From Right Field: Flying Slugs and Speedy Robots

Since I’ve been back, I’ve had ton of e-mails from cheap scrubs (like me!) asking how I would build a certain deck if I didn’t use any rares or only used a couple of rares. Well, I can answer that quite easily. These people know that I’m bad. Yet, they still want my advice. What can I do except give it to them? Last week’s deck, the cheap Goblin thing, was the first one that I tackled in that fashion. It seems that a lot of players feel the way I do.”Love Goblins. Hate that some of them cost twelve bucks now.” Interestingly, one of the more frequent requests involves Affinity. I find that interesting, because the typical Affinity deck runs many fewer rares than a lot of other high-profile decks…


“On Last Week’s Episode . . .”

Before we get into the heart of this week’s piece (most of which was written about three weeks ago), I guess I have to address the bulk of the negative comments generated by last week’s piece on cheating.

To be fair, there were many more positives than negatives. A lot of people wrote to thank me for bringing up the specter of cheating at the lowest levels of tournament Magic. Some people commented that it gave them the courage to say something in the future. Some comments were even from judges who said that, given the evidence as it was presented, they would have given the guy a game loss at a minimum. Focusing on those, though, is a little too self-serving. I want to address the most prevalent negative comments.

“I’m Just a Lucky So and So”

Most of the negative comments, though, ran along these lines:”You’re such a whiner. He was just lucky. Some people are luckier than others.” No argument on the first point. I’m a whiner. Of course, that doesn’t change anything.

As for some people being”luckier than others,” that is utter bull shipments. I’m an electrical engineer by training and Catholic by upbringing. I don’t believe in”luck.” I believe in the Laws of Averages and Randomness, not”luck.”

Weren’t you raised in the twentieth century, too? This is not a world of fairies and pixies and ogres and elves. This isn’t Middle Earth.”Luck” doesn’t exist. Blaming failures on”bad luck” is a lazy person’s way of not taking responsibility for his or her actions or lack thereof. Saying someone’s success is due to”good luck” downplays how hard someone has worked or fails to acknowledge the situation in which the person found themselves in the first place.

The architect of the Dodgers’ successes of the 1940’s and ’50’s and the man who brought Jackie Robinson to the majors and created the minor league farm system, Branch Rickey was once asked how he got so lucky in finding his talent. Essentially, Rickey said,”There’s no such thing as luck. So-called ‘luck’ is the residue of hard work and design.” Rickey wasn’t”lucky” to find Jackie Robinson, Duke Snider, and Pee Wee Reese. He and his scouts worked hard to find them.

Regarding Magic: The Gathering, is it good luck when the Blue-White Control player has an answer in her hand for a horde of Elves? No. If the deck has four copies each of Wrath of God, Akroma’s Vengeance, and Decree of Justice, that’s not”good luck.” That’s what the deck is designed to do. It draws cards, and 20% of the deck can deal with Elves after they hit. We’re not even talking about countermagic, just what the deck can do to Elves in play. Good luck? No, good design.

Is it good luck when the kid playing the fifteen-land White Weenie deck pulls yet another creature off the top of his deck? Of course not. There are only fifteen lands in the deck. The thing’s chock full of creatures. It’s not”good luck.” It’s good design.

Then, is it bad luck that you keep getting mana hosed with your mono-Black Zombie-Bidding deck that runs twenty lands? Gee, let’s see. You’re running twenty lands. Four of them come into play tapped. Three of them produce colorless mana. You’re planning on winning by casting a five-mana sorcery with double Black in its cost. No, that’s not”bad luck.” That’s”poor deck design.”

“Okay, smart guy, how do you explain it when someone pulls the one card they need to win the game off of the top of their deck, and they aren’t cheating?”

Hey, that’s gonna happen once in a while. The Laws of Averages and Randomness, not”luck,” even say so. Let’s say that someone is playing Goblins. Let’s also say that, for whatever reason, she must have Flashfires as her next card. (I don’t know why. We’re playing Make Believe Magic here. Just follow me.) She only brought in two Flashfires, and there are fifty cards left in her deck. Since she doesn’t have it in her hand, both the Flashfires are in the deck. She has a one-in-twenty-five chance of pulling Flashfires from the top of his deck. That’s 4%.

Is it”luck” if she does get that card? No. You’d expect that, absent other outside forces (i.e. stacking the deck, palming a card, or other methods of cheating), in that situation, she’d randomly pull that card 4% of the time. In other words, it’s bound to happen, just not very often.

It’s also not”luck” if, when she only has a 4% chance of pulling a particular card, she pulls it 66% or 75% or 90% of the time. That is so far out of line with the Laws of Averages and Randomness that she must be doing something other than simply taking whatever card comes next.

Don’t misunderstand what I’m saying here. I am talking about a deck that has in it just one or two answers which”just happen” to pop up off of the top of the deck. What I am not talking about are those times when a deck is holding many answers, and a player gets one of them. Some decks have a lot of answers. They don’t need to draw one of their two sideboard cards to stabilize or win. The deck may have ten or twelve or fifteen answers even before sideboarding. Some people play those decks. They’re often called”Really Good Players.”

I’ll give you a perfect example from my experience. I know a guy named Bill Ericson. He’s played on the Pro Tour. He always seems to win at these local, Saturday tourneys. He always seems to have the right card at the right time. How does he do it if he isn’t cheating? Because he doesn’t play decks with just one or two right answers. He always plays decks that have many”right” cards. He wouldn’t have just one or two cards in his deck that answer a particular situation. He has a bunch. For that reason, he’s a fan of card drawing, too. He always has a fistful of cards. I’ve never – not one single time – seen him reduced to playing whatever comes off of the top of his deck. Having a lot of answers in his deck and a lot of cards in his hand gives him a better chance of having what he needs. In other words, Branch Rickey might say that Bill’s”good luck is the residue of hard work and good deck design.”

“Watch Yo’ Back, Jack”

Sure, people sometimes draw the one of the two or three cards in their deck that they need at the time they need it. The Laws of Averages and Randomness say that they will do that. Once in a while. Not most of the time.

However, if you know a person who consistently draws off of the top of the deck one of the two or three answers in his or her deck – not one of the ten or twelve or sixteen, but one of two or three – and does so without the help of card drawing or tutor effects, chances are that person is cheating. Keep your eyes on him or her. Ask the judges and people who run the tourney to keep their eyes open. Ask the other players to keep their eyes open. And be very wary of people who constantly attribute their success to”good luck.”

Why? Because there’s no such thing as”luck,” good or bad.

From Right Field: Flying Slugs and Speedy Robots

{From Right Field is a column for Magic players on a budget, although even those with more money and expertise might – I said”might” – still find something useful here. As such, the decks written about in this column are, almost by necessity, rogue decks. They contain few rares, if any. 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 Wrath of God or the Onslaught Fetch Lands for the colors they play. The decks are also tested in tournaments by the author, who isn’t very good at playing Magic. In other words, he puts his money where his mouth is. He will never claim that a deck has a 65% winning percentage against the entire field. He will also let you know when the deck is just plain lousy.}

And Now, Back to This Week’s Show

Right off the bat, I’m going to apologize to the cheesecake-lovin’ crowd. I’ve been making an inordinate number of references to actresses, lingerie models, and other Hot Thangs in order to give our editor Mr. Ted”Don’t Call Me Mister” Knutson something fun to do, i.e. an excuse to troll the ‘net for pictures of lovelies. It seems that T-Knut may have been getting a little heat from his better half for having to look up those pictures. Apparently, the line”It’s part of my job, honey” didn’t work. So, I guess I need to also publicly apologize to Ted for any trouble I may have caused at home. Sorry, man. Just tell her it was Romeo’s fault. [Actually, I just don’t have time to find the links right now, and Romeo is too scared of his other half’s wrath to provide his own. – Knut]

(Digression: I wonder how the guy who inspects strip clubs explains it.”Well, darling, you see, the strippers have to be at least six feet away from any customers since they’re naked. The strippers, not the customers, that is. Naked, I mean. My job is to measure how far away from the patrons the ladies are. And I have to measure from the point closest to each patron. Of course, that, um, point is different for each stripper. It’s just my job.”)

Anyway, you’ll have a lot fewer chances for clicking on links to swimsuit models and FHM cover girls. In exchange, you get more of my great writing. Hey! Where’re ya goin’? Get back here! I’m not done dispensing wisdom.

“The Way You Do the Things You Do”

Since I’ve been back, I’ve had ton of e-mails from cheap scrubs (like me!) asking how I would build a certain deck if I didn’t use any rares or only used a couple of rares. Well, I can answer that quite easily.

As Grouch Marx might say,”I’d build it badly.”

Thank you. Thank you, very much. I’ll be here at The Chuckle Barn all week before I move on to The Ha-Ha Hut.

These people know that I’m bad. Yet, they still want my advice. What can I do except give it to them? Last week’s deck, the cheap Goblin thing, was the first one that I tackled in that fashion. It seems that a lot of players feel the way I do.”Love Goblins. Hate that some of them cost twelve bucks now.” Interestingly, one of the more frequent requests involves Affinity. I find that interesting, because the typical Affinity deck runs many fewer rares than a lot of other high-profile decks. For example, take a look at Max Joseph’s third-place deck from the 2003 New York State Championships. It’s a fairly typical build.

16 Land

4 Seat of the Synod

4 Ancient Den

4 Glimmervoid

4 Great Furnace

12 Creatures

4 Myr Enforcer

4 Frogmite

4 Broodstar

32 Other Spells

4 Thoughtcast

4 Thirst for Knowledge

4 Mana Leak

4 Pyrite Spellbomb

4 Aether Spellbomb

4 Talisman of Progress

4 Chrome Mox

3 Override

1 Lightning Greaves

Only twelve of the cards are rares. A lot of decks are running a lot more than that. Mono-White Control, for example, runs Wrath of God, Akroma’s Vengeance, Eternal Dragon, Exalted Angel, and Decree of Justice. Whoa. Of course, in terms of financial Russian roulette, Affinity has the proverbial full chamber. Can you see it? Right there near the bottom? It’s the dreaded”4 Chrome Mox.” Ach! Run, Franz, run screaming like Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween! (Dear Ted, I promise that this will be the only reference to a hottie in this piece. Can’t leave ’em cold turkey. Sorry. – Chris)

Glimmervoid’s not too much better. Broodstar brings up the rear in terms of wallet drainage, but it’s still not cheap. In fact, at current Star City prices, those twelve cards alone will set you back $190 (plus shipping and insurance).

Some folks will point out that the Broodstar comes in the Bait & Switch pre-constructed theme deck. They’d be right. It does. Good luck trying to find any. I know that there aren’t any left around here. Even if you do find them, though, you’ll drop close to forty bucks getting four ‘Stars that way. At least you’ll get a lot of other cards, too. Like four Lodestone Myr!”Woo-hoo!”

“What’s a Poor Boy to Do?”

The first thing I have to do when modifying an existing deck is simply to ask,”Is there anything that essentially swaps out for those rares?” Sometimes, the answer is fairly easy. When Ghitu Fire was in Standard, I used Blaze in its place. Sure, Blaze couldn’t be cast with instant-timing, but when cast as normal, they both got the same amount of damage through for the same mana amount of mana used.

In this deck, only the Broodstar even remotely has that sort of direct counterpart. It’s Somber Hoverguard. The Hoverguard is almost never as imposing as the Broodstar, though. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with a 3/2 flier with haste on turn 3 especially when it only costs a single Blue mana to cast. That would happen like this:

Turn 1: Artifact land

Turn 2: Artifact land, Talisman of Friendly Mana of Some Sort

Turn 3: Artifact land, Lightning Greaves, Hoverguard for U, attach the Greaves, swing. (You might also get a free Frogmite or two or a Myr Enforcer in there as well.)

The loss of Glimmervoid is taken care of by simply dropping in another artifact land. This is by no stretch of the imagination the best answer, since Glimmervoid can make any color of mana, but you will need another land to take its place. I like Tree of Tales because Naturalize is a better sideboard answer to a lot of things than Shatter is. For example, it’s a better answer to Ivory Mask than Shatter is because Shatter can’t target enchantments.

Worst Observation Ever

The biggest problem is replacing the Chrome Mox. Yeah, I know. You’re shocked. I don’t really need to go over how Chrome Mox is great mana acceleration and can get stuff out a turn earlier, do I? (That’s a writer’s device that allows me to actually go over the benefits of Chrome Mox without making it seem like I am. Sneaky, huh? I like sneaky stuff.) The only thing that I can do for that slot is to use more land, bringing the count to twenty lands. I am tempted to use Coastal Tower. Unfortunately, it comes into play tapped. Since Blue is the only color this deck really needs in the maindeck (forget the Pyrite Spellbombs; I’m getting to those), I’d go with four Islands.

“I Can’t Please, Drive 55”

What do we do about that loss of speed that accompanies the loss of the Chrome Mox? Lightning Greaves lets creatures attack the turn they come into play. If a creature can come into play and attack on turn 4, that’s virtually the same as the creature coming into play on turn 3, sitting there, and then attacking on turn 4. In a way, it’s better, actually, since the critter can’t be handled by sorceries like Wrath of God. A turn doing nothing is a turn that a creature has a bulls-eye on its chest. So, I upped the Greaves count from one to four. That meant losing something. The Pyrite Spellbomb went bye-bye. The fourth Pyrite Spellbomb became the fourth Override because I noticed that the Affinity decks that did best were the ones that had the most countermagic.

Then, I started thinking about Override. It doesn’t have Affinity or anything. Why not use Dispersal Shield instead? For one less mana, the Shield has the same sorts of pros and cons as Override. Override can be, well, overridden if they have enough mana. Dispersal Shield care how much mana an opponent has open. All it looks at is the cost of your most expensive permanent and the cost of the spell it’s targeting. At times, then, Shield is just superior. Take a look at this possible scenario.

Completely Hypothetical but Possible Scenario

It’s your third turn, and your opponent went first. You had a very nice opening hand. You were able to play artifact lands on the first two turns as well as a Talisman of Flummery on turn 2. On turn 3, you were able to drop a Seat of the Synod, drop a Frogmite for free, and then drop a Myr Enforcer for only two mana. On her fourth turn, your opponent can see the writing on the wall and casts Wrath of God. Oh, no! You only have two mana open and no Mana Leak! What do you do? You can’t cast that Override in your hand because it costs too much. Luckily, you have Dispersal Shield. Since Wrath has the same converted mana cost as a Frogmite, the Wrath is countered. Hurray for Dispersal Shield! You’re our new hero!

Please. Just. Don’t. Do it.

Now, even though I am already completely aware of it, there are those who will point out – even though they really and truly don’t need to! – that there are times when Override is better than Dispersal Shield. [There are lotsa times, actually. As someone who helped develop this deck before for States, you couldn’t make me play the Shield again. – Knut] Like, what if I have lotsa artifact lands, a Talisman of Ridiculousness, and two Frogmites when my opponent casts Akroma’s Vengeance? In this case, Dispersal Shield does diddly-squat while Override would (probably) counter the thing. As I said, they Dispersal Shield and Override each have their own pros and cons. Given that both have drawbacks, I’ll take the one that costs less. [The problem is that smart folks always Wrath first, then Vengeance. – Knut, raining on Chris’s parade]

Never, ever, underestimate the power and importance of one less mana.

That leaves this deck:

Affinity for Frugality

20 Lands

4 Seat of the Synod

4 Ancient Den

4 Tree of Tales

4 Great Furnace

4 Island

12 Creatures

4 Myr Enforcer

4 Frogmite

4 Somber Hoverguard

28 Other Spells

4 Thoughtcast

4 Thirst for Knowledge

4 Mana Leak

4 Dispersal Shield

4 Aether Spellbomb

4 Talisman of Progress

4 Lightning Greaves

Replacing the Replacements

I know this will be very logical to most of you, but some folks will still ask. I wanna head this herd off at the pass.

Q:”What if I do actually own a Broodstar or two?”

A: For each Broodstar you own, add it to the deck and drop a Somber Hoverguard.

Q:”What if I do actually own Glimmervoids?”

A: Add ’em to the deck and take out one Tree of Tales for each one that you add.

Q:”What if I do actually own Chrome Mox or two?”

A: You are not worthy of owning Chrome Moxes. Send them to me, and I will replace them with random uncommons from Scourge, guaranteed not to include any Wing Shards or Goblin Warchief.

Whatever you do, make sure that you have four Lightning Greaves in the deck. Why there are Affinity decks that don’t run it or run less than a full complement, I have no idea. You want your Broodstars and even your Myr Enforcers to come down hard and fast. (“Hard and fast. Oooooo, baby. Yeah.”) You don’t want them sitting around a turn waiting for some sorcery to deal with them.

Finally, if you don’t believe me about Dispersal Shield, try a few games with it. You’ll see what I mean.

Culture Break

Three weeks ago, I wrote about an almost-good (mostly) Blue deck with Willbender in it. In the piece, I asked for help in making a decent, cheap (mostly) Blue deck featuring Willbender. Imagine my surprise when I went to the forum posts and saw this from someone calling himself or herself Ephraim:

Ode to Willbender

Great Willbender, mage of misdirection,

How can mortals celebrate your splendor?

Save Force of Will, cause of much invection,

What uncommon can exceed Willbender?

Essence Vortex doesn’t hold a candle

And Feeding Frenzy fails to compare.

Ancestral Recall’s also yours to handle,

Although it’s not uncommon, rather rare.

And more, you rest concealed on the table,

Hiding your nature from unfriendly eyes.

Are you Foothill Guide or Hulk, Unstable?

Unseen, you wait to unleash your surprise.

Behold, the mage reaped not what he had sown.

Will bent, ’twas not your downfall, but his own.

Wow. Holy crap. Geez. I’m stunned. I thought I had my panties in a wad over Willbender. This guy wrote a sonnet about the card. A pretty good sonnet, too. I mean, I don’t know what”art” is, but I know what I like. I like this.

“I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” [Cue Jangly Guitars]

My friend Amy Wiles, Magic judge, and champion of four-player Fatty Magic, sent me this link: http://www.bigbad.net/recaps/s5/lineag.htm. As she said in her e-mail, this is the funniest 404 ever.

“(Don’t Fear) The Reaper”

Hey, by the way, my bad. I wrote that there were five evasions abilities in Standard right now: flying; trample; protection for a color; unblockability; and landwalk. There’s another that I completely missed. It’s called Fear. There is probably some deep, psychological reason for me not remembering that. Or it could just be that it slipped my mind. For fun, though, let’s say I have a phobia about Fear.

“Bend it Like a Polaroid Picture”

Well, I got tons of suggestions on the forum posts and through e-mails (even though I specifically asked that I not get any e-mails) about making a deck with a maximum of eight rares and Willbender. If you want to see what some of the suggested decks looked like, go to the forum for that piece, and check ’em out.

What I’m going to do here is drop a few designs based on some keen insight and suggestions from folks out there. None of these are directly from anyone’s list. It’s more like design by committee. The basic designs seemed to fall into one of three categories: Blue Skies; control; and”I had to use Willbender because that was one of the rules for the exercise.”

In addition, several people found a loophole in my instructions. I was trying to make an inexpensive deck. So, I limited the number of rares to only eight for the deck. I forgot to say that none of the eight could be Chrome Mox. So, I got more than a few decklists that had that card.

I gotta admit, though, I like the idea of a first-turn Spiketail Hatchling. In addition, Quicksilver Dragon gives you a way to cover for your Willbender. So, how about this for a Blue Skies-type deck featuring Willbender:

Blender (that’s like”Blue Skies” and”Willbender” all squished together)

20 Lands

4 Seat of the Synod

4 Vault of Whispers

4 Salt Marsh

6 Island

1 Swamp

1 Polluted Delta

20 Creatures

4 Spiketail Hatchling

4 Wizard Replica

4 Willbender

4 Thieving Magpie

1 Phantom Warrior

3 Quicksilver Dragon

20 Other Spells

4 Chrome Mox

4 Thirst for Knowledge

3 Mana Leak

3 Remove Soul

2 Rewind

4 Dark Banishing

Okay, so why only three each of Mana Leak and Remove Soul? Well, a better writer with a better rating than mine pointed out to me that Mana Leak is not a hard counter except in the early game. Granted, having four of them gives you a better chance to have one in the early game. However, taking one out lets you add a hard counter in Rewind. Ditto for Remove Soul.

The theory behind this deck is just like the old Blue Skies decks. Counter or kill anything that hurts you. Win through the air. Often, Thieving Magpie will be your win condition. I know that that isn’t very comforting. I gotta tell you, though, most of the games I won were with twelve to fifteen points of Magpie damage. They just keep you hand so full that it’s almost ludicrous. Why, they’re almost as good as Mask of Memory!

Wizard Replica kept coming up as people suggested Blue-Skies-type decks. I didn’t realize that he flew and could counter spells. In addition, with a toughness of three, he can often be a nice blocker.

The next type of deck went overboard with control. These chose the Polluted Delta and Stifle as their rares. Every deck that is considered The Best in Standard right now has something that Stifle can be huge against. Stifle is a land destruction spell against those decks that try to pop off a Wooded Foothills or Flooded Strand. It prevents U/W Control and Mono-White Control from making tons of Soldiers when cycling Decree of Justice. It prevents Goblins from doing all those Goblin tricks. Clerics can’t be sacrificed to gain life. Exalted Angels never come back once they get Astral Slide-d away. In other words, nice one-mana play. The deck that uses Stifle and the Delta might look like this:

24 Lands

4 Seat of the Synod

4 Vault of Whispers

4 Salt Marsh

7 Island

1 Swamp

4 Polluted Delta

8 Creatures

4 Willbender

4 Air Elemental

28 Other Spells

4 Stifle

3 Mana Leak

3 Remove Soul

4 Smother

4 Dark Banishing

4 Thirst for Knowledge

2 Rewind

4 Inspiration

This deck is much more controlling. Like old decks that won by casting Mahamoti Djinn or Morphling and then protecting it, this relies on the smaller Air Elemental simply because we’re only going with eight rares. Notice that there are eight card drawing spells. Inspiration is not Concentrate. You get one less card, but you get them from an instant. You don’t want to tap out on your turn with this deck.

I would have thought that more people would suggest White as a companion color for Blue in this exercise. A few did. Mostly, though, I think people stayed away from White for two reasons. First, a lot of White support spells, like Wing Shards, require double White mana to make them work. Second, White’s best control spell is Wrath of God. Not only would that put us over the limit of rares (we’d be at twelve with Stifle and Flooded Strand), but we’d also be wiping out our win condition when Wrath resolved.

Finally, there were the decks that only used Willbender because the exercise required it. Some of them were whimsical, like a Blue-Red counter-burn deck. Others were Wizards decks with Voidmage Prodigy and a slick Wizard-Bidding deck that brought back all the Wizards then used the Supreme Inquisitor’s ability to take anything worth taking from the opponent’s deck. I don’t know if any of them work, but they looked fun.

As usual, you’ve been a great audience. Make sure to keep your arms and heads inside the car at all times.

Chris Romeo

[email protected]

P.S. One last thing. Don’t argue with me about what is and what isn’t circumstantial evidence. I’m an attorney, remember?