Clouded Judgement

Death Cloud The trouble with public polls is that they don’t lie – even when you’d like them to.

You just want me to lose money, you merciless animals

You just want me to lose money, you merciless animals

Ah well, I can’t be too unhappy. It’s a license to brew, after all… even if it is likely to take me down some strange alleyways.

What we learned in our last adventure

A couple of weeks back, I received a sound thrashing from the Modern metagame as I tested my Boomtown land destruction deck. In the course of taking my licks, I learned the following lessons:

  1. Proactivity is King: As a rule, you can’t sit back in Modern. You need to be doing powerful things starting early in the game.
  2. Disruption needs to be backed up… HARD: It’s great to disrupt your opponents, it really is. But don’t expect to wreck their hand, or mana, then have ages to close the game out. In Modern, there are too many good top-decks. You have to kill them quickly.
  3. The field is too wide to be hated out: Modern is full of different, powerful decks doing different, powerful things. Cute metagame decks are not the ticket to success… with only 60 cards in your library, you can’t hate ’em all.

In short, we have to go big or go home. Just to make it spicy, I also have to go big in a way that isn’t terribly popular with other people. Where to start?

A bunch of terrible decks

Toshiro Umezawa

Those of you who know me will not be surprised to hear this, but the first thing I did was throw all my hard-earned lessons out of the window to build a durdly, slow, ‘cute’ metagame deck.

    

O – M – G guys, with the printing of Illness in the Ranks we can set up the Toshi interaction way earlier in the game!

  • We can gain INSANE card advantage by flashing back the instants that make up most of our deck!
  • We can auto-trigger morbid spells and blast people out with a bunch of 5-point Brimstone Volleys!
  • We can dredge all our amazing instants with Darkblast…AND IT’S AN INSTANT!
  • GIFTS UNGIVEN IS A 6-FOR-1, SO MUCH VALUE AAAAAAAARRRRRRGGGHHHH

This deck was absolutely horrible, but I still had several goes at it. I justified it to myself with the mantra that Illness in the Ranks completely shuts down Splinter Twin. Eventually, I realised that I had incorporated so many cute interactions, there was literally no space to fit a way to reliably win.

This ‘deck’ is everything that’s wrong with the Modern cardpool. Let’s close the book and move on. Next on the list…

Salvaging Station

  

Back in the day, I used to play KCI in Mirrodin-era standard. My version was the vanilla, activate Myr Incubator then sac the tokens to Belcher you strategy. I remember getting demolished in a mirror match by one Paul Lim, who played a salvaging station variant which seemed very sweet. Although I have very few delicious artifact lands to feed into the furnace, I decided I’d have a bash at reinventing the strategy.

Sadly, I’m not actually good enough at Magic to build this deck. The rules interactions around my half-remembrances of how Paul played it escape me; trying to work them back makes me feel like an idiot:

  • If I animate a Blinkmoth Nexus, I can sac it to the Ironworks and get an untap trigger for Salvaging station…so far, so good.
  • Now… with the Nexus in my graveyard, is it still an artifact? If so, I can replay it with the station…unless it’s still a creature.
  • My head hurts.

I started to think about another approach:

  • I can activate a Chimeric Mass, sac it to the Ironworks and get an untap trigger for Salvaging station…so far, so good.
  • Now… I can replay it with the station. Still so far, so good.
  • Oh, wait. It’s a 0/0 if I activate it and just dies.

Determined not to let this go, I tried one more time:

  • If I crack an Origin Spellbomb, then sac the Myr token to the Ironworks, I’ll get an untap trigger for Salvaging station…so far, so good.
  • Now… I can replay the Spellbomb with the station, use one of my two floating mana to crack it again… and repeat the loop. Still so far, so good.
  • I end up with as much colourless mana as I want. Where does that get me?

Well, lots of places.

  • If I have some other trinkets, like Conjurer’s Bauble or Chromatic Sphere/Star, with a second Salvaging Station I can draw my deck… that’s a thing.
  • If I can put a Disciple of the Vault into play, I can burn the opponent out with triggers.
  • If I have an Emrakul in my hand, I can cast it and probably win.

I’m not going to lie to you, this deck actually sounded quite sweet in my head. Then, reasonable Dave got involved and ruined everything. Brewer Dave, you are an idiot! He screamed. Here is why:

  • You have a combo which requires 3 cards to assemble, but which doesn’t just win when they do. It then needs a range of other cards to do anything at all.
  • It folds to a single counterspell on the Salvaging Station, or the Ironworks. It folds to a single piece of artifact kill.
  • This is the kind of thing players do when they’re starting out: build Rube Goldberg machines. It’s forgivable after 3 months of playing the game, not after 20 years.
  • And besides… you’ll be playing the bloody thing on Magic Online. DO YOU HAVE ANY IDEA HOW MANY CLICKS THIS WILL TAKE?

And just like that, the dream was over: shattered by a brazen lack of click-economy. I will do many things in pursuit of brewer’s euphoria, but not even I am prepared to sacrifice the touchpad of my laptop and the viability of my index finger.

Sway of the Stars

  

I could suspend a Greater Gargadon, right, then suspend Sway with Jhoira, right, then somehow hang on for ages and BOOM! Hasty Gargadon, swinging for your whole life total!

I need a drink.

Old favourites are the best

I needed something with oomph. I needed something which could disrupt the fast decks, but also resolve big, game altering effects and deploy threats which killed in short order. Frankly, I needed a break.

Walking into work at 5.45am, I decided to stop churning decks through my brain and just watch an LSV Modern Masters draft video. At one stage in the draft, Luis was presented with the opportunity to draft a Death Cloud, after passing a Greater Gargadon.

“Death Cloud/Gargadon… yeah, no-one’s beating that,” was the general flavour of his remarks on the subject.

 

Jerry Maguire-style, he had me at ‘Death Cloud’. I was all-in.

Let’s just sacrifice everything!

Licking the nib of my digital pencil, I started to scribble down a list of things which would work well with a mass sacrifice scheme.

The first name on the teamsheet was Bloodghast. Sac him, discard him, mistreat him however you like – he is coming back for more, like a trusting (if undead and blood-hungry) puppy.

If we’re going to be playing with the little Vampire who could, we might as well abuse Smallpox too. Discarding a Bloodghast to Smallpox, then playing a land is a sweet, sweet feeling. Now, how else might I break the symmetry of Smallpox?

  

OK, bear with me on this one. I want you to imagine the following sequence of plays:

  • Turn 1, make a Black/Red dual land and suspend Greater Gargadon.
  • Turn 2, make a Swamp. Play the talisman. Tap it for a colourless mana, return the Swamp to hand and play the borderpost.
  • Turn 3, Smallpox; in response, sac your only land to the Gargadon.

It’s a tiny thing, but by playing out the Smallpox in this way, we can eke out a tiny bit of value from that land we would have been forced to send to the graveyard anyway. One time counter on a Gargadon can be the difference between success and failure.

Oh, and we’re not justifying these mana-rocks purely on the basis of a corner case like the one above – they’re also great with Death Cloud, which will not force you to sac them. Needless to say, in an ideal world all our actual lands will be going the way of the Gargadon while Death Cloud is on the stack.

  

I was also going to need more creatures which interacted well with sacrifice – preferably the kind who will bounce back after a dose of the Pox, or a close encounter of the cloudy kind. Geralf’s Messenger seemed beefy and well suited to the job, but I resolved to try Epochrasite in this slot too; in all likelihood, the deck would regularly be working with very restricted mana, which might leave the cheaper creature better placed within my overall strategy.

  

At this point, I finally decided to start learning the lessons of my previous foray into Modern. I wanted to start interacting with my opponent immediately – and I did not want to be run over by an aggressive deck without hope that I could staunch the bleeding.

Death Cloud is great, but it’s slow in the context of the format. These two cards would keep me in the game until my bigger effects came online.

Now, time for a confession: I couldn’t really make this deck without running the next card… and there is no way I can describe her as ‘bargain basement’.

Lili is the only truly expensive card in my deck, but she’s essential to its function. She gives me more hand disruption, another way to interact early with a hexproof idiot and an ultimate which, on the rare occasion it goes off, is pretty relevant to my plan of inflicting a crippling resource grind on the opponent.

So, what does this monstrosity end up looking like?

The Meatgrinder

The beast, unveiled.

The beast, unveiled.

This is what I’m proposing to take into the two man queues.

I opted for Epochrasite over Messenger, both because it is cheaper (resources will assuredly be scarce) and because it is a better blocker in the face of early aggression. It also comes back more than once in a longer game, which can be surprisingly relevant.

I included Damnation in the maindeck, in order to have an answer to sturdier creatures and a catch-all in the event that I was being savagely beaten down as my gameplan was stuttering. If I expected more slow decks, these two slots would probably be occupied by Thoughts of Ruin, but as it stands, those are relegated to the board.

My game plan is simple:

  • I want to suspend a Gargadon, ideally on the first turn, then begin a brutal slog of resource destruction which I can mitigate from my own side by abusing my sacrifice outlet and recurring threats.
  • I want to nickel and dime my opponent with as many Smallpoxes and Liliana activations as possible, so that, by the time I bring a hasty 9/7 monster to bear, they will have as close to zero permanents and cards as possible. If I can achieve full blowout by resolving a Death Cloud from which I can easily recover, but which floors them completely, so much the better.
  • I want to squeak every point of damage and life loss out of my Bloodghasts, Epochrasites and spells as I can, so that my Gargadon is as close as it can be to lethal.

My deckbuilding motivations are pretty simple, too:

  • I want to beat the most successful Modern deck of recent times, Melira Pod.
  • I want to be brutally hostile to aggressive creature decks in Game 1.
  • I want to be able to transform, after sideboarding, into an even more focussed Land Destruction deck against slower strategies which commit less early pressure to the board.

  

Time will tell how successful I have been on each of these counts, particularly against such a resilient strategy as Melira Pod – but I feel like I’m starting from a good place. Sam Pardee, after his GP winning performance with the deck, said that his worst matchup was ‘anyone with Pyroclasm’… I am the maindeck Pyroclasm guy. Smallpox is also no picnic for creature-combo decks; in the board I have Torpor Orb to nerf any infinite-trigger shenanigans.

Playing the deck… tightly

I’ve run various iterations of this deck through the Tournament Practice room to get a feel for it and sand off the rough edges. Those practice games have taught me that, more than any other strategy I can remember playing with, this one rewards precise sequencing and awareness of the game state.

Here are some of the mistakes I made when I started to learn the deck:

  • I routinely missed opportunities to sacrifice a Bloodghast to Greater Gargadon before playing a land, which would recur it for free.
  • I forgot several times to hold priority when casting a Smallpox, Death Cloud or Thoughts of Ruin; this meant that I missed out on a number of free sacrifices to my Gargadon and instead wept, as my permanents sank uselessly into the graveyard alongside my opponent’s.
  • I once forgot to take account of the 1-point life loss incurred by casting a Smallpox; in combination with the damage incurred from playing the spell with Talisman of Domination, I dropped to zero life and lost a game I was favourite to win.

These mistakes are soul-destroying and leave one gripped with the conviction that they are the poorest player of the game who has ever drawn a card. But, certainly for someone of my modest ability, they are necessary: from the agony and shame, I have forged an iron determination to eliminate such idiocy from my play.

I want to never miss a sacrifice, or a Bloodghast trigger.

I want to never accidentally pull my Gargadon off-suspension with a sacrifice-inducing spell on the stack (something I have caught myself about to do twice, but thankfully averted).

I want to be able to look at myself in the mirror after every match.

Here we go again

The people have spoken: it’s time to jump back in those queues and see if we can manage better than an ignominious 25% record.

If I lose, I lose alone; if I win, I win for Gerry Boyd and every other man, woman and child who has ever resolved a Death Cloud with a tear in their eye.

For the Motherland

I didn’t play in the last two rounds of World Magic Cup Qualifiers (WMCQs), because I literally didn’t have enough Planeswalker Points to qualify me for competition.

Unless an eighth day is added to the week solely for the purpose of playing Magic – a day which also comes with a government-backed entitlement to free childcare – the odds are that I will find myself in a similar position come next year.

Does this mean that I don’t care about the glory of playing to represent my country?

Does this mean I wouldn’t love a chance to pull on a replica 1978 Scotland shirt and strut around some tournament centre in the USA, pretending I’m a better player than I actually am?

Does this mean I won’t be cheering on our boys this year, under the Twitter hashtag #tartantcgterrors?

No, dear reader, it does not.

A moment of inspiration

Having established that my passion for representing Scotland at the game I love is a real one, but also that I play infrequently enough in real life that I’m unlikely to grind enough points to meet the modest entry requirement for current WMCQs, it shouldn’t surprise any of you that I am interested in other options for the structure of qualification tournaments.

That’s what made this superb suggestion from Caleb Durward stand out so strongly, when I saw it in a recent CFB comment thread:

Caleb D Team event suggestion

All at once, I could see a new possibility: a team competition with a genuine team dynamic, focussed on the composition and chemistry of the teams. I thought back to the experience of playing team cube sealed with my friends at Spellbound Games… and I was instantly hooked.

Allow me to paint you a picture…

The World Magic Cup is on the horizon.

In just a few weeks, teams of four from across the country will descend on a glamourous, central location – say, The Pandora – and battle for the right to hoist the Saltire and sling spells against the nations of the world.

You drum your fingers on the keyboard, staring at the event details.

Screw it, you eventually conclude, before sending a portentous message to three of your closest Magic-playing friends:

WMCQ at the end of the month. You guys fancy a shot at the title?

A chorus of expletive-laden affirmations later, you’re getting the band back together: carving out some time to get around a table, test and shoot the breeze just like the old days. As the tournament approaches, you’re mapping out the format, scraping together the contents of the big decks and praying that you can beg, borrow or steal the last few cards which will complete your fleet of well-oiled TCG weapons.

The event itself is an incredible experience. Sitting down with your mates at either elbow, you fight and scrap for every game – no-one wants to let the side down. Every moment of drama is heightened by the preparation, collaboration and straight-up camaraderie you’ve brought to the table.

By the end of the tourney, who knows where you’ll be? The only certainty is that whichever team lifts the trophy, they will have been through the fire together. They will have been forged into something more than a motley collection of men and women who enjoy children’s card games: they will have taken on the mantle of Scotland, unified in purpose and bonded to each other by battle.

Are you telling me that doesn’t sound like a gig you’d want to be a part of?

How it would work

If anything below seems incredibly obvious, I beg your pardon – I’d rather it was a bit ‘Noddy’ than I missed anything important.

Players would be asked to pre-register in teams of four, under agreed team-names (which should be suitable for broadcast pre-9pm on BBC One, you cheeky monkeys).

They would show up on the day and:

  • Register decklists for each player
  • Nominate a numbered rotation order for their team, which will determine who plays in each round and against whom, eg.
    • Player 1 – Dave Shedden
    • Player 2 – Chris Connelly
    • Player 3 – Matt Bett
    • Player 4 – Some poor swine overqualified to play with us but emotionally blackmailed into it (read Joe Jackson, Guy Southcott, etc)

Rotation order would be used to ensure that each player took a turn of being the ‘runner’: sitting out a round in order to watch team-mates matches and offer advice, moral support etc. Each round, the team would select a player to fulfil the ‘runner’ role, with the proviso that no-one could do so again until every other member of the team had done so an equal number of times.

In each match, the lowest numbered players from each team would face each other in seat one, then the next lowest pairing in seat two, then the remaining pairing in seat three.

The winning team in each round would be the one with the most individual match wins.

At the end of the swiss pairings, the top four ranked teams would play two semi finals, with the winners playing out a final.

The champions on the day would be crowned Team Scotland, going on to represent our tiny but spirited nation in the World Magic Cup.

The Pros

  • Team events are beloved by the Magic community. They’re fantastic fun and drive an exceptional level of engagement.
  • As Mr Durward suggested, teams of strong players would likely be formed naturally, giving a certain pedigree to a proportion of the entrants but allowing teams of developing or lesser known players a fair crack at the title, motivating them to play Magic and attend tournaments.
  • Dropping a minimum PWP entry requirement would open up the opportunity for groups of friends to take part, even when half or more of the team were not regularly playing.

Tournament formats which bring players back to the game are good for business; those which bring friends back together are good for players and the community. Supporting these things is a great long-term-business-model play for Wizards of the Coast.

The Cons

  • Without a qualification threshold, tournament numbers might be large and difficult to manage.
  • A slice of bad luck might eliminate the (objectively) strongest team from contention at a stroke, while in a solo format, it’s more likely that some of the top spots will go to the best players even if a few experience bad beats.
  • The Status Quo argument: what exactly is wrong with the team Scotland have this year? Can we really argue with a system that produced this team?

To an enterprising TO, the first con is no con at all. Who could be upset with a large number of people showing up to pay entry fees? In terms of bad luck… certainly, we could lose a very good team at a stroke, but Magic is a skill-intensive game and I feel confident that which ever team managed to win this tournament would, by necessity, have credible members.

The Status Quo argument is actually pretty strong given this year’s results. If we held a popular ballot to determine the best Scottish Magic player, the odds are that most of our team would have appeared in the top 3 positions once votes were counted… and the only reason that I can’t say the same about our fourth is that I don’t know the gent and am not qualified to do so.

It’s a bloody good team.

In my opinion, the Status Quo argument still isn’t strong enough

Come on. This image was always happening; you knew it, deep down, as soon as you read the words ‘Status Quo’. Make peace with it and move on.

Here’s why: teams are made of more than aggregated skill levels.

I’ve worked in a fair number of project teams, functional teams …and even gaming teams. Just jamming the nominal ‘best’ people into a team is a recipe for under-performance, or even failure, in my experience.

  • What if they don’t like each other? At worst, much of your team’s preparation can be disrupted (and energy wasted) due to in-fighting. At best, your players might be discipline enough not to argue, but certainly won’t be able to inspire each other the way a team with real chemistry can.
  • What if some of them have a substantial skills overlap? The diminishing return on having people who fulfill the same role in your team is significant. I’d rather have one master-brewer feeding my team of razor-sharp grinders, or one exceptional organiser focussing their efforts, than four people who do exactly the same thing.
  • What if the mix of personas just doesn’t lend itself to really co-operative work? Sometimes teams and projects drift, because the members end up working their way into little individual rabbit-holes and lose sight of the overall goal. Sometimes goals are never clearly articulated, or members don’t buy into them. Sometimes, brilliant individual operators simply don’t play well with others.

For what is ultimately a team event, I believe we want competitors who showcase the very best elements of team play and co-operation. I also believe that we are most likely to see those from purpose-built teams, rather than teams assembled from individual tournament winners.

So what do you think?

I’ve ranted on for 1500 words about why I like a team-qualifying format. What do you think? Vote below and tell me why I’m an idiot in the comments.

Gaun yersel, Scotland!

Whether or not any changes to the WMCQ format take place, we still have a World Magic Cup to look forward to.

It wouldn’t feel right to sign off with anything other than hearty wishes of good fortune for our brave boys: Bradley Barclay, Alan Hutton, Stephen Murray and Jamie Ross.

Last year’s performance set a high bar, gents, but I’m ready to shout myself hoarse in front of the laptop if you can go one better. Your Twitter cheering section stands ready. #tartantcgterrors