Magical Hack: Attacking for Two

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In preparation for the New Dawn of Limited Play, Sean takes us through some fundamental attacking scenarios. With practical examples, he examines the likely effect of Flanking, Morph, and Suspend. Looking for an edge when Time Spiral hits the streets? Then this is the article for you!

Following up on last week’s article, this week our interest in waxing nostalgically upon the distant past will look more into the framework of how these things are likely to interact. We know a bit more about how everything is going to work out, having officially seen Suspend cards in the “authorized” previews, and our unofficial sources have been interesting and may potentially have gotten themselves in a fair bit of trouble. Last week, an eBay auction went up selling a lot of 71 Time Spiral cards, two Rares, a fair smattering of Uncommons, and some other interesting bits and pieces. As an unofficial source, it helped fill out the unofficial spoiler that is being compiled on MTG Salvation… and individual card details on unknown cards aren’t going to be discussed here. Call it prudence in not aiming to get this here fine website here in trouble, or call it a prejudice favoring the readership who want to know a bit about the upcoming expansion (and thus read the Wizards of the Coast previews) but don’t actually want to know everything, thus spoiling the pre-release experience. In the end it’s just smart not to talk about Card X or OMG did you see the new Flametongue!!!!!111!!!eleven!

What I will let out of the bag is that there are more and more curious things coming out of Time Spiral than we really expected, and the Orb of Insight will catch each and every one of the 301 cards in the Time Spiral expansion we’ll see at the prerelease in a little more than a week’s time now… but not necessarily every card you can open in a pack. Early official press releases talked about Time Spiral as a larger-than-normal set, only to see that release immediately refuted, the “Time Spiral is a standalone expansion with 301 cards in it” party line strictly reinforced, and whoever was responsible for those press releases was sacked. And then the people sent to sack the people who sent the press releases were also sacked. Sooner or later, every Wizards employee save Mark Rosewater will be replaced by llamas, at this rate… but I digress. What is important to note is that we are switching from Coldsnap Limited, which is a small set that is played with just itself as if it were a standalone, to Time Spiral Limited, which is going to be a bigger than usual set. Where individual cards in multiple copies were the norm in Coldsnap Draft and Sealed play, here we’re going to see a world where individual cards are just less important because there are so damn many of them.

We go, now, from the world of Constructed decks that you draft, to an even power band of a different stripe: when there are just more cards in the common slot, a “normal” distribution of power will ensure that each individual card is less important, while the role that the card fills is even more so. This is the world ripe with aggressive mechanics, so learning to draft and play in a beatdown format will mean figuring out how to use all the moving parts. This is actually something that can be accomplished without requiring the knowledge of even a single card, as it is only the relative proportions of each mechanic that is really going to define how this all plays out. Similar to the Magic Academy series, we’ll be taking a look at the theory behind attacking for two, and getting a feel for how this set is going to play out.

Let us accept as the industry standard the following creatures:

Burning-Shield Askari
Creature – Human Knight.
RR: Burning-Shield gains first strike until end of turn.

Snarling Undorak
Creature – Beast
2G: Target Beast gets +1/+1 until end of turn.
Morph 1GG. (You may play this face down as a 2/2 creature for (3). Turn it face up any time for its morph cost.)

Albino Troll
Creature – Troll
1G: Regenerate Albino Troll.
Echo. (At the beginning of your next turn’s upkeep after Albino Troll comes into play, pay its mana cost or sacrifice Albino Troll.)

These will be our standard-issue creatures, and seeing how they interact will perhaps give us information about how to properly draft these mechanics when they work together, and give us a good idea of the interplay of this set when we get to see the actual cards. For the purpose of these little thought-experiments, Player A will always play first, and both Player A and Player B will always have access to whatever colors of mana they need each turn from the basic lands that they play. Understanding how these cards work in a vacuum is best determined by ignoring how these things work under strain, so the Snarling Undorak player will always have GG if they need it.

Situation 1 will be as follows:

Player A has Albino Troll and Snarling Undorak; Player B has Burning-Shield Askari.

Both players play land on the first turn and pass the turn. Player A plays a second land and casts Albino Troll; Player B plays a second land and passes the turn back. Player A pays his echo cost, keeping Albino Troll around, and plays a third land before attacking. B goes to 17, and A passes the turn with that third mana unspent. Player B plays land number three and Burning-Shield Askari.

On the fourth turn, Player A still has the serious tempo advantage, as his Troll will be getting through unblocked and he can follow it up with a fourth land and Snarling Undorak face up. Even if Player B attacks on his next turn, the flanker and Undorak will trade in combat; Player A has no reason not to just go to 18 and crack back for six damage instead. Player B had better have an impressive card for his fourth turn… and even if he has an Undorak of his own, both of his opponent’s creatures still severely outclass his when attacking. Victory, Player A.

Let us reverse the hands for Situation 2, and see what happens:

Both players again drop a land on turn 1 with no other action. On turn 2, A drops a land and passes, while B plays Albino Troll. On turn 3, A plays Burning-Shield Askari, while B echoes his Troll, attacks, and plays a third land. For turn 4, A gets to attack and presumably play another creature, let’s say in this case it’s our dear friend Snarling Undorak again. Player B goes to 18, then attacks Player A back to 14 before playing his own Undorak.

On Player A’s fifth turn, he is behind by four life points, but will be attacking for five damage which his opponent cannot easily answer. If his turn 5 play is considerable enough to steal the ability to attack unhindered from his opponent, like a 4/4 for 5, having gone first turns the clear loser Burning-Shield start into a position from which has the ability to catch up. Instead of a 18-14 disadvantage going into turn 5, and facing off against six damage with built-in tricks, the Burning-Shield start is at an 18-14 disadvantage going into turn 5, but is the one attacking for five points more or less unhindered and with the first ability to play a bigger drop to further negate the early advantage gained by the Albino Troll start. On turn 5, Player B’s Albino Troll should be giving serious consideration to life as a blocker, especially if Player A has a good follow-up to his previous play.

Switching the tables lets the beatdown player win, regardless of which hand he started with. Now let’s switch it up: instead of Burning-Shield Askari versus Albino Troll and Snarling Undorak, we’ll give Player A Burning-Shield Askari and Snarling Undorak, and Player B gets the Albino Troll. Situation 3:

As always, there being no one-drops here, Players A and B play a land and say go. Player A plays a second land and does nothing for turn 2, while Player B drops Albino Troll. For turn 3, Player A casts Burning-Shield Askari, while Player B echoes his Troll and attacks for three (A: 17, B: 20.). For turn 4, Player A attacks finally (A: 17, B: 18), and casts Snarling Undorak. Player B now gets the option of attacking for three (A: 14, B: 18) if he has a follow-up play, or staying back to block and regenerate, and either creature can save itself (A: 17, B: 15). If we give Player B the industry-standard Undorak for turn 4, Player A is going into his fifth turn at 14-18 disadvantage, but he can catch up that turn (14-13, or even 14-12). This is perfectly acceptable for Player A, who gets to be the first to spend five mana, and absent anything else happening Player B can at best slow the board, taking 2 from the Askari and maintaining parity with the Undorak.

Situation 4 is the same role, reversed.

Once again nothing happens on turn 1. If this were an actual match, cub reporter Blisterguy would have totally skipped its existence in the tournament coverage, and who could blame him for whipping out his Game Boy and filling the report with photoshopped imagery of Steve Irwin or perhaps just a “nothing happened turn 1, doinga doinga doinga!” Turn 2, Player A gets the drop on Player B, casting Albino Troll. Player B does nothing, so Player A echoes his Troll and attacks for three. Player B now has the option of Morphing or dropping the flanker, and there’s no reason not to just drop the flanker. Player A attacks for three again, and may or may not get full use out of his four mana this turn; Player B attacks for two (it’s not like a 2/2 is so great at blocking 3/3’s) and casts his Snarling Undorak. Player A enters his fifth turn attacking his opponent to 11, while still at a mighty 18 himself, and gets the first opportunity to spend five mana. His opponent can attack him back for five, maybe six if he pumps, which then allows him to attack the opponent to 8 while himself falling to “just” 12 or 13, still in the lead. The following attack brings the opponent to 5 and him to 5 with an all-out double-pump on the Undorak, leaving the opponent at a precarious two life but his exposed belly falls to the flanker-Undorak combo unless he has some way to follow up on the early lead granted by Albino Troll’s cheap fat and regeneration. Player A can at best reach board parity… but it’s a much narrower affair in this case, a much more exciting race than the 8-to-0 final tally that happens if the Albino Troll player goes second.

And it is these next two situations that may tell us more of how the proof is in the pudding… for Situation Five, it’s Snarling Undorak versus Albino Troll and Burning-Shield Askari. Let’s give the Undorak draw to Player A first, and see how this pans out:

Both players play a land (crikey!), and Player A drops a second land and passes while Player B casts, unsurprisingly, Albino Troll. Player A then drops a third land and morphs Snarling Undorak (holy crap, he has Morph? Our prior examples didn’t think so…), while Player B echoes his Albino Troll before contemplating the attack.

Morphs are tricksy, and the best morph in Onslaught Block, Zombie Cutthroat, turns a 17-20 attack into a 15-20 blowout as two turns of mana are eaten by a 3/4 Zombie. Assuming such things aren’t possible, though, Troll-boy gets to attack, and Undorak attacks and unmorphs, so it’s 17 all. However, Player B’s mana curve is all snarled up, as his turn 3 play in hand has to come down turn 4 instead. Player A can’t win the race, he’s started too far behind (14-17), so his best bet is to stay back with the Undorak, block, and pump. This can drop him to 11 but kill the Askari, leaving him stabilized at 11 with Undorak and Troll standing off. However, he is likewise the first to get to spend either four or five mana, so any subsequent plays will be strong ones, especially since the Undorak can always attack and only become a 3/3 if the Askari tries to block and kill it. The poor interaction of an Echoing two-drop with the crucial three-drop has finally caught up with someone, as we’ll see again in the next example.

Situation 6:

Both players play their first land, and Player A leads off with Albino Troll while Player B does nothing. Player A echoes the Troll, with Burning-Shield Askari laughing at him mockingly. However, he does get to attack, so it’s 17-20. Player B drops a third land and a Morph, what could it be? Who cares, Albino Troll attacks on turn 4 (14-20) and down comes Burning-Shield Askari. Player B has terrible options: attack and unmorph (14-17), attack and stay morphed (14-18) unless the opponent blocks with Burning-Shield Askari (why would he?), or stay back to block (your creature dies for no reason, but you save three damage). Considering we have no four-drop, which may or may not be how these things play out in reality, it’s 14-17 and Player A gets to attack back to drop Player B to 9. Player B then stays untapped and uses his Undorak to block, going to 6 to kill the flank knight then seeing Undorak and Albino Troll stare at each other pointlessly.

So… after six examples, we’ve switched these things around and seen one thing quite clearly: in each of the three permutations of who gets which creatures, going first was much, much better than going second. With any follow-up on subsequent turns, the aggressive player can bury the opponent, regardless of which set of creatures he has. Some readers will have intuitively grasped this fact, and skipped forward past all of those examples to get to what I am actually talking about, which now appears at last. If you are not one of the players who grasped where this was going to end up from the get-go, my apologies if you chose to spend five minutes of your life following the back-and-forth of Albino Trolls, Askaris, and Undoraks attacking relentlessly. It’s not my fault you didn’t keep the receipt, you spend your life as you see appropriate; I don’t give refunds.

Last week, we pointed out that there are likely to be X Morph creatures, Y Echo creatures, and Z Flanking creatures in Time Spiral proper, and who knows how many different ones you can actually open in booster packs. Almost certainly there will be more than the Orb-of-Insight-advertised number, if one is mindful of the fact that the Rancored Elf lawsuit began lo these many moons ago based on two “playtest” cards that had images posted, one of which was a reprinted Morph from Onslaught Block whose name does not appear in the Orb of Insight. Considering we’ve seen a purple-expansion-symbol Akroma, Angel of Wrath (and Boobies!) in living color up on Adult Swim, and the word “Akroma” doesn’t come up in the Orb of Insight, we know for a fact that while the Orb of Insight isn’t “lying” per se it’s certainly not “telling the whole story” by any means. “Stealth” morphs, flankers, and echoers are quite possible, and we won’t know if it’s so (or how many) until we actually see exactly what’s going on.

So: we have X+Y+Z Morph / Echo / Flanking creatures, plus U+V+W “purple” Morph / Echo / Flanking creatures. And as our examples played out, they are all effectively interchangeable for the purpose of beating down, meaning drafting your deck by the mana curve to play out consistently on that curve is going to be incredibly important. You have a very broad power band of these “middle” cards, then, with the industry standard being a 2/2 for 3 that is difficult to block… either because of Flanking, or because it can grow larger to kill the defender at no cost of a card by unmorphing. Individual cards are going to be less important than ever before, at least as far as picking from a pick order goes: once you enter the top of the power band, everything on that list of picks down to the bottom of the power band is really pretty much interchangeable. If that weren’t true, it wouldn’t be in the power band… falling below the band if it’s a weakling, or above the power band if it’s truly better than everything else. Coldsnap taught us that a very even power band is a good thing, as you get decks that are chock full of playables even when things don’t turn out perfectly, and the small set size means you can try to collect the most copies of Pokemon A and still fall back on the lower picks from the even power band… if drafting all the Sound the Calls doesn’t work out, the Simian Brawlers you picked up later on will probably still beat down reasonably well.

Working with a broad power band will bring us back to the days of drafting specifically for a curve, first-picking flank knights or the best morphs and working for quick aggression. Clearly we know nothing about what else is going on in this set, as we’ve seen however few cards (officially), and most of them are Rares, which tells us precious little about how Limited play will work out. Imagine the following interplay:

Player A has joined the match.
Player B has joined the match.
Blisterguy is viewing the match.
Turn one (Player A)
Player A plays Plains.
Turn one (Player B)
Player B plays Island.
Player B: “Doinga, doinga, doinga!”
Blisterguy disconnects.
Turn two (Player A)
Player A plays Plains.
Player A plays Knight of the Holy Nimbus.
Turn two (Player B)
Player B plays Island.
Player B plays Errant Ephemeron with Suspend (Suspend = 3).
Player A: “Nice card.”
Player B: “Thanks.”
Turn three (Player A)
Player A declares attackers (Knight of the Holy Nimbus)
Player A plays Mountain.
Player A plays a face-down creature with Morph.
Player B: “I wonder what that is…”
Player A: “Off-color morph, obv.”
Player B: “Nice deck.”
Turn three (Player B)
Player B removes a time counter from Errant Ephemeron.
Player B plays Plains.
Player B plays Ith, High Arcanist with Suspend (Suspend = 4).
Player A: “Nice rare.”
Player B: “Thanks.”
Turn four (Player A)
Player A declares attackers (Knight of the Holy Nimbus, morph)
Player A plays Mountain.
Player A plays Hill Giant.
Turn four (Player B)
Player B removes a time counter from Errant Ephemeron.
Player B removes a time counter from Ith, High Arcanist.
Player B plays Plains.
Player B plays a face-down creature with Morph.
Player A: “I wonder what that is…”
Player B: “My other rare, obv.”
Turn five (Player A)
Player A declares attackers (Knight of the Holy Nimbus, morph, Hill Giant)
Player B declines to block.
Player A plays Mountain.
Player A plays Knight of the Holy Nimbus.
Player A plays a face-down creature with Morph.
Player B: “I wonder what that is…”
Player A: “STFU n00b”
Turn five (Player B)
Player B removes a time counter from Errant Ephemeron.
Player B plays Errant Ephemeron. Errant Ephemeron gains haste.
Player B removes a time counter from Ith, High Arcanist.
Player B declares attackers (Errant Ephemeron, morph)
Player A declines to block.
Player A: “gg”
Turn six (Player A)
Player A declares attackers (Knight of the Holy Nimbus, Knight of the Holy
Nimbus morph, morph, Hill Giant)
Player B dies a cruel, cruel death.
Player B: “My 4/4 is way better than all your stupid 2/2’s.”
Player A: “Then why are you dead? Idiot.”
Player B: “You drew like a lucksack, newb.”
Player A unmorphs.
Ravitz: “Die pls. tks.”
Player B disconnects.

Suspend is the mechanic that is not like the others; time may be a resource you can spend instead of mana, but it’s still something precious you have to defend… dying in the meantime equals card disadvantage, right? Errant Ephemeron is a 4/4 flier for “just” 1U instead of 6U, but that “and three turns” means it’s still a five-drop and you just did nothing on your second turn. You can only do so much nothing before you die. If you’re doing nothing and your opponent is doing something, or worse yet attacking, it doesn’t have to be very good “something” to be better than your ‘nothing.” This doesn’t mean that Suspend is bad… but you’ll have to treat a Suspend creature just like you would any other large drop, and curve your deck accordingly.

Knight of the Holy Nimbus, mentioned above, is probably first-pick-worthy, the rest of the set unseen. We’re getting a 2/2 flanker for two, and it does other stuff. A turn 5 4/4 flier is awesome too… but it’s a five drop, it doesn’t affect the board in the early turns, and, worse yet, to even get it to be a five-drop you have to waste an earlier turn just to enable it. Suspend guy, Suspend guy should pretty much always lose to two-drop, Morph. Knight of the Holy Nimbus is above the broad power band, a common that beats down better than the rest of the bunch… but any other two-drop is perfectly acceptable when you’re attacking, as we learned in Onslaught Block Limited. In the world of aggression, playing first and drafting a consistent deck that hits its curve is going to be better than, well, not doing so. There are a lot of different mechanics that are basically interchangeable, for the purposes of beating down, so just taking the card that plugs into the right spot on the mana curve is going to be a big deal.

Plenty of people won’t know this, initially. Many of these people will probably suffer for that lack of knowledge. Welcome to Time Spiral… where time is on your side, and tempo is the key to pushing the opponent off the table. Consistency is key, and the mana curve is your friend. Learn it and love it, or suffer the consequences.

Sean McKeown
smckeown @ livejournal.com

“Are you ready, Weaver? Then spin… the Wheel of Fish!”
“Ahhh! Red snapper! Mmmm, very tasty! Okay, Weaver, you can either hold onto your red snapper, or you can go for what’s in the box that Hiro-San is bringing down the aisle right now!”
“What’s it going to be, Weaver?”
“I’ll take the box! The box!”
“You took the box! Let’s see what’s in the box!”