Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Altered States

As much as I love art, and in particular the art of Magic: the Gathering, it’s a little surprising to me that I have never really talked about altered Magic cards. There is a whole, thriving subset of Magic players that buy, sell, trade or create Magic cards with altered artwork. Usually this is done via paint and ink, but there are digital techniques out there as well. The ins and outs of the culture are byzantine, and would take too long to expound upon, but the main point is that these cards are NOT proxies. If you have a custom-painted Ghave as your general, it is assumed that it is a real, actual Ghave card, just with a coat of paint. Usually some portion of the original card – name, mana cost, P/T box, and often the rules text box are still visible and unobscured enough that you can verify that your opponent’s sweet Library of Alexandria painted to look like Jabba’s Palace is in fact a legitimate copy of that very expensive card. Digital alters are a bit of a different animal, and while I definitely appreciate the medium of digital art, and have seen some sweet digital alters, I greatly prefer hand-painted alters by a huge degree.

But I don’t really want to get into the digital vs traditional debate, or the proxy debate, etc. I just want to display some fantastic alters that I consider to be amazing displays of creativity and talent. Here are a few samples from some of my favorite artists.


First up, a few pieces from one of the masters of altering technique, Eric Klug. One of the things I love about Klug’s work is that he can emulate various classical painters like Van Gogh or Picasso, recreating an iconic piece of Magic art through the lens of an iconic painting style. I myself am a HUGE fan of Mucha and the Art Nouveau genre, and Klug is particularly adept at emulating this style. Here are a few stand-outs:

Yes, that is a real Black Lotus that he painted over, and yes someone paid him to do that. I’d be mortified if it weren’t such a damn fine piece, but it’s absolutely gorgeous.

Klug is far from limited to the nouveau style, of course. You can check out tons upon tons of quality work over at his blog, here. Here’s one more alter, one of my favorite non-nouveau alters:


Seesic is a favorite of mine for his very unique and instantly-recognizable style. I probably wouldn’t want to play a deck full of Seesic alters, because his washed-out colors and abstracted designs makes individual card recognition a bit of a chore from across a table. But as collectible pieces of real artwork, I think they are absolutely amazing, and I would love to have a few pieces just to have them.

As you can see, this talented artist has an original distinctive style that is all his own. It’s not going to appeal to everyone, but I find it tremendously appealing myself.


I know this artist has produced an abundance of quality work, but for today I wanted to highlight one stunning alter:

 That’s right. Gandalf on a Force of Will. The likeness is incredible, yes, but the detail and the rich use of color is mind-blowing, when you take into account this artist was working on a “canvass” measuring roughly 2” wide. I’m sure I’ll feature more of Demonium’s work in later installments, but I’m just too enamored of this one to look around for more right now.


Another well-established name in the altering community, Yawg07 is a regular at the EDH forums. Yawg is a more practicle sort of alterer, in that he generally leaves the original art intact enough that you’ll easily recognize the card at a glance. Sometimes he just does simple border-extensions,  and sometimes he goes all-out and completely redoes the art.

 By the way, that’s gold leaf behind the top, so it’s shiny! Magic players tend to like shiny cards, right?

Anyway, we’ve barely dipped our toes into the world of altering, and there are dozens of talented individuals producing hundreds of great alters every month. I’ll try to make this a recurring feature here at The Command Zone, because great art deserves a spotlight now and then, and art is one the few things I passionately enjoy as much as I do Magic.

If you’ve got a tip on a favorite alter artist, drop me a comment and let me know. I’ll check ‘em out and if I like what I see, I’ll feature their stuff in a future column!

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

First Impressions: Gatecrash

So, the Gatecrash prerelease is behind us. We've played with some of the cards, so it's not all up to speculation and theorycraft anymore. We can now actually say "I played this card, and it was awesome!"

Anyway, I wanted to talk briefly on my experience, and what I think I learned from it all.

First of all, I only got to play one event this time. I usually do two flights at least, occasionally three if I can swing it. But time and money constraints forced me to abstain from indulging after the first tournament was over. I'm getting old...

Since I knew going into this that making a second event was iffy at best, I resolved to play Orzhov in the first one. Me and the Ghost Council go WAY back, and I have been a full-on Orzhov devotee for a long time. I'm Izzet by personality, but nonetheless, W/B is my favorite color pair in Magic. So, I didn't want to blow my chance at opening GhoCo 2.0.

I had practical reasons as well. After studying the spoilers furiously for days, and constantly checking online perorder prices, I decided that I needed to go with either Boros or Orzhov. I felt like both guilds represented a strong chance at winning packs, BUT they also offered the best chance at opening valuable cards if I failed to win anything. Aurelia and Obzedat are both solid, desirable and above all valuable. Both guilds also seemed to be the only two guilds with more than one Rare above the 2.00 level.

So it was down to those two for sure. If two events had been in the cards, I'd have picked Boros the second time around.

Another mitigating factor in choosing Orzhov on Friday night though, was the unsurprising popularity of Boros. It seemed like there were as many Boros players as the other 4 guilds combined. I dreaded round after round of Boros on Boros mirrors, and Orzhov seemed like the best guild to chose if I wanted to metagame against Boros.

Sure enough my only loss that night came at the hands of the Simic Combine (who cheated and dipped their toe into Gruul for removal and combat tricks!). I slaughtered every Boros deck I faced that night. The top 8 ended up being 5 Boros, two Orzhov and 1 Simic deck, which I think is slightly skewed by the shear number of Boros players.

One of my friends went Boros and was undefeated all night. Impressive, yes, but I'm relatively certain he didn't have any Orzhov matches.

All told I think Boros is the most obviously powerful guild, while Orzhov is the more subtly powerful guild. As long as Boros remains "the Guild to beat", I will happily endorse Orzhov as the antidote.

Also, to all the haters who thought Extort was going to suck... Pay up, suckers. Extort was the real deal and I heard half a dozen people or more admitting that they had seriously underestimated the guild and their mechanic. I admit, I knew it was going to be good, and had been defending the mechanic for weeks now, but even I was surprised how crucial it was to most of my games.

For me, though, the real surprise was the Simic. Holy shit those guys are scary. If you don't have a ton of removal or a blazing fast deck, they will likely overwhelm you with constantly growing guys. They just get out of hand FAST, if you let them.

I still think they can be a bit clunky if you don't open the right pool, or just draw awkwardly. They lack the consistency of Boros and the resilience and inexorability of the Orzhov, but with a little luck and skill, they can easily overpower ANY of the other 4 guilds. I was impressed by the Simic based on the spoiler alone. NOW, they have my respect.

Gruul and Dimir were basically no-shows. By the 4th round, those two guilds were firmly relegated to the loser brackets. That said, Gruul was a great support guild in several Simic and Boros builds I saw, while I also did see a Dimir deck win via decking more than a few times. That it happened at all was surprising. That it happened once or twice each round was actually a little scary.

By the end of the night I was overhearing people talking about how they sideboarded in 3 or 4 more lands as insurance against mill. Wow!

So what does that tell us about the future Limited environment? Nothing much. Draft is such a drastically different beast from Sealed to begin with, but the presence of the Guild Pack REALLY skews the results. I still think Boros will be popular early on, due to carry-over hype. But I'd expect Gruul to be a much bigger player in the Draft scene than they were in Sealed.

Simic seem to be middle-of-the-road. With some lucky picks early on, and if you aren't being cut off later in the packs, Simic should be Tier 1 for sure. But I think you can easily wind up with a few great Simic cards early and have to dip into another guild (Gruul, ideally) for support as your luck dries up.

But who the hell knows? I don't draft nearly enough to know what I'm talking about, and even when I did draft all the time, I was hardly a pro.

All this to say, Boros is the shit, but everyone already knew that. Orzhov is also the shit, much to the surprise of many. Not me, though. I am a man of faith, and I knew my guild wouldn't disappoint.

So, in the end, how'd I do? A 3-1 record netted me 4 packs, one of which contained a Domri Rade. Woot! I wanted one for my Stonebrow deck, so I was mucho pleased with that. I also traded for a shit ton of stuff, including a Lazav, an Aurelia and, I don't know, probably 15 or so other rares.

Walking out of there with 3 good Mythics and about 20+ new rares was a fine haul for one evening. I've already slotted about 12 to 15 new cards into decks, but I'm starting to think the Dimir of Gatecrash are going to necessitate a complete overhaul of my Wrexial deck.

Also, Edric is due for a serious reworking, thanks to the Simic being way more impressive and exciting than I'd expected. I like the low-key style Edric currently has, as it let's me fly under the radar and avoid being The Threat. But the Simic have some pretty bomby stuff. I don't think anyone is going to be fooled into thinking I'm harmless with stuff like Zegana, Master Biomancer or Biomass Mutation in the deck, no?

All in all, I think Gatecrash far and away exceeds the standard set by Return to Ravnica. In all fairness I am biased though. For one thing, Gatecrash had more of my favorite guilds (Orzhov, Boros and Dimir) while Return to Ravnica mostly just had Izzet (though Golgari got such a good face lift that they rose considerably in my esteem). For another, Return to Ravnica was very clearly aimed more toward constructed play, and tournament players. Gatecrash is unabashedly more oriented toward casual, multiplayer and EDH crowds.

So, it just so happens that 75% of my favorite guilds were in this set, AND the set was intentionally aimed more at the kind of player I am. So yeah, I am definitely digging Gatecrash. I can't wait to buy some packs! 

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Gatecrash EDH Set Review Portal

As is the custom here at The Command Zone, I've set up this post as a convenient page of links to all seven parts of my Gatecrash EDH set review. The links below are broken up by color.

Please leave a comment if I missed a card, if you think I assessed a card wrongly, or if you just have some cool uses for a card in the set.


Friday, January 25, 2013

Gatecrash EDH Set Review Part 7: R. G, A, L

More of the Guildless...

The first line is just sexy. The second line considerably less so... As a budget alternative to Urabrask, I'd still prefer Anger or even Fervor, and definitely In the Web of War.

That said, I don't think there's a mono-Red goblins deck out there that would shy away from this. Certainly Krenko will have a blast.
4 damage is probably overkill to kill a bunch of saproling or plant tokens. Still, as a potentil 50-for-1 in Red it's a good metagame option if you find yourself getting overrun by Centaur, Beast or Angel tokens.
The Red member of the cycle is arguably the weakest of the bunch, but yet it still manages to be very swingy and very powerful indeed.  I've been getting a lot of good mileage out of Mass Mutiny, from the Planechase 2012 decks, and adding a 6/4 Haste to that spell for only 2 mana? Sign me up!
Unless there's a really cheap Enchantment in Dragon's Maze that turns all your lands into Gates, I fear WotC's attempts to make people build around the Gate subtype will die on the vine.
Might be playable if it could hit Creatures too. As-is I don't think it passes muster.
Another brilliant inclusion for goblin swarm decks. I like it. I might play this in Rith, too. Swining with a bunch of 1/1's suddenly becomes a lot more scary!
Limited fodder.
If this was an Instant, it would open up exciting and interesting avenues of play in Multiplayer. As a sorcery, it kinda blows.

Eff you, dragon. I LIKE my Swords of Stuff and Junk, dammit! I hate this card. Seems likely to get played, though, more as a way to hose the guy with all the Equipment, than as an actual alt-win card.
Meh. Should have been an instant.
Playable, but there are better options in green.
Another good reason go go Simic in Limited. For EDH, I'd say this is more of a Skullbriar card. Skullbriar loves him some Trample.
 Acidic Slime and Indrik Stomphowler are both better.
More Simic/Skullbriar tech. Not great, but the occasional Fog effect is not unwarranted. Plus, this can double as removal under the right circumstances.
Fun design, but tragically underpowered.
 Gorgeous art. One of the best in the set. Card is pretty "meh" though.
Clearly the most powerful of the cycle, but also the one I am least interested in playing. The other 4 feel balanced. This one feels unnecessarily over-the-top. Plus it can be used to just blow up lands, which is not cool in my book. I'm definitely playing this guy in Maelstrom Wanderer, but aside from that one deck, I'm not planning to use this.

Despite my feelings, though, I am sure this guy will be a huge staple of the format from now on. Better get used to him.
Fun! Very playable without feeling overpowered. I'm sure this guy will be popping up in various decks. I really want to see this guy and Avatar of Slaughter team up to go aggro on somebody.
As good as Hexproof is, I don't think this has much going for it. Uril certainly doesn't need it. I'll pass on this one.

Copying things is fun! Yes, it can very easily be a dirty combo peice, but it can do really insane things without needing to go infinite.

Definitely a card people will want to play around with and experiment with.

My prediction for the #1 creature most frequently equipped: Kiki-Jiki.
Oh look it hoses Uril, Sigarda and Geist of St Traft. Oh look, all of those decks can run artifact removal. Oh well.

Cute trick, nothing more.

Seems fine. U/B can always use a mana boost, and the unblockable guy synergizes remarkably well with Cypher. One of the better Keyrunes for sure.
 As green has way better ramp options, you'd have to be playing this more for the body. As a 3/2 trampler isn't all that scary in EDH, you'd have to be playing Stonebrow or something. So, sure I'll play this is Stonebrow. Generally, though, I'd look elswhere.
 Not great, but like U/B mana rocks are at a premium due to the lack of proper ramp in those colors. Lifelink is either going to be irrelevant, or highly synergistic, depending on the build.
Yay! Doublestrike! The Boros were criminally shafted on the doublestrike front, but fortunately they came through with their Keyrune. Trouble is, a 1/1 with Doublestrike is going to need a lot of help to not die in combat. Even a 3/3 stops this cold. Fortunately, R/W has plenty of options for boosting this little guy to credible size.
A 2/3 Crap with Hexproof? Seems awfully weak compared to some of the other keyrunes. Definitely not my favorite Keyrune.
As a huge, huge fan of Vesuva, I am obviously also a fan of this card. It might seem worse than Vesuva, but it does have some clear advantages. For one you don't need to wait for a land worth copying to play it. Also it doesn't come into play tapped, and it makes mana inherently. Finally, the ability to change what it's copying later on is a huge upside, despite the costly activation. All told, I think this is actually better than Vesuva, and will likely see even more widespread play.

Get 'em now before they catch on and skyrocket.

Gatecrash EDH Set Review Part 6: W. U, B

We've covered all 5 guilds, so now we look at the Guildless of Gatecrash.

Spirit Mantle's big bro. Seems like a fine addition to Uril or any other Aura-themed deck.  Pound for pound, I think Spirit Mantle is better value, but go big or go home, right?
The only criticism I can possibly think of for this card is that it needed 5 power for Mayael decks. Like, for reals. Comparing this to the green and black Primordials, there is no way I could ever believe that a 5/6 or even a 5/7 would have been unbalanced.

Since I don't have a Mayael deck, though, I suppose it's not a big deal to me at least. Rest assured, we'll be seeing this guy played in the format for a very long time to come.
Nice throwback to Concerted Effort, from the original Ravnica set. Overall this seems more playable, but not by a huge margin. Fine, but not a huge bomb.
 Useful effect, but a tad too expensive.
Looks like an Orzhov card, but plays better with Selesnya's Populate mechanic. Good Limited card, but very sub-par in EDH.
Crap. Trust me. He might look powerful, but this is not the kind of thing you want to be doing in EDH. Trade him to the Standard players, kids, before everyone realizes what a stinker this is, and the price drops.

Or, maybe it won't. He might have potential in 60-card Magic, where you can build around and plan for him a lot better. Either way, this is one planeswalker who pretty much exists solely to Ultimate, and it's not a fun Ultimate.
 Amusing, flavorful design. I can't as of yet think of a single good use for it in EDH, though.
Limited fodder, but pretty damn good in a 40-card deck. Might get played in a janky mono-white Angel tribal deck, but definitely not beyond that niche.

Valakut enabler? Urborg on a stick? Not sure what to do with this one. Meh.
Lame. Jumpting through hoops to get a 3/3 unblockable is fine for Limited, maybe, but definitely not EDH material.
Seems marginally playable. Obviously, you'd rather just have Cryptic Command or maybe Blustersquall.

I really love the art, though. Awesome composition and execution.
Duh, of course this is playable. Scratch that, this is sure to be a staple, much like the rest of the cycle. I am thankful, though, that this one does't go infinite with an enemy Rite of Replication.
I belive the Oracle wording of this has been changed slightly. It was errata'd to read: "You win the game."

Drawing cards is, by far, my favorite thing to do in Magic... and this is effing BORING to me.

WotC, what are you doing? WotC, STAHP!
No thanks.
This could be fairly brutal, if timed right. It can really turn things around if used on The Threat at an opportune moment. Leaving 4 mana up at all times is not something every deck can afford to do, though. This is important to consider when weighing this card. If your deck if very heavily defensive/reactive, and your in Blue, then this is probably okay.
 Good reason to go Simic in draft.
Sweet! Now we can play two copies of Pongify in our EDH decks! In all seriousness this is a huge boon to some decks, like U/G that need more quality removal.
Limited hole-filler. Nothing to see here. Move along.
Not terrible, as far as removal-with-random-extra-effect spells go. Killin' and millin'.
More "let's completely fail to make Gates compelling" chaff.
Rawr! Rats have deathtouch! Seriously, this is a fantastic boon to Savra decks. Not sure it'll see much play elsewhere, but it'll be welcomed by the Golgari Queen with open arms.
LOL, put this on Kokusho.  Because why not?
Question: how big does a completly vanilla beatstick have to be for him to be worth two mana and a card slot?

Trick question: depends on how quickly you can grow him, and how easily. Playing this guy on turn 2, he is basically always going to be a 1/1, MAYBE a 2/2 every once in a while.

Late game, he could be huge, but again, he's vanilla. No evasion, nothing. Best use, in my opinion? Sac him to greater good to draw a shitload of cards for 1B.

Average EDH deck has ~40 lands. Usually more like 38. So... Ghave deck. Make 40-ish tokens. Tap Gaea's Cradle. Play this guy, sac tokens, deck opponent?

Point being, this is one of those cards that if used fairly is likely to be too weak to be any good, but it is easily exploited, if one were so inclined.

In short, you need a lot of disposable creatures, and a lot of mana. Does your deck have both of those in volume? Then this might work out okay.
God what a house. Wrath? No? Okay, I win.
Amusingly, I think the Primordial above is just flat out better than this. That said, I haven't seen too many Mythic Rare demons that I actually this is worth playing (Griselbrand being the obvious exception).

This guy seems fun. Even if you whiff (unlikely but possible), exiling 7 cards off the top is likely to make your opponent cringe. Hitting something decent is just gravy. Painful, demonic gravy.