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

In preparation for his home Grand Prix, Jeroen answers some reader-posed questions regarding everyone’s favorite four-player format: Two-Headed Giant! For those looking for some Constructed tech, Jeroen also critiques a fun Madness / Reanimator deck, and offers up some helpful tips on how to approach Time Spiral Block.

At the moment, I am knee deep into practice and preparation for my local GP in Amsterdam… and, to be honest, I am not sure I’ll do very well. I planned on playing with World Champion Robert van Medevoort, but after some practice with him it was pretty clear that there was no synergy at all between us, which meant I had to go look for a new teammate. Luckily I managed to pick up a ringer at the zero hour, namely old school hero Victor van den Broek. Now if that ain’t a guaranteed Day 2, I don’t know what is.

This week’s batch of questions sent to [email protected] was once again fantastic, and a lot of people sent me excellent new material.

Rob Moore sent me the first one, which looks back at last week’s article:

From your article:

"That is what is so awesome about Extended right now. Everything seems to be possible."

Do you see any potential downside to this? A lot of players seem to be bemoaning the randomness of Extended and Standard decks in the new world of "Tier 2" cards. Has the diversity of the Extended / Standard formats made the environment more luck-based or more skill-based?

With every upside comes a downside, and that is the case with the current Extended format. Everyone can build a deck and expect it to do well against a fair amount of the decks that are around, which means the format is a deckbuilder’s dream. Just look at the amount of stuff Mike Flores is producing right now, with a new deck every week, and more ideas than he can convert into physical decks.

On the flip side, you have a metagamer’s nightmare. A metagamer is someone who isn’t very good at making decks themselves (though he can be), but is very good at reading the metagame and finding its exact weaknesses, to exploit them through a clever deck choice. Good examples of this type of player are Gab Nassif, who combines this with his deckbuilding prowess by always having original decks that do very well at the one tourney for which he planned; and Mark Herberholz, who reads metagames like nobody else, as was seen at last year’s Pro Tour: Honolulu.

This type of player has a hard time, because there are so many decks out there that it is impossible to figure out exactly what is perfect for the metagame. This is proven by the fact that the decks that are doing really well are aggressive decks with their own gameplan, decks that don’t care about disrupting their opponent but just want to kill as soon as possible. There is no “answer deck,” as there are too many things to answer right now. It takes a very special player to make such decks work.

Of course, this doesn’t mean the format is bad or random, just that it can be if you rely on your control deck full of answers to certain matchups. Just look at the past two GPs: both of them were won by Raphael Levy, both with the same deck. This won’t happen if the format is random, but it says something that he won with an aggressive deck. Instead of whining why your answer-based control deck isn’t winning, most people would be better off realizing that such a “problem” is in fact what gives the current metagame its shape, and thus it is exploitable.

It’s funny how this once again shows that Extirpate isn’t all that good… but that’s another story.

Ben Rudick shows up with the next question:

I have a question about Wistful Thinking in Two-Headed Giant. You said that you have "gone so far as including every copy you see maindeck.” Are you normally targeting your opponent, so the card effectively reads, "target opponent discards the last two cards in their hand" …? Do you ever target yourself?

I was also thinking of the synergy between Wistful Thinking and Ignite Memories, as it guarantees you’ll hit something with a casting cost.

What we have gathered from testing – which has mostly been with forty life, but it seems to be holding up in the thirty-life environment – is that card advantage is the most important thing in Two-Headed Giant. Cards like Mindstab, Think Twice, Haunting Hymn, and Mystical Teachings all turn from “not that great but playable” to “amazing first picks,” because, while tempo is still important, you have another player to make sure you will not fall behind when you take the time to cast these. This means that every card that can give you card advantage will be good enough to play most of the time.

Enter Wistful Thinking. At its core, this is just a bad Mind Rot, but it is a two-for-one, removing your opponent’s final two cards from his hand for only one card. That is good enough in this format right now. Another thing that’s important is that the format is also about bombs. The last bomb that isn’t answered often takes the game, which means that taking those last two cards is incredibly strong, as they tend to be late-game bombs a lot of the time.

We never use it on ourselves, as, like I said, the format is all about card advantage and you can’t really take the four-discard lightly, but cards are so important that even bad discard becomes playable, and good discard (like Ana Battlemage and Mindstab) become first picks.

Another thing I should mention is that, now that they changed the rules from 40 to 30 starting life, it is suicide to play two decks that go for this strategy too much. Generally, what we like to do is have one deck that plays for card advantage, and another that makes sure you don’t get too far behind in tempo.

Sean Fitzgerald ties into that perfectly with our next question:

A friend and I were extremely lucky to win three byes for GP: Amsterdam, but after the tournament some other friends, who are quite good players, showed us how they would have built the decks, which were radically different from ours. They also had a lot more time to construct than us. Which brings me to my question:

Do you have a deckbuilding strategy going into Two-Headed Giant Sealed, or do you try to read what the best combinations of cards are on the fly?

If the latter, what process do you go through to find out within the hour?

In general, we tend to use the strategy I outlined earlier. We look for a deck with mostly spells and card advantage tricks, and a deck that makes sure we play men and stay level in tempo and defense. This means that the first thing we tend to look for is Blue/Black and R/G/W as decks. This is because of the “gold” cards like Mystical Teachings, and the fact that having counterspells in a deck that has bad creatures and suspend is very good. Cards like Cradle to Grave and Cancel just shine in the deck, and we feel this is the best way to exploit that.

The other side of the plan is that you get a deck that plays the best creatures, and has little reason to play spells. This maximizes cards like Fortify and Tromp the Domains, and makes the White rescue guys like Whitemane Lion so much better.

Of course, it still all depends on what cards you open. If you have two copies of Ith and an U/R/W dragon, it would be silly to forcefully stick to your plan and not use these to their full potential. These plans are built around commons, and that is what you should be looking for, but rares can always change what is going on with the pool.

Generally, when it comes to actually building the decks, what we do is no different than what we do in regular Sealed Deck: lay out the cards, cut the chaff (which are different from normal Sealed Deck chaff), and do some basic preliminary checks. Our preliminary checks are:

Sliver Check
See how many you’ve got, and how many actually do things to help the strategy rather than being mere “warm bodies.”

Gold Check
Are there any reasons to play certain combinations above others? For example, do you have Mystical Teachings, Thrill of the Hunt, Dragons, or any other golden rares?

Color and Quality Check
It often doesn’t work playing the two colors together that have the most playables, as that will leave you with slanted decks and cards in the main that should be in the board, and vice versa.

Quick Curve Check
This is not as important as it is normally, but it’s still a lot better to play spells than to leave them in your hand.

After that, things should fall into place soon enough. Just make sure not to waste any time chatting about how awesome some cards are, and how much you want to play them rather than your teammate. Stay focused: there should really be no problem with time.

Todd Jones has some trouble with a deck he has been building:

I wanted to get your opinion on a rogue deck I’ve been working on:

4 Magus of the Bazaar
4 Thought Courier
4 Looter il-Kor
4 Akroma, Angel of Wrath
2 Angel of Despair
4 Reckless Wurm

3 Zombify
4 Dread Return
4 Darkblast
4 Fiery Temper

4 Blazing Archon
4 Dark Withering
4 Venarian Glimmer
3 Persecute

[I see a problem immediately… no land. – Craig.]

The deck started out as a straight Reanimation deck, using some Looter effects and some Compulsive Researches to throw critters into the bin. It wasn’t really working so well, so I began to think about the eight Red madness cards that go well with all the Looter effects I was running. It’s morphed into this madness / reanimation hybrid you see here. I have been doing pretty well against aggro, as the combination of one Looter and/or dredging Darkblast is usually enough to get a turn 4 Akroma, which most aggro decks are not equipped to handle. I’m worried about the control matchups, and I’m not really sure how to make it better. Right now I feel like my best chance is turn 3 Reckless Wurm at the end of their turn, hopefully opening the way for a reanimation on turn 4.

The sideboard is geared toward what I think is popular. Blazing Archon makes it hard for Mono-Green Aggro to win, obviously, and the Dark Witherings come in against any deck against which they have a use.

The discard package is something I’ve been wanting to try out since the release of Planar Chaos, since you can cast Venarian Glimmer at end of turn to grab (or bait) countermagic, and then Persecute them for the rest of their hand.

I feel like the sideboard, overall, is pretty weak. I was considering Deathmark over Dark Withering because I’m not sure there are actually that many non-Green, non-White creatures you want to kill, and it’s not dependent on a madness outlet to be good.

I would appreciate whatever suggestions you may have.

As you may know, I played a similar deck at Worlds, built by Wessel Oomens. It looked like this:

This deck uses the same principles as yours, using madness as well as discard and reanimation. This deck was played by Wessel, Gadiel, and myself… and none of us posted better than a 3-3 record. The deck is trying to have as much redundancy as possible to make up for the fact that you need to draw three different effects for it to work: a discard outlet, a reanimation spell, and a fatty. Despite this, we still lost a lot of games by only drawing two of the trifecta, and not getting our deck to work. Your deck looks like it has even fewer copies of each essential part, which makes me feel your deck will have the same problems as ours.

Given the fact that ours didn’t work, I am not sure how I am to make your version work better. I hope seeing this list helps you with some ideas… such as the Karoos, which also allow you to discard a fatty early, or the Episodes, which seem like a better way to battle counter decks. These can be a huge problem.

Next question? Brad Robinson.

What are your thoughts, now that Planar Chaos is out, on the upcoming Time Spiral Block Constructed format? Do you think Mono-Black will be good? Madness? Shivan Meteor / Stuffy Doll.dec.? What do you see as being the main archetypes?

As a matter of fact, thanks to Magic Online, Time Spiral Block Constructed is not a complete mystery right now. Frank Karsten writes about it regularly on MagicTheGathering.com, and there already seems to be a formative metagame with a “best deck.” The deck is a Blue-based control deck using Teferi, Vesuvan Shapeshifters, countermagic, and the most important part: Mystical Teachings. You could say that this is the block version of the super-popular Dralnu du Louvre decks, using some of the most powerful cards that are around in Time Spiral.

Of course, Planar Chaos adds its own amount of Hot Sauce to the mix, with some very powerful cards. The problem seems to be that creature-based aggressive strategies are not very powerful in the “Time Spiral Only” version of TSP Block, and the problem gets even bigger when you add a little Damnation to the pudding.

This means that Teferi Control is the deck to beat, and it will remain so with the addition of Planar Chaos. The only deck that seems to have a shot against it is Green-based Aggro, but whether this will be good enough remains to be seen. However, Timbermare looks very promising…

Other than that, madness wasn’t strong enough without Planar Chaos… and it didn’t really gain anything really important (like good madness outlets or support spells), and Shivan Meteor / Stuffy Doll is very vulnerable to countermagic, which happens to be packed into the best deck out there.

To me, right now, the main archetypes look to be Shapeshifter / Teferi decks, and anti-Teferi decks.

Fauxbrit hits us with a last question, a real home run (bada-bing):

How do Dutchies feel about baseball?

To be honest, we hate it. It’s not a very exciting game, and it’s all about history, stats, and stuff like that, about which we have no clue whatsoever. It is played locally, and we are even fairly decent globally as I understand, but no one really likes to watch the sport, and it’s never on TV.

Me, I kinda like it… but not really. You will never see me watch a regular season MLB game on TV for fun, but I like watching playoff games and stuff, just because of the excitement. This tends to be present around a lot of the American sports. I am more of a “basketball-and-football” kinda guy.

That’s it for this week! Wish me luck at GP: Amsterdam this weekend, and I’ll see y’all soon. Be sure to keep hittin’ me up with those questions… [email protected] is where to send ‘em!