Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Eternally Yours

Another Eternal Weekend come and gone, and as usual I have some thoughts about it.

The location: Columbus, I have to admit, mildly exceeded my (breathtakingly low) expectations. Minus points for the convention center being under so much construction, but plus points for: North Market, chicken & Li├Ęge waffles at North Market, cheeseburgers with pirogi on them, and a con center food court with surprisingly good Indian food. Worse hotels, but eh, can't have everything.

The event itself: in past years, the main events have been one-day affairs, with Legacy on Saturday (with some portion of the top 8 being played out Sunday morning), then Vintage on Sunday. Growth has made that a little bit awkward, which is a good problem to have, and the way it was run this year was with Vintage swiss rounds on Friday, Legacy swiss on Saturday, and both top 8s playing out on Sunday. This is one solution, I guess, but hopefully they iterate on it next year. It's a little awkward that unless you made top cut, Sunday is kind of a dead day. Especially weird was the timing of the bigger side events; Legacy and Vintage both had a 25K Showdown, but on Friday and Saturday mornings, opposite the main event (so Legacy Showdown on Friday vs Vintage Champs and vice versa). If you wanted to play in both Champs events and made top-cut in neither, the big Showdown event on Sunday was… EMA Sealed 15.

I dunno. That seems wrong to me.

I also really missed the chance to warm up with a Vintage side event before Champs without arriving another full day early. I got in Thursday night and it's almost impossible to arrive early enough to play anything when flying from the west coast, and I'd have benefited from having a few rounds to settle into things before a cold start Friday morning. This isn't a reason to change anything – cross-country logistics are what they are. Just something I personally missed a little.

Anyway, Vintage champs. I was going back and forth a lot on my deck selection the week before Champs. I'd seen Rich Shay stream a Stax list the week before and played it at a Knight Ware event:

- Creatures 3 Phyrexian Revoker 1 Lodestone Golem - Artifacts 4 Sphere of Resistance 4 Thorn of Amethyst 4 Tangle Wire 3 Smokestack 3 Ensnaring Bridge 3 Null Rod 3 Crucible of Worlds 1 Trinisphere 1 Chalice of the Void 1 Bottled Cloister 1 Ghirapur Orrery 1 Mox Emerald 1 Mox Jet 1 Mox Pearl 1 Mox Ruby 1 Mox Sapphire - Lands 4 Mishra's Workshop 4 Wasteland 4 Ancient Tomb 3 Mishra's Factory 2 Inventors' Fair 2 Bazaar of Baghdad 1 The Tabernacle at Pendrell Vale 1 Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth 1 Tolarian Academy 1 Strip Mine
2 The Tabernacle at Pendrell Vale 4 Leyline of the Voiddef 4 Grafdigger's Cage 3 Dismember 1 Karakas 1 Null Rod

(Sideboard may be off a few cards from the original.) I fundamentally love the list. Inventors' Fair is the real deal (check the actual Champs finals to see it do its thing), it and Bazaar give you far more card selection than Shops usually has access to, and Smokestack is just an utter delight. I did have some real concerns about piloting it though: primarily time. In the KW event, I had a game draw vs a Monastery Mentor deck where game one went on for 35+ minutes during which I kept my hand empty to lock out his board full of tokens under a Bridge but nonetheless needed a long time to Smokestack away his entire force to start swinging in. Game two he blew me out with a Vintage Mentor draw, and time was called before we'd even presented for game 3. I really, really didn't want that to happen again, especially early on: it would guarantee ending up in the "slow players who don't scoop to unwinnable board states" bracket all day.

As an additional note, I spoke to Dr. Shay at the event and asked him why no Sol Ring. He said it was to make Mental Misstep completely blank, but also that he'd been wishing he had it all day. I'd probably play it over Ghirapur Orrery which, while an extremely hilarious card, has some flaws. My chief fear is that letting opponents play two lands in their can give them an opportunity to present an explosive turn that breaks out of a multiple-Sphere lock, particularly if they have access to Gush to tap and replay lands. That's a situation Stax must avoid at all costs: once opponents break out of the box it's very hard to get them back in.

So ultimately I went the other direction and ran an Esper Mentor list taken from one Brian Kelly played in Season 5 of the Vintage Super League, with only a few tweaks to increase the amount of main-deck removal.

- Creatures 3 Dark Confidant 2 Monastery Mentor 1 Snapcaster Mage - Planeswalkers 2 Jace, the Mind Sculptor - Spells 4 Force of Will 3 Mental Misstep 3 Gitaxian Probe 3 Gush 3 Preordain 2 Swords to Plowshares 1 Ancestral Recall 1 Brainstorm 1 Demonic Tutor 1 Flusterstorm 1 Merchant Scroll 1 Ponder 1 Spell Snare 1 Tendrils of Agony 1 Time Walk 1 Yawgmoth's Will - Artifacts 1 Sensei's Divining Top 1 Black Lotus 1 Lotus Petal 1 Mana Crypt 1 Mox Emerald 1 Mox Jet 1 Mox Pearl 1 Mox Ruby 1 Mox Sapphire - Lands 4 Flooded Strand 1 Misty Rainforest 1 Scalding Tarn 1 Marsh Flats 3 Tundra 3 Underground Sea 1 Island 1 Library of Alexandria
3 Containment Priest 2 Disenchant 2 Rest in Peace 2 Tormod's Crypt 1 Ceremonious Rejection 1 Declaration in Stone 1 Devout Witness 1 Steel Sabotage 1 Swords to Plowshares 1 Plains

The deck was damn fun and quite powerful, and also quite hard to play. In addition to the usual challenges in sequencing Gush and blue cards, you also have to be constantly aware that you only have two Mentors and one Yawg Will, and when those are gone, your backup plans are not great. This is emphatically not a deck that's set up to go for a full Tendrils for 20, nor is it well-equipped to hold down the board while you tick up for a Jace ultimate. It has neither the aggressive combo potential of a Fastbond or Dark Ritual list nor enough countermagic and removal to play the Jace game. I went 4-5 on the day, and several of my games were lost to one of the oldest rules of Magic: "Mis-evaluation of role = game loss". Either I played out my limited Mentors too aggressively and lost them, or I held back too long trying to set up a combo-control gameplan only to have it disassembled by a Cavern of Souls-powered Thought-Knot Seer.

The most common kills with the deck once you factor out "lol Vintage" starts like T1 Mentor + Time Walk nonsense was probably a short Tendrils for half their life followed by Mentor beats for the other half. This plan does an excellent job of punishing opponents who think they have 2-3 more turns and highlights Mentor's role as "the white Tendrils of Agony". I got a fair number of incremental Bob beats in too.

Of course, Bob has risks in a deck with 4 Force, 3 Gush, 2 Jace, and a Tendrils, but they're probably overstated. I took, I think, five Gush/FoW hits to the face all day, and only once did it matter in terms of giving the opponent the win. Three were utterly irrelevant, one I was dead anyway, and one just made me fire off a short Tendrils for 12 to give me some buffer that I Willed back later. I mean, if Bob flips a Gush, the upside is now you have a Gush. Life could be worse.

Obviously I'd have loved it if my record had been better, but in contrast to last year, where I was frustrated and angry with myself for some bad decisions made in deckbuilding that haunted me all day, this time I felt like I had a strong 75 and my failures were primarily from needing more prep time with the deck: a perennial problem I have given how often I change decks in various formats, compounded by losing access to a convenient LGS and the inability to tolerate Magic Online.

In a side event on Sunday I tried it with a few modifications: maindeck -Library, +Tolarian Academy and sideboard -Steel Sab, -Declaration, -Rejection, +Jace, the Mind Sculptor, +Moat, +Balance. The maindeck change was an attempt to make Tendrils mana easier to assemble. Library is disgustingly powerful, no question, but as a deck with Gush but no Fastbond, I often struggled to get to 4 for Tendrils even if I had the BB color requirement. This met with some success on Sunday, but I'm far from 100% sure it's worth losing Library. In the board, the idea is to improve the Eldrazi matchup by turning into a board control Jace deck post-board rather than continuing to fight them on the ground. Moat is a deck that aggro decks in the format have almost always struggled to beat, even if they have a flier or two. A third Jace gives you an additional way to win over your own Moat, and Balance is just the most efficient Wrath in the format. Alas, I didn't really have the chance to try out this plan in the small side event, but I do think it has potential.

On the whole, the Vintage event was a blast. I saw many archetypes, played nine rounds of great Vintage, and like I said, while I wouldn't have turned down a better record, I'm not nearly as frustrated by my results as I was last year.

And in Legacy… well, what can I say. I played the Ben Perry Special:

Though I did run a Trash for Treasure in the flex board slot over Ben's Tendrils. Won one game with it, lost one game Tendrils would have won, so I'll call it a wash. It's a fun card though. Put up a 6-4, including a memorably nasty loss to a RB Reanimator player taking out some tilt on me by reanimating two Chancellor of the Annex, which I think was slightly uncalled for, but in talking with him, he had excellent reason to tilt, and a very tense game of Rocket Launcher Tag with an Omni-Show deck, putting in a Goblin Charbelcher off his Show and Tell vs his Omniscience and trying to kill him in response to his cast Griselbrand via two Simian Spirit Guides and a Pyretic Ritual. He went desperation Brainstorm and, alas, managed to find Cunning Wish for Wipe Away with Ritual on the stack, but… almost had him. That match also featured the only time I've ever actually spliced Desperate Ritual with a second copy for extra mana, and I owe three months of drafting 5-Color Arcane in Modern Masters and a few tournaments with the Grishoalbrand Modern deck for teaching me how that mechanic actually works.

For once, I managed to avoid paying actual factual cash for any really outrageous purchases. Just did some trading and turned a good-sized stack of random foils and spare Khans fetchlands into a smaller stack of other random foils I wanted more, plus a graded Moat I liberated for the good of the game.

Great event overall, and it's time to start preparing for next year: starting with the Vintage Control Restoration Project. Watch this space.

Updated: FORGOT THE MOST IMPORTANT THING. I FOUND ONE:

Or, really, my friend Post found one, at a booth while I was in round. He correctly picked it up immediately before the waveform collapsed and it ceased to exist. So that's awesome too.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Dark and Stormy

Let's talk about counting to ten. It's among the first things you learn as a tiny barely-sentient proto-person. But did you know that it can also help you crush people's dreams, leaving them a withered husk of shattered hopes? All because of a little thing called "storm", and playing Magic the way Richard Garfield intended: with a big pile of broken nonsense.

- Kill 1 Tendrils of Agony - Cantrips 1 Ancestral Recall 1 Brainstorm 1 Ponder 4 Gitaxian Probe - Protection 4 Duress 1 Chain of Vapor 1 Rebuild 1 Xantid Swarm - Tutors 3 Dark Petition 1 Demonic Tutor 1 Vampiric Tutor 1 Imperial Seal 1 Tinker - Storm Engines 1 Mind's Desire 1 Necropotence 1 Yawgmoth's Bargain 1 Yawgmoth's Will 1 Memory Jar 1 Timetwister 1 Wheel of Fortune 1 Windfall - One-shot Mana 4 Dark Ritual 2 Cabal Ritual 1 Black Lotus 1 Lion's Eye Diamond 1 Lotus Petal 1 Simian Spirit Guide - Persistent Mana 1 Mana Crypt 1 Mana Vault 1 Mox Emerald 1 Mox Jet 1 Mox Pearl 1 Mox Ruby 1 Mox Sapphire 1 Sol Ring 4 Gemstone Mine 3 City of Brass 3 Underground Sea 1 Badlands 1 Tolarian Academy
3 Xantid Swarm 1 Abeyance 1 Blightsteel Colossus 1 Time Walk 1 Library of Alexandria 1 Echoing Truth 2 Hurkyl's Recall 1 Disenchant 1 Ancient Grudge 2 Toxic Deluge 1 Doomsday

Alright, that deck has some ambitious choices. Let's break it down, because I didn't pick any of those cards on a whim. Some of the edges are very small, but many small edges lead to large ones (as long as you don't obliterate those small edges by playing like an idiot the way I frequently do).

But then, I might be wrong.

The Kill

1 Tendrils of Agony. No more, no less.

Why I might be wrong: I would be shocked if we don't see an uptick in Mindbreak Traps as the Vintage meta resettles around a post-Lodestone Golem world. Now most countermagic is not a serious issue for the single Tendrils; you have access to both Will and Timetwister to rebuy it if need be. But… well:

In fact, I was That Guy just a few weeks ago with my Mentor list and thought I was about to cruise to an easy win with the game one Mindbreak Trap. Alas, the treacherous villain has a second Tendrils. It's not a totally unreasonable choice, and it opens up more options for a mini-Tendrils to either pad the clock or draw more cards off Necro/Bargain.

Cantrips

1 Ancestral Recall, 1 Brainstorm, 1 Ponder, 4 Gitaxian Probe

This is a typical configuration. Probe is an awkward card in a lot of ways; the 2 life can be a significant cost if it hurts your ability to Necro. It also makes mulligan choices more opaque and if it's your only chance to draw business, all you can do is knock the top of the deck and see what falls off. It can scope out the opposition but rarely actually helps fight them (note the lack of Cabal Therapy in this list). Sometimes all it does is let you know how screwed you are.

But besides cycling for velocity, to draw Vampiric/Seal targets, and to pad your storm count, it also feeds Spell Mastery, making it easier to turn Dark Petition on. Now, it's trivially easy for this deck to hit Spell Mastery naturally. But post-board, you'll occasionally need to rebuild your yard quickly after dealing with something like a Leyline of the Void or Rest in Peace, and Probe can get you there without tying up mana. It's very hard to justify playing anything less than the full set, and believe me I've tried.

Why I might be wrong: Preordain is an exceptional draw-smoother and is particularly good at two things this deck frequently wants: turning marginal keeps into great hands, and finding both protection and a missing piece of the puzzle. It does slow the deck down though, and this version of Storm does not want to slow down, because it is not equipped to do anything against other combo decks except rush in under them.

Protection

4 Duress, 1 Chain of Vapor, 1 Rebuild, 1 Xantid Swarm

The bare minimum I think I can get away with. Duress over Thoughtseize because there are relatively few creatures I care about game one vs. keeping that life to Necro with, and over Cabal Therapy because the deck plays so little true disruption you cannot afford to miss. Hate is more diverse than it used to be when you'd just name Force of Will then do your thing. Naming Force and seeing double Flusterstorm, Mindbreak Trap is a disaster you cannot afford.

Rebuild maindeck over Hurkyl's Recall is a recent change enabled by the LSG restriction. With Shops decks no longer having access to a full 12 stackable Sphere effects (plus Trinisphere), the additional mana, while still significant, is no longer the difference between "frequently castable" and "never happening". The cycling lets you ditch it more easily in irrelevant pre-board games and even grab a Vampiric or Seal target from time to time. Chain of Vapor is a catch-all for any random nonsense and in a pinch can be a handy Storm engine and even Threshold enabler for Cabal Ritual: target your own Moxen, floating mana, sacrificing your lands, replay all your Moxen. Free Storm and you can go from 4 to 7 cards in the yard easily and often netting positive mana besides.

Xantid Swarm…

Oh, Xantid Swarm.

Someone holding a full grip of Flusterstorms.

I'm just gonna drop this here and move on.

Another minor note: if, for example, an opponent has a Trygon Predator in play to block your Xantid Swarm, but you're not ready to go off, but you also can't afford to take a hit from the Trygon because it will eat your Mox Sapphire which also happens to be your only blue source at the moment, you can swing, resolve the trigger, and Echoing Truth the Predator before block step, immune to countermagic no matter how much free mana they have up. Let's see Defense Grid pull that off.

Why I might be wrong: To quote Jerry Maguire: "We live in a four Mental Misstep world." Now, at present I'm comfortable with that, because even getting one Misstep out of their hand with a Swarm can be a window through which I can throw the entire rest of the deck. The other big flaw of Xantid Swarm is turning on their main-deck creature removal, which would otherwise be comfortably dead game one. This is awkward and does not feel good, and unlike Defense Grid, Swarm doesn't really protect itself at all. I've also had it lead to awkward places with Vampiric Tutor, where I didn't have a way to draw the target immediately in my second main phase (under Swarm protection) but couldn't risk casting it on their endstep or my upkeep (because they probably have a hand full of countermagic Swarm is keeping them from using) and couldn't main-phase and pass the turn for fear of Jace, the Mind Sculptor. Yes, that's a very specific set of circumstances, but it's not a fun place to be.

A lot of people with a lot of Vintage experience and much sturdier records than mine are, and continue to be, on Defense Grid. On the other hand, as long as that's true, the bees are an unexpected next-level play. This is the dance of the metagame, akin to the music of the spheres.

I still think City of Solitude is terrible though.

Tutors

3 Dark Petition, 1 Demonic Tutor, 1 Vampiric Tutor, 1 Imperial Seal, 1 Tinker

Demonic, Vampiric, and Tinker are all pretty consensus picks. Some people like having the Blightsteel Colossus in the maindeck. I prefer it in the side, especially with the number of Monastery Mentor decks in the format packing Swords to Plowshares, so I'm usually casting Tinker for Memory Jar as a draw 7. I have also been known to Tinker for Black Lotus, Mana Vault, Mox Jet, and on one occasion where I had gotten way too cute with sideboard plans, Helm of Obedience. (PS: Fuck your Rest in Peace, buddy.) So you really never know.

Why I might be wrong: The controversial picks here are the Dark Petition count and Imperial Seal vs. Mystical Tutor vs. something else (many people have argued for the 4th Petition). Seal is a frustrating card: even having cast it dozens of times, it's always, somehow, just a little worse than I remember.

The problem, and the reason I keep coming back to Seal, is mana. I haven't kept a record, but if I had to guess what my top three targets are with Seal, I'd say Black Lotus, Tolarian Academy, and Dark/Cabal Ritual (depending on Threshold). Seal is a terrible first tutor but a very solid second one with the flexibility to get engines like Necro or protection like Xantid Swarm, all things Mystical struggles with. The "Mystical for Demonic for X" chain can set up some amazing Will turns but when you're in a hurry or pinched on mana, it's often too clunky.

Many of them are also things Dark Petition does badly, especially in post-sideboard games, which is one of the reasons I haven't stuck with the 4th copy. A hand of Dark Petition + Seal can find a Chain of Vapor, bounce their Leyline/RIP, then needs only one more spell to upgrade Petition and get the party rolling. A hand of double Dark Petition… well, look, there's a reason we don't play Diabolic Tutor in this deck, and even if you have Spell Mastery, DP is only Demonic Tutor if the card you're finding is black. Moving to the Rebuild also makes Seal ~1.6% better than it used to be. Small edges, people, small edges.

So that's Imperial Seal: It's probably the worst card in the deck, but something has to be. (PS: If Jace, the Mind Sculptor makes a big comeback, I will sprint to the 4th Dark Petition over Seal. Or, more likely, switch to a Jace deck.)

Storm Engines

1 Mind's Desire, 1 Necropotence, 1 Yawgmoth's Bargain, 1 Yawgmoth's Will, 1 Memory Jar, 1 Timetwister, 1 Wheel of Fortune, 1 Windfall

Oh, look, a bunch of restricted cards. Not a lot of room to argue on these, and there's not really anything else you'd want to add.

Why I might be wrong: The two cards you'll often see people cut are Mind's Desire and Windfall. Desire is very blue-mana intensive for a deck full of black rituals and Windfall is easily the worst draw-7 except for the 2% of games where you get to bounce someone's entire board and Windfall for like fourteen cards.

I sideboard both out pretty frequently, and I can't blame anyone for wanting to cut them even if Mind's Desire is among the sweetest cards in the format. #thedangerofcoolthings

One-shot Mana

4 Dark Ritual, 2 Cabal Ritual, 1 Black Lotus, 1 Lion's Eye Diamond, 1 Lotus Petal, 1 Simian Spirit Guide

Again, pretty stock. The most flexible slots are the 2nd Cabal Ritual and the Spirit Guide. I'm playing both to increase my explosiveness, but a deck that wanted to pump the brakes just a little in favor of more resilience could swap them for either cantrips or protection pretty easily. You would, however, lose the chance to Tendrils for 18 then win the game with Monkey Beats, and that is an experience worth having at least once.

Persistent Mana

Artifacts: SoLoMoxen, Crypt, Vault

Broken artifact mana. Vault is a simple decision: if you're playing Mind's Desire and Memory Jar, you definitely want Vault; if you're playing only one, you probably want it; if you're playing neither, cut it.

Lands: 4 Gemstone Mine, 3 City of Brass, 3 Underground Sea, 1 Badlands, 1 Tolarian Academy

Fuck fetchlands and fuck basics.

Welp, we're done here!

Oh, you probably want me to defend that manabase, as though it were not a self-evident work of mad genius delivered to us in a time capsule from the mysterious world of 1998. OK, let's talk lands.

Disclaimer: if Brainstorm gets unrestricted (I cannot imagine this ever happening), this land base becomes trivially incorrect and we all need to get back on the bus to Fetchlandtown. That's not even in dispute.

The problems with the fetch/dual/(1-2)basic manabase are these:

  1. You will draw basic Swamp with a hand full of blue cards.
  2. You will draw basic Island with a hand full of black cards.
  3. They always have the Strip Mine.
  4. I'll unpack that last one a little. In Legacy, fetching a basic makes you safe forever except against the handful of Ghost Quarter-wielding vigilantes. In Vintage, you're never safe. Fetching a basic represents intentionally crippling yourself for the rest of the game and does not even guarantee you get to keep it. That sucks. That sucks bad.
  5. When I'm getting Wastelanded, I want more lands in my deck, not fewer. Have you been Wasted off every source of black mana in your deck? Or been slowrolling a fetchland to get that last one exactly when you need it and whoops, there it was in your draw step? Or just been on zero lands tapping the top of your deck every turn for a mana source to appear there? That whole "deck thinning" argument cuts both ways.
  6. Worse sideboard options. Black is good against their hand but not the top of their deck, and can remove creatures but nothing else. All blue's removal is either countermagic or strictly temporary, and the desperation Hurkyl's against robots attacking for lethal only to watch them replay all their lock pieces in the second main is a gruesome way to go. You often end up in three, even four colors anyway, and that leads us to:
  7. Screwing yourself on turn two. We've all been there: you fetch up the Badlands to play Ingot Chewer and cast Dark Rituals later, but draw blank, blank, Hurkyl's while they rebuild their board. You fetch Underground Sea to play cantrips and rituals but can't find a red source for Chewer before you die to 5/3s and 2/1s. And on, and on, and on. 5c lands also play better with Moxen; Island + Sapphire = no rituals. City + Sapphire = All the rituals.
  8. The Vancouver Mulligan. If I mull to 6 on the play, I want that scry. I don't want to keep a Necro on top or bottom a blank just to shuffle my deck immediately, and I also don't want to pass turn one without doing anything if I have plays to make. Every time I mulligan with this deck, I want every edge I can get to pull back to parity.
  9. Every fetchland is one fewer card off Necro.

And I'd like to emphasize: this is not just about the upsides of 5c lands, which I think anyone who's played Magic for any length of time can tell you have a lot of upsides if you're willing to pay the costs. It's also about the hidden or even merely understated downsides of fetchlands. Maybe you want to play them anyway. Hell, if you cut all the way down to two colors, you can build a rock-solid, Wasteland-resistant manabase. What I'm done registering is "X interchangeable fetchlands, Y black duals, 1 Swamp, Mountain in the sideboard" plan. It has shat the bed too many times.

And you know what? Yeah, I've lost games with this deck, because I'm an idiot. And some of them were because I was choked on mana in the absolute sense (and at one of those was probably because I went for Mind's Desire because #dangerofcoolthings instead of a safer play). But none of them have been because I had the wrong colors. And I get to play any sideboard cards I want.

Why I might be wrong: I really don't think I am. Of the many dubious choices in this deck, the mana is the one I have the most confidence in, and part of that is just down to speed. A slower list might want to set up a board where they keep multiple fetchlands in play then fetch with all of them in one turn and dodge Wasteland, but this list is happy to go land, play some nonsense, get Wastelanded, play the next land and play more nonsense. Especially since there are more lands left in the deck and most of them make all the colors I care about.

The one flex slot is the third Underground Sea. I've experimented with this one a lot. The three cards I've tested in that spot are the main-deck Library (which I don't like), the 4th City of Brass (iffy) and Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth (has some upsides). Next on the list to try is Sunken Ruin, which is useful for washing Ritual/Petition mana into blue spells or Tolarian Academy mana into black, but runs the risk of godawful one-land keeps.

City of Brass vs. Mana Confluence: Look, you do you. For myself, I think that anytime I'm locked under Tangle Wire the game is already close to lost anyway, and City can cast Tendrils at 1 life (announce Tendrils, pay costs, stack City trigger then Storm trigger, resolve all storm copies to get above 1 then take the ping). Those are thin margins and I break the tie in favor of gorgeous old-frame flavor over a generic name and boring "puddle of paint" art. If you play the Urborg, Mana Confluence is probably better. But really, whatever floats your goat.

Sideboard

3 Xantid Swarm, 1 Abeyance, 1 Blightsteel Colossus, 1 Time Walk, 1 Library of Alexandria, 1 Echoing Truth, 2 Hurkyl's Recall, 1 Disenchant, 1 Ancient Grudge, 2 Toxic Deluge, 1 Doomsday

I change my 15 almost day to day as I think, discuss, see other match results, rediscover old cards, decide to try some cute new tech, see some cute new tech I need to make sure I beat, etc. So I'm not going to offer a full-throated defense of this particular incarnation, but I'll walk through my inspiration.

Rule #1: Never, ever cut the Echoing Truth.

Rule #2: See Rule #1.

Library and Time Walk: I am really iffy on Time Walk in Storm. In isolation it's a disgustingly powerful card. In practice, it's often an Explore that resets your storm count. If I had Blightsteel Colossus or Empty the Warrens main, I'd put Time Walk back in too. Without them, the only card it really plays well with is Necro, and Necro is already pretty good. Library comes in against control-heavy blue decks, Walk comes in against combo mirrors and most games where I bring in Blightsteel, and both come in against Shops, where both making an extra land drop and just having another land are both valuable.

Abeyance: I played a 1/1 split of Silence/Orim's Chant at my last event, and they were only "fine". I'd considered Abeyance but decided the one extra mana was a prohibitive cost for a card I have to cast exactly the turn I'm going off. But on reflection, I want to give it a trial and see how things go. The cantrip isn't nothing either.

Toxic Deluge: Maybe this should be Drown in Sorrow or split with it. Hate bears like Ethersworn Canonist are the thing you're primarily concerned about, and hey, free Scry 1 beats paying life to Deluge. In Legacy I'd be on snap Massacre, but it's much easier to play around Massacre in Vintage with artifact mana, and besides, look at this deck's lands and count the swamps. There are a lot of other options here too. I'm just not sure which I like most right now.

Doomsday: I just do not know what to do with this slot, so I'm throwing stuff against the wall to see what sticks. The intention is to have access to a tutor/storm engine I can board in that isn't dependent on the graveyard (no Ill-Gotten Gains, Past in Flames, or 4th Dark Petition), prohibitively mana expensive (no Time Spiral), or flat-out underpowered (no Ad Nauseam or assorted other nonsense). Diminishing Returns is a possibility, if a risky one with only the one Tendrils, and I have a few even more dubious ideas kicking around the back of my mind. I played Doomsday at the last event, and cast it twice but resolved it neither time, so I'm not ready to give up on it yet.

Day Two Updates (20 Apr)

After kicking some thoughts around, I'm pretty sure the correct sideboard sweeper is Pyroclasm and the correct sideboard "dubious alternate engine/tutor" is Gifts Ungiven. Not certain. But pretty sure.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Witch-Maw Mentor, aka Soggy Junk

Let's talk about my greedy-ass four-color Mentor deck. Which I totally did not steal from Rich Shay (though I did a little bit). Here's the version I sleeved up for Knight-Ware last Sunday:

- Creatures 4x Monastery Mentor 3x Deathrite Shaman 1x Jace, Vryn's Prodigy - Enchantments 2x Sylvan Library - Instants 1x Ancestral Recall 1x Brainstorm 1x Dig Through Time 1x Disenchant 1x Echoing Truth 1x Flusterstorm 4x Force of Will 2x Gush 3x Mental Misstep 1x Mindbreak Trap 1x Swords to Plowshares - Sorceries 4x Cabal Therapy 1x Demonic Tutor 1x Ponder 1x Preordain 1x Time Walk 1x Treasure Cruise - Artifacts 1x Black Lotus 1x Mox Emerald 1x Mox Jet 1x Mox Pearl 1x Mox Ruby 1x Mox Sapphire 2x Sensei's Divining Top - Lands 4x Flooded Strand 1x Island 1x Library of Alexandria 2x Misty Rainforest 2x Polluted Delta 2x Tropical Island 2x Tundra 2x Underground Sea
1x City in a Bottle 2x Containment Priest 1x Disenchant 1x Ethersworn Canonist 2x Grafdigger's Cage 1x Innocent Blood 3x Leyline of the Void 1x Mystic Remora 1x Plains 1x Rest in Peace 1x Toxic Deluge

Long story short, I started from Shay's VSL Sylvan Mentor list. I cut the red (losing Dack Fayden and Ancient Grudge along with a few sideboard cards) to add black, primarily for Cabal Therapy and Demonic Tutor. I also wanted to play the full set of Mentors, and since I was now in BG, figured I could shore up the iffy manabase with Deathrites. To make room, I cut Seeker of the Way and Dragonlord Ojutai, one copy of Gush, and all three Gitaxian Probe, reasoning that especially without the Seeker, the life loss to Probe was too much in addition to taking hits off Sylvan Library, aka the green Necropotence

Then I tweaked some one-ofs, assembled a sideboard from basically the first fifteen cards I saw on the nearest flat surface, and went off to jam some Magic.

Disclaimer: Yes, this 75 has a shops matchup charitable described as "dubious". I mean, come on: a four color manabase and the only artifact hate two copies of Disenchant? I had a cheaty advantage though: I already knew Knight-Ware's most reliable Shops player was on Oath for the day, and it's otherwise usually a room full of blue decks and Storm. So I just went for it. Your mileage may vary.

The very short tournament report: beat Landstill round 1 because Sylvan Library; beat Storm round 2 because Cabal Therapy and countermagic; lost to a different build of Esper Mentor because I didn't have enough removal; lost to Big Blue because Tinker; lost to BUG Fish because I didn't have enough removal.

So already we've learned the big lesson fo the day which is: play more removal. It's been a long time since "1 STP and #yolo" did enough work in Vintage, and if you ever want to feel a sense of crushing disappointment like no other in Magic, try drawing Innocent Blood in the Mentor mirror. Yeah. It bad. (In my defense, I picked Blood for removal-resilient Oath/Tinker targets and the occasional Ojutai or other nonsense, while still remotely castable against Sphere, Sphere, Lodestone openings. I still think the card is good and somewhat underplayed. But it should be like the fifth or sixth removal card, not the third.)

I had two other significant notes. First, 4 Cabal Therapy is definitely too many. Drawing one is good. Drawing two is great. Drawing the third is… less great, especially when you really need to be getting business. Second, Jace VP is not good in this list. There are Mentor decks he's OK in, but his major advantage is just being a viable turn 1 play in a deck that's otherwise short on them, and this build isn't: Therapy and Deathrite Shaman fill that hole nicely. Jace, Vice-President under-performed every time I cast him, and by the end of the day every time I drew the card I wished it were a Snapcaster or even Regrowth instead.

Now, the manabase: it's a little dodgy, but it's not actually as bad as it looks. I had a couple rough patches where I could only get two of my non-blue colors, usually because I'd fetched like an idiot some previous turn. It's critical to resist the urge to add more green cards though (like the aforementioned Regrowth, which I'm really tempted to try anyway) because G is the color I least want to fetch. It's for getting Sylvan out and nothing else, and if Sylvan can be cast off a DRS, even better. That's also why I eschewed Abrupt Decay (it's uncastable) and Nature's Claim in favor of Disenchant; W is the color I'm going to want almost every game. However, WW is never, ever going to happen, which is why I'm giving cards like Supreme Verdict a miss.

Here's what went right: Monastery Mentor is the white Tendrils of Agony and wins games. Maindeck Disenchant is still a totally reasonable choice. Sylvan Library is as good as advertised and two is the correct number. Maindeck Mindbreak Trap is a very meta-dependent choice but I was happy with it on Sunday. Echoing Truth is a card I always want to have in the 75, but it can probably go to the board for now.

I'm not going to defend almost anything about that sideboard except the basic Plains, which did yeoman's work against BUG fish. Let's just move on.

I think the deck has a lot of potential though. Here's the revised version I'm thinking of that addresses a few of its shortcomings.

- Creatures 4x Monastery Mentor 3x Deathrite Shaman 1x Snapcaster Mage - Planeswalkers 1x Jace, the Mind Sculptor - Enchantments 2x Sylvan Library - Instants 1x Ancestral Recall 1x Brainstorm 1x Dig Through Time 1x Disenchant 1x Flusterstorm 4x Force of Will 2x Gush 3x Mental Misstep 1x Murderous Cut 2x Swords to Plowshares - Sorceries 3x Cabal Therapy 1x Demonic Tutor 1x Ponder 1x Preordain 1x Time Walk - Artifacts 1x Black Lotus 1x Engineered Explosives 1x Mox Emerald 1x Mox Jet 1x Mox Pearl 1x Mox Ruby 1x Mox Sapphire 2x Sensei's Divining Top - Lands 4x Flooded Strand 1x Island 1x Library of Alexandria 2x Misty Rainforest 2x Polluted Delta 2x Tropical Island 2x Tundra 2x Underground Sea
4x Containment Priest 3x Grafdigger's Cage 2x Toxic Deluge 1x City in a Bottle 1x Echoing Truth 1x Ethersworn Canonist 1x Disenchant 1x Serenity 1x Plains

The changes:

Jace VP out, Jace TMS in
Yep, we're done with Fetal Jace and going back to Jace, Better Than All. I want a card that legitimately takes over a game, not Suspend {1}{U]: Ponder.
-1 Cabal Therapy, +1 Swords to Plowshares
Phase 1 of Operation Play More Removal
-1 Treasure Cruise, +1 Murderous Cut
Phase 2; Don't get me wrong: Treasure Cruise is a house and a half in this list. In fact it might be correct to cut the Dig instead if I'm going to cut either one. The deck can only realistically play two Delve spells though, and I wanted (a) a third instant removal spell in the maindeck that (b) was castable without W mana. There are a lot of cards this could be: one of my Mentors got hit by Snuff Out on Sunday too, which is totally a reasonable option. Cut seems like a card worth testing though.
-1 Mindbreak Trap, +1 Snapcaster Mage
Phase 3; this deck has a lot of cards I'm perfectly happy to Snapcast, especially now that Jace VP isn't around for freebie Time Walk rebuys. One card that does not play especially well with Ol' Snappy is the Mindbreak Trap though.
-1 Echoing Truth, +1 Engineered Explosives
Phase 4; I moved Echoing Truth to the board (never cut Echoing Truth) in favor of EE. EE is a super-flexible card in a four-color deck, and plays very well against Sphere/Thorn openings.
Unfucking the Sideboard
Look, I'm not cutting City in a Bottle. Don't even ask. But this is the board I should have brought on Sunday. Obviously sideboard is the part that's most likely to shift around as the metagame drifts, but I think this is a solid place to start. Other cards to I'd consider for the sideboard besides the usual range of narrow hate options: Strip Mine for beating LoA and animated lands, Devout Witness as repeatable Shop removal, Seeker of the Way for fueling Sylvan and winning creature races, and Silumgar, the Drifting Death for Mentor mirrors. Yes, I'm serious. Come on, how sweet would that be? (Spoiler: So sweet.) Hey, don't knock it 'til you've tried it.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

A deck, a brain, and a friend.

I've had this discussion on Twitter a lot over the last year or so, and I think it's finally time to back up and discuss it in more depth than a series of pithy 140-character soundbytes.

Magic: The Gathering has, as of the last few blocks, pushed in a new direction creatively. The new emphasis is on a small cast of core characters who, as planeswalkers, can travel between the worlds of each new setting and provide a narrative through-line. This has allowed the MtG creative team to flesh out this cast in more detail than they've attempted in a long time, and created branded heroes and villains who serve a useful marketing role as the 'faces' (and heels) of the game.

And I hate it.

I hate it so much.


Today I want to talk about why. Because it's not that I FEAR CHANGE, and it's not nostalgia, and it's not a knee-jerk reaction to Battle for Zendikar being a dumpster fire of a fall set, and it's not even that I dislike their chosen core planeswalkers for being shallow stereotypes of the game's five colors in service to the Almighty Brand (though I do and they are).

Specifically, I want talk about why it's bad structurally. I'm not judging the relative quality of the story line…

… OK, that's a lie, I am definitely judging the shit out of it. But I'm not putting those judgments into this particular article. This is not the article where I rant about the card names I hate like "Gideon's Reproach" and "Nissa's Housecat" and "Garruk's Awkward Boner".

This article is about why I think it harms the game of Magic: The Gathering, irrespective of the quality of the narrative itself or the marketing power of "the Gatewatch", Magic's own personal branded Super Sentai team. (If you're imagining Ugin as Zordon right now, I'm not going to stop you.)

But the pithy Twitter version is this: Magic went from a game about me to a game about Jace, and that sucks ass.

Now let's unpack that, because there's a lot going on. I'm going try to avoid getting too bogged down in game crit terms of one variety or another, but I promise nothing.

You Are a Planeswalker

Does it still say that on the packaging of any Magic products? It used to on the back of the starter decks, and I think in the rulebook somewhere, but these days who knows.

Some review: a game like Magic involves, broadly speaking, two overlaid 'levels' of interaction. It has the in-game fiction, and it has the mechanics. These each inform each other to some degree, and together make up the conceptual narrative of the game, the 'shared imagined space'. In many games, the player has an avatar, a game piece that represents them within the game's shared imagined space. This avatar can be a complex game element with its own behaviors and properties, or as simple as a token pushed from one space on the board to another. In other games, the player has no direct avatar. Instead they represent merely a vague impersonal strategic force. They move pieces around and direct behaviors, but they have no meaning within the shared imagined space. In a game like Twilight Imperium or Warhammer, I can attack your pieces but cannot, in any real sense, attack you.

But all the way back to the beginning, a central conceit of Magic: The Gathering was this: You Are a Planeswalker. As spells were cast, creatures summoned, and artifacts wielded, these things were done, conceptually, by the player. The deck is an extension of the player's mind, casting a spell an act of the player's will. When they have no creatures to block or prevention effects to stop a Lightning Bolt, there's no avatar on which damage is marked, there's only the vitality remaining to the planeswalker within the shared imagine space. I can Lighting Bolt you, right in your smug stupid face. Who's salty now, asshole?!

It may seem like I'm making a wonky abstract point about game theory, but this has real consequences. It creates for players a completely transparent simulacrum within this shared imagined space. The player is the character, the character is the player. I'm convinced it's one of the quiet secrets behind Magic's longevity and attraction. Unlike, say, the World of Warcraft TCG, your successes and failures are not the successes and failures of Orky McDuderson. They are your successes and failures.

Metaplot and the Dark Times

I've played many hours of tabletop role-playing games. It's actually my favorite hobby, although it's such a nuisance logistically that I can devote far less time to it than I'd like. A lot of RPGs take place in a published setting, like D&D's 'Greyhawk', or White Wolf's 'World of Darkness'. One of the perennial struggles the publishers of these settings face is the extent to which they change and grow over time. There's a delicate balance to strike between creating a believably dynamic setting (and getting players to buy more books) vs making the setting entirely publisher-driven, which risks alienating players whose campaigns may have gone in a different direction (and if my last adventure featured the downfall of the Grimdark Empire of Killfuck Soulshitter at the hands of the players, I'm sure as fuck not going to buy the new Killfuck Soulshitter 2: More Grim, More Dark sourcebook).

And without getting too far off course (TOO LATE), let's just say that in the 90s, the pendulum swung waaaaaay too far towards settings oriented around a publisher-supplied narrative arc, called a 'metaplot'.

It was in everything. For a while you couldn't swing a dead cat in a Vampire game without finding out two books later the dead cat was the phylactory of Baba Yaga who was in Dallas for some reason you'll find out next year in the can't-miss sourcebook "Dead Cats of Texas", the turning point of the "Year of Forced Analogies". PS we hope you didn't do anything with that dead cat or Baba Yaga or Texas 'cause if you did a whole shitload of new books are about to be really unhelpful to your game.

But the problems with metaplot run much deeper than just a lot of shitty books you can't use. Yes, even deeper than Samual Haight, Lord of all Munchkins. (… It's a long story. You kinda had to be there.)

The problem with metaplot is that it changes who the game is about. It…

OK, I'm going to use a Forge-ism here, and if you're allergic to Forge-isms, I'm sorry, and if you don't know what I'm talking about, you don't want to. You're fine, just keep reading.

It deprotagonizes the player-characters. They go from driving the narrative from a central position in the shared imagined space, to reacting to a narrative imposed upon it.

Now, there are genres where that's OK(ish). Horror, for example. And there's certainly room here for a long digression about what 'protagonist' means and the GM's role in refereeing the shared imagined space and the social contract and the creative agenda and The Impossible Thing Before Breakfast.


The point (FINALLY) is that the default assumption is that the game is centered on the player-characters, and when the kudzu of metaplot took over game lines and threatened that assumption, it hurt those games. It didn't make them that worse to play, because you could just shrug and ignore it, and that's what a lot of people did. But it made them worse products, because instead of being about you the player, they were about That Guy, and if you didn't care about That Guy, you didn't care about the product.

I always care about me. That Guy can go fuck himself.

Jace is That Guy

So who is Magic: The Gathering about? Who's the protagonist?

I can tell you who, for example, The Avengers 2: Age of Ultron is about. It's about James Spader. He had a simple dream: he only wanted to kill all humans, and for that, he is relentlessly persecuted by costumed busybodies. There's also a lot of punching.

But I can't tell you who D&D is about.

I can tell you who my last game of D&D was about. It was about me and my friends doing cool shit, blowing stuff up, and being weirdly frightened of doors. And I can tell you who my game before that was about. And so on.

But I can't tell you who D&D is about.

And I can't tell you who Magic: The Gathering is about. Because I Am A Planeswalker. Now my last game of Magic? It was about me and my opponent throwing lightning bolts and counterspells and giant squids at each other. And the game before that was about me and a different opponent making land drops until one of us blinked. And the game before that was about me watching yet another opponent play Dredge by themselves and quietly wishing I'd taken another mulligan to find some sideboard cards. I'm emotionally invested; I can identify not only with Magic as a strategy game but with the core narrative element of the shared imagined space, because, well, it's me.

But now, I can tell you who Magic: The Gathering is about. It's about That Guy, who isn't me. He does the cool things. He seals away the Eldrazi. He does… whatever he did in Return to Ravnica block. My battles are no longer the centerpiece of the game. His are. And now I'm only invested in Magic to the extent that I care about Jace. And spoiler: I don't.

It's Jace's world. We just play in it, now.

What The Hell Happened in RTR Anyway?

I said I wasn't going to comment on the storyline quality, but I want to make one side point.

Right now, the Standard format has on the order of 1200 cards in it. A typical game of one-on-one constructed Magic with 60 card decks might have ~90 unique gamepieces in the shared imagined space. That's on the high side, but go with it.

If I tried to present a compelling story arc by exposing the receipients to an 8% subset of it, chosen and ordered randomly, in 50 minute increments, I would be justifiably tazed.

But like I said, this is only a side point. It's a problem, but it's not The Problem.

The Problem is that I play Magic to play my game.

Not That Guy's.

Fuck That Guy.