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.

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