Black Magic – Blogging the Rise of the Eldrazi Prerelease

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Tuesday, April 20th – The Rise of the Eldrazi prerelease gave us the first hands-on look at the new cards and mechanics, and Sam Black is ready to weigh in with his preliminary opinions. He takes us through a selection of Limited events in which he played, giving us his take on the stronger and weaker cards in the set.

I don’t really think a typical tournament report for a prerelease makes much sense. It’s several different tournaments, and the competition is not overly interesting. In this case, I really didn’t know what to expect about how this set would play out going into it, so I was planning to learn a lot about the format in my first few games. I think showing the process of learning new things about Magic is particularly valuable, so I figured that recording my thoughts as my weekend went on may be a good way to demonstrate how I process a new set. This article will be an expanded version of the notes I took on how I was feeling about the format and how well different cards were playing as I got more experience with the set.

On the way to the Midnight prerelease tournament on Friday night, I started actually thinking about playing the cards in sealed for the first time. Specifically, I began to consider the impact that Levelers have on building a curve. If you have a creature that costs 2 to play and 3 or less to level up, it’s less important to have a 3 mana spell in your hand, since you can happily spend turn 3 leveling up. In general, the incremental gain from being able to play a new card from your hand every turn is much lower. This means you don’t need as many cards that cost 2-4, as long as you have a significant number of creatures that can level up. Instead of playing extra cheap spells, you can play both more lands and more expensive spells, which is part of how Eldrazi manage to work their way into decks. At this point I decided that it seemed fairly likely that I’d be playing roughly 19 lands.

When I opened my first pool, I didn’t have a lot of good Eldrazi or ramp, but I was happy to notice the interaction between my 2 Goblin Tunnelers, 3 Battle-Rattle Shaman, and my Valakut Fireboar. I also had 2 Aura Gnarlids and 3 Snake Umbras. I figured people would build slow decks with a lot of walls, and those cards would often just let me get through to beat all the slow decks. When I laid out the cards I wanted to play, I felt like the individual power level of my other cards was high enough that I had to cut the cute Red package, since it seemed like I’d be able to get through without them. I played:

1 Nest Invader
1 Bramblesnap
1 Runed Servitor
2 Aura Gnarlid
1 Brimstone Mage
1 Sporecap Spider
1 Tuktuk the Explorer
1 Kozilek’s Predator
2 Wildheart Invoker
1 Lord of Shatterskull Pass
1 Stomper Cub
1 Conquering Manticore
1 Rapacious One
3 Snake Umbra
1 Might of the Masses
1 Flame Slash
1 Irresistible Prey
1 Naturalize
11 Forest
7 Mountain

Eventually I realized that the spider was terrible in my deck and that, while Naturalize is good in the format, my deck just wanted more consistent aggressive cards, so I cut both of those for Battle-Rattle Shaman, which are excellent with Aura Gnarlid (who was an all star anyway).

My first round was one of those prerelease rounds where I could have built any remotely reasonable 40 card deck and won, so I didn’t really learn much. My second opponent had a ton of removal and killed most of my early creatures, but things still appeared to be going well. He had an Ulamog’s Crusher that had been attacking me, but I had Rapacious One generating blockers, so it wasn’t a problem. Then he drew Momentous Fall and things went downhill quickly. That card was pretty impressive.

In the next game, I had a really strong, fast start with Bramblesnap into Aura Gnarlid, and then Kozilek’s Predator, so it looked like I’d kill him very quickly. Then he played Escaped Null and then Pelakka Wurm and suddenly he was back to 20. From there I was able to Manticore his Wurm and then kill him the next turn with the Manticore and Might of the Masses on my Aura Gnarlid, but that game made it clear exactly how hard this format can be on aggressive decks. All my work early with one of my best possible starts was completely negated, and I had to win on the back on a bomb instead.

Bramblesnap, Aura Gnarlid, and Snake Umbra all continued to thoroughly impress me throughout the event.

In the next round I was able to use Irresistible Prey on a Bramblesnap to kill a Kazandu Tuskcaller (with value thanks to Nest Invader) because I was on the play. The game after that I never killed his Tuskcaller, but a bad attack gave me enough time to win with Lord of Shatterskull Pass.

I went 4-0 in the event, but it was very clearly because the power level of my deck was extremely high, rather than because going aggressive was a particularly good strategy. I was left feeling like it was nice when a pool allows it, but the defensive cards in this set are extremely powerful, so it seemed like it would happen pretty rarely in sealed. Most games around me looked to be coming down to casting Eldrazi.

On day 2 I had more of a late game. I liked my Green cards to cast the Eldrazi, but I was completely up in the air about what my second color should be. My support color would just be the appropriate answers for whatever kinds of threats my opponent had, and I played to change my second color often, so the maindeck didn’t seem that important. I ended up going with White because I had Student of Warfare, and I liked the way the curve looked most that way.

The deck I started with was:

1 Student of Warfare
1 Nest Invader
1 Overgrown Battlement
1 Aura Gnarlid
1 Dawnglare Invoker
1 Kozilek’s Predator
1 Wildheart Invoker
1 Totem-Guide Hartebeast
1 Jaddi Lifestrider
2 Ulamog’s Crusher
1 Gigantomancer
1 Artisan of Kozilek
2 Smite
1 Ancient Stirrings
1 Puncturing Light
1 Naturalize
1 Snake Umbra
1 Boar Umbra
1 Mammoth Umbra
1 Momentous Fall
22 Land

Ultimately, I went 2-2 with this deck. I was impressed by the rares, of course, particularly Gigantomancer (not to say he’s better than Student of Warfare, just that he over-performed more). I was unhappy with Smite in this deck. It was too hard to have a blocker, and when I already had 3 umbras and Momentous Fall, it was just too many cards that needed me to have a creature, particularly given how expensive several of my creatures were. The deck was just way too volatile. It was too easy to not have anything to do early, or not have enough lands late. When I was able to play spells early it went very well, but it was too easy for things to go wrong. There’s a valuable lesson in here, and it’s not just that this kind of deck is inconsistent: Umbras don’t work well with Eldrazi. This isn’t to say you can’t have some of each, but big creatures obviously don’t need enhancement, and if a number of your creatures are big, it’s likely that you don’t have enough small creatures to enchant. This deck only had 6 creatures that I wanted to enchant that cost less than 5 mana.

My opponent in the first round of this event played almost entirely levelers against me, and after we played, asked me to help him with his deck. He had something like 10 Blue and White levelers; enough that I agreed that he should be playing Time of Heroes. I immediately told him he should be playing the Sea Gate Oracles that were in his sideboard, but after looking more closely at his deck, it was closer than I thought. I still thought it was right to play them, but I could imagine him cutting them if he had another 2 very good cards, which is interesting, because that card looks awesome. The problem is that you don’t really want to spend 3 mana to cycle a 1/3 into play when you could just level up your creatures instead. I mean, playing the 1/3 is fine, but it’s nowhere near as exciting as it might otherwise be, particularly since a 1/3 doesn’t really do anything in this format, so that effect is less impressive than it may be in other places.

Put differently, the card can be thought of as a Divination where you have to get rid of one of the cards to put a 1/3 into play. In a lot of formats, that’s better than Divination, since it makes up for the tempo loss of drawing extra cards, but in this format, that creature will usually do very little, such that I’d probably rather have the extra card in most decks, especially given that you can almost always use an extra land. Basically, Sea Gate Oracle will often (not always) be worse than Divination in this format, and I could see cutting Divination from a deck that had plenty of other uses for extra mana, like one with 10 levelers.

The next round I played against a deck that had lots of spawn creation and Eldrazi, so I sided into Blue instead of White, which had 2 Regresses, and they were amazing. That card is so much improved from its printing in Mirrodin that I think it’s one of the best commons now.

The next rounds I had some extremely awkward draws (again, entirely my fault for the way I built the deck) and lost.

After that sealed, I did a draft. I first picked Domestication over some good Green card because I wanted to try Blue, since I’d played Green in both sealed events. I ended up in Green anyway, getting passed a third pick Beastbreaker of Bala Ged. I had another very aggressive deck that looked to have enough power that I was happy with it:

1 Skywatcher Adept
2 Champion’s Drake
2 Beastbreaker of Bala Ged
1 Halimar Wavewatch
3 Aura Gnarlid
1 Mul Daya Channelers
1 Wildheart Invoker
1 Stomper Cub
1 Frostwind Invoker
1 Spider Umbra
3 Might of the Masses
2 Eel Umbra
1 Boar Umbra
1 Regress
1 Domestication
1 Momentous Fall
9 Forest
8 Island

I wanted at least one more leveler for the Champion’s Drakes, but I needed more creatures, so I had to play them. They were a little better than I expected them to be in that deck. I won the draft 3-0, and Aura Gnarlid is completely amazing. It was definitely better than Mul Daya Channelers, for example.

This left me with the impression that it’s probably a little easier to go aggro in draft than in sealed, but I’m pretty sure I’ll still be casting Eldrazi pretty often in draft as well.

On Sunday I just played in a 2HG event, which isn’t too relevant. I played the mana ramp/Eldrazi deck, and continued to feel like Eldrazi as an archetype is a little more high variance than the aggro decks, particularly given how much leveling up can smooth a curve, but its powerful draws are almost certainly beating most aggressive draws.

Overall, I think there are enough cards that generate mana and enough options on being more aggressive, that I would guess this is a 17-18 land format that’s usually 18 and occasionally 19, rather than the 18-20 I was imagining before seeing a pool. Overall, I’m pretty happy with how the set plays, particularly level up, with some trepidation that Eldrazi might be a little more high variance than I’m comfortable with.

But at this point, it’s time to get more data on the subject, since one draft isn’t nearly enough.

Thanks for reading…