Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Standard Deviations #17 - Starting Over

Hello ladies and gentlemen; I hope you all had a fine weekend and welcome back to another edition of The Cardboard Witch.  When last we talked I was having a little trouble getting over the recent banning of Jace the Mind Sculptor and Stoneforge Mystic.  At that time I promised that I'd get back to writing about Standard more seriously once I'd had some time to test a few more decks and wrap my head about the "new" format.  Naturally I felt this process would be pretty easy; break out and update some old decks, try a few new ideas based around cards Jace/Mystic were keeping down and break the resulting decks down into proper tiers in the post-ban Standard.  When I finally sat down to start building/testing however I was faced with the stark reality that I had absolutely no point of reference for this new environment.  You see I've spent at least the past *year* looking at every single card in Standard in terms of how it interacted in a world dominated by Jace the Mind Sculptor and Stoneforge Mystic simply because I *had* to.  With the Caw Blade boogieman finally exiled to other formats I suddenly found myself having to re-evaluate each card in Standard and what's more I needed to do this in the context of an undefined "new" environment!  As you can imagine this was, and remains a time-consuming process but I think I'm starting to get a handle on where the format is likely to go from here. Of course these are only my opinions after roughly 6 days of building, testing and theorizing; there's still a bunch of decks I haven't even tried yet but I've noticed several emerging trends that I feel will help define the "new" Standard format.  

"Standard is a much faster format now; don't blink or you'll be dead by turn 5." 

Let's face it; Jace the Mind Sculptor may not have been the most beloved card in Standard but he was certainly doing a good job of slowing the format down.  Simply having to play around the various Jace decks in the format forced combo and aggro builds alike to adapt their builds towards winning long ground out games featuring the now infamous blue monster.  With Jace gone and the 4 early contenders for "the most popular decks in the format" firmly locked into the aggro or combo categories this is simply no longer true.  Sitting down to build in a Jace free world is like shedding a twenty pound leg-weight for combo decks like Valakut and Exarch-Twin who can now devote main-deck space to tricky aggro matchups and even combo mirrors.  They've also become faster and more streamlined towards achieving the respective game winning combos; not having to waste extra slots on "control meta" will do that for you.  In my early testing both of these decks can now "combo out" consistently by turn 5 even through moderate disruption, so if you were just planning on packing 4 Mana Leaks and 3 Dismembers to call the match a win you're in for a pretty big surprise.  On the other side of the coin, RDW and Vampire players couldn't be happier that Stoneforge Mystic and her turn 3 Batterskulls are finally gone and while the loss of Jace is less relevant to these decks it at least gives them a fighting chance if the long game comes down to top-decks now.  In my experience this helps both on the deck-building and the in-game strategic levels; not having to maindeck a bunch of artifact removal lets you focus on going faster and actively metagaming against turn 4-5 combo decks while not having to play around Spell Pierce every single game allows you to play *far* more aggressively than before the ban.  While I'm certainly not suggesting these are the only 4 decks in Standard the fact that all 4 are already well known, popular and *more* than capable of eating your face on turn 4 or 5 if you can't stop them from doing so will help shape and define the"new" Standard format.

"If Control isn't dead it's most certainly on life support."

While I realize that this will be neither a welcome observation or a popular opinion for you blue mages out there I'm rapidly coming to the conclusion that Control as we know it is simply not a tournament winning strategy right now.  This is of course partially affected by the speed of the environment but in my opinion the major problem is a lack of efficient, reliable card draw to replace the recently departed Mind Sculptor.  Think about what Jace allowed a control deck to do for a moment; first and foremost he was a card drawing, hand-refilling engine of destruction.  Need another answer for your opponent's top deck?  Just brainstorm again and find the card you need amongst a myriad of creature control/counterspell options.  Running out of cards to play?  Grab the top 3 cards of your deck and find something that draws you even *more* cards.  As if this weren't enough Jace's "Unsummon" ability acted as de facto creature control and combined with his "Brainstorm" effect allowed you to build decks with answers to literally *any* potential opposing strategy all within the same 75 card pile.  In short Jace let you have your cake and eat it to by facilitating removal light decks with 2-3 main-deck metagame cards for every key match-up in Standard; I don't think it's unfair to suggest that Jace was the single most important card in virtually every good control deck prior to the ban.  You see where I'm going with this don't you?  In the "new" Standard a successful Control deck is going to have to at once replace the mid-late game card draw aspect of Jace while simultaneously packing more creature control and more meta cards against two completely separate combo decks that require different answers.  What's more they are going to have to do this with cards designed to co-exist with Jace the Mind Sculptor; do you honestly think that every single card draw effect printed since Worldwake wasn't designed with Jace's existence in mind?  How do you replace a card as awesomely powerful as the Mind Sculptor with Preordains, Jace Berelens (worst Divination ever btw) and Consecrated Sphinxes?  So far in my testing the answer is quite simple; you don't.  Once again while I don't profess to have tried every single deck in the new standard I can say that virtually all of my attempts to make a blue-based Control deck post-ban have met with abject failure; either I can make a deck that wins long games through Planeswalkers/Titans but can't beat aggro or I can make a deck that disrupts the enemy very well in the early game but loses on late top-decks because I can't refill my hand.  I *have* had some success with U/B and U/W mid-range/tempo style builds but these decks are running far too many creatures (14-18) to be called traditional "control" decks.
"Black is the new black."

If there is any hope for control decks in the new format I'm almost 100% certain that they will heavily feature black mana sources.  This is because out of all 5 colors in the format as far as I can tell black is the only one with legitimate answers to both of the major combo decks *and* both of the popular aggro decks at this early stage of the format.  Need to kill a giant Titan?  Go for the Throat is here to solve your problems.  Getting bull-rushed by weenie aggro decks?  Toss down a Hexmage and a kicked Gatekeeper and let your opponent spend some time trying to deal with your minions.  Is a Deceiver Exarch about to tap out your last land and combo off in your face?  Just toss 4 life and Dismember the bastard before he can cause any more trouble.  Tired of combo running a train on your well laid plans?  Hit him with an Inquisition of Kozilek/Despise and then Surgical Extraction the offending combo pieces right out of his deck!  Even traditional answers like Memoricide and Duress are back in vogue now that your opponent can't just "brainstorm" his way into more combo pieces with Jace.  Black's creatures also shine in the new Standard with former "binder-bait" cards like Phrexian Obliterator, Vampire Nighthawk and especially Abyssal Persecutor finding various degrees of life in a format without Jace/Mystic.  Naturally of course like every other color in Magic right now black is still woefully poor at drawing cards; Sign in Blood and Phyrexian Rager really aren't very good options in a 5 turn format and frankly I question if Magic as a whole hasn't passed cards like these by completely.  This lack of card draw will likely preclude black from forming the basis of an effective control deck but there's no question that this color now has all the tools to excel at mid-range or tempo based strategies; particularly when combined with either blue or red using the 12 friendly duals + 12 Swamps or Cracklands mana base for awesome support cards like Preordain/Mana Leak or Lightning Bolt/Arc Trail.  If nothing else the format hasn't changed so much that you don't want a "man-land" or Tectonic Edges and with so many BBB or even BBBB spells in this color the Tec Edge becomes a pretty hard sell.  Regardless of how you build the deck the sheer quality and variety of playable black cards in this "new" format means that it's a great time to be tapping Swamps.

"Right now, Dismember is the most important card in Standard."
Do you remember the "Jace Test"?  Do you remember looking at every single creature in Standard with the question "if I cast this card into an enemy Jace and he simply untaps and bounces my guy have I been timewalked"?  Are you happy to be playing in a world where the "Jace Test" is no longer relevant?  If you answered yes to any of these questions I have some very unfortunate news; there's a new test in the format and in many ways it's actually *harder* for a creature to pass than the old "Jace Test".  Naturally of course I'm talking about the effect Dismember has on the "new" Standard and in particular it's role in deciding what is and what isn't a good creature in the format.  The simple truth is that there isn't a deck in Standard that can't make use of a 1 colorless mana instant speed removal spell, even at the cost of 4 life off-color!  While I've heard the speculation that brewers will be taking Dismember out of their builds because they no longer *have* to answer Stoneforge Mystic, I've actually found the effect to be the exact opposite; I'm seeing more game 1 Dismembers post-ban than I ever saw before in my local environment.  This makes a certain amount of sense when you realize that Deciever Exarch/Splinter Twin *is* a legitimate deck and one of the best ways to kill it is to Dismember their Exarch before he can combo off.  Trust me this card is and will remain quite popular in the "new" Standard and as such you're going to have to choose every creature you play in the format accordingly; in other words you'll want as many of your creatures as possible to pass the "Dismember Test".  To subject a creature to the Dismember test simply ask yourself: "if I cast this creature and at end step my opponent taps 1 mana, loses 4 life and targets it with a Dismember how much do I care?"  If you're rocking a 6/6 Abyssal Persecutor the answer is probably "very very little" and thus the Persecutor passes the "Dismember Test" with flying colors.  Additionally most low drop (1-3cc) creatures in the format automatically pass the "Dismember Test" simply because trading your 2/2 "hate bear" for 4 life is actually a pretty good deal most of the time.  On the other hand if you've just tapped out for a Phyrexian Obliterator, Urabrask the Hidden, Hero of Bladehold or a Moltensteel Dragon an end step Dismember is likely to bother you a great deal; leaching away your tempo and trading away a "finishing" type creature for 4 life and a trivial amount of mana compared to your investment in said "beater".  These creatures all clearly fail the "Dismember Test" and despite my high hopes for each of them at the beginning of the testing process most of these bad-boys have now found their way back into my trade binder despite the banning of Jace/Mystic.

"The most popular decks in the format right now are Valakut, Exarch-Twin, Vampires and Red Deck Wins."

Now before you jump all over me and say "but you forgot deck X, it's super sweet against 3/4 of those decks" let me remind you that I didn't say they were the "best" decks, just the "most popular".  I will say that all 4 of these decks are *very* strong in the current format.  All 4 decks are also very easy to build and are somewhat "proven" commodities as each of them existed in some form or another pre-ban.  I am more than willing to accept that there are other "contenders for the throne" out there in Standard but right now the vast majority of tournament grinders are locking into one of these 4 decks.  As such it's *incredibly* important that every deck you build in the "new" Standard have good or at least acceptable match-ups and sideboard options against all 4 of these "top tier" decks.  Far too many people out there are building decks that "beat Vala and Twin but always lose to aggro" or "destroy the aggro mirror but have no game 1 answers to Splinter Twin/Valakut".  Even if you don't think these are the best decks in the format the simple truth is that your opponent's *will* be playing them and tournament survival will depend on having a viable strategy for coping with all 4 decks and their many variations.

Well folks that's about all we have time for now; unfortunately I don't have any deck lists to include this time but I assure you that they are in the works.  I'm still in the middle of the testing process and I'm doing everything in my power to play as many games as possible to further my understanding of the "new" Standard format.  At the moment I have fully functional versions of Vala, Vampires, and RDW in the lab and I'm putting the finishing touches on U/B Midrange, Grixis Twin and several interesting "homebrews" (like Leon's pet Pyromancer Ascension deck) I'd like to try in the format.  The sideboards for these decks however are still in a state of flux as the environment shakes out and I try to avoid publishing unfinished deck-lists whenever possible.  I promise that as each deck is finished I'll give them their own separate articles in due course and yes, this means I'll be writing a lot more about Standard than Limited for the next little while.  Until then gang thanks for reading and always remember that paying 4 life isn't really a cost unless you eventually hit zero.  Keep it weird.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Abstract Iterations #5 - Proof that I am now over the bannings

Hello everyone and welcome to a special "quickie" edition of The Cardboard Witch.  I promise to stop with the short/humorous articles as soon as I have something relevant to write about; unfortunately with the recent ban announcement Standard has been turned completely upside down and I'm still too busy testing "new" decks to feel confident writing about the format.  In the meantime if it's okay I'd like to provide a little levity and address an issue that's quite personal to me at the same time.

Despite rumors to the contrary I have not spent the past couple of days in my basement crying and contemplating ritual suicide involving meticulously positioned copies of Stoneforge Mystic and Jace the Mind Sculptor.  Nor did I write a complicated note that would give the police the impression that Aaron Forsythe could be considered a "person of interest" in my death.  You could fairly say that perhaps I *thought* of these things but my lawyers will deny it in court so I don't see where that would get you.  No like most other U/W Mystic pilots I know, I spent most of Tuesday consuming hard drugs and then started brewing sometime early this morning.  Unfortunately despite my best efforts my deck-building attempts were constantly thwarted by both my heavy heart and the sense that every deck I built was far far too "fair" to be worth exploring.  After another sleepless night I came to the realization that I needed to cope with the bans in my own way; to once and finally lay to rest my beautiful deck and move on.  I mean some people have a funeral when their goldfish dies right?  I loved U/W Mystic more than any sane person on earth could possibly love a goldfish.

In light of this I am proposing that we as a Magic community get together and hold a mass vigil for our fallen friends Stoneforge Mystic and Jace the Mind Sculptor.  I have no real idea when and where we should do this but appropriate places that spring to mind include; in the WotC parking lot, on Patrick Chapin's front lawn or perhaps during judge announcements at the World Championships.  In the hopes of inspiring people to "make this happen" I've even written a moving tribute song to be played "at the funeral".  It's set to Puff Daddy's (what's a Diddy?) "I'll be Missing You"; if you are unfamiliar with the song you can find it here and I recommend playing it along as you read the lyrics of this moving tribute:

Seems like yesterday we used to play Hawks, say go. 
I Jaced the stack and you fished the Skull. 
So far from waiting on a topdeck yo.  They printed you, they had to know
that we’d make a great team;
you, Jace and me.  So hard I prayed for this not to be and now your gone; broke up the dream.
With the ban hammer they reset the scene; in the future can’t wait to see
Just how disgusting Twin will be
Think I need some time, before I play cards again
Try to chill but it drives me crazy man
This is real, I don’t know how to feel
Can’t figure out how I’ll deal
Give anything to have them back; what do I do with Batterskull after this?

Every time I play, since yesterday there’s just no way, even if I pray that they’ll unban you
Crying for the day, when you’ll go away.  What a choice to make; ban Mystic and Jace.
Wish they’d unban you.

It’s kinda hard with you not around, I know you extended; I play Standard now
Scrying cards just ain’t the same, my Hawks alone and that’s a shame
Till July we’ll play to win, then my trade binder I’ll keep you in.
Preordain give me the the draw I need, to proceed; not the same if you ask me
I’ve gotta brew but can’t unwind, wish I could go back to happy times
Play Jace, draw three; just find a Hawk for me, Mystic instead? Yes please
So you see, just ain’t prepared to move on; haven’t picked up cards since you gone
Give anything to have ya’ll back; I wish I’d never talked all that crazy smack.

Every time I play, since yesterday there’s just no way, even if I pray that they’ll unban you
Crying for the day, when you’ll go away.  What a choice to make; ban Mystic and Jace.
Wish they’d unban you.

Somebody tell me why
You’d make a Precon, when this ban was coming?
And why did you kill Jace?   

Every time I play, every turn I take, hands start to shake, heart starts to quake, give back my Jace

Voiceover:  Every day that passes is a day we get closer to this crazy ban. We’ll miss you guys but we’ll win anyways because we can. That’s right.  We’ll miss you guys

Every time I play, since yesterday there’s just no way, even if I pray that they’ll unban you
Crying for the day, when you’ll go away.  What a choice to make; ban Mystic and Jace.
Wish they’d unban you.
X2 + add crazy Faith Evans vocal improvisational stuff.

Obviously we'll need to contact Faith Evans because I simply can *not* do that with my voice but I should be able to handle the rap parts if someone else can do sound; perhaps one of the 95 million podcast teams on Twitter?  Regardless of who does what I know I can rely on the Magic community to do the right thing here and help send off our departed friends in style.  For those of you interested feel free to post your availability in the comments so people have a rough idea of which crazy bastards to avoid at upcoming tournaments and conventions.  As always thanks for reading and I hope to see you again here at The Cardboard Witch.

*Nina winks*

Monday, June 20, 2011

Standard Deviations #16 - A Funeral for a Friend

As I sit here writing this it's 4 AM on a surprisingly warm summer morning; I know I should be in bed letting rest and reason heal my wounds but unfortunately I simply can't.   No, as others around me have been celebrating like it's the last scene in Return of the Jedi I've been sitting quietly here in the dark; thinking, rationalizing, trying to comprehend the decisions made by those who police the game I love and most of all mourning the loss of a beautiful opportunity.  You see, I have a dirty little barely kept secret folks; I was probably the only person on earth hoping U/W Mystic would survive today's Ban List update.  If you've been living under a rock or simply weren't near a computer today you can find all the gory details here; the short version is that Stoneforge Mystic and Jace the Mindsculptor have been banned effective July 1st, 2011.  To say that this decision upset/bothered me would be a severe understatement and despite secretly believing that we'd get to this point I had honestly hoped with all my heart that somehow, someway would wouldn't.

Now before you start yelling at me that "Caw Blade was too good" and "those cards were driving people out of Standard" I want to explain that I know and I agree with you; at least to a certain point.  Caw Blade was without a doubt one of the most dominant decks in the history of Magic and completely environment deforming.  I know for a fact that I have started pretty much every single deck I've built since Pro Tour Paris with the question "how does this deck perform against Caw Blade?"  I won't however agree that the deck was unbeatable; properly tuned versions of RDW, Exarch - Splinter Twin, Lotus Cobra and Vengevine decks were more than capable of taking it out "on any given Sunday".  Unfortunately none of these decks match-up as well with the *other* decks in the metagame as U/W Mystic did and thus the smart money in the format was clearly on ignoring these potential bad match-ups and just playing Caw Blade; which people did in droves.  This in turn created the *reality* of a one deck format which clearly upset enough people on both casual and competitive levels to drastically reduce tournament attendance numbers across the board.  It's easy to dismiss dropping attendance numbers at FNM and Gamesday events as "random variance" but when Pro Tour Qualifiers in prime locations are pulling in half as many people as they were last year it's hard to argue that something isn't wrong.  Why people chose to simply "not play" rather than enter tournaments en mass with decks meta'd to beat Caw Blade is still somewhat beyond me but ultimately the reasons why matter less than the results; nobody going to tournaments is bad for Magic as a business.  In light of these two fundamentally true situations it's actually pretty easy to see why "the banhammer" came down so hard on Caw Blade this morning.

So if I understand that Caw Blade was at once too good in the format and actively driving away players how come I'm sitting in the dark crying into my orange juice?  Well for starters I've never been of the mindset that having a format with one clear best deck is a bad thing.  There is a price to be paid for being the object of everyone's spite and playing "the best deck" in any given Standard is a good way to learn all about how to play against enemy sideboard cards; in game 1.  Additionally anyone who understands either competitive card-gaming or the science of game theory already knows that there will *always* be a best deck in any given card pool so I fail to understand why people get so upset when said deck becomes common knowledge.  Now you can argue that Caw Blade was too good by so much as to render the format irrelevant but as I've already mentioned I don't believe that to be true.  I test Magic decks like a junkie goes through rock and I can honestly say that more people should have been playing RDW and Splinter Twin than have been so far at a very minimum.  What's more if there *has* to be a best deck in the format I actually think a deck like Caw Blade is a very good choice; although a little too pricey I guess.  Caw Blade is a very skill intensive deck that actively rewards foresight, intuition and masterful play while simultaneously falling to rubbish in the hands of a weaker/less prepared pilot.  In this way a Caw Blade player gains an incredible amount of control over the mirror match; all he has to do is *play* better to win!  Compare this to Cascade wars with Jund, Bitterblossom races with Faeries or even classic examples like "who can play the last Lin Sivvi?", "does my Psychatog live longer than yours?" or "who's Arcbound Ravager is bigger yours or mine?"  Given the choice I'll take a deck like Caw Blade every time because I have confidence in my own skill as a player while I have yet to master the art of willing the proper cards to the top of my deck in the mirror.  I'm sure some of you reading this will say I'm insane but I honestly had no problem with this Standard format whatsoever and actively enjoyed playing with and against Caw Blade decks.  It certainly doesn't hurt that I was winning a lot.

Finally of course I had a very personal reason to dislike the decision to ban Jace and the Mystic.  As regular readers of this blog know I've somehow managed to scrape my way through enough LGS drafts and FNM events these past 10 months to qualify for the Canadian National Championships based on my DCI rating.  This is of course a *huge* step up in terms of competition for me and as a result I've been practicing more than is healthy for an adult with a life and a job.  I've also been carefully watching the deck-lists and tournament results here in the post-NPH environment and arming myself with the necessary knowledge to actually have a legitimate shot at doing well in my very first "serious" Magic tournament.  As my understanding of the format grew I started to find consistent, effective solutions to winning the Caw Blade mirror without giving up significant ground in my other match-ups.  What's more I noticed that *most* other U/W players simply were not addressing the meta-game in the same way I was.  I won't lie, I was pretty excited because I honestly felt I had a very real, legitimate chance to at least crash the top 8 from out of nowhere assuming all things remained the same.  Naturally of course I may have been deluding myself; I'll let you be the judge of that when I post the deck-list in a moment.  Regardless, as the set date for format bans and restrictions approached I found myself hoping and praying with all my might that my golden opportunity wouldn't be snatched away at the last minute.  Naturally when that very scenario came to pass I was and still am crushed; while I know the decision is not in any way personal to me it's almost impossible not to feel like all of my efforts have been wasted.  I won't lie and I understand that it's very early in the morning and I'm still quite upset but I have honestly questioned my desire to even *attend* the tournament several times this evening.        

So with all of the explaining, arguing and speculating out of the way I'm forced to admit that there is nothing left to do but mourn.  Decisions have been made by people who don't even know I exist and for better or worse if I want to keep playing Magic I'm going to have to accept them.  I'm sure eventually I will do just that but tonight I can't; so I sit, and I brood and I cry a little on the inside.  Mostly though I just keep flipping through the deck, looking at the cards and occasionally shuffling them up while wondering what might have been.  Through it all I can't tell if it's a sort of vanity or some desperate attempt at closure that makes me want to share this deck with somebody, *any*body before I finally sleep this morning.  Whatever it is indulge me for a moment and have a look:

"Skull Blade Version 3.0 - U/W Fish w/ Equipment:

Creatures - 13:

4x Spellskite
4x Stoneforge Mystic
3x Mirran Crusader
2x Emeria Angel

Spells - 13:

4x Preordain
3x Spell Pierce
2x Divine Offering
2x Mana Leak
2x Dismember

Planeswalkers - 4:

4x Jace, the Mind Sculptor

Equipment - 4:

2x Batterskull
1x Sword of Feast and Famine
1x Sword of War and Peace

Lands - 26:

4x Celestial Colonnade
4x Seachrome Coast
3x Glacial Fortress
3x Island
3x Plains
2x Scalding Tarn
1x Marsh Flats
4x Tectonic Edge
2x Inkmoth Nexus

Sideboard - 15:

2x Condemn
2x Oust
4x Celestial Purge
1x Divine Offering
1x Dismember
1x Mirran Crusader 
2x Day of Judgment
1x Emeria Angel
1x Batterskull

The basic idea in the mirror is that my Skites make it impossible to control my equipment cards while I maindeck multiple answers to my opponent's.  Emeria Angel is there primarily to answer enemy Hawks but once again combined with the protection main-deck Spell Skites offer she's actually quite the game winner.  Unfortunately I'm a little too sad and a little too tired to offer in depth analysis on a deck that won't be legal in 9 days but I can assure you I tested this deck into the ground.  It destroys the mirror, performs incredibly well against Splinter Twin and once you learn how to play it can actually beat most aggro decks game 1 unless your opponent is a very good player.  I feel *very* confident that I would have done well with this deck at Nationals if circumstances had played out a little differently.  Feel free to tell me otherwise in the comments; though it seems like kind of a pointless argument now that the deck is dead.

Well folks that's about all I have for the moment; I'm sorry I couldn't bring you happier news or a fun new deck list to try out.  I'm going to grab another glass of orange juice and get some sleep; hopefully this will feel less devastating when I wake up tomorrow.  Thanks for indulging me a little bit this time and as always thanks for reading.  Sorry, I'm too stunned for a witty parting line this time gang.  Ciao.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Abstract Iterations #4: With a Little Help From My Friends

Hello everyone and welcome back to a special "quickie" edition of The Cardboard Witch.  For those of you wondering when "Fight Music" will be published on Mana Deprived all I can say is that I've sent the article off but it was about 6000 words so I'm probably going to have to be a little patient with the editing process.  In other words this might take a couple days; don't worry I won't forget about it and I promise to post a link here as soon as it's published.  Unfortunately that's actually all I've got in terms of "news" or exciting info; after spending all day writing my heart out I went to bed early a little down and had some trouble sleeping.  After tossing and turning for at least 4 hours I finally gave up and decided to start answering some emails when lo and behold but what do I find in my inbox?  Customized treasure folks, check it out:

Recently a friend of mine from back home in Michigan (Trevor) has been constantly bugging me to get into Commander; habitually reminding me that the new Commander preconstructed decks would be a perfect jumping on point to join in on all the fun.  Unfortunately I've been pretty much ignoring his pleas because I already play a ridiculous amount of Magic without adding additional formats.  Finally unable to take any more badgering I begged off of the discussion by firmly stating "I'm sorry Trevor, I just don't think Commander is really *me*".  Undaunted Trevor simply asked me what my favorite 3 color combinations were and after I told him wandered back off into cyberspace; or so I thought.  As it turns out Trevor has been working diligently on a custom set of commander-type cards that featured "magic'd up" versions of me!  Touche Trevor, touche.  I really don't know the Commander format very well so I can't tell you if these cards are any good but I can definately say they're ridiculously cool.  Additionally as if having one awesome general type card named after you isn't enough, Trevor actually sent me 3 entirely different generals with my name on them!

I'm not exactly sure how I became an agent of Glissa since I've never used either version of her in an actual deck but I'm oddly okay with being a skanky zombie shaman.  While the first card (R/W/B) was pretty cool from an aggro perspective even my untrained eye can tell you that Nina, Agent of Glissa is ridiculously broken.  I especially like the touch of doing something when I *leave* play rather than enter and combining that with a way to sacrifice myself off for fun and profit.  Also I'm going to go out on a limb here and guess that in a format where everyone is playing 3-4 colors and the greediest land bases possible the land destruction part of the ability will be oddly relevant. :)  While I doubt my opponents would agree in my opinion this card would equal instant fun every single time it hit the table while faciliating multiple disgusting combos I haven't even thought of yet.  Clearly Trevor takes this EDH stuff seriously.

This 3rd one is actually probably my favorite card of the 3 simply because her abilities seem so damn cool and deceptively powerful.  Unfortunately I highly doubt I'd personally have Shroud and I'm not exactly sure how I became a Shapeshifter but if it means I can make my opponent's shuffle their commanders back into their decks at will I'll take it!  So what do you guys think of Trevor's designs?  Clearly these cards are kinda broken but would they be good (or too good) cards in the multiplayer Commander format?

Well folks sorry for getting your hopes up with a throwaway article but when I found these beauties waiting for me on Gmail I immediately knew I would have to share them on the blog.  I'd like to give a special thanks to Trevor for taking the time to make me something so special and personal.  I know you got the 2 of the pictures off my blog but where you got the Zombie Shaman from will forever elude me.  Regardless you made my day and just maybe if people will let me use *these* cards I'll find a way to learn a whole new format between now and Nationals.  Thanks skittles Trevor.  Okay gang, show and tell is over and I've got to get to bed before the sun makes sleeping impossible; as always thanks for reading and remember that while flattery may get you nowhere it's still a pretty good way to brighten someone's day.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Abstract Iterations #3 - The Psycholoy of the Red Mage

Hello everyone and welcome back to another edition of The Cardboard Witch.  I'd especially like to welcome everyone who are visiting here from Mana Deprived; Canada's #1 Magic Website!  If you're a little confused don't worry about it; I recently wrote an article for MD ("Fight Music") about playing RDW in Standard which included a link back to this article.  As such this is intended primarily as a companion piece to "Fight Music" and once KYT actually publishes it I'll edit this post to include a link so people who don't regularly visit Mana Deprived (you should be reading this!) can find it. You don't technically need to read the other article to understand what I'm talking about today but it will certainly provide some context for this discussion; at least in terms of its relation to the current Standard format.

Okay so with that out of the way I'd like to talk a little bit about a subject that's both deeply personal to me and often overlooked in the annals of Magic history; the seductive power of playing Mountains.  Confession time folks; the very first tournament deck I ever had any success with was a variation on "Dead Guy Sligh" that I copied from a magazine and modified slightly.  As such some of my fondest memories of Magic revolve around beating my opponent to a paste with cards like Jackal Pup, Mogg Flunkies, Fireblast and Cursed Scroll.  I also distinctly remember why I originally decided to play the deck; I was losing a lot of matches in local tournament play and was seduced by the promise of "free wins" from a deck "so easy to pilot my dog could win a tournament with it."  That's right folks like many RDW pilots in today's metagame I chose the deck because I'd heard it was easy, I was frustrated and I was sick and tired of losing.  The funny thing is that at first it *was* easy; I immediately started registering a lot of 3-1, 4-0 tournament results in my local environment where I had been going 2-2 and 1-3 before.  I even started to get the silly idea that I was clearly smarter than other Magic players; after all Magic was about speed, power and tapping mountains and if they couldn't handle that then my opponents must just be dumb for playing other decks.  After about a month of winning back lost money in local tournaments I decided it was time to scout for "bigger game" and entered a local 100+ player cash prize tournament with of course: Dead Guy Sligh.  To say this experience was a rude awakening would be a mild understatement; my first round opponent was playing Saga-era Elves with Gaea's Cradle and beat me in roughly 8 minutes combined between games 1 and 2.  I then proceeded to lose in 3 to a White Weenie build that seemed to have 10 protection from red creatures in it's sideboard.  When my round 3 opponent turned out to be 12 years old and playing in his first tournament I realized that the day was pretty much over for me already.  I quickly won game 1 but decided to throw game 2 and concede the match when it looked like my opponent was about to cry; he wasn't a bad kid but he was clearly out of his depth and frankly so was I.  Unfortunately at that point in time I wasn't old enough or mature enough to properly learn from this experience and I went home firmly convinced that both fate and my deck had somehow cheated me.  It's too bad I didn't stick around for the rest of the tournament because I would have seen a very good player win the whole thing with a version of Sligh that was only 5-7 cards different than mine.

So what went wrong?  Why did my day end at 0-3 while someone else was able to win the entire tournament with virtually the same deck?  For starters as it turned out I wasn't nearly as good a player as I thought I was.  I made multiple play mistakes during my first two matches and essentially played with little or no regard whatsoever to my opponent's decks.  This wasn't the only problem however and looking back with more experienced eyes I think it's safe to say that I lost because I didn't truly understand how to play red aggro yet.  You see the truth is that mono red aggro is *not* an easy deck to play either historically or in the current Standard format.  While it's certainly true that these decks absolutely destroy unprepared opponents once you start to play good pilots with proper sideboards most of that advantage will evaporate right before your very eyes.  Properly unlocking the win potential of this powerful deck requires a special mindset; a distinct style of thinking that simply does not apply to the other colors in Magic.  Personally I call this mindset "the Psychology of the Red Mage" and identify those who adopt it by their adherence to the following "holy" tenents:

"Thou shalt count to twenty": While on the surface this concept may seem almost insultingly obvious it's at once both the most important and difficult to master idea for beginning red mages.  The game ends when your opponent is at zero life; for the red mage there is no other reality, no alternate win conditions and no shortcuts.  The red deck does not win by maintaining board control, it does not win through overwhelming card advantage and it doesn't care who has more or better creatures on the table.  Despite the common misconception otherwise red aggro decks don't even win by being faster so much as through a single-minded focus on their opponent's life total and how best to reduce that number to zero.  Every good red player I know is a master at observing their opponent's current life total while simultaneously accounting for their opponent's *real* life total based on the cards in their hands, likely future plays and the expected flow of the match.  What's more is these players will be constantly "updating" their internal calculations for each new card drawn on either side or change in board state.  This perpetual, almost subconscious computation allows you to know exactly when to play each card for maximum life stomping value.  A good (if somewhat simplistic) example of this came up just recently for me during a friendly match of my RDW against my buddy Lucas' Valakut build.  My opponent was at 13 life and had pretty much blunted my assault in the early game by 'Bolting back to back Kiln Fiends before they could touch him.  He'd established firm board control by dropping a Beast Within on my Shrine of Burning Rage (5 tokens) on my last end step and casting a Primeval Titan.  My entire side of the table was 2x Furnace Scamp and the 3/3 Beast that Lucas had just given me but I had been milking a couple of Lightning Bolts for most of the game and my internal calculator was working just fine.  When Lucas attempted to ship the turn I asked him "are you tapped out?" and when he replied "yes" I responded by double Bolting him to the head and informing him that he was dead unless he "packed Gutshot".  I hate to admit this but as a younger/less experienced player I am almost 100% certain I would have double Bolted the Titan and promptly lost the game on the next turn when Lucas cast another copy.

"Never settle for a little damage now when you can do a whole lot of damage later":  Once again this is a seemingly simple concept but you'd be surprised at how few players actually keep this in mind.  Successfully playing red aggro is all about squeezing enough raw damage out of your cards to drag your opponent to zero; you can rarely afford to give your opponent extra life in the long term simply to satisfy a short term goal.  Probably the simplest example of this would be choosing to burn out your opponent's "bear" with a Lightning Bolt or a Staggershock instead of a Burst Lighting so that you can "dome" him for 4 with a kicked Burst several turns later.  Alternately imagine for a moment that you are on the play and for whatever terrible reason you have a hand consisting of Furnace Scamp, Goblin Guide and 5 Mountains.  With only 2 possible plays can you make the right choice?  While there's certainly some temptation to cast the Goblin Guide and immediately swing for 2 the correct answer is to play the Furnace Scamp on turn 1 and wait until turn 2 to unleash your hasty Goblin.  This is of course because the Furnace Scamp is worth 4 damage to you unblocked and a turn 2 attack is your best opportunity to create that situation.  Alternately the Goblin Guide's value changes very little from turn to turn in the early game; he's pretty much *always* going to be a shock on legs.  Okay one more example and then we can move on I promise; recently I was playing a game with a version of RDW called 'Fried Chicken" against a mono white aggro opponent. I had won game 1 and my opponent had promptly mulled to 6 so I decided to keep a hand of Mountain, Mountain, Teetering Peaks, Goblin Guide, Lightning Bolt, Staggershock and Koth.   As my opponent was shuffling he casually mentioned that his hand "even had the Leyline but no lands" before presenting me with his deck and deciding to keep the next 6 cards he drew.  To make a long story short I started the game by playing Bolt to my opponent's head, Searing Blaze on his first creature and a turn 3 Staggershock to the dome again rather than casting any creatures.  Sure enough my opponent played a turn 4 Leyeline of Sanctity but by then I'd already done 8 points of damage directly to him and could easily win the match with Goblin Guides and Koth.  While this may seem contradictory to my previous advice the simple truth is I chose to forgo the short term advantage casting creatures would have given me in exchange for more damage over the course of the game as a whole because I knew my opponent had the Leyline at his disposal.

"It doesn't matter if it hurts me, so long as it hurts you":  To the accomplished Red mage everything is a resource that can be sacrificed towards the greater goal of killing your opponent.  This includes cards in hand, lands, creatures and most commonly your own life total.  To this end some of the most important and powerful cards in the history of red aggro have included some sort of downside or required a sacrifice of some kind to be effective.  Good historical examples include Jackal Pup, Char and Mogg Fanatic while modern RDW gives us cards like Ember Hauler, Devastating Summons, Furnace Scamp and even "off-color" effects like Dismember.  The key to winning with these type of cards revolves around learning to properly manage and or minimize the "self inflicted" pain involved.  For example you don't sacrifice Ember Hauler while he still has value to you as a 2/2 creature; even if it means taking a few beats in return from an enemy "bear".  Only once your opponent is about the kill the Hauler, has played a creature you simply must kill or the board state has progressed beyond the point where a 2/2 would be relevant do you finally trade your creature for a "Shock".  Following the same line of thinking there's very little point in sacrificing all of your land to play a Devastating Summons if your opponent is just going to wipe the board immediately afterward.  A good red mage will either wait for the Goblin Bushwhacker to give the tokens Haste and set up lethal damage or alternately save most of his land and simply create 2 smaller tokens.  There's a time and a place for everything; Dismembering your opponent's Obliterator when you are ahead on life and over 4 is a good play while attempting to cast Char on 2 life is most certainly not.  Learning to properly managed the "downside" of your own cards is one of the key skills that separates excellent red players from guys who are just tapping mountains.

"Fortune favors the bold": Barring an extremely unlikely reprint of Wheel of Fortune there remain two constant problems all red mages must address; red aggro decks are at once extremely hard to mulligan with and eternally chained to the top of their libraries. This first point is rather self-evident; if your counting to 20 you'll only need to deal 2.86 damage with each of your cards in a 7 card hand but 3.33 with a 6 card hand and 4.0 with a 5 card hand.  This may be over simplifying things a little bit but when virtually every card in your deck doubles as a Lightning Bolt/Shock you really can't afford to give away too many cards before the game starts.  This requires two major adaptations on the part of a successful red mage; first he must build his decks to be as smooth and consistent as possible to reduce the need for mulligans and second he must learn to play more marginal hands than he would otherwise playing another color.  This isn't to say you can't or shouldn't ever mulligan with a good RDW build but learning not to depend on aggressive mulligan strategies is an absolutely *must* for the aspiring red mage.  The second point is a little more esoteric but equally important; red decks simply do not draw cards very easily and you're going to have to win the vast majority of your games with your opening hand and the top 4-5 cards of your library.  To this end you need to strike a careful balance between refusing to play into situations where only a specific card gets you out and playing a confident game knowing that your deck will probably feed you "more of the same" because every card in the build is basically a burn spell.  Sometimes this means spending your last burn spell to clear out a pesky blocker and sometimes it means saving it for the one card you can't answer otherwise but either way this constant duality of thought is absolutely necessary to compete with mono red aggro decks.  I warned you it was a little esoteric didn't I? :)

"Don't miss your window": Finally the one key trait common to all good red mages in my experience is an understanding of both timing and pressure.  Too many aspiring red aggro pilots will start games off by going "all-in" as soon as possible; fearing their opponent's potential answers they try to race against the enemy's draw step only to run out of gas once their opponent has stabilized.  Alternately I've also seen timid players pilot this deck far too cautiously and thereby drag the game out so long that their deck is no longer capable of winning!  Typically most mono red aggro builds will focus on dominating turns 3-5 because traditionally this is what red cards are good at.  For every turn after turn 5 that your opponent is alive the vast majority of the cards in these decks will lose effectiveness while simultaneously allowing our opponent to drop huge creatures that are difficult to burn out.  On the other side of the coin while a typical RDW is certainly capable of throwing piles of damage around on turns 1 and 2 it's usually a better idea to use these turns to set up more potential damage in the future.  For example as previously mentioned you'll want to play Furnace Scamp on turn 1 over Goblin Guide or say Kiln Fiend/Shrine of Burning Rage over Goblin Bushwhacker on turn 2.  Regardless of how you build your version of mono red aggro knowing when to "drop the hammer" and when to play for the future will go a long way towards winning your matches.  As a final word of advice; never make a play just because it would kill your opponent unless you have no other choice or you are absolutely *100%* certain he can not answer it.  I've seen too many 10 power Kiln Fiends felled by a lowly Condemn already and nobody wants to hear you cry about how you "would have won if you'd just draw some more burn" when you wasted a bunch of Shocks pumping it up too early.

Well folks there you have it; a detailed study of the mindset common to one of Magic's rarest and most dangerous creatures: the experienced red mage.   Hopefully you've all enjoyed this article and found at least a morsel or two of insight to chew on the next time you're "slangin' mountains".  I especially hope those of you visiting here from Mana Deprived enjoyed your visit; feel free to stick around for a while and check out my other articles.  Two of my favorites are a beginner's primer on drafting that I wrote way back in M11 and a recent standard article about U/W Mystic in the post-NPH environment.  As always thanks for reading guys and remember to keep counting to twenty!

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Of Limited Interest #31 - Mythic Proportions: A final look at the triple NPH format.

Hello everyone and welcome back to another edition of The Cardboard Witch.  As regular readers of this blog are no doubt already aware I have recently been playing an incredible amount of Standard in preparation for the upcoming Canadian National Championships.  This will be the biggest Magic tournament of my life so far and I'm making a point of putting in as much time at the practice tables as possible before this event.  Obviously that doesn't leave as much time for drafting as it used to but I've still been finding time to draft here and there; after all "fish gotta swim" right?  At this point in the format NPH is still new enough that my local store is hosting mostly triple NPH drafts so players can build their collections at the same time as drafting; the guys I play with love them some new cards! :)

So far my impressions of the Triple NPH draft format have been a pretty mixed bag.  On one hand I always appreciate formats with a lot of solid C/U removal effects and NPH is chock-full of wonderful cards that either tap out, take control of or kill your opponents cards.  Additionally I'm very fond of the Phyrexian Mana mechanic in limited play because it adds a huge element of surprise while simultaneously punishing the caster appropriately for doing so; while it's easy to ignore 2 and 4 points of lost life in constructed Magic managing your life total properly is a *far* more important skill in Limited.  Unfortunately if the format has a flaw it's probably the significant and rapid drop off between the set's "oh wow that's amazing" creatures and the guys who are "just bodies".  While this doesn't always break along lines of rarity (Porcelain Legionnaire, Pith Driller and Thundering Tanadon for example) the simple truth is this set has a huge number of rare and mythic rare monsters that are almost impossible to beat once they've hit the table.  Compounding matters is the fact that most of the removal in the set is largely ineffective against high toughness "bads" like Chancellor of the Dross, Elesh Norn, Sheoldred, Chancellor of the Spires, Phyrexian Obliterator or even more marginal cards like Chancellor of the Annex/Forge/Tangle and Phyrexian Ingester.  To be fair I haven't even mentioned broken equipment cards like Batterskull, Sword or War and Peace and to a lesser degree Lashwrithe which further stress the available removal in the environment almost to a breaking point.  In fact if you aren't in black (Enslave, Dismember, Geth's Verdict or Parasitic Implant) you're probably a straight dog the moment any of these cards hit the table!            

In my experience this produces a "herky-jerky" sort of environment where the vast majority of games play out exactly the same way regardless of deck-type.  Both players will typically spill out some 2-3CC monsters and usually the guy with access to more evasion or Phyrexian Mana cards will seize early tempo.  This will be short lived however due to the ridiculous amount of spot removal available in the format and the game will settle into a back and forth exchange of removal/guys while both players build their manabases towards dropping their respective bombs.  Assuming neither player starts cold drawing consecutive lands off the top and can thus adequately defend themselves eventually someone will drop a ridiculous game winning card that demands an immediate answer.  If the opponent does have the answer the game falls back into the previous holding pattern until someone either stops drawing relevant cards or another bomb is played.  If the opponent does *not* have the answer the game ends almost immediately over the course of 2-4 exceptionally violent turns.  While this certainly has it's fun points and there *are* a couple of decks in the format that play out differently (R/x Rage Extractor.deck, U/G or U/B Blighted Agent/Viral Drake Infect) after a while it gets a little tiring and it can border on being completely enraging if you go through a spot of bad pack luck while everyone around you is opening Karns and Life's Finales. 

In order to successfully combat this phenomenon I've adopted a complex 2 point draft strategy that I'm prepared to share with you all here today:
  1. Open ridiculous bomb creatures, equipment or removal (Dismember, Enslave, Life's Finale) from your packs; people are unlikely to actually pass you these cards.
  2. Force B/x control every single time to ensure you have enough copies of Parasitic Implant and Geth's Verdict to destroy/control all of the ridiculous bombs your opponents are going to open in their NPH packs.
Sadly I'm not actually kidding folks and in fact if at all possible I recommend that if you are forced to play 3x NPH for some reason you should probably try to do both!  As an example of what I'm talking about let's take a look at the last two decks I managed to 3-0 with in this format; keeping in mind that I am fully aware that both of these decks are completely broken and were absolutely the product of some sick pack luck.  First up is a U/B Control deck I used to crush a 6 man non-sanctioned event a couple of weeks ago:

"Every Breath You Take" - U/B Control:

Creatures - 14:

1x Alloy Myr
1x Deceiver Exarch
4x Trespassing Souleater
1x Phyrexian Metamorph
2x Pith Driller
4x Spire Monitor
1x Chancellor of the Dross

Spells - 9:

1x Gremlin Mine
3x Geth's Verdict
1x Grim Affliction
2x Parasitic Implant
1x Batterskull
1x Karn Liberated

Land -17:

8x Island
9x Swamp

Pretty ridiculous right?  My opens were Chancellor of the Dross (who's better than 3/5ths of the Praetors), Karn and Batterskull in that order.  My opponent to the left was in R/W aggro, my opponent to the right was playing a sick R/G Infect deck and my only competition for blue cards was forcing a Blighted Agent/Viral Drake deck which allowed me to snatch up a ridiculous number of Spire Monitors/Trespassing Souleaters as the draft progressed.  I should also note that I benefited from at least one drafting mistake during the event; there is absolutely no good reason to pass a Phyrexian Metamorph that doesn't involve a better foil Rare/Mythic.  The massive amount of card replication was mostly caused by everyone at the table repeatedly opening very similar common runs; there was a deck with 3x Artillerize/3x Volt Charge, a deck with 4 copies of Razor Swine and my round 1 opponent actually had 5(!) Blinding Souleaters.  Regardless of the overall power of the packs we opened however I was almost certain that I was going to dominate this draft through very little real effort on my own part; I'd opened sick bombs and managed to slide into black early enough to get 3 Geth's Verdicts and 2 Parasitic Implants so I could easily control my opponents bombs as well.  This is not intended to disparage my opponents in any way; in fact quite the opposite, I would like to thank them for not rage-quitting during our matches when it became apparent that the only outs against my deck were hoping I land screwed/flooded or somehow drew absolutely nothing.  I won the tournament in 6 games straight and while many of these games were close I "got there" on the back of Karn twice, Batterskull twice, a Chancellor of the Dross and my Metamorph copying my finals opponent's Chancellor of the Dross before I killed it.  To say that I feel there was very little skill involved on my part would be a massive understatement; I just opened "the nuts" and built my deck accordingly.

Okay so I know what you're thinking; "but Nina almost any deck with 2 broken Mythic Rares and arguably the best rare Creature in the format will usually dominate tournaments, that's hardly exclusive to NPH!"  You may certainly be right in the case of the deck above; I opened 3 amazing rares/mythics and both of my colors were relatively open all draft.  What happens however when black isn't open and your first two packs are pretty middling overall?  Let's take a look at a deck I drafted in a classic 8 man last Monday where I was faced with this exact situation:
"Death By Slanderous Tongue" - B/W Tempo:

Creatures - 14:

2x Suture Priest
1x Blade Splicer
2x Blinding Souleater
3x Porcelain Legionnaire
1x Entomber Exarch
1x Mortis Dogs
3x Pith Driller
1x Sheoldred Whispering One

Spells -10:

1x Gremlin Mine
1x Forced Worship
2x Grim Affliction
1x Pristine Talisman
2x Remember the Fallen
1x Sickleslicer
1x Parasitic Implant
1x Enslave

Lands - 17:

7x Plains
10x Swamp

The draft portion of this event was pretty weird because I opened a pack 1 Enslave and took it over Etched Monstrosity (awful in triple NPH) only to see almost no worthwhile black cards in the entire pack.  I came out of pack 1 with an Enslave, a Grim Affliction and a fairly late Entomber Exarch to go with a bunch of "white" cards (Porcelain Legionnaire, Blinding Souleater) and some random artifacts.  Pack 2 saw me open a Blade Splicer and then begin snatching up every relevant black card I could in the hopes of simultaneously supporting my 3 good cards from pack 1 and driving *someone* to my right out of black.  As an added side bonus I'd drafted white so heavily in pack 1 that it allowed me to table several decent white cards (Suture Priest and both Remember the Fallens) while my opponents adjusted to the change in my signals.  Going into pack 3 this left me with a deck full of cheap creatures, decent removal and exactly one "bomb" (Enslave).  At this point I'd say I was mildly worried because I was building a "metalcraft" aggro deck with full knowledge that the 3x NPH format simply doesn't favor that kind of deck.  Thankfully the 3rd pack would bail me out when I opened a Sheoldred and was promptly passed a Blinding Souleater, 3 consecutive Pith Drillers and my 3rd copy of Porcelain Legionnaire.  Frankly I don't remember what else I drafted out of this pack but at that point it really didn't matter anways; I'd managed to grab an Enslave, a Parasitic Implant and 2 copies of Blinding Souleater to fill the "deal with huge creatures" requirement and while I only had 1 *bomb* finisher I had 3 ways of recurring her from the graveyard.  Naturally the games with this deck were a little closer than the games I played with the previous deck but ultimately I finished 6-0 again with Sheoldred winning 4 games by herself.  Oddly enough I never drew the Enslave in a game that mattered but apparently that means very little if you can topdeck Sheoldred like a fiend.  I should also mention that my opponent in the finals certainly could have beaten me off the right topdeck; he was running multiple Artillerize and at least one Act of Aggression which would have cooked my bacon pretty good if he'd cast them on Sheoldred in either of our games.

While I hate to be the bearer of bad news I think it's pretty safe to say that 3x NPH isn't exactly the most "skill intensive" draft format in the history of Magic.  In my opinion this really isn't a big deal because the set was designed primarily to be drafted with MBS and SoM; triple NPH drafts are simply the byproduct of people desperately wanting a chance to open new cards.  I personally have no problem with that up to a certain point but it's hard to disagree when my fellow drafters complain that the format is so "bomb" driven.  In conclusion my advice is to avoid drafting triple NPH unless you are looking for either a very "wild" draft experience with numerous match swinging cards hitting the table or simply need to spice up your collection.  If you *do* find yourself in a triple NPH draft it's pretty hard to go wrong with forcing B/x control decks; to a lesser degree W/x control can also work well if you get 2-3 Blinding Souleaters and a couple of late pick Exclusion Rituals (do NOT overpay for this card, it's not a bomb it's just a mediocre answer to your opponent's bombs in a format with few answers period).  Regardless of *how* you accomplish these goals the key to remember is you will need some high toughness creatures your opponents will have a hard time destroying and you will need multiple answers to these types of cards.  I recently saw someone tear through a triple NPH draft simply by having 3 copies of Rotted Hystrix and a bunch of removal; his opponents could usually answer the first 6 toughness beater but typically struggled to find answers when he cast a second copy.  As a point of comparison I'm not even sure Rotted Hystrix justifies a maindeck slot in an NPH/MBS/SoM draft; that's how different the formats actually are!

Well folks that's about all the time we have for this article.  I've recently been working on a guest piece for the Canadian MtG website Mana Deprived about playing RDW in Standard so I haven't had as much time to write here on the blog.  Hopefully I'll wrap that up sooner rather than later and I promise to link you guys to it when it's finally published.  Until next time always remember to pick the packs with Karn or Batterskull in them and keep it weird guys!

Friday, June 3, 2011

Standard Deviations #15.5 - "Skullkickers Part II: Slangin Packages"

Hello ladies and gentlemen; I hope you've all had a great week so far and welcome back to another edition of The Cardboard Witch.  Last time on this blog we took a *very* in-depth look at the core of a U/W Stoneforge Mystic deck I like to call Skullblade. If you haven't already read this article I suggest you click on the link now because otherwise this one probably won't make a lot of sense to you.  Okay so starting where we left off in the previous article we now have the following 58 card list:
"Skullblade" - U/W "Fish" w/ Equipment:

Creatures - 11:

4x Spellskite
4x Stoneforge Mystic
3x Mirran Crusader

Spells - 17:

4x Preordain
3x Spell Pierce
2x Condemn
3x Mana Leak
2x Divine Offering
3x Jace the Mind Sculptor

Equipment - 3:

1x Sword of War and Peace
2x Batterskull

Lands - 22:

4x Celestial Colonnade
4x Glacial Fortress
4x Seachrome Coast
4x Islands
4x Plains
1x Scalding Tarn/Misty Rainforest
1x Marsh Flats/Arid Mesa

Sideboard - 5:

2x Celestial Purge
1x Divine Offering/Revoke Existence
1x Sword of Feast and Famine
1x Day of Judgment

This selection of cards helps form an excellent backbone but for obvious reasons we're going to have to add 17 more cards; partially because we need them to address the expected meta-game and partially because you can't play a 58 card deck in Standard.  Who knew?  Fortunately as previously mentioned one of the strengths of U/W Mystic decks in standard is the ability to run so many different meta packages and sideboard cards; when you change the package you change the deck's strengths and weak points significantly.  This in turn makes part of the skill in winning with Skullblade come down to correctly predicting the environment you're going to see and identifying how to proactively attack it; all while changing only 17 cards in total.  Let's take a look at some of the "meta packages" that I've found myself running and how they address specific environmental situations:

"Friday Night Firefight" - The FNM Package:


+2 Inkmoth Nexus
+1 Quicksand
+1 Condemn
+1 Mirran Crusader
+2 Day of Judgment


+1 Condemn
+1 Revoke Existence
+1 Into the Roil
+1 Mortarpod
+3 Kor Firewalker
+1 Cancel
+1 Sword of Body and Mind
+1 Emeria Angel

Overview:  The basic idea behind this version of Skullblade is to stay fast and flexible while actively meta-gaming against aggro and aggro-combo in the main-deck.  While obviously everyone's FNM is different in my experience they tend to contain a higher concentration of cheap, fast aggro decks while still offering up a few opponents with tier 1 net-decks like Cawblade, Valakut or RUG.  Additionally at least in my environment there's a few mad brewers with the play-skill to back up their creations so being able to potentially deal with *anything* is a very important part of winning around here.

Maindeck:  As previously mentioned this deck doesn't work without at least 25 lands so even in a semi casual setting like FNM we need to fill at least 3 of our 7 remaining slots with lands.  In this case I chose 2x Inkmoth Nexus and a Quicksand for their value against fast aggro decks and because Tectonic Edge will be dead in far more match-ups than say at a large cash/qualifier event.  Additionally Nexus gives you a 2nd out (besides Jace) against the infinite life combo in the updated Soul Sisters's deck which looks like it was practically built to crush FNM events.  Buffing up to 3 Condemns, 4 Crusaders and 2 Day of Judgments is primarily about controlling creature based aggro decks in the early game without giving up so many slots that you can't beat combo decks or the U/W mirror. 

Sideboard:  Once again versatility was the primary theme here; while each card in the sideboard package has a direct meta purpose I also tried to choose cards that could be ported over into a wide variety of matches just in case I had to play something "weird" along the way.  This produces an overlapping effect that means the deck can board in a few answers if need be while still being able to rapidly transform to address a more resilient opposing deck.  Cards like the 4th Condemn, the 3rd Day of Judgment and Mortarpod allow you to further shore up the generic aggro match-up while still being useful in the mirror (Condemn, Mortapod) or as spot meta against problem cards like Lotus Cobra and Cunning Sparkmage (Mortarpod).  Assuming that the aggro opponent is primarily Red you can bring in 3 copies of Kor Firewalker and 2 Celestial Purges; the latter of which also works great against both Tezzeret decks and Vampires.  The 2 copies of Revoke Existence combine with the 2 main-deck Divine Offerings to deal with a variety of random artifacts while still helping to contain problem Enchantments and Wurmcoil Engines; trust me casual/semi-competitive Magic Players *love* them some Wurmcoil Engine.  The also directly attack the mirror by destroying Batterskulls and Swords of War and Peace to turn your Condemns back on.  Emeria Angel is also included primarily as a way of containing a U/W deck still running Squadron Hawks; ideally you'd like to have more answers but with only 1 slot to spare this card was the easiest way to cover the problem.  She also doubles as a decent defensive creature against swarming strategies and in a pinch can come in against *any* random dangerous flyer; think a Piston Sledge wearing Plague Stinger for example.  Sword of Body and Mind is another example of using a single card to cover a lot of ground; with all the aggro meta there just aren't a lot of room for answers to Valakut, Jace bouncing or cards like Frost Titan but SoB&M gives you at least a miser's chance of pulling out the game against these cards.  Finally Cancel and Into the Roil are included as catch-all answers to any spell or permanent you just can't deal with otherwise; think of them as this build's Jokers and use them accordingly.

"Duck Hunt" - The Anti-Caw Blade Package:


+4 Tectonic Edge
+1 Mortarpod
+1 Emeria Angel
+1 Batterskull


+ 2 Oust
+ 1 Spell Pierce
+ 2 Leonin Relic Warder
+ 1 Negate
+ 2 Jace Belren *
+ 1 Day of Judgment
+ 1 Sun Titan

Overview:  This is the package I would take to an event where I was expecting an overabundance of "net-deck" U/W Mystic builds still rocking Squadron Hawks.  The basic idea is to aggressively attack the one thing traditional Caw Blade has that Skullblade does not; a bunch of cheap flying men (Sqwaks, Inkmoth Nexus primarily).  Additionally this package includes a total of 5 artifact removal effects (2 main, 3 side) and two Counters that can all address enemy equipment cards which is also pretty important in the mirror.  By taking away their Hawks/Nexi we hope to gain advantage with our superior beatstick; the Mirran Crusader who combined with some sort of equipment should make it pretty easy to beat our opponents down from even ridiculous life totals (50+).

Maindeck:  The 4 Tectonic Edges are primarily about controlling your opponent's Inkmoth Nexi and Celestial Colonnades to once again minimize the effect of flying against the build.  In a pinch however they can also be used to screw your opponent's mana base for a turn or two; buying you the time to finish him off with Crusaders or Batterskulls in the mid-game.  Just don't get too greedy; if your facing a good U/W Mystic build it probably has lots of ways to draw cards so hurting your own mana base just to disrupt his can come back to bite you if he just draws a bunch more lands.  Mortarpod is included in the main here because it kills Squadron Hawks and Inkmoth Nexi without costing mana to activate; this is important because you're going to want to kill the Hawks/Nexi in response to your opponent attempting to equip them with something ridiculous and you'll want to be able to do so even if you are tapped out.  Naturally it doesn't hurt that the Stoneforge Mystic can fish this card out for you and she tends to be the one who wears it once you've sacrificed the Germ token (although I have won games by sacrificing my own Skites/Crusaders it's not really optimal).  Oddly enough this card is also pretty good against Lotus Cobra and Plague Stinger as well which makes it a pretty easy maindeck inclusion in this version of the deck.  Once again Emeria Angel is used here primarily to create a bunch of flying blockers to negate the opponent's advantage in the air; try to avoid playing her unless you can drop a land immediately after as your opponent's will make every effort to kill/oust her as soon as possible if they are adopting a Flying + Equipment strategy of any kind.  Finally the 3rd maindeck Batterskull is included simply because if I'm expecting to see a lot of Cawblade then I am expecting to see a lot of maindeck artifact removal; redundancy is vital if you're planning on winning the game through 'Skull advantage.

Sideboard:  This is a much more targeted Sideboard package than the previous build; we know we're going to play a lot of Cawblade and all of it's variations and as a result we're prepared to give up some game against aggro and ramp to make sure we can beat it 2/3 times.  Oust is included because it's a straight upgrade over Condemn against Stoneforge Mystic, Lotus Cobra, Spellskite and any sort of Wall creature while simultaneously allowing us to buff up to 4 spot removal spells (albeit weaker) against Aggro in a pinch.  Spell Pierce and Negate are both included to help you win counterspell wars in the U/W Mirror although I'd advise in engaging in this activity regularly; most U/W decks run too many counters in my opinion so it's more about precise timing and winning an *important* exchange than attempting to "run them out of counterspells".  The 2 copies of Leonin Relic Warder are all-stars in this build because they allow you to address enemy equipment cards early while still providing a body to carry a Sword/Skull later.  The key to remember is you don't want to attack with them early; just cast it and leave it off to the side until later in the game when your opponent is looking helpless.  The last thing you want to see is a well timed Into the Roil giving your opponent his Batterskull back to kill yours.  Ideally I try to use these guys to take out Spellskites, Sword of War and Peace and Sword of Feast and Famine so that if your opponent does go after him on your turn it's much harder for him to generate a blowout from it. I should also mention that this version of the deck chooses the 3rd Divine Offering in the SB over a singleton Revoke to maximize it's instant speed removal and to generate huge lifeswings from destroying Batterskulls.  The 2 Jace Belrens are a point of contention amongst my playgroup; personally I feel that the card should be Into the Roil but a number of people I've shared the deck with say that 2x Belren is significantly better.  I was outvoted and so the extra 2 Jaces are included in this list instead; do not be surprised if you find me playing Into the Roils in this slot instead however.  Regardless of who is right or wrong the choice of 2x "Baby" Jace is pretty much entirely about destroying your opponent's Jace the Mind Sculptors as cheaply and efficiently as possible during the mid game; do not drop this card down on turn 3 unless you strongly believe your opponent is going to drop turn 4 JtMS, you have no counterspells and no hope of breaking through his defenses with a quick Skull to kill said Jace.  To be fair why you'd keep that hand is beyond me but in that situation I guess turn 3 Baby Jace is fine.  The 2nd copy of Day of Judgment (remember there's one already fixed in the SB) is a concession to the fact that you *might* have to play an aggro deck at some point in the night.  While it's hardly perfect, 2x Condemn, 2x Oust, 1x Mortarpod, 2x Day of Judgment gives you at least a reasonable expectation of winning games 2 & 3 against most aggro decks; you probably won't win game 1 though.  Finally a singleton Sun Titan is included to help you grind out long mirror matches by recycling your Tectonic Edges over and over again.  Once in a while he'll bring back a Mystic or a Sword but he's primarily a combination finishing creature + land destruction engine in this build.

"No Combo No Cry" - The Anti Combo Package


+4 Tectonic Edge
+2 Oust
+1 Batterskull


+1 Oust
+3 Flashfreeze
+2 Into the Roil
+1 Celestial Purge
+1 Sword of Body and Mind
+1 Day of Judgment
+1 Frost Titan

Overview:  This is the package I play when I expect to see a lot of combo and or ramp decks; Splinter Twin, RUG, Valakut, Eldrazi and Big Red Koth Proliferate are all good examples of what I mean by combo/ramp.  While personally I would much rather play Skullblade the simple truth is that these decks are all very powerful and can be tuned fairly easily to match up well with traditional Cawblade.  Additionally in my experience I have found that these types of decks tend to be something of a refuge for good players trying to avoid playing U/W Mystic mirrors all day; at my local FNM for example Valakut was considerably more popular than Cawblade pre-NPH for this reason alone and recently I've been told there's a surge locally in Splinter Twin decks for pretty much the same reason.

Maindeck:  The 4 copies of Tectonic Edge here are something of a mixed bag; while they can definitely win you the game against Valaku, Eldrazi Ramp and Grixis Twin they are nigh worthless against Big Red Koth, RUG and the straight U/R versions of Splinter Twin combo.  Sadly you really don't have a choice if you want to be beating the Ramp decks at least so I run the full 4 pack here.  A pair of Ousts are included as a way of attacking enemy 2 drops in these match-ups; Overgrown Battlements, Spellskite, Kargan Dragonlord and Lotus Cobra all come to mind as good targets.  They're also at least reasonably decent against enemy Titans because they can stop an attacking trigger and force a recast later.  Once again the 3rd copy of Batterskull makes an appearance because most of these decks are now packing some form of artifact destruction in the main deck; typically Nature's Claim, Manic Vandal and the periodic Shatter. 

Sideboard:  Once again this is a fairly focused sideboard with a number of cards that address very specific matchups and situations.  The extra copy of Oust is again used as an upgrade over Condemn which excels in the aggro match but does very little against "sit and win" creatures like Lotus Cobra and Spellskite.  The 3 copies of Flashfreeze actually come in against pretty much every combo deck in the format because all of their "action" spells are either green or red at the moment.  Whether it's a Splinter Twin, a Primeval Titan, Koth or a Summoning Trap you'll be glad you have extra counterspells in these matches.  The Into the Roils are mostly included as meta against Deceiver Exarch and Koth of the Hammer; who still even at this late a date absolutely dominates games against U/W Mystic.  To be fair I'd actually like to get another copy into this version of the deck but I simply ran out of slots.  Obviously the 3rd copy of Celestial Purge serves the same primary function as Into the Roil (albeit better) but it's also decent in a pinch against Vampires or Goblin Guides.  Sword of Body and Mind is mostly about crushing Valakut but also works reasonably well against Eldrazi Ramp, Elves or even in the mirror to protect against Jace bouncing and/or Frost Titans.  Once again the 2nd Day of Judgment is primarily about giving you *some* way of beating aggro/swarm strategies and really isn't part of the "attacking combo" part of this package.  Finally "Old Frosty" is included as a way of metaing enemy manlands, Titans and the periodic Shrine of Burning Rage.  He's not super important but tapping our your opponent's Eye of Ugin forever or shutting down a poorly time Inferno Titan is worth the slot here.  Remember you can also use it to screw over your opponent's mana base if they're playing a particularly greedy build; Grixis Twin for example.

 "Slow Rollin" - The Anti Control Package:


+2 Inkmoth Nexus
+2 Tectonic Edge
+1 Spell Pierce
+1 Sword of Feast and Famine
+1 Gideon Jura


+2 Negate
+2 Into the Roil
+1 Revoke Existence
+1 Celestial Purge
+1 Deprive
+1 Mirran Crusader
+1 Day of Judgment
+1 Batterskull
+1 Frost Titan      

Overview: This package is designed to deal primarily with control decks including U/W Tapout, U/B Control, U/R Frost Titan/Inferno Titan decks, Grixis Control and Mono Black Control.  While ideally Skullblade will simply come out too fast for them to deal with there will be some long grind it out type games against these decktypes despite the build's inherent strengths against control strategies.

Maindeck:  Once again we're looking at 26 rather than 25 land; partially as a way to get out from under enemy Tectonic Edges but also because both T. Edge and Inkmoth Nexus have strong applications against most control strategies.  The Edges are primarily meta against man-lands and should be used accordingly; if I were a little braver I would suggest dropping a main-deck Island for a 3rd Tectonic Edge simply to allow me to use it more freely in the early/mid game.  Inkmoth Nexus however brings the total number of "manlands" in the build up to 6; a fact that can be lifesaving when your opponent is killing every creature you play and getting one to stick for even an single turn can win you the game with a Sword or a Skull.  The extra Spell Pierce is included main-deck to help you win counterspell wars and disrupt early discard; the vast majority of control decks in this format will be playing either blue or black and many of them will be playing both.  Sword of Feast and Famine is main-deckable in this situation primarily because it's a form of pure card advantage against control decks; stick it on a Mirran Crusader and if your opponent doesn't deal with it immediately he will quickly find himself with no hand for example.  It also has the added bonus of giving out Protection from Black which again is a particularly common color in control decks at the moment.  Finally Gideon Jura makes the cut here because like most Planeswalkers he allows you to win long draw out games against other control decks; forcing their random blockers to attack, destroying their limited number of finishing creatures and turning into a 6/6 "man" all have excellent applications at various points in these matches.  As a side bonus many aggro decks *still* can't beat a resolved Gideon so he gives you a miser's out to what will usually be a bad match-up for this build.

Sideboard:  Typically against most control decks the basic line of play Skullblade wants to adopt is to force out the first threat and protect the crap out of it.  If you can do that you'll typically win the game before the control player can stop you.  Unfortunately control decks are generally built to stop you from doing that so the focus of our sideboard here is winning counterspell wars to protect our creatures, spot removing our opponent's limited number of victory conditions and grinding out longer games with extra "critters" that are difficult for our opponents to contain.  The inclusion of 2 Negates and a Deprive make it easy to shift our deck to a more counterspell heavy build for games 2 and 3 if winning the counterspell war is likely to lead to victory for example.  Alternately cards like Celestial Purge, the 2nd copy of Revoke Existence and Into the Roil are primarily about dealing with threats/victory conditions your opponent's will play as the game progresses; notice that all of these cards cost 2 which can be incredibly important when trying to slip something through your opponent's counter/control web in this match-up.  As usual the 2nd copy of Day of Judgment is included as a catch-all counter against aggro decks and really isn't a huge factor in the Control match-up unless your opponent is resolving multiple Grave Titans or something.  The 4th Crusader makes the sideboard because I couldn't fit him into the main-deck; he's amazing against any type of black control deck and/or anything running Spellskite and there are a huge number of match-ups where you'll want 4 in your deck.  The 3rd Batterskull is mostly a concession to the rising popularity of Duress in control builds and is yet another card I'd rather be main-decking but simply couldn't find the room for.  Even against most red based control decks you're probably going to want it for the extra lifegain and the ability to wear through their shatter effects.  Finally the Frost Titan is included because of his versatility; he's hard to kill, big, works well at tying down enemy manlands and can in a pinch stop any of the billion finishing creatures open to control decks in this format at 5-6 mana; except Sphinxes who are either shroud or draw cards anyways even if you tap them out.  This is unfortunate but you can't meta everything.

Naturally of course none of these packages are set in stone whatsoever; you can easily mix and match them to address your specific environment as needed.  Additionally there are a number of cards I left out of all 4 of these packages for metagame reasons; a good example would be Tumble Magnet which is an excellent card in a non Spellskite dominated world.  If nobody around you is playing Spellskite feel free to drop 2 Tumble Magnets back into the main-deck or sideboard because it will win you games if your opponent's let it.  The important points to keep in your mind when trying to trick out your Skullblade deck remain fairly constant; what do I expect to play, how can I attack those decks and how can I deal with opponents who aggressively metagame against U/W Mystic builds.  Using these guidelines it should be easy to build literally dozens of meta-packages against even the most bizarre local environments.  In fact the current version of my build is slightly different than all 4 of the packages I listed above simply because of my experiences playing the deck here locally.  Please allow me to share:

"Miser's Touch" - Custom Package:


+3 Tectonic Edge
+1 Into the Roil
+1 Mirran Crusader
+2 Day of Judgment


+1 Condemn
+2 Into the Roil
+2 Flashfreeze
+1 Revoke Existence
+1 Celestial Purge
+1 Linvala, Keeper of Silence
+1 Emeria Angel
+1 Batterskull

Overview:  As you can see this package is basically a hybrid of the FNM package and the anti combo package.  This is because my environment has a lot of aggro and a lot of combo but I will rarely have to play more than 1 mirror match over the course of a 4-5 round tournament.  I chose the 2/2 Divine/Revoke split because I periodically face down Pyromancer's Ascension around here and there are a *significant* number of Wurmcoil Engines hitting tables I'm playing at.  I run a singleton maindeck Into the Roil over the 3rd Condemn simply because it's more versatile and it's one of the few good ways to handle something wearing a Sword of War and Peace (hint; I bounce the Sword and block).  The sideboard is primarily about making the deck stronger against aggro or combo depending on the matchup and the only real interesting card of note is Linvala who's there to mess with Splinter Twin combo decks and Overgrown Battlements while simultaneously giving me a flying blocker who can block a Hawk wearing a Sword (as long as it's not W&P, I hate that card sometimes).  Finally the Emeria Angel sees spot duty against flying monsters while the 3rd Batterskull provides redundancy in the face of discard or artifact destruction.

Well folks as you can see there really are no limits to the number of ways you can "trick out" a U/W Mystic here in Standard; virtually no matter what you're expecting to face there's an answer out there in the cardpool.  The trick of course comes down to correctly predicting the environment you'll be playing in and then filling out your "swing slots" with cards that address that environment.  Unfortunately that's about all my fingers can take for the moment and I feel this article has been "thorough" enough at this point anyways.  As always thanks for reading and I hope to see you back soon.  Until then remember gang; they probably didn't print Batterskull to personally ruin your Magic experience, it just feels that way sometimes.  Keep it weird.