Saturday, September 8, 2018

EDH League: Game 1 Aftermath

Game one of our EDH League has happened and this thing is now officially underway.

The first thing I will say is, we all agree there need to be some tweaks to the point system, but so far we have not come to a consensus on what exactly needs to change. One glaring oversight is that it is possible, with the list published previously, not to earn any points at all in a game. That's not cool.

Other things to consider are adding more achievements, so we will be more likely to get them - only one achievement other than killing players was earned in our first game - First Blood. I don't think the achievements are too hard as written. I came very close to getting Spellbook, and the Oberyn/Mountain situation almost happened TWICE. And of course with Planeswalkers as commanders the Real Ultimate Power point should be doable as well. Every one of us was basically one turn away from getting our ultimate at some point.

As an aside, I want to also talk about one of the more interesting ramifications of Planeswalkers-as-Commanders that I have noticed. Having 'Walkers in the command zone tends, in my experience so far, to slow the game down. Not because 'Walkers add a lot of complexity and decision-making - they kind of do but that doesn't add as much time as you'd think.

No, oddly enough, the main issue is that you spend a lot of the early games just trying to keep their loyalty in check. Those early creatures, the little 1/1 and 2/2 dorks you usually wind up just pinging whoever is open with? Yeah now those almost always wind up hitting a Planeswalker in the early-to-mid turns.That small, insignificant amount of damage actually adds up. When you have 4 players all running 'Walkers, it isn't uncommon to look around the table around turn 8 or so and see everyone still at 40 or very close to it. Because the game, up to that point, has very likely been all about attacking into and defending Planeswalkers.

Another factor is, if you are running a Walker as your commander, you are pretty well priced into running more defensive cards, or at least playing your creatures more defensively. Simply put, Planeswalkers have a LOT fewer life points than you do, and you'll often defend them more aggressively than you would your own life total. You'll be more likely to use removal on a creature attacking your 'Walker than you would if it were attacking you. You'll use sweepers more judiciously if the opposing armies threaten to overwhelm your other defenses. Your creatures will be more likely to hang back on blocking duty than they might otherwise be.

Yes, it seems very clear and indisputable to me that, at least in a casual setting such as this one, Planeswalker commanders lead to longer games. Whether you see that as a problem or not is up to you, of course. I'm just pointing out the effects, not making a value judgement. I will say, at least, that my back is not a fan of the longer games. I could barely walk after last night's game. But on the other hand, longer games lead to more opportunities for epic plays and achievement hunting.

Anyway, moving on, I will address whatever changes we make to our point structure later, once we hammer it all out together. For now, I'll let you all know that I took an early lead of 3 points, as I managed to kill everyone - and luckily did so while avoiding The Cersei penalty! We also kind of created a new acheivment on the spot, as my victory came on the heels of the Animatou player's very epic turn wherein they miracle'd a Terminus to wipe the board of creatures, then cast a Skullstorm with two copies! This reduced all our life totals to the single digits (save the Animatou player, though they were already pretty low regardless). I almost inadvertently killed two opponents with Retreat to Hagra and three Landfall triggers. This left only the Animatou player. For him, I had an Avenger of Zendikar and, if I recall, 16 plant tokens, each with three +1/+1 counters (courtesy of those landfalls I mentioned). He had an answer for the tokens, as it turned out, but the Avenger itself plus the Moldgraf Monstrosity I also dropped that turn, plus the Retreat to Hagra triggers was still enough to get the job done, and that was that.

So I got three points for killing everyone, but we all kind of felt like that Skullstorm play by the Animatou player was a huge factor in my being able to do that. So we awarded that player an assist point, and will be adding some sort of formalized achievement for that later.

But, now that the first game is over, that means we get to start making some edits to the decks! This is my favorite part, as you know. I've been thinking about this part a LOT. In fact I have made spreadsheets on Google Drive to try and map out my (theoretical) changes. "Nerd!"

Despite getting slightly flooded with lands last night I still think bumping the lands to 42 is worth doing, but I'm only going to 41 on the first round of swaps. I'm cutting 3 non-lands and 2 lands, to add in 3 lands and 2 non-lands. My intial plan was to just use the first batch of swaps to add in all 5 lands, but A) that's kinda boring and I can't wait to get some FUN cards in there, and B) I'm actually a bit worried about card-draw and flood-mitigation. Lord Windgrace is pretty damn close to being my only way to turn excess lands into other cards, and that could be a problem. So as I am increasing the land count, I also need to prioritize ways to draw and/or filter cards.

Before I get further into what I'm changing I want to talk about how I am reasoning through all my changes. To start with, I view the Nature's Vengeance deck as a midrange value deck. And to me, a midrange value deck has three fundamental parts to it - set up, engine, and pay off. In this particular case the "engine" is just lands. Lands in play, lands in hand, lands in the graveyard, and importantly, lands moving from one zone to the other. The set up is, mostly ramp. However, cards like Grisly Salvage are also set up. Any card that gets lands from our library into any other zone - hand, graveyard, battlefield - is set up. Payoff is all about turning that engine into a value generator and, later, a victory generator. In short payoff cards are those that reward us for doing whatever our engine wants us to do. Anything with Landfall or a similar effect would count, whether it just draws us cards or makes large beasts.

There are of course cards in the deck that don't fit into one of those three categories. In my view, any such cards that fall outside the setup/engine/payoff trifecta should be of the "utility" class. I.E. removal/ramp/draw, traditionally. However in this case ramp is part of our "setup" roster. And some draw effects may be part of the engine - Lord Windgrace for example. This means for our purposes here, utility probably just means draw and removal. So, anything that isn't utility but also doesn't fit somewhere in the land-driven engine almost certainly gets replaced.

But where do we focus our immediate attention? Well, you gotta eat your veggies, so we need to get the boring ol' lands in as soon as we can, of course. But my early impressions of the deck so far tell me that the deck is mostly okay at set up, HIGHLY reliant on Windgrace for the engine, and mediocre to okay at payoff. Let's break them down one by one.

Setup - deck has plenty of ramp. Not all of it is top-tier ramp, but whatever. We can manage. Also has ways to get lands into the 'yard via Windgrace and stuff like Grisly Salvage. One area it's weaker in is land-recursion - getting them out of the graveyard and into our hand or onto the battlefield. This is something we will need to address for sure but isn't urgent.

Engine - as I said, you've got Windgrace's +2 and not a whole lot else, really. He's great and all, but you can't rely on your commander alone. He will get removed, and the better the deck gets at doing it's other things, the more likely people will be to kill him. This makes adding some more engine cards the highest priority, in my estimation. 

Payoff - This deck has a few stellar payoff cards - Avenger of Zendikar, Rampaging Baloths, Lavalanche. And it has some mediocre ones - Flameblast Dragon, Centaur Vinecrasher, Scute Mob. Probably some outright bad ones as well. However, for now, I am less worried about quality than quantity. I think Scute Mob and Flameblast Dragon are resonable cards if you have sufficient threat density overall.

So, my approach will be to start by cutting anything that isn't in either utility or one of the three categories outlined above - the "do nothings" as I like to call them. To replace them I will be adding cards from these categories, with the "engine" cards being my first priority. Until I'm able to really up the threat density and power level of the deck, I need to be able to reliably DIG through my library for what I need. I need to be able to find lands reliably but have ways to convert excess lands drawn into other resources.

However, there is another factor at play that may influence how we build this deck - the achievements/penalties system! The thing we have to consider here is: do we want to just build this deck to focus primarily on winning and just take potshots at achievements as opportunity presents, or do we want to try to build around some of the achievements to make racking up points easier? We also have to consider penalties and avoid building our deck in such a way that we'll lose points just for doing what it wants to do.

The first and most prominent example to highlight what I mean is this - you'll notice there is an achievment for getting all three of the deck's possible commanders into play at once. But in my deck, my two alternate commanders are, as far as I'm concerned, in that "do-nothing" category and I really want to cut them. But I have to consider that, if I do cut them, I'll be cutting myself off from ever earning this point. The question is just one of how I expect to earn points and what I think will net me the most points at the end of it all.

Luckily those are questions I don't absolutely have to answer right now. Instead I have spent my energy categorizing all the non-land cards by function. Every card has been defined as setup, payoff, utlity, or do-nothing (engine cards are basically just our lands, because the real engine of the deck isn't actually a card or class of cards, but the action of moving lands around). Again the do-nothings are just those cards that are not utility - draw or removal, basically.

Surprisingly, to me at least, the do-nothing category only yielded 12 cards. This deck has a lot of ramp and removal, it turns out; though some of it is quite bad. And, there are some cards here that I quite like and would prefer to keep around. Xantcha, for instance, is not on-theme nor is she utility (in the strictest sense), so technically she belongs here. But I find that she can be quite good at pressuring early planeswalkers. In last night's game she has been instrumental in keeping 'walkers off their ults.

One class of cards I can't wait to dump, on the other hand, are the lieutenants. I like the lieutenant ability and I like these cards in the right decks. The green one seems fine in a +1/+1 counter focused deck like Atraxa, while the red one is fine in the Saheeli precon. I might run the black one in a Zombie deck but not even sure he'd make the cut there. But in this deck, none of them are on theme, none of them play into the deck's strengths. The green one I can almost see, as it seems good with Wurm Harvest but there just aren't enough token producers overall, really. This isn't really a go-wide deck. It CAN do so, but it's not a mainstay of the deck, and when it does finally go wide, the counters seem to feel both too slow and unnecessary.

So they have to go, for sure. As mentioned earlier, Thantis and Gyrus don't fit the deck well either, but I'm thus far unsure if I want to cut them or keep them solely for that one achievement. Fury Storm is just hella cool and I want to keep it. It can do some awesome things - I've already double-copied Animatou's Augury in a previous game. That was neat.

Emissary of Grudges and Reality Scramble are both new cards, and I hate cutting new cards. They're both cool cards as well. But they do not really fit the deck theme at all, so I feel they have to go.

Finally we have the very odd suite of recursion cards that, frankly, don't make much sense either. I love recursion and I think we probably want some in this deck, perhaps even more than what is in already. But not these specific recursion cards: Stitch Together, Soul of Innistrad, Charnelhoard Wurm and Moldgraf Monstrosity. Now, some of these cards are good. Some might even be okay in this deck. But none really scream "Lands Matter" do they? Nah. One or two might end up not being cut, but they're all at least on the chopping block for now.

What we really need, though, is something like Crucible of Worlds or Splendid Reclamation. It's absurd to me that there aren't some effects like this in the deck already, even if they were bad versions! WTF, Wizards? Get your shit together.

Ahem. So, we've identified the most egregiously off-theme cards and I've also kind of taken note of some of the on-theme cards in other categories that I think are just weak-ass versions of what they do. All of the other categories have a smattering of cards that do what they need to do, but perhaps not as efficiently or as powerfully as they need to do them. It is clear that we will have room after all to make some improvements to those ares, but initially I am more concerned with getting as many of those off-theme do-nothings out of here as fast as possible. That will make the deck more focused and consistent, which should help compensate for the power level of the weaker cards.

And, as mentioned, we need more engine cards badly - card draw is especially valuable to me at this point.

So, after taking into account that considerable wall of text I just wrote plus some other things I just didn't have room to squeeze in, I have come up with my first five swaps.

Bloodstained Mire
Wooded Foothills
Verdant Catacombs
The Gitrog Monster
Tireless Tracker

Haunted Fengraf
Warped Landscape
Loyal Apprentice
Loyal Guardian
Loyal Subordinate

The cuts are probably easy to parse. I already expressed my strong dislike of the Loyal cycle in this deck, as they are all way off theme. The lands surprised me a bit, as I expected to be cutting ETBF-tapped lands here, but I just really hate these two lands and I don't think they're good. Right now, games don't seem to be fast paced enough to really worry about a few lands entering tapped, so I just went with the two crappiest colorless lands in the deck.

With these changes, our land count is now up to 41, and I said we needed engine cards to smooth draws. Gitrog and Tireless Tracker both fit this role. Tracker is also kind of a payoff card as he can get huge off playing lands, but we're more interested in those clue tokens. Clues are card draw and that's what we want but I have some ideas that might make them pay off in other ways too, but we'll see if those plans come to fruition or not.

Gitrog is obvious as well. He's primarily an engine as he converts lands into card draw, has sick synergy with our commander, and he's just an undercosted beatstick that can help us keep enemy 'Walkers in check.

For the next two round of cuts, my expectation is that I will swap out one more land and a non-land for the two cycling duals from Amonkhet and add in one hell of a haymaker payoff card. Having not only won my first game of the league but gotten all three kill points, I think my plan is to focus on earning points through winning/killing people, and making other achievements a secondary consideration.

I just typed a LOT of fucking words to tell you what 5 cards I was swapping out. Jeez. But now that I've laid the groundwork by explaining all our rules, as well as my thought process on how I'm approaching this, I think further articles will be shorter. I hope.

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