Magical Hack: And I’ll Form The Head!

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There’s a saying out there that two heads are better than one, but it’s hard to say for sure whether this is true when playing Magic as a team. With the Two-Headed Giant State Championships coming up this weekend, a lot of two-headed spellslingers are looking at this wacky format – only recently gifted with the joy of official sanction – while older and more experienced Two-Headed players are looking at the wacky rules that the DCI has enforced.

There’s a saying out there that two heads are better than one, but it’s hard to say for sure whether this is true when playing Magic as a team. With the Two-Headed Giant State Championships coming up this weekend, a lot of two-headed spellslingers are looking at this wacky format – only recently gifted with the joy of official sanction – while older and more experienced Two-Headed players are looking at the wacky rules that the DCI has enforced.

Just when you thought that Ravnica-Guildpact Sealed Deck couldn’t get any stranger, we present to you Two-Headed Giant! One Ravnica tournament pack, one Ravnica booster, and three Guildpact boosters… two decks, and no sideboard. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to craft two decks that work well together at advancing your goals (“winning the game”, either by traditional means or via decking) and at thwarting your opponents’ attempts to do the same (“killing all their stuff”).

Two-Headed Giant is a difficult format to get a feel for, because what works in traditional Magic does not work in Two-Headed Magic. You can’t just double-fist a pair of aggressive decks together and mash face, figuring two beatdowns are better than one. Perhaps that will be your strategy, after your card-pool becomes apparent and you learn that nothing else is as likely to work as plain beatdown, but with three packs of Guildpact you’ll have a decent assortment of Gruul, Izzet, and Orzhov cards… and while the Gruul like to beat down, the other two combinations are a good deal more controlling. These are complemented by one tournament pack and one booster of Ravnica, and of those four guilds certainly the Boros like to beat down too… but the Dimir are slow and controlling, the Selesnya are slow and threatening, and while the Golgari can function aggressively, their strength leans toward board-control and recurring threats.

Where in Ravnica-Guildpact One-Headed Giant Sealed Deck – the recent Pro Tour Qualifier format we have discussed to death – the Ravnica and Guildpact cards were tensely balanced against each other, straining for dominance on a level playing field, with the number of cards in each set being allocated to each team it’s a certainty that the three guilds of Guildpact will trump the four guilds of Ravnica. Seventy-five cards in a starter (minus thirty lands), plus fifteen cards in a booster, is sixty cards. Divided by four guilds equals fifteen cards per guild, on average. Fifteen cards in a booster times three boosters is forty-five cards, divided by three guilds equals fifteen cards exactly per guild, on average.

Of course, averages are meant to be broken… but it’s pretty clear that with an even split as far as Ravnica and Guildpact are concerned, whichever colors tend to be deeper will be more likely to present itself in your 2HG Sealed Deck, with the shallow guilds filling a support-only role. Orzhov in Guildpact is rather weak, with filler cards like Benediction of Moons and Lionheart Vanguard clogging up the playables slots that could otherwise go to cards like Blind Hunter and Pillory of the Sleepless, while Selesnya in Ravnica is generally accepted to be on-average weaker in Limited events where you don’t get to hand-pick your cards out of three booster packs. Red and Blue are surprisingly deep in Ravnica, and present some powerful cards in Guildpact – cards that are complemented by the Dimir guild from Ravnica.

Double the players means double the life, and double the things getting in your way and stopping a speedy opening. The Gruul Clans do not like two people working against them, even if it has help from another guild: the Gruul Clans respect no other guild, and care not for the assistance of the doubleplusthinkstoomuch Izzet guild while it is trying to turn planeswalkers into planeswalker hamburgers. Add in a free mulligan for each player and you can see how the bonus mulligan favors the slower deck, which can cash in a too-slow hand for free in hopes of drawing a better selection of cards to keep up with a turn four Streetbreaker Wurm. The same is true for the Boros Legion. Dealing twenty against one player is hard enough; dealing forty against two is a nightmare.

Double the players also means half the goodies for yourself… but you got two extra packs. Where the difficulty in solo-piloted Sealed Decks was maximizing the use of your good cards and making the mana work, with two decks you can use every single good card and have good mana for them besides… and probably still have some room left over for a bad card or two to boot. More consistent decks, plus a free mulligan, make mages happy. Which is good, since you only get one game to play for a match… even if your partner’s deck is working well enough, your contribution of twenty life points of dead weight may not be enough to help stay alive if you can’t play anything at all. So no crazy mana bases, with both players squeezing in five color specials… though now that I have said that, I am sure the team of Rizzo-Squared may accomplish that very goal.

What lessons learned in Ravnica-Guildpact Sealed and Draft, one-player version, might we apply to Two-Headed Giant with the same sets of cards?

1. Landwalking is more valuable than before.
Sealed Deck taught us previously that landwalking is underrated in Ravnica-Guildpact Limited, and so cards like Sewerdreg are better than they were. The seemingly embarrassing Restless Bones is nearly as good as the surprisingly solid Ivy Dancer. If your opposing team doesn’t have any Swamps in play, you probably won’t be complaining too much… no Swamps means no Black cards killing your things.

2. Disenchant effects are worth more than in just-Ravnica Limited.
There continuing rewards for playing more and more enchantments in your decks. Enchantments double as removal spells in several commons, from the excellent Faith’s Fetters to the stinky Stasis Cell, and can have some pretty far-reaching effects if you find yourself on the wrong end of a bomb enchantment like Glare of Subdual.

Only having one game to play with, and with numerous juicy targets looking to ruin your day, artifact and enchantment removal is at a premium and should be seriously considered. Seed Spark is an easy and obvious inclusion; Sundering Vitae should likewise make the cut, or at least be seriously considered every time; and if you have a Leave No Trace you may have to think twice before deciding to leave it in the sideboard.

3. Pick your guild combinations for maximum synergy.
Both decks have to work well together, as well as with themselves, so having a dedicated Dimir mill control deck working with a dedicated Gruul beatdown deck will probably be too schizophrenic a combination to expect to do well. If this is you, expect to get killed with the opponents at twenty life and half of their cards milled into the graveyard.

4. Don’t be greedy!
You have two decks that can fit the best of the cards for all seven guilds, and that’s just keeping the mana reasonably sane. Choose three-color decks – two main colors and one light splash – and share the love with the team-mate if the cards are that good. Don’t hoard everything for yourself, and don’t stretch any further than you have to in order to get a card into someone’s deck. If it isn’t going into your colors easily (because it is neither of your two primary colors), doesn’t this mean it should fit in your team-mate’s deck?

However, with a starter and four boosters worth of mana-fixing, you can probably get away with a more even split of three colors than ever before. With more Signets and Karoos all around, the chance of getting the best of three guilds in a White/Red/Green deck supported by two Signets and three Karoos fixing your mana is much higher than in any format, besides possibly Draft. Nowadays you’d have to pick those Karoos and Signets very highly indeed to have that kind of access to excellent mana-fixing.

5. Know the value of your cards!
Clearly Hex is the stupidest card available in the format, having been pretty ridiculous previously, but being even dumber when it can target the opponents’ six best creatures without fail. Compulsive Research is better than before… because Blue has so much card-drawing, like Research and Train of Thought, that it can spread the love to its second head by passing Compulsive Research over there and drawing three monster cards instead of more Blue cards that draw cards. Milling one player out ends the game, same as before, but now you get more Dimir cards to try and accomplish the impossible dream of double- or even triple-Glimpse off of Izzet Guildmage… or milling them out with fair cards, instead of ridiculously efficient ones. Milling may not be the best strategy at all times, but when you have the cards you’d want one deck focusing on, and the ability to support it with a controlling outlook on the game, it is far and away the easiest strategy to implement effectively. Everything else doubles from individual play to team play, but deck size remains the same… and you only have to deck one player to earn the win.

But this is just one weekend’s amusement, and in a week’s time we’ll have quite a few Two-Headed Giant State Champions… and be looking on to the next big thing in team play, where we try and see if three heads are better than two

With the conclusion of the qualifier season for Pro Tour Prague, the Sealed Deck format for Ravnica and Guildpact has proven interesting. It challenges players, and tempts many to the dark side of deck-building with four or five colors of completely ridiculous bombs. Yet in some ways it seems we hardly knew it, for there was so much left unexplored, even at the end of the format… no great answer to the question of how to properly balance one’s need for good mana against the availability of powerful cards all throughout the colors of the rainbow. So much of it was played… and so little solved. Soon, we get to do this all again, with the coming of the remaining three guilds to further tilt the Sealed Deck and Draft formats from what we think we know to something we cannot begin to imagine.

Wrap your brain around that riddle for a second, and realize that before then we get another Pro Tour Qualifier format, riddled with complexity and an infinite variety of choices, by playing Standard circa Honolulu in teams of three at a time.

Team Unified Standard is effectively the same format used originally at the Your Move Games/Neutral Ground Grudge Match, where you build three Standard decks using a deck-building cap of four copies of any one card… across all three decks. There, the finalists played three decks against each other more or less randomly – Deck A versus Deck A, and so on — but here, you have two friends sitting with you and all three matches play out at the same time.

If you think Standard coming out of Honolulu was already a wide-open puzzle, choose three different decks that you think will give you the best chances for success… and then make sure they aren’t fighting for the same cards, like Zoo and Sea Stompy for Stomping Grounds, or U/R Tron and Owling Mine for their four copies each of Shivan Reef and Steam Vents. Then see each teammate fight for position when choosing which of those three decks they get, and see who is the greedy one that gets the Jittes.

Team Unified Standard is a wide-open field, and I’m only just beginning to get a solid grasp on how the decks coming out of Honolulu work… so any real statements about what kinds of deck decisions you should be making would be premature… though I would suggest noting that most of the decks in the Top Four knew how to attack. Decrypting a metagame to choose a best deck is hard enough when the environment is so fluid, constantly shifting from aggressive tendencies to slow and ponderous control decks and back again, as could be seen just over the course of Pro Tour Honolulu itself: early hype for the Zoo decks, more good press for numerous varieties of Black/White decks… and in the end, a rather large Kird Ape connected to the face for the win.

What I can speak with some authority on, in a fashion that should prove informative to the eager player looking to take advantage of a (comparatively) easy chance to qualify for the Pro Tour, is how the ratings invite system is going to work for this Pro Tour. The first inkling of anything going on showed up courtesy of Brian David-Marshall in The Week That Was, and stated as simply as it could:

The three-person Team Constructed Grand Prix will take an average of the team members’ Individual Constructed rating on February 8, 2006 to determine byes. For teams with an average rating of 2000 or higher, two byes will be awarded. A single bye will be earned for teams with an average of 1900-1999.

Ratings invites to Pro Tour-Charleston will use both this Individual Team Constructed rating and Individual Constructed ratings in the following manner:

* Teams whose three members have an average Individual Team Constructed rating equal to 1700 or higher on May 3, 2006 will receive an invitation.
* Teams whose three members have an average Individual Constructed rating equal to 2000 or higher on May 3, 2006 will receive an invitation.

For the official announcement explaining everything the DCI thinks you need to know, click here for the official announcement.

Now, this is rather different from previous team seasons, and not just because you choose your weapons well in advance of the tournament itself instead of getting handed a Sealed Deck package to try your best with. The first note is the rating to match, and when it’s due by: a 1700 rating in a virgin format, by May 3rd. 1700 is pretty easy to do, just by doing well in one or two events (usually two unless we’re talking a Grand Prix… which, conveniently, breaks in the format here in the US). Go to as many Pro Tour Qualifiers as you can and do as well as you can, and you may very well be the deserving recipient of a ratings invite to the Pro Tour.

Here is where it gets tricky… and you can use this system to your advantage, if you know what it is saying. Ratings are now done by player rather than by assembled team, calculated match after match by re-calculating each individual player’s team rating for that format based on the usual mathematical formula for calculating a ratings change. It takes the average of your team’s rating, compares it to the average of their team’s rating, and determines the point shift based on the difference between your personal rating and their team’s average rating… and applies the shift. Regardless of how good your teammates are, how highly ranked their rating may be, if you have a 1600 rating and your team beats an 1800 rating team, you get to roll in the points… even if they don’t lose too many of them to you, because your team rating averages much higher than your 1600 rating.

The beautiful thing that this means is that your team need not always consist of the same three players every time, because you are trying to get your “Team Standard” rating as high as you can, so that at the end of the day you can put your magic numbers together, see it end up over 1700 for the three players averaged together, and plan a trip to the Pro Tour. If one of you can’t make it, you don’t have to miss the Pro Tour Qualifier for all three of you… so if your buddy Fred is getting married that weekend, and really he just can’t do anything about it (not even have the bachelor party at the Magic tournament!) then you can drop Fred to his impending marital bliss, find a replacement player who is in a similar bind, and kick some faces in together. You’ll earn points for your average rating, increasing your rating for two thirds of your players and thus getting some work done in getting over the 1700 bubble.

Or you could, y’know, go to your friend’s wedding. Just saying.

This also means that you can change horses in mid-season if things just aren’t working out, find new partners and go on your merry way. Previously, your rating with those two other players only counted with those other players… and if in the middle you change your mind about who you should be playing with, half the season was already wasted towards the rating goal and you’d never make it to the Pro Tour in that little time with two completely new players, starting back at 1600.

Here’s the catch, though: there really aren’t very many tournaments to play in for this season, with most areas very lucky if they get three. No Grand Prix Trials still waiting to be played, at least here in the U.S., and you have only between the opening of the season on March 25th and the deadline for the ratings freeze, May 3rd. If you squeeze all the time you can out of this, it’s still just six weekends to achieve your goals… and to get a PTQ each weekend may require an astounding feat of travel that is just preposterous in some areas.

So, scope out the qualifier schedule here, and if you’re really savvy you can use the “Find All Tournaments…” search engine on the DCI website to look and see a list of all sanctioned tournaments for the Team Standard format, and see if you get lucky by having more options than the rest of us get. Then choose your team-mates, if you haven’t already, and then choose your decks… but choose wisely.

Fortunately, while there are relatively few qualifiers before the May 3rd deadline in any one particular area, the PTQ schedule will be continuing on past that date and seems to be (at least in North America) more swollen after that deadline than before. For those who don’t manage to squeak in a ratings invite, there’s still always the “win a qualifier” plan.

With that said about how to best maximize your chances to capitalize on a winning record and get the ratings invite, the question will inevitably be raised as to how you build your Team Unified Standard decks in order to accomplish what you are trying to do. Some teams use different guidelines than others, and a few of the important ones are:

* Identify the best cards in the format and choose decks based on the ability to maximize their use. Let no Melokus, Keigas, Hierarchs, Arenas, etcetera, etcetera go unplayed.

* Identify the best strategies in the format and choose decks based on the ability to maximize your play with those strategies. Whatever colors you are playing, every deck must beat down: Black/White Aggro a la Ruel, R/W/G Zoo, Gruul Deck Wins.

* Identify the common strategies your opponents will play, and craft three decks to beat those strategies. If you can accurately predict that your opponents will play Ghost Dad, Heezy Street, and U/R Tron as their three decks, regardless of which of those three matchups you get you can build a deck to beat just those three decks… or perhaps even build three decks to beat just those three decks.

* Pick three decks that are very good and do not fight each other for cards, and tweak and tune them to have the best chance in the post-Honolulu metagame (again, without fighting the other two decks for cards). This is very close to the first strategy, as it will probably break down as “the Jitte deck”, “the Divining Top deck”, and “the Counterspell deck”.

Whichever of these methods you are trying to apply, you will likely find it very difficult indeed to place all of your cards in each deck without overlapping, especially with some hot commodities present in the format. A lot of decks would ideally like to have Umezawa’s Jitte either in their main or in the sideboard, and there are plenty of decks trying to use Stomping Grounds, Godless Shrine, and Steam Vents to maximum effect… so playing Sea Stompy destroys your ability to effectively play any Zoo decks and any other Blue/Red decks, like Owling Mine, Izzetron, Eminent Domain, Kamiel Cornelissen’s U/R/W Firemane Angel deck, or the Magnivore deck.

Maximizing your choices requires an intimate familiarity with Standard, and after learning how off-the-mark I was about the role of aggressive decks (a shock by which I am sure I was not the only person to be caught unprepared, but at least I didn’t have to fly to Honolulu and find out I was wrong the hard way), I believe I still require some more time just playing the decks from Honolulu before I can effectively speak on where to proceed onward. There are a lot of good things coming out of the Pro Tour, and a lot of the decks that caught my eye in the standings afterwards seem to be doing very well in the post-Honolulu Magic Online metagame. I am pleased to peek in on that emerging metagame to see the things I had in mind playing out in others’ thoughts as well. For a more comprehensive look at Magic Online results in the week following Honolulu, check out Blisterguy’s weekly MTGO Metagame article here.

One deck I feel deserves more attention than it has been getting is the Dutch Weirding deck, a control deck I have been playtesting somewhat extensively in the past week after it caught my eye:

This deck seems to stick out like a sore thumb: it’s not based on a Guildpact guild, a Ravnica guild, or a pre-existing set of good cards from Kamigawa Block. It’s a Blue-White Control deck in a world that does not seem friendly to it, powered up at least a little by some Boros Guild cards… but not the Boros Guild cards that might be expected, what with Firemane Angel being a rather rogue choice. In so many ways, this defies the convention of what happened at this Pro Tour. It caught my notice right off the bat.

As faithful as I might want to be to a deck that has names like “Nuijten” and “Cornelissen” attached to it, there are a few rules to building decks for Team Standard that have to be obeyed. If this is going to be our Red/Blue deck, then fine: but we can’t necessarily cede our copies of Gifts Ungiven in addition to the Blue/Red lands and the Red/White bit of the Zoo deck, because this deck is asking for an awful lot. It’s claiming all of our Red/White and all of our Blue/Red cards – thanks to its mana base – in addition to some card choices; it’s claiming some of our Gifts, most of our Melokus, all of the Descendants of Kiyomaro (that are finding their way into Black/White decks of various flavors), and all of our key countermagic save for Remandplus the Jushi Apprentices besides. If you can negotiate on the Gifts, perhaps replacing it with Tidings (to attempt to improve the rather bad Black/White Aggro matchup, or at least the ones with discard… so far Ghost Dad has proven to be a virtual bye), then you can still consider Greater Gifts as an option to explore for deck number two. This deck also plays well with Heezy Street and Ghost Dad as its companion decks, with only Descendant of Kiyomaro and splitting up the Jittes in the appropriate fashion to interfere between the three decks.

My testing so far has suggests that portions of the sideboard are out of place, as the deck seems to have anti-control elements that may not be needed in the post-Hawaii metagame. In the squabble for cards, this deck plays nice so long as you can concede the chance to play Izzetron (I’m fine with that decision), Owling Mine (another deck I would be content to not play), and the Magnivore deck, plus choose either Gruul Deck Wins or Heezy Street over the full three-color Zoo deck (that wants the Lightning Helix/Sacred Foundry element from Kamiel’s deck). You can get by without the Gifts if you want to share with another deck, though you can’t really divvy up the Wraths between this deck and Greater Gifts, and against some portions of the metagame it’s better just to try and restock your hand with Tidings than to outmaneuver them with Gifts Ungiven.

There is one thing I don’t like to see, however, and that is sixty-one cards where sixty will do fine. Meloku is good, but the number of decks able to play Cranial Extraction for your win conditions in game 1 is very small, with just the Dimir House Guard-powered Black/White decks playing any Extractions in the maindeck.

Making even one choice of a deck with a week and a half left in the deadline before Grand Prix Madison seems premature, however, as there is still a lot of ground to cover… and choosing to omit three of the eight decks from the Top 8 to play the deck that finished fifteenth is a tough sell no matter whose name is on the decklist. In the meantime, keep your eyes peeled for loose bits of technology, and for decks that stand apart from the Honolulu metagame. Next week I will be leaning on Blisterguy’s eye into the electronic world of digital cards in order to find specific clues on how to budget your cards accordingly in this format… a format that’ll be broken-in during one of the most open and viable metagames we’ve ever seen.

Sean McKeown
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