Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Tired of Being Pushed Around

My first set of matches were against Fuz his W/U/G mill deck.

As a brief aside, I am sure I've mentioned a hatred of milling decks. The truth is, I'm just getting riled because I'm having to try and figure out how to win with a creature deck against a bunch of cheap walls. 0/4s that come down on turn two make for new problems that I haven't quite figured out how to solve in every situation I want to solve them. Which is all of them, because of those filthy, filthy milling bastards...

It is less of a problem with Children, though. In one turn I Firestormed all of his walls, then sit back and waited for the cards to come until I could attack for the win. Worked out nicely.

In game two however, I was caught off guard by the presence of Ensnaring Bridge. I could still win the game via a Fling, and I had a Corpse Dance in hand to make it work but before I knew it, my deck was being milled into nothing and when I saw all four Flings in my graveyard, I conceded.

The final game worked out a bit differently; I went all in early, ditching most of my hand to Last Rites, a move which binned all of his walls and left me with the time to once again bring the massive Ghoul to bear.

The second set of matches were against a G/W humans deck and I had an epic win in a lost matchup, when I attacked for 26 and Flung for another from the humble nadir of one life point.

This pattern repeated itself against thedrowningman last night: I lost 1-2 against an aggressive B/W lifegain deck with Chalice of Life but the game I won, I won at the last moment, reanimating the Ghoul and hitting for 52 with Fling.

This verse repeated against Noah's G/W landfall deck. He would drop a Steppe Lynx, Rancor and use it to beat down while ramping up his mana to cast Rampaging Baloths and then kill me. It worked out very well...for him. I didn't even make it to game three in this case.

Three aggro matches, three losses. One common thread was that in all three games, I really, really needed a Buried Alive. It makes sense: I have redundancies for every other needed card or idea except Buried Alive. Unfortunately I don't think there IS a way to make Buried Alive redundant. As far as I know there is only one other card that allows me to do something like Buried Alive and that's Entomb...which really doesn't help.

What's left then? Two things: First; more card draw. Card draw in Black is tricky, because it usually requires life and while I do play fast and loose with my life total, against aggro decks I'm taking a huge risk. I'm already eating at that total with Night's Whisper. More could be very, very bad. Things have changed though! Red now has card draw and it's card draw that encourages discard. Wild Guess and Faithless Looting both provide me with some extra oomf to help get where I'm going and they don't send me down to worrisome life totals.

Second: more disruption. The creature removal I have isn't enough, useful as it is. Plus, this removal should be something that really does Bad Things, killing 2 or more creatures or having a long-term impact. Anything to give me more time, essentially. Time means more chances to draw into the card I need. In this case, I'm going to have to do some research because there's a great deal of creature removal in Black and Red and I'd like to get the article up before February.

This just leaves the concern of which card to eliminate for space and fortunately, that answer is pretty easy. Brain Pry just isn't cutting it. Last Rites allows me to utterly decimate someone's hand, ditto Firestorm on the board. I need a different card and Brain Pry is the one I've been least happy to see in the aggro matcups. The issue here is: What happens to my matches against control if I remove this discard? And I don't know. Discard is just brutal against any deck that wants to hold onto cards and I do worry about effects like Murder which just ruin my whole day. Going defenseless against that feels too risky. My opponents are going to have creature removal and I ignore this at my peril.

So for now, I'm going to focus on the most reliable path: card draw. -2 Brain Pry, +2 Red Card Draw and I'll see if that brings my consistency up. I'll research removal behind the scenes.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

I went 1-2...

...at the Gatecrash pre-release so maybe you don't have to.

I chose the Simic guild and here's what I ran:
2 Experiment One
Wildwood Rebirth
Ivy Lane Denizen
Greenside Watcher
2 Scab Clan Charger
Adaptive Snapjaw
Metropolis Sprite
2 Frilled Oculus
Cloudfin Raptor
Totally Lost
Hands of Binding
Simic Fluxmage
Pit Fight
Elusive Krasis
Drakewing Krasis
Zhur-Taa Swine
Walking home I could sense I made a mistake. Why did I run this? Because I thought that the awesomeness of the guild stuff I got would be better than the other colors I had to run on. Here's what I should have built:
3 Slade Street Ruffian
Smog Elemental
Killing Glare
Gutter Skulk
2 Scab Clan Charger
Metropolis Sprite
2 Frilled Oculus
Cloudfin Raptor
Totally Lost
Hands of Binding
Eliusive Krasis
Drakewing Krasis
Dimir Charm
Lasav, Dimir Mastermind

What's better about this? 1) More removal. 2) Lasav is going to be insane with Bloodrush in a Limited format. 3) Better creatures-ones people don't want to block 4) Lasav! Seriously: I had reasonably playable black and I ignored it because 'guilds'.

So good luck today, and don't ignore what's right in front of you.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Children of the Grave

First: if you're headed to the Gatecrash pre-release this weekend, like I am, I found a couple helpful articles you might want to check out.
Gatecrash Primer at PureMTGO
The Gates Come Down at Gathering Magic
Judge's Corner Gatecrash Mechanics review

Good luck! Unless you're my opponent, in which case...let's have a beer. Now on to the new deck.

Continuing the near-creatureless deck idea of last time, let's do another!

I think the intro to Children of the Grave is one of the best in metal. There's just no way to mistake it for anything else. Like galloping electric horses of doom, Sabbath rides in! This song title was a natural fit for this deck which probably looks like an old timey take on reanimator strategies, albeit with better creatures. 
4 Brain Pry
4 Night's Whisper
4 Buried Alive
2 Steam Blast
3 Last Rites
4 Fling
4 Dark Ritual
3 Corpse Dance
3 Firestorm
2 Shallow Grave

1 Sutured Ghoul
2 Death's Shadow

2 Lake of the Dead
4 Badlands
9 Mountain
9 Swamp
This is a combo deck that wants to survive long enough to put the Death's Shadow and Sutured Ghoul in the graveyard, then reanimate the Ghoul as a trampling 26/26 creature. For years, this build used Leviathan and Krosan Cloudscraper as the creatures that the Ghoul would eat because I couldn't find any black creatures with similar stats. This occasionally lead to me having a card in hand that needed to be in the graveyard but wasn't, so I would attack with a smaller Ghoul. Firestorm was the first card I had to help prevent this problem, with Last Rites coming in shortly after.

Even with those fixes, Fling has been a part of the deck from the start, effectively doubling the damage. This also had the bonus of cutting off any lifegain decks: doing twenty is possible with this deck but once that happens, if the game isn't over I've lost. A little bit of lifegain or a solid blocking creature like Fog Bank and now I had to scramble to win, if I could manage that at all. The possibility of doing forty gives this deck more reach.

Fortunately, Death's Shadow is considered to be a 13/13 in the graveyard, the modifiers only kicking in while it's on the battlefield. This provides me with two benefits: it's effective graveyard food and, should I draw the Shadow and not have a discard outlet like Firestorm or Last Rites, I can just play Death's Shadow and have it die.

Everything else is there to set up or protect the combo: Firestorm serves double duty as a discard and board sweep outlet, Brain Pry serves double duty as a discard or draw outlet, along with Steam Blast and Last Rites help clear the way. It is a Bad Time when I go through all the trouble to reanimate a Ghoul only to have it get Path to Exiled. Dark Ritual and Lake of the Dead help to accelerate everything, from a turn one Buried Alive to a turn three Shallow Grave/Fling.

At the moment, I don't see any huge flaws in this build so I'm going to run with it and see how it holds up.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Well, It Worked One Time

Which is about all I can  tell you.

What can I say? The cat herding didn't quite work out and I was able to play only one matchup over the long weekend. Adults have lives that don't involve Magic or beer and it puzzles me.

So the matchup I got to play against was my girlfriend's B/W cat deck and I was able to take the match, 2-1. I lost the first game after using a Volcanic Spray for two creatures, one of which was as Black Cat. The random discard was a Forest and in the last turn of the game, I was unable to cast a critical spell-one mana short-which sealed it against the wave of cats.

In the second game, I had enough mana to cast Cyclonic Rift on her turn, putting all the cats back in her hand, which lead to casting Storm Seeker then Blood Oath, winning the game.

The third game had me using the information from Peek to bait a Seht's Tiger with a Storm Seeker. I responded to the Tiger with Arcane Denial, untapped and cast another Storm Seeker, which was enough to win it.

The upsides are: I had enough mana, Cyclonic Rift did what it was supposed to do, and Peek has been showing me that opponents are often stuck with creature removal in hand. The downside: I just haven't tested it against enough decks.

It's going to stay in the box to play but two weeks are up and it's time to move on.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Stompin' lies and I will kill 'em all

Testing against Noah, the Churning Eddy was doing what I wanted it to do: slow him down and give him more cards in hand to deal with. Games were often tight: when I won, I won narrowly. Still, I was winning.

I got more good feedback playing a mono-green deck my girlfriend was piloting. I kept this hand: Vision Skeins, Blood Oath, Rampant Growth, Volcanic Spray, Hurricane and Storm Seeker with one Mountain (not pictured). My thought process: If I draw a Mountain: Volcanic Spray, an Island: Vision Skeins, a Forest: Rampant Growth, all solid plays within the next three turns. I can draw into any land in this deck and have it work out.

I got lucky: topdeck Forest, play Rampant Growth, go on to...lose the game. But that had more to do with a  bear related Overrun. The important points: Rampant Growth is good, the deck has enough lands that I can occasionally get lucky (but don't count on it!) Essentially: do as I say, not as I do.

During our games, near the end of one of his turns, Noah said "I'm just so worried about instants." That statement stuck around, even though at the moment I took it with a smile and nod, because I 'already' know this. Fortunately, it stuck with me because the goal is to get these decks to work better.

As with so many of my better ideas, this one came to me while walking. If getting two permanents returned to hand is good, then all the permanents would be better. But how to do this effectively? Devastation Tide could work, if I had enough mana out: U1 for the Miracle, R3 for Blood Oath or Sudden Impact and that should be the win. All I need is six mana, right?

Except for Devastation Tide to really be effective, I'd want to do this on my opponent's turn and that means a card like Peek or Vision Skeins, so now it's seven or eight mana to pull of this master plan. The flawof course is that if it doesn't win the game for me outright, it's likely going to take four more turns to get enough mana to win, four turns that any solid opponent will use to make my position untenable.

Which is where Cyclonic Rift comes in. I can use them in the early game as bounce and then for seven mana, return nearly everything to my opponent's hand at the end of turn. An instant in both cases, this gives me a pretty solid set of options in the early and late stages of the game, and with 24 lands, three land search cards and eleven other draw spells, I should be able to hit my land drops every turn in order to cast the Cyclonic Rift pretty regularly when I need to. Finally, if for some reason this doesn't finish the game, I've still got all my lands in play: my opponents will have lands but no other win conditions, and have to start over. It's just a better deal.

So for now, it's -2 Churning Eddy +2 Cyclonic Rift.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Instant Feedback

I was able to play the newest configuration of Manky right away against a G/B deck wrapped around using pro-black creatures and Darkest Hour, piloted by Fuz.

I lost both games and never really had a chance to get in it. I ran out of Echoing Truth and what I had to play to understand was that Arcane Denial, a card I am generally going to use on my opponent's turn, causing them to draw on mine, is not going to interact with Runeflare Trap's alternate cost. Meaning I won't get the effect for cheap, which is the whole point.

Rampant Growth seems to be a winner so far, though two games really didn't tell me much.

But the Runeflare Traps need to come out. Oddly, my selections will be two Churning Eddy and two Volcanic Spray, two cards that can hopefully keep the stall going. I considered Tangle and that may earn a nod if the other choices don't work out but for now, I'll give these a go. Churning Eddy was picked because it forces cards back to my opponent's hand, including a land. The rules on land drops are pretty tight so this has the potential to set them back further than if I was to focus on just creatures. Volcanic Spray is removal and damage. I don't care about doing damage to myself if I can do more of it to my opponent and the Flashback effect gives this spell the nod over an effect like Electrickery.

There's something interesting to talk about here because I'm picking such odd cards and because I'm really trying to keep this deck nearly creatureless. Let's start with the second point.

Creatureless decks are much more difficult to assemble than they used to be. Since power creep has been so focused on making better creatures that it's very, very difficult to ignore how awesome a creature can or will be in a deck. Overall, I think the focus on creatures has improved the game but there are downsides, namely a narrowing of possible decks to play with. I'm not thrilled with the idea but there are those who consider a 'pure' game of Magic to be one that is about spells and not creatures at all. The real issue is that, so far, the creatureless decks and the creature decks haven't found meaningful lines of play to interact on yet. Maybe someday that will come to pass.

However, if I can keep this deck a (near) creatureless one, all the spells that people have to play in order to handle or disrupt other creature decks suddenly become dead cards. Dead cards stay in the hand and feed the Sudden Impact/Storm Seeker/Blood Oath win conditions.

Now to the first point of picking odd cards...I find that if the decision is too easy then I am less interested in it. What I know is good is boring. What I have to find out is good (despite likely being bad) is way more interesting.

Added to this curiosity is my collection. I've been playing Magic since 1994 and I have a lot of cards that don't get a chance to prove themselves. I want to dig 'em out and see what happens! So that's the plan.

Thursday, January 10, 2013


Finally! New year, new deck. And what a hot mess this deck is:
2 Hurricane
2 Earthquake
4 Guided Passage
2 Fabricate 
4 Peek
2 Sudden Impact
4 Echoing Truth
4 Vision Skeins
2 Storm Seeker
4 Blood Oath 
3 Indrik Stomphowler
2 Intet, the Dreamer 
1 Jester's Mask 
4 Rupture Spire
7 Island
7 Mountain
6 Forest

The title wasn't even picked out for thematic reasons, I just think the Melvins are awesome. With that admission out of the way, I think we can see how I don't really have anything set up or consistent ideas.

This started off as a Guided Passage deck, being built because I wanted to make a RUG deck and I needed something to tie it together. After years and years of play, I recognize that Guided Passage is really a multiplayer card. It offers some fantastic opportunities in a format like Commander but in 1v1 matches it really just gives my opponent the opportunity to look through my deck and screw me over.

The deck needed a win condition though so I gave it one: damage via Sudden Impact, Storm Seeker and Blood Oath. Then I thought: it would be awesome to make someone's hand all lands! However, since I only had one Jester's Mask I needed to add in cards that could find it. Guided Passage does that, sorta-kinda! But what it really does is allow my the chance to make me work even harder to win.

With a win condition like Manky's giving my opponent opportunities like that just doesn't help. So I'm not even going to playtest this deck as is: let's just go straight into the change up part so I can do something interesting. 

Out: 4 Guided Passage, 2 Fabricate, Jester's Mask, 3 Indrik Stomphowler.

In: 4 Runeflare Trap, 3 Rampant Growth, 3 Arcane Denial.

Additional win conditions, mana fixing and countermagic that suggests my opponent draw cards, which I hope feeds into the win condition. I'll run with this and see what happens.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

The last 25%

I has just finished a game with Fuz and, while talking about what else could be done to Starve, I mentioned to him I was thinking about adding Gravecrawler. In conjunction with Haakon, it would allow me to recurr more creatures. But, I told him, I didn't want to make it so mean.

"You're already about 75% of the way, man."

Touche.  So what is my resistance to making this deck really, really good? That other people won't have any fun when I play against them.

However, I've been telling people I play against that Starve is good, and a little mean, so feel free to bring their best deck. I think I worry too much. One of the things I like about this game is, after playing a good deck (either with one or against one) I like to brainstorm to make a deck better. I want to help people have good decks that give them a shot.

So I pulled the trigger. Unfortunately, I only went 99% of the way, until after last night's matches.

Newest, greatest list:

3 Black Knight
2 Haakon, Stromgald Scourge
3 Gravecrawler
3 Stromgald Crusader (a zombie knight!)
3 Tombstalker
2 Dauthi Slayer
3 Bloodghast
3 Gatekeeper of Malakir

3 Lurking Jackals

4 Pox
3 Smallpox
2 Innocent Blood
3 Blackmail

3 Dakmor Salvage
20 Swamp

Prior to last night, the only difference was that I had 2 Smallpox and 1 Order of the Ebon Hand. The thinking goes thusly: Gravecrawler is as aggressive as Carnophage and with a Crusader or Haakon out, I can afford to swing with it, lose it, and bring it back. Blackmail allows me an edge of control when I need that, but also can be cast on myself when I need to get a Haakon into the graveyard and don't have a Pox effect! It all seemed to come together perfectly.

And then I played Noah. Cue dramatic music!

Just kidding: he's a great guy, a solid player and a very good opponent. I took the matchups I played against his R/B deck, because it couldn't get going and I would Pox before he could get out Rakdos, Lord of Riots. I was a little lucky in the first game, with a great deal of discard hitting my key cards but turn 3 came, I cast Pox and that was all I needed to do to give my deck the advantage.

Then came the W/B clerics deck, which I put up a good fight against (I believe the match ended 2-1 in his favor) and my losses came when I could not get a Pox effect soon enough, nor any removal. I knew I was in trouble when he was able to cast a Battletide Alchemist with three clerics on the board, then cast Conspiracy the next turn. When the opponent has that much mana out, my deck isn't working. My protection from white creatures didn't seem so awesome then, I tell you what.

The deal was sealed when Rotlung Reanimator came out but Noah didn't have enough to win (yet) and Pox causes life loss, not damage. This meant that I was able to get him down to one...but I drew Swamps instead of a win condition.

The rule of a Pox deck is....That's right. Pox early and Pox often and if there's ever a question of what one should do, Pox is the answer. Unless you can win, right there.

Order of the Ebon Hand came out because when I got home, I found another Smallpox in my binder. I need that more than I need a creature that doesn't quite fit in like it used to.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Gatecrash mechanics first impressions

OK, I'm back. I hope everyone's rested up and had a good holiday. I'm going to start with some Gatecrash review, then next Tuesday I'll give the final update on Starve's evolution, and then it's on to a new deck! You'll want to start here for this week's article, as the link will take you to a preview of each of Gatecrash's mechanics.

I'll just tackle this alphabetically.

Battalion, the R/W (Boros) guild mechanic is pretty weak. It can be shut off, which means it doesn't have any intrinsic value. Compared to Hero of Oxid Ridge, which also needs other creatures for Battle Cry to be effective, but just needs any other creature. One is just fine. Contrast with another mechanic like Threshold, which could also be shut off, the issue becomes: Magic is very, very good at killing creatures. It is very, very bad at dealing with graveyard-centric powers. Shutting off Threshold is much more difficult than killing your opponent's third creature; thus there is a very strong incentive for making Threshold happen. You will be rewarded. The easiest path to get Battalion to turn on is to make tokens in colors that generally make 1/1 creatures.

Electrickery could easily hose you out of Battalion and effects like this are all over red and black. Usefulness in Limited will depend on how much removal is in Gatecrash but I'm not very hopeful.

Bloodrush is there to represent Gruul (G/R) and I really hate this mechanic. Here's why: in Limited environments, it's almost always going to be better to cast your creature than it will be to use the Bloodrush ability. Limited environments are pretty much defined by creature battles, so having more is better than having pump spells. In addition, Bloodrush can only affect attacking creatures. While thematically relevant to the G/R guild, it's just another hamstring on a color combination that has historically been weak.

Now, in other previews of Bloodrush, the ability has given +X/X and something else: first strike or trample, for example. However, why give a creature first strike for a turn when you can just have a first striking creature?

In Constructed, the Bloodrush creatures worth playing will be judged on their ability to win as creatures. If I have seven mana and I use the Bloodrush ability to give a creature +9 and trample then yup, I deserve to win. But the odds of me getting to seven mana before the game is over are low and even if I get there, what's to say my opponent won't just Murder my creature in response? Nothing protects my swinging dude. Worse, if I'm at seven, why not just get eight mana and cast a 9/9 with trample that my opponent now has to use a removal spell on?

It is essentially a 'win more' mechanic and it won't help someone who isn't already ahead get out of a bad situation.

The Dimir (U/B) guild is represented by Cipher, a mechanic I feel icky about. First: it plays right into Blue and Black's strengths; creating creatures that are difficult to block. Second, it is in colors that provide inherent protection for their creatures: blue through countermagic and black through removal. So, knowing this, as Wizards must have, there are two choices with the Cipher spells:

1) At least one overpowered 'Oh, crap' card.
2) They all have to be marginal at best.

Well, great. I'm pretty sure that #1 is what's going to happen because they want players to have a reason to play the guild. The game doesn't need an overpowered blue mage though! They were just letting Black and Red have some time in the sun after so many years away!

But if #2 comes true then that's a bummer for everyone excited about playing Dimir. I feel for that, even if I do believe that Blue is still the dominant color in the game. I believe that's less likely though, because the tools are there to make it work and every single time in Magic's history that Blue has been given access to free spells, things have gone badly. Every time.

On top of that, there's a very weird bit of language with Cipher because it doesn't use the same template as Imprint, the mechanic it is clearly based upon. I use the Cipher ability to encode? Why not just use Encode as the keyword? It would be more consistent, which helps players solve a complex problem much easier. I hope they have good reasons for that because otherwise they've broken at least one good design rule.

There is a great deal I like about the Simic house (U/G) mechanic Evolve. First, it ties into the old Simic mechanic of Graft. This is really a stroke of genius and kudos on this one. Second, it feeds into what they guild does: make creatures different. What does the Simic house do? We change the creatures you have into other things. Better things. Third, it rewards players for doing what they want to do with this color combination: You play creatures, your creatures get better. It's that simple.

Contrast this with Bloodrush, which doesn't want you to play your creatures to get a benefit, yet is in a guild and color combination that really, REALLY wants to play big nasty creatures that hurt you.

Finally, the W/B guild, Orzohv, has Extort, which may be my favorite of the five. Evolve is really likable so it's hard to choose but I really dig this one, too.

Mechanically, it very cunningly represents what the guild does: the 'mafia church' aspect of slowly bleeding opponent's dry is a very nice one. Plus, it's always 'on' and it triggers on any spell you cast, not just Black or White ones. So you can run it in other colors and it's still an effective way to eek out those critical extra points of damage/points of life to keep you in it. So many games hinge on just a few tiny decisions that nudge things one way or the other and this has the opportunity to keep someone in a game they might otherwise be blown out of. 

All of these impressions are just that, of course. There's still a great many cards to be revealed to show how effectively these mechanics have been implemented and how they might mesh with RtR's mechanics or interact with the larger game. But feel free to leave your ideas in the comments and show me how cool Battalion is because I'm overlooking something!