Tuesday, March 29, 2011

I for one welcome our New Phyrexian overlords...

It's official.

Obviously, this isn't news to you. If you're coming here for your latest M:tG news, I truly feel for you. I also have little to add by way of opinion or commentary. It's too early to tell what else is in store for us, but I am very excited to see what lies ahead. This card is a tastey morsel, to be sure. I like it. I'm not sure yet what the  best application for it is... cards that cost 7 mana are usually relegated to EDH only. This seems like a card I'd be happy to play in EDH, but I don't currently have a deck that would make a good home for it.

I'm not the slightest bit surprised at the outcome of the war. We all knew Phyrexia would win - those who sided with the Mirrans are contrarions or just delusional. This "surprise" was the biggest letdown in recent Magic history. Lame. Still, I prefer this outcome to Mirran victory. Bringing back Phyrexia for one little block would not have been worth it.

I am, however, surprised that the above card is a rare, not a mythic. I expected the Praetor cycle to be all mythical and shit, so it's kinda nice to see WotC pulling back from the Mythics a bit and making a cycle of cool legends at Rare. I'll tentatively congratulate them for this move based on one of the cycle, but I reserve the right to retract this statement once the rest of the Praetors are revealed.

EDIT: Thanks to a shitty lap monitor with bad color settings, I thought this guy was Rare, not Mythic. Looking at it on a real man's desktop monitor shows it clearly is Mythic. Oh well, I figured it was too good to be true. (Thanks for the tip, Andy!)

As long as Sheoldred is playable, I will be happy.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Ubiquity in EDH, Part 2: The benefits of "Good Stuff"

A while back, I posted an article examining ubiquity in EDH - the phenomenon of running all of the on-color auto-includes in every deck, and how it made the format seem stale and repetative despite the singleton-nature of the format. Obviously, variety is the point and appeal of EDH as a format. I accept that as why I'm drawn to EDH in the first place.

It's also a great showcase format, where you can easily get away with running cards that are just terrible in almost any other format. In 60-card Magic you probably wouldn't dream of running Darksteel Colossus unless you were running Tinker, Shape Anew, or Master Transmuter - essentially any way to bypass the 11 mana cost. In EDH, you'd still probably like to do those things, but it's not unheard of at all to just hard-cast the Iron Giant. In fact 11 mana is nothing, considering Emrakul was being hardcast often enough to get himself banned, despite the steep 15-mana price tag.

So, anyway, I wrote the previous article decrying this trend of running too many staples in every deck, making all of my decks seem like slightly different variations on the same basic deck. Essentialy, every one of my decks was a three-color "good stuff" deck with a few pet cards and on-theme cards tossed in where I could. I decided the best way to remedy this situation was to build new decks with themes that restricted the number or "good stuff" slots and demanded more "on-theme" slots.

I built a Sharuum deck with zero combos (but plenty of synergies) and focused on making it an Aggro/Midrange deck that primarily won through creature combat. I also built a Sek'Kuar deck with a Token/Sac/Grave Pact theme. The Sharuum deck was unimpressive. It did what I wanted it to do, but not so well that I particularly enjoyed playing it. The Sek'Kuar deck was a good deal more fun overall, but it was too dependent on sticking a Grave Pact to do much without that Enchantment. Gradually the fun  wore off when I realized I basically never won a game without Grave Pact.

This little experiment might not have been a success, but it did prove very enlightening. I realized that there was a tangible upside to the ubiquitous nature of "good stuff" builds. You see, if your deck is designed to do one thing really well (like control the board via Grave Pact tricks) when you're allowed by opponents to carry out your Plan A, you'll dominate nearly every time, but your deck is easier to thwart. Your opponents will know exactly what you're up to, and will know the lynchpins of your strategy, thus can use pinpoint answers to severly cripple your game plan.

"Good Stuff" decks have an appeal based on two principals. First, they are jacks of all trades, and can do nearly anything and everything you'd need them to do. Second, nearly every business spell in your deck has potential to be a must-answer spell. This makes it harder for your opponets to disrupt your whole game plan by killing one or two specific permanents.

There is a big difference between running Mirari's Wake because it's good in your deck and helps your overall strategy, and building your deck around Mirari's Wake. I've tried building around cards in my deck that aren't my general, and it's been pretty much a failure every time.

That's not to say I don't like to have a theme or strategy at all. All of my decks have some basic underlying purpose. but I try to find themes that are broad enough that they leave room for a lot of high-powered spells and aren't easily disrupted by spot-removing a key permanent. If there IS going to be a lynchpin to your deck, it should only ever be your general. My Rafiq deck basically needs Rafiq to win usually, but since he's my general, that's not a tall order for the deck. Almost every card in the deck is a two-card combo with Rafiq so it really doesn't matter what I draw, or in what order.

My Sek'Kuar deck was the opposite. It had a very specific theme and battle plan, and once my opponents had seen the deck in action once, they new exactly wich permanents were "lynchpins" and which were just good stuff. They'd go after the lynchpins first, and I had to just hope the "good stuff" got me there, but it rarely did. Partly becuse there was less of the good stuff than my other decks, and partly beause the good stuff I chose for the deck was still at least sorta dependent on the lynchpins to be really effective.

Since then, I've disassembled the Sek'Kuar and Sharrum decks, and built a Zur deck and rebuilt my Rafiq deck. Even after getting bored with Rafiq and taking it apart, it was still only a few short months before I grew to miss it dearly. I'm also highly considering rebuilding my Vorosh deck. Both decks have themes and run cards specific to those themes, but both are mostly just "good stuff" decks with a light theme tying them together. Vorosh in particular has no single permanent that is crucial to the deck - Genesis in the 'yard is the only real "lynchpin" but I have enough redundant recursion that I can live through multiple Bojuka Bogs.

So where does this leave me? Well, it seems to me that decks like Sek'kuar, that want to do a very specific thing or set of things are more fun than just a random "good stuff" deck - IF your opponents let you do what it is your deck is designed to do. But once they learn what you're up to, they'll be in a much better position to counteract your strategy. On the flipside, Good Stuff decks only have one real theme: cast powerful spells. That's a much harder strategy to disrupt. So while Good Stuff might get old from time to time, there's a reason it's called Good Stuff...

The key is to balance linear strategy or theme with random powerful staples. You need both. How much of each you need, what the right balance is, will vary from metagame to metagame. But it is important to find that balance, because too far one way and you won't have any fun seeing your whole game flushed away with a single Krosan Grip, too far the other way and all your decks will start to look and play exactly the same and you'll get bored.

For me, the balance seems to be that I can push my theme as far as I want, provided I don't have any sort of lynchpins for success, especially ones that are easy-to-remove permanents. If you think your deck NEEDS Grave Pact to win most games, that's a problem. If you NEED to stick a Mimic Vat to win, you're going to loose a lot. If your deck is simply BETTER with either of those cards, but fine without them, you're golden.

Monday, March 21, 2011

UPDATE: Rafiq of the Many EDH

So I just rebuilt Rafiq over the weekend, with an eye toward including some new goodies that have come out since I last dismantled the deck. Also, I wanted to evolve it slighty in a more multi-player viable direction. One of the great things about the new Infect mechanic is that it makes Aggro viable in EDH multiplayer.

Now, I've played Rafiq in a few FFA games, just for the hell of it. With an amazing draw, and a little luck, it has managed to eke out a few wins, but the fact of the matter is, if every deck in a 4-way game is packing the appropriate number of Wrath effects and pinpoint removal spells, I literally CAN'T win without a god-draw.

So, I added a dash of Infect, to increase the speed of the deck, which will hopefully give it the edge it needs to possibly take out multiple opponents.

Putrefax is just another one-shot-kill in this deck, and is slighly more recurable than something like Might of Oaks would be. I already have various ways of one-shotting someone who lets their guard down for a single turn, but USUALLY I can't realistically pull this off more than once in a given game. Putrefax just increases the chances slightly.

Corrupted Conscience serves this roll as well, but also doubles as spot-removal. Stealing a significant threat has always been great in EDH, but giving that stolen fatty Infect just increases the lethality. Stealing an Akroma, Angel of Wrath and swinging at the Karthuus player pretty much spells Game Over for the Dragon Tyrant.

Vridian Corrupter is just a fine utility creature that happens to supplement the Infect count. I'm under no illusions about this guy - he's going to be a blocker far more often than a true threat, but still - even a single hit from this guy with Rafiq on the table is worth 6 Poison counters. Ouch.

Finally, the incredible Inkmoth Nexus rounds out the Infect portion. This little guy can easily go the distance, dodging Wrath effects all day long. However, I envision him as a finisher most of the time, putting the last few counters on a player previously hit by a Putrefax or something.


Now, I realize that Infect is somewhat unpopular these days. First of all, most of the naysayers have little or no experience actually playing with or against Infect. So I simply reject all snap judgements not based on actual game play. Second, those objections are largely focused on dedicated, hard core posion decks. Infect is NOT a major theme of my Rafiq deck, it's just a tool to shore up the biggest weakness Aggro decks have in a multiplayer arena. 4 cards is not enough to call this an "Infect deck" at all.

That said, as a consecion to popular opinion and to offset the inclusiong of Infect, I have removed Umezawa's Jitte. If you aren't aware of what this thing can do in a Rafiq deck, lemme just say that it's WAY more of a dick card than the 4 Infect cards mentioned combined.

It was never a fun card for anyone but me, and it always made me feel like a jerk playing it. Putrefax might piss someone off, but my response would be that if they'd been up against Jitte instead, they'd still be just as dead, but probably even more pissed off.


So other than some Infect guys, what else is new? Plenty:

Serra Ascendant - 6/6 flying lifelink for W? Seems good.
Consecrated Sphinx - Duh. Every Blue deck ever.
Sphinx Ambassador - Bribery twice for free? Awesome. (Up to FOUR times with Finest Hour and Rafiq).
Augury Adept - Always wanted to run this, never had room until now. Seems fun.
Phryexian Rebirth - Should almost always be better than the Kirtar's Wrath it replaced.
True Conviction - Because this deck wants MORE doublestrike, not LESS!
Mimic Vat - GOES IN EVERY DECK! This is probably even more "must-run" than Sol Ring.


So here's the full list (minus the lands - still tweaking the mana base, but it seemss perfect at a 38 land count).

Rafiq of the Many
Serra Acendant
Stoneforge Mystic
Academy Rector
Battlegrace Angel
Akroma, Angel of Wrath
Vesuvan Doppelganger
Consecrated Sphinx
Sphinx Ambassador
Noble Hierarch
Sakura-Tribe Elder
Wood Elves
Eternal Witness
Viridian Corrupter
Indrik Stomphowler
Acidic Slime
Qasali Pridemage
Jhessian Infiltrator
Cold-Eyed Selkie
Augury Adept
Dauntless Escort
Rhox War Monk
Jenara, Asura of War
Giltspire Avenger
Loxodon Hierarch
Knight of New Alara
Sovereigns of Lost Alara
Simic Sky Swallower
Swords to Plowshares
Path to Exile
Marshal's Anthem
Elspeth, Knight-Errant
Wrath of God
Phryexian Rebirth
True Conviction
Martial Coup
Deep Analysis
Jace, the Mind Sculptor
Corrupted Conscience
Skyshroud Claim
Pattern of Rebirth
Steel of the Godhead
Shield of the Oversoul
Finest Hour
Mirari's Wake
Eldrazi Conscription
Lightning Greaves
Sword of Light and Shadow
Sword of Fire and Ice
Mimic Vat
Azorius Signet
Selesnaya Signet
Simic Signet
Darksteel Ingot


So what else could I cram in, if I had the cards on hand?

Green Sun's Zenith - This is a must-have for the deck, but I need another copy first.
Primeval Titan - Not strictly necessary, as this deck has a lower-than-average curve (for EDH anyway) but Prime Time is too good not to run if you have him. My two copies are better used elsewhere though.
Wurmcoil Engine - Becasue a 6/6 Lifelinker/Deathtoucher seems even better with Doublestrike and some Exalted bonuses.


Stuff that got cut:

Felidar Sovereign - WinCat won a single game for me. His work here is done.
Rhox - My pre-infect attempt at multiplayer longevity. It worked, too, but not as good as I'd hoped.
Wilt-Leaf Leige - An underperformer from the outset, his days were numbered.
Faith's Fetters - Good, solid utility, especially for Planeswalkers. I can live without it, though.
Kirtar's Wrath - Upgraded to Phyrexian Rebirth (I almost never had Threshhold when I cast it).
Eledamri's Call - Cut for Green Sun's Zenith, but I don't have the Zenith yet. Something else took it's spot.
Decree of Justice - This is the one cut I feel might have been an error. It's been crucial to my defenses against Thraximundar a number of times, so reducing my token generators feels like a bad move. Time will tell, but I half expect to be shoe-horning this back in soon.


Final thoughts

This deck is still geared primarily toward 1v1 play, but it looks like it will have better game in multiplayer too. It's not tested yet, but I hope to try it out as soon as possible. I hope the Infect strategy bears out the way I want... it's not meant to ruin games or dominate the deck's goals, but just give an aggro deck a fighting chance in FFA games. If it's too good, or not good enough, I'll go back to the drawing board.


Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Sensei Can Go Suck an Egg.

I don't like Sensei's Divining Top in EDH. Yeah, that's right. I said it.


Okay, I can't just throw this opinion out there without backing it up; I understand this. It's one of the most widely played cards in EDH, and many pundits will waste hours debating whether this or Sol Ring is the best 1-drop Artifact in EDH. But I have never found it to be that useful.

First off, let me start by saying that this thing never helps me dig out of a land-pocket, or to find land when I desperately need it. In this scenario it only digs me one card deeper per turn, which often results in three or four turns of me seeing two of the same cards every single time, with only one new card (not the land I need!) each time.

Even die-hard advocates for the Top will agree that what usually makes the top worthwhile is lots of shuffle effects. That way, if you Top and don't like the top 3 cards, you crack a fetchland or whatever your shuffle effect is, and look at a completely new set of 3.

I get this in theory, really I do. It's just that in practice, this almost never proves relevant to the situation at hand. 9 times out of 10, I'm stuck using the Top to try to find my GD shuffle effect, which seems to defeat the purpose, if you ask me.

Then there are the times when I'm forced to tap the top to draw a fetchland/rampant growth because I desperately need the mana... but then I just shuffled my Top into the library. Which again seems to defeat the purpose. You might be tempted to argue that point by saying "well, in that case you just leave the top alone and wait until next turn to draw your mana-fetching shuffle effect!"...

Bullshit. I've literally never been in a situation where I could AFFORD to wait until the next damn turn. I need that damn mana NOW! To that, one might suggest that in such dire straights, flipping the Top for the land is clearly worth shuffling the Top into my library, if I do in fact need the mana that urgently. Well, yes, this is quite true - but it actually serves more as an argument AGAINST the Top.

If you find drawing an Arid Mesa right away to be worth more than keeping the Top around, I'd say you're probably better off having another land or a rampant growth effect in that slot rather than the top.

One of the big gripes against the Top, amongst its few detractors, is that it's a time-waster: Between constant end-of-turn fiddling plus the fact that running the top influences people to play a god-awful number of shuffle effect, having the top out drags games out needlessly.

I honestly disagree with this complaint, in general, because most decks I see run a shit-ton of shuffle effects anyway, even if they don't run the Top. Sure a few players out there will go a bit overboard with shufflers just to maximize their Top advantage - but those decks are probably running Trinket Mage to find the Top and that's a slippery slope to d-bag town anyway...

That all said, I still think it can be cumbersome and I find, personally, that even if it doesn't slow the game down as a whole all that much, it often slows ME down, as I'm always trying to keep 1 mana open to peek at the end of someone's turn... which can really have an impact early on in the game, as you need to be developing at least as fast as everyone else. Falling behind early can easily spell doom later on... Top encourages you to effectively cost yourself one early land drop.

Sure, you might say a "good" player won't waste crucial development mana on the Top - he'll wait until he can afford the mana to start using it. I can certainly understand this veiwpoint, but it makes me wonder why you'd want the Top in the first place if you can't even start using it until later on? Surely by that time you could afford to just cast a real draw spell...

This line of argument implies that the Top is only good mid-game or later... you shouldn't be wasting mana on it during the early crucial turns. But seriously, if I had to pick between a late-game, top-decked Sensei's Divining Top or an Oona's Grace, I'd pick the Grace 9 times out of 10.

For that matter, I would almost always prefer to have an active Crystal Ball on the table over an active Top. Both cards are designed to help you dig for something relevant and improve card selection. In that regard I feel Crystal Ball is vastly superior, because it actually lets you dig where SDT is like trying to dig a hole in sand - it just keeps filling back up as fast as you can shovel. It's actually painful to me to activate the Top, see three useless cards and not be able to do anything about it. With Scry I can just put them on bottom, and never have to look at them again (this game).

Sure, Crystal Ball costs three GD mana, doesn't protect itself from removal and has no built in way to get a card of the top immediately... but the simple fact that it can dig me out of a mana pocket far, far faster than the Top can, or dig me to a needed land equally as fast makes it far more valuable to me. Even still, I rarely find room in a deck for Crystal Ball, so the poor ol' Top just doesn't even stand a chance.

One point I will readily concede: Having both Top and Crystal Ball on the board at once is a VERY delicious and potent engine. Also, Top is pretty damn good in artifact/combo decks (if you're into that sort of thing).

It's not that I don't feel the Top is worthless in EDH. It's just that it's not the "must-run" everyone else thinks it is. Certain decks will absolutely be happy to play it, but many more don't really need it - it's just overrated and overplayed. I'm not the only one who thinks so, either... my buddy Chad quit playing it long before I did, and I argued that it was essential at first... then I started paying attention to how often I was failing to get the expected benefits from it, or how often I was lagging behind because I was sinking a single mana into it every turn...

I slowly, hesitantly even, started taking the Top out of one deck, then another. There wasn't a single deck that felt worse off without it, and many just seemed better without it.  Soon I was running ZERO Tops across the board, and I haven't missed it since. I did run it in my shortlived Sharuum deck, as it has many specific interactions that made it totally bad ass... but outside of that one deck, I don't feel like any EDH deck I've ever built would be significantly improved by the inclusion of the Top.