CASUAL FRIDAYS #67: So, Can Casual Players Still Play With Rith? Catching Up With My In Box

Back from a Sideboard reporting gig in Chicago, I have a lot I want to share with you all.  First, you should check out my early "lessons learned" piece on the Sideboard (they’ve been kind enough to feature it on the front, so just go to www.sideboard.com).  Then, if you like, you could go read…

Back from a Sideboard reporting gig in Chicago, I have a lot I want to share with you all.  First, you should check out my early "lessons learned" piece on the Sideboard (they’ve been kind enough to feature it on the front, so just go to www.sideboard.com).  Then, if you like, you could go read some of the match reports.  Really, it’s good for you.  I won’t tell you which ones I covered (other than round 10, Finkel vs. Kibler, which I was just so pleased I had a front row seat for), because you really ought to poke around.  Different reporters had distinctly different styles; and the blend is real fun to look at.  If you’re into that sort of thing.

Let me just say, on this Sideboard "lessons learned" piece, that (1) I think it was terrific of Omeed to put in pictures of the playmat and some penguins, and (2) while the playmat picture is dead on, the stock photo of the tender, warm relationship between an Emperor penguin and her chick does nothing to convey the indescribable proportions of the Hyatt’s Uber-penguins, nor the sheer terror I felt upon encountering them.  No doubt Omeed attempted to get a photo of the Uber-penguins themselves; but like vampires, their age-old, mystical aura provides no reflection or capturable image for our puny manmade devices.

Anyway, go read all of it.

Back already?  Great.  I did want to do a more in-depth piece on what I had seen in Chicago, and what I felt it meant for Magic…perhaps specifically casual Magic, or perhaps not.  The idea was to take some time and reflect before writing.  A worrisome trend for this column, I know; but I trust you’ll all bear with me.

I will start with a fairly obvious assertion: Everyone has already recognized that Invasion is a very casual-friendly set.  We also hear some very glancing analysis as to why that may be true:  Some of the cards are GOLD, don’t you know; and that just seems so…scrubby.  Also, there are BIG CREATURES!  And no way (in Type II, anyway) to cast them an infinite number of times.  But we don’t hear as much in-depth about what exactly is happening, and how it may impact casual players.

Of course, Chicago has begun to provide an answer to this question.  The fact is, the Masques block still dominates Type II.  (Budde won with Rebels, and virtually no Invasion cards.)  But what we saw, after only one set of Invasion block, was a Top 8 that looks very strange.

From the decklists themselves, no particular order:

Zvi Mowshowitz – Fires deck with Two-Headed Dragon as a primary finisher

Jay Elerar – mono-blue Skies/Waters blend with classic themes of counter, bounce

Mike Pustilnik – Fires deck with Ghitu Fire as an alternate finisher

Jon Finkel – Fires deck with Rith the Awakener as an alternate finisher

Kamiel Cornelissen – "Counter-Rebel" blue-white with Jhovall Queen as alternate finisher

Robert Dougherty – Fires deck, pretty straightforward build

Kai Budde – Rebels, pretty straightforward build

Brian Kibler – "Red Zone" green-white-red with Rith the Awakener as primary finisher

People (including myself) have already talked about how cool it was that Kibler beat Finkel with a Rith the Awakener (with Armadillo Cloak).  But there are two things about the Top 8 decks that haven’t gotten as much notice yet:

1) Jon Finkel Was Running A Rith, The Awakener As Well.  Think about that for a moment.  Jon Finkel, Machine of the Pro Tour set, icon of blue permission, decided that his best hope for winning the Chicago Pro Tour was to stick one of those 6/6 dragon legends in his deck (and another in his sideboard) and just beat the hell out of his opponents.  He went 9-0, trashing multiple control decks on the way.  And THEN Brian Kibler comes around and beats him with another Rith, this one with Armadillo Cloak from the sideboard.

2) Zvi Mowshowitz And Brian Kibler Had A Quarterfinal Match That Featured Dragon On Dragon.  For game two, although the outcome was fairly certain by that time, each player had their dragon champion on the board.  This certainly wasn’t the only dragon-on-dragon matchup at the Pro Tour; but it did have the highest profile.

It is perfectly reasonable to come away from Pro Tour Chicago with the impression, "Well, rebels and Parallax Wave it is."  After all, Kai won with that deck.  But please note that he was the only one in the Top 8 with rebels; that he absolutely crushed the only blue-white deck in the Top 8 (at the finals, against an extraordinarily good player); and that rebels is not a particularly "unfriendly" deck idea for casual players.

I think some context is appropriate here.  When Type II consisted of Tempest and Urza’s blocks, perhaps the three most dominant cards were: Cursed Scroll, Morphling, Masticore.  (Yes, there were combo-based decks, too.  Nitpicking will do you no good here, though.  You could pick most of those cards, like High Tide or Stroke of Genius, and apply the same logic I’m about to here.)  None of those three cards gain anything from shifting to a casual, multiplayer format.  I certainly would play any of them in a given group deck – they’re freaking good cards – but in the transition to 1+X opponents, the X factor just means you have to keep that much more mana open to protect the Morphling or Masticore, last that much longer for the Cursed Scroll or Masticore to finish off all of the players/creatures, etc.

It is completely possible that the next three or four environment-defining cards will choose from among the following six or seven: Rishadan Port (pretty much a lock), Rith the Awakener, Fires of Yavimaya, Saproling Burst (found in both Fires and non-Fires decks), Mageta the Lion (or Wrath of God, if you like), and Fact or Fiction.  Maybe Wash Out, if Blue Skies gets its act together.

Rishadan Port, Fact or Fiction, and Lin Sivvi almost certainly do not gain much from adding additional opponents.  (You could make the argument that Rishadan Port, being phenomenal against Maze of Ith and man-lands, does gain; but that’s just a metagame coincidence.  Ditto the Port’s answer, Tsabo’s Web.)  Fires is questionable; but the fact that all of your creatures have haste and one can grow makes attacking you, even when you have no creatures out, very unappetizing for most opponents…and since they have somewhere else to go, Fires works a bit like Propaganda to deflect them elsewhere.  Saproling Burst, like all fading cards, gains from multiplayer because the permanent is in play longer with every opponent that stands between one of your upkeeps and the next.  The longer it’s in play, the more impact the saprolings have.  Rith the Awakener, like Treva, is a dragon legend that grows more powerful the more opponents (and therefore, usually, permanents of a certain color) are on the board.  Wash Out gains the same way Rith does.  And finally, Mageta/Wrath of God is a huge multiplayer staple card choice.

(Oh.  I’m skipping a second tier of impact cards: Armageddon, Void, Tsabo’s Decree, Rising Waters, Defiant Vanguard, Blastoderm, and Parallax Wave.  All had an impact on who made Top 8, and how they did when they got there.  All are also very group-friendly cards.  The only second-tier card I recall seeing that doesn’t work in that way is Absorb/Counterspell.)

That’s a lot of detail to provide behind that original, and as I said fairly obvious, assertion.  But I still think it helps to say this explicitly: The distance between the cards that Pros use in Type II, and the cards casual players know and love every week, is closing.  Just a little.

And at the same time, something else is happening that has very little to do with my weekend in Chicago.  The Pro Tour has matured to the point where it has become a bit of an institution.  And institutions, as they stick around, get noticed by more and more people.  Add a dash of the Internet, and a player community that has gotten rapidly more sophisticated – even at the casual level – and you suddenly have a surge of players who all could make a legitimate run at the Pro Tour.  It’s almost like a baby boom of mature, educated players.  Certainly there has been, for some time, a respectable number of players who "coulda qualified" but are, either by choice or lack of skill, still not on the Pro Tour.  I simply say that the number of such players are growing.  My gut feeling that they are older, have more money, and may be a bit more dedicated to qualifying at least once than those in the past has yet to be tested.

So two trends, converging at once:  a demographic trend supplying more mature PTQ competitors, and an environmental trend that puts the kind of cards they like in their hand, without making them less competitive.  It should be an interesting year or two.

On to some less serious lessons, which I thought of after the Sideboard piece:

1) SHOW UP TO THESE THINGS PREPARED, EVEN IF YOU’RE NOT PLAYING.  To travel light, and since I (correctly) guessed that I wouldn’t have much time to play, I didn’t bring any of my decks.  I didn’t even think to bring individual cards.  I could have had Michelle Bush sign my Necropotence; I could have had Darwin Kastle sign my Avalanche Riders; I could have had Jon Finkel sign something blue.  Heck, I could have had Mark Rosewater sign the near-mint Mox Jet I just acquired.  Sure, by not bothering people to sign cards I looked slightly more suave, but as my wife will gladly tell you, me being more suave is like the federal election being a little tighter: The marginal difference is negligible.  What the hell was wrong with me, that I didn’t bring cards to sign?

2) HAVE QUESTIONS READY.  It’s round six or seven, and I’m sitting down to cover my first Jon Finkel match.  The guy looks and acts friendly enough and certainly approachable.  Who cares if he’s been interviewed a billion times; surely I could come up with a few questions before the match begins, right?

Why, not at all.  My mind went totally blank.  I just sat there, staring at him and his opponent for about twenty minutes.  Yes, twenty minutes.  Apparently there was a matchup error with the computer, and DCI staff were trying to straighten it out without changing the featured matchups.  Of course, they couldn’t; and so everyone got re-paired, including Finkel, and then he wasn’t featured any more, and so I lost my chance.

Absolving to never let this happen again, I have prepared a list of questions I will ask Jon the next time I see him.  (Since I saw him a couple of matches later, I’m obviously not serious about this.  But it’s fun to pretend.)  To wit:

* "Does blue just suck as a color or what?"

* "So you’ve made about $200K at this game before anyone else has made $100K, right.  Er, can I have a loan?  My kids need to go to college."

* "Hey, buddy, you’re a Pro, right?  So maybe you’ve met Jon Finkel.  Everyone says the guy is smart, but I dunno, I think he’s just dumb lucky.  What’s your take on this?"

* "Okay, sport, here’s the situation:  you’re in a seven-player chaos game.  There’s a Celestial Convergence on the table and Kai Budde just played Congregate at the end of your turn.  Alex Shvartsman responds with a Fault Line for 14.  You’re at 4 life, all lands tapped.  What do you do?  WHAT DO YOU DO?!?!"

* "Um, is Impulse any good?"

3) MINNESOTA STILL REPRESENTS, BABY.  After Randy Buehler moved away a few years ago to go seek his fortune in some lame West Coast state, we all got a bit depressed around here since we didn’t know where our next inspiration would come from.  (Or so I hear.  I hadn’t moved out here yet.  Nor had I even heard of Magic at that time.)  Well, we have the answer, and his name is Noah Weil.  One of the players of team Monster Rod who placed in the money at Pro Tour New York, Noah was in the top ten late in the second day (with a rebels deck) before a few late-round matches knocked him down to 32.  Top 32 on the Pro Tour is still pretty darn cool.  Noah’s a low-profile, modest kind of guy and I just felt I should try to embarrass him here.  Congratulations, Noah.  You’re my hero.  My inspiration.  The wind beneath my wings…egh, okay, I’m starting to gag, too.  I’ll stop.

4) THERE IS STILL MUCH CASUAL PLAY LEFT TO DISCOVER.  Jeff Donais pulled me aside during a quiet (deckbuilding) moment at Chicago Masters and listed off some of the cool casual formats he and his brother Mike have played in the past.  I felt a little self-conscious at the time, since we were at the end of the table where Ben Rubin was trying to put together his Masters draft deck.  But since Ben won, I guess we didn’t hurt his concentration that much.  Hell, maybe we inspired him.

Anyway, the formats:  the three that I found most intriguing were All-Arabian Nights (where City in a Bottle ruled), the "letter F" series (where all cards had to start with the letter F…then they changed to foreign language "F"), and "cutouts", where they cut up cards so all that was left was the artwork, and then played with those.  I thought I would pass Jeff’s wisdom on (would it be fair to call Jeff’s rambling "wisdom"?…yes, since he bought me dinner, I suppose it would).  

Now that I’m on a Wizards-independent site, I want to make sure people know I was sincere about what I wrote on the Sideboard.  I had a blast out there.  Wizards and DCI staff are really starting to press all the right buttons for this game.  And people are having a blast, both on the road and at home.  Golden Age of Magic?  You people are living it.  Have a little fun with it.

COMING SOON:  More singing decks, some holiday deck ideas…and a new Break this Card contest!

Anthony Alongi