Clash of the Titans

Tonight, we do something… different.

Tonight, we push the boundaries of what is possible with the meager resource pool of 12 geeks and 540 pre-sleeved Magic cards.

Tonight, we play team cube sealed.

Dear reader, you will of course recall my primer on the nature and appeal of cube-drafting… skimmed it again? Good.

With all that in mind, let me tell you a tale of triumph, tragedy and camaraderie.

Late in the evening, we descended like a cloud of geeky, chuckling locusts upon Spellbound Games (Glasgow’s premier gaming store – and arguably the most community-integrated business I have ever encountered). Huddling in our threes, we filtered through the stacks of over-powered cards, trying to find amongst them the most appalling, degenerate things we could possibly do to each other.

What’s that, you ask? Who’s ‘we’? Let me break it down for you:

Team Handsome AKA The Thawing Glaciers

Gerry, Duncan and Billy

Bacon Buddies

Antwan, Stuie and Chris

Doomgape

Paul, Doug and Peter

Inter YerMaw

Gordon, James and Yours Truly

I would spout lavish biographies for each contestant, but I’d only end up failing to do the other gents justice before musing for several paragraphs about why I make a twat of myself in every photo; that would be a painful process for all involved. Let’s get to the meat of the thing.

How it goes down

Each of the four teams receives a stack of 135 randomly determined cards, a quarter of the total cube pool of 540. Over the following 50 minutes, they must collaborate to build three decks from the cards available in that stack, adding basic lands as required from a separate pool.

The deck-building process is a delicate balancing act. The teams must consider several factors:

  • What archetypes are available?
    • Does the stack contain a host of small, efficient creatures and burn which lend themselves to aggro decks?
    • Is it jammed full of controlling effects which clear the board, draw cards and present enormous threats late in the game?
    • Are there any highly synergistic combinations of cards which suggest a particular type of gimmick deck?
  • What colour combinations and splits are viable?
    • Most decks in a cube event will be in at least two colours, even if one is very clearly the primary colour and the other a splash.
    • When building three decks, it’s important to consider which colours are strongest in the pool; which colours will sit most easily together, based on the mana-fixing which is available; and how it is appropriate to split up certain colours.
    • Some colours lend themselves to being split as splashes amongst multiple decks, if the right cards are present; for instance, red and black typically have removal options without heavy mana commitments, so they might be apportioned to several decks in order that they all have a chance to deal with problem creatures.
  • What is the appropriate power distribution amongst the decks?
    • Once a pool is opened, certain combinations of cards may represent a powerful core or theme for a deck.
    • If multiple packages like this exist, how hard should the team work to split them across the decks? Should they be as evenly spaced as possible, or crammed into one deck to create a monster which will almost guarantee a match win each round?

There’s more, but hopefully this will give you a flavour of how difficult the decisions faced by each team are.

Our personal challenge

In last night’s event, the men of Inter YerMaw were faced with a series of tough calls. a quick glance at our pool revealed:

  • The tools for a powerful green ramp deck
  • The mana fixing and variety of effects for a fairly interactive White/Blue/Black (Esper) midrange deck
  • The creatures and burn for a Red/White (Boros) aggressive deck with a clunky curve, but brilliant equipment

In the process of building, a few things became clear:

  • It was difficult to decide on the optimum configuration for the Esper deck, as the effects were almost universally of medium power and the options were so varied. Even today, we are still debating card choices!
  • The Boros deck was walking a difficult tightrope between including all the amazing equipment in our pool and ensuring that it had enough creatures to actually carry that equipment.
  • Close to the end of deck-building, with the clock ticking loudly, it started to dawn on us that the Green deck (now including black and a series of very neat interactions) was absurdly powerful.

With the ‘end of deck-construction’ alarm ringing, we were forced to accept that complete optimisation of our strategies was a pipe-dream. Now we had to roll the dice, sling some spells and hope that it all came together.

Playing the event

Once deck construction is complete, each team chooses a seating order for its members, which will determine the opponents each will face in their matches: Team A’s player 1 will face Team B’s player 1, etc.

The teams are then randomly drawn against each other, after which point the players will sit down opposite their numbered counterparts and play a match. The team’s result overall is determined by the aggregate of the match results: if Team A’s players 1 and 2 win and their player 3 loses, Team A will win the round 2-1.

One endearing feature of the team format is the ability to confer with your wing-men (or gal-pals; cube is a gender-equitable pursuit) throughout the event. In practice, this means consultations over whether starting hands are suitable or should be mulliganed, or guarded discussions about which sequence of plays will produce the best results on key turns.

Round 1: Inter YerMaw vs. Doomgape

Nervous and excited, we took up our positions.

  • In seat 1, wielding our strong Green/Black (Golgari) deck, I faced off against Peter.
  • In seat 2 was James, packing the Esper midrange brew against Paul.
  • In seat 3, Gordon rounded out the line-up, facing Doug with our Boros concoction.

With apologies to the Magic-illiterate segment of my audience, I’m afraid I must now get technical.

The Golgari deck was exceedingly complex, running a toolbox of creatures which could be fetched by Fauna Shaman and recurred with Genesis and Volrath’s Stronghold. Squee was one of these creatures, greatly enhancing the strength of the interaction. This made it very powerful in the long game and incentivised me either to slow down the play, or accelerate my own game plan.

   

Luckily, acceleration was not a problem, as the deck also had a suite of ramp spells to put me turns ahead in mana development. It also had some strong cards to abuse the early ramp, in Grave Titan and Wurmcoil Engine.

 

Finally, it was packing a Crucible of Worlds engine, which included Strip Mine, Wasteland and Evolving Wilds.

   

Yes, folks, we really opened this in a sealed deck.

My games against Peter, who was playing a Red/Green (Gruul) beatdown deck, went largely as follows:

  • Peter would mulligan, then deploy some early threats whilst I developed my board.
  • I would activate Fauna Shaman, resolve a Plow Under, or play a strip mine and start to improve my hand while attacking Peter’s mana.
  • Eventually, I would stabilise on a low life total, with Peter hoping to draw a burn spell which could finish me off while I tried to close that window of opportunity by gaining life or killing him quickly.

The range of powerful options and trickery available to the deck made it a joy to play. Peter fought valiantly to make an impression for his team – and twice had me dead to any burn spell on top of his deck – but ultimately didn’t have the tools to push through a ridiculous series of interactions. In fact, in our second game the board state became so stupidly lopsided that his teammate Paul was only able to laugh out loud when consulted.

Of course, Paul himself was playing a deck which created either laughter or despair for his opponents. James found out, to his cost, what it was to play a deck full of solid spells against a who’s-who of the cube’s top 20 cards. Paul started the match with a first-turn Sol Ring and things went downhill from there. Each time I glanced to my right, he had added a Kokusho, or a Liliana of the Veil, or a Griselbrand, or a Recurring Nightmare to his side of the table.

   

James’ face was, increasingly, a work of dark poetry.

When the match was over, Paul even managed to flash a Mind Twist which he had never deployed, leaving us to roll our eyes and wonder why a cold, distant god despised us so.

In the pivotal clash, Gordon lost out narrowly to Doug’s slightly ‘bigger’ aggro deck, whose creatures slightly overmatched his own. After the fact, he declared himself unhappy with the overall feel of his deck, foreshadowing a lesson we would eventually learn for future Team events.

With the next clash looming, Gordon and I broke for some much-needed chicken snacks.

The only thing I regret is waiting until 9pm to get started on this bad boy.

Result: Doomgape 2-1 Inter YerMaw

Round 2: Inter YerMaw vs. Team Handsome

As if it wasn’t intimidating enough to face a crack unit named for their formidable beauty, I had the misfortune of lining up against ‘The Handsomest Man in Scottish Magic’ himself, Billy Logan.

Seat 1: I faced Billy, sporting a Blue/Red (Izzet) control deck.

Seat 2: James took on Gerry, who was playing a base-Green ramp deck which included the brutally powerful Mirari’s wake.

Seat 3: Gordon’s opponent was Duncan, whose deck I didn’t get a great look at – suffice to say it was also playing some red spells.

My games against Billy were extremely uninteractive, with one player or the other gaining the ascendancy through a series of powerful and inevitable plays.

In the first, I managed to win despite the fact that Billy resolved a Bribery which put my Grave Titan into play under his control. The secret? Pack Rat, an egregious card in limited formats which was part of my Fauna Shaman toolbox.

Suffice to say that, without true mass removal, Billy’s otherwise excellent deck had very little in the way of answers to a rat.

In the second, Billy countered my Fauna Shaman to cut off early access to the rat, then locked me out with a Frost Titan as I stumbled slightly on mana.

The third game was a true testament to the power of Pack Rat. I kept a hand without green mana, but with a rat and two colourless utility lands. A rat on the second turn essentially ended the game, although Billy played like a man possessed to try and cut it off. Eventually I drew Squee setting up an unbeatable engine which quickly ended the match.

Sadly, in seat 2, James had been overrun by the powerful, early monsters Gerry had ramped onto the board; while in seat 3, Duncan had similarly claimed the spoils for Team Handsome.

As we prepared for the next round, James and Gordon were both expressing dissatisfaction with their decks, while it was increasingly obvious that a traffic cone could have piloted my degenerate stack to a winning record.

“Activate Pack Rat, discarding Squee. GG mate.”

Had we made an error in not consciously splitting its powerful combinations across all three decks? It certainly felt that way to my teammates – and I was left to regret waiting until so late in deck construction to start focussing on those cards, which if addressed earlier might have yielded a more even distribution of our pool’s ‘oomph’.

Result: Team Handsome 2-1 Inter YerMaw

Round 3: Inter YerMaw vs. Bacon Buddies

Entering the home straight, our team had the dubious honour of being the only one firmly out of contention for 1st place. Nonetheless, a quick pep talk had us firing on all cylinders again, determined not to go quietly into the night. Imagine Judi Dench quoting Tennyson in Skyfall and you won’t be far off.

Seat 1: I faced Chris, running classic Blue/White (Azorius) control.

Seat 2: James was up against Antwan, piloting a spicy Boros recipe which included Stoneforge Mystic plus Sword of Body and Mind.

Seat 3: Gordon met Stuie, rocking a pretty nutty Green ramp deck himself.

My matches with Chris were not tremendously well-balanced. Although he set a high standard for power with his opening play, Library of Alexandria, I was able to fire off Plow Unders in both games and get my engines online to grind out the wins handily. I cannot overstate how powerful the axis of Fauna Shama/Squee/Genesis/Pack Rat was when my opponent had  no way to interact with my graveyard.

The fun stuff was happening elsewhere, however…

Gordon had the joy of staring down the following sequence of plays from Stuie in their first skirmish:

  • T1: Forest, Elf, Mana Crypt, signet.
  • T2: Forest, Primeval Titan, cheeky wink.

   

Predictably, he did not take the game from that position.

As Stuie continued to demonstrate why fast, plentiful mana is a bad thing for game design, the deciding exchanges were taking place in seat 2. James and Antwan were reaching the climax of their third game as I wrapped up my own match and I was able to join in the final decision of the game.

The board state:

  • James on high life, with 4 cards in library and Consecrated Sphinx in play alongside Celestial Colonade and oodles of Mana.

 

 

  • Antwan on 3 life, with 2 cards in hand and two mana available, a Stoneforge sporting the Sword of Body and Mind.

 

It was Antwan’s end step and James cast Impulse, which in that situation, read: “Tutor your library for a card, then stack your library as you choose.”

The choices were: three uninteractive cards and Remand.

“I take the Remand, right?” asked James.

“Definitely,” I replied, adding nothing to the process except an opportunity to claim later that I was partially responsible for his triumph. Yes, I am that guy.

Seconds later, James swung with vastly more than lethal damage and counterspell backup against a defenseless opponent. It’s testament to just how hard we’d been kicked in previous rounds that we flinched when Antwan pretended to tap mana… before extending the hand with a broad smile.

We had done it! At least one victory was ours – and a greater one had been delivered to Team Handsome, who took down the tournament thanks to our result and some dubiously calculated tie-breakers.

Result: Inter YerMaw 2-1 Bacon Buddies

As the dust settles…

Based on Billy’s stated position of being so pumped about winning that he could, “…play a trumpet with his c**k,” alongside the general sounds of laughter and enjoyment heard around the shop during the event, I’m happy to conclude that this one was a hit. We’re certainly keen to run more team cube in the future – and I expect the only problem we’ll have is oversubscription.

On our next outing, I’ll be particularly conscious not to concentrate all the power in one deck; also, I’ll try to ensure that all the players are involved and invested in the deck they’re playing, so that we don’t have a situation where someone is less than comfortable with their build (as Gordon ended up being this time).

I’d like to offer thanks to Joao, for generously donating his premises to make our cube dreams come true; and to our cubers, who were just a fabulous bunch to rock some cards and some laughs with.

Before I sign off, I just have to share some of my idiotic deck with you all. Ask yourself: does this seem fair? Until next time, cube-lovers…

Wrong, on so many levels

2 thoughts on “Clash of the Titans

  1. Pingback: 1 | Caveat Lector

  2. Pingback: For the Motherland | Caveat Lector

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