Embracing the Chaos – EDH Theory: Chasing the Planes

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Thursday, September 17th – I’m back in the saddle at StarCityGames.com, and I couldn’t be happier about it, although you’ll find this column quite different from “Ask the Judge.” When Pete approached me about doing a mostly-about-EDH-but-sometimes-about-my-other-exploits column, I knew the format had arrived…

Five years later, here we are again.

I’m back in the saddle at StarCityGames.com, and I couldn’t be happier about it, although you’ll find this column quite different from “Ask the Judge.” When Pete approached me about doing a mostly-about-EDH-but-sometimes-about-my-other-exploits column, I knew the format had arrived (well, I knew when I found out it was going into a Comp Rules update; actually, I knew when the registered user count at the official official forums hit 1,000; on the other hand, maybe I knew when… this could go on for a while). I’m also pleased about the SCG commitment to being one of the top EDH sites around. I want to thank Pete and Craig for the opportunity to help toward that end.

I’d like to get the ball rolling with some EDH theory, involving Planechase. Although the Rules Committee wait until the December update to release an official statement on EDH + Planechase, our official method of playing will likely be to have all 41 (or however many PC cards there eventually are) cards in a single, random pile in the middle of the table. Our new slogan (suggested by fellow Level 5 Judge and EDH Rules Committee member Toby Elliott) will be EDH Planechase: Embrace the Chaos, and it seemed a fitting name for this column (SCG’s own Nicholas Sabin suggested “Leave the Gun, Take the Cannolis,” but I was worried we’re run into legal trouble with Paramount films). We’ve already played a bit of it that way locally, and our next EDH Armada Games EDH League will feature Planechase in this fashion. Michael Fortino, one of the owners of Armada, has even worked out a way to keep the cards rotating from table-to-table for multiple pods. Simply, each table is numbered. When there are three discarded PC cards in the pile, they’re randomly shuffled into the PC deck of the next table (the last table going back around to table 1).

After having played several (hilarious) times with Planechase (17 Blood Tyrants and five Kulrath Knights on the battlefield, for example), I can say with some certainty that you have to approach the game a bit differently than normal EDH. When we build decks in Magic, even in variant formats, we operate on a basic assumption that the environment of a game will be static. That goes out the window with Planechase, since the game itself is constantly changing the environment. This brings a kind of dynamism to the game that you can’t completely prepare for. Normal Magic is neutral to all things—lands, creatures, sorceries, whatever. Throwing Planechase into the mix, we have a different story. There will be times when the environment is actively hostile to creatures or friendly to sorceries, and you can’t predict with any certainty when they’ll be or how long they’ll last.

Survival in the shifting landscape will require three things from you, which I’ve termed ” Lighten Up, Tighten Up, and Loosen Up.”

First of all, Lighten Up. In other words, embrace the chaos. Many people will say the point of a Magic game is to win. Actually, the point is to have fun, although one of the ways most folks have fun is winning. I’m sure there’s a whole philosophy discussion on just that topic, but I want to stay on topic. The main point here is that you should simply enjoy the ride.

The most common and efficient method of winning in Magic is control of one kind or another, whether it’s to control the tempo of the game (like with aggro decks) or deny the opponent the opportunity to play his game (both counterspells and resource denial). Players build their decks to achieve one of these kinds of ends, and they always know what they’re going in against. For example, you know that, unless additional cards allow players to do it, they can only play one land per turn, or creatures don’t just appear out of nowhere. In Planechase, that kind of control is impossible, since the foundations of the game are ever-shifting. You might have a fine lifegain and creature control strategy, but you can suddenly find all your clever work undone by someone walking to Stronghold Furnace for a while.

Lighten Up also means to some extent abandoning the idea of the kind of complete environmental control that players tend to want. It means just going with the flow and enjoying the craziness of the game instead of hanging on winning or losing every game. If your goal is to have a front row seat to some of the most insane things to ever happen in a game of Magic (I mean, who doesn’t love Landfall for goats?), then you’ll always be happy when you play Planechase.

Tighten Up means giving yourself more opportunity to do things no matter what plane you’re on. This means dropping your mana curve to some extent. EDH is the $1 rare format, where 8-10 mana spells are common. In normal EDH, you generally have time and opportunity to cast your Storm Herd or Autochthon Wurm. In Planechase, although it might be occasionally easier to do so, you can’t count on it, whether it’s due to needing to deal with a herd of suddenly 10/11 tramply goats, or not getting an Untap Step. Keeping your mana curve tighter, both in lowering your mana cost and color requirements, will enable you to do more stuff more often, regardless of what the world currently looks like. What you really want is to be an active participant in the game, not just a spectator. Win or lose, playing is what matters most.

Additionally, you want to lower your mana cost (or I suppose increase your ability to create mana) because there are times when you’re going to want to pay to roll the Planar die. There are planes that are hostile to your strategy, and you’ll want to get off of them. Likewise, there are chaos rolls that are really, really good for you, so you’re going to want to pick up that die.

This plays right into Loosening Up. The most effective and efficient cards in the history of Magic have been the ones that can do the most different things (Cryptic Command, anyone?). You might think Counterspell, for example, does only one thing – counters spells. That’s not quite true: it stops creatures, it stops sorceries, it stops enchantments… you get the point. Obviously, it has the downside of being a preventative measure and can’t stop something once it’s hit the battlefield, but that’s one of the things you sacrifice for the ability to affect many types of cards.

Loosening Up means choosing cards that can extend your flexibility. Mind Stone, for example, is more flexible than Fellwar Stone, since you can draw a card once you don’t really need mana. Cantrips, or anything that replaces itself when it goes away (no one needs to tell you how awesome Solemn Simulacrum is) are at a premium. When you’re not sure what you’re going to be facing environmentally, Modal Spells, like Naya Charm or Austere Command become well more valuable. Cards that do something to any permanent (such as Vindicate or Confiscate) will also pay greater rewards, since you have more choices (ask me some time about how I got my 8-counter Elspeth stolen with Word of Seizing). You generally have to pay a little more for more having choices on a card, but they end up being worth it.

Loosening Up also means making your strategy and win conditions a little more flexible. If the way you win is get Rith, pile up some tokens, and Overrun everyone, you might be happy with being in Krosa or Sokenzan, but have some trouble with The Hippodrome. The addition of something simple like Goblin Bombardment would help you do something with all those creatures if they can’t do what you had intended for them to do.

I have a really loose Lord of Tresserhorn deck (those of you who are old enough to drink might remember it from an AtJ article a million years ago) that I’d like to prep for playing with Planechase. Even in normal play, it’s a little uneven, mostly including just cards I want to play with instead of a coherent strategy – which is, after all, a fine way to build an EDH deck. I mean, who doesn’t love Infernal Genesis? Let’s see if we can make it a little more focused. Here’s the list:

Avatar of Fury
Blood Tyrant
Bloodfire Colossus
Bone Shredder
Bottle Gnomes
Deep Sea Kraken
Dimir Cutpurse
Doomed Necromancer
Endrek Sahr, Master Breeder
Greater Gargadon
Heartless Hidetsugu
Hell’s Caretaker
Hunted Horror
Ink-Eyes, Servant of Oni
Kumano, Master Yamabushi
Magus of the Moon
Mindleech Mass
Mindless Automaton
Nezumi Graverobber
Nightscape Familiar
Niv-Mizzet, the Firemind
Phyrexian Plaguelord
Phyrexian Rager
Prince of Thralls
Razermane Masticore
Rukh Egg
Scion of Darkness
Sedraxis Specter
Silver Myr
Solemn Simulacrum
Throat Slitter
Vampire Aristocrat
Withered Wretch

Lotus Bloom
Mind Stone
Minion Reflector
Nevinyrral’s Disk
Obelisk of Grixis
Sol Ring

Infernal Genesis
Leyline of the Void

Animate Dead
Beacon of Unrest
Demonic Tutor
Diabolic Tutor
Fact or Fiction
Grab the Reins
Living Death
Read the Runes
Relentless Assault
Time Warp
Vampiric Tutor
Wild Ricochet

City of Brass
Crosis’s Catacombs
Dakmor Salvage
Darksteel Citadel
6 Island
Izzet Boilerworks
Maze of Ith
Molten Slagheap
7 Mountain
Reliquary Tower
Shizo, Death’s Storehouse
Steam Vents
Sulfur Vent
Sulfurous Springs
7 Swamp
Temple of the False God
Terminal Moraine
Tresserhorn Sinks
Volrath’s Stronghold
Watery Grave

A note about how cards sometimes come into my EDH decks: I crack a pack and there’s a foil and I think “Huh, that’d be fun to play.” It’s led to some weird choices over the years. As I go through the list, I see that my original strategy was to get guys in graveyards in small numbers (unlike ramping up for the hellish Living Death, like the alternate win condition in my Kresh deck) and using them, regardless of whether they’re mine or yours. I see there are a few cards that probably belong in a Thraximundar deck, not here. I also want to be able to cast and swing with my General and not suffer too badly from sacrificing the two creatures.

This deck is an example of one of my basic EDH strategies: Don’t come on too strong. My message to the rest of the table is “Yeah, I have a few things going on, but you need to pay more attention to the guy that’s ramping up faster than I am.”

There are a few cards that I see right away don’t fit thematically. Kumano and Leyline of the Void both run contrary to the strategy of using other players’ dead creatures. Withered Wretch might seem like it violates the strategy as well, but since it’s targeted, I can rely on it to remove just the stuff that might hurt. Heartless Hidetsugu, Razormane Masticore, and Hunted Horror all fall into the “Look! A cool foil!”category, as does Sedraxis Specter. I think hard about him, because he can put creatures in graveyards – but surely players will see what’s going on and discard something else instead. His requirement of three different colors of mana make me think he violates the Tighten Up principle, so he goes on the pile. Malfegor has one of those abilities that initially looks like you’re going to like it, but in practice, you never end up wanting to use. Relentless Assault if fine and all, but Buried Alive seems to fit the theme better. That’s eight cards that have to go, with one already in mind.

There are a few big expensive things that I’m going to keep: Mindleech Mass, Bloodfire Colossus, Blood Tyrant (although I seriously consider Garza Zol instead), and Prince of Thralls. Deep Sea Kraken and Greater Gargadon don’t count as expensive, since I normally only Suspend them.

Looking at the weaknesses, I see that I have no way to give my General Haste. Anger is the obvious choice here, and I know most of my local guys only play mass graveyard removal, like Tormod’s Crypt and Relic of Progenitus, so I think I might be okay. I think of other ways of making my guys Hasty, like Akroma’s Memorial, which is pretty heavy but great once it comes down (assuming it stays) or Fervor, which I don’t like because its cost. Mass Hysteria is cheaper, but I certainly don’t want to give everyone haste. That leaves Lightning Greaves which is kind of obvious. Sometimes I don’t like putting in cards that EVERYONE puts in, but in this case, Greaves is worthwhile.

Another weakness is that there isn’t much card draw. Cards like Oversold Cemetery and Dawn of the Dead count as draw as far as I’m concerned. The latter’s triple Black mana cost gives me a little pause, but the former is right up my alley. Otherwise, I’d like some card draw in creature form. I consider variations on Merfolk Looter, but even though I’d like guys in my yard, I also like net gain on cards. The other players will put creatures in the bin for me anyway, so I want to find stuff that increases the cards in my hand. Slithermuse seems like it will let the other players do the work of paying to draw cards and then give me the benefit, and his ability triggers on leaving the battlefield, so he works with the Ninjas. Mulldrifter is obvious since he’s a great regrowth target. Once he’s done his business, he can get sacrificed to Hell’s Caretaker to bring back something else. Shadowmage Infiltrator has been done to death, so I’d rather do something a little more interesting. I think I’ll go with Phyrexian Vault. It can sacrifice the tokens from Infernal Genesis or Endrek Sahr (and Goats from Goldmeadow!), not to mention the tokens from Minion Reflection. It’s better than the officially-spoiled Carnage Altar, since it only costs 2 to activate. Speaking of officially-spoiled cards, I’d like to find some room for Mindbreak Trap – but we’ll talk about that after the release.

The last card that I’ll put in is Victimize. I’ve loved it since I first saw it way back when. So what if they come in tapped? Again, use for tokens to exchange for fat.

In summary:

Out: Heartless Hidetsugu, Hunted Horror, Kumano, Leyline of the Void, Malfegor, Razormane Masticore, Relentless Assault, and Sedraxis Specter. Total mana cost 30. Colored mana symbols 15.

In: Anger, Buried Alive, Lightning Greaves, Mulldrifter, Oversold Cemetery, Phyrexian Vault, Slithermuse, Victimize. Total mana cost 23 (23% improvement). Colored mana symbols 6 (60% improvement).

I’ve tightened up and loosened up, so I think I’m ready. If there are different changes you think I should have made or cards I’ve missed, especially those that are outside-the-box choices, let me know in the forums.

I’ll make sure to play the deck this weekend. Armada Games is hosting a $3k tournament here in Tampa, and they’re bringing in R&D’s Aaron Forsythe as the special guest to do some gunslinging and general whatever-guests-at-events-do stuff (such as bring not-yet-officially-spoiled cards!). DCI Tournament Manager Scott Larabee is also showing up to scorekeep and spend some well-earned vacation time. There’s a rumor that former VP of Organized Play Chris Galvin will also be making an appearance during his car trip around the country (you can follow his exploits on his blog). All of them are staying here at the house, so we’ll definitely have some poolside EDH when we can squeeze it in.

Until next week, Embrace the Chaos!