Thursday, April 26, 2012

Ten Things I Like About Avacyn Restored

I don't want to be a ranting, ornery player. I have had many unkind things to say about this entire block so I'm going to flip this and take ten things I like about this set.

1) Tibalt, the Fiend-Blooded
Man I like this card. The artwork is fantastic, the character is dead on in theme with the rest of the block, and the abilities are interesting enough that it is playable but not broken, though if you pull off the ultimate, it's still amazing! That's cool.

2) Descendants' Path's artwork.
It shows the passage of time using the moon-a key element of the set- as well as multiple images to evoke a connection to the past and future. Absolutely fantastic.

3) Misthollow Griffin.
For the first time I can think of, there is a creature that can be cast from exile. There's an answer, finally, to Swords to Plowshares!

It's blue, of course so grrr...BUT this is a cool ability that is fairly costed. It's the kind of mythic people will mostly ignore which is one of the reasons I dig it.

4) The Powerpuff Girls
The claim is that the internet saw this. I don't buy that: the artwork on the three legendary multicolored angels is even arranged like them, with the green one looking grouchy and facing to the right. WotC people are too savvy to NOT at least hint at that.

I also don't care. It's fucking rad.

5) Unhallowed Pact
The original card was False Demise a blue card that should never have been blue. It's in the right color now and that's not only good for the game mechanically, it's good from a flavor position too because now one can really engage in the kind of dark shenannigans that Black would be involved with.

6) Hound of Griselbrand
A creature that does 4 damage for 4 mana, with an upgrade to do 6? Works for me.

7) Soulbound
I talked about this a little bit last time but now that the full set is out and I'm diligently reading each card, it's worth mentioning again. Soulbound cards trigger on any creature entering the battlefield, if the Soulbound creature is unpaired. That's huge! It means that the card is good is so many more situations and gives the mechanic that much more weight. The best card with this mechanic is Elgaud Shieldmate. Which is blue but I am going to continue to resist ranting about that.

8) Flavor text
I really, really like the flavor text in this set. Terrifying Presence, Gang of Devils, Mental Agony, Nephalia Smuggler and Cursebreak are all fine examples of things I really like. Sometimes funny, sometimes pointed but very much entrenched in the world of Innistrad and revolving around the events therein.

9) Gallows at Willow Hill
It's not a great artifact-as a matter of fact, it's terrible-but I like the way it functions. Vigilante justice punished by a haunting. It feels right under circumstances where how it feels can override how good the card is.

10) Harvester of Souls vs Soul of the Harvest.
What can I say? These kinds of things appeal to me.

Now, this is what I like without having played the set. There's still the joy of getting to play with this stuff and discover what's awesome!

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Soradyne Evaluation

This is what Soradyne looked like when it was all laid out, before six men spent twenty minutes shuffling everything up in order to build fake packs for Sealed play.

Lotta cards, ennit?

Still, we managed to get thing shuffled up and kinda sorta mixed up enough to make sealed decks and give this set a run.

It's interesting to try and evaluate a set after doing so much work on it, tweaking as much as we could in order to achieve some balance and fun. All of that work was done in Theoryland, so to have people take these ideas to task in the real world and see if they break is a different turn of events. Since we only did sealed matches, it was a little harder to understand how these cards might work in a constructed format but with a solid sealed set, everyone felt we were well on our way to something that might actually exist.

Which is a pretty cool thing.

But the basics came to this: Mindstrike has serious potential, doing OK even in Sealed, Feint is a good ability that needs to be watched when we put it on creatures because that can easily create an overwhelming position where the opponent's Feint spells don't matter and Evidence cards should have a fingerprint watermark on them, because that's frikkin' cool. (The Evidence cards were solid but not 'remarkable', if you will.)

Most importantly, people had fun: while there were suggestions and concerns about some cards, there wasn't anything obviously wrong or obviously broken in what players saw, and everyone had a good time.

That is a very cool thing.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012


In my spare time, I've been helping a buddy of mine design a Magic set named Soradyne. This weekend I'm off to Seattle to give it a test run. You can take a look at the set here: it's a solid set that has some good ideas behind it.

But in the last day or so I've suddenly had a concern that it doesn't have enough constructed worthy cards. By this I mean: my favorite Magic sets (Shadowmoor/Eventide, Zendikar, Mirrodin before it got batshit insane, Ravnica block, Invasion block) did one of two things: 1) laid out new areas to build decks in  or 2) brought cards that were useful in a meta sense.

In Invasion, color harmonies that hadn't been explored came up. Mirrodin brought the potential to use artifacts in totally different ways (until Affinity killed any creativity that could have been used.) Shadowmoor and Zendikar used concepts that players already knew and went back a long, long way, like playing lands or color pairings, in order to add to an area that hadn't really gotten it's due.

And I'm just not sure if we're doing that, yet. But this is what testing is for!

Tuesday, April 17, 2012


"I feel bad when I play that deck," he said to me after what I thought was a pretty solid game of Commander. His was a Saffi deck, abusing it with cards like Deathrender to give him an ever-present army. The usual suspects made the list: Stoneforge Mystic, Elesh Norn, Privileged Position, Argentum Armor, Sword of Feast and Famine, Linvala, etc. It took him awhile but he won that game through a couple solid board wipes. I felt OK about things myself, probably missing one play but otherwise doing pretty well, timing my plays mostly correctly, making the best of my resources. Everyone was nice so that's a pretty solid game, to me.

He seemed to want to talk about my deck but didn't know where to start. "You've got some powerful cards there but..." he trailed off, unsure of what to say next because, despite being told three times that it was a junky legend deck (Child of Alara with every legend I have that isn't doing anything right now which is a lot) he didn't seem to believe me. Or his own experience.

I shrugged, told him my deck was there to play stuff that didn't get seen otherwise. It's not that I wouldn't've liked advice but what is he going to tell me that meshes with my philosophy? I don't really care about winning in Commander, I care more about not losing with weird cards that nobody plays.

In the back of my mind, though, I couldn't help thinking: If playing a deck makes you feel bad, why are you playing it?

And: What is it about my attempt to have fun that puzzles you so?

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Quit making me hate flavor

Just read this.

Maybe you'll ask yourself, what "famed Nephalian astronomancer Jenrik" are they talking about? The one mentioned once, on this card and nowhere else?

Which makes me ask all kinds of questions. For example: If he's so famous, why isn't he mentioned more? It's not like the moon doesn't matter in this set.

If a planeswalker has been there the whole time, why hasn't there been a hint of that? You'd think it would be a big enough deal to mention, right?

WotC wants to show me a gun in Act 3 that didn't exist before that moment. That's stupid.

I don't object to this card: it's a solid card. I object to the execution of this card, which is abhorrent, given how tightly they've been keeping the theme prior to this. A theme that I think they did really well with in every manner but mechanical. To throw this out there without any support for it? To have a reveal like this but not give hints out? Because I would have accepted this if they'd mentioned it before, just given the abilities of planeswalkers!

It's's bad and they should feel bad.

When do you think that I'll be OK?

Miss Blue underwent some changes: 4 High Tide, 3 Sleep to come in for Sanity Grinding, Jace and Rewind. I had a hit of inspiration: Long-Term Plans for Memory Erosion. Coupled with Telling Time, I could use this as a tutor of sorts, when I was in need of a missing link.

My chance to test it was against stonethorn's version of Stoneblade, now with Elbrus!

The result was: I got trounced. Yes, I milled half the library but it didn't matter. I couldn't stop the creature onslaught. Casting Sleep didn't matter at all-I just didn't have enough time to do what I wanted to do.

So that's not working. What will? What I need to resolve is how I either accelerate myself or decelerate my opponent.

Two things happened: in the search for cards that work with the Miracle mechanic, I came across Portent. This set off a tickle for me: I have Whispers of the Muse, but how often am I using Buyback? Never. But with Portent, I can dig deeper into my library, shuffle if if I hate it and after casting Long-Term Plans, set up a draw for myself much easier.

Second: I realized that I don't have many permanents in play. I can afford to play some spells that might otherwise have heavy drawbacks. Enter Wash Out. This is, against any non-blue, non-(colorless) artifact deck, a board reset that leaves me with the opportunity to claim a huge advantage. Even against Blue decks, I may still be able to eek out an advantage because for four mana, my deck is back up and running and if I have more mana, I can start milling immediately, whereas most other decks will have to attack, which will take a full turn.

So I'm going to go with this, and see if I can improve Ms. Blue's odds.

What's that? What about decks that run a lot of artifacts? can't have everything. 

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Avacyn Restored initial impressions

Let me begin with an actual link so readers can reference what the hell I'm talking about, another link to the mothership specifically on mechanics, then leap right down the throat of the marquee card, Avacyn herself.

Ugh. What a boring, boring card. Undercosted by at least 3, she exists to be reanimated or cheated into play somehow, whereupon your opponent has to live in Magical Chrismasland in order to survive. It can be done, yes. But it won't and games will devolve into solitaire because this card is so linear.

Worse is the art: in what universe does anyone not look at that and think, 'wow, that's a dark picture.'? So why isn't there any black in her mana cost? Sorin is black or black/white and in the story, Avacyn is his creation. She's also just gotten out of the worst prison since Snake escaped New York. Why isn't she white-black?

There was an opportunity to show how being imprisoned changed her! But no. No, we get this and it's disappointing on so many levels. If the art was different, at least we'd have a consistent flavor. If the abilities were different at least the card would be a little fairer. Instead it's just dull.

Now let's get a little broader. Undying is coming back. To that I say: Huzza! I like that mechanic and I always wish they'd done more with Persist, back in the day. Hell, I'd like to see Persist come back.

Next up is Soulbond. Somehow, I have a feeling that we're going to get a story about how this mechanic was inspired by Banding-which was probably the most confusing mechanic from Magic's early days. I hope not, because that would mean that there's still water in the well but it seems awfully likely.

That said, I dig it. While it doesn't seem too powerful, the mechanic has been hinted at multiple times in Magic's history. Those cards weren't amazing but getting cards to work together is a very white theme, something this set is meant to emphasize and it'll be fun strategically; a pretty sharp limited mechanic as well as being something that makes cheap, weaker creatures better in the late game. Drawing a 1/1 for U isn't so bad on turn 7 when it can give itself and your Wurmcoil Engine flying. Giving players a chance to come back from bad situations is good for the game.

Which leads me to my next sticky wicket.

"So," stonethorn writes on my Facebook page, "topdecking is a mechanic now."

I want to love this mechanic. I really do. Because there are few things as awesome as needing just that next card and getting it, allowing you to turn a losing situation into a winning one (or even parity!) That feels cool and the name of the mechanic, 'Miracle' helps reflect this. This mechanic is based on -and will be loved/hated on- how it feels. Just as with Double-Faced cards.

But-and it pains me to say this-they did it wrong. First, there are no miracles in Black. From a flavor standpoint that makes sense because this set is about an Angel coming back to set things right but mechanically, it's an awful idea because the color that should've been ignored is Blue.

Here's why: First, from a flavor perspective, Blue is about research and 'science'. There are no miracles, it's all about how damn smart you are!

More importantly, from a gameplay perspective, Blue is the color that is most able to manipulate what card they are going to draw, on top of being the strongest color overall. In Standard maybe nobody will care-even though they should, with U/W Delver being the current best deck. Make 3/2 flyer AND take an extra turn for 2? Sign me up, right? It isn't until you think about how unfun it will be to be on the other side of that that one realizes there might be a problem.

For anyone who plays an Eternal format, though-which includes the insanely popular Commander-this mechanic is broken in half and that's why this is badly executed.

Miracle synergizes so well with what Blue already wants to do, giving it a miracle that functions as a Time Walk, a card that is banned or restricted in every format it could be played in, or really any miracle at all, is a huge problem, mechanically. This is because Blue doesn't have to do any work (diluting the mana base, most relevantly) in order to get something awesome and stupidly cheap. It can just do what it always does and the Blue player doesn't miss a beat. No other color gets this kind of advantage over the others.

And maybe you don't care about that now, because you're a new player to the game or a newly returning player and who gives a shit about an eternal format? The thing is, if you play the game long enough the odds are extremely high that you will play an Eternal format. Very, very few Magic players ditch their collection seasonally and no casual players I know of do this. They either bail on the game altogether (to their regret a few years later) or hold onto their cards for some vague reason, unsure of why they're carrying around all this crap! and they're back in the thick of it.

Eventually, if you play the game long enough-and with Legacy, Commander and Modern's popularity, it suggests that you will play the game long enough-these miracles will weigh on you, even as a casual player.

Not all mechanics should be designed with the larger game in mind. That's a huge limitation, especially with a game that is 20 years old and always on the march for a new mechanic or twist. However, flavor just shouldn't trump playability, (as I've suggested before-warning, wall of text) and sometimes, whether the machine works or not really needs to be the overriding concern. People don't play a flavor, they play a game.

There's already a deck built around the interaction between Sensei's Divining Top and Counterbalance and it works because of all the ways blue has to manipulate the top few cards of their library, if they don't like what they see, first and foremost being Brainstorm. Temporal Mastery is the kind of card that could push the Top to a $40 card. An uncommon at forty dollars. Jebus.

So what this suggests is that either Brainstorm, a card that is much loved in Legacy, enabling a great many decks and helping keep that format diverse (although also empowering Blue overmuch, so there is a downside) could be banned or Temporal Mastery and other miracles are likely to be banned, in order to keep the format healthy. But WotC has repeatedly pointed out that banning a card before people get to play with it creates ill will from the players. There is no win here and that's a pretty bad place to be in, as a player and a company..

The buzz on the internet is about how the Miracle mechanic could create a rules issue, opening up an avenue for cheating. I don't see it though: the card either is or is not the one you drew and anyone paying attention should be able to keep track of that. It's merely a triggered ability, like one that happens during Upkeep, the only difference is that the trigger doesn't happen publicly, at first. Clearly anyone who shuffles the card into their hand and then tries to play this spell is in for a bad time but aside from that, I don't think it's going to open up the boondoggle people are concerned about.

The final two themes, flickering and loners, are worth taking note of because they could represent 'missing link' cards that could mesh well with other decks but can't really be the foundation of a deck by themselves. Potentially something to keep in the back of my brain while designing.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Miss Blue

I've been pre-playing this deck in advance of this article and sucks. Unlike the song, which I adore.
2 Sanity Grinding

2 Jace Beleren

3 Training Grounds
3 Memory Erosion
4 Counterspell
3 Rewind
3 Capsize
3 Whispers of the Muse
3 Cryptic Command
3 Broken Ambitions
2 Memory Lapse
4 Telling Time

3 Ambassador Laquatus
22 Island
So let me tell you what this sucks against: aggro decks.  They don't care that they just had to mill 2 or 17 cards, because they are attacking for 2, now 4, now 4 again, now 6 and you're dead. And it sure seems like I've been playing against a lot of aggro decks lately.

The goal here is to keep this a mono-blue deck. Mind Funeral is probably the best card ever printed at milling someone (averages about 13 cards per, in my experience) and Glimpse the Unthinkable is...well, hot but focus is what keeps a deck that's weird from being a pain in the ass to being a solid contender.

So; mono blue, with the goal being to land the Ambassador with a Training Grounds out and go to town. Everything else is countermagic and draw so I can assemble the combo. Jace is...well, it's Jace. What do you want?

I want a deck that isn't folding every time someone plays a Goldmeadow Stalwart. So I'm having to reevaluate what this deck is: I had built it as a control deck but it is not a control deck, it's a combo deck. Everything in here has to generate mana, mill, be the combo or protect it.

So: Jace is out as it's too slow and nobody cares about attacking it, Rewind is possibly out but being able to counter a spell then grind 12 cards is no small threat, maybe Memory Lapse too. Capsize might also come out because there are other bounce spells, including ones that let me draw cards. Make room for High Tide so I can generate more mana and mill quicker. Sanity Grinding out for Increasing Confusion, in case the Ambassador doesn't show up, High Tide and Increasing Confusion can make it up instead. 

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

We were so wrong to believe at all

I got a chance to run Oak God against Fuz and I don't remember all the matchups, I do remember that he was playing zombies, in one match and in game one, I got 7 druids including a Gilt-Leaf! So I stole all his lands, tapping out.

He promptly swung at me for 15 with two zombies and a Soulless One that was the size of Jupiter. So...yeah. Maybe jumped the gun there, you know?

In game two, I got out two Adaptive Automatons and a Gilt-Leaf Archdruid, only to have them meet their demise at the hands of Nameless Inversion. Fuz's analysis: you need a way to keep your stuff on the board. Something like Steely Resolve naming druids would work.

Which leads me to an interesting point: my deck isn't interactive and his was. His suggestion to improve my deck was to force his deck to play my game, since my combo isn't faster than his deck, thus actually increasing the interactivity I have with the game. That is: stuff that I have or play that does something to the resources my opponent has or plays.

I saw this on Monday night too: Why isn't my midrange deck working, thedrowningman asked. And it was because all he had was cards to set up his board and nothing to make sure that he could get to the midgame in tact. I pulled four cards and said: These need to be Doom Blades or discard or something that slows down the opponent.

After some pondering, this is the basic outline I came up with:

Aggro strategy: minimal interactivity.
Midrange strategy: maximum interactivity.
Combo strategy: zero interactivity.

Things get muddled, of course (control-combo, aggro-midrange, blahblahblah) but those are the guideposts. If your combo deck is properly built, it is there to win faster than any other deck can win and to do that, it has to dedicate every resource it can to doing that: planning for what the opponent does is irrelevant and dilutes your strategy. Of course, everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face, so many combo decks try to pack some way to win through disruption.

If you're playing aggro, every resource goes towards the early game-turns 1-3, basically-so consistency is vital. However, because aggro strategies almost always rely on creatures, one has to plan on either a) finding a way around, (alternate victory path or reach, as described in this article) once the game goes to turn 4 and stalls, b) recovering from a global rest or c) disrupting the opponent so that s/he can be defeated. Because the aggro deck is pushing so hard in the early game, I find I don't need many cards to deal with the opponent's strategies: They're usually reeling from mine. But one well timed Naturalize or Lightning Bolt can break the game.

Finally, when playing a deck that needs to get to turn 4, that's when one needs the most cards to deal with the hand and/or board state. While there is a difference between running Thalia or running Cancel and Duress against combo the principle still remains: I am slowing you down so I can execute my strategy. But the same is true against aggro decks: Thalia can block/kill an otherwise efficient beater, Duress can snag the Lightning Bolt that would hasten your demise. But you need to plan for this, because otherwise the combo deck wins and the aggro deck has all but wrecked you.

This concept gets muddy because the best decks take elements of everything to synergize the cards and bring elements together. Good aggro decks may not look like combo decks but if the cards work in harmony with each other to a great enough extent, then aren't they really combo decks? Midrange decks are, as a result, tough to build because of the sheer number of options: What is going to be best against...everything?

And there is no skeleton key to that lock but they can be very successful (Jund and Bant decks being prime examples of such.) When they are successful, I've noticed that they layer synergies upon each other but they also always have a way to get to turn 4 by providing enough disruption that they can start to execute their own strategies.

As for Oak God, sure it can steal all the lands or have a tiny overrun. But I went with Denise Foliage to foil my opponent's removal-and to muck with their own buffs. It isn't perfect but it's old school and I like that. Steely Resolve could also work but then I would need at least two: one for my creatures and one to mess with my opponents' and that just seems inefficient.

So what happened?

Well, in one game my opponent didn't have an answer to my Gilt-Leaf Archdruid and when I stole all her lands, bringing Kamahl out to pump for victory was an easy choice.

But against a G/W sprits deck, I died because I wasn't paying attention. There were two Windborn Muses out and instead of stealing all her lands in order to pay for my attackers, I ended up tapping them in order to play more creatures in an attempt to get a Vitalize, untap, and use the new creatures to pay for Kamahl's ability. I saw my mistake as she swung for lethal in the air.

In a final matchup against stonethorn's Grimgrin/Hex Parasite combo deck, I couldn't get anything going. I drew too many lands and, despite being able to land a Dense Foliage, couldn't put enough pressure together to stop Grimgrin's march to death.

I could probably fix this but for now, I won't. What's the point? There's only two ways it could go: sucky so I don't have fun, or savage, so my opponents don't. Hitting the middle ground seems to be the right choice and I think I'm there.