Magic players don’t reflect enough. I constantly see players crying to high heaven that they were mana screwed right out of a game/match/tournament. Rarely do these players take a moment to re-examine the game and determine if they may have missed out on a road to victory.
The second the first card of a new set appears on mtgnews.com, everyone looks forward to the new set. They don’t take time to learn lessons from the current set and see how they may be able to apply these lessons to future tournaments.
I want to reflect on some things while we have this lead time between the end of Mirrodin Block and the arrival of Champions of Kamigawa.
The Death of the United States Has Been Greatly Exaggerated
This topic has been beaten like an egg ready to enter the batter of a tasty soufflé. I want to throw in my two cents though, since people are making what I feel are faulty assumptions.
When the United States gets mauled in an event, everyone cries out about the death of American Magic. No one may remember but this was a claim made in 2002 as well. The U.S. put only two people in the top 8 of Worlds last year: Dave Humpherys and one of the sexiest Magic players I have ever had the good fortune of meeting, and neither advanced to the finals. The U.S. was beaten in the teams competition for only the second time ever and the first time in several years.
The very next Pro Tour the U.S. put four people in the top 8: Justin Gary, Rob Dougherty, Darwin Kastle, and Bob Maher and the first three 3 in the top 3. YMG flexed its muscles and showed the world they were every bit as strong as they were in the early years of the Pro Tour. The PT after that, the US managed to put four players in the top 8: Jon Finkel, Billy Jensen, Eugene Harvey, and Dustin Stern. Granted none made the finals, but it was power packed none the less. Ken Ho of San Francisco was victorious at the Masters Event at that tournament.
Venice also had four Americans in the top 8: Jordan Berkowitz, Darwin Kastle, Billy Jensen (back-to-back), and eventual winner Osyp Lebedowicz. Only Jon Finkel made top 8 in Yokohama, but there was pretty much a consensus that Onslaught/Onslaught/Legions was one of the least skill testing draft formats of all time. The Masters at Yokohama was won by Bob Maher who defeated Darwin Kastle in the top 4. The USA went on to win the teams portion of the World Championships that year as well as place two players in the top 8.
Sure this past season wasn’t the best for the States, but to cry their death after one season is as idiotic as it is pointless. Other countries may be catching up, but it is way too soon to say that the U.S. isn’t the most powerful country in Magic. People can talk a good game, but the fact remains that there are more players in the U.S. that give you the nervous butterflies when you see yourself paired against them than any other country.
If you want to call the U.S. dead, get back to me in two or three years if we continue to falter.
The Ghosts of Draft Formats Past
Every set has new mechanics. They add a new spice to the game that usually hadn’t been seen outside of one or two cards in the past. But there are subtleties to these abilities that are often misunderstood or ignored completely. Sometimes the subtleties in a format lie outside the mechanics and require more in depth analysis.
I’ll start with Mirrodin Block. While Affinity is the talk of the town in Constructed, I think that the thing that separates this block from blocks in the past the most is reduced land counts. But why did we reduce our land counts? Was it simply the presence of mana fixers in every color? That was definitely a part of it, but as I reflected on the format today I came up with a new theory.
Mirrodin Block limited was known for two things: a large amount of playables and reduced disparity in card power level. I think these two factors contributed to the reduced land counts even more than the mana acceleration.
I remember I would leave drafts in past blocks with incredibly powerful decks, decks that blew me away. Decks that were so much better than the average deck that I would play eighteen land because I knew I couldn’t lose as long as I didn’t get mana screwed. When I draft my very best decks in Mirrodin Block, I don’t get that feeling. When my deck is incredible I think, I better play fifteen land so I will draw more mediocre spells than my opponent.
There was another important lesson in this Block: Mana management. This one actually made playing easier rather than more difficult. When you were stuck on a play, you were pretty safe if you chose the one that used more mana. When power levels of cards are more or less the same, the more a card costs the more powerful it is.
Onslaught Block, as much of a mess as it was, taught us the value of reading opponents. This lesson was always important, but never was it more important than in this block. It was as if players had two hands: their hands and their morphs. While they may have tricks in their hands, they usually had tricks in their morphs. It was critical to figure out what trick though. There wasn’t much value in this block, but at least we learned something.
Odyssey Block taught us about managing multiple resources. If you didn’t have Cephalid Looter in your deck, there was always this precarious balance among cards in hand, cards in the graveyard, and cards in play. Should I play this land? Should I bluff with it by keeping it in my hand? Should I discard it to my Wild Mongrel? These questions plagued players and I think made it one of the most skill intensive Limited format from a play perspective.
The color imbalance also tested drafting skills. Many players, like Gary Wise, claimed that the color imbalance was bad, as players were able to audible into Black at the drop of a hat. I don’t agree. I think that the players that would audible at the wrong time were at a severe disadvantage come deck building time. This lesson may seem Block specific as the odds of a color imbalance happening again anytime soon are slim, but this can also apply to sets where one or two colors are significantly more powerful than the rest.
Invasion Block taught us how to draft multiple colors. This is a lesson that has stayed around and pops up all the time. Where do you draft mana fixers? How late can you expect to get them? What cards are worth splashing? Can a card with two or more colored mana requirements be splashed?
The play was incredibly complex. I have never seen more players miss board tricks. Good players missed board tricks, and bad players missed a lot of board tricks. Changing lands and colors was never more relevant and there were dozens of cards that did this. There were subtle abilities on seemingly innocuous 1/1 creatures that could ruin an entire attack. This block taught us the importance of”small ball” or little plays that when pieced together can make a huge difference.
Masques Block didn’t teach us too much. If there was any lesson to draw from Masques it was that you can’t go too wrong forcing the exploitation of broken abilities. If you walked into every draft forcing Rebels, you probably had quite a successful year of drafting.
Urza’s Block taught us the importance of finding foils. I don’t mean the shiny kind. I am talking about deck archetypes that can defeat the widely accepted best archetype. When the format was all Urza’s Saga, Black dominated. By the time PT LA rolled around the NY/NJ pros had developed the 4×4 deck, which involved drafting a Red/Green deck populated with four one-drops, four two-drops, four three-drops, four four-drops, and efficient pump and removal.
Tempest Block taught us that anything goes in draft. In TTT, Red/Black beatdown dominated. Green was so bad in this set that players would often groan when they opened Overrun, as they were forced into Green. When Stronghold was released, Red/White beatdown and Red/Blue control took over. The Red/White deck would play as few as fifteen land and would rarely have any spells that cost more than three. The Red/Blue deck would play as few as six creatures that were difficult to kill and exploit control cards to keep the game within reach.
Mirage Block taught us many important things. Mirage Block was the first block of what I refer to as the modern era. It was the first block that took Limited into consideration in its design. Mirage block was also the birth of tempo with cards like Man-O’-War and Undo. The third most important lesson taught by Mirage Block was the Long Range. White was so good in Weatherlight that players would often force it on the chance that they could open a Heavy Ballista or an Empyrial Armor.
The sets before Mirage taught us that Wizards should consider draft when designing sets.
One Rule to Ring Them All
I like the new Legends rule. At first I thought it was suboptimal. I was hoping for each player to be able to have one in play. But the more I think about this, the more I like it. All Legends are now modal cards. They are a different type of modal card though. You don’t get to chose which mode you are playing.
This will make Constructed deck building pretty interesting. When determining the number of a given Legendary Permanent you want in your deck, you need to take into account not only how powerful the card is for your deck, but also how popular that card is in the given format. For instance back in the day when certain heads of the UDE Pro Circuit played in Worlds, there were decks with two copies of Sol’kanar the Swamp King. Now this deck may not have been the best choice if you needed say, a 2-5 on day 3 to make top 8, but for the sake of argument, we’ll call it a viable deck.
Now if the Sol’kanar deck is the best deck in the format, you’ll want plenty of Sol’kanars. You want to have them so you can not only kill your opponents’ Sol’kanars, but also so you can play your own to rule in a post-Sol’kanar-apocalypse world.
Wizards has kept no secrets about benefits you can draw from the new legends rule. It appears there will be a cycle of Legendary Dragons that do things when they hit the graveyard. This means that it is possible that playing your second copy of the Legend could benefit you more than the first.
I thought I was going to stump Wizards, but my IM chat with R&D member Paul Sottosanti informs me that I still cannot have multiple Mistform Ultimuses in play. Sorry Tennessee!
All Good Things
I know you were all crushed when Ask Ken went away. I want you to know you can still feel free to e-mail me. I love getting e-mails about my writing or about anything!
When next I write I will have the prerelease under my belt and I can talk with some coherency about Champions.