It is one thing to write a set review and another to put the cards into Standard decks. For just over another month, Standard still has an albatross called Affinity wrapped around its neck, which makes this an easier task. The most time consuming and in some ways hardest part of deck construction is knowing what can be ignored. With so many cards out there, there are far more decks out there than anyone can hope to test. Having Affinity as well as Tooth and Nail around wipes out most of those ideas before they get started, allowing the focus to shift to the few things capable of standing up to the bully. New cards that have applications worthy of investigation can be separated into two categories. There are those that can improve existing decks, and those that can make currently unplayable concepts playable.
I do not have high hopes for the second category. It can further be subdivided into block concepts that are built around the mechanics and cards of Kawigawa and then decks from other sources that happened to be a little short before. If Block Constructed concepts are going to have hope, that hope is going to come from the free spells. Free spells offer the promise of letting slower concepts stabilize the board while you do whatever it is that your deck hopes to do. Without such spells, the decks in question would all be far too slow to be interesting, but with them things get more interesting. This gives us good reason to try and focus in on mono-color strategies that will make good use of the free spells and the Arcane deck that hopes to use the monster that I can only assume is being first picked all over the world as we speak.
For that reason, I will examine eight concepts for possible additions in the remainder of the Affinity era: The five colors, Affinity, Tooth and Nail and R/G. The only real possible other deck, Arcane, needs to be handled separately.
At its heart, Red/Green is a good stuff deck. You have a bunch of good stuff, and it all interacts in helpful ways. The deck can’t afford to try and abuse the block interactions, and it needs cards that help build up its superstructure. That leaves only one card that can hope to make the cut, Sowing Salt. This is one of the cards that I was informed by the Forums that I’d underestimated in my review, and in this case I agree with them. I had not properly considered the impact of taking out the Urza’s set, since the deck that uses it gives you the time and relies on being able to search out additional copies. Sowing Salt looks like a potential sideboard card for the matchup, with the caveat that it won’t be strong anywhere else. You could potentially end up boarding it in anyway sometimes because LD is still LD, but you will doing that because you are wishing for Stone Rain and can’t have it. Knowing what I know of the matchup with Tooth and Nail, this tactic should be effective if it proves necessary.
Tooth and Nail
The obvious thing that Tooth and Nail is on patrol for is a new creature to search out, but none from the set stand out. You have too many non-creature spells to even consider Enshrined Memories. A card that looks potentially interesting is Shizuko, Caller of Autumn. It will get you from three mana straight to seven, and is a practical way to get to nine without either Cloudpost or the Urza’s set. It’s too bad you’re only about two-to-one to get that untap step. Using this as a defense against Sowing Salt will not work, since Shizuko will give his enemies the energy they need to destroy him. I don’t think I could dare make this part of my mana base, so it has to be a sideboard card.
Against Affinity I like it, as the mana is mostly harmless, but I’d also rather gather round the good stuff like Oxidize and Tel-Jilad Justice. There needs to be another major application for Shizuko and right now I cannot think of one. The big problem is that the mana in T&N is all or nothing. If you add three, it’s a nice plus but it is surprisingly unlikely to put you over the top due to the way the lands work. In fact, I can only think of one card in Betrayers that is at all a candidate for T&N, and it’s not a card I want to respect or admit is any good: Nourishing Shoal, the forgotten free spell. That is what a ** rating means in the end, that in exactly the right place the card might be worth it. This could be that place, allowing you to trade two cards for an extra turn since you’re packing seven-drops for other reasons. If you had more of them, it would make things interesting, but you more or less have to pitch Tooth and Nail itself and without a second copy, and that is not a card I want to be pitching often. Unlike some other Shoals, this one simply has to be massive to have a chance.
Umezawa’s Jitte could be a decent mirror matchup card, since it can kill Disciple of the Vault in colorless fashion and stick around to keep doing more damage, but in general Affinity doesn’t have that kind of time so I don’t love its chances. After that you get into colored cards, which makes the bar very high. Affinity was designed to work on its own terms, and I wouldn’t expect to find anything in a set from another block. It isn’t like Affinity needed the help.
White has been out of it lately, and it’s not going to be easy to bring it back. Shining Shoal will be the justification for having the deck around in the first place, so let’s pencil that in first. The obvious next question is whether to try and pair it with high casting cost White cards or just accept that when it is a free spell it is small. My thoughts turn right away to Eternal Dragon and Akroma’s Vengeance but the Shoal has arrived a year too late for that. With Tooth and Nail out there, trying to play a long-term White control game seems doomed to failure. The reasons why you were trying are gone, and Shining Shoal is not going to make up for it when your best endgame spells aren’t even White. That all but forces the deck in question to become White Weenie, and that makes me uninterested at this time. In a month, things might get more interesting.
Disrupting Shoal is a card that will do great things, but can it do them now? That is the question. Affinity and Tooth and Nail both pose what can charitably be called “interesting” casting cost problems. Tooth and Nail’s threat of Boseiju along with it relying on a nine-drop make the Shoal less than perfect here, but if you can counter Reap and Sow while dropping a Thieving Magpie then isn’t that still a good thing? [Yes, he said Thieving Magpie. – Knut] T&N does have plenty of cards you can counter, like Eternal Witness and Sylvan Scrying, and countering them will buy you time. It’s not perfect and I would still sideboard out the Shoal, but it’s not as fatal as it might seem. Against Affinity you’re walking into a nightmare, but if you can stop Aether Vial then you’ve got something. Annul is far better going first but you don’t always go first and don’t always draw Annul. Of course, you also don’t have too many one-drops other than Annul, so this plan seems unlikely to work, but you should be able to pitch something at some point. If you can sideboard into a deck with more one and two-drops, or just find a way to start them, then this will become a strong way to buy time. Serum Visions is the natural choice for a one-drop companion to Annul, but don’t automatically dismiss Unsummon. Remember what you’re trying to accomplish and that you must pay any price, bear any burden. Later on, Affinity’s casting costs are low enough that you can just pay the mana.
Horobi’s Whisper and Sickening Shoal are your motivation, so the goal now is to find enough Arcane spells you can naturally play. After that, the deck seems likely to proceed via one of the two normal routes of either Black Control centered on Death Cloud or a Black beatdown deck. Cranial Extraction is an obvious choice for control, and complements free spells well. Hideous Laughter is interesting to me because it’s both Arcane and you can splice it onto Sickening Shoal, perhaps combining to sweep the board, while giving you a high cost card to pitch. Death Cloud is an X spell, which could prove a problem for you, although you are unlikely to want to pitch it. Rend Flesh of course is great on principle and Walking Nightmare is a possible card for control versions if you need Arcane and lack alternatives. Does this add up to anything? I can’t find the creatures to make the offensive version work, so it’s going to have to be control.
I still think Greater Harvester is the creature of choice, especially with all the new ways to clear a path. When the time comes to put it all together, it becomes clear that trying to use the second tier of Arcane spells is mostly a pipe dream and you have to limit your ambitions. That of course raises the question of whether you’ll have enough worthy Arcane cards to use Whisper. The more I try to put Whisper into a deck, it seems like outside of block it needs to be in a two or more color deck to work properly. That would throw things back to just the Shoal. With a bunch of fat creatures and other four or greater mana spells, the Shoal will be very good. I don’t think it changes the basic design much, since you already had a lot of creature removal in the deck.
My approach to this deck would be to turbo out a lot of mana and try for a quick Death Cloud, letting the Shoal and a little backup like Barter in Blood handle the attack in the meantime. I’d also lean heavily on the use of cantrips. I know I would use about six of Chromatic Sphere and Conjurer’s Bauble, because it both allows you to hide cards during a Death Cloud and reduces the size of your deck. This deck effectively has only three key cards: Death Cloud, Solemn Simulacrum and Sickening Shoal. To an extent you also have Barter in Blood. When you draw these cards and the right backup, you win. Otherwise, you lose. If you accept Talisman and Guardian Idol but trim a little back because of the cantrips, you’d get about six or seven of those and perhaps twenty-two lands. After that there’s four each of the four key cards, leaving nine slots for other spells including Greater Harvester and Night’s Whisper. The combination of Death Cloud, Blinkmoth Nexus and Guardian Idol should keep the mana flood problem in check, but of course I worry a ton about being dependent on Death Cloud here. I’d go for two Horobi’s Whisper to round things out, even with a minimum of other Arcane spells in the maindeck.
As usual, Green is the odd color out, but in a way Tooth and Nail is the green deck in this mix. It will have to live with that.
Red is the color that interests me most out of Betrayers. I want to kill people and I want to do it quickly. Blazing Shoal is a great idea, but my motivational card is Genju of the Spires. Consider it the new Blistering Firecat, which puts Red back in the mix. The biggest question will be whether you can find a way to use Blazing Shoal. The only card in the new set with a high casting cost that you can look at is Patron of the Akki. Champions of Kawigawa isn’t the kind of set that says to me “blazing speed” and the gate it does seem to open leads into an Arcane deck.
Zo-Zu the Punisher, Akki Avalanchers and Lava Spike are the cards that fit the kind of deck I would have in mind here, which would have to be based around The Philosophy of Fire. Glacial Ray has two targets to splice onto and both of them are cheap, so it could also be a good idea. Myojin of Infinite Rage is the pure “I want to kill you for no apparent reason” card, but aside from the underwhelming Hanabi Blast, I can’t think of anything to get rid of it with. You’d have to just be gambling. Meanwhile, you have such gems as Spark Elemental and Oxidda Golem out of the last block as another plan of attack. Cosmic Larva as your secret weapon? This seems like it would end badly, and there’s a huge strain on your lands here. But it might well be worth it: If you’re always using every resource, you’ll have one hell of a weapon. The conclusion here seems clear, which is that if you’re going to want Blazing Shoal you are not going to have anything to pitch. You need to get back to basics. Here’s the pool of crazy ideas:
Zo-Zu the Punisher
Forge[/author]“]Pulse of the [author name="Forge"]Forge[/author]
Genju of the Spires
Crack the Earth – sacrifice your Spark Elemental!
I know what you’re thinking. That is a group of proven winners! I love it too. Obviously that’s more cards than you can play, and you also need to settle the clash between Shrapnel Blast and the need for artifacts as well as the numerous demands on your Mountains. Genju of the Spires is not very Mountain intensive, of course, and some of that stuff was thrown in just to make sure it wasn’t forgotten. I do like a lot the interaction between Genju of the Spires and Cosmic Larva, because you can use the mana from the lands you’re going to lose to activate the Genju and thirteen points is a lot. Chrome Mox at first seemed like it should be out because if possible you’ll be running out of cards in hand as well as lands in play and to avoid splash damage, but it does let you toy with Shrapnel Blast and give you a lot of silly starts. The deck should not have the time or inclination for Blinkmoth Nexus, but I also don’t need to be all Red mana sources so if I don’t want Darksteel Citadel it might end up a free threat. Let’s start with a core sketch, keeping in mind what is a creature and what is not:
Alternatively, not trying to be silly with the Larva but instead trying for the mad rush:
That second idea proved better. Volcanic Hammer tried to survive, but let’s face it… you don’t have that kind of time. I can see more copies of Shock in the maindeck, but I like trying to be a purist. The truth of course is that there will be four to clear a path for Slith Firewalker, which means you’re cutting something into the sideboard. It’s likely to be something like a Forge[/author]“]Pulse of the [author name="Forge"]Forge[/author] and a Crack the Earth. In fact, I’m doing this as a test of my new community: That’s the decklist I’m going with right now. Let’s less how many people just skipped right to the list, shall we? Or if the editor wants, he can swap the cards up there without me, and this paragraph will look kind of weird but you’ll have the story and I’ll know where I stand.
The plan against Affinity is to put in Shock, Bolt, Shatter and Echoing Ruin. If that doesn’t work, there is no hope, although going a little further over the top can be considered if it would make a difference. Tooth and Nail should roll over and die to you, as you’re their worst nightmare, so I don’t feel like bothering with Molten Rain or anything like that. If your opponent decides to be sane, your game plan is easy enough. Come out fast enough that you don’t let him, adjusting the burn set for the creatures that you face. If you get to attack without interference, the game won’t last more than five turns even if you get a horrible start.
Commentary on Aaron’s Announcement
It was clear from Aaron’s statement that at least one card is being banned in Standard and they are confident it will solve the problem. Combining the fact that Affinity can take many forms and you also need to worry about KCI, chances are high that they intend to ban the artifact lands as Aaron has been arguing without Wizards for during a period of months. My reaction is: Right decision, wrong time. Affinity has been running Standard for a long time, and it took only one look at Champions (and later one more at Betrayers) to realize that nothing was going to change. That left two choices. Bite the bullet, or bite the other bullet. If Affinity was to be left untouched, it would dominate until the rotation but the banned list would stay empty. No one would have their cards taken away, and eventually the problem would solve itself through rotation.
The biggest argument in favor of this is that there is no simple, easy answer. Banning anything but the artifact lands leaves Affinity with the potential to return almost as strong as ever. Taking out the lands is going to be one hell of a boggle for players who don’t understand the strategic reasons they had to go. The decision three months ago seemed upon reading what WizardsC said on their website to come down to “we don’t like any of our options, so we will do nothing even though we would do something if we had something we could do.” The other option is to say that saving Standard is more important. I agree, it is important to save Standard, but we’ve lost a large chunk of the benefits of that by waiting so long. To me, the decision time was not three months ago but six when it was clear that only Champions could save us. Anyone who knew what was in Champions and thought it would do the job was being naÃ¯ve.
I assumed that because of this they had made a decision to ride out the Affinity problem until it went away naturally, but it seems that for whatever reason I was wrong. I hope it doesn’t come to this again for a long, long time. I also hope that this paves the way for the right decision the next time mistakes are made. I think that the Powers That Be have been refreshingly honest about the problem, and have learned from it well. Affinity did some good along with the bad, but it was long overstayed its welcome. I also have faith that they are ready for the inevitable hope for other bans that this will create over the next few years.
Oh, and that other problem card…
As they said when they advertised I, Robot, a movie that I refuse to see on general principles due to loyalty to Asimov and his spinning ghost, One Man Saw It Coming. I argued that it would go into beatdown decks in Standard. I argued it would go into Extended decks and invalidate entire classes of control deck that aren’t in Standard right now but that the game needs. Did I think it would come to this? No, I didn’t think anyone who I respected as I respect Chad would ever say “Ban Aether Vial” with a straight face (although Chad is very good at keeping a straight face). Of course, it’s not an option. This is not the way we ban cards in the Magic world, and it shouldn’t be. Extended has a ton of diversity, and when there is diversity you should thank your lucky stars and leave things alone. As for the argument that Aether Vial dooms the format to a battle of various combinations by nerfing control decks, there’s an important point there, but as long as there are a lot of different combination decks, I don’t see what the problem is. At least, not yet, but the long-term outlook could be problematic. If we’re looking at five years of this kind of Extended, steps should be taken to restore balance. We have plenty of sets to do that with. Speaking of new cards:
Invitational Votes: Europe and South America
Kai Budde won the European slot because he’s Kai. I can’t argue with that. You have to send Kai to the Invitational if you have a choice. The only problem with that is that he likely will not go, because Kai sees no point in the exercise. He’s already won once, and he’s busy studying, so why not let someone who wants it more have the fun? I know that when I withdrew for Scott Johns in the face of illness, him going in my place made the decision a lot easier. A strange thing takes place if Kai withdraws, which is that I believe the voters are sending the wrong brother. Antoine Ruel is first in the Pro Tour standings, and that is a very strong argument on its own. Personally, I would never vote for either of them for various reasons – there’s the whole Penguin issue, and other stuff I would prefer not to get into. My vote would have gone to Nicolai Herzog.
Latin America comes down to what you value. On a personal level, I would like to see Diego Ostrovich go, and have many kind things to say for Scott Richards and Carlos Romao as well. The trick is going against the comparatively impressive resume of Jose Barbero, but to me no one in this category can feel too cheated on a numbers basis if they don’t go. Look at the European region and the players there that didn’t make the cut. Therefore, I am going to endorse Diego Ostrovich for the Magic Invitational Latin America slot. I’ll wait until I see the candidates to say anything about North America.
That’s a nice theory, but what’s the actual situation?
This week’s theory article comes from the usual source, good old (vote for him! And no he didn’t ask!) Mike Flores with The Limit of Interactivity. It is a worthy theory and it deserves a worthy response, which I cannot give in this small space. If you want to be good at Magic, read his article and think about it. Don’t just skim it – think about it – and hopefully I’ll have enough worthwhile to say that I’ll have a response soon as I will be doing the same.