Ask The Drama — Standard, Block, and Two-Headed Giant

Jeroen is back to basics this week, with an article jammed full of reader-posed questions. From the mailbag this week, Jeroen tackles a an interesting Standard Rack deck, valuates the true power of Prismatic Lens, and wades into the debate on the validity of Two-Headed Giant.

Welcome to a regular version Ask The Drama, my personal corner of the StarCityGames.com column line-up. Today we’re going back to good old questions and answers, and we turn our back on Two-Headed Giant… for a while at least.

I’ve got to thank you guys for once again providing me with a huge supply of questions. Though I have to beg for them once in a while, I am amazed at how this column has been doing. You guys are fantastic, and you’re what makes it all possible. [email protected] is still the address to send your questions… so let’s kick off with this week’s batch.

The first was sent to me a while ago by Josh Morris:

What is your opinion of the White gating creatures from Planar Chaos? Stonecloaker seems to be the stand-out for me, though Whitemane Lion looks pretty useful as well. I can’t see Dust Elemental being used too often.

Do you see Stonecloaker being good enough in Extended?

What type of deck do you feel these cards lend themselves to in Standard? Are they too slow for beatdown decks?

Is Sulfur Elemental another case of close but not quite powerful enough for Standard?

Well Josh, as you probably know by now, Sulfur Elemental is far from being “close but not quite powerful enough for Standard,” as it is far and away the most played card from Planar Chaos these days, if you count sideboards. It’s played more often than Damnation! The fact that it is uncounterable, and stops a very popular deck from working well, means that it is everywhere.

The White gating guys, though… not quite as cool. Stonecloaker sees some play in Block Constructed, where he is great at stopping Blue’s very powerful flashback spells. He also gives weenie decks some late push, ways to dodge removal, and ways to reuse Blastoderm Calciderm. Whitemane Lion basically does the same, but it’s not as threatening as it only fills a couple of the roles and has therefore not been seen since the first couple of weeks. That guy is a great combo card in Wild Pair decks though, so it sees play in Block.

Dust Elemental is just awful, as the body is nowhere near big enough to warrant the downside it has, and is strictly a Limited card.

As for Standard and Extended, I doubt any of the bounce guys will be good enough to really make it. The formats are so much faster and more efficient, meaning slow, tricky cards like this can usually not find room to see play.

Jameson wants some insight on his latest deck, and starts sweet-talking from the start:

How hangs it, Roony?

I’ve been having a lot of success recently with The Rack in Standard. I figured this might be an interesting topic for your mailbag column, so I decided to write to you about it.

Damnation is actually a debatable inclusion for some players – sure, it solves any creature problems, but it kills all of yours as well! My experience is that such assertions are completely ridiculous, and I’ve got the data and prize packs to prove it. I do play Damnation, and I believe this is the first deck in which Damnation finally lives up to its potential.

What do you think about this archetype? Are there any cards that inspired you to try out a build of The Rack?

Here’s the list.

2 Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth
2 Molten Slagheap
2 Desert
15 Swamp

4 The Rack
4 Cry of Contrition
3 Stupor
3 Damnation
4 Smallpox
3 Phyrexian Arena
2 Loxodon Warhammer

3 Phyrexian Totem
4 Ravenous Rats
3 Dark Confidant
4 Plagued Rusalka
2 Mirri the Cursed

4 Persecute
4 Darkblast
4 Withered Wretch
2 Plague Sliver
1 Loxodon Warhammer

The maindeck I’ve given you is the one I just ran through my metagame with last night; I’m considering changing Mirri to Plague Sliver.

The sideboard is still, for the most part, untested, but in practice everything’s working great.

Persecute is meant for Red storm decks, because in the local metagame there’s one such deck that uses Perilous Research and Hatching Plans to draw cards. Darkblast is for Green aggro, and is also useful against Boros should it reappear locally. Scryb Ranger is a punk, and fragging mana dorks leaves fat stranded in their hand, ripe for discard. Withered Wretch is intended to patch up the otherwise-miserable Dredge matchup, because getting one early is very damaging to their gameplan and he’s hard for them to solve. Plague Sliver and the extra Hammer are for Red aggro, and sometimes I’ll bring in one or two for a Black/White control match-up. Connecting with a Hammered-up Juzam wins the game, even if it only happens once.

A lot of people question the use of Loxodon Warhammer, but to be honest my deck has won at least three or four matches because I had the Hammer come in and save me from suicide from an Arena, or helped me race a board of four or five little dorks.

Damnation is spectacular, and I can’t believe anyone ever considered not running it. It causes problems occasionally, but normally when I play it I have a Totem and Bob, and I don’t mind trading Bob for two Spectral Forces and a few elves.

Phyrexian Totem is an all-star. He does everything I needed the deck to do: putting a fast clock on a deck with no hand; racing some 2/2 dorks; supplying the fourth mana for a quick Damnation, then swooping in afterwards to initiate a race.

Molten Slagheap is in there because sometimes I need to generate four or five mana off of only two or three lands. Desert is there because it can stall off aggro all by itself. Some of the people I’ve discussed the deck with have included Swarmyard to be able to regenerate their Rats, and Pendelhaven because there’s eight 1/1 guys. I’m not sure if the marginal increase in utility is worth destabilizing the mana even further.

And something I’d really like your advice about: I’ve considered Scrying Sheets and snow lands so many times for this deck, but I still don’t know if it would be a good idea. What do you think about it?

Also, completely off-topic: are you going to be at U.S. Nationals again this year? I saw you in Baltimore in 2004… just wondering if you’re gonna be there again so I can barn you.

Hey dude… wow, that’s a lot of text there, and a lot of interesting stuff. I like the deck a lot, as it seems to be perfect at beating control decks that tend to be around a lot these days, as well as being able to handle creature decks. Some comments based on your input:

Mirri or Plague Sliver
I like the sliver a whole lot more simply because of the fact that it dodges so much more removal than Mirri does, and it’s also a lot better at being a blocker in a pinch. Mirri is cute, but having her Shocked just sucks so much.

The Sideboard
I like Persecute a lot, though it feels redundant in your deck, which already has ample discard. Persecute can sometimes be a little too much. Against decks like Dragonstorm, you want to run it for sure. Darkblast is fine as well, for the reasons that you mentioned, but drawing two is almost always going to be redundant, as you can just dredge the first one back. Also, if they manage to get a Spectral Force in play, or if you are playing against a different kind of Green creature deck, they might be too limited. This means I would cut some of them and replace those with Seize the Soul. This card can be equally backbreaking, but is a bit more versatile. Withered Wretch is a fine addition if you fear dredge, and it seems to fit your deck a lot better then Extirpate does. Good job.

Loxodon Warhammer
Your deck does not have a lot of real guys that will stay out long, and the card in itself doesn’t really seems to fit the deck at all. You say you won a bunch of games because of it, but what you don’t seem to see is how it also lost you more, because you drew it instead of a superior card. I agree that lifegain can be good in your deck, but I would look at other ways before I would go for the Hammer.

Some numbers seem to be off
Dark Confidant seems like the best card ever in this deck, why not play four? Same with Damnation… why do you not want access to the fourth in the board if you don’t feel there are enough creature decks out there? If you do play one it is the best card ever, right? Try and get those numbers tight, and I think you’ll have a fine deck. Cards you mention as All Stars are only there three times, and that doesn’t work well with me.

Snow-lands and Sheets
This deck seems like it wants to be very quick at putting opponents on an empty hand and killing them with terrible men, Totems, or The Rack. The snow engine will not help you at all with this, and as such feels like it will be completely out of place here. I think you are correct in playing as few colorless lands as possible, as you basically want every land you draw to produce Black. I am not even sure about the Deserts and Slagheaps you have now, but I can see playing a couple of colorless sources for utility.

As for U.S. Nationals, it is possible that I might be showing up, as I will be staying with a bunch of great friends in Indy during that time. If they plan on going, a decision that’ll change from day to day, you can bet I am going to be tagging along. Be sure to say hi if I show up.

Alexandre Bortolan hits us with another great question:

Looking at my past drafts, I realize I tend to undervalue mana fixers or accelerators (Prismatic Lens? Meh. I’m playing two colors, so I’d better get this big cow… it smashes face!)

How game-changing is a Prismatic Lens? Am I wrong about this?

I asked around and have been told to pick at least some kind of fixer to avoid losing to my own mana, and actually that makes sense. Still, I don’t usually play more than two colors, and if I do it’s because I play Green and have some sort of fixer already (i.e. Evolution Charm) and go for a third color splash…

Is a Prismatic Lens (or any fixer, even if it does not accelerate you) a card to pick over some fattie if you already have enough of them, and is it that game changing?

Hey Alex… interesting you should ask me such a question at this time, because I have been drafting a lot lately, and I have started to notice I love Lens more and more each day. It allows you to splash, it fixes your curve and your mana, and it doesn’t really cost you anything.

The format seems to be slowing down. With more sets added to the mix, synergy is going down, and quality is more important. Because of this I have noticed my decks are getting slower (I love having many Woodreaders in my deck) and my curve is going up, and therefore I have started to almost first pick cards like Lens. I am saying almost because I still make the mistake of not taking it, like you, and I regret the decision later during deck construction. The reason is that while cards like fatties and game finishers are a dime and a dozen, mana fixers and smoothers are very rare in this format.

Sure, Havenwood Wurm is a lot worse than Phantom Wurm, but in the end they fill the same function – that of late-game killer. This role can easily be filled by so many other cards, such as Battering Sliver or Tectonic Fiend. But Lens is the only card of its kind, which means you need to pick it higher than all those cards listed above.

This format also has a lot of playables, which means that you will never be short of cards you’ll want to play in your deck. This means that you can take a card like Terramorphic Expanse without worrying about missing out on playable cards.

In short, unless the fatty is really outstanding and a lot better than your random fattie – such as the Suspend guys like Baloth and Ephemeron – I will always take Lens over it, and if I already have some finishers, I may even take Expanse instead.

Next up, Peter Gudlewski:

I have two questions.

1) What are your top 10 shows? Are they primarily American shows? A mixture? In fact, what is Dutch television like? Also, given that you think Lost has dropped in quality in the last year or so, what other shows do you think have risen / lowered in quality in the last year, and would you be willing to speculate on what might happen along similar veins in the coming year?

2) Over on londes.com, Kyle Mechler and Jack Ewing have each written a response to 2HG, and the pros and cons of the format. What are your thoughts? Do you hate it, like Mr. Mechler, or do you think it shows promise, like Mr. Ewing? Also, what are your thoughts on how Wizards and the DCI respond to practical and alleged problems within a format? Do you think the responses are usually accurate and timely? Or do you think there could be enhanced reaction time? (The DCI Reporter problem and the questions surrounding design and testing of the 2HG format are the two that jump immediately to mind.)

I haven’t played long enough, nor competitively enough, to look at the new format and say "they had similar problems when […] was introduced," but I assume you might have that type of perspective.

As you have seen, I already answered part of your question about TV last week. Dutch television is basically half original Dutch, which includes game shows that everyone has, such as Wheel of Fortune, Idols, and Big Brother, but in Dutch. The other half is imported television, like Lost and House, but also things like Days of our Lives and the Bold and the Beautiful. Most of these shows are terribly delayed… we get Lost about a season behind the States, which is why I watch everything over the Internet.

Shows that have really gone south (in my opinion) are Prison Break, Smallville, and Lost, because it seems to me like the writers have run out of initial ideas and are just making things up as they go along. The storylines aren’t as involving as they could be. The last couple of episodes of Lost were really good though, so who knows, it might pick up again.

As for Two-Headed Giant, I have a reputation for being negative about almost everything, yet I seem to be the only writer on the Internet that hasn’t voiced his opinion on the format. So here goes…

Two-Headed Giant is really bad right now.

The idea sure is fun, and it shows a little bit of promise, but when you get down to the nitty-gritty, it’s just a very unhealthy format outside of casual play. There is a huge amount of randomness, with single-game matches being the worst of it, but there are also all kinds of things no-one ever thought about before deciding to just launch it at the customer, the tournament player.

I enjoy playing the format a lot, and that is mainly because I think I am actually pretty good at it, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t problems that should have been worked out far in advance. It just seems that Wizards had an idea and couldn’t wait to actually playtest it properly… it seems they wanted it so badly that they just rushed into things to get it done. I think this has made what is a mediocre, but promising, format into something that almost every serious tournament player in the world hates.

I still remember them getting rid of one of the best formats ever, Rochester draft, because they said no-one ever played it for fun. Well, when was the last time you saw eight people decide that it was more fun to do a four-team Two-Headed Giant Draft instead of an eight-man. Yeah… exactly. It’s fun for Sealed Deck, because it’s new, but for draft it is just bad (you are just drafting a Sealed pool anyway). It’s nowhere near as good as other available formats.

Ray Bechtel, our regular question-sender, finishes up this week’s batch:

1. Aggro Loam has been one of my favorite decks to play. It’s also been one of the best decks. I’m not quite sure what "Genre" of deck it is, but I was wondering what decks are of the same "genre" in, say, Standard and Block. Can you help me out here?

I feel like Aggro Loam is on the edge of being aggro, plus Control and a little bit of Combo. It definitely is an aggro deck in most matchups, where it tries to make a creature that is as big as possible and bash skulls, but it can also play the control game fairly well in some games because of its huge amount of card advantage. Of course, it is fairly unique, but there are decks that focus on the same gameplan in Standard.

Just take a look at Tiago Chan deck from this year’s Worlds Top 8, designed by Frank Karsten. It plays about the same, by wanting to kill the opponent as fast as possible in most games, but it can also play the control deck fairly well in some matchups if need be. It doesn’t have the broken combo of Loam and Cycle lands and such, but it does have some very strong late game cards and lots of card advantage. The same is true for Mike Flores deck, This Girl. I am not sure if Block really has a deck like this, as there is a lot less real power around, but you could say R/G with its Spectral Forces tries to do the same thing. Smash fast, and if that doesn’t work, rely on Concentrate to get us through.

In short, I’d label it Aggro / Control.

2. Speaking of Block, have any Insane Secret Tech you want to share?

I wish I did, but with exams, not being qualified, and not really focusing on the format at all, I haven’t really been cracking down on designing new decks as of late. I do have a little wonder that I picked up at a Dutch GP Trial, which was won by Tom van der Logt and this piece of work:

3. Do you think ‘Vore could make a comeback in Standard, using Boom / Bust? I would think with all the Control decks running around, ‘Vore would do some good, but I don’t hear of it very often.

Vore is basically an outdated deck that really hasn’t been the same since it lost Eye of Nowhere. The control decks simply got better against it. It loved a format where no one played Signets, and it could win mainly on tempo, but now that everyone has Signets and doesn’t care so much about land kill anymore, it has basically disappeared. Just the simple addition of Boom / Bust alone will not help it all that much, as the real problem – the Signets – hasn’t gone away.

4. We haven’t seen too much of Future Sight, but what’s your opinion on what we know so far? Do you think the cards are playable?

From what I have seen so far (a lot more since last week, when I got this question), I think there is a lot of playable stuff out there, as always with the third set of a block… but that everything seems to be really complicated. Most cards have two abilities, or stuff that really only works well with stuff in the future. This means that it is pretty hard to determine if the set will be good, but it will definitely be exciting, I am sure.

One thing that really had me question the set was when I read this on one of the spoiled cards:

“If a Rigger you control would assemble a Contraption, it assembles two Contraptions instead.”

What the…?

5. I don’t know if you’ve ever been asked this, but… What’s your favorite card? What about a favorite deck?

I am pretty sure a lot of people are sick already of me asking this question, but it never hurts for those not in the know: My favorite card is Spike Feeder, and has been for a long time now. I played this guy long after Ravenous Baloth was legal, and I still stand by my decision. He is just so good at so many things: he was cheaper, he was better with making other cards a threat (like Birds of Paradise), and he was just so good against control. I am pretty sad that it looks like Magic is too good for him now…even though he is back.

As for my favorite deck… all I can say is:


And that’s it for this week, y’all. Hit me up with questions at [email protected], and I’ll see you guys next week!