Friday, January 24, 2014

The Last Days of Triple-Theros

With the full spoiler for Born of the Gods up, and the prerelease rapidly approaching, triple Theros is swiftly going to depart from us.  As the cards have been spoiled, I've been paying careful attention to the commons, and although the last batch of spoilers from today have improved my mood, I still sense that this new expansion may be a bit of a disappointment.

A comparison to the change from triple-Innistrad to Dark Ascension-Innistrad is perhaps not the most apt.  Innistrad was a better, more synergistic set to draft than Theros, and it was spoiled more by the addition of Dark Ascension than Theros might be by Born of the Gods.  More similar, I think, is a comparison to the changes made to Scars of Mirrodin drafting by Mirrodin Besieged.  Like with mirrodin besieged, the affect to drafting will be subtle and challenging.  Green seems to have introduced a few more aggressive cards, while black, fellhide minotaur aside, seems to be a bit more controlling.

White and red also seem to be leaning more aggressive, although each color has a few cards which seem to be right up a control-players alley.  For example, excoriate is a powerful removal spell at four mana which could slot in well in a grindy, life-drainy, white black deck.  However, white aggro still seems a bit schizophrenically split between strategies that reward going in on a single heroic creature, like Ghostblade eidolon, and cards that support swarming, such as god-favored general.

Blue, meanwhile, goes from having two strong bounce spells to one conditional one in retraction helix.  Without many ways to abuse the fact that you can untap the creature you target with this spell for additional bouncing, this seems unreliable.  As recompense, blue gets some decent fatties, and a nice air elemental.

Ultimately, this seems like a format which will, like Theros, feature decks that run the gamut from aggro to midrange to control.  No one aggressive deck stands out to me, so I'll tend towards control or midrage, personally, as it is hard to identify what the best aggressive strategy will be this early in the new format.

While I've been pretty consistent in drafting G/x midrange or control at my LGS, this past Friday I stretched myself a bit and went into a RB aggro strategy.  The draft began with a stormbreath dragon, a card which has enough raw power that I was willing to take a chance on the strategy being open.  While red wasn't quite as open from the left as I expected it to be having cut it hard, the deck still ended up reasonably well.

1 Titan's Strength
1 Coordinated Assault
1 Boon of Erebos
1 Ordeal of Purphoros
3 Deathbellow Raiders
2 Fleshmad Steeds
1 Bronze Sable
1 Tymaret, the Murder King
1 Scourgemark
1 Fleetfeather Sandals
1 Spearpoint Oread
2 Blood-Toll Harpy
1 Hammer of Purphoros
2 Borderland Minotaur
1 Ill-Tempered Cyclops
1 Portent of Betrayal
1 Wild Celebrants
1 Stormbreath Dragon

While I was somewhat happy with the deck (and also happy with how quickly the rounds resolved themselves) ultimately I ended the night at a 2-2 record.

In round one I played against the person who had been sitting to my left and had soaked up all of the green and blue goodies that I had failed to take myself.  In game 1, I was able to use my combat tricks to take out his best blocker, a nemesis of mortals, and finish the game off with Tymaret's damage ability.  Game 2 was interesting, as his bow of nylea meant that what I could equip my fleetfeather sandals to was limited.  At the end, the game hinged on one well-placed portent of betrayal.  It resolved, and I swung in with my team and temporary serpent for a truckload of damage, ending the game before his bow could give him a chance to get back into it.  A new player, he was so focused on the effect of portent of betrayal that he completely overlooked the dissolve in hand and open mana he could have used to cast it.  We played a third game for fun, and once again I crushed, a steady stream of grizzly bears and combat tricks being more pressure than his deck was built to handle.

Next round I played against Paul, who had been in a good seat for black.  I mulliganed game 1 for lands and ended up with a decent opening hand.  His fleshmad steed compared unfavorably to my deathbellow raiders, and I was able to use favorable combat interaction to keep his board limited.  Game two was closer, and required all three of my combat tricks to pull out the win.  I was very impressed with the power of boon of erebos in this game, and made a mental note to prioritize it more highly should I again find myself drafting an aggressive black deck (much like the one Tom Martell recently crafted to win GP Sacramento).  With these combat tricks I was able to empty my hand and reduce his board such that his gray merchant of asphodel only drained for two.

In round three I once again played against Anthony, who had bested me in the week previous. Sitting at another pod, he had put together a very solid red/white aggro deck.  Game one was very close, with portent of betrayal stealing his eggs-in-one-basket threat to deal him lethal from twelve points of life.  Meanwhile, I had been at two.  Game two, proved to be a quick affair as he landed an ordeal on his arena athlete and went to town.  By the time of the athletes second attack, I had out two blockers which could conceivably trade with the athlete + ordeal.  I knew it would be my last chance to make this trade, as next turn the ordeal would pop, and kill one of my creatures. If that happened, he's have both the 5/4 and one of my creatures would die, so I made the double block, hoping against all odds that he didn't have the trick I suspected was there.  Lightning strike was the card that spoiled my double block, and very painfully I swept both creatures into the graveyard.

Was I right to make the block there?  I had more creatures to play, in perhaps an attempt to race him, but with his enormous arena athlete I couldn't imagine a race going in my favor.  It would have been interesting to see how the game would have played out had I not blocked in that situation, but in truth both avenues were probably doomed against his considerable draw.  Game three was much closer.  On the play, I began to land my two drops, and I took an early game lead, getting him down to 13 and then 9 life.  However, he had been applying pressure to me as well, casting a quite burly heliod's emmisary that halted my attacks.  Once suited with an observant alseid, it became a nightmare to deal with, an attacking and blocking machine, equally adept at both roles.  In the end, I had one turn left to get in before my own death, and even with a boon of erebos I could only put him to one.

This match illustrated, I think, my own decks weaknesses. It lacked any form of hard removal, and had some below-average cards.  The fleetfeather sandals, scourgemark, wild celebrants and bronze sable were all less than ideal, and I would have been happier with many common cards that could take their place.  A single lightning strike, for example, would have improved the deck immeasurably.

Round four was against Jay, another strong drafter who had brought a blue-black control deck to fight against my own rakdos machine.  Game 1 was close, as I mistakenly believed myself to be chocked on red mana after his sealock monster put a counter on one of my mountains.  If I had simply read the card, I might have taken that crucial game one, as he was at a precarious six life and I had Tymaret on board.  Taking game one was important as game two he played one of the sickest starts I've seen, as his wavecrash triton smashed in with an ordeal of thassa, and was later gifted a cavern lampad.  With my best creature locked down and all of my others dead to his removal spells, it's no surprise that  I was barely able to touch him while he swiftly clocked me.

While my record was less than impressive, I came away from the tournament happy with what I had learned.  I took a step outside of my comfort zone and it paid off with a deck that had a lot of play, as well as a way of punishing those who stumbled off to a slow start.  While I'm not looking to jump back into this archetype eagerly, as Theros continues to lack a large number of power-heavy one and two drops, I at last can see the viability of such a strategy.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Evolving Five-Color Control in Theros

When I went to play last Friday night, I had recently written my last blog-post.  When I arrived, I had placed myself in a mindset where I wanted to play multiple colors, and again take advantage of the oh-so-innocuous nylea's presence.

Pack one pick one, then, provided me with a conundrum as the two best cards on offer were pharika's mender and hammer of purphoros.  After I popped these two to the front, I swished them back and forth for a good minute, trying to decide whether I should take the more powerful card in the color that I hate (and difficult to splash, as well) or the green card that was a decent body and usually good value.

In the end, I took the gorgon.  With ten people at the table, I was optimistic that I would see a good amount of nylea's presences, as more packs would be opened and the card generally isn't highly valued.  Here's how my deck ended up:

2 Traveler's Amulet
2 Nylea's Presence
2 Returned Phalanx
1 Leafcrown Dryad
1 Reverent Hunter
1 Nessian Courser
2 Nimbus Naiad's
2 Time to Feeds
1 Agent of Horizons
1 Erebos's Emissary
1 Insatiable Harpy
1 Mnemonic Wall
2 Nessian Asp
1 Pheres Band Centaurs
1 Pharika's Mender
1 Lash of the Whip
1 Sip of Hemlock

Round one was against Anthony, a top-tier drafter at the store.  He had been sitting a few seats to my right, and had picked up on blue being open at the table.  His g/u deck featured a ton of evasion and enough bounce to play an awesome tempo game.  Vaporkin and Horizon Chimera combined with griptide to take me to a quick 0-1 record.  I had sat across from him during deck-building, and specifically saw his as a deck I would have trouble with.  My deck was built to build up to powerful turn 4-6 plays, while his got damage in quick.  My plan to stabilize with nessian asp was not great against a tempo strategy.

Round two was against Jeremy, a less frequent drafter.  Game one was a quick trouncing, as he played an evasive threat, cavalry pegasus probably, and suited it up with an ordeal of Heliod.  I played it out for as long as I could; long enough to see his Heliod, god of the sun.

Game two and three, however, I was able to bring in both glare of heresy and last breath, as my fixing was sufficient (I brought in one plains as well).  The extra removal proved key as these early plays helped draw the game out to the point where I was able to land a nessian asp.  Two nessian asps plus a pharika's mender meant that both game two and three just turned into a nightmare of snakes for him.

It's incredible the amount of psychological damage that Nessian asp can produce.  The first time I played it, Jeremy audibly groaned, and his clear emotional signs of concern showed me that he would have trouble dealing with it.  There were points during game two where I believe it would have been correct for him to attack, but just having nessian asp plus any potential pump spell paralyzed him; with me ending the game in my favor at five life, it's possible that I could have easily been knocked out 0-2 very early on with what I thought after deck building was a pretty solid deck.

Thankfully I was 1-1, and moved on to face Cody.  Like Anthony, Cody is a very skilled drafter, and in my matched against him, he usually seems to have drafted a very solid aggro deck.  No exception here, as he took me out in three games.  The one game I was able to take from him, he simply didn't hit his lands and he gave me the time I needed to bestow an insatiable harpy with some bestow creature.  When he was able to hit his lands, he quickly emptied his hand in ways which dealt the maximum possible damage, with fanatic of mogis playing the role of designated hitter, always punching through.  It's possible that in one game I might have had more of a chance if I had held back a creature in case of minotaur skullcleaver, which he had, but it's difficult to say.  A tricky match-up that was close to winnable but very, very difficult.

At 1-2 I dropped, which was perhaps a mistake.  That last loss left a bitter taste in my mouth and had me questioning my pack 1 pick 1.  Should I have just gone with the hammer instead of committing myself to playing green/x midrange?  I resolved to stay more open to different archetypes in the future.

What failed with this deck?  Looking back, I can see one key weakness: lack of deathtouch.  Five color (or less) green decks really rely on having intimidating blockers with deathtouch.  I was unable to pick up a single baleful eidolon or sedge scorpion, two cards that would have really helped me in the aggro match-ups that I faced.  In addition, one or two nylea's disciples would have been huge to buy me time against the g/u fliers deck that wanted to tempo me out of the game.  Furthermore, the deck only had two nylea's presences.  Traveler's amulet is a very poor substitute.

I continued to draft online, and have had more success with G/x.

Here's an example of a more restrained splash, which could easily have no blue at all.  However, with the fixing I do have, adding the powerful blue spells was clearly worth it: horizon chimera helped me race to victory in the third round of this 3-0 draft.  There were times when it was correct to board out blue.  When I was faced up against a b/w aggro deck, bringing in shredding winds against his fliers and tormented hero as another early play made the added consistency too important to ignore.  We can see that this deck, unlike my 1-2 offering, has multiple good early deathtouchers.  Indeed, many of my spells can be cast for just two mana, helping me get my defense up right quick.

Here is another example of bg with a minor splash, this time being red.  While not quite as successful, going 2-1 in the queue, it still has a better game than that first deck, in my opinion.  While it lacks the early deathtouch creatures, having a pair of keepsake gorgons is just incredible value, and having ways to bring them into play early, with the unicorn or the voyaging satyr, makes it a reasonable card against aggro decks.  Still the lack of scorpions or baleful eidolons did hurt, as my one loss was to the hyper-aggressive red/white heroic deck.  Again, fanatic of mogis provided him with the combination of reach and aggressive creature that was key while I was only able to play one spell per turn. With this deck in particular, I have left good cards in the sideboard, and I'd be interested to hear how people might have built it differently.

Getting ready to draft this Friday, I feel like midrange strategies such as the ones illustrated are still well-situated, despite their susceptibility to aggro decks.  I'm less eager to try and force four or five color than I was before, although taking fixing to enable a powerful splash still seems excellent.  Prioritizing blockers, stabilizers, and card-advantage are all key during the draft portion, as well as fixing.  With so many different priorities, getting the mix just right can be tricky.  Still, it seems more reliable than trying to draft aggro in Theros, where doing so can just lead to too many packs where none of the cards available to you are that beneficial to your strategy.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Theros drafting thoughts: ultimate greed.

Way back in Spring of 2010, I was just getting into magic: the gathering.  My girlfriend at the time had just discovered her childhood cards in the proverbial dusty attic, and inspired I found my old red deck from way back.  As we continued to play, we gradually climbed the ladder of magic involvement.  From buying a couple of booster packs just to crack them and see what was now being played, to being intro decks just to play against each other, to what seemed, at the time, the final step: drafting.  I pursued this alone, as she didn't enjoy playing or making decisions under time pressure, something I've had a relative strength in.

This felt natural to me, as I wanted to expand my collection and play against people other than my girlfriend.  I was an avid fan of watching starcraft: brood war videos, and I found that I just as much enjoyed watching videos of people drafting.  Certainly, Luis Scott Vargas's videos were an inspiration, as I took to my local game shop to challenge myself in new and interesting ways.

At the time, the draft format was triple Rise of Eldrazi, and I quickly fell in love.  Blue white levelers was a standby for my, as well as the more removal heavy blue-black variant.  Training grounds, venerated teacher, nirkana cutthroat... I came to know the tricks of the format, and I've been drafting since.

This blog, then, is a continuation of that journey.  I've started recording drafts myself, I've gone to my first ptq, and I've experienced some success and positive results at the very local level.  I want writing about my experiences as I attempt to become a better magic player to become part of my journey, and I want to share what I've learned with, well, anyone who's interested.

With that said, let's get down to brass tacks: triple Theros draft.

At the beginning of the format, I struggled with coming to terms with how to consistently beat such a wide variety of archetypes available; Theros provides tools for both aggro, control, and midrange.  I would most often go midrange myself, sticking to two solid colors and trying to win on simple card quality, to mixed success.

However, as time goes on, I've found my most successful strategy has been to get as greedy as humanly possible, based on the truly wonderful depth of the color green, and the innocuous-looking enabler nylea's presence.  Five color green, my preferred archetype in modern masters, actually has a corollary in Theros.  Theros is a plane of dreams, let us remember, and I have a dream: to go big in style.  Here's a recent example of a deck which I took to a four-zero record at my LGS:

2 Sedge Scorpions
4 Nylea's Presence
1 Lightning Strike
1 Leaf Crown Dryad
1 Nessian Courser
1 Opaline Unicorn
1 Burnished Hart
2 Nimbus Naiad
1 Bow of Nylea
1 Heliod's Emissary
1 Divine Verdict
1 Nylea's Disciple
1 Keepsake Gorgon
1 Nessian Asp
1 Sealock Monster
1 Vulpine Goliath
1 Nemesis of Mortals
1 Mistcutter Hydra

11 Forests
2 Swamps
2 Islands
1 Plains
1 Mountain

As you can see, with just a single mountain, I have 6 red sources available to me, 7 if you count the slow burnished hart.  I was hardly the only green drafter at my pod, but the nylea's presences wheeled, perhaps not seen as necessary to other, less greedy drafters.  Ultimately, my five-color drafting style comes down to a singular problem: I just can't ever pass a keepsake gorgon.  Still, I can't ignore the success I've had with this style of deck, even as part of me wants to be more traditional.

I also can't ignore that the other 4-0 Theros deck I played was also trying to do big things: ramp into a Colossus of Akros.  Indeed, in one memorable game against one of the best players at my LGS, I was able to beat an Anax and Cymede that had been suited up with an ordeal of purphoros.  With the aid of a karametra's acolyte, I landed an early Colossus of Akros and stabilized at a fairly precarious lifetotal. But the amount of life was enough, for if you can cast a Colossus, it's monstrous ability typically isn't too far away.

The deck I posted wasn't perfect: I would have liked at least one naturalize effect in my sideboard, for example.  However, you sometimes won't need it.  All you often need is a really big body suited up with a sweet bestow creature.  And while this style can be a little slow, the card draw of nylea's presence helps you see more of your deck consistently which will enable you to  find a solid threat should you find yourself in need of a way to punish a slow draw.  The red white heroic deck, probably the fastest deck in the format, can be a rough matchup, but even there your sedge scorpions and as many Nylea's Disciples as you can pick up turn to solid gold as you spam blockers and slowly put yourself iunto an advantageous situation with carefully played removal.

Well, I'm off to my LGS.  While I lean in this direction in Theros draft, it is by no means something I look to force.  However, often enough I find it open, as my local metagame simply does not value nylea's presence and it's less-good but playable little brother, traveler's amulet.