Friday, December 14, 2012

This Post is Tier 3

In my roster of EDH decks, I try to keep a broad range of deck types and power levels. I don’t want to be the guy that only builds grindy, value-oriented control decks, or what have you. I also like to be able to, if I just completely steamrolled a table, to switch to another deck that is more in line, power level-wise, with what everyone else is doing.

When playing new people, I usually default to playing one of my better decks, because I don’t want to wind up getting shut out of the game early and having to sit and watch. I’d rather win the first game, and then scale down if needed. So, when I played at the new LGS that isn’t all that local the first time, I went for Thraximundar and Maelstrom Wanderer – two of my more competitive and powerful decks. Now, neither of them are cutthroat, or meant to be tournament-caliber competitive. They’re just naturally strong for a casual-oriented deck.

I didn’t win the game I played with Thraxi, but to be bluntly honest, I punted that game by making more than a couple of misplays. The deck was still fairly new and untested with a whole lot of Return to Ravnica cards I’d never used at all, so I was more focused on just doing cool shit with Mercurial Chemister and stuff like that, rather than winning. And, frankly, it was worth it – the game was fun and I made big, splashy plays that scared my opponents and made them scramble to react. Eventually, though I just got sloppy and overconfident and handed the game to someone else. I’m not complaining – if I’d truly been focused on winning I’m reasonably sure I would have, but the game might have been less fun overall, even for me.

The Maelstrom Wanderer game I won, and I’ve already talked about that here, but suffice it to say, MW is a Tier 1 general hands-down. It almost doesn’t matter what you put in the deck. If you have: a) ways to get to 7 mana, and b)spells that cost 7 or less that do things, you should be in great shape. My list is far from tuned “optimally” if such a concept even applies to EDH, but it is still one of the most dominant EDH decks I have. It makes huge, epic plays that are hard to stop, and killing Maelstrom Wanderer is like reloading my shotgun for me. I actually swing MW into Acidic Slimes and Vampire Nighthawks all the time, daring my opponent to block. You’d be surprised how often they choose to take 7 to the face! Anyway, the decks I chose that day seemed a bit above the curve for that group of players – not that they were totally outclassed, just lagging a little behind. I could most likely have played any of my weaker decks and still had a good chance of winning.

At the other end of the spectrum is Stonebrow. My Stonebrow deck is one of my go-to decks for those times when I feel slightly like a dick for the game I just played. When I realize I accidentally brought a gun to a knife fight, Stonebrow is one of my “knife” decks. It has gotten a bit sharper over time, but it’s still basically just a big, dumb aggro deck. I’ve tuned it over time to be able to handle a Wrath or two, but beyond that, it’s unlikely to recover from a sweeper-heavy game. If sweepers are getting cast every other turn, I have little chance of winning. But, at its core, all the deck really wants to do is turn guys sideways, so it’s easy to interact with and keep in check. So, the next time we went to that store to play, I played Stonebrow and Edric, two of my lower-powered. Those decks are still about as good as I can make them while still adhering to their theme and purpose, but pound for pound, they just aren’t capable of the same powerful things Thrax and MW are. In the end, to my own surprise, I managed to win both of those games, but unlike when I played MW I never felt like I was clearly the dominant player in either game. Stonebrow had an amazing run, but it was only because two other players made themselves bigger targets early on that I was able to survive long enough to get momentum. Stonebrow has a very weak early game, unless I get really lucky on the opening draws.

In between is stuff like Vish Kal. White tends to have cheap aggressive creatures, and black has removal out the wazoo, so mid-range aggro/control is just a natural, organic place for a White/Black deck to be. And power-wise that is also where the deck sits: right in the middle. Keep in mind this spectrum is based solely on my own current decks, not the format as a whole. Even my best decks would be at most middle-tier decks – true “Tier 1” decks would eviscerate mine easily.

Anyway, within my own roster and among my own local play group, I’d rank my decks as follows:

Tier 1: Maelstrom Wanderer, Thraximundar, Ghave

These are my most dominant decks. I tend to go for these when I need to break a losing streak or the group I’m playing with is a bit more powered up. Ghave is probably the single strongest token deck in the format (not saying MY list, just the Ghave archetype in general). Even though I went out of my way to avoid infinite combos, it is just a big synergistic value machine. BAD Ghave decks can usually wreck other decks, and mine isn’t bad. MW is just disgustingly overpowered as a general. I almost have to be trying to lose a game with this. Not ramping fast enough, or horrible cascades are basically the only weaknesses. My current Thraxi list is not the strongest Thraxi list I’ve played. It’s a bit too focused on playing cards that are new and cool, but not necessarily the most powerful. That said, so much of the decks strength resides in its general that it’s still a very strong performer. It’s good at controlling the board and keeping the red zone clear for Thraxi to get in there and do his thang.

My usual Rafiq lists would qualify as Tier 1, but I’m working on a whole new paradigm for Rafiq that will be noticeably less powerful than what I usually do.

Tier 2: Wrexial, Savra, Vish Kal

Among my most-played decks, these are quite competitive within my playgroup, but not overly dominating. Wrexial can have some very Tier 1-esque games but not consistently at all, and while it does lots of insanely powerful things, I usually have a hard time actually winning a game with it. Vish Kal, as already noted, is firmly Tier 2. It’s honestly not as strong as it looks on paper, and how I built it, it comes with some key weaknesses. It overly relies on tutors to smooth out its rather shaky draws. Some games I either draw all my card-drawing effects  or none of them. Some draws are all creatures, no removal, while other draws are all removal, no threats. Kal himself is a fantastic general in a vacuum, but I have games where he’s basically a blank. I’ve also had games where I have like a million life, and then just die to general damage. Overall, though, I’m happy with where the deck is at, and don’t have any real desire to increase its power level, but I would like to find a way to make it more smooth and consistent, without pushing the power envelope. Savra is making a strong case as of late for being promoted to Tier 1. I’m actually looking at ways to scale back a tiny bit to keep her Tier 2, but my natural inclination is to push power up not down, so we’ll see.

She’s also, currently, my favorite deck to play – the Golgari are more fun than you’d expect. Here’s a bit of irony: Prime Time being banned made the deck better. Okay, that statement clearly deserves qualification. The very first incarnation of the deck was actually really weak. It’s one strong game plan centered on Griselbrand. He was so damned powerful that he alone made the deck viable. His banning hamstrung the deck pretty badly and it had to undergo a pretty big paradigm shift to compensate. Afterwards, the deck was firmly a Tier 3 deck, occasionally powerful but horribly inconsistent and fragile. Then Prime Time got banned as well, and I really thought that would all but kill this deck. Fortunately, Kokusho reentered the format at the same time Primeval Titan exited, so I tried using Kokusho to patch the hole. This led to subtle but important changes in the deck, which when combined with the Golgari’s presence in RtR, the deck is now actually better than it ever was with either Griselbrand or Prime Time in it. Those two cards just overshadowed whatever else the deck might want to do, to the point that they suffocated the deck. I guess that’s why the both got banned. While I still mostly disagree with Prime Time’s ban (Griselbrand, as much as it saddened me ABSOLUTELY deserved his ban), I can see the argument for it a bit better now. Unfortunately, other decks like Maelstrom Wanderer are actually worse off without Prime Time.

Tier 3: Gisela, Edric, Stonebrow and Rith

This tier has a lot of room for argument, but I feel these 4 decks are my weakest at the moment. Gisela has an insanely strong game plan, but between clunky, awkward draws in many games, and an inherent weakness to Artifact hate, it’s almost unheard for me to win with this deck. It tends to come out of the gate faster and harder than any deck in my groups metagame, but the early aggression draws too much hate and I wind up trying to win long games with 2/2 doublestrikers. Rith is a neat deck, but Ghave just does tokens so much better, and honestly I just haven’t played Rith enough to know how to tune it correctly. I really want this deck to be more reliable, but right now Tokens are just all over my group’s meta, so I don’t play this or Ghave much. Edric is built firmly with the intent to look harmless and non-threatening. As such, it has very few reliable ways to win games, and is almost impossible to play proactively. It’s a sit back, wait and react kind of deck. Finally, Stonebrow seems to be performing much better than average as of late, but it still needs a lot of work to rise above its janky, uber-casual status, and I’m not all that interested in putting in that effort. It’s a deck that is actually more fun for being kinda bad. Focusing so single-mindedly on casting and swinging with dudes that Trample is fun, even when it loses.

Ideally, I’d like to have the majority of my decks in the Tier 2 category, with a couple of 1’s and 3’s for times when more power or less power are called for. I think I need to focus on scaling Rith up a notch and keeping Savra more in check. I love having powerful decks and I like occasionally winning a game that I was in control of right from the start, but that’s not the default experience I’m looking to have in this format. Usually, I don’t much care if I win or lose as long as I got to make some cool plays and be part of the cool stuff other players do. So, it’s valuable to me to have a broad selection of decks to choose from, as I begin to player more EDH outside my normally insular play group.

I also like to have a variety of decks ranging from aggro to mid-range to control, and a variety of different themes. Having multiple EDH decks lets me tailor each deck to provide a different play experience for me, and hopefully, for my opponents as well.

Shiny and New

Quick and rather pointless updates seem to be a reoccurring theme here lately. Sorry for that, but I actually have a rather sizeable stable of decks that I thoroughly enjoy playing. The two new brews I promise like a month ago are still cooking. Well, simmering more like. Progress slow, but it is progress nonetheless.

For example, last night I received a nifty little envelope in the mail from Star City Games. The contents included:

For my big Highlander – Foil Treasured Find, Foil Snow-Covered Plains, Foil Snow-Covered Mountain.
The Treasured Find is to replace Regrowth… yeah, Regrowth is strictly better, but Treasured Find has strictly better art, AND is available in foil.
The Snow lands are to complete the cycle, because I already had Swamp, Island and Forest, and it bugged the hell out of me not having the full cycle in foil.

For the Nin, the Pain Artist deck – Niv-Mizzet, Dracogenius and Epic Experiment.
I’m going to try the new Niv as the general in place of Nin. Kinda makes me sad, but I think it’ll help steer the deck back onto the right course.
Epic was always necessary, and it only occurred to me after sleeving the deck up that I hadn’t actually pulled an EE yet. Oops.

Stonehorn Dignitary – This one is for the other brew I’m working on by haven’t talked about here yet. Soon…

The Rakdos die from the RtR prerelease packs – I’d already collected the other four RtR guild D20’s so it was of paramount importance that I complete this cycle as well.

Stairs to Infinity – This is the promo plane for Plancechase 2012. Hadn’t picked one up and it’s one of the more hilariously zany planes. We don’t play with them planes all that often, but when we do it’s usually fun. Getting the mix right is tricky – you tend to only want planes that help out, but that’s like having a “ghost” player playing Group Hug. But you don’t want the planes that slow the game down to a crawl, like Eon Hub, making the game drag on in unfun ways.

Foil Savra and Foil Stonebrow – These two generals have cemented their place in my permanent roster of decks. I might at various times take either of them apart, but I love the decks enough that I know I’ll always go back and rebuild them later. So, it makes sense to keep foil copies on hand. I’ll talk a bit more about why both decks have earned their spots later.

Utvara  Hellkite – Basically this is just an awesome Mythic dragon that I didn’t already have, and wanted a copy. I already know with about 90% certainty that when it comes time to build a Jund-colored deck, I’m using Karrthus as the general. It might not be full bore on the Dragon theme, but it will absolutely contain enough of them to make Utvara Hellkite awesome. It was cheap now, so I picked it up for later.

I wanted to get a foil Thraximundar, because I know that Thraxi will basically always be a general I’m happy to be playing. The deck around him might change a bit, but Thraxi is by far my favorite general in those colors. I liked Garza Zol Vampire tribal, and Sedris Zombie tribal, but I always come back to Thraximundar. He just rocks. The only reason I didn’t pick him up this time was cost. I needed most of the other stuff more and needed to keep the total price tag low. He’s an investment I’ll be more than happy to make when I can, but now wasn’t that time.

I also wanted a foil Gisela, but I’m less committed to keeping her. When Gatecrash comes out, I really think I’ll be playing Aurelia instead. Gisela will be in the deck, but I think Aurelia will be a better general. The thing is, Gisela is totally awesome and when she’s out the deck is supercharge – but she’s too damned expensive, and more importantly she’s too scary to the rest of the table. Playing the deck with her in charge, I either get hated out before I get to 7 mana, or she just gets killed so many times that eventually I just can’t be bothered to cast her any more.

The sad thing is, I think this deck peaked with Jor Kadeen as the general. 5 mana is quite a bit different from 7 mana, honestly, and while the Metalcraft theme was janky and occasionally led to my getting dicked over hard by Austere Command, that iteration just felt like the most aggressive and resilient version to date. Gisela is just one of those relationships where I know she’s wrong for me, but I’m too madly in love to care.

So between the fact that a foil Gisela is still pretty darn expensive, and the fact that I’m not at all sure she’s going to remain the general, I couldn’t justify picking up this foil now. We’ll see how it goes in the future.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Color Identity Crisis

So, I’m half-heartedly trying to come up with a deck for each two-color and three-color combination. It’s a popular challenge among EDH tryhards (using this term lovingly here, not as a putdown) to try and have one deck for every possible color or color combination. Taken to its logical extreme, that means having 5 mono-color decks, 10 two-color decks, 10 three-color decks, a five-color deck and a “mono-brown” or Colorless deck. That’s 27 total decks for those mathematically-challenged readers.

Frankly, I just have no interest in any mono-colored decks, so I can skip those. Similarly, I have zero interest in attempting the colorless deck, and I’ve got my Big Highlander to satisfy my 5C Good Stuff cravings. So mostly I’m just looking at two and three color decks, leaving me with an even 20 possible decks. I’ve got some colors covered: there is absolutely nothing in Magic that would compel me to play anything other than Wrexial for my U/B deck. But, while Savra is currently my favorite deck to play right now, I have been getting a strong urge to scrap it for a more aggressive Skullbriar deck.

Now, I am just Spike-ish enough that I don’t want to build a bad or janky theme deck just to have a deck in some color scheme. It is a prerequisite of fun, for me, that all my decks have the capacity to win. They don’t need to be unstoppable juggernauts, but a realistic shot at winning is absolutely required. If I don’t feel a deck can win a fair share of games I am not going to have a good time playing with it.

The reverse is also true, though – I am positive that I could very easily build a Grand Arbiter deck that would dominate the table in most matchups, but I probably wouldn’t have much fun playing that style of deck, regardless of power level. More to the point, my opponents would definitely not have any fun. So I’m not going to build a deck just to satisfy some OCD completionist urge. If I’m going to put time and effort into it, I need to actually want to use the deck.

So, this is where I’m at right now: I have this pile of cards that looks an awful lot like a Nin the Pain Artist deck. It’s 100 cards exactly, sleeved up in Purple sleeves, and has a Nin sitting at the top of the pile. There are cards like Plagiarize and Stuffy Doll in this stack – cards you’d definitely expect to see in a Nin build.

But it’s not a deck. Not by my standards anyway.

Just from goldfishing a few hands I can already tell this deck will never win a game, unless my opponents simply hand me an undeserved victory through mana-screw, bad threat assessment or just ‘cause they suck at Magic. I haven’t played a single actual game with it, because I don’t need to watch this pile of cards serve my ass up on a silver platter to my opponents for me to know that will be the outcome. I’ve been doing this long enough to know when I have a lemon of a deck.

So this fetid pile of cardboard disguised as a Nin the Pain Artist deck… what is to become of it? Honestly? I don’t know. I had high hopes the Izzet stuff from RtR would miraculously make the deck viable. And while the Izzet did provide a number of relevant and useful cards for the deck, it’s still a dud. And it’s not just about power level and competitiveness. The very identity of the deck feels wrong somehow. I am really trying to push the Instants and Sorceries matter theme that is usually pretty common in Red/Blue but very prevelant in the Izzet in particular. Stuff like Goblin Electromancer, Talrand the Sky Summoner, Snapcaster Mage, or Sphinx Bone Wand – all things that form the core of “play lots of instants and sorceries”, but are not instants and sorceries themselves compete for space with the things they encourage you to play! Then there’s the Nin-specific tech like Stuffy Doll, Constipated Sphinx or Cerebral Vortex that you just really need to play in order to make Nin herself relevant. Cramming all this into one deck means every category gets shafted and falls short.

The most obvious solution is to switch generals. The instant/sorcery theme strongly suggests Jhoira but Jhoira has baggage. Even if I build her to be fair, and avoid the obvious Jhoira stuff, I’m still probably going to get hated out of games right and left.

Tibor and Lumia just kinda suck, but they actually have the closest thing to synergy with the deck. I just don’t see them being relevant, though, and I hate playing generals “just for the colors” these days.

Then there are the two Niv-Mizzet versions. Firemind is a card I love dearly, but he has almost as dirty a reputation as Jhoira and while I wouldn’t play Curiosity and the like, I couldn’t stop myself from adding tons of “Draw 7” effects to get maximum synergy. That deck has been done to death, though, so I don’t want to go there. Meanwhile Dracogenius is rather more generic, in that he doesn’t actually suggest much of a theme to build around, so I could easily just focus on the Instant/Sorcery stuff, which would give me more room to make that central theme work. But… he’s just kinda  generic and I can’t get interested in him. I like generals that have some mechanic that says “Oh, hey, if you’re playing me, you know what else would be really good?” They don’t need to be full-on “Build around me” but at least have a hint of synergy at their core.

You know, like how Niv, the Firemind says “Oh, hey, play Wheel of Fortune and Consecrated Sphinx!” or Nin the Pain artist says “Play Repercussion with me!” Dracogenius doesn’t really suggest anything at all. And that just kinda bores me.

So what’s a girl to do?

Option #1 – Scrap the whole Instants and Sorceries Matter theme in favor of an Artifacts Matter theme. Goblin Welder, Master Transmuter, Bosh the Iron Golem, and the Mages Trinket and Treasure all suggest the possibility of a stronger, more cohesive theme. The downside is, it might be just as crappy as the existing pile, or it might be just good enough to make everyone in my group start playing Vandalblast. Worse still, to build this deck, I’d have to cannibalize a LOT of key Artifacts from other decks to make it work, and I’m not thrilled by that prospect.

Option #2 – Keep trying (and failing) to make the idea work until I get frustrated enough that I completely fall out of love with the idea and no longer even WANT to make the deck. I’ve already unwittingly started down this road. The failure of this deck to come together is one of the main reasons I’ve been so quiet on here lately. I have just been very discouraged by this failure. It seriously got to me badly enough that I was convinced for a couple of weeks that I had completely lost my deckbuilding mojo and somehow became sucky at Magic. Writing this article is actually self-proscribed therapy. I need to get my mojo back.

Option #3 – Wait for Dragon’s Maze and hope the new Guild Champion is a better, more playable Tibor and Lumia – an actual Legendary Creature that has a strong Instants and Sorceries matter ability that doesn’t suck. This is an option that doesn’t really require a commitment. I can just pursue one of the other options actively in the mean time, and later on this one could just sort of “happen”. Not worth counting on though.

Option #4 – Convince my playgroup to let me use Epic Expirement as my “General” for the deck. Yeah, okay, this one isn’t exactly feasible. But it is a funny, Izzet-minded idea, right? Maybe I could get them to go for Hypersonic Dragon instead. No that probably won’t go over any better. Then they’ll all start wanting to use non-Legendary generals. Where does it end? When someone has Command Tower as their general, things will have gone way too far.

Option #5 – Don’t build a R/U deck. Basically, if I can’t find any other solution, this becomes the default. As I said before I’m not about to build a shitty deck just to have one in the colors, and I am not going to force myself to build a deck that just isn’t fun to play regardless of power. Hopefully I can get this sorted out. Strictly from a personality standpoint, I’m definitely an Izzet-alligned person. I enjoy other color combinations in Magic more than R/U, but it would seem a real shame for me not to have an Izzet deck that was well-suited to my playstyle and personality.

Alrgiht enough ranting already. Basically, I have just hit a dead end with this project and so I’m turning to the interwebs for guidance and advice. I’m not asking you to build the deck for me – that would be very much against the flavor of the Izzet League after all! But perhaps I’m just too close to the problem, and I need someone with no investment to offer a dispassionate, reasonable argument for one solution or another. Cause I’m starting to feel a little like a mad scientist here – grand ideas and schemes whirling around in my mind, promising untold power, if only I could get the damned thing to work right!