Chatter of the Squirrel – Shards Limited Redux

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Tuesday, October 14th – It turns out that Shards Sealed Deck is one of the more complex formats in recent memory, doubly so when, as I mentioned last week, you don’t open an abundance of mana-fixing. What I’m increasingly beginning to realize about this format is that the density of your mana-fixing is far less important than the timing in which you intend to cast your spells.

I was extremely happy with the positive feedback my article on Shards Limited generated last week. It seems like this topic is rather in-demand, so I hope no one will mind too much if I cover it in greater detail.

Last week I played in a GPT held at CCE Games here in KL – well, at least close to KL. At first I didn’t know if I was going to play, since I was already ratings-q’ed for three byes at Taipei, and anything other than a win would probably take me below the ratings threshold anyhow. But I realized there were several PTQs in the works before the GP, and anything other than wins there would likely drop my rating as well, and so I might as well try and secure my byes right away. Plus, there was the prospect of a free draft in the Top 8, and who am I to refuse a free draft?

It turns out that Shards Sealed Deck is one of the more complex formats in recent memory – doubly so when, as I mentioned last week, you don’t open an abundance of mana-fixing – and I’m glad I had this opportunity to practice. What I’m increasingly beginning to realize about this format is that the density of your mana-fixing is far less important than the timing in which you intend to cast your spells. The more aggressive you plan on being, the less flexible you can be with your splashes, and the more dramatic of an impact an inferior manabase will have on your performance. The difference between a Rip-Clan Crasher or even a Cylian Elf on turn 2 and that same card on turn 3, because you had to crack a sac-land or were holding a basic from your splash color in your hand, is frequently the difference between a win and a loss. If, on the other hand, your Fire-Fiend Ogre comes on a turn late, it doesn’t really matter all that much.

I also learned an important lesson about Magic generally this weekend, which is that even if you open a Sealed pool or are extremely lacking confidence in your deck choice or severely erred in your estimation of the metagame, it pays to continually try and re-evaluate your choices or to salvage any advantages you can. I didn’t feel like I had made the best deck possible with my pool after round 1, and though it took me until round 3 to come to the ideal configuration (and sideboard in the proper cards every game) I nevertheless reaped the benefits. When you show up at a given tournament, all that actually matters is your performance in that tournament, and you owe it to yourself to maximize that advantage whenever possible. It doesn’t matter how the quality of your Sealed pool is related to the other ones you have opened, whether (as in this case) your environment isn’t ideal*, whether you feel like you have built your deck already and want to get something to eat during rounds, or anything else. It is never too late to correct your mistakes.

Typically, I hate the whole “post my card pool and see how you’d build it” process, because the visual interface of a computer screen pales in comparison to having the cards in your hands. Nevertheless, this is one of the more difficult pools I’ve been faced with in my years of playing Sealed Deck, and I think we could learn a valuable lesson from examining the thought process I used to build it.

The cards:

(Obligatory comment about white space for thinking, followed by aforementioned space)

The first thing you’ll notice, of course, is the relative dearth of mana fixing, made all the more awkward by the fact that, despite the fact that all the cards fix Green, Green is my worst color. This is not to say that I don’t have good Green cards; in fact, my Green cards are overall the highest quality. There are just not that many of them. A quick scan of cards I really want to play includes:

Stoic Angel**
Woolly Thoctar
Rakeclaw Gargantuan
Naya Charm
Jhessian Infiltrator
Empyrial Archangel
Agony Warp
Branching Bolt
Bloodpyre Elemental
Hissing Iguanar (this guy, wow…)
Bone Splinters (sorry, you just have to kill those bombs)
Esper Battlemage
Kederekt Leviathan
Akrasan Squire
Resounding Silence (incidentally, some of the best art I’ve seen in awhile)
Knight of the White Orchid
Sanctum Gargoyle

Many of those cards are in fact Green, but the Green doesn’t really get much deeper than that. The problem with this pool, honestly, was that you could build about four different very solid thirty-five-card decks. I knew you wanted White to be one of your main colors. The trouble with the good White gold cards is that both the GWU and the GWR cards were very poorly supported below the top tier. Believe me, I wanted to play that Charm and that Branching Bolt, but the resulting builds were asking for much more than the manabase could provide. As for Black, I really liked it but felt that 1) it was lacking fixing, as B/R/G didn’t really do all that much for me and 2) suffered from the problem of achieving depth at the expense of power.

In the end, I reasoned that if I was going to have to play mediocre cards any way I looked at it, and I lacked the fixing to do anything terribly fancy, I’d run a WU core splashing G for some power and some bombs, focusing on being very aggressive. This would allow me to capitalize on some very good aggro-specific cards** (Deft Duelist, Hindering Light, Sigil Blessing, Resounding Roar) while taking advantage of other people’s edgy manabases. Furthermore, I’ve found that if you’re going to have to run marginal cards anyway, you hedge value out of their being aggressive, because you open up the chance to capitalize on a hiccup. If you’re playing five-color “good stuff,” but the “goodness” of your stuff consists of cards like “Dreg Reaver” – essentially the epitome of “fine stuff” – you’re essentially entering into a straightforward slugfest where you’re wearing gloves but the other guy is not.

This led me to the following initial list, which I was not confident with even at the time but which, ultimately, was fine, if very unexciting:

2 Forest
6 Island
8 Plains
1 Seaside Citadel
1 Obelisk of Naya
1 Angelsong
1 Bant Battlemage
1 Knight of the White Orchid
1 Resounding Silence
2 Sanctum Gargoyle
1 Sighted-Caste Sorcerer
1 Coma Veil
1 Esper Battlemage
1 Jhessian Lookout
2 Outrider of Jhess
1 Resounding Roar
1 Deft Duelist
1 Empyrial Archangel
1 Hindering Light
2 Jhessian Infiltrator
1 Sigil Blessing
1 Stoic Angel

First, right off the bat, I made some errors in the build even if this was to be my chosen configuration. The Obelisk of Naya was in fact necessary, but it should definitely have been an Obelisk of Jund. The reason is that White, per the manabase, is my most prominent color; I have nine White mana sources, and because all my White needs to come out early I am not going to be keeping hands where the Naya Obelisk is my only White source. Meanwhile, a Black mana would give me the opportunity to turn on the first ability of my Esper Battlemage, moving that card up in the hierarchy from “okay card that gets returned by Gargoyle that possesses an ability that’s good against evasive creatures sometimes” to “must-deal-with board-dominating threat.” Second, although I have played with Leviathan in the past, I neglected to include him here because I was worried about playing too many eight-mana spells. The problem with that reasoning is that Leviathan is actually really good, particularly when my creatures are cheap enough that I can basically dump my entire board back on the table next turn. I was already playing Angel, and I had eighteen mana sources, so I should have cut one of the Outriders of Jhess for this card and just tried to get there. Still, as we’ll see later, this pool had plenty better uses for the Leviathan.

It’s important to talk about what this deck did well, though. The multitude of Exalted creatures combined well with the two Jhessian Infiltrators, who by no means had to come out early to be good. The curve was as good as you could ask for out of a Sealed deck, even though making that happen required me to play cards like Jhessian Lookout, and there was a huge gap between four and eight. Still, all things considered, I couldn’t complain. What the configuration lacked in removal it made up for in pump and tricks, and the pair of Angels were competitive with the other bombs I’d be sure to face.

Of course, there were problems. Overall, other decks tended to have a much higher average casting cost than mine, which frequently correlated with overall higher average card quality. This meant that I was under pressure to end the game as quickly as possible, which conflicted greatly with my tenuous manabase. I mentioned that splashing Giant Growths isn’t optimal; in fact, the issue is not whether you are splashing Giant Growths but more whether you can cast those Growths in the mid game when you need to either kill fatties or push through damage. Four Green sources was enough to do that sometimes, but not always. The problem with adding a fifth Green source was that I had so many early drops in other colors that needed to get their damage in quickly, and I couldn’t afford to hiccup. Adding the Jund Obelisk in addition to the Naya one is certainly interesting, especially if this deck put the Leviathan back in, but that’s an aggro deck with nineteen mana sources and it’s begging to stall. But the mana deficiencies meant that the same weaknesses I was intending to exploit by being aggressive I was also vulnerable to myself – and meant that another added kickback of a workable aggressive deck, being as comfortable on the play as on the draw – was somewhat mitigated.

Anyway, I learned a couple of things in the rounds themselves that would prove valuable later on. The first is that Marble Chalice is actually very good in aggressive mirrors, and to an even greater extent from the point of view of a control deck against a non-fatty-intensive aggressive one. It’s actually much better than Onyx Goblet, for whatever that is worth in a vacuum, for a variety of reasons. First, the very fact that you’re playing an artifact that generates gradual advantage at the cost of not immediately affecting the board suggests that you’re playing for the long game. Onyx Goblet doesn’t work toward this goal, while Marble Chalice does. Second, it doesn’t demand additional board presence to contribute to its goal, while Goblet in fact does. When all you’re doing is racing, Marble Chalice helps immensely because it in effect shrinks your opponent’s biggest guy (the one who would likely go through unblocked) by one, which turns Armadons into Grey Ogres and, crucially, gives you the advantage out of every trade (because the more a board position tends toward neutral, the greater the extent of your incremental advantage). This all dissolves when the aggressive creatures involved are huge monsters – the difference between Grizzly Bears and Mons’ Goblin Raiders is huge, whereas the difference between Crabapple Cohort and Durkwood Boars doesn’t matter that much – but is something to keep in mind in weenie deck fights.

The second is that Necrogenesis is good in Sealed, but that is more self-explanatory.

Anyway, I lost the first round to the literal mirror match, except his cards were better. It was one of those games where I was inhibited by being the “better” player, because I failed to take seriously and value accordingly his “loose” maindeck Marble Chalices (to be clear, they are in fact loose in the maindeck, despite what I said above, but that doesn’t mean they are blanks, and to behave as such really cost me) and things of that nature, and as a result of not altering my actions I am pretty sure I got to the point where I was too vulnerable to a Leviathan by the time it came out. The second game he got on the back of an early unanswered War-Monk. I was unjustly frustrated at this point because I lost the first round to a middling player – in reality, this shouldn’t at all matter, as you have to take things round-by-round and you shouldn’t get preoccupied by who is “supposed” to be better, only who wins from round to round – but I ended up getting myself together and rallying to take the next four. I credit this wholly to 1) my ability to eat lunch and 2) realizing tangibly that something seemed off-kilter, and that my deck had more potential than I had taken advantage of. Two rounds’ worth of brooding led to me the following revelation:

What if I just played all my manafixing as a thought experiment, and see what I could make work from there?

Note that this is the exact advice I gave in last week’s column, more or less. It’s easier to listen, it seems, when you’re not the one doing the talking.

I arrived at the following (much better) list, and when someone reminded me that all of my manafixing incidentally fixed Green, I knew I had figured it out.

The sideboard configuration was as follows, substituting a Fleshbag Marauder for a Blister Beetle or a Corpse Connoisseur for the extra Fleshbag Marauder depending upon the results of scouting:

1 Jund Panorama
1 Seaside Citadel
3 Island
1 Mountain
5 Swamp
6 Plains
1 Obelisk of Jund
1 Obelisk of Naya
1 Akrasan Squire
1 Knight of the White Orchid
1 Resounding Silence
2 Sanctum Gargoyle
1 Sighted-caste Sorcerer
1 Coma Veil
1 Esper Battlemage
1 Kederekt Leviathan
1 Bone Splinters
2 Corpse Connoisseur
1 Dregscape Zombie
1 Fleshbag Marauder
1 Viscera Dragger
1 Bloodpyre Elemental
1 Hissing Iguanar
1 Agony Warp
1 Blightning
1 Empyrial Archangel
1 Tidehollow Sculler

I determined that all the R/G splashes were too difficult on the mana, given that I knew I couldn’t afford an actual Forest for the Jund Panorama, and there were cards like Knight of the White Orchid, the Exalted spells, and Tidehollow Sculler that needed to come down earlier. I cut the second Squire for similar mana reasons, because the Shroud ability on Sighted-Caste Sorcerer is actually relevant. This build provided the very powerful combo of Connoisseur and Leviathan, while Unearth in general offered something to do with the extra mana. I suddenly had access to many more removal spells, as well as plenty of Iguanar synergies for virtually no cost. Meanwhile, I was still playing my biggest bomb and still easily able to cycle the Resounding Silence. I also didn’t need to have my early-game mana work out perfectly due to being incredibly dependent upon a beatdown plan.

I ended up losing out in the final round before the Top 8. I thought I had it locked in at 4-1, needing an ID, but I was paired against Amazingly Good Man And Social Glue Rajesh Ganesan. Raj wasn’t hitting up the GP, so I asked for a concession, but he pointed out very fairly that he actually really wanted the free draft, and given that I was there for basically the same reason I could hardly argue. We ended up playing one of the best matches of Magic I’ve played in awhile, with tons of back-and-forths and very little manascrew or manaflood, and it seemed to me like he had really stepped up his game. In the end, Raj sculpted a turn where he could kill me in one shot with a hasty Hellkite Overlord that I would have no opportunity to Coma Veil, and though he gave me an extra turn to draw a Resounding Silence at the very end, it was incredibly impressive to me how he immediately realized after drawing the Hellkite what the relevant variables would be, made sure not to deploy a Swamp to attempt to lure me into a false sense of security about his ability to play the Dragon – something which I sort of Jedi-mind-tricked my way into figuring out, but had to expend effort on regardless – and in general just played one of those games that makes you realize the depth of Magic’s nigh-limitless potential. I was proud – probably unjustifiably, given my comparatively small role in the ten-year-plus Magical histories of most of the guys I play with here – even though I had lost.

Good luck in your PTQs, and I hope this article helps at least someone win an envelope!


* Apparently it’s not the practice here to alphabetize cards after the registration period, nor are players allotted time to verify the contents of the deck, meaning I was struggling to build my pool without getting a needless game loss because of someone else’s mistake. Also, chatter abounded during the construction period, which in my experience is vehemently forbidden, and I was incredibly distracted the whole time. What I should have been doing instead was focusing on how I could make the best of the situation, not dwelling on the differences.

** Though I have had this card in all my Sealed pools and it is never exciting, always locking me down more than my opponents and just dying to something. I realize intellectually that is has to be better than that but I don’t think this card has ever won me a game.

*** I understand that Growths in particular can be fine in all archetypes, but as discussed last week you really gain more value (and tempo) out of letting your two-drops cheaply eliminate their four- and five-drops while putting more pressure on them than you do allowing your five-drop to survive combat with theirs.