Crying Wolf

After playing Legacy at GP Atlanta and placing 16th with Maverick (and beating five Reanimator decks), Brian Kibler thinks that those who have been calling for Griselbrand to be banned are just crying wolf.

Man, I bet the people in charge of bannings at Wizards are really kicking themselves! They had the chance a few weeks ago to put an end to the unstoppable reign of broken decks in multiple formats, and they blew it! With nothing out of Delver banned in Standard and Griselbrand left to roam free in Legacy, everyone is sure to quit playing Magic because they just can’t win with anything else.

Wait, what was that? Neither of the last two SCG Standard Opens was won by Delver? There was only a single copy in the Top 8 of either of them? Well, Legacy then! Legacy is broken! #GriselBanned! No one can beat that, right? No? You mean to tell me Griselbrand not only didn’t win either the SCG Legacy Open last weekend or the Grand Prix in Atlanta, but failed to put a single copy into the Top 8 of the latter? What is going on?

Magic players are a smart bunch, by and large. That’s why I find it so strange that this happens all the time. A deck rises up, performs well for a while, and without fail players are soon crying for something in it to be banned. Since I started playing in tournaments again a few years ago, I’ve heard calls for the banning of Bitterblossom, Bloodbraid Elf, Snapcaster Mage, Vengevine, Brainstorm, Griselbrand, Primeval Titan, Ponder, Delver of Secrets, and more. Sure, sometimes there are cards that are legitimately oppressive and lead to truly degenerate decks. But those cards are few and far between.

Sometimes I feel like I’m looking for something very different from my experience playing Magic than my fellow tournament players. When I look at a field jam packed with a single deck, I don’t see oppression—I see opportunity. The element of Magic that was the biggest draw to me in the first place was the ability to improve my chances of winning through my own decisions. I love the puzzle solving element of metagaming and deck building—of figuring things out. To me, calling for a ban is tantamount to giving up. "Ban Griselbrand," sounds a lot like, "I can’t figure out a way to beat decks with Griselbrand."

How many of you out there played World of Warcraft? I’m willing to bet quite a few. In my time away from Magic, I found some of the same satisfaction I got competing in tournaments from raiding in WoW. I was raid leader of one of the most successful guilds in vanilla WoW called Lost Anarchy (though I refuse to take responsibility for the guild name!). We were in the Top 10-25 groups worldwide to clear many of the most challenging encounters in the game, including Ragnaros, Nefarian, C’Thun, and Kel’thuzad in original Naxx’ramas.

When we were on the cutting edge and trying to beat encounters with minimal outside information I was having a blast. I remember making John Madden-esque positioning charts for Ragnaros, Ouro, and C’Thun, spreadsheets of timed transitions for Four Horsemen, and trying to derive the mysterious mechanics behind Onyxia’s Deep Breath. Once Burning Crusade rolled around, raiding strategy websites became commonplace. The raid content was released virtually all at once, so unless you were in one of the truly hardcore guilds that raided constantly, you were all but guaranteed to fall behind. Once we had slipped from the forefront of progress, there were suddenly videos and guides available for every encounter by the time we got there. I slowly but surely lost interest, progressively playing less and less until I quit entirely shortly after Wrath of the Lich King released—not coincidentally around the time I started playing Magic again.

Why do I bring this up? Because what I enjoyed in World of Warcraft raiding was the puzzle solving element of it all. I liked breaking down an encounter into its component parts and figuring out a plan of how to deal with all of them. Implementing that plan was fun, too, but mostly insofar as it was an actualization of the problem solving. Simply executing from a guide just didn’t give me the same sense of satisfaction.  

I feel similarly about Magic. A huge amount of my enjoyment of Magic comes from the big picture problem solving that deckbuilding and metagaming represent. Powerful, dominant decks to me are akin to the really tough bosses that take weeks of strategizing to defeat. I don’t want to see them nerfed—I want to figure out how to beat them while they’re at their strongest and people think it can’t be done. For every truly broken boss like C’Thun, there are countless others that people just claim are impossible until someone puts out a video on how to beat them. For every truly broken deck like Caw-Blade, there are many more Delvers and Valakuts and Griselbrands that people just take a while to figure out how to beat.

So I’m asking you: stop being so hasty about calling for bans. Yes, sometimes there really are cards that are too good. But the constant complaining about whatever deck happens to be winning lately makes it extremely difficult to make out any kind of signal in all the noise. And frankly, it makes you look foolish. When you claim that it’s foolish to play any deck but Delver in Standard or insist that Griselbrand simply must be banned in Legacy, and then just a few short weeks later we see the results that we’re seeing now, you come off as the boy who cried wolf. Who can take you seriously?

At first that was just supposed to be the prelude to talking about my experiences at GP Atlanta, but it turned into quite a bit more than that. Oops. I suppose I have a tendency to rant about such things. The tendency to complain rather than work to solve problems is one of my pet peeves, and there’s a whole bunch of it in the Magic community—not just in deckbuilding.

Anyway, Atlanta. I’m hardly a Legacy expert and rarely play the format between major events, but I certainly wasn’t going to skip a Grand Prix because of that. I knew from all the ranting and raving about Griselbrand online that Reanimator was likely to be the deck of choice among the pros, so I wanted to make sure that I played something that had a good matchup against the Demon and friends. Fortunately, G/W ("Maverick," though I hate that name) is the deck that I have the most experience with in Legacy—and even own all the cards for—and it also happens to have access to quite a few tools to keep dead creatures where they belong.

I talked a bit with Drew Levin via Facebook leading up to the event, and he tried to convince me to try to brew some kind of G/W Land Tax deck with him, but he didn’t really have any good argument for why it was better than traditional creature based G/W. He then tried to advocate for a Loyal Retainer/Elesh Norn/Fauna Shaman G/W build, ostensibly to combat the potential rise in popularity of Goblins after the recent SCG Legacy Open results, but I didn’t think a plan that revolved around keeping a 1G 2/2 in play and alive for several turns seemed like what I wanted to rely on against a deck with Gempalm Incinerator and Pyrokinesis. In the end, I ended up playing a deck only a few cards off from the list that I played at the last SCG Invitational I attended in Baltimore (although this time I actually registered my deck correctly!)

I wanted my deck to be as solid as possible against Reanimator, so I maxed out on Thalias and played three Scavenging Ooze plus two Karakas in my maindeck. What I like about all of these is that they’re very flexible cards that are solid in quite a few matchups. I didn’t substantially weaken my deck in other matchups to include specific hate, but rather just played slightly higher numbers of cards that I’d be playing anyway.   

Thalia is quickly becoming one of my favorite cards in all of Magic, since it fits perfectly in the kind of decks that I want to play—honest attacking creature decks—while punishing people for playing the kind of decks so many of them like to play: spell-filled combo and control decks. Quite a few decks in Legacy in particular are absolutely crippled as long as she’s in play because of their low land counts and reliance on cantrips. At worst, she’s a reasonable body that can get in there and do some damage, which is particularly important against decks that use their life total as a resource, like Griselbrand Reanimator.

I played a maindeck Fauna Shaman even without the Loyal Retainers/Elesh Norn package since there’s some value to just drawing it and being able to upgrade any random creature you draw into a Knight, but also because there are a number of situations in which you want a white creature like Linvala that you can’t fetch with Green Sun’s Zenith. I played a single copy of Linvala in the maindeck and another in the sideboard, not only for the mirror match but also for Elves and, amusingly enough, against Reanimator. Being able to shut down Griselbrand’s draw seven ability can keep your opponent from being able to protect him with Force of Will, and it’s particularly amusing when you can put her into play from your opponent’s Show and Tell when they think they have you dead to rights.

I used every card in my sideboard over the course of the tournament and they all performed well, though that certainly doesn’t mean it couldn’t use some work. I probably want a Gaddock Teeg in the board; I cut it from the main initially and then entirely since I figured there really aren’t any decks it’s great against in Legacy except High Tide and Storm and you already have Thalia to fight against those. Of course, one of my losses over the course of the weekend was to High Tide, and I had a rather embarrassing game in which I couldn’t Green Sun for anything better than Knight of the Reliquary because he’d already countered my Fauna Shaman. Gaddock Teeg may well have won me that game since I already had an active Mother of Runes. Oh well. Live and learn.

Speaking of countering creatures, one card I didn’t play that I’ve seen in a number of lists is Cavern of Souls. I wasn’t super high on the idea of playing it over any of my actual mana producing or utility lands, since the mana in the deck is surprisingly tight for a two-color deck and a lot of the strength of the archetype is in its mana stability. That said, I could probably stand to cut the Gaea’s Cradle since it’s really only good when you’re already ahead to put you farther ahead, while Cavern can let you resolve a critical Thalia or Knight of the Reliquary through countermagic. I’m not sure which is better overall, but I’m leaning toward Cavern.

One thing that I am sure about is the graveyard hate I used. Well, not necessarily the specific cards, but the theory behind it. Drew and a number of other players I spoke to advocated for Purify the Grave rather than Tormod’s Crypt, which really didn’t make any sense to me. Purify is clearly a better card in drawn out games because you get multiple uses out of it, but with Scavenging Ooze, Karakas, Crop Rotation, Bojuka Bog, and Knight of the Reliquary in the deck, I feel like G/W has more than enough ways to win a prolonged fight. What you need are ways to combat opposing nut draws since you don’t have anything like Force of Will to keep your opponent from just dropping a fatty on turn 2. Even something like Surgical Extraction can be a problem in that scenario because you can’t cast it if you tap out for Thalia. Any reactive spell, be it Purify or Extraction or whatever, suffers from that same problem—your own Thalia can keep you from casting it.

Amusingly enough, when I played Drew in the tournament, I had Tormod’s Crypt in my opening hand in a game where he had Entomb plus Reanimate with Daze backup, which would have beaten Purify or Crop Rotation but lost to Crypt. Zing! It’s possible Crypt would be better as Faerie Macabre since the Faerie’s ability can’t even be countered by Force of Will, but Crypt’s ability to clear out a graveyard against a deck like Dredge or even Lands seems like it could come in handy. Like I said—not sure about the specifics, but certainly about the theory.

In the actual event, I went 12-3 (including three byes), with my losses coming at the hands of U/B Merfolk, the aforementioned High Tide deck, and Elves. I made a pretty terrible mistake against the Elves opponent because of my lack of practice with the deck; I simply forgot about the ability to Fauna Shaman for Dryad Arbor in a game where I sat stalled on lands, whereas if I had used it immediately to fetch Arbor and then Pathed my Shaman, I would have been able to play a turn 4 Linvala with Jitte in hand, which seems pretty tough for him to beat. The U/B Merfolk opponent actually beat me in game 1 on a mulligan to four(!) when I stalled on two land forever and never drew a way to deal with his Coralhelm Commander, which just leveled up to maximum and killed me.

A full five of my wins came against Reanimator. In one particularly satisfying game—game 3 of my match playing for Day 2, in fact—my opponent Reanimated Griselbrand on turn 2, hit me with it twice, drew fourteen cards, and I won!  

Sounds crazy, right? Here’s what happened:

Opp:  Fetch (19), Careful Study (brick on creatures), go.

Me:  Land, Hierarch.

Opp:  Fetch (18), Careful Study, discard Griselbrand, Reanimate (10).

Me:  Land, Plow Griselbrand.

Opp:  Draw 7 (3), Force of Will Plow (2).

Me:  Thalia.

Opp:  Attack (9), fetchland, go.

At this point my opponent couldn’t draw with Griselbrand again because Thalia would kill him!

Me:  Attack (6), land, Knight.

Opponent:  Attack (13), draw 7 (6) trying to find a way to deal with Knight. I knew he had Pithing Needle from the previous game, but interestingly, if he had found Needle, he would have had to crack a fetch to cast it and would have died to the Horizon Canopy in my hand, allowing my Knight and Thalia to attack for exactly lethal!

Me:  Attack with Thalia (3), fetch Karakas, bounce Griselbrand.

Opp:  Concede.

Just some honest creatures doing an honest day’s work, and yet they can take down the big bad Griselbrand!


I don’t think so.

Until next time,