly something you'd never say about an Accorder's Shield or a Mox Opal for example.  Finally of course even more expensive artifacts like Phyrexian Evoker (2CC) and Tumble Magnet (3CC) provide direct meta to specific environmental problems.  The Evoker is excellent against Ratchet Bomb and Eslpeth; both cards that can give this build fits against a good U/W Control player.  Alternately the Tumble Magnet is highly versatile; metaing against enemy Titans/Wurmcoil Engines and helping you tap down troublesome blockers to generate lightning quick wins.  One of my favorite plays so far involved tapping down my opponent's 4/4 blocker, casting a Rebirth to turn the Magnet into 3x 1/1 Goblins and then dropping a Goblin Chieftain to swing into an empty board for lethal.

      Now that we've looked at what I think is the most obvious aggro deck in the format let's shift gears and look at what's probably the most obvious mana ramp deck in the format;  Green Sun Valakut.  This is a pretty good example of where R/G Valakut Ramp stood before the addition of MBS.  The simple truth is that even before this set Valakut was one of the most powerful decks in Standard; although it had recently become less popular due to a spotty match-up with U/B Control and a general tendency for decks to over-meta against it.  I don't expect this lack of popularity to last much longer however and the deck-list below offers a good example of why:   

      Wednesday, February 2, 2011

      Of Limited Interest #20 - Vomit Comet (Mirrodin Besieged Pre Release Report)

      Hello everyone and welcome to a special "post Mirrodin Besiged pre-release" edition of the Cardboard Witch.  I hope all of you had a great time playing around with the new cards this weekend; I personally made it out to the Saturday pre-release event at the Hairy T North here in Toronto but I couldn't make the 2nd tournament the following day due to illness (more on this later).  Speaking of the Hairy T North; I'd like to congratulate the tournament staff there for running a wildly successful pre-release weekend.  Apparently there were 44 people at the North store for Saturday's event and then another 30 people made it out for round 2 on Sunday.  The tournament I attended on Saturday was well organized, fairly run and incredibly fun overall; no small feat considering just how many people were playing.  In particular I'd like to single out the HTN Tournament Coordinator Kelly for doing a tremendous job as T.O. under a significant amount of pressure.

      Unfortunately my pre-release story begins a lot like most of my recently big event recaps have; with me feeling sick and feverish the night before the event itself.  As previously mentioned I have a chronic lung infection that flares up pretty much every winter and my options for treating it involve powerful anti-biotics who's side effects I find unacceptable or "moving to Arizona".  Since I find neither particularly palpable I typically try to gut out winters on a year by year basis but it's safe to say this *significantly* affects my ability to play Magic competitively.  Undaunted I forced myself out of bed on the morning of the event and with Leon's assistance managed to navigate the hour long subway ride from my apartment to the Hairy T North.

      Once we arrived at the North end store I was shocked to find that about 20 other players had already registered; Leon had insisted we leave at precisely 11 AM so he could help set up the tournament so we were there about an hour and change early.  By the time the event started we had swelled to 44 players and staff had pulled out additional tables and chairs.  In order to ensure that everyone played fairly this tournament was run with a pool registration; players opened 3 packs of SoM and 3 packs of their chosen faction and after registering what cards were in the packs passed the pool to someone else.  This person would then confirm that they had received exactly the same pool that had been listed; if a player was later found with cards in his deck that weren't on the list during a random deck check he/she would be immediately disqualified.  After opening and registering a fairly mediocre pool for someone else (more on this later) I was passed the cards I would use for the rest of the tournament:
      White Cards - (14):

      1x Loxodon Wayfarer
      1x Revoke Existence
      1x Sunspear Shikari
      1x Whitesun's Passage
      2x Ardent Recruit
      1x Kemba's Legion
      2x Leonin Relic-Warder
      1x Leonin Skyhunter
      1x Loxodon Partisan
      1x Master's Call
      1x Victory's Herald
      1x White Sun's Zenith

      Blue Cards - (16):

      1x Halt Order
      1x Riddlesmith
      1x Screeching Silcaw
      1x Shape Anew
      1x Steady Progress
      1x Stoic Rebuttal
      1x Turn Aside
      1x Cryptoplasm
      1x Mirran Spy
      1x Neurok Commando
      1x Quicksilver Geyser
      2x Spire Servant
      1x Treasure Mage
      2x Turn the Tide

      Black Cards - (5):

      1x Grasp of Darkness
      1x Instill Infection
      1x Necrogen Scudder
      1x Plague Stinger
      1x Go for the Throat

      Red Cards - (13)

      1x Blade-Tribe Berserkers
      1x Oxidda Daredevil
      1x Scoria Elemental
      1x Spikeshot Elder
      2x Blisterstick Shaman
      1x Burn the Impure
      1x Concussive Bolt
      1x Crush
      1x Gnathosaur
      1x Goblin Wardriver
      1x Ogre Resister
      1x Rally the Forces

      Green Cards - (13):

      1x Blight Mamba
      1x Carapace Forger
      1x Copperhorn Scout
      1x Cystbearer
      1x Molder Beast
      1x Slice in Twain
      1x Tel-Jilad Defiance
      1x Viridian Revel
      1x Wing Puncture
      1x Withstand Death
      1x Fangren Marauder
      1x Lead the Stampede
      1x Tangle Mantis

      Artifacts - (22):

      1x Contagion Clasp
      1x Glint Hawk Idol
      1x Golden Urn
      1x Horizon Spellbomb
      1x Grafted Exoskeleton
      1x Horizon Spellbomb
      1x Infiltration Lense
      1x Iron Myr
      1x Neurok Replica
      1x Palladium Myr
      1x Razorfield Thresher
      1x Sylvok Lifestaff
      1x Vulshok Replica
      3x Copper Carapace
      1x Gust Skimmer
      2x Hexplate Golem
      1x Shriekhorn
      1x Signal Pest
      1x Spin Engine
      1x Training Drone

      Land - (1):

      1x Seachrome Coast