Saturday, May 30, 2015

Endless Horizons: Drafting Five-Colors in Modern Masters 2015

As I write this, I'm listening to Marshall Sutcliffe as he commentates on a Neal Oliver match at this weekends GP Vegas.  As Oliver's five color deck takes over the game, he notes on how he's becoming more and more convinced that greedy, splash-heavy decks will be common in the tournament, and frequently successful.

Lessons from a sealed format don't always translate over into drafts, however.  Modern masters provides a plenitude of clear-cut, synergistic two-color archetypes.  Can five-color decks compete?  I certainly was hopefully that they would.  Something about the very nature of the play-style of multicolor decks appeals to some part of my personality.  The fixing and ramp cards I see as investments in later, more powerful spells.  An additional element of resource-management is added to the game.  Perhaps, having first learned to draft during ROE, I was uniquely conditioned to enjoy such a style.

So I joined in two local modern masters drafts, both very casual.  No prizes were on the line here; our aims were fun and the chance to play the pack-lottery.  At $30 just for the boosters themselves, few of us were interested in upping the stakes even more.  Part of me didn't want to draft the set at simply, as a thirty dollar draft just feels wrong to me.  I don't buy scratch tickets, and with most of the value in this set pushed into mythic, I didn't want to buy modern masters.  Wizards has been hyping the set an incredible amount, and to buy into it myself would make me a sucker.

However, curiosity and a desire for fun did drive me into the arms of two drafts.  I didn't really open any money (as expected) but I did have a sweet time.  A pack 1 pick 1 wayfarer's bauble out of a very unimpressive pack in the first draft led me into just what I was hoping to be.  Here's the list:

With the baubles, four karoos and a rampant growth, in all three of my rounds I found myself with very little trouble casting my spells.  Additionally, I was able to make some really great use of interactions: the cytoplast in particular was able to help grow my coatl and sunburst creatures.  

Green-red domain is the "official" five color deck, according to wizards, but I think it would be a mistake to put on blinders to other colors being potentially part of the backbone of a domain deck.  Green is essential, because of the solid creatures and rampant growth potential it provides, but red less so.  In this draft, blue felt more open and so I decided to just go with a green-blue domain deck, with red being a bit heavier of a splash than black or white.  This deck went 3-0.

This second draft was a little bit more tricky.  While I didn't feel the fixing was as strong or as good as in the first draft, the deck packed more brute punch.  Savage twister and pelakka wurm were able to compensate for skyreach mantas which were a little less powerful than they would be with better fixing.  This draft, I tried to be more aware of the +1+1 counter and proliferate synergies available, although sadly there just weren't enough good proliferate spells coming around to really "go off."  What good proliferate spells there were, I passed for more straight-forwardly powerful cards like savage twister or dismember.  Heck, I could even proliferate charge counters in this deck to good effect!

This deck went 2-1, losing only to a very good white-black spirits deck.  I lost that particular match 2-1, flooding out one game, and getting swarmed in the other.  Endrek Sahr almost single-handedly made my plan of playing a few solid blockers laughable, as he was able to generate roughly 11 total thrull tokens before the master broodmaker was forced to sacrifice himself.  With either a few less tokens to deal with, or a savage twister, I think I could take that game.

As it was, between two drafts I went five and one, and was happy with the outings.  I'm done drafting modern masters, my curiosity has been sated, and I hopefully look toward a future where you can draft a format that is as fun as this where you can have fun drafting without having to worry about massive amounts of cash that just gets poured into the activity.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Doing it Wrong: Going undefeated with the five color toughness matters archetype in Dragons limited

Dragons of Tarkir has been out for a while now, and the fundamental aspects of its nature are now revealed to us.  Black and red are most often cited as the most powerful colors to be in, with the blue-black exploit deck, when open, reigning as perhaps the most powerful archetype.

Bearing all this in mind, I can vividly remember shuffling through a fairly unimpressive pack for my first pick of my fnm draft from two weeks ago, moving to the front mirror mockery and a couple of average to good commons.  Dragons hasn't been all that terribly fun, and wanting to see if I could go a bit more on the deep end, I decided to take the very unique rare.  I had heard that it worked well with several of the exploit creatures, while having some flexibility in occasionally being cast on an opponent's creature as well.

As the first pack progressed, I tried to fit myself into that blue/black exploit deck, but black seemed to dry up.  Beyond a minister of pain and a death wind, there really wasn't much.  Green seemed, on the other hand, very very open.  I was definitely shying away from green, as it is well-known for having a troubled pack in fate reforged, but when I saw a very late assault formation come my way, I decided to try it out.  And not just any green deck - with assault formation to build around, I wanted to see if I could get a blue-green toughness based strategy to work.

When the dragons full spoiler first came out, I noticed that wizards seemed to be trying to create rewards for toughness, with four toughness being the most common reward point and both sight of the scalelords and gate smasher as your "rewards" (I use the term loosely).  With an equip cost of three, gate smasher is likely not good enough even in a deck full of tough bodies, while the set-it-and-forget-it nature of sight of the scalelords is less punishing on mana over the long term.  Plus, I already had an assault formation, so I wouldn't have to worry about not being able to attack with any defenders that might come my way.  Blue, with several high-toughness commons seemed the most natural pairing.

The assault formation going so late felt to me that most of the people around me were trying to draft tight, no-nonsense aggressive two color decks.  Those sorts of decks don't need derpy guys like these as much.  And in addition to trying to go deep with the various toughness matters cards, I decided to keep an eye open for fixing and splashes.  I felt reasonably certain that cards like explosive vegetation and sight of the scalelords would be ignored, so I tried to use my higher picks on good, tough creatures.

Pack 2 gifted me a dragonlord Atarka, and between that and death wind, I now had ample reason to want to splash. With an explosive vegetation in the deck, with some ways to stall out the game (for example, with tough blockers?) I felt like I could put myself in a position to get it into play more often than not.

Fate reforged was, as expected, pretty bad for my deck in terms of green cards.  However, an extra ramp/fixing spell with map the wastes was all I needed from that color.  Rather, I got some good fixing in the third pack, along with another nice pick up for my collection with windswept heath.

I was happy with the maindeck list, although if I had to go back and do it over, I think I'd play the yesova dragonclaw I got passed.  At the time, I was trying to stick to the theme, and I worried about having it with an assault formation on the board.  Looking back, I think that concern was ridiculous.  Additionally, I should have dropped white as a color.  While student of Ojutai fits the strategy of the deck, being both a good blocker and a way to help against aggro, it probably wasn't worth the extra inconsistency.  I suspect that I just wanted to be able to justify playing that windswept heath I first-picked.

I think what I was happiest about, however, was that I had found a way to use cards in this limited environment that I never thought I'd actually use and play, like sight of the scalelords and spidersilk net.  Between mirror mockery, assault formation, and siege of the scalelords, there were a full three enchantments in the deck, each with a unique effect.

In the first match I played against Kelly, who was working with a bant deck, which seemed to be mainly green white, splashing blue.  Mana troubles on her side of the board in game one allowed me to my defenses to quickly come online before she could get in much early damage, while dragonlord Atarka showed up to close out game two.

Round two, I found myself up against Andy, an experienced and thoughtful limited player.  He had one of those disciplined, aggressive two-color decks that I was sensing at the draft table, in his case black/red.  Turns out, blockers aren't a great matchup against goblin heelcutter which made all of my defenders look rather silly in game 1.  I took out white against him and filled the student of ojutai slot with another slightly-less good creature.  The lowest I went in the next two games was 18, as I clogged up the board as best I could, with dragonlord atarka showing up yet again to finish things off.

In round three, I found myself against another aggressive red/black deck, drafted by Dave.  Game one was stabilized at eleven life, with the sick curve of spidersilk net into custodian of the trove into ugin's construct.  I was in excellent position game two, as once again I had stopped him with my life at eleven.  Perhaps I should have tried to be a bit more aggressive, however, because while I was slowly wearing down his life total, he found his out in mob rule, which performed exactly as he'd hoped.  Sadly, both of these games took a while, and we went to a draw in game 3.  It was discouraging, given that I felt I was in a good position when we the time elapsed, but at 2-0-1 I knew I was in a good position to do well with a fourth win, especially if I were paired up.

Ben, at 3-0, was my fourth round opponent, and I knew that this round would decide my fate.  With a win, I would potentially have the most points of the draft, while a loss would put me out of prizes entirely.  Frighteningly, Ben seemed to have the best r/b aggro deck of the three I had faced on the night.  The greed of the maindeck, which I had hoped would put me over the top of midrange decks, seemed to be hurting me more than I expected.  It was only by the grace of a timely Atarka that I was able to take game 1, with mirror mastery cast on the Atarka locking him out of playing creatures with toughness less than five entirely.

For games two and three I decided to shift gears, and I tried to move into a base green/black deck which would, I hoped, offer me more bodies and blockers to help me develop a board full of blockers.  I believe the deck looked something like this:

No white now, and only the slightest of splashed for blue and red.  Hands of silumgar were Ben's premier two drops, and I had seen a large number of one-toughness creatures, so making black such a central color for minister of pain made sense.  Losing the ability to have aven surveyors hurt mirror mockery, but I was hopeful that minister of pain and silumgar butcher would compensate.  Truly, this was a match where a single trigger of her exploit power could swing things in my favor completely.  Still, despite the change up, Ben took game two without me getting a hit in once.

In game three, I cast Atarka once again and won.

Alright, so maybe my success with "the toughness deck" was largely due to Atarka just single-handedly closing the door on my opponents in a way which other cards wouldn't be able to do.  Still, in many of those situations I succeeded in crafting a stabilized board, and it is possible that many of those games would have been wins regardless. I had hoped to create, by focusing on high toughness creatures, a sort of grindy control engine, where I would gradually stabilize and overtake my opponents.  And while I don't think I have really discovered a brand new archetype (five color toughness ramp control?) I took advantage of picking up cards which were less valued in my local stores metagame and put together a deck which had a plan.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Taking Hold of the New Legacy Cube

An avid cube enthusiast, I quickly took note of the changes Randy Buehler made to the cube way back in early march (link:  The article describes his efforts to balance the cube for, you know, the fun factor.

I disagree with some of the cuts.  Umezawa's jitte provides a valuable tool to creature decks, which can often pale in power level when they stack up against a well-built cube control deck.  Ravages of war and armageddon remain; are they not equally as powerful in providing a way for an aggro deck to just seal the deal against an opponent?  Well, two mana does make a difference, so while I'll miss jitte, I'm not shedding any tears.

I was happier to discover that the "graveyard" deck has been trimmed back.  Grisly salvage and mulch were just waaaaay to durdly.  It was possible to build a good g/b graveyard deck in the previous cube, but you wanted cards like wild mongrel and fauna shaman, along with powerful black reanimation spells as recurring nightmare, entomb, animate dead and reanimate.  Sheoldred was one of my favorite creatures to reanimate, along with Elesh Norn, as they could both help you stabilize early on in a game against aggro decks of all sorts. I one a round in a single elimination with a five-color monstrosity of a deck which had no business winning anything off of the back of these interactions, and came close to scraping out a win if my opponent hadn't drawn a journey to nowhere for my value-generating Sheoldred.

So green seems better.  I'm sad that Eureka is gone, as I felt that it was a fun card, and while it may not have been the winningest card in the cube you could build around it in whacky ways.  A deck like this might not be the best possible, but darn it you gotta go for the fences sometimes:

What I loved about this deck was that it wasn't just Eureka.dek.  Rather, it was the green ramp deck using eureka as an additional mana cheat.  Even further, many of the pay-off cards worked synergistically with Eureka: parallax wave, terrastadon, kiora, and angel of serenity all do a nice job of clearing away any nasty permanents that your opponent might deign to put down.  Sadly, my connection had some issues so I was only able to play one round.

Enough tangents about my love for Eureka.  Let's focus on green.  With the worst graveyard synergy cards gone, green seems a bit better. Tracker's instincts wasn't even very good in Dark ascension, and seeing it in a pack alongside a cryptic command or sulfiric vortex just felt bizarre.  Also gone are some green-aggro support cards, such as rancor or curse of predation.  In their place are some solid ramp spells, like fertile ground and rampant growth.  However, we also got the terrible scapeshift and warden of the first tree.  We're down a disenchant effect, but the disenchant we got in the update is better, as it's a creature.  Stunted growth will be missed, but you don't have to have it to overpower your opponents mana - terrastadon can do the job quite well.  All in all, I'm looking to go green in this new cube.

Part of the reason I'm excited about green is because two other colors at the same time got much worse.  Black received the majority of changes to the cube, and all in all I think it's weaker.  While theoretically the vampire synergy could make up for the lack of individual power level, as an archetype it feels too fragile to rely on, and more vulnerable to wraths.  Black sun's zenith is not replaced adequately by crux of fate, as the flexibility of zenith allowed you to sculpt situations where it can do far more than a wrath typically can.  And while mono-black aggro wasn't very good (and get out of here, bad moon!) the vampire cards that we've gotten to replace them don't seem much better.  Who's excited for vampire interloper?

Red similarly was nerfed, losing such headliners as sulfuric vortex, fireblast, and searing blaze.  If you're demolishing your opponent with a bloodcrazed neonate, that's on them, not you.  Blue changed very little, and remains one of the best colors to be in, if it's ever open (hint: it's not).  White has gotten just slightly better, as the cards received in the update help you gain tempo more than what has left, or just have a bigger impact.  You'd think that losing a planeswalker would be a hit, but losing ajani steadfast just earns a shrug.

None of this is to say that red and black are unplayably bad.  Rather, I think it's important to remember that the odds that you'll want either of them to be your main color will be very very low.  Black is still quite good as a splash, and reanimation is still viable.  Wheeling an entomb is not so far-fetched, and with just a reanimation spell or two you can create a deck capable of some very broken starts.  Black also can provide support two other colors by filling a role; for example, it helps green out with it's lack of removal.  Here's a deck I drafted which went 3-0 by relying on the core green ramp strategy, supplemented by a light splash here and there:

It helped that the packs in general were strong, and green was open,  A good amount of ramp, some payoff cards, and a couple of cards which can just bust the game wide open.  The key decision point in this draft was natural order vs. lotus cobra.  At the time, I was leaning towards lotus cobra.  It felt safer, with its lower CMC and its ability to fix colors.  However, I decided to go with the splashier play, and in multiple games the tutoring and mana-cheating power of natural order gave me the edge.
Additionally, I was very happy with ravages as a splash.  When you've got a deck full of mana elves, losing lands hurts less, and if you have them out an armageddon effect will leave you with the lead in mana for several turns, if not the rest of the game.  During one game I ravaged on turn 3, blowing up two of my lands and two of my opponents, and never looked back.

Round 1 was against a very challenging w/b deck.  Game 1, the opponent started the beats early, and followed some early damage up with the inevitability of bloodline keeper.  I was almost able to stabilize thanks to hornet queen and avenger of zendikar, but he played an elspeth and ajani to push over the top of what I was able to do.

Games 2 and 3 were more representative of how this deck normally plays out, as I was able to use early ramp to move quickly into more serious threats.  The terrastadon does just die to big elspeths minus ability, but he does a lovely job of preventing her from ever being cast:

In round 2, I was paired up against another green deck, this one splashing red.  I greedily kept a one-lander on the draw, with two mana dorks as my justification.  Thankfully, this worked out as I lived the dream yet again:

The journey to nowhere on a llanowar elf may seem unusual but the way my opponent played his hand out, it was apparent that he was trying to build up to some very, very big spells.  At the end of the game he revealed a hand of uncastable 7 and 8 drops.

Round 3, I found myself up against u/w control.  While I lost game 1 to an early vendillion clique which was backed up by a wall of counters, games 2 and 3 were victorious.  This screencap is from game 2, where I started things off simple with a mana dork hitting on the second turn for two thanks to exalted.  I made a big mistake tapping out for hornet queen into counterspell mana, but thankfully I drew well enough to not be punished to hard.  At the start of this turn, my opponent cliqued to get a dorky creature out of my hand and draw my into wolfrir silverheart, who I probably should've been maindecking.  A vedalkan shackles threatened to put a halt to my beats, and indeed him stealing the slime held me off for some turns, but I was able to draw into natural order yet again, which tutored for me exactly the creature I needed: terrastadon.

While I highly recommend going into green in this incarnation of the cube, it is not without some reservation.  If in pack 1 you see that it isn't open, just let it go.  There's a difference between forcing a color and favoring a color, and forcing green when there are three or more other green drafters just doesn't work out.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Drafting the Holiday Cube: if you can't open power, open green

It's been a while since my last blog entry on limited.  I think partly, it's easy too just spin wheels if all you're writing about is one subject - a narrow one at that.  I just don't want to write about khans anymore.  I thought about writing a second article on conspiracy, but that's not a format that's relevant to most people, and honestly, tales of outlasting opponents by virtue of drafting the only reito lantern in the draft (unless my opponents had them and chose not to run them?) are not the most exciting.  That experience might still get covered, as the draft was interesting, but it's not a high priority.

Since getting to the semifinals at the last ptq which I wrote about, I have entered into something of a limited holding-pattern, doing well at times, but with no particular result or new insights which inspire me to write about limited.  I went 0-2 drop at the next PTQ, then 5-2 at the next one, for a pleasant payloud of packs, and a nice boost of pride.

Of course, a recent losing streak in the legacy cube was also dispiriting.  The ability for magic online to track your performance can be humbling:

After receiving a real thrashing in the legacy cube (and then Khans, for good measure) I was frustrated and resolved to improve.  My rating had slipped far below where I usually was, and one only has so many phantom tix.  When the holiday cube came online, I was first in line.

In my long string of cube losses, I felt like I was always just a step behind my opponents.  My decks were reasonably powerful, but a series of blue/x control decks often had the wrong answers, and my one venture into a u/r tempo deck just played worse cards, then lost.  During this time, I may have ran on the wrong side of variance, but I took the lesson of tempo from the legacy cube and determined to apply it to the holiday cube.

Even more than the legacy cube, the holiday cube reveals just how much magic is a game of mana.  The vast majority of the power nine are powerful by virtue of their ability to generate quick mana.  According to cubetutor, the holiday cube is 540 cards. While this is a large enough pool to ensure that there will be drafts with either no power or little power (as only 360 cards are actually used in any particular draft) it is small enough that you can reasonably expect to see a piece of power every once in a while, and you should certainly prepare to play against power.

How does one play against power?  Well, the first thing to do is resolve that power can be beaten.  When your opponent leads off mox jet, swamp into hymn to tourach, do not simply despair and play as though the game is lost.  The second thing to do is to formulate a drafting strategy which can compete if you are not fortunate to open power.  You could try to go mono-red and go under, but with a full ten signets and a boatload of colorless quick mana, the potential for your control opponent to trump an aggro strategy is simply too high.

After a long string of mediocre control decks, I decided to try to lean towards the green ramp deck.  Elves, although not as good as moxen, are the next best thing, and there are nine of them, with an additional five honorary elves in the two-drop slot.  They come down a turn earlier than signets.  Further, green seemed strengthened the cube update, with some duds like wild nacatl, ulvenwald tracker, and strangleroot geist getting the boot.

Nantuko Vigilante and wickerbough elder would be nice to have in the artifact-rich environment of holiday cube, but at three mana reclamation sage is just better, as you can turn-two it off of an elf, opening you up to the potential to take out an early mox, sol ring, or other form of quick mana.  Needless to say, against an opponents turn two pentad prism or signet, such a play is even better.  And while we lost two artifact-hating creatures (a third if you count thornscape battlemage) naturalize was upgraded to nature's claim, and we got krosan grip as well.  Freyalise, already a reasonable planeswalker to help you ramp to the crucial 7-8 drops, gains additional utility as her minus ability has relevance in this format more than I had initially expected.

I wasn't going to force green ramp, of course.  If not open, the green deck just falls apart, as you can either end up lacking a critical mass of the little green men, the big ramp targets, or both!  However, in my first three drafts, the color was sufficiently open that my decision to lean towards playing it was rewarded.

Only three drafts, to be sure, but the downward slide has been halted, and confidence is beginning to return.  Each of these decks attempted to exploit the potential explosive nature that early mana can give you, but in subtle, different ways.  Each deck has particular strengths which enabled it to close out games, even against decks which are chock-full of powerful synergies and broken cards.

Lesson 1: Value

I feel a little disingenuous posting this decklist after the title that I gave this post, but to be fair, I was passed the black lotus as a third pick.  That must have been some pack.  I can remember this draft well, as my first pick was a very safe sword of fire and ice.  Remember that although I went into drafting leaning green, the cardinal draft rule of staying open was still foremost in my mind, and a sword is the best way to stay open.  

Indeed, at first I thought I was going to go into some sort of u/b reanimation deck.  Dimir signet, sheoldred, and necromancy were all made as the archetype at first seemed open.  However, as the pack unfolded, reanimation spells and enablers were lacking, with color fixing being the next most powerful cards for me to take.  Fairly late powerful green cards gave me the hint that green might be open, and with some quality dual lands in my pocket, I decided to add green to the blue-black base that I had been building. 

Elves of deep shadow was an extremely important pick late in pack one, as it gave me yet another way to fix for black mana, while at the same time giving me the ramp that I would need if I ended up getting passed green in the next two packs.  Of course even if green turned out to not be open, and I were to return to a straightforward reanimation gameplan in packs two and three, terrastodon and woodfall primus are perfectly reasonable cards to play as simple entomb targets.

While I ended up with fewer elves than I might have cared for, black lotus and dimir signet helped shore up the ramp gameplan.  Using a black lotus to cast a stunted growth while they still have three cards in their deck may not be the ideal 3-for-1 that it usually is, but it remains quality disruption.  Indeed, disruption is the name of the game in the green ramp deck.  This deck had 6 ways to remove non-creature permanents, 3 ways to remove creatures, and a further 3 ways to destroy lands, always a good tool to have to cement an advantage against a land-screwed opponent.  Not a glamorous way to win a game, to be sure, but it's not crucible/strip mine, so it wasn't completely degenerate in that regard.

Sheoldred proved her worth in several games, including one notable game where her sacrifice ability was able to hit my opponent while he had a mulldrifter and inferno titan in play.  While I was able to  block the inferno titan to my hearts content, the combination of his 3 damage to my face every turn while clocking me in the air would have surely knocked me out of the game before I was able to turn the corner.  When he sacrificed the mulldrifter, I knew that it would take a remarkable amount of burn in his deck to close out the game on either that turn or the next.  With zero lifegain in the deck (obstinant baloth, I miss you!) every single point mattered, as I had just enough to go the distance, using sheoldred's ability to recur my disruptive threats.

Sheoldred stands up as a marquee card for the lesson I learned here: gaining value despite lacking pure draw spells.  So many cards were functional two-for-ones that lacking fact or fiction was no problem.  A 2/3 flier that can gobble up an artifact every turn can be just as many cards of value as a fact or fiction, adds pressure to the opponent, and is a mana cheaper to boot.  Equip a sword of fire and ice to it and the math is completely thrown out of the window, as it becomes a beastly 4/5 flier that would make exalted angel blush.  Toss in the high potential of yawgmoth's will and the instantaneous card draw of mulldrifter.

Lesson 2: Disrupt

After the success of the first draft, I felt vindicated by my faith in green.  Sure, first-picking skullclamp theoretically left me open, but I have to be honest, as I selected that card, visions of sacrificing redundant elves to the mighty clamp made me shiver in anticipation.  One of the chief stumbling blocks of green ramp decks in cube are the awkward draws of too much mana, too little payoff, and having equipment or spells (such as natural order) which can make your elves relevant when there mana has become unimportant are important pieces of the puzzle.  When you opening seven is lands plus three elves and a wall of blossoms, you have to hope to get there, and skullclamp becomes a way to hit your powerful five+ drops if you hit a land pocket.

Wanting to go green led to me taking an awakening zone embarrassingly high (can I say it was in honor of my blog's name?) but the synergy it had with skullclamp could also not be ignored.  And while I took the awakening zone earlier than one ought to take it, it was late enough that there was a good chance it would not wheel.  Given that I picked up a craterhoof behemoth later in the draft, the speculative pick paid off, as the awakening zone/craterhoof behemoth interaction gave me turn-after turn inevitability against any opponent without a wrath, similar in effect to a shrine of burning rage.

While this deck had fewer pure ramp spells than the previous deck (I count black lotus as ramp, despite it only being for a single turn), the quality of ramp was slightly higher, due to the simple addition of rofellos.  Either a turn two rofellos or a turn one joraga treespeaker + any other ramp can, if unanswered, give you a turn 3 stunted growth or plow under.  If you're lucky enough to be on the play, this can put you so far ahead either on mana (as in the case of stunted growth) or cards (as with stunted growth putting them back three draw steps) that the rest of the game becomes more of a formality.

Sure, there was than one round where I got my stunted growth mana drained, and my opponent was able to use the five mana for sphinx's revelation, but mana drain is the very worst case scenario, and it's only a single card in the draft.  If they don't have it, their gameplan can be disrupted to such a degree that not only are they robbed of the ability to threaten you, but any board you have becomes more threatening.

Even without those two cards which ramp beyond reason, even an elf by itself can give you a turn three natural order (bonus tip: wall of blossoms and natural order are best friends, and play very, very nicely together).  There are times when using terastadon to nuke your opponents three lands is the play, especially if they haven't shown any sign that they're playing white, and thus white.  Again, there exists a worst case scenario where terastodon goes badly: you nuke two of their lands and one of yours, and on their turn they use a kill spell on the 9/9 and charge in, but you're still ahead on mana in such a situation, and following up with  a thragtusk, or stomphowler, or almost any card will pull you ahead once again.  Woodfall primus, while only able to target one noncreature permanent, is at times the better option.  More resilient to removal, and giving your opponent absolutely nothing in exchange for its effect, primus can often be the creature which helps you come back from behind, in situations where you've been beaten down early on and the 3/3 elephants are more relevant than they usually are.  Knowing which eight-drop to play at the appropriate time can mean the difference between a victory and a loss.  Alternatively, entwine tooth and nail and play both at once.

With only one reclamation sage, this deck lacked many early drops that could interact, but the lesson I learned in these games was the value of disrupting the opponent.  With disruptive four and five drops coming out earlier than they should, a lack of nature's claim or a solid earlier blocker simply wasn't necessary.  Sure, I didn't have the good fortune to open power in any of the packs, but with elves substituting for moxen, I was able to mess with my opponents permanents in surprisingly flexible and powerful ways.

Lesson 3: Explode

This third deck felt like my masterpiece, the culmination of all that I had learned about drafting green in the previous two drafts.  It contained even more ramp than the first deck, and all of it stuck around, turn after turn.  In this deck, more than the others, I was vulnerable to too many elves, not enough payoff syndrome, as natural order was the only way to make a useless elf into a relevant card. However this drawback was more than compensated by just how much more explosive this deck could be in comparison to the previous two, with the addition of gaea's cradle.  Ordinarily, you have to rely on natural order or rofellos to stick a primus or terastodon early, but gaea's cradle allows your humble one drops to ramp faster, ramp harder.

As in the second deck, I had both stunted growth and plow under to disrupt whatever my plans were, early and often.  The word is out on plow under: it's a high pick, because taking two lands off the board at the same time as denying draw steps is splashy, but while stunted growth isn't as good, it serves a similar role.  If your opponent is waiting for a fourth land drop to play a card, a reasonably common situation in limited, stunted growth will hold off their ability to look at a new card for several turns.  It doesn't matter what is left in their hand; if they have no turn three play (and these things do happen, even in cube) they presumably won't have a turn four, five, or six play as you continue to develop your situation.

We tend to pigeon-hole aggro as the archetype that punishes awkward draws, but these two spells, can close out a game just as much as goblin guide into eidolon of the great revel into sulfuric vortex.

While this deck has some inherent card-advantage, it probably doesn't compare in that aspect to the first deck.  However, it contained as much disruption as deck number two, and with mox pearl, gaea's cradle, joraga treespeaker and rofellos, I was able to play out cards from my hand in a positively explosive manner.  No tooth and nail?  No problem.  Just play out an early avenger of zendikar and get enough plant tokens to make your gaea's cradle and rofellos to play out both woodfall primus and terastodon on the same turn, taking your opponent off four lands.  They might have a wrath, but their sudden lack of white mana might make casting it a bit tricky.

Not only were lands devoured, but remember that terastodon and woodfall primus say any noncreature permanent, any at all!  In round three, I was facing a grim situation of a white/black midrange value deck which had equipped a sword of feast and famine onto a token which a still-active sorin had made.  Terastodon off the top, whether it was through natural order, tooth and nail, or simply a peel off the top, took care of two  critical threats at once.  Beast within is not a fantastic card, but when you staple two of them onto a 9/9 body it is.

I've focused a lot on the mana part of the games, as more often than not holiday cube drafts and matches are shaped by mana, whether that means cheating on mana (i.e. show and tell),  assembling it quickly (sol ring, et al) or punishing your opponent for not having enough.  In such an environment, green may never be the single most powerful available archetype, as it has fewer ways to cheat on mana (natural order excluded) but it compensates for this by almost never being stuck on mana, while having a solid gameplan against aggro, combo and control.  This reliability is exactly what I want in the swiss queues, where a 2-1 record covers the entrance fee.  I'd be more leery to ramp in a single elimination queue, as a 2-1 record means less, and can't be achieved at all after an unlucky first round.  There, I'd try to lean more towards artifacts and mana-cheating spells to try and put together a higher-variance, higher-upside deck which could be more likely to go 3-0.  Still after going 7-2 after three drafts makes me feel like the deck is valid, even at times when 2-1 just isn't enough.

Lesson 4: Traps

As I close out this post, I'd like to note certain green cards in the cube which are low picks.

When your deck packs a peck of elves, your ideal curve is typically 1 -> 3, or in rofellos' case, 2 ->5. While these creatures are basically alright, they're little more than that.  If you see an ooze late, feel free to take it, as it can do work against either a graveyard-centric deck or an aggresive deck, but both of these cards match up fairly poorly against control decks which rely more on their hand and artifact mana, which comprise more of the holiday cube metagame.

Again reasonably good creatures, but both are a bit out-of-step with their draft environment.  Master is defensible as a three drop, but getting value from him is slow, slow going, and the wolves that he makes just don't measure up to many of the broken interactions you'll come up against.  If you happen to wheel a smokestack and a braids pack 1, and are a sociopath, you could user master to build that deck.  Smokestack, awakening zone: also good.  However, with 540 cards in the cube pool, the odds are too low to rely on that archetype even being possible with the packs that get opened, let alone having it be open.

Vengevine is a nice way to put the pressure on, but there essentially is no green aggro deck.  Sure, you can use his hasty nature to knock a few loyalty counters off a planeswalker by surprise, but most of the time it'll just hurt'll into a 1/1 token like the brainless good, er, plant that it is.  You'd think that the ability to recur the vine has some merit in a deck full of 1 drop elves, but if you're using your 1 mana elves to get back a 4/3, those elves have lost so much value from not adding mana in the crucial early turns of the game that you're not realistically getting much value.

I take most reasonable threats/effects over birthing pod, as taking it early restricts ones drafting style too much.  A powerful effect, but with no knowledge of what creatures may come, the chances that one ends up either with not enough enter-the-battlefield creatures or with a break or two in the chain is too high.  If you already have a creature-heavy deck and it fits with your strategy in pack 2 or 3, fine, but sometimes instead of acidic slime you have a five-mana garruk.  And sure, you could be sacrificing a yavimaya elder to the pod, but sometimes you're stuck sacrificing something like a troll ascetic for relatively little value.

Good luck with Eureka.  You do know that Emrakul is in the cube, right?

In all seriousness, there are probably green decks which want this.  Spell light decks, ideally with eldrazi, planeswalkers, and the usual suspects of woodfall primus/terastodon.

When I said that I like ways to make mana elves relevant in the late game, rancor wasn't exactly the tool I had in mind.  A 3/1 with trample does almost nothing against a huge portion of the metagame, and your big dudes are already big and not helped by rancor all that much.  If you're looking for a way to seal a game you're better off with big craterhood.

Oath of druids, meanwhile, is not actually a green card.  It's a blue or black spell which you have to cast using green mana, which apparently makes it fair.  The core strategy, if you really are in the mono-green or mostly-green ramp archetype, is to play elves, make mana, cast fatties mostly the old fashioned way.  This strategy contradicts with oath in two ways: you likely have more creatures on the battlefield than your opponent, because elves, and even if you're behind on the board there's a chance that the card revealed is an elf.  The card plays nice with cards of the grislebrand and inkwell leviathan sort.  Besides, you have a superior two drop in rofellos, which helps you cheat in not just creatures, but spells of all sorts.

This last card again suffers from falling outside of an archetype.  There was a point where heartbeat was a playable card, in storm decks which would cast this on the turn that they won the game, breaking the symmetry, but storm was, for the most part, depowered in the holiday cube.  The actual storm kill cards are still there, but many cards that you wanted are no more, including the interaction of all of the bounce lands with turnabout-style effects.  I'm no expert, but I've watched dzy ( draft storm often enough to know that the loss of all sun's dawns hurts.  Judging by his recent broadcasts, he's still forcing storm, but just looking at one of his decks at random, even forcing storm, he ended up with no actual storm cards.  You can end up with decks like, as I heard his friend say while I was writing this: "the classic three creatures survival deck."

Looking to combo off in a  recent deck, he ended up in a five-color good stuff deck, with a somewhat awkward rofellos looking to get big with only savannah, bayou, and taiga as ways to get crazy.  He had plenty of fetches to make him playable, even good, but I prefer rofellos to tap for three mana reliably.  If what you want to do is play combo in cube, just follow his stream as much as possible, all through holiday cube being up.  Then, next time holiday cube comes up, watch as much of his stream again.  Perhaps after a couple of rounds of studying this style of play, you may be ready to draft lands with your first eight picks of every pack and cobble together a nutty combo deck with whatever the other seven drafters are too conservative to pick up.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

PTQ Concord, NH: A Fairly Hazy Tournament Report - 11/2/2014

The deck has been disassembled, the cards sorted into my collection, but the memory lingers on: a bomb-heavy deck that I managed to not misplay or mis-build into a solid record.  No deck list is forthcoming, as I neglected to screencap it, but what can you do?

In a way, I was almost embarrassed to write down the sealed deck I built in Concord, as it was that crazy.  It was the sort of bomb-heavy pool that practically builds itself.  Featuring utter end, anafenza, and siege rhino, the pool was calling out to be abzan, splashing a sagu mauler with some dual lands that I had.  Not only that, but armament master and abzan charm rounded out the abzan powerhouse cards, with feat of resistance and ainok bond-kin providing some much needed early game.

A small tournament (the benefit of playing in New England on a patriots gameday) there were only seven rounds of swiss with approximately 140 players.  After quickly going 2-0, I lost a painful round against Mike, a friend of a friend who just clobbered me with mantis rider.  I hunkered down, I shook it off, I went 4-0 the next four rounds to pull it out and get into the top 8 in sixth place.  I was pleased to see a couple of players in the top 8 that I had played before: Mike, and Boaz.

The last time I had played against Boaz, we were sitting in the X-3 bracket in a Boston-area ptq, at that point playing for only pride and practice. Dispiriting indeed, we smashed two less-than-impressive decks against eachother, with absolutely nothing on the line.  I was much happier to meet him again in the top 8.  I was also happy that the only other deck that I lost to in the Swiss had also gone X-1.

My first ptq top 8, though!  Truly, I was excited.  Foremost on my mind, going into the draft, was the thought that I should make picks assuming that I'd be on the draw the majority of matches.  I'm not sure how exactly that should affect one's picks, but it was all I could think about.  I thought about five-color control, obviously, as that saucy minx of a deck tempts me always, always.  But I calmed myself with a deep breath and resolved to keep myself open to what people wanted to pass, reminding myself that I wasn't likely to see lands as late in this, a tighter pod.

And indeed, shying away from five-color proved to be a good decision, as the person immediately to my right was going that exact strategy.  Picking up on a late sultai charm in the first pack, I decided to try committing myself to a Sultai build, and I ended up with a solid, if not super exciting deck, which was more U/G tempo splashing black than "Sultai."  With winners like sultai banner and essence of spring, I wasn't over the moon with my deck, but I felt that I had ended up with something playable.  With a villainous wealth in the deck, I felt a mixture of emotions: pride, embarrassment, baller-ness, the whole gamut.

Round 1, I played against Boaz, who had settled into a straight g/b aggro deck, his deck built to support the most powerful card he had picked up: rakshasa deathdealer.  After I won game 1, he really put the screws to me game two with a first-turn ruthless ripper into a turn two molting snakeskin.  Unable to draw either of my force aways, I found myself facing down an abyss, and we moved onto game 3.  Game 3 played out in my favor, as my more mid-rangey deck was able to put up favorable blockers, and being able to hold up force away during each of his attack steps meant that I was able to interact with any trick that he could use to break through.  Onto round 2!

I could practically taste the PTQ win as I sat down to battle.  A torrent of emotions, I liked my deck, and my friends who were with me thought it was good too.  I was battling the person to the right of me, and I had picked up on the lands going very quickly in the draft, so I suspected he was on either five-color or a multicolor heavy deck.

That was the truth, as his multiple taplands attested to.  In game 1, I was able to put a clock on him, and I had force away in the nick of time to put through the last points of damage I needed to before he could start stabilizing against me.

However, emotionally, the pressure was starting to get to me.  A crowd had gathered around, and, new to the experience, I found it difficult to focus.  I made a good mulligan choice in game 2, but it was not enough, as being behind on tempo put me under even more pressure.  I made some critical misplays and in the end he powered through, with the mighty Abzan guide leading the way.

Game 3 was similar, as being a mere one win away, I felt desperate, cornered.  Desperation, and the emotions that go along with that, influenced my decisions, and I put myself into a disadvantageous position, losing the third game as well.  So wrapped up was I in my head that I missed a delve play I could have made that might have won me this game as well.  I had hoped that I could beat a trail of mystery, but the card performed for him, far more than I could have expected, having never played with or against it be

In the end, making the semifinals of my first top 8 was a bittersweet experience.  Although I could be happy that I played well in the sealed, with all of my online practice paying off, the pool I was given felt as though I didn't have to rely on playing tight, as the raw power of the cards compensated for any possible loose plays.  And although I played and drafted well up through the first round, another thing which I could feel good about, knowing that I could have potentially made my way to the finals was an even more bitter pill.

There's a lot of talk in the magic world about pick-orders, archetypes, staying open, and all of that limited jazz, but I have to wonder if it's just as important to talk about the psychological side of things.  The pressure of being in a top 8, when you're a relatively new player, is both real and powerful.  My first timed draft was a pressure cooker in itself, with the time on each pick I had evaporating more quickly than I could have imagined, and then feeling anxiety about doling out the cards to my left and right in the proper way.

So please, take that as a lesson: don't learn the hard way and lose to learn the importance of emotional self-control.  Most humans are very emotional creatures, but our emotions are simply a product of our thoughts, and we can control our own thoughts, albeit with some difficulty.  Stop.  Step back.  Take a breath.  Don't miss your delve.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Khans Sealed Builds: A Sampler Plate

I wouldn't say I'm a grinder, exactly.  Most PTQ seasons I skip: I don't tend to keep up with standard, and I have never really had a deck for modern (I briefly played pyromancer ascension online).  But every once in a while, limited ptq season comes around, and I see it as an opportunity to test myself against the field, and hopefully some day make the pro tour.

Practicing for these PTQs, to me, consists of a lot of grinding sealed events.  While I do pretty well at khans draft, the last ptq I went to ended in an embarrassing 2-4 fashion, so I knew I had a lot of work to do to even approach where I wanted to be in the format.

My own experience with games of khans sealed has been that it is all about the tempo.  The Player who stays just one step ahead of the opponent and uses well-timed instants to disrupt the opponent has most often come out ahead.  Curving out is preferred, although some pools will make that goal very, very difficult.

There is a tremendous amount of diversity in khans pools.  I've seen pools with all blue-mana fixing and no good blue cards.  I've seen pools that give the pilot an option of a choice between an aggressive deck and a control deck, and it's hard to determine which is superior.  Some pools scream to go three or more colors, where others are more straightforward.  Staying flexible seems key.

In one of my first sealed events, I was presented with a somewhat awkward pool.  Here was my first, rough draft:

There's a lot to like here.  A pair of bloodsoaked champions provide the deck with premium one-drops, a rarity in this format.  Grim haruspex and shambling attendants reward you for when you trade off your attackers.  The removal suite is solid, although kill shot is a bit awkward in an aggressive deck.

However, the deck is forced to play a few clunkers for the consistency of being w/b.  There aren't all that many warriors for rush of battle, and salt road patrol would really rather be in more of a midrange build.  Jeskai student similarly doesn't add much to the clock.  The deck I ultimately registered follows.

Far more midrangey, this deck looks to play a longer game than the first one.  Five two drops give me the opportunity to take advantage of times when my opponent is on an awkward draw, and in this sort of build the kill shots are much more effective.  And the green splash gives me some much-needed fat, and the pump spells synergized quite well with the multiple prowess creatures I had in u/w.  I don't know if you know this, but when a jeskai windscout becomes immense, that's nine damage just by itself.  This deck went 2-1.

Sometimes, you want to follow the mana and see where it takes you.  In this sealed pool, the bulk of my lands supported jeskai, so I looked to see what options I had.  Red ended up being the splash here.  The deciding factor was that red just had no good two-drops, while w/u gave me some premium ones, with the bond-kins and the elder.  The double red on arrow storm was challenging, but with six red sources I got there often enough.  And with three arrow storms and a flying crane technique, the deck had real reach.    This deck wanted to get in there, turn after turn, and simply being in u/w/r, a color combination with so many instants, put fear into my opponents.  Play with confidence!  This deck also went 2-1.

Then again, sometimes you just get a god pool.  With siege rhino, duneblast, and high sentinels of arashin appearing once I sorted by rarity, I knew I was going to try to make it work.  One particularly memorable game had me outlasting a herald of anafenza every turn to produce chump blockers while I worked my way towards duneblast mana.  Since they're rares, this pairing won't often come up, but for at least one glorious moment, they shone together.  This deck went 2-1 as well, losing one round to a very strong evasion-heavy deck which flew over my parapets while I failed to draw my sagu archers.  I would choose to play a deck with this level of power every round, if I could.

Finally, we come to my first 3-0 deck.  After going 2-1 over and over again, I was beginning to feel a bit of the always the bridesmaid, never the bride, phenomenon.  Continually going 2-1 is a pretty good winning percentage, certainly, but to perform well at a ptq, I wanted to put together a string of wins.  This deck had exactly the mix I wanted: bombs, removal, instant tricks, and methods for putting together card advantage, either simply (treasure cruise) or more trickily (dragonscale boon).  With two cheap instants in feat of resistance and force away at my disposal, my fearsome monastery flocks got in for more damage than I could have ever imagined.

In my khans sealed experience, you'll run into aggressive decks more often than you'd expect for sealed.  With this deck, I more than once used dragon scale boon to enhance the power of monastery flock, a play which most red decks won't have a good answer to, if any.

One thing to note is that you can win while not holding to the clans that are supported.  Don't blind yourself to options outside of the five wedges.  I went bant twice and had success there.  If you notice that your pool has strong mono-colored cards, take a close look and see if these cards are better in an unconventional color-pairing, like I did with bant.

There were more sealed pools, but these ones stood out to me as memorable.  Now, if you'll excuse me, it's off to do some spooky sealed for halloween!  I love mixed-block sealed formats, and although I want to perform well at ptqs, I just gotta have some fun with a goofy format.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Tasting the Rainbow: Five Colors in Khans

This past friday night, as I rolled into my LGS, I had a vision: I wanted to play powerful spells and not give a crap what colors they required.  Certainly, the recent episode of Limited Resources, where Kenji advocated for the deck, was an influence.  But I had wanted to try this out for a while, and I wanted to try to put certain ideas I had about the format into action.

One idea I had was that, if I were going to go with five colors, the main color that would be the backbone of the deck would be green.  With highland game and archer's parapet available to that color, you have some two drops which do a lot to help slow down the game and get you to turns 5+.

The second idea that I had was that I just wanted to take a variety of the dual lands, making sure I didn't have too many of any one color.  I knew that I needed to change the way I drafted, taking lands higher, but remembering what I had for lands and prioritizing what I still didn't have wasn't something I had thought about much before.  Thankfully, I was successful in this.

Of course, part of this is because Andy, sitting a couple of seats to my left, had a hunch I'd be going five color.  He had listened to the same podcast and, knowing that I would have as well, drafted under the assumption that I'd be going five colors.  I was also helped by the fact that the packs were just stacked, as disciplined drafters to my left and right took sensible mono-colored cards and shipped powerful multicolor cards that they weren't sure they wanted to commit to.  Here's where I ended up:

I'm not sure if that's exactly how I ended up with the basic lands. I mocked this up in modo to make it easy to see where I was.  I was amazed that, even with 9 non-basics, I still felt as though I wanted the banners for that extra bit of fixing.  And with a grand total of eight five-drops, I wanted the ramp.  With 18 lands and two banners, I certainly had a bunch of mana, and I ran the risk of just flooding out.

Balancing this out was the fact that a large number of cards in my deck amounted to just straight up two-for-ones.  Master the way operated functionally similar to prophetic bolt, and the soothsayer, warden of the eye, and bear's companion added additional value.  While not strictly a two-for-one, armament corps often had enough board impact that I'd name is as an honorary two-for-one.

In round 1, I found myself up against Andy, who had been sensible and played a solid, dependable, consistent sultai deck.  This led to one of the most insane games of magic I've ever been involved with where, in game 2, he resolved not one, but two villainous wealths.  The first villainous wealth revealed a warden of the eye, which allowed him to get wealth back from his graveyard for a reroll. And while I was able to navigate things such that I wasn't dead to his attackers, he had robbed me of all my real threats, and I wound up decking.  Game two took so long, with us both waging an attrition battle, that we ended up drawing the round at game three; indeed, game three began just as the round went to time.

The other memorable games came in round four, where at 2-0-1 I faced Blake's very aggresive Mardu deck.  Whereas the first round was all about value, this round boiled down to a simple game-plan: try to stay alive.  Blake is one of the more excellent drafters at our LGS, and has routinely blocked me from prize in the very last round, so I was hungry to win here.  Still, the odds seemed poor, as I mulliganed to five on game 2, already down a game, on the play.  Three lands, two spells - about the most you can ask for in a hand of five.

And despite being down so many cards, and being up against an aggressive match-up, I somehow managed to find myself holding it together.  An early highland game provided the creature I needed to block, winterflame was cast for full value, killing one threat while tapping down a mardu hordechief for a full attack step, and all the while my numerous life-lands kept my life total from going so low that I would have to make sub-optimal plays just to stay alive.  I needed a very specific combination of spells and lands to win that game, and fortunately the deck provided.

I ended the draft at 3-0-1, earning a very respectable amount of store credit.  But more than that, I felt like I had drafted in a way which prepared me for the current draft metagame.  People just want to beat down in this format, and by valuing incidental life-gain with my picks, I would routinely find myself out of the range of my opponents' reach.  I even gained a full eight life when both my sultai flayer and another blocker traded with my opponents' cards.  While it is possible to draft five color and have only the common-lands providing you with a life buoy, you're certainly running the risk of dropping a round to a timely arrow storm or charge of battle.