From Right Field: The Great Skullclamp Debate

I’m just going to jump in with both feet and get the ol’ fire stoked. Okay, that line is a horribly mixed metaphor because, barring some sort of Far Eastern mind trick, your feet would be burned in the most disgusting manner, leaving you with useless chunks of charred flesh and a sticky sweet stench that will haunt your nostrils forever. You should get my drift, though, because I contend that: The DCI did not need to ban Skullclamp.

I’m just going to jump in with both feet and get the ol’ fire stoked. Okay, that line is a horribly mixed metaphor because, barring some sort of Far Eastern mind trick, your feet would be burned in the most disgusting manner, leaving you with useless chunks of charred flesh and a sticky sweet stench that will haunt your nostrils forever. You should get my drift, though, because I contend that:

The DCI did not need to ban Skullclamp.

That one will probably start page after page of spirited discussion on the fora. I hope so anyway. As for my reasoning, here’s why I say that.

Skullclamp Not the Main Offender, Supreme Court Rules in 8-1 Decision

Yes, Skullclamp was ubiquitous. I’m pretty sure that it was designed to be. The card gave weenie decks a mid-game that Wizards has been seeking for a while. Slate of Ancestry was obviously supposed to do that. However, the Slate’s casting cost plus the mana cost for its activation made it nearly unplayable in serious matches. (The”toss your hand” part of the activation cost wasn’t a big deal, though, because what weenie deck has a hand by that point in the game anyway?) Skullclamp did what the Slate couldn’t. It gave colors that don’t normally have card drawing a chance to understand what Blue has known since Ancestral Recall: drawing cards is just plain fun. From that point of view, Skullclamp was”a runaway, smash success,” glowed The New York Times.”Top of the class,” raved The Washington Post.”Number one with a bullet,” said Billboard.”I laughed until I cried,” shouted Tyra Banks.

The fact that it was in nearly every beatdown deck in every Regionals (and a couple of Nationals) in 2004 isn’t a reason to ban a card. As my pal Shannon says,”If the reasoning behind banning a card is that it was in nearly every championship deck, Counterspell should have been banned a long time ago.”

No, the problem wasn’t Skullclamp. The problem was and continues to be Arcbound Ravager, Disciple of the Vault, and Goblin Warchief.

This isn’t to say that Skullclamp didn’t help Ravager Affinity and Goblins be even more degenerate than they already were. I’d be an idiot (Shaddup!) to argue that. All Skullclamp was, though, was an enabler. A catalyst. A reality-show producer. Like a reality-show producer, it turned even the most innocent-looking ones into naughty girls while making the naughty ones downright evil. The power behind Ravager Affinity and Goblins wasn’t that they could draw cards. It was what they could do with the cards they drew as well as, in the case of the Disciple, the effect that simply using the Clamp had on an opponent.

For example – and I know that you know this, but bear with me – without the Disciple of the Vault, Ravager Affinity decks have to **gasp** attack to win the game. There’s a lot of ways to deal with that. For example, you can, oh, I don’t know, block the attacker. What you have almost no way to deal with is the synergy between a creature that allows an artifact to be sacrificed for some effect and a creature that allows its controller to suck life off of their opponent whenever an artifact hits the graveyard. No matter what you do, they can respond by sacrificing more stuff. I’m sure this isn’t an uncommon occurrence, but I actually lost two games last weekend in which the Ravager player never once attacked. In fact, in one, I was at more than twenty life, thanks to the Wellwisher, before the lethal turn. He just did his silly Ravager tricks with the Disciple on the board and finished it with a Shrapnel Blast when I was at six.

Another argument for banning the Disciple is these new combo decks that have popped up using it. For example, using Krark-Clan Ironworks (a lousy uncommon), two Myr Retrievers (more lousy uncommons), and one Disciple of the Vault (a lousy friggin’ common), you can create a loop whereby you can keep sacrificing the Retriever to make two mana and bring the other Retriever back from the ‘yard. You then cast the second Retriever, sac it for mana, get the one in the ‘yard back, etc. Of course, each time a Retriever goes to the ‘yard, the Disciple makes your opponent lose one life. In case you haven’t read about this yet, here’s how it can work:

Turn 1: Lay a land that produces Black mana and a Disciple of the Vault

Turn 2: Lay a mana-producing land and a Myr Retriever.

Turn 3a: Play a Chrome Mox imprinting something with color, and drop the Krark-Clan Ironworks. The combo is now set as long as you’re holding a second Retriever.

Turn 3b – The Combo: Sacrifice the Retriever in play to the Ironworks to make two mana. That triggers the Disciple’s ability. You, of course, choose to have your opponent lose one life. Use the mana from the Ironworks to play the Myr Retriever in your hand. Pop off the new Retriever. That triggers both the DoV’s ability, which you choose to use, and the Retriever’s ability which allows you to grab the Retriever that’s in the ‘yard. Cast the Retriever you just pulled out of the ‘yard. Repeat until your opponent is dead.

Wow, a turn 3 kill, and no Skullclamp in sight.

Of course, the Ravager itself isn’t a pick-a-nick basket, either. Any card that makes OrnithopterOrnithopter! – of all things, a playable, Pro-Tour-worthy card has got to be looked at about seventy-six bazillion times in development. I can’t even begin to tell you how many games I’ve sat across from a Ravager player and watched them load up the Ornithopter with Arcbound counters and then swing for lethal damage in one turn. I just don’t think this is what Dr. Garfield was envisioning when he started this mess eleven plus years ago.

The other big problem with Ravager Affinity is that it can tap out and still put large beasties on the playing field. Affinity is a fundamentally flawed mechanic in this game. Magic is a game of resource management (among other things). You have to carefully manage your mana so that you can pay for your spells. When your spells are free, you don’t have to manage your mana. R&D realized this after the fiasco that was Urza’s Block. Or so I thought.

What we have, then, in the Ravager Affinity deck is a collision of a broken mechanic (affinity) with two awesome abilities, one activated (Ravager’s) and one triggered (DoV’s) by using the activated one. Tragically, it’s a collision that you really can’t do anything about. Once the pieces are in place, the Ravager player can’t be stopped.

Thank God They Didn’t Put Goblin Matron in 8th Edition

The fact is that Ravager Affinity can beat you silly without the Skullclamp ever showing up. The same goes for Goblins.

Let’s reminisce about the olden days. You know, like, early February of 2004. Remember those days? People still cared about Janet Jackson (or at least her nipple). Kurt Warner played for The Rams. And gas was only $1.75 a gallon. What deck was king of the hill? Goblins. Not Goblins with Skullclamp, which wasn’t tourney-legal until the 20th of that month. Just plain, ol’ Goblins.

Does anyone really think, then, that banning Skullclamp is going to neuter Goblins? I hope not because, if you do, you are sadly mistaken. Banning Skullclamp merely means that Goblin players will dig out the”old” decklists that had Clickslither in them, just like they did before the Clamp came along. As long as Goblins have access to Goblin Warchief, they will be a force to be reckoned with.

Meanwhile, other decks now also lose access to Skullclamp. See, that’s how bannings work. They can’t say that”For Ravager and Goblin decks, Skullclamp is banned. Everyone else can use it.” One of the best answers to either deck was the Elf-Clamp deck. Now, it loses its card-drawing, too. So does anything else that wanted to use it.

This means that, while Ravager and Goblins are a tick slower now, all of the other decks that ran Skullclamp are a tick slower, too. Thus, Ravager and Goblins will continue to be the fastest and best decks in a world that’s a tick slower.

Don’t believe the hype about the re-emergence of control decks, either. The loss of Skullclamp doesn’t mean those decks will”come back.” Losing Skullclamp simply means that we go back to a pre-Darksteel environment, except for the fact that we also have a Clamp-less Ravager Affinity deck to deal with. That doesn’t sound like a very big change to the environment, now, does it?

Chicken Little, Gregory Goblin, and Larry Lemming

This is not to say that there won’t be a shift away from Ravager and Goblins. There are, at last count, sixty-two-thousand-four-hundred-ninety-one Chicken Littles running around the internet right now saying that Ravager and Goblins are dead. Just by sheer force of numbers, they’re gonna convince a whole lot of lemmings to follow them and run far, far away from those two decks. The lemmings will do so without even testing whether they’re still good or not.

“And that’s the scoop on the man that Ms. Lopez is engaged to this week. Bob?”

“Hold on, Janice. I’m getting an urgent bulletin. Yes. This just in. Ravager Affinity and Goblins are still good! Craig?”

The DCI’s official stance is that it doesn’t ban cards unless it finds them to be unhealthy for the environment. I’ll agree that the entire Standard environment being Goblins, Affinity, and almost nothing else is unhealthy. I just don’t think that banning Skullclamp is going to change that. If The DCI wanted a healthy environment, it would ban the Disciple, the Ravager, and the Warchief, not the Skullclamp.

Now, discuss amongst yourselves.

And the Winner is . . . .

I’ve decided against getting one entire column out of the”Take Centaur Glade to Regionals” Contest. It would be cheap. As my wife (I love saying that: my wife) Luanne can tell you, while I may be easy, I am not cheap. So, instead, I’m making the report part two of this week’s column.

The winner of the contest is a guy named Joe Chute. Joe won with a 2-5-4 record. How did he win the contest with that record? He was the only one to claim to have played the deck at Regionals!

Joe doesn’t want us to think that he was disappointed in the deck or his record. He started by telling me that”I must say that my first tournament (and first experience at non-casual dueling) was a tremendous success. My record was 2-5-4, but I had a ball.” He’s only been playing for a short time, and Regionals in Atlanta was his first tournament.

All four of the draws came in the final four rounds after a seventh-round win. To Joe, that meant that he was finally getting the deck down. Interestingly, his two wins came against Goblin decks. He started off 0-2. Match number one was against an Affinity deck running Aether Vial. He stalled out while the Vile Affinity deck didn’t.

Round two was against another of my decks, White Skies. According to Joe, here’s what a lot of decks don’t want to see:

Turn 1: Suntail Hawk

Turn 2: Suntail Hawk

Turn 3: Slith Ascendant

Turn 4: Slith Ascendant

Ugh. Anyway, round two was also quick and ugly. Round three was when the Goblins reared their ugly heads. He won that one in large part thanks to an early Centaur Glade and the mana to back it up. He lost the next three in progressively closer matches, and then beat Goblins again in round seven.

By the time rounds eight through eleven happened, he says that he figured out how the deck worked. Games were going longer because he was finally used to the survive-then-win modus operandi of the deck.

Two things that he says make the deck look worse than it is. First, he didn’t feel comfortable sideboarding, so he didn’t do it much. For example, he had Scrabbling Claws in his sideboard, but it doesn’t look like he brought them in against the two Goblin Bidding decks he faced back-to-back in rounds five and six. Also, he said there were many times that he had plenty of mana and no Centaur Glade. Joe suggested that you find a way to get a fourth Glade in there, possibly taking out the fourth Raise the Alarm or Nantuko Vigilante.

A lot of you are laughing heartily at this point.”A 2-5-4 record? That deck stinks!” However, Joe gave me the biggest compliment he could when he said,”I had a blast!” That’s what this is all about to me.

Besides, you can scoff all you want, but how many of you won $25 playing in Regionals?

So, Joe, I’m happy to give you twenty-five of my hard-earned (Shaddup again!) StarCityGames.com dollars. Enjoy the cards you get with it. I hope your fiancé (he’s getting hitched in September, folks) is as cool about the Magic thing as Luanne is.

As usual, you’ve been a great audience. Don’t forget to tip the valets.

Chris Romeo

CBRomeo at Travelers dot com

P.S. I tested the Relentless Rats deck from last week’s piece. The Rats are way, way too slow. Getting things started on turn 3 is a recipe for disaster right now, even in a post-Skullclamp world. In addition, there was rarely enough mana to cast two Relentless Rats in the same turn, a play that you certainly want to make. So, I’ll be trying a version with six fewer Relentless Rats (down to sixteen), two more Swamps (up to twenty-four), and four Ravenous Rats. That gives some discard, more turn 2 plays, and more chances to drop two Relentless Rats in the same turn.

Also, yes, Lose Hope is indeed”all that.”