Thursday, January 30, 2014

(Not) The Last Tweaks

The final straw that made me re-evaluate the mana in Ephemeral was against Fuz's rat deck. Oh, Pack Rats, you are...really good.

This image is from the end of the game, when I was wondering when my second source or mana was going to come and how badly I needed that mana to be white. A pretty good lesson in how important it is for me to have two mana; even though I was able to get a Scout, a Rancor and a Spider Umbra down, it did not save me. Now I did go 1-2, so it's not like the deck completely ran me over. However, I've noticed I frequently keep questionable hands with new decks, because I am thinking they can get me out of trouble. I don't know why I ignore my experience but I think that should be something I work on this year: effective mulligans.

After this game, I tweaked the deck more using some data via Femerf Enchantress, as much as I like the concept, is out. She just doesn't fit in with the deck's overall vibe. I think that in a deck full of Bestow creatures though, she'll be excellent with mass removal and that's a concept I can get behind. In Ephemeral, I'm hoping my opponents will take care of such things and most people don't run Disenchant maindeck. At the moment, I'm going to use the currently accepted Silhana Ledgewalker with an ear to the ground while inspecting Born of the Gods and looking at Journey Into Nyx to see if a better replacement comes up.

In the meantime, I'm doing what I can to make my creatures invincible with Umbra Mystic who totally proved herself in a game against Noah, who was playing R/B Goblins. Umbra Mystic and Rancor are a brutal combo, working almost like a Gift of Immortality that provides trample.On top of that, not many people are ready for it. Sure, they can use a removal spell the turn Mystic comes out but after that, I've got it enchanted and now all my creatures have become far more difficult to kill.

I went 1-2 against Noah's Scapeshift deck, which is a GR version and a very, very good deck. I lost game three when I mulliganed down to 6 and kept a hand with plenty of land but only an Umbra Mystic for gas.

Umbra Mystic is good but it's not that good. But I think I have a solid decklist now and we'll see how it performs.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Shifting Focus, Shifting Sands

Agent of the Fates didn't work out. I tried, believe me. In the end though, it wasn't my fault, it was my choice.

I've been playing since Ice Age. I bought boxes of Homelands in a fervor to play more. And I have been very, very lucky, getting in on many things before they became so expensive that they were subject to the My Money rule. One of those things was the dual lands.

For those who don't know, the dual lands are a set of 10 lands that would produce one color of each pair or mana; for example Savannah will make green or white without any drawbacks while also having the type of the land that corresponds to the land in question. Again, with Savannah, it has both the Forest and Plains type. This quality makes these lands very searchable and very desirable whenever a player has to make a deck that uses multiple colors of mana, which is nearly all of them.

So whenever a similar land has been printed, I tried to get sets of those as well, because they have demonstrated their usefulness in making deckbuilding a whole lot easier.

However, I never wanted to have decks that were blatantly overpowered. Most of my friends didn't dedicate the resources to the game that I did, so I spread out my powerful cards into multiple decks-a practice I still continue to this day and one I am trying to wrestle free from. But not entirely.

The dual lands are often at their best in three color decks, remarkably. Imagine: with twelve cards, one could cover the mana costs for three colors with minimal buildup. That kind of color fixing is very, very powerful and extremely welcome when one has a deck that wants G on turn 1, W1 on turn 2 and BB1 on turn 3. With the right lands, this is extremely easy: Savannah or Bayou on turn 1, Savannah, Bayou or Scrubland on turn 2, and then, depending on what the turn 1 and 2 plays are, you might need a Scrubland, Bayou or any land at all on turn 3.

My Savannahs, Bayous and Scrublands are all doing time in other decks and there's no reason to move them. But their replacements? Orzhov Basilica, Selesnya Sanctuary, Golgari Rot Farm? Too slow and too stiff to give me what I need. Ephemeral is a deck that really needs to have a creature out by turn 1 or 2, so that it can be enchanted for the beatings.

Normally, I would just keep at it, accept that this was a weakness and let it go. Wait for new lands to be printed (Temples of Silence and Plenty could be great here, so, note to self, get them) and hope for the best. However, as I said: I am trying to step away from having deliberately underpowered decks. I am not playing with emotional children. I am playing with people who are looking to have fun and don't get their feelings bent out of shape when they lose.

I can make this deck a strong one but some concessions must be made, most relevantly, having Agent of Fates available to play on turn 3 is too difficult. I still think the Heroic mechanic can give me something though, but it has to be in one of the two primary colors for the deck.

Enter Phalanx Leader. I really, really like this substitution because one of the other drawbacks to Ephemeral is that the creatures are tiny. If the game goes long, I'm in a great deal of trouble. But Phalanx Leader means that even my small creatures have the potential to create trouble, even if they don't have auras or become unenchanted.

I didn't give up on Black entirely, though. Snake Umbra has been expensive and not creating the opportunities I was hoping for. Gift of Orzhova offers both evasion for Spiritdancers (and other creatures) but also lifelink, which is crucial against aggressive matchups. Spirit Mantle Necromancer's Magemark is a bit like a Glorious Anthem, except for enchanted creatures, in addition to being something that could bring my creatures back (seriously, it's really strong!) and as for the lands?

Well, I took a bunch of the bouncelands out and put in 3 more Evolving Wilds. If five search effects aren't enough, then I don't know what to do.

Thursday, January 23, 2014


Sometimes, the most difficult part of building a new deck is the name. This wasn't one of those times. Ephemeral is a nice little Pelican song that I felt really fit the nature of this deck. That nature? Agent of the Fates and any enchantment.

"Auras, you mean?"

Alright, alright, you win, Kor Spiritdancer.

So between the Spiritdancer and the Agent, the obvious thing to do was to put this on the Boggles track. If the deck is already built, why not use the tested ideas? This meant adding green and that is where, as you might hear in a Dukes of Hazzard voice over, everything got stickier than a pickle in a jar.

Or something, I was eight when the Dukes of Hazzard was on, I just remember an orange car jumping rivers to a horn playing "Dixieland". Starting decklist:
4 Kor Spiritdancer
4 Agent of the Fates
4 Gladecover Scout
4 Slippery Bogle
3 Umbra Mystic

3 Rancor
3 Hyena Umbra
4 Ethereal Armor
3 Snake Umbra
1 Daybreak Coronet

4 Dismember

6 Forest
5 Plains
4 Swamp
1 Orzhov Guildgate
1 Orzhov Basilica 
1 Selesnya Guildgate
1 Selesnya Sanctuary
1 Golgari Guildgate
1 Golgari Rot Farm
1 Terramorphic Expanse
1 Evolving Wilds
I showed the deck to Jason and he suggested Femeref Enchantress because it would increase the card drawing effects. I had two, so I cut two Slippery Bogles to add them. I also thought I had Felidar Umbras but no, I don't, so Snake Umbra it is, because I love Snake Umbra.

Then I started goldfishing the deck and that's when I saw trouble. What a mess that mana base is! Trying to get BB and G and W all without spending a lot of money on the mana is very, very difficult. Too difficult, as it turns out, as there were too many lands that entered tapped and too much demand for BB by turn 3, but G and GW on turns 1 and 2, respectively. I was worried I was going to have to make changes.

I played the deck against Fuz and Noah with similarly frustrating results (and a lightbulb that said I should've named this deck 'Tiny Dancer' but oh well. I have too many decks that start with T anyway). The biggest enemy I had was my mana and I could never get Agent of the Fates online because I just couldn't cast him.

Ephemeral is going to have to change to do what I want it to do. 

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Born of the Gods odds

Now that spoiler season is upon us and we're less than two weeks out from the Born of the Gods prerelease, now is as good a time as any to take a look at the upcoming cards and mechanics. The usual caveats about prereleases apply but let's have fun anyway.

The first thing to note is that Monstrous isn't returning, which suggests to me that it is a mechanic that WotC thought needed more work. Rosewater can claim all he likes about feeling that the mechanic has room to play in, the fact is that this mechanic has been one of the worst written ones I've seen in years and had some incredibly weak implementation. Of the 16 creatures with Monstrous, (in a 234 card set- that's 6% so...lot's of faith that WotC has in that mechanic) none of them are very compelling so it seems like it's wise to let that one percolate a bit more.

Which leads us to Tribute, the creature mechanic to replace Monstrous in Born of the Gods. Based off the punisher mechanic from Odyssey block, the mechanic wants to give opponents a choice between two 'bad' options. This is an easy one to judge because it will be strictly about whether or not both choices are bad.

Pharagax Giant is the example of weak implementation: 5 damage or allowing a 5/5 creature with no abilities for 5 mana isn't a difficult choice. Let them have the 5/5 and chump block or kill it later, unless you're ahead on the board then just take 5 and run over their tiny 3/3. This isn't even a difficult decision in multiplayer, although it does become more interesting as it could be a way to screw over the person who's got the lowest life total.

On the other hand, Fanatic of Xenagos is a fantastic execution of this mechanic. A 3/3 trampler for 3 mana is good as is and now the opponent has to choose if it's a 4/4 or if it will be a 4/4 with haste for a turn.

The success of Tribute depends on more cards being like Fanatic than the Giant. I don't have a lot of hope that WotC will do this but of the five creatures with Tribute, two of them-the Fanatic and Flame-Wreathed Phoenix-seem to be pretty good. The other three creatures are just big dumb monsters (two of which in green, continuing WotC's "green's creatures are terrible" policy) that are just bigger and dumber with tribute and don't really provide opponents with a difficult choice. 6/6 creatures that die to a 1/1 with deathtouch and don't do anything else are rarely worth the mana, especially since neither of them solve the problems that you want solved.

Heroic and Bestow both come back and I haven't really seen anything in those mechanics that wow me more than the last time. Again; it's still early but Bestow hasn't gotten any cheaper and Heroic hasn't gotten any more interesting. I don't know if it's fair to ask limited-level mechanics to occasionally step up and be constructed worthy but it would be nice if they occasionally tried.

Last we have Inspired, which is the second mechanic from the Shadowmoor block they've reskinned. First, I miss the untap symbol. Just look at it: it's cooool. An aesthetic thing but still, I prefer the elegance of that symbol over the keyword + explanation that Inspired has.

Second, by making this a triggered ability instead of an activated one, it's suddenly become a mechanic that has a lot more to manage. With cards like Gilder Bairn, if you could tap the creature, you could untap the creature as an ability innate to the creature, so you didn't need to try and get a second card out there to get the effect. In comparison, Inspired happens no matter how the creature becomes untapped, which guarantees you the effect at the beginning of every turn (should your creature be untapped). They even nerf the Inspired mechanic on certain cards by requiring a mana payment on the triggered ability, in order to keep players from simply abusing combos.

My preference is for the former, as it means that 1) I don't need another card or time in order for the ability to be used. A card that is good unto itself is better than one that relies on outside forces. 2) I like the untap symbol. 3) For me, the Shadowmoor mechanic is clearer as it's written in the traditional Cost; Result style. Inspired uses a whole lot more text and is less elegant.

It's not a terrible mechanic, although I can't say I'm excited about the implementation of it so far. Gaining life, paying to generate creatures, these aren't terrible things but they aren't that cool either. The one that is generating the most buzz is Pain Seer, because it allows for card draw but even then the buzz has been relatively calm.

We'll see what the future holds; with nearly 100 cards to be revealed, I'm hopeful there are some gems amongst this bunch but since so many rares have been displayed, that hope isn't very high.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

The Cracks Are Showing

This is what I fielded against Noah a few days ago, with the additions bolded:
2 Ornithopter
3 Shield Sphere
2 Phyrexian Walker
3 Necrotic Sliver 
4 Enduring Renewal 
4 Phyrexian Altar 
3 Recover
4 Stupor
4 Tendrils of Agony
4 Drain Life
2 Inquisition of Kozilek 
2 Enlightened Tutor 
8 Plains
1 Orzhov Guildgate
4 Caves of Koilos
10 Swamp
The mana base is tweaked a bit more to black and Tendrils of Agony have been inserted as the main win condition. I decided to keep the Drain Lifes in as both removal and win conditions 5-8.

Unfortunately, I had a recurrence of my matches with Fuz: against a mono-blue Delver deck, I couldn't get any disruption online, so when I attempted to win I found myself stymied by disruption (especially Vendilion Clique, damnit). Against Scapeshift, I won a game on turn 4 by just comboing out but again: I couldn't get enough disruption online to give me time to win the match.

I did defeat a mono-B deck rather soundly because my deck blanked his removal spells, which left Noah with dead cards in hand.

What I noticed was that when I drew disruption-Inquisition and Stupor-I was able to put together a viable shot at winning. When I didn't-the Delver match was especially conspicuous for this-I got walked over. The card that felt repeatedly useless in all matchups: Necrotic Sliver. Every time I had it in hand, I felt like there was something more important that I needed to be doing and it was easily dispached.

I really like Necrotic Sliver's potential but...I need six mana a turn to make that potential work and I need that six mana right away. Since I'm finding success using discard the answer seems to be; more discard and that's where I'll head for the next matches. 

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

I Weathered Every Storm

D'oh! I meant to post this yesterday! Sorry. 

I played two matches against Fuz and found them to be unsatisfactory.

Against a mono-U aggro phantoms deck, I just folded. In the first game, I had everything but the Enduring Renewal and I made a terrible mistake by casting Necrotic Sliver instead of Phyrexian Altar. All I needed to do was draw the Renewal and I had the win but instead of playing to win, I was playing to not lose and it made me squirrely.

Looking back though, I don't think I had much of a chance.

My second match was against GW beasts and in game one I won the game on turn 4. All the pieces showed up and boom, done. Game two did not go as well.

Sigh. I was wondering if Necrotic Sliver was the problem but I don't think that it is: it's a win condition and I need those. Barter in Blood, though, that was an issue. Sure, if Enduring Renewal is out then life is good but if it isn't then I'm just throwing away opportunities to win. Murder is probably a better solution or even Soul Snare, since I can search it up with Enlightened Tutor if I need to. No Mercy is probably a good idea too, for the same reason. Anything that delays them is all the better for me.

I spent my time on a walk, thinking about this deck, trying to work out what the victory conditions were and how I could maximize the fact that I want to cast a ton of spells in one turn and win. Then it hit me: There are already decks that do this.

Storm decks.

So let's talk about Storm. The mechanic, first introduced in Scourge, the last set of the Onslaught block- making a brief reappearance in the Time Spiral block- was a mechanic that allowed players to repeat a spells' effect as many times as spells previously played in that turn. It was also a mistake that WotC had to make. Storm can probably be considered the last gasp of Old School Magic, where spells were more dominant and important than creatures and locking your opponent out of the game via countermagic and weird locks was more relevant than what happened on the battlefield, because that was what Wizards thought people wanted.

It was also absolutely terrible for the game. That's not just me talking: people at Wizards have said the same thing and the reason they say it is because Storm is the epitome of what a combo deck wants: a win condition that allows it to utterly ignore anything that their opponents do.

I hate Storm. I hate it because it encourages Magic decks that want to play solitaire instead of an game where you interact with people. I hate it because it forces Magic into a game of incredibly narrow strategies instead of opening it up to many different ones. That isn't to say that I am hoping for a game where a whole bunch of mediocre strategies are viable, (although I appreciate that since there's still a level playing field) it's to say that once you route a game into 'whose version of solitaire plays faster' then you're removing one of the integral elements of playing a game with other people.

Now, all that said, I am tired of investing in decks that are off the beaten path but refuse to use the best options available to win. Perpetual Motion dies to a Counterspell at the right time. Why should I accept that? I'm not running a tuned, savage deck, I'm running this oddball, interesting creation that I should do as much as I can to make it a deck that has a chance to win against the decks that people play against me. I should challenge them but I should also challenge myself to make decks that feel like I am being true to the spirit I want to play in, as well as provide me with legitimate chances at winning.

So the Drain Life should come out-at least a few of them-and Tendrils of Agony should come in. Maybe Tendrils should replace Barter in Blood, since Drain Life can be used as both removal and a way to extend my game? I'll have an updated list for Thursday to try out.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Perpetual Motion

Brief aside: Wizards of the Coast is changing the design of Magic cards and, although they provide a host of reasons for it, (and you can compare the changes between the old and new from links I found at Reddit) it was stonethorn who pointed out that it's likely because of the increase of counterfeit cards, especially those from China. I found an article on spotting fakes at Quiet Speculation and thought it would be worth everyone's time to bone up. Cheers!

I named this deck after the Anthrax song and it is my opinion that Anthrax was a better band with John Bush as the lead singer than they were without him. The lyrics were more interesting, the music was heavier and they were just a better, scrappier band with him. Then there was drama and he ended up leaving the band and Anthrax just wasn't as interesting with him out of the picture.

That was kind of random. Decklist!
2 Ornithopter
3 Shield Sphere
2 Phyrexian Walker
3 Necrotic Sliver 
4 Enduring Renewal 
4 Phyrexian Altar 
1 Gerrard's Verdict
3 Recover
4 Stupor
3 Barter in Blood
4 Drain Life
2 Inquisition of Kozilek 
2 Enlightened Tutor 
9 Plains
1 Orzhov Guildgate
4 Caves of Koilos
9 Swamp
Perpetual Motion is a combo deck that hopes to stall the opponent out using discard until it can establish a board state which has Enduring Renewal and Phyrexian Altar on it. From there, Necrotic Sliver can destroy all their permanents, or Ornithopter, Phyrexian Walker or Shield Sphere can generate infinite mana and then victory is just a Drain Life away. Barter in Blood is good creature control and with a Renewal out, costs me nothing. Enlightened Tutor helps me assemble combo pieces and Recover lets me get back creatures that have to go away because of Renewal's drawback.

What I've found out from analyzing the deck is that there is too much white and not enough black in here. I could probably exchange at least one, maybe two Plains for Swamps and still be in good shape. I could probably add another win condition-Exsanguinate is a fine choice-in order to build in the redundancies that a deck like this really needs, swapping out the Gerrard's Verdict. Winning is better than discard.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

I don't even...

So, here's a photo of me locking stonethorn out of the game. Because I was not paying attention, I cut off the left side where it would show that I have two Sphere of Safety in play, stunting any possibility for an attack. He cannot pay 20 mana per creature to attack me, which is good because he easily has enough end the game otherwise.

The problem is, I cannot find a win condition. I just need one, and the game is over. Many turns later, stonethorn draws a Austere Command and the game is over.

Now, the good part is that my deck held off a more aggressive one for quite some time. Stalling a red-white deck with a fortress deck is always a positive. Not drawing one of seven ways to win, however, was a drag. The other drag: Mana Cylix. It's great on turns 1-3 but after that it is a dead card. I have eight ways to produce extra mana and with some intelligent mulliganing decisions, I generally find myself doing pretty well on mana. Copy Enchantment did fantastic work as the extra copies of Verdant Haven or Fertile Ground, but also extra curses as needed.

Still, because this deck is weak(er) to combo decks ensuring I have a great game against creature decks is paramount. This means being ruthless about what will or won't help. In this instance, I have to concede that Opalescence and Curse of Inertia aren't useful because by the time I get the fortress set up, my opponent has more creatures than I could break through using the Opalescence/Inertia combo.

So I have some choices: 1) remove those cards 2) add in mass creature kill or 3) add in some extra card drawing effect. A combination of 1+2 or 1+3 would probably be best.

My first instinct is to add in some creature kill in order to allow the Opalescence plan to come online. However, I have never, not once in the games I have played, found the Opalescence plan to be a viable one. Opalescence comes down and I don't suddenly have an assortment of scary creatures: I have a bunch of vanilla creatures waiting to be Terminated. Why should I dilute my deck more to try and get my plan B to work?

Mostly I am tired of putting my time into schemes that do not provide me with a reward. Opalescence and Curse of Inertia come out. Card draw; in. I am going to ramp up, fortress up, draw cards, find my win condition and win, damnit. No more fucking around with an idea half-assedly.

At least for now.