The Lens

Those who keep up with my writing will know that gaming is hugely important to me, as are the relationships I’ve formed through a lifetime of playing.

The article below is an anonymous submission from another gamer, to whom the gaming community was perhaps even more vital. If you’re part of our world – and especially if you or those you love have been affected by mental health issues – I strongly recommend giving it a read.

I’m going to talk about a few topics that I view as intertwined. I’m going to talk about how self improvement relates to playing games (specifically Magic: The Gathering). I’m going to talk about why I love the shop I play at and that shop’s community. I’m also going to talk about my personal life a bit. Just a bit. It’s important to provide context for the first two topics.

I’ve suffered from clinical depression twice in my adult life.

The first time was when I was around twenty three or so. I went to the doctors and saw a psychiatric nurse weekly for a while. The one thing that the nurse pinpointed was that I didn’t have a hobby, and I didn’t really have any friends. I’d disappeared into a relationship and had lost touch with a lot of my friends from high school as a result. I used to play Warhammer and casual Magic and such when I was teenager, but had packed away my Space Marines because I wanted to go out drinking and meet girls.

I got in contact with a friend of mine who still played games, and that’s how I started playing trading card games.

The first game I was got into competitively was a great card game that I’d gush about for longer than the length of this article. Eventually the game ran out of steam and died as lots of card games do. I’d met lots of good people that had helped get me through a rough patch in my life without them really knowing about it. When that game died they mostly moved on to Magic. I wasn’t very happy about it because Magic players had a bad reputation amongst people who don’t play Magic (I don’t know if this is still the case), but eventually I followed suit.

I had some success at Magic in local terms. I even went to the Pro Tour. I got to be decent at limited and fine at constructed. I didn’t think this at the time. I thought I was the big man on campus.

There was a problem.

This is where we get to the second instance of depression, which I started seeing a doctor about when I was around twenty eight. The exact details are sort of fuzzy. The main issues that had caused my first bout of depression had not been addressed. I was still in a job that I hated and made me miserable. I was eating way too much junk food and was extremely over-weight. I had quite low self esteem. I felt trapped by my circumstances and stuck in the town in which I lived.

I split up with partner of ten years around this time. When we very having our last heart to heart conversation she told me that she believed I’d never really came out of the first depression. I disagreed with her at the time, but with hindsight I can see she was correct.

The problem was that I had used card games, and especially Magic, as a means to make myself feel better. I would oscillate between elated when I was doing well, to crushingly low and angry when I was doing poorly. I hid from my larger problems within Magic and Magic Online in particular. I burned money chasing draft wins on MTGO. If I scrubbed out of a draft I would immediately join another. If I did poorly in that draft, I’d run it back. This often led to me being up extremely late in the night and strapped for money to do other things.

The larger problem was the person I had become. I was a very different person then than I am today.

I was a prick.

I treated people poorly. A friend of mine (who thankfully is still a friend of mine) described me as caustic. I prefer my description above.

I was not a nice person.

So there I was: Dumped. Stuck in a dead-end job that I had zero interest in. Not at all happy with my weight. Miserable to be around for a number of reasons.

Not for the first time in my life I went and got a knife. I’d thought about killing myself daily for a long time. The closest I’d came was slashing a pair of scissors across my wrist when I was younger. I didn’t cut myself deep enough to cause any lasting damage or even leave a scar.

I sat on the couch for a while and stared at this big kitchen knife, unsure what I was going to do. I’m not sure why I didn’t do it. I don’t think I had some revelation. I think I might have just got tired and decided to go to bed.

That was thankfully the last time I went that far with the idea of suicide. I still have this voice in the back of my head that crops up when I feel a bit low, and it tells me that I should kill myself. The thing about depression is that you’re never entirely over it. It’s not necessarily going to be a constant battle, but you have to be very aware of warning signs and prevent them from going any further.

I didn’t immediately pull myself together. I’m not going to pretend I did, but eventually I started to make changes.

I’m not sure if I would have able to do so if I didn’t play cards. I use it as a lens to understand the world and myself.

One of the most important lessons I was taught early doors was to admit that I had made a mistake. This is the first thing you have to take on board to start getting better. You need to own and own up to your mistakes. You need to realise that the attack you made was incorrect, that the hand you kept was poor, that you shouldn’t have countered that particular spell, etc. You need to have it within you to be humble and say that something that you’ve done it wrong.

This concept is also the base level of self improvement. You have to assess actions you’ve taken honestly and decide whether they were correct or not. In my case, the first thing I tried to correct was my behaviour. It seemed to be the least long term of my problems. I made an active effort to be nicer.

The second lesson is about developing good habits. Having good habits is great in Magic. A good habit to get into would be tapping your mana correctly every time, even if you don’t have another spell to cast or have any reason to bluff. If you leave yourself the most coloured mana options after casting a spell as a default then you’ll not have to waste mental energy on it when it really matters. You’ll just do it as a matter of course.

I got into the habit of being nice to people. I got into the habit of eating healthier. I got into the habit of going to the gym.

The next lesson is about entitlement. This was a big problem of mine. I felt entitled to win games of Magic. I’d storm off in a rage sometimes if I didn’t. Magic is great for showing you that you’re not entitled to anything. Sometimes you’re going to keep a perfectly good hand and then never draw another land. Sometimes you’re never going to draw another spell.

You’re not entitled to anything. Everything has to be earned. If you want to achieve something you’re going to have to work for it.

This isn’t exactly great, or even original wisdom, but armed with it I was able to turn my life and myself around. I didn’t do it on my own though, so let’s talk about that.

When I was at that lowest point, I drove through to my local shop for Friday night draft. I didn’t feel like being on my own. I just sat in a corner until the draft and kept myself to myself. I could have played a draft on MTGO, but I wanted the human interaction you really can’t get across a monitor.

I made going to draft one of my habits. It was a good one to have.

I wasn’t a Facebook user back in those days, so Friday draft was one of the few ways I had to keep in touch with my friends. I talked to some of them about the problems that I was having. They offered advice or just listened. One of them decided that it was perfectly fine to wind me up about it. They didn’t do it constantly, but every now and then they’d slip in a little slagging or a joke. It wasn’t cruel or mean spirited. They were just jokes at my expense. And that was utterly refreshing. I was used to people who knew my circumstances tip-toeing around me, and having someone just take the mickey out of me was so normal and awesome. It was a big deal to me.

I love the community that has built up around my store very much. The faces change and people take breaks from showing up all the time for various reasons, but most people tend to come back and play every now and again. New people come in and get involved.

I don’t think I can really express what the community means to me.

Without hyperbole I can say that they saved my life.

Thank you for reading.

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.

Boomtown… rats!

Typhoid Rats

Last week, I stepped outside of my comfort zone and wrote about a deck I was developing for competitive modern tournaments. For those of you who don’t fancy re-reading the whole post: it’s a land destruction/tempo deck, which tries to ruin the other player’s day with lots of cheap mana denial, punching and burning them out before they can recover from the stumble.

I also committed to putting my money where my mouth was, by stumping up tickets and taking the deck into some two-man tournaments on MTGO. If the deck is supposed to compete, its mettle needs to be tested against people with something on the line.

Here’s the final list I brought to the party:

Deck v1

Since last week, I dropped the ambitious black splash (for Doom Blade) in favour of some Vapor Snags.

Without further ado, here are the results of this potentially expensive experiment:

Match One: Blue Tron

  

For the unfamiliar, Tron is a strategy which hinges on the player assembling the combination of Urza’s Tower, Mine and Power Plant. Once these three lands are in play together, they produce large volumes of colourless mana, rather than the typical one-mana per card ration. This combination allows the Tron pilot to cast expensive and powerful colourless spells very early in the game, overpowering opponents as a result.

As my opponent led off with an Urza’s Mine, I felt a little flutter in my stomach. If the strategy was viable, this should be a great match for me; however, if I couldn’t beat Tron, what the hell was I going to beat?

As it turned out, destroying lands had little to do with the outcome of Game 1. I had enough cards to pressure and interact with my opponent in my opening hand that I couldn’t bring myself to send it back, but none of them blew up his mana. Conveniently, though, he stalled out on drawing his combo and I was able to start the process of beating him up . Sadly, I made a mistake that cost me the game by the narrowest of margins.

Facing down a newly played Treasure Mage (which had retrieved a Wurmcoil Engine), with only an unflipped Delver in play, I chose to Lightning Bolt the Mage in his end step so that I could attack freely.

This was an astonishing act of cowardice and stupidity. I should have bolted his face – and here’s why:

  • If the Delver flips next turn, I can attack in the air and ignore his Mage.
  • If it doesn’t flip, I can leave it at home and hope to flip it in one of the next three upkeep steps. I need to miss four opportunities to attack for one point of damage before I am in a worse position for having burned him… and I will need to get very lucky to have another four relevant turns playing against Tron.
  • Pressure is everything. In my maindeck, I have almost no way to beat a Wurmcoil Engine that successfully attacks once. I have to kill him before he can connect with one of these, so I need to play as if the top cards of my deck contain enough power and burn to close out the game, even if that ends up not being the case.

Of course, my Delver immediately flipped on the following turn and I was able to start bashing for three. I effectively lost the game a couple of turns later, when he resolved a Wurmcoil Engine and I was only able to swing for eight of his eleven life in response, with my flipped Delver and a Thundermaw Hellkite. Had I bolted him, that swing would have left him dead; instead, it left me agonizingly short, as he lifelinked his way back to nine, before playing a second Wurmcoil to seal my fate.

Luckily, I learned my lesson. In sideboarding, I quickly switched in my Vapor Snags for Remands; when the other guy has 80,000 mana, Remand is an expensive Reach Through Mists.

Game 2 started well.

...this is how it's supposed to work!

…this is how it’s supposed to work!

Although my Ajani ended up getting condescended, I was able to overload his mana and counters using Molten Rain and Snapcaster Mage. Eventually, I resolved Elspeth and she absolutely went to town, making tokens and jumping my Snapcaster in for large chunks of flying damage.

Fearing a Repeal, I pushed the game into a state where my opponent was forced to blow it on a pumped Snapcaster to survive… snappy promptly returned to flashback a bolt and take him to zero.

In Game 3, those sideboarded Vapor Snags were worth their weight in gold. I flipped a Delver immediately and started swinging for three each turn, supplementing my attacks with a healthy dose of burn to take my opponent to low life. Of course, he slapped a Wurmcoil into play… which I was then able to Vapor Snag back to his hand, allowing me to nail him for exactly lethal even through a Mindslaver activation.

Worst 'slaver ever?

Worst ‘slaver ever?

Match Two: Black Affinity

  

Affinity is the descendant of perhaps the most feared tournament deck in history, although it plays few of the same cards today as in the past, as the result of various bannings and new printings. At its core, Affinity is an aggressive deck built around artifact creatures, which uses powerful synergies to smash the opponent into submission very early in the game.

This match started very well: I won a thrilling Game 1 on a single life point. Luckily, I had decided not to crack a fetch as I targeted it with Boom – a decision I was relatively confident in at the time, but which was obviously right in hindsight, despite the fact that it cut off Thundermaw Hellkite as a live draw – and my opponent decided for some reason to sac a Cranial Plating to their Arcbound Ravager, which I’m pretty sure would have allowed a lethal attack had it been equipped.

A timely boom without cracking the fetch...

...proves crucial, as I win on one life point. It's not always right to crack the fetch!

Sadly, in Games 2 and 3 my opponent rolled me with precisely the same series of turn 1 plays on both occasions:

  • Ornithopter
  • Mox Opal
  • Blinkmoth Nexus, activate
  • Thoughtseize

…on both occasions taking a sideboarded hate card from my hand. The disruption proved enough to get a Steel Overseer active in both games, at which point I was quickly despatched by a rapidly growing army of flying, artifact-man-lands.

I was a little disappointed about this, as I felt intuitively that my sideboarded configuration should present a stronger game than the maindeck, but it was not to be.

Match Three: Amulet of Vigor combo

  

Making use of its namesake card and various accelerated means of playing lands, this deck seeks to generate very large amounts of mana on the second or third turn of the game by playing the ‘bouncelands’ from Ravnica block and tapping/untapping them multiple times. With this sudden burst of mana, the deck will play out threats like Primeval Titan to bring more and more powerful lands into play, or simply go straight for the throat by playing a huge Eldrazi creature like Emrakul, the Aeons Torn.

I confess: in Game 1, I had absolutely no idea what was happening for the first couple of turns. My opponent played two Spinerock Knolls, not a card which I particularly associated with this strategy, before I cast Molten Rain on one of them. It was my last meaningful action of the game.

After untapping, my opponent fired up his combo, dropping a couple of Amulets into play before playing a Summer Bloom and going crazy over the course of 7 minutes. What a lot of triggers. Come sideboarding time, I genuinely thought my best chance of winning might be for him to time out.

In Game 2, he resolved Emrakul on Turn 3, having played 3 Amulets of Vigor on his first 2 turns. C’est la vie.

This is actually pretty impressive

This is actually pretty impressive

Match 4: Soul sisters

  

Soul Sisters is a strategy employing multiple small creatures which gain life, alongside other creatures which benefit greatly from that lifegain. It tries to make traditional damage races completely unviable for the opponent, whilst turning its tiny army into a squadron of monsters by triggering their abilities as the life-counter ticks upward.

In Game 1, I blow up every land he plays. Each turn, he calmly plays another plains, then a Soul Warden variant, and beats me down with them. Eventually, his 5th one drop is a Serra Ascendant. I lose the game staring at 1 plains and a 6/6 flying monster on the other side of the table.

...seriously?

…seriously?

In Game 2, we have a long, drawn out war of attrition. My land destruction feels like it’s actually achieving something and my sideboarded Pyroclasms are doing work.

Eventually, I resolve a Bust while we’re racing and I’m ahead on board; I have 3 Darksteel Citadels and figure I have a better chance to draw out and play more spells. I’m eventually proved wrong, as he peels several plains over the course of the ensuing turns, while I draw copies of Serum Visions and Lightning Bolt. It’s disheartening, but it feels like a real game second time around, whereas the first felt like a sick joke at my expense.

In retrospect, I think I pulled the trigger on the Bust too quickly. Three colourless lands aren’t very much better than one in a deck which has intensive colour requirements for its’ spells; if I had my time again, I would grit my teeth and hold the card.

Match 5: Burn

  

Burn is a deck which, to quote a well-known pillar of the Glaswegian Magic scene, throws pictures of fire at the opponent until they are dead.

My opponent is mana-screwed in Game 1, which is a bad place to be against the land destruction deck.

I remove his real estate and run him over. My advantage is sickeningly compounded by the stream of land his Goblin Guide puts into my hand before I eventually bolt it – cards I put to good use when  use them to cast a Thundermaw Hellkite, drawing the concession.

In Game 2, I side out my remands and some Molten Rains to make space for Pyroclasms and Vapor Snags. Hilariously, he then goes to town on me with multiple Molten Rains of his own, crushing me utterly as I struggle to cast Ajani or Snapcaster/Helix.

Game 3 is an absolute thriller. My opponent burns me low, but thanks to the power of land destruction I’m able to clear away his mountains entirely. The irreplaceable talents of Elspeth become apparent as she helps my Snapcaster Mage to crash for 5 in the skies… and the deal is sealed when I draw a Lightning Helix, which lifts me out of his potential burn range for the last turn he has to kill me.

Quite the timely rip, I must say.

Quite the timely rip, I must say.

Match 6: Splinter Twin

  

Splinter Twin is an infinite combo deck with lots of redundancy in its components. It uses creatures which can be played at instant speed and untap a permanent when they enter the battlefield, combining them with a tap-driven cloning effect to create as many hasty creatures as required to end the game. Because the combo is so strong, it gets to play up to 8 copies of each of its effects, leaving the rest of the deck to reactive spells which can protect its strategy.

In Game 1, I kill some lands and put a little bit of pressure on my opponent… but then my nerve fails. I’m holding remands and an Ajani Vengeant, with 5 lands in play, but turns pass without my crucial 6th land appearing. I convince myself that each turn only gives the other player more opportunities to draw the combo and decide to just run Ajani out: If I survive the turn, I’m in a great position.

Needless to say, my opponent has the kill: they flash in a Deceiver Exarch and atomise me with Splinter Twin after untapping.

For Game 2, I side in 2 Snags and 2 Wear//Tears, but on reflection it should simply have been 4 Snags: if I bounce a Splinter Twin target, the enchantment dies anyway and I need to have the mana for either at the point the enchantment is cast, or I’m dead.

I get a blistering start when both my Delvers flip on turn 3 and I crash in for 6. Backed up with burn, I’m able to snag away a Clique he flashes in to block and run him into the ground before he can combo me.

If in doubt, naked aggression is always the best policy

If in doubt, naked aggression is always the best policy

In Game 3, I have no Remands or Snags, but an aggressive hand, so I keep. I drop a Delver, start crashing and back it up with burn. So far so good!

However, my very next decision is outright comical. Aiming to keep the opponent on low mana to reduce the risk of being combo’d out, I activate Ajani to keep one of his lands tapped; literally as the ability goes on the stack, I am already holding my head in my hands, remonstrating with myself about how I became such a terrible player. He flashes down a Pestermite, untaps the land, takes his turn and combos me.

In any event, I couldn’t beat the draw my opponent presented, but I should have burned him with Ajani to maximise my chances of untapping, resolving a Hellkite and top-decking lethal burn.

By this stage in my odyssey, I was beginning to believe that there were systemic problems with the deck. My next match would compound that thinking.

Match 7: Melira Pod

  

This strategy uses the power of Birthing Pod to tutor powerful creature combinations into play, which will allow the pilot either to stabilise the game or to initiate one of several infinite combos which usually assure victory. It’s also a resilient midrange deck when this plan is unavailable… and as a neat side touch, Melira herself provides automatic protection against the explosive Infect deck.

An interesting Game 1 finds me restricting his mana even as he bashes me with persist creatures. Through an unlikely chain of Remands and Snapcasters, I manage to stabilise on 5 life and prevent my opponent from resolving a relevant spell for several turns. We enter a midrange, grindy zone where I manage to outrace the backlog of spells he eventually begins to play out.

In Game 2, we go back and forth for a while. His mana creatures make my remaining land destruction spells lacklustre, but they do validate my sideboarded Pyroclasms. Eventually, he grabs an opening to drop Melira, then convoke a chord of calling for Cartel Aristocrat, a sequence I didn’t think his limited mana would allow (how wrong I was). I am pinged into the grave by Murderous Redcap triggers shortly afterward.

Game 3 is a real slugfest. We get each other down to low life, but he wins the grind war by top-decking Gavony Township and (literally) going to town.

After this match, I had reached a couple of conclusions:

  1. Melira Pod is a really resilient deck with several viable gameplans. It’s something of a poster child for Modern: I don’t roll over easily and if you don’t do something quickly, I’ll roll over you.
  2. Blowing up lands just ain’t what it used to be. All of the strategies I was facing (aside from Tron) could either operate with low mana, ramp their mana with creatures or just kill me before anything but my nut draw could come online.

Nonetheless, I decided to bat one more time with Boomtown. Eight is a portentous number in Magic culture and with any luck, the final match might teach me something new.

Match 8: Splinter Twin

  

Remember these guys?

Sadly, I’m mistaken. In Games 1 and 2, my opponent combos me at the earliest possible opportunity, countering my spells and peppering me with the beaks of a thousand Deceiver Exarchs.

I didn’t feel good about this matchup at all – and even after playing it twice, I’m not sure I even know the proper way to board. My land destruction plan didn’t feel good here… the opponent could just wait, play draw spells, replace his lands, then pick an opening to flash in his combo creature.

The Balance Sheet

At the end of my eight match set, I had a miserable 2-6 record, with only a pair of RTR boosters to show for my 16 ticket investment. Those are some pretty expensive boosters.

I could have chosen the way of the tantrum, given such a poor set of results, but instead I decided to think positively about the experience. What benefits had I gained beyond actual booster prizes?

  • I’d received a whistle-stop tour of the Modern metagame. In 8 matches, I faced 7 different strategies – and there are still more out there. Modern is incredibly diverse. There is no truly dominant deck and few obvious ways to attack several pillars of the format simultaneously.
  • I’d discovered that proactivity is King. Of all the decks I faced, only Splinter Twin felt like a truly reactive strategy… and that’s simply a luxury it has because its combo can snap into place like a mousetrap, starting in my end step. Everyone else, even Tron (which did run counters) was on the front foot, trying to do something very powerful before I could do something similarly powerful. Modern, based on my first forays, does not appear to be an environment particularly welcoming to control decks.
  • I’d learned that Boomtown lacked the punch to capitalise on the problems it was capable of creating. Blowing up lands early was great, but too often I was using that time simply to attack with an unflipped Delver or a Snapcaster Mage. My big hitter, Thundermaw Hellkite, didn’t come online until I reached 5 mana. If I was choking mana on turns 2 and 3, I needed to be capitalising immediately with a brutal threat… like Geist of St Traft, for instance.

Knowledge and practice are worthwhile ends in their own right.

(Maybe not 16 tickets worth, but give me a break – I just got stomped 2-6 and I need all the upbeat notions I can get.)

Where next?

I like Modern. It feels like a brewer’s playground and I’m still tantalised by the idea that something new and exciting is waiting to be discovered.

Of course, I don’t have limitless funds. If I want to keep brewing, I’ll need to build decks using cheaper, less appreciated cards… or I’ll need to win prizes with something relatively consistent in order to fund future thought experiments.

This is where you come in, dear reader. Thanks for your time, patience and camaraderie. Until next time…

Boomtown

When I write about Magic decks, I’m typically sharing ideas for the purpose of spreading fun around our card-slinging community.

Not today.

Today, I’m going to write about the antidote to fun; the extinction of fun. Well, except if you’re a dyed-in-the-wool griefer. Those guys will enjoy what follows an unhealthy amount.

If you play Magic to:

  • Meet new friends
  • Enjoy cool and complicated board states with big splashy plays
  • Shake hands with your opponent after an honourable match, then have them earnestly wish you good luck for the rest of your tournament
  • Still like yourself by the end of the tournament

…just stop reading now.

Remember the good old days?

You know, the days when it was OK to print cards like Sinkhole?

Sinkhole is one of a very specific breed of magic cards: the kind which shut down your opponent’s ability to actually play the game, starting on turn two.

While land destruction effects are widely despised in any form, they are typically confined to cards costing three or more mana; this allows a slightly larger window for an opposing player to try and establish themselves in the game.

At two mana, it is conceivable that a player going first could blow up each land their opponent plays every turn, beginning with their first, before a second can ever be deployed… or at least until the survival of those lands becomes irrelevant in the face of a vastly superior board position.

Thankfully, Sinkhole is relegated to older formats in which it sees little play – formats so powerful that they can shrug off such punitive disruption. No-one playing a more contemporary game will have to worry about such demoralising shenanigans.

Boom - Bust

Oh…wait.

Boom//Bust is a split card from Planar Chaos, which offers two options both decidedly unfriendly to the real estate on the board. For the uninitiated, split cards work very simply: you can play them as either of the spells printed on the card, although usually not both.

It’s also legal for play in Modern, a format which looks set to be used for at least one round of PTQs each season for the foreseeable future.

And Boom costs only two mana.

But I don’t want to blow up my OWN lands, you fool

Don’t worry, my disproportionately angry friend – neither do I.

Boom only

If Boom was guaranteed always to kill one of our own lands, we simply wouldn’t play it. It would put us at a card disadvantage which would rarely be worth the sacrifice.

Happily, there exist ways to make the card rather more one-sided. The first and best known of these is Flagstones of Trokair, a land which, when it dies, handily replaces itself if your deck has been constructed correctly.

Flagstones was used to mitigate the downside of Boom in this way in Time Spiral block and the accompanying Standard format, so many older readers may be familiar with it. However, building a deck with only four lands which can help us break the symmetry of our marquee spell is going to yield underwhelming results. We need more lands that play ball.

…which brings me to Darksteel Citadel.

Artifact lands are almost universally banned in Modern, having enabled the dreaded affinity deck in some of its more potent previous incarnations. A by-product of this ruling is an obsession on my part with running the sole survivor, Darksteel Citadel, in various decks. Those decks typically care about the land being an artifact, so it will play nice with Tezzeret the Seeker and Thirst for Knowledge; this one is a break from the norm, because it only cares that the Citadel can’t be blown up.

It is the ideal partner for Boom, enabling multiple copies all on its lonesome.

Eight lands still isn’t enough for me. I want more!

Fetchlands are not the premier target for a Boom, but they’ll do in a pinch. The trick works as follows:

  • Cast Boom, targeting your fetchland and an opponent’s land
  • DO NOT pass priority. On Magic Online, you achieve this by holding down the CTRL key as you cast the spell.
  • In response to your own Boom, crack your fetchland. Keep holding that CTRL key until the ability is on the stack!
  • Put your fresh new land into play.
  • Allow Boom to resolve. Since your fetchland is gone, it now only has one target: your opponent’s land, which will die ignominiously.

The reason that this isn’t an optimal play is that you need two mana plus a fetchland in order for it to work – so you can’t cast Boom on turn two if a fetchland is your only target. At worst, this version makes Boom into a Stone Rain, which is still a respectable spell; if you have a one-mana play which you can make using the land you just fetched, you’re still gaining some tempo.

Four spells does not a deck make

I’ll concede that point. We need more ways to blow up lands if we want the strategy to work. Luckily, there are cards at three mana which fit the bill.

  

Of this motley pair, I’m more attracted to Molten Rain. It’s marginally harder to cast, but I plan to deploy a deck which won’t struggle to hit RR by the third turn – and I expect the damage it can deal to be relevant.

There is an argument for running both, of course. To make a land destruction deck work, a certain density of spells which will take out a land is required… but having played some of these decks before, I also know that a great way to lose is to flood out on them. There is nothing more demoralising than dying to your opponent’s one-drop creature, which they resolved before you started blowing up all their lands, having smashed their manabase turn after turn. As it attacks you for two, over and over, as each draw step yields another Stone Rain or a land rather than the removal spell you so desperately desire, you may very well go mad.

I want to make space in my deck for cards which can kill creatures and kill my opponent. I also want to have access to extra copies of those cards and my land destruction later in the game.

This brings me to the card which, together with Boom, inspired this particular deck:

Welcome to a world of utter degeneracy

With Snapcaster on our team, we get to do dreadful, dreadful things. The ideal play pattern runs as follows:

  • Turn two: Cast Boom, hitting one of our synergistic lands (ideally the Citadel) and the opponent’s first land.
  • Turn three: Cast Molten Rain on the opponent’s second land.
  • Turn four: Snapcaster comes down, flashing back Boom to clear away our opponent’s third land.
That's exactly what was about to happen here... had my opponent not gone on rampaging tilt and disconnected after the first Boom.

That’s exactly what was about to happen here… had my opponent not gone on rampaging tilt and disconnected after the first Boom.

This is clearly an amazing draw, but it’s not actually that unlikely. In fact, simply drawing any additional land destruction alongside a second-turn Boom is very good against a lot of strategies.

Any deck can experience a draw which is light on mana – and in these cases, a couple of lost lands are frequently enough to leave them down and out. Even a draw which sees them make land drops on turns one through four can be severely disrupted by a couple of Molten Rains. The important thing is to capitalise on each stumble, bringing enough pressure to bear that an opponent can be finished off before they can meaningfully recover.

Choosing our threats

My first draft of the deck carried a suite of burn and creatures with which to finish off the opponent – but in an effort to maximise the land destruction theme, they included several Avalanche Riders and Restoration Angels.

  

This was a fine combination when it worked; the problem was, I was creating situations where an opponent was choked for mana early in the game, but I wasn’t putting them under pressure with these creatures until turn four and five.

I kicked the deck around with some much better players and arrived at the idea of playing everyone’s favourite one-mana threat, the mighty-morphin’ Delver of Secrets, to start bringing the heat from turn two onward.

  

I still had space to plump for some four-drops, though – but again following advice, I pushed through my budget-friendly instincts and traded my way to some premier planeswalkers:

  

Ajani supports my strategy in the same way as Avalanche riders, typically taking out a land for the whole game… but he can also keep a threat under wraps, give me some help burning an opponent out or even wreck their mana for good if the game goes longer.

Elspeth, as it was put to me, is just awesome.

Topping the curve, I wanted something which would hit like a train and help me to close out the game in short order. Happily, I didn’t have to shell out anything for the perfect candidate, whom I was fortunate enough to pick up for next to nothing when he was unfashionable:

Full disclosure: this guy is pretty pricey, so if you’re looking for a budget alternative, I’d try something like Archwing Dragon. It’s more mana intensive, but cards in this slot should generally only have to attack once or twice for you to win.

The rest of this deck is rounded out four copies each of four strong cards, all of which help advance your strategy or close the game.

  

  

  • All this deck ever wants to do is profitably cast Boom on turn two. Casting Serum Visions on turn one will help to make that happen.
  • Lightning Bolt needs no introduction. Alongside Lightning Helix, it gives the deck a means of mopping up creatures which have slipped through before you started cutting off your opponent’s mana… and equally important, it provides reach to let you finish things off before the opponent stops reeling and starts casting good spells.
  • Remand helps us to keep an opponent bottle-necked, whilst drawing us into more action spells. It can be surprisingly effective in a land destruction strategy: remanding an opponent’s play, then untapping, making a land and snapcastering a molten rain to cut them off from playing it again feels pretty good. That said, it’s the spell I’m least sure about in the deck, since I want to be spending my mana proactively with almost every other card… holding up two mana to counter something can be awkward.

Just show us the deck, already

Here is my current working copy of ‘Boomtown’:

Boomtown Delver

The maindeck, I’m pretty happy with. The sideboard is, frankly, a mess… but it’ll get better as I play more matches and understand which strategies I’m really gunning for.

  • Sudden Shock is a little piece of technology I adopted after some tough matches against poison, but it has proven to have further-reaching value.
    • It kills a Glistener Elf or an Inkmoth Nexus stone dead, regardless of how many pump spells the poison player has in hand.
    • It kills an Arcbound Ravager, or any potential target for his modular counters, without a moment of concern.
    • It kills Kiki-Jiki or Melira, as a Pod player goes for their combo, in a way that eliminates all chance of shenanigans.
  • Wear//Tear is a bit of a catch-all utility card, but I like it. So far it has destroyed Birthing Pods, Vernal Blooms, Cranial Platings, Inkmoth Nexi, and Oblivion Rings. I hope to snag a few Prismatic Omens in due course.
  • Slagstorm I’m a bit ambivalent about. I added it because I noticed that decks with an abundance of mana-creatures could ignore my core strategy – and I wanted to be able to punish them for committing lots of them to the board. I plumped for a three-damage sweeper so that I could handle a wider range of creatures… still, I’m not sure it shouldn’t be Pyroclasm.
  • Boros Charm… this used to be in my maindeck. Some games I would win simply because I had aggressively Lightning-bolted my opponent early, then managed to charm them for four, untap and snapcaster them for the final four… but my win rate didn’t really dip when I exchanged them for more Remands. I still have them as insurance against sweepers and some extra reach, but I rarely side them in. They should probably go.
  • Restoration Angel is here because A) I’m addicted to value and B) I sometimes feel like I want another creature or two which can sneak in damage. Since they aren’t essential enough to make the maindeck, I could see just dropping them.
  • Smother is my concession to Tarmogoyf. By including them, alongside a single Watery Grave, I give myself an out to one of the most popular threats in Modern. Short of that, I have to race the Goyfs or tap them down with Ajani, which is less than ideal.

Put your money where your mouth is

I may be about to punt a large number of these

I don’t generally build decks which have an eye on cut-throat competitiveness; it’s not my style. However, this is a land destruction deck with a healthy smattering of premium cards in it, so I can’t kid myself that’s it’s a purely fun contraption built for shits and giggles.

For that reason, I’m not going to treat this in the same way I do my other, more friendly durdlings: this is not something I will be running out in the casual rooms simply for the joy of playing. If I’m building a deck which is only acceptable in competitive surroundings, I owe it to you, the reader, to actually measure its effectiveness in that environment.

I will therefore be vacating the Tournament Practice room, where this deck was born and took its first steps, for the steeper climbs of the Two-man queues. My plan is to jam as many games as my ticket balance will allow, then report back to you with my findings.

  • If all goes well, it will be a valedictory post in which I pat myself on the back for a work of deck-building greatness
  • If it goes rather more realistically, the article will at least serve as a warning to inveterate brewers about how easy it is to throw away your money online

Be it tragedy or triumph, I will endeavour to make it funny – and to include a number of comedy screenshots, come rain or shine. Cross your fingers for me.

The Wish List: 8 MTG cards I long to see reprinted

There is a scene at the end of The Return of the King – I’m thinking of the Hollywood interpretation here, so forgive me, purists – wherein, having saved the known world from the menace of Sauron, several of the major characters take to an Elvish ship to begin a voyage to the Undying Lands.

The characters whom they are leaving behind, choked with emotion, wave them off from the jetty; and we understand, misty-eyed ourselves, that those ships can never return. This is not a voyage, but a metaphor for death. Our valiant friends are gone, destined to live on only in our sunlit memories.

I don’t want to diminish the emotional punch of this image, but… it’s pretty much how I feel about rotations in Magic.

I have been… and always shall be… your friend

When (like me) a player tends to adopt pet cards, it can be gut-wrenching to wave them goodbye.

Even when a card is nominally legal in eternal formats, its power level can be such that no realistic chance of successful migration exists. I like to play unusual decks, but not to the extent that I will register something completely unable to compete: I have learned to accept that the hits of standard past will not always find a good home in Modern (and Extended before it).

The last hope that I’ll be able to relive the glory days with some of my old cardboard companions lies down the narrowest of paths: the route to reprinting in a standard-legal set. In  some cases, the likelihood is smaller than in others – but on the off-chance that Wizards of the Coast decides they are prepared to indulge my personal nostalgia, I’m going to lay out my top-8 candidate list below, shut my eyes and cross my fingers.

As Susie (of Calvin and Hobbes) once famously said, as long as I’m dreaming, I might as well have a pony.

#8 – Blazing Specter

This card is a source of constant frustration for me, because it’s eminently reprintable. Each time we’ve visited Ravnica, I have watched the Rakdos spoilers on tenterhooks… but each time, I’m left forlorn.

An additional reason exists for my frustration. If I wanted to, I could play this card in precisely the same environment in which I discovered it: Kitchen Table magic. But, thanks to my awareness of the format system, I can never again happily compete in environments without reasonable shared boundaries.

We had some good times, though. The Ol’ Blazer here was a great mid-game top-deck in every black/red pile I built for years, coinciding with a rich period of deploying resource-denial which Chrome Mox and Stone Rain had lured me into. I can still hear the frustrated grunts of my opponents as their sandbagged, bomb-creatures unexpectedly hit the bin time after time.

Unlike many of the cards from that era in my card-slinging career, I feel that Blazing Specter remains a respectable play in potential Standard landscapes of the future. It’s not overpowered, but it’s solid enough to find a home with anyone who likes their card advantage quick, dirty and unexpected.

#7 – Vindicate

A victim of the contemporary policy which forbids land destruction cards being printed at 3 mana, Vindicate is the iconic utility card.

I’ve used it frequently in cube to eliminate pesky monsters, stop degenerate Academy Ruins loops and un-pacify my game-dominating win conditions. It feels great.

Some may point me toward Maelstrom Pulse, but to those people I say: sometimes it’s good to murder the opponent’s real estate. Land death may be considered un-fun by many, but losing to Urzatron, Karn – or a great big meaty man-land –  is pretty un-fun too.

Is it too much to ask, that one of the great swiss-army-knives in the game’s history be given another roll of the dice?

#6 – Everflowing Chalice

The perfect mana-rock, Everflowing Chalice holds a special place in my heart due to its interaction with Proliferate, a mechanic slated to return by Wizards at some unspecified future date.

With a counter-bearing chalice in play, repeatable proliferate effects quickly spiral into an abundance of colourless mana, which in turn allows the resolution of large, colourless planeswalkers* and ridiculous X-spells.

Of course, the chalice doesn’t need such shenanigans to be good. At 2 mana, it is the picture of efficient acceleration. At 4 mana, it catapults the board position forward and provides something useful to do when conventional 4-drops are posted missing.

The problem, of course, is that this card cannot return without the general reappearance of Multikicker. I don’t know how likely Wizards is to resurrect the mechanic, but I think the chances are slim that it will ever share the standard environment with Proliferate again, thereby limiting the potential fun to be had.

Still, this is one of the more realistic cards on my list. Here’s hoping…

* Yes, in the last entry I condemned Karn as un-fun. Yes, I’m now touting him as a great thing to do with a lot of mana. Yes, I’m a hypocrite. Move along.

#5 – Wildfire

If the last card on my list ever makes it back, I expect it will end up hanging around on street corners with its dangerous older friend, Wildfire.

When it’s good, Wildfire is literally the most powerful thing you can imagine doing in a Standard Format. Ramping to 6 has been fashionable in recent years, when Titans bestrode the landscape, so we know that it’s a readily achievable threshold – but Wildfire is an even better payoff, if you ask me.

If I throw down an Inferno Titan against an aggressive deck, it’s a favourite to dominate their strategy… unless they have a removal spell, or a couple of burn spells, in which case, I may find myself staring down my likely demise at the hands of several small men.

The great thing about Wildfire is that Doom Blade can’t undo all my good work. In fact, short of a counterspell, I’m going to absolutely ruin the board position of my opponent whilst simultaneously removing their ability to cast spells in a meaningful manner. While they scrabble around to find lands, I’ll typically be recovering at pace with the help of artifact mana, or racing ahead thanks to a Planeswalker I already had in play before the apocalypse arrived.

I’ve tried to make Wildfire work in Modern, with mixed results. My instinct is that, at 6 mana, it’s a natural apex predator for standard; but like Tyrannosaurus Rex, it will inevitably die out in more evolved formats.

Still, the dream of blowing up the world is one I’m not quite ready to let go of yet.

#4 – Rude Awakening

To explain why I love this card so much, I need to tell a story.

Back in Mirrodin/Kamigawa standard, I was getting back into the game and playing in tournaments regularly for the first time. Affinity was the boogeyman and I hated it, like many others.

At one particular FNM I found myself back-to-the-wall, at low life, facing down a tapped, post-combat Ravager wearing a Cranial Plating, accompanied by about three tapped artifact lands. I had stalled my way through the game, blocking earlier creatures with Sakura-Tribe Elder, oxidising threats, witnessing back Elders and Oxidises… but here I was, close to death. I had a mess of lands and one card in my hand.

“Can you play through this?” my insufferably smug opponent asked me, flashing two copies of shrapnel blast.

“Yes,” I told him, untapping, drawing a blank and resolving the Rude Awakening (with entwine) which had been my solitary card. A mixed, 11-strong band of Islands and Forests danced across the table to claim his life total.

As I reached for the poisonous stack of artifact hatred that was my sideboard, smiling sweetly, I watched my opponent’s face. Burned into his features was the legend: BUT YOU DID NOTHING ALL GAME AND SOMEHOW I AM DEAD AAAAARRRGGGHH.

Please, Wizards. I speak for all durdlers everywhere when I say please, please give me back that feeling again.

#3 – Eternal Witness

Oh, my.

I have walked the dark path more than once in my life. I have used this young lady to return a recently resolved Plow Under to my hand, as my opponent rolled their eyes and dropped their hand face down onto the table.

I have held her in my hand, hidden from view, as nervous young men agonised over how to divide my Gifts Ungiven piles.

I have stayed in touch throughout games in which I should rightfully have been steam-rolled, as she helped me to recycle Remand over and over again, until I could draw the action I needed.

I want to do these things and more – and I want to do them in standard again. Come on, Wizards – is my gal-pal here really so overpowered?

#2 – Cruel Ultimatum

There is always a greater power.

It’s pretty appropriate, on the basis of this classic flavour text, that Cruel only makes #2 on my list… even here, there is one card which has a greater pull on my heart-strings.

That card will wait, however. For now, let’s reminisce about all the things which made this card wonderful.

  • Value – I’ve heard this card estimated at a nine-for-one, on the basis that the life swing is equivalent to a consume spirit or similar. Sometimes it’s less, for instance when no creature is available in the caster’s graveyard, or the opponent has less than three cards; sometimes, against a red deck for instance, those five life points are priceless.
  • Power – The power to flip a game completely on its head; to turn a war of attrition into a one-sided thermonuclear combat, or to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.
  • Iconic status – Just look at that casting cost. What card could be worth seven mana, all coloured, in such a demanding arrangement? THIS ONE. THIS ONE CAN.

Cruel can’t win from every position, but supported with the right friends it can create a mountain for opposing players to climb.

  • It can’t win through a board full of creatures – but if you damnation away the opponent’s team, it will handily dispose of their follow up threat.
  • It can’t stop an opponent from Cruel-ing you straight back if they had more than 4 cards in hand – but if you run pinpoint discard, you can guard against such situations.
  • It can’t hold the early game to stop you from dying before you hit 7 mana – but that’s why you should design your deck around keeping parity (or better) and drawing the game out until it becomes the ultimate stall-breaker.

Sadly, I fear we are never likely to see Cruel grace a standard table again. It is, by its very nature, part of a very unique cycle – and I question the willingness of Wizards either to reprint that whole cycle or to give us Cruel as a standalone. Perhaps I will simply have to make it work in Modern… wish me luck.

#1 – Etched Oracle

Oh, Etchy.  Will we ever again shuffle up together, my faithful companion?

There are so many things right with the Oracle.

  • He has a respectably-sized body, provided one can meet his multi-coloured conditions; I am already predisposed to playing decks with four or more colours, so that sounds just fine to me.
  • In addition, he has a magnificent upside once in play: a colourless Ancestral Recall, which I like to think is represented by the beautiful poly-chromatic orb he clutches in his filigree fingers.
  • Finally, he has the most gorgeous artwork I have ever seen on a Magic card. Gaun Yersel’, Matt Cavotta.

But there are also things which count against the Oracle, from a reprinting perspective.

  • He is only viable in an environment with plentiful colour fixing… and despite visiting such places several times, Wizards have historically chosen to overlook him.
  • He carries the Sunburst mechanic, which is thematically linked to Fifth Dawn, the specific set in which he was first printed. To create a world where Sunburst felt appropriate would take slightly more bending-over-backward than I expect Wizards to indulge in.

All of this is more painful, because I feel that he missed out (if you’ll pardon the pun) on his time in the sun.

When the Oracle first arrived, standard was a mess. Affinity reigned supreme and all organised play twitched helplessly in its iron grip; in such an environment, if a card wasn’t Oxidise at one end of the cost spectrum or Molder Slug at the other, it probably wasn’t getting played in any decks lining up against the artifact menace.

Eventually, bannings fixed standard slightly. For a brief period, I was able to play actual games with the paragon of good, fair creatures – and lo, he was glorious.

In the days of ‘damage-on-the-stack’, Etchy was the absolute stones. He was a house against attacking weenie creatures, a solid man to trade with larger animals… and if played correctly, he always came with an ancestral absolutely free.

  • Block your X/4 guy
  • Damage on the stack?
  • Pay 1, sac the Oracle, draw 3 cards
  • Damage resolves, your guy dies
  • Set off the party poppers, rig up a piñata, etc

If getting a 4-for-1 with my creature felt amazing, the 5-for-1s were even better. Sometimes, my fire-slinging opponents would swing their weenie team into my Oracle… I would block a small man… and they would hurl in a burn spell to finish him off. Naturally, I would cash him in, untap and go bananas – not difficult when the other guy is hurling good resources after bad, while I’m drawing into sweet spells and Eternal Witnesses by the boatload.

Ah, Etchy. Our time was so short, but so sweet. I struggle to fully express my feelings on this matter, but Whitney can pick up the slack.

It’s not all about me

That was my list, but different opinions provide life with a lot of its wondrous variety.

If you ran Wizards for a day, what would you throw back onto the printing presses?

Lightning Bugs

Shambleshark-Art-by-Wesley-Burt

Having just enjoyed myself an almost indecent amount, as I watched Michael Hetrick’s bemusement at facing down a Nightveil Specter from his Daily Event opponent, I’ve been inspired to share my latest pet project with you.

When I set out to build a deck for my amusement, I have a few objectives:

  1. I like it to contain interactions which other players aren’t really exploiting…
  2. …or some degenerate but improbable combo…
  3. …and I like the deck to have lots of ‘play’ to it.

This last point is pretty important.

To be clear: what I mean is that even if the deck is under-powered compared to the top strategies, it has enough trickiness and flexibility that I have the chance to outplay my opponent anyway. I may not always do so, but by building in lots of options, I open the door to some memorable matches. That’ll do for me.

This particular brew has tricks right up the wazoo, as some peculiar folks are known to say.

From shambles to Shark

I really like playing in my opponent’s turn. On a scale of 1 to FUN, the best-rated times to resolve spells are during someone else’s Combat phase or End of turn.

Earnest young hellkite

This deck plays 35 non-land cards, 19 of which can be resolved at instant speed and 10 of which can be conditionally granted this benefit. That equates to pretty high fun rating, let me tell you.

However, my obsession with the expression in response was not the genesis of this deck idea; rather, it was my attachment to these two cards:

When Zegana was first spoiled, a tiny klaxon began to sound in my brain – accompanied by a clipped, militaristic command to play these cards together. For the uninitiated, here’s a walk through of how they interact:

  1. Corpsejack Menace sits in play, ready to double any number of +1/+1 counters which might be placed on one of your creatures.
  2. You place Zegana on the stack, poised to enter play and draw 5 cards (one for her base power and one for each point of power the Menace possesses).
  3. But wait! As she enters the battlefield, Corpsejack Menace doubles her counters and she arrives as a mighty 9/9, drawing 9 cards.
  4. Unless you actually are dead on board, you suddenly find yourself a pretty big favourite to win the game.

Time passed.

Eventually, I found myself with some spare tickets on MTGO. I decided to create something – and discovered to my delight that Zegana was a measly 3 tickets per copy from my preferred chain of bots. Having already had a small amount of speculation success on Thundermaw Hellkites (can you believe that guy was ever 7 tickets? He was, believe me), I decided to pick up a set of the Prime Speaker with an eye both on deck-building fun and future funding of my hobby.

Of course, 4 Zeganas and 4 Corpsejack Menace does not a decklist make. I started looking around for other cards which would play nice with them.

In doing so, I began to see the evolve mechanic in a whole new light.

When I have evolve creatures in play, I really want to be able to play larger men to help them grow. Zegana, at the high-end of a deck, does this brilliantly because she always arrives bigger than the rest of your army. But Corpsejack Menace (CJ to his friends) is actually the ideal enabler, because when it hits the ground, it will double the effect of any evolve triggers.

I quickly grabbed playsets of what I thought were the most likely evolve partners for CJ, on account of being smaller than he:

Curving these creatures into a Corpsejack Menace seemed pretty appealing to me. I chucked them into the rough list that was developing, alongside this gentleman:

I then added some more goodies and chucked my little brew into the tournament practice room. While it’s not really a good representation of an actual tournament environment, it’s certainly a place where players are actively trying to be competitive – and a good way to start identifying whether a deck works in principle, or just does nothing and falls over.

Here’s what I learned over the course of a few games:

  • Playing an Experiment One was almost always better than playing a Raptor on turn 1… to the extent that I started to curse starting hands with both of them, because I would end up stranding my Raptor for several turns whilst beating down with and evolving the Human Ooze.
  • Playing a strategy which relied on playing out progressively greater numbers of creatures was, predictably, an absolute dog to decks with Supreme Verdict.
  • Curving evolve creatures into a Corpsejack Menace was absolutely INSANE.
    • In fact, throwing down CJ onto a board with two Experiment Ones transformed my position against Verdict decks. Suddenly, I had two men who could survive a board-sweeper, potentially at 2/2 or bigger; that was nothing to sniff at.
  • It was amazing to cast Zegana with a decent sized creature in play, even better with CJ… but because I only ran two, it rarely happened.
    • As a curve topper she seemed promising, but the reality was that I was winning games before she came online, or losing them without seeing her.

I started to play with the deck, reducing the numbers of Raptors and going to a singleton Zegana. At the same time, I started to look quizzically at my 3-drop column, which had but a single occupant:

I’m sure you can follow my reasoning for including this cheerful chap.

He hits hard, evolves my smaller aggressive creatures and has a late-game interaction with the Corpsejack Menace; nonetheless he was lonely, pining for a 3-drop to call ‘friend’. As I was slotting other tweaks into place, I decided to add a singleton companion for him as a test… and inspired by the fun I’d been having flashing down Shamblesharks, I chose Wolfir Avenger.

Then it was back to the battlefield.

A new era

My word, the deck was better.

This is largely attributable to my drawing the singleton Wolfir Avenger in an unrealistic percentage of matches. He was exactly what I wanted in all the scenarios I had previously found difficult:

  • If the opponent was playing counterspells, I could cast him at awkward times when their mana was pressured.
  • If they were blowing up the board, I could regenerate him.
  • If they were more aggressive than I was, he was the perfect surprise blocker to ruin their attacks.

In addition, he added new depth to my proactive plan:

  • He almost always evolved my army.
  • He proved to be the perfect aggressive partner for Dreg Mangler: end step Wolfir, untap, Mangler, bash was the surprise swing that ended quite a few games.
  • He wasn’t half bad with Shambleshark either. Flashing down the shark, followed by the wolf was another popular aggro package.

I added another, then quickly went up to three.

Once I was on the Wolfir train, it was an easy next step to throw in a couple of Yevas.

Yeva doesn’t regenerate, but she does all the other great stuff that the wolf does – lightning blocker, unexpected attacker, an all-round tricksy hobbit (or elf).

Charmed, I’m sure

As I thought about Yeva’s lack of regeneration, it struck me that this might be the perfect deck for some charms.

  

As a creature deck, my major problem is removal.

Removal of the targeted kind is uncomfortable, but with some counterspells and regenerating men, not fatal. Mass removal, however, is a big problem in this format – it tends to be uncounterable:

What I really needed was a way to stop Supreme Verdict. Golgari Charm does exactly that, thanks to its regeneration mode, so I decided to slip a couple into the list. Simic Charm was less compulsory in my mind, but I elected to try it out because I was already in the colours and all of the modes are useful.

The charms have been mixed  but generally positive in their effectiveness. They’re always functional; sometimes they have too little impact to turn a game I’m losing, while in others they create a game winning blowout.

Golgari Charm has generally been the better of the two, because winning a combat or surviving a board sweep is sensational. As a bonus, blowing up an Oblivion Ring or detention sphere can be pretty handy, especially when it returns a creature who evolves your team and becomes the difference between an ineffectual swing and a lethal one. The -1/-1 mode is the most variable in terms of value, but when it’s good… my word, it’s ridiculous.

Against a red aggro deck, I managed to dig my way out of a slow start (too many tapped lands!) with the perfect Golgari charm moment. My opponent played a Legion Loyalist, then a Lightning Mauler, then a Stromkirk Noble over his first three turns. With Rancor on the stack, I killed his team.

If you manage to resolve a better Golgari Charm than that, please send me a screenshot and I’ll be happy to award some kind of prize.

The bitterest pill

I played with the deck a little more, noting the situations in which I was winning and losing, before finally coming clean with myself: as much as I loved her, Zegana was not right for this deck. With regret, I was forced to wave her goodbye… in the maindeck at least. Still, at least there was some upside:

Zegana Price

I’m telling you, folks, this speculation lark is easy.

  • Wait a couple of weeks after a set releases
  • Note which degenerately powerful Mythic rares aren’t seeing play yet
  • Buy some
  • …wait…
  • Sell them to pay for your ongoing adventures in deckbuilding

What could be simpler?

DISCLAIMER: The Author is lucky, not good. Do not try this at home.

The end… for now

After all of the building, tweaking and flashing-in-monsters-on-the-end-stepping, here’s where I arrived (click to enlarge):

BUG Flash Deck

A few observations about the current state of this monstrosity are warranted:

  • My manabase still feels shaky. I seem to mulligan a lot because I can’t cast early spells, although I’m not sure precisely the best way to tweak it at present. I shall probably need to invest some time in analysing it a little more scientifically, although I can’t think of a less appetising way to blow the precious minutes I get to spend thinking about Magic.
  • Disciple of Bolas does a nice Prime Speaker impression whilst padding out your life total, but it’s difficult to know exactly when to play it – frequently the best play is to preserve your high-powered creatures on the board, ensuring that you keep pressuring the opponent. I tend to hold him back against control decks when I have regeneration available, since my men will live through removal, whereas I’ll cash in a 4/3 Shambleshark much of the time to keep the cards flowing. Perhaps the deck can live without him, but I wanted to have some card advantage available.
  • Ultimate Price should really be Abrupt Decay, an oversight I intend to remedy next time I have some spare MTGO tickets. Rakdos Cackler, Burning Tree Emissary, Boros Reckoner and Loxodon Smiter all need to die… and Ultimate Price falls woefully short of dealing with them. Killing Lilianas and Domri Rades is just gravy.
  • My sideboard plan needs work. At the moment, it has all the hallmarks of a ‘more of what you like’ strategy, which isn’t ideal. I’m also playing with a transformational package, which sees us side into Thragtusks and Prime Speakers to win grindy midrange wars. Is it good? I don’t know yet… ask me in a week.

These details aside, though, I’ve had great fun mucking around with the deck. If you get the chance, throw it together and have fun making your opponent guess what the hell is going on when you pass with 5 open mana.

Monty Python had the right of it: Nobody expects the Spanish inquisition, nor do they expect a regenerating Wolf Warrior in their Declare Attackers step.

Author’s note: Patrick Chapin has, THIS VERY DAY, ninja’d me with a post on SCG which touches on the CJ and the Prime Speaker interaction. I suppose if I had to be beaten to publication by anyone…