Saturday, May 28, 2011

Of Limited Interest #30 - Opening Day

Hello everyone out there in Internetland and welcome back to another edition of The Cardboard Witch.  Recently in another post on this blog I had mentioned that I participated in a Triple NPH draft on release night for the new set and promised to share the absolutely wicked deck I managed to build.  Unfortunately a number of things came up in my life this past week and it's only just now that I've had a chance to sit down and review my notes from the draft.  So with all apologies for the delay let's dive right in and take a look at one way to crush a release night draft.

Going into the draft we had 10 players which meant splitting the group into 2 seperate 5 player pods by random die roll.  If the truth be told I'm not exactly fond of 5 player pods because of the crazy decks they often produce.  With only 5 picks between each pack fully tabling it's far too easy to get strong color reads on your opponents very early in pack 1 which in turn leans to more focused synergistic decks all around the table.  Additionally when there's only 5 players picking at the table it tends to significantly magnify any mistakes made by less experienced drafters as the "ridiculous" cards that shouldn't have been passed tend to be concentrated into the other 2-3 more experienced players decks.  In fact I would be lying if I said I didn't feel that happened in this draft and I benefited from some curious passes on both sides.  Unfortunately the other option in this situation is to draft with 10 people around 1 table which is actually worse in my mind to the point of almost not being a draft; randomly picking the best card passed to me with no strategy for tabling future picks feels way too much like sealed for my liking.   

After being seated at the back table with 4 other players and waiting for the signal to open our first pack I excitedly tore into the wrapper and found a Sword of War and Peace staring back at me.  The pack was also full of a number of awesome cards (Volt Charge, Glissa's Scorn, Tanadon, Soul Eater as I recall) but you don't look a gift horse in the mouth so I took the mythic sword without hesitation.  Naturally of course my opponent to the right would proceed to pass me a pack missing a common but containing a Chancellor of the Forge.  Now to be fair there are a number of commons in this set I would consider taking over a given Chancellor and the CotF in particular is hardly an automatic slam first pick.  He lacks any sort of evasion and his "reveal" ability to start the game is almost so inconsequential as to be not worth bothering in draft.  On the other hand his ability to bring in a whole team of 1/1 Goblin tokens in bogged down late game scenarios is absolutely worth the mana investment in the right kind of deck.  Additionally I had no idea that I would proceed to open about 10 copies of this card later in the week when I opened my boxes so I decided to just take the rare "bomb" and ship the various decent but not amazing removal cards to my left; it's not like there was a Dismember or Enslave in the pack to be fair.  The next pack turned out to be rather unexciting; a bunch of decent creatures but no black removal or burn and I assumed my opponent to the right was probably playing B and had just been snagging kill spells all draft so far.  I took a Tanadon out of the pack because it was easily the best creature available and noted that I was shipping a number of good R and W creatures to my left; including a Tormentor Exarch that I wanted to choose but didn't feel was as good a choice as the Tanadon.  To be fair this was probably a mistake as during play the Exarch was pretty amazing but at the time my rational was that it couldn't kill the Tanadon which also combined better with my Sword with the Trample keyword.  Pick 4 however would turn my understanding of the draft completely on it's head when I was handed a pack with a Phyrexian Metamorph in it and a number of other cards I barely looked at.  At this point I became confused as to what my opponents were doing in front of me at the table; clearly someone to my right was cutting black hard but in that case why would they ship me what amounts to a bomb first pick in any sort of control deck?  With little hesitation and absolutely no intention of going into blue I quickly snatched up the Metamorph and shipped the pack.  At this point I knew I had the the makings of a truly awesome draft deck but I was still pretty shy on removal until as if on command picks 5 and 6 produced a very late Volt Charge and a tabled Glissa's Scorn.  This left me with the impression that both red and green were likely wide open at this table and when I closed off the pack with a Sickleslicer, the Tormentor Exarch I should have taken 3rd overall and a Razor Swine I knew I was right; at least about the red part.  Naturally of course I also took a bunch of random bad artifacts and SB cards late in this pack but unfortunately I didn't write them down and 2 weeks later they are gone from my memory.

My sick luck would continue in pack 2 when I opened a Moltensteel Dragon that would look pretty good wearing a Sword of War and Peace.  There were a number of other good cards in this pack but once again no Dismember or Enslave so the Dragon was a pretty easy choice.  Pick 2 was kind of weird because I took a Volt Charge and sort of automatically assumed it meant red was open from both sides.  As it turned out however my opponent to the left was playing W/r/b aggro and had simply opened his OWN copy of Sword of War and Peace before shipping me the Volt Charge.  Green however clearly *was* open when I took a 3rd pick Beast Within followed by a 4th pick Thundering Tanadon and firmly settled into the R/G Dinosaurs archetype in the process.  Pick 5 was a second Sickleslicer which I took primarily as a 3 drop creature because my curve was getting a little out of hand but it was back to "stompy stompy" land when I 6th picked another Tanadon!  Once again I closed out the pack with 2 high utility cards; a Fallen Ferromancer nobody wanted and a Deat-Hood Cobra I couldn't believe was still in the pack.  Unfortunately owing to the lack of depth in NPH picks 9-14 were largely irrelevant again and I moved on to pack 3.

Unfortunately in pack 3 I got a little lazy and a little overconfident.  I had decided that both red and green were wide open and therefore based most of my drafting decisions in this pack on that assumption.  Things started out fine when I took a Volt Charge over a Fresh Meat I had little interest in actually playing; it's not that I think Fresh Meat is a bad card but it's pretty situational and takes a lot of work to make it the game winning monster most people seem to think it is.  Pick 2 however I decided to take an Etched Monstrosity over a 2nd copy of Glissa's Scorn because I was almost certain the Scorn would table.  It didn't and during the draft I discovered that the Monstrosity was actually a pretty bad card in a format with so much artifact removal and random proliferate effects.  He's probably better in NPH/MBS/SoM but in a triple NPH draft this guy is actively "poor" and was the first card I sided out virtually every game 2.  I made up for my mistake with a pick 3 Volt Charge (my 4th) however and grabbed a Fallen Ferromancer over a Leaching Bite with my 4th pick because after all green was open and all those cards would table right?  Wrong; clearly someone else jumped on the train because I never saw another relevant green card for the rest of the draft.  I closed out pack 3 with a 6th pick Razor Swine and a 8th pick Ogre Menial that would ultimately make my deck but all in all it's safe to say I kinda "flubbed' pack 3.
Sitting down to build the deck out of my draft pool was actually pretty easy once I got a look at the cards; the only real question in my mind was how many card slots to devote to the Infect sub-theme and after deciding the answer was not many this is the deck I entered the tournament with: 

"Gruul Summer" - R/G Dinosaurs w/Infect

Creatures - 14:

1x Death-Hood Cobra
2x Razor Swine
2x Fallen Ferromancer
1x Ogre Menial
1x Phrexian Metamorph
1x Tormentor Exarch
1x Etched Monstrosity
1x Moltensteel Dragon
3x Thundering Tanadon
1x Chancellor of the Forge

Spells - 9:

1x Glissa's Scorn
1x Beast Within
2x Sickleslicer (really creatures)
1x Sword of War and Peace
4x Volt Charge

Lands -17:

7x Forest
1x Island
9x Mountain

Overview:   Okay so obviously you don't need me to tell you that a deck with 3 Tanadons, 4 Volt Charges and a mythic Sword is awesome.  What's really interesting to me however is the way it seamlessly blends an early game Infect/Control strategy with a late game Dinosaur Stompy finish.  Typically I would start out each game on the poison path with a Razor Swine and one of my 3 equipment cards.  This in turn would force my opponent to start spending his removal to eliminate my Infect threats and thus making it much easier for me to stick a dinosaur or two in the mid/late game.  Naturally of course my opponent could choose to ignore the poison damage and save his removal for real threats but then they risked the very real possibility of losing to Fallen Ferromancer or the proliferate effect on Volt Charge as the game wore on.  While typically I am not fond of hybrid poison/damage strategies the simple truth is I had so much excellent removal and so many amazing finishers that the 5 Infect cards in the build functioned simply as a time/enegry sink for my opponent at no real loss of efficiency for me.

Unfortunately because I intended to write about this deck much sooner than I ended up doing so I only took the most rudimentary notes on my actual matches during the draft.  Round 1 I played against my good buddy Lucas who was running a *very* sick R/W metalcraft deck that probably would have won the tournament if I hadn't.  Sadly for Lucas I drew my Sword of War and Peace early both games and instantly shut down the Blinding Souleaters and Forced Worships he was dropping on my head.  I did make a mistake game 1 by forgetting I could make the Forced Worship fall off my Chancellor of the Forge simply by equipping the Sword but I figured it out a turn later and killed Lucas immediately with him.  Game 2 ended pretty much the same way except the Sword-bearer this time was a Moltensteel Dragon that I pumped 14 life into to finish my opponent off in one shot.  My round 2 opponent (Zimmer) was from my pod in the draft so I had a pretty good idea that he was playing U/W with a lot of flying.  I knew for a fact he'd grabbed a pack 3 Chancellor of the Spires as a 5th pick because I'd passed it and my opponent directly to the left was also not in blue.  This match would also be when I learned how bad Etched Monstrosity is after Zimmer cast his Chancellor and reused my Volt charge to both kill one of my guys and make my Golem smaller.  Unfortunately my deck was simply too strong for my opponent and despite the fact that Zimmer outplayed me in both matches I won pretty easily on the back of stupid Dinosaurs and removal.  Round 3 turned out to be a bye when my opponent and good friend Kelly dropped after pairings to go home and get some rest.  Truth be told I think he didn't want to jeopardize my shot at Nationals because we're such good friends and decided to drop rather than trying to convince me he intended to play out a match he had no chance of winning.  For further thoughts on this subject please check the section entitled "On Qualifying for Nationals by Rating" in this article.  Fittingly the finals paired me up against a player who had also opened "the nuts"; namely a Batterskull which he drew every single game.  This is not to say that my opponent's deck was poor in any way however; Arthur is a veteran drafter in our local playgroup and is well known for making pretty solid blue control decks regardless of pack composition.  This time he was rocking green as well but his deck was primarily all about Islands, control spells and flying plus the aforementioned Batterskull.  This was not to be Arthur's day however as every single time he dropped the Skull I had the removal for it immediately; I even managed to *kill" the Skull 5 separate times in game 2 when my opponent kept leaving 3 mana open to bounce it back to his hand in response.  Despite both games being close I eventually prevailed behind waves of giant Dinosaurs and managed to escape the evening with my rating intact.  

In the final analysis it would be very tempting to call this draft a product of sick pack luck and some mistakes made by less experienced drafters trying to grasp a brand new format.  After all it's not every day you're going to have 5 powerful rares in the same deck with 4 copies of Volt Charge and it does very little good for me to tell you to snap pick Sword of War and Peace if you open one; you were going to do that anyways.  Until I played Arthur in the finals I honestly felt I *could not* lose a game in this tournament because my deck was simply that strong.  There are however a few things I took away from this draft that I feel will apply somewhat universally to future triple NPH drafts; a format which I expect to have to play for at least the next month while my local drafters build their collections.

  • Dinosaurs are even better than normal in this format because it's slower and so much of the removal is artifact based.  Giant non-artifact bodies with useful abilities dominated a significant number of games in this draft both during my matches and during those around me.  This doesn't mean you should avoid house artifact creatures like Thundering Tanadon and Porcelain Legionnaire but it's now more important than ever to have 2-4 "big bodies" that don't go down to a Shatter effect in your deck because with 3 packs of NPH it's gonna seem like the Glissa's Scorns and Gremlin Mines are everywhere.
  • Infect is not a decktype so much as a theme and should be drafted accordingly.  While it's certainly true that there are a number of amazing poison cards in NPH and a significant number of games around me were won by poison I didn't get the impression that traditional B/G Infect aggro was still a viable decktype in this format.  For one thing the Infect trait is spread out over all 5 colors and there aren't enough good poisonous artifacts to cover up the gap.  Black for example has virtually no quality commons with the Infect trait and unless you open a Reaper of Sheoldred it's highly unlikely you'll end up in poison out of this color.  Presumably the Pestilent Souleater is supposed to cover up this gap but in practice it's basically the worst Scourge Servant ever; a card that was itself pretty marginal in previous Infect builds this arc.  Green doesn't fair much better in my eyes with it's best Infect common being the 1/1 Glistener Elf who is so far being *criminally* overdrafted on tables I'm playing at.  Naturally this doesn't make all infect cards bad; I saw a number of games won on the back of Viral Drakes, Triumph of the Hordes, Fallen Ferromancers and the occasional Shriek Raptor but all 3 of the players who forced straight aggro Infect decks in this draft were highly disappointed with the final results.  At this moment the only truly viable infect strategy I see in the format is U/B control with proliferate effects; Kelly was 2-0 with a similar idea before dropping from the tournament and after watching the end of his 2nd round I felt the deck-type was pretty solid. 
  • Equipment is incredibly scare in this format unless you open good rares/mythics which in turn hurts both the Infect and Skies deck archetypes at least slightly.  Quite literally the only stat boosting gear in this format that isn't R/M is Sickleslicer and scarcity alone means you probably aren't going to be passed this card very often. This may not seem particularly significant at first but I assure you it will become more relevant the first time you pass an attack phase with multiple "bears" in play because your opponent has a Spire Monitor on the table. 
  • Phrexian Mana is very powerful but also very dangerous.  While it's certainly tempting to throw down 3/1 first strikers and 5/4 tramplers as soon as possible failing to properly manage your life total while doing so can be fatal.  Due to the lack of "true Infect" decks generally you're going to want to actually be able to cast your spells without losing life eventually in virtually every match-up you play.  For example I won a number of games in this draft simply by playing for a draw while my opponents spent 2-8 life rapidly flooding the board with their Phyrexian mana critters, only to have me kill their monsters before they could really take advantage of it.  In a way this allowed me to generate numerous 2 for 1 scenarios by getting in 2-4 points of damage as if I had cast creatures early while still letting me safely destroy my opponent's monsters.  Used early and in moderation this mechanic is obviously very powerful but don't go loading up your deck with 18 ways to lose 2 life if you expect to win in 3x NPH drafts.  
Well gang there you have it; the sensational story of how I managed to draft 4 Volt Charges and 3 Tanadon's on New Phrexia release night and somehow managed to leave the draft without being lynched by my opponents.  Hopefully you've enjoyed this article and have found it helpful in some way.  Personally despite the fact that it's heinously overpowered I am really enjoying the triple NPH format and will gladly agree to play it for as long as my locals desire.  It turns out that small set drafting is actually pretty fun when you aren't running into decks with 4x Blightwidow all the time; who knew?!  Until next time always remember that there is absolutely no good excuse for passing a Phyrexian Metamorph and keep it weird folks.

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