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.

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