From Right Field: Battle Royale!

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Today’s “From Right Field” introduces the StarCityGames Battle Royale, in which Chris Romeo takes on Richard Feldman in a best-of-five Budget Standard Challenge! Richard’s article appears below… first, see what Chris has to offer. The Battle Royale takes place on Sunday 18th June… and you can witness each game, play-by-play! Want to know more? Then read on!

{From Right Field is a column for Magic players on a budget, or players who don’t want to play netdecks. The decks are designed to let the budget-conscious player be competitive in local, Saturday tournaments. They are not decks that will qualify a player for The Pro Tour. As such, the decks written about in this column are, almost by necessity, rogue decks. They contain, at most, eight to twelve rares. When they do contain rares, those cards will either be cheap rares or staples of which new players should be trying to collect a set of four, such as Wildfire, Llanowar Wastes, or Birds of Paradise. The decks are also tested by the author, who isn’t very good at playing Magic. He will never claim that a deck has an 85% winning percentage against the entire field. He will also let you know when the decks are just plain lousy. Readers should never consider these decks “set in stone” or “done.” If you think you can change some cards to make them better, well, you probably can, and the author encourages you to do so.}

Step One: The Approach

You don’t know what I’m about to tell you. A few weeks ago, I almost stopped writing. I know that many of you wouldn’t consider that much of a loss. I’m just mentioning it because it led directly to what this article is about.

You see, I was burned out. I’ve been writing pretty much nonstop for five years, give or take a month or two here or there, my wedding week, and the Tuesday after Regionals. Throw in the SCG Dailies, though, and I think I’m pretty much at about a piece a week.

This April and May, it got really hectic. In addition to coming up with decks and articles for StarCityGames.com, I was also helping four (and later, three) other people test their decks for Regionals. I was also working on my own, which did not get nearly enough help.

I wrote Craig an e-mail that said I was going to stop. I didn’t think I could keep doing this. Flores floors me. He does it twice as much as I do, and he rarely has a clinker. How the flip does he do that? I was plum out of ideas.

That’s when Craig asked me to give him a while. He had some ideas of his own. One that he came up with was this sort of SCG Writers Battle Royale on MTGO. He’d pit us against each other. We’d have to submit our decks beforehand, and write an article on them. They had to be Standard legal including Dissension. We’d set up a time to battle online, and anyone who cared to could watch.

I was intrigued, but I still wasn’t sure about involving myself in this. It didn’t really get my motor revving because I imagined myself the sacrificial lamb on the altar of U/R Wildfire, Heartbeat, Ghost Dad and/or Husk, and other way-too-expensive decks wielded by much better players. I was headed toward the door.

Then, Craig told me about one other rule. The cards for the decks had to be purchased for twenty-five tickets or less with commons and basic lands counting as free.

I stopped dead in my tracks. Eyebrow raised, I slowly turned around. Twenty-five tickets or less, you say? I’ll take that challenge.

“Great! You’re playing Richard Feldman in the first round.”

Are you kidding me? I don’t even get Rizzo? I gotta start with Feldman? What chance do I have? I’ll tell you what chance I have. None. The odds makers already had me at 10,000 to 1 to even win one game, and Craig and I were still the only ones who knew about it.

In other words, I was in Heaven. There’s nothing like the freedom of knowing that you’ve already lost. That’s exactly zero pressure. Who would expect Romeo to beat Feldman? No one. So, there are only two possible outcomes. First, I lose. Hey, guess what? I was supposed to lose. Second, I win. If I win, well, let’s not even head down that darkened alley. Jinxes live there, I hear.

Step Two: The Research

I figured the first thing I needed to do was find out what made Fonzie tick. I thought to myself that this would be kinda like the Deckmasters boxed set that came out a couple of years ago. Isaiah would play the part of that hottie Jon Finkel, while I’d be the geeky Dr. Richard Garfield. (Yes, I know his name’s not really Falco. You gotta read Mr. Feldman’s Regionals report if you haven’t already.)

I went back through Richard’s writings, hoping to figure out what kind of deck he prefers. I learned nothing. To be more precise, I learned that he doesn’t just like one type of deck, or play just one style well. This guy will play anything that’s good, and he’s probably gonna play it well. You know, this kid has Pro Tour points! (Read his Regionals piece.)

Step Three: The Strategy

I wouldn’t be able to simply design an anti-Feldman deck, because I wouldn’t have any idea what he was playing. Sure, I could rule out a few decks. Some, like U/R Wildfire, were under twenty-five tickets… if you didn’t use any of the rare lands. I didn’t see him trying to make a U/R Wildfire or Ghost Dad/Husk deck with only common and uncommon lands. Most of the established Control decks — no matter what flavor — were also going to cost too much in either rare lands or win conditions. Meloku, Keiga, Yosei, and Kokusho are still pretty expensive.

He might — might — be able to pull off a Heartbeat-type deck. A Gruul Beats-type deck might fall under twenty-five tickets if he eschewed most of the rare lands and Char. Oh, yeah, and Burning-Tree Shaman and Giant Solifuge. Forget I mentioned it. Owling Mine comes in pretty cheap, doesn’t it? Would Feldman play Owling Mine, knowing how it loses to beatdown? Maybe. Good players can pull that kind of thing off.

No, I wasn’t going to be able to figure out his deck. What I needed to do was throw him off of my trail.

If he read back through my stuff, he was sure to find a few statements like “To me, Magic is about combat.” He’d also know that I tend to favor weenie beats, especially White. Thus, the challenge for me became designing a cheap deck that wasn’t weenie beatdown, preferably without White.

In other words, if I couldn’t reliably make an anti-Feldman deck, I’d have to make an anti-Romeo deck.

Step Four: The Design Process, Part One — What Deck Will it Be?

My first thought was simply to tweak a deck that I’d already written about, the Leyline of Lightning deck called Ley Down and Die. It was already pretty cheap. The LoL’s were only a ticket each. Shard Phoenixes were also cheap, about two tickets each. Pyroclasm was the expensive uncommon, at one ticket each. Plus, people had given me some great ideas about changing the deck. For example, I could probably add a couple of creatures like Glitterfang and Viashino Sandstalker, who would be Wrath-proof while also triggering the Leyline.

That just didn’t feel right, though. I’d already written about the deck. Richard might think I’d play it. Besides, this was a chance to do something new, a chance to spring yet another new (or, at least, new-ish) deck on the reading public. It would also be a great excuse to go out and splurge on Dissension cards.

“Honey! I had to spend the cat food money on Magic cards!”

“You what?!”

“Outta my hands. The Big British Boss Man said I had to.”

“Oh, well, that’s okay then. Tell Craig I said ‘hi.’”

“Will do.”

I knew there had to be a catch with going first. I mean, other than drawing Feldman. Bleh. The catch was that Dissension was still brand new on MTGO. That means it was overpriced. Sorry, gang. I’m not paying one ticket each for crappy uncommons and two tickets for the good ones. I had to take another tack.

Step Five: The Design Process, Part Two — What Power Card(s) Shall I Buy?

I started going back through ideas that I’d had on which I had yet to follow through. Of those, I chucked the ones that were essentially beatdown, especially anything White Weenie. The twenty-land, forty-burn-spells idea seemed, well, too n00bish. I really wanted to try a mono-Blue control deck with maybe one copy of Meloku and some Mahamoti Djinns. I could counter and bounce things, steal stuff with Confiscate, draw cards, and lose. As I mentioned last week, I’m very bad at designing and playing mono-Blue control decks. I don’t know why. I just am.

Then, I saw an idea that I’d actually worked on a few months ago for a deck called None More Black. It was a mono-Black deck that won with Consume Spirit and/or Genju of the Fens. That deck would be too expensive, ticket-wise, because it required four Phyrexian Arenas and four Night of Souls’ Betrayal. It also was a tad short on win conditions. Just in case Richard found a way to get one Cranial Extraction into his deck (and get it back from his ‘yard), I wanted more ways to win.

I needed a new card. That was when I remembered the deck that our pal Tommy took to Regionals. It had Debtors’ Knell. Debtors’ Knell is Black and White, but, thanks to hybrid mana, you can cast it in either a mono-White or mono-Black deck. (I’ve also been working on a mono-White deck, but it needs Wrath of God, and that would put us way over on tickets.) I’ve been wanting to play with the Knell, and this would be a perfect excuse.

I had to decide first on a basic deck outline. A quick perusal on the Trading Post showed that Debtors’ Knells were going for anywhere from three to five tickets, with a couple of people asking six for theirs. (Whether they get it, I don’t know.) I wanted to get four of them in the deck, but I didn’t think that would be a good idea. First, it might cost too many tickets. Second, as a seven-mana spell, it wasn’t something I wanted to see in my opening hand. Three would be enough. I found two at three tickets and a third for four. One slot down, ten tickets shot, and fifteen tickets left.

Step Six: The Design Process, Part Three — Discard and Card Drawing

At this point, I knew that I’d be building the deck with Debtors’ Knell, if not per se around Debtors’ Knell. Black gives us plenty of cheap ways — both mana-wise and ticket-wise — to control the other side of the board. Those ways also help fill up the graveyard, an excellent synergy with the Debtors’ Knell.

First, though, I had to replace the Phyrexian Arenas. Immediately, I turned to Brain Pry. At a cost of between a half and entire ticket each, I wasn’t about to use those. So, I flipped through the online encyclopedia called Gatherer. There were several options, mostly in the artifact style. However, I came upon this little tidbit. Phyrexian Gargantua had been reprinted in Ninth Edition. It’s no Phyrexian Arena, but it does draw two cards for two life and leave a 4/4 body behind. Not bad, especially given our budgetary constraints.

I knew that needed to add more discard than before. The None More Black deck was allowing too many spells to slip through. Blackmail was definitely going to be in there (as long as the fact that it was an uncommon wasn’t going to make it too expensive). I also wanted something else. Distress was a nice second-turn play, but it still allowed them to choose their discard. Could Coercion make it? It would depend on the mana curve. I’d be willing to wait a turn if I could pick the card… as long as it didn’t hurt the deck’s flow. [Distress lets you choose their discard, chief. I suppose you can still snag a land with that Coercion… – Craig.]

Step Seven: The Design Process, Part Three — Offing the Other Guy’s Critters

Maybe I’m unreasonably stuck on Hideous Laughter, but it does such a great job of wiping out weenies. With enough mana and two of them, you get some pretty big hitters, too. Also, it’s not targeted. So, it can take down Paladin en-Vec. Not that I figured he’d be able to afford those. It took me two days to find someone selling two for ten tickets a few weeks ago. Still, if he had them, this would stop them.

Speaking of stopping untargetable creatures, Cruel Edict is a nice trick in that respect. I fantasized about using Hideous Laughter to wipe out a bunch of Green weenies, leaving only a Kodama of the North Tree for my opponent to sacrifice to Cruel Edict.

Consume Spirit was another card that had been in the None More Black deck. The only drawback with that card was that I often had to use it for creature kill rather than opponent kill. The lifegain was great either way, but I didn’t want to have to use it on creatures unless it was absolutely necessary. Again, I flipped through Gatherer and found another Black X spell: Swallowing Plague. More creature kill and more lifegain.

There were a couple of more decisions, but mostly all that was left was picking the numbers.

Step Eight: The Deck — Killing Richard Feldman

After several test games to hone the numbers, this is what I came up with. I call it Killing Richard Feldman.

At first, I had four Genju of the Fens and only three Gargantua. Turns out that the Genju isn’t that great at the beginning of the game. It just sits on board waiting for Kami of Ancient Law or Naturalize to show up. Meanwhile, I found that I really wanted the Gargantua as quickly as I could get it. He’s fairly beefy, and those extra cards are spectacular. I’d also had four Nekrataal, but he kept hitting the board with no one around. Seems fairly harmless, even good. If he’s not killing something when he comes into play, this means there aren’t any non-Black creatures on board. Sometimes that means the other side is clear. Other times it means they only have Black creatures over there. Since the discard had been doing such a bang-up job, I decided to split that slot between Nekrataal and Nightmare Void. I was not disappointed.

Most of the other spells suggested their own numbers based on what was left and what was needed. Four Cruel Edicts, Consume Spirits, and Hideous Laughters are a must. I’d already figured that only three Debtor’s Knells would fit the budget and mana curve. I was left with ten cards. I knew I wanted Swallowing Plague, Blackmail, and either Distress or Coercion, but how many of each? In the end, there seemed to be enough creature control to go with three Plagues. Coercion won out over Distress for the ability to pick which card I wanted them to drop. Even though Blackmail was the one-drop, it went down to three for the fourth Coercion. Blackmail really is best when the opponent doesn’t have many choices. Even when I had four in the deck, I often found myself holding it until they only had three cards in hand.

The sideboard wasn’t nearly as tough as I thought it would be, mostly because there are holes that just can’t be filled. I don’t even need to worry about Enchantments. Can’t deal with them. Can’t worry about them. (None More Black used Plague Boiler, but that was out of budget.) Equipment might be a problem. What if Richard goes with a weenie theory, one Umezawa’s Jitte, and maybe some way to grab it? That’s where the Manriki-Gusari came in.

The rest was just plugging holes. If he has extra Enchantment removal, I bring in another Genju and some more discard. Big weenie rush means Exile into Darkness, an undersung MVP for me all last Summer during KBC season. There was more discard if it was a control deck, and Nezumi Graverobber if he decided to go with some sort of Reanimation/graveyard-mucking deck.

Step Nine: The Budget

Of course, I can’t play the deck if the uncommons and rares cost over twenty-five tickets. So, how’d I do? Here are the trades I made or found:

2 Debtor’s Knells at 3 tickets each = 6 tickets
1 Debtor’s Knell at 4 tickets = 4 tickets
4 Cruel Edicts for 2 tickets = 2 tickets
4 Nekrataal for 2 tickets = 2 tickets
4 Swallowing Plagues and 4 Genju of the Fens for 1 ticket = 1 ticket
4 Blackmail, 4 Consume Spirit, and 2 Quicksand for 2 tickets = 2 tickets
4 Nightmare Void and 4 Phyrexian Gargantua for 1 ticket = 1 ticket
3 Manriki-Gusari and 3 Exile into Darkness for 3 tickets = 3 tickets
4 Hideous Laughter and 4 Nezumi Graverobber for 3 tickets = 3 tickets

That total is twenty-four tickets. Some of these seem to be really good deals. I was impressed to find a guy selling uncommons at five for one ticket. He had some that other people were selling for more than he was. (That’s where I got the Blackmails, Consume Spirits, and Quicksands, ten cards for two tickets.) Others may have been too high. I mean are three Manriki-Gusaris and three Exile into Darkness really worth three tickets? Since the Exiles should be about half a ticket for four of them, that’s like paying two and half tickets for the MGs. Still, given what I got for the rest of my tickets, I’m not going to complain.

(By the way, I was not going to fudge things by saying “Consume Spirit was a common in Mirrodin.” It was indeed a common in Mirrodin, but it’s uncommon in Ninth Edition. Truth be told, the cost for each is about the same anyway. I guess people are willing to pay more for out of print commons if they can play them in Standard decks.)

That’s the deck. It’s etched in stone. I won’t know what Hammurabi is playing until his article hits. I think. I’m not sure if Craig is holding them until the day after we actually play or what. Either way, I am bound to play this deck. Craig will announce on StarCityGames.com the evening that the Battle Royale will occur. Come find us. My handle is RightField. May the best man win. Or me.

Chris Romeo

[The best-of-five Battle Royale match takes place on Sunday 18th June at 9.30pm EST, in the “Anything Goes” room of the MTGO Casual Games area. Be there! — Craig.]