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.