Magical Hack: Hacking Into The New Year

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With Worlds behind us and 2007 looming, Sean looks forward to what tomorrow brings… specifically, Extended. He waxes lyrical on his choice for the coming PTQ season – at least, his choice for Week 1 – and gives his thoughts on the coming City Championships. All this, plus a possible metagame-wrecking Standard deck!

With the coming of the holiday season, we enter into that reflective time when many look upon the past year’s deeds and make resolutions for the new year soon to come. In terms of Magic, there’s inevitably a plethora of “year in review” articles, from the lack of new content on MagicTheGathering.com and two weeks of “best hits,” to more specified offerings like Stephen Menendian Vintage Year In Review. As far as Magical Hack is concerned, these “Timeshifted” themes don’t really apply; the goal is always to stay at or near the cutting edge of the week’s metagame, and looking at a review of what happened six months ago is… well… so six months ago. It’s not exactly more special because I wrote it; whether I was wrong or I was right, it’s definitely wrong now. Looking at the past is useful for researching viable strategies or figuring out a template for something inherently similar to a previous deck, but waxing nostalgically about the year’s trip on the metagame roller-coaster is about as useful as the nipples on the Batsuit (hint: they’re supposed to ward off kittens.) We’re entering an exciting period not yet explored on as broad a scale as we are about to see, with tons of amazing things on the horizon.

For one, we are about to see the start of the City Championships series… a months-long series of events leading up to Regionals, which will reward your local neighborhood’s Renaissance mages. With a minimum requirement of both Standard and Limited play, those who are well-practiced and skilled in both will do well, and ultimately ability in both 40-card and 60-card Magic will be a necessity for success. More interestingly perhaps is the ability to offer stranger things as part of the tournament series, and I suspect more than a few Extended events will be present as we enter the next PTQ season, and even some Legacy and Vintage tournaments where the community’s interest demands it… or perhaps even just to be broadening, if your local tournament organizer has a sense of humor.

Back in the heyday of Neutral Ground Magic (or at least the heyday I was around to witness…) the Grudge Match series was amazing for creating player interest and a sort of community, as well as pushing the competitive edge of Magic farther than is usually seen outside of a specific season. I for one remember collaborations now lost to the days of yore, working with “Evil” Don Lim on tuning the perfect Yawgmoth’s Bargain deck when we noticed there was a sudden hole in the metagame, or working against him in the Replenish-versus-Fish “technology war” that came around as I got more and more tired of testing my awful Rock-like decks against his fine-tuned killing machine and just threw together a mono-Blue Fish deck that was destined to always beat Replenish… except on tiebreakers. The City Championships will hopefully help to spread that odd blend of camaraderie and rivalry within tightly-knit communities all over, with these very individual experiences in each locale tied together by the sweeping effects of the metagame as a whole.

This is a very good thing, if for no other reason than that it gives players something to compete over that feels worthwhile, and competition lets talent flourish… something already present in online Magic that currently is lagging behind in “paper” Magic. This is following up a year that had some of the best Constructed formats to play of all time, and some of the worst execution for letting people care about various interesting formats. The bell tolled for Ravnica Block Constructed the moment the last match was played at Pro Tour: Charleston, possibly one of the best and most interesting Block Constructed formats of all time, and one that would have been an amazing relief after two years of Affinity Block Constructed followed up by Jitte / Gifts Ungiven Block Constructed. Giving the players a reason to engage each other in a battle of wits draws interest and attraction like you wouldn’t believe, just so long as there’s something worth competing over… most people don’t need much of an incentive to play Magic on a regular basis, and definitely become better players, strategists, and deckbuilders through such competition. And let’s not forget the too-often forgotten “have fun” factor!

If Time Spiral brings back that nostalgia feel for cards long past and environments nearly forgotten, the City Championships can perhaps spread that particularly nostalgic memory of mine for all to share… and advance the level of competition to new heights as the Iron Man Challenge of metagaming begins so very, very soon. And while it does so we’ll also have plenty of other things to anticipate… as we are now less than a month away from the Planar Chaos pre-release, and pretty much no one has any actual hint of a clue what we’re going to see in the Magical version of “Days Of Future Present”… or is this Magic’s Crisis On Infinite Dominarias?

Triple Time Spiral Limited is thoroughly amazing, with depths as-yet unexplored (or at least still unmastered) except by a very elite few. This time last year, we were all getting pretty tired of Golgari versus Dimir versus Boros versus Selesnya, and I for one had thrown off the guild model to draft Izzet almost exclusively despite not being supported by the Ravnica cards yet… there was very little room for innovation at this point in time, and it seemed all the secrets had already been found… like Drake Drafting. Triple Time Spiral draft is still vibrant and alive with possibility, and it seems we are about to see things take a sharp left turn at Albuquerque as Planar Chaos arrives, bringing a deeper-than-normal pool of cards plus new themes and even more complexity with even more returning keywords, and more than a few things that are going to make you go bug-eyed the first time you see them…

Put away those fiery biscuits

Would you know my name if I saw you in Heaven?

Take incredible complexity and layer an extra dimension of incredible complexity, and unsurprisingly you have an incredibly complex thing to figure out, like 3-D Star Trek chess, or how it’s even possible that Kevin “K-Fed” Federline has a career. Play your flank knights next to your Bushido knights, run Affinity alongside Storm for humorous results, or just contemplate the sheer joy of a card with Kicker, Entwine, and Replicate. Blur the color pie, or even just Psionic Blast it entirely till it explodes, because color pie is best served warm, and the sheer madness of what we might just be stepping into promises to amaze. Before Time Spiral came out, I made a few educated guesses on how things were going to play out, searching the Orb of Insight and just going over the intrinsic interactions of the known returning mechanics in detail to make broad, sweeping guesses about thematic interactions. Even with a list of what abilities would be returning, out of the ten from Ravnica and the mess from Kamigawa and Mirrodin blocks, stacking all of this alongside Time Spiral’s abilities is just too much to try and process in one bite, requiring that I see the cards and break them down into smaller chunks before having the slightest clue as to how it will feel.

Again we are walking into 2007 bursting with excitement… but wait, there’s more, and that just happens to be the bulk of what has our attention right now: the start of a new Extended PTQ season, hot on the heels of what seems to have been an exciting month of Magic Online and following up on the results of the World Championships as played out on December 1st. Last week, the focus was reasonably limited in scope, keeping an eye on the how and why of metagaming: how to analyze the over-arching format as a whole for weaknesses, how to figure out where there is room to maneuver or to innovate in any given deck, and why one should weigh these things carefully against the rewards of focusing narrowly on the leading elements of the metagame, seemingly being Blue/White Tron, Boros, and Ritual Desire a.k.a. The Extended Perfect Storm (T.E.P.S.).

Nothing in metagaming is more rewarding than learning the tolerances of a specific deck and figuring out how to squeeze more out of it, or maybe even just make it more consistent. Looking at Scepter Chant suggested that switching two pain-lands for two more fetch-lands might be rewarding, and that careful critique remains true whether one goes further and squeezes in more colorless lands or not. Simply put, the debate over which pain-lands to play and whether you could squeeze in more colored mana with a slight shift is worth looking into, and replacing one Shivan Reef and one Adarkar Wastes with two copies of Wooded Foothills that can get you Red every time (plus your choice as needed of either Blue or White) goes from providing two Blue sources and one each of Red and White sources to two sources of each color… sneaking in one extra Red and one extra White mana. Looking at a manabase for potential improvement can be key, and one thing that is worth considering should be whether you can stretch the manabase to include another color for potentially amazing rewards, as in the example of your standard-issue Boros deck sneaking in Cabal Therapy for the combo match-up.

Having analyzed the starting trends that bring us into Week 1 of the PTQ season, more thorough testing is then needed to figure out what does and does not work. The Gigadrowses in the “standard issue” Scepter Chant copied directly from Roel van Heeswijk at Worlds fit a very specific sub-clause of the metagame, specifically being opposing control decks, letting you set up Gigadrowse into Teferi plus Scepter/Chant and lock the opponent out of the game. It seems reasonably apparent that the decks this might be best against just aren’t present, as there are really just not a lot of slow control decks in the format… there’s plenty of combo to go around, though, in addition to the beatdown decks Scepter Chant excels against. Playtesting and discussing advancing technologies pointed out that Defense Grid is becoming a mainstay of Ritual Desire sideboards to face off against Scepter Chant and decks like it… and while that’s not so bad, because Scepter Chant is already packing the requisite four copies of Spell Snare, it suggests that perhaps the Game 2 plan against Ritual Desire shouldn’t be the exact same game-plan as the Game 1 plan, if possible.

My weapon of choice so far is:

Just a few cards off of Roel’s list from Worlds, if you don’t consider the manabase switch to be especially significant… an Ancient Den becoming a Seat of the Synod, followed with the removal of that extra just-White source to sneak the same amount of White mana out of one fewer land (thus Ancient Den, Adarkar Wastes, and Shivan Reef became two Wooded Foothills plus a second colorless land). All that has really changed is to swap Fact or Fiction and Force Spike out for cards that focus more heavily on the combo-lock elements or living long enough to capitalize on the lock, and turning that one Exalted Angel into the fourth Teferi, under the premise that once the lock is in play it doesn’t matter what my opponent has, a second Scepter with either Fire / Ice or Lightning Helix will finish the opponent off. As good as Exalted Angel may be, it doesn’t fit the driving principle behind the deck, and the one problem with Fact or Fiction nowadays is that it costs four mana… four is already a crucial turn in Extended, and by turn 4 you should either live or die, not try to draw some cards off Fact or Fiction. Don’t get me wrong, Fact or Fiction is a ridiculously amazing card. It just happens to be that it’s one that is not currently suited to the environment of play, and so in the instances where it will be appropriate to cast, I’ll Wish for it and use it accordingly.

I won’t go so far as to say my tinkering with the deck is a clear improvement… but I did hone the deck to focus on a specific purpose, beating Boros and surviving the combo match-up by maximizing the ability to interrupt a critical turn with Orim’s Chant, thanks to the full “seven” copies in the main-deck. It does what it is supposed to do against Boros, thanks to Lightning Helix drastically changing the matchup into one where I am relatively favored. It also has more tools against combo, thanks to being a “combo” deck in and of itself, maximally streamlined perhaps by the addition of that fourth Cunning Wish… and Meddling Mage in the sideboard, to cure what ails ye. Meddling Mage on Burning Wish negates their ability to remove it from play, barring a single copy of Chain of Vapor in some cases, while also hampering the combo deck’s efficiency… and you can name plenty of other things besides, all likely depending on your ability to lock the opponent under a Scepter.

Clear improvement or otherwise, it hits the target neatly and accomplishes what I want it to do, which is to capitalize on the first-week PTQ environment that should be packed full of Boros decks and seeing Ritual Desire combo decks as the second most-populous deck in the field… as well as have at least some edge in the mirror match, thanks to the fact that only one of the two players can potentially wiggle out from under Teferi and I have more copies of the man himself anyway. (The loss of Fact or Fictions presumably hurts in the mirror, but as I said, you can always Wish for one, and I am not certain that FoF is “the key” to the mirror match anyway… with very limited countermagic and very few cards that actually need to be worried about, letting the opponent FoF all they want might be a reasonable strategy.)

With my weapon of choice picked out, all that has to be done now is to find the PTQ schedule… which has finally gone up at last. The first month of play is pretty sparse, at least in North America as announced so far, and the pre-release likely has at least something to do with that… as might the fact that there is no transition time between the Geneva and Yokohama qualifiers, because you can try to qualify for Geneva on the 30th of December then play for Yokohama come January 6th. And while I may have to give up my monthly live-action role-playing game to attend a PTQ, some sacrifices need to be made… and considering my enthusiasm and my preparation so far, the idea is to strike while the metagame still looks like the starting-point of Worlds and thus can be exploited.

… But as discussed earlier, the City Championships require us to pay attention to multiple formats, and we shall have to do exactly that. It’s too early to practice Limited with Planar Chaos, though if I were to magically possess that ability prior to the pre-release, I wouldn’t foolishly gloat about it here anyway. (I don’t, but I’m not stoopid, neither.) As we were gearing up for the State Championships, I’d been invited by Brian David-Marshall to join him and Mike Flores in a Top Eight Magic point-versus-counterpoint discussion-slash-argument over the quality of Desert, especially since my theorized deck going into the State Championships was a Wrath-free control deck sporting four of the Arabian Nights land. Part of the theorizing was that by getting to play four Voidslimes main-deck and playing for a Teferi under my control to begin with would limit Dragonstorm’s ability to wriggle out of control via Gigadrowse. Part of the theorizing is that Wall of Roots is amazing, and could allow you to accomplish so much if you tried to use it to further your Forbidian-style game-plan of maintaining board control while drawing cards. And part of it was that Desert and Wall of Roots could contain anything else between them and the occasional Repeal, making it an excellent deck of choice against aggressive decks like, say, Boros.

Having accidentally targeted the two most important components of the metagame that was known going into Worlds, it occurred to me that perhaps this “pet” deck I didn’t get to play at States (because I didn’t play) might be worth looking into more now that we know about decks like TriscuitTron and all those other odd decks. Clearly I’ll have to deck a Martyr-Tron deck, because I can’t stop a forecasted Proclamation of Rebirth nor deal enough damage to actually race Martyr of Rebirth. Fortunately, Compulsive Research has the word “target” on it, leaving them with just Chronosavant to avoid decking out… which might not be enough, if I’m playing for decking them from the very beginning. It tells me if nothing else that I may be on to something, and should investigate further… but lacking in Standard testing partners (everyone wants to focus on Extended) I’ll need to turn to Magic Online if I’m going to actually get a chance to work on this one.

I could post sets-of-ten like Flores, playing against Ravitz, but I don’t currently have a Ravitz to my Flores, and given my level of arrogance versus level of grumpy I’m not sure which side of that duo I’d actually best represent… I am arrogant, but also quite grumpy, especially if for example I have to do exhausting six-hour lab tests like I did today and yesterday. Or I could go fishing in the Tournament Casual room and pretend that the results of me versus Noob17345 (the latest in the Noob franchise!) is likely to be of any relevance. Instead the plan is to somehow acquire cards for the deck, by hook or by crook, and start running it in the MTGO tournaments… not just some silly 8-man, but actually sit down and find the time to play a real tournament… and log it, to provide results in detail, while also maybe just maybe breaking into the elimination rounds and earning a slight dot of recognition if the silly Snakes on a Desert deck makes it onto Karsten’s radar on any given Wednesday.

This takes preparation and apparently time, and there isn’t an event starting anytime between when I resolved to do this and the launch date for this article, so that will be the goal for next week’s Magical Hack: Sean’s 27th Birthday Edition. In the meantime, though, here’s the deck…

My testing with it for States was brief, to say the least, getting only a week’s testing in prior to States and only putting it through trial by fire at the Standard mock tournament where both I and Dan Olmo played it… only to face the unlikeliest of events, the Snakes on a Desert mirror match round 1. (Getting locked under Teferi is no fun, for the record, especially when you’ve been hemming and hawing and temporarily replaced your sideboarded Mouths of Ronom with other cards. The Hail Storms I was trying to use weren’t even any good against the beatdown decks I played against.) But aggressive decks don’t like to face off against many of the tools present between the deck and the sideboard, and the flow of the deck is clearly intended to gain tempo aggressively while making the game more difficult for the opponent, and incidentally gaining card advantage enough to win the game in there somehow on the backs of Compulsive Research and Ohran Viper.

Next week, however, we’ll gear up for the City Championships season with a more comprehensive look at the odd bits of Standard technology that drift through my brain in idle moments, hopefully with positive results from our trial by fire. The excitement coming into the New Year is palpable, no matter what format you’re interested… Vintage players get the first Waterbury tournament of the year coming up soon, Legacy has a Grand Prix coming up in the first half of the year, and for those who like Standard, Extended, and Limited, the world is your oyster. It is a good time to be playing Magic… though nothing is perfect, as Bennie Smith noted very unhappily that the City Championships season has passed over entirely too many would-be enthusiasts.

Sean McKeown
smckeown @ livejournal.com

Our old mess sergeant’s taste buds had been shot off in the war.
But his savory collations add to our esprit de corps.
To think of all the marvelous ways
They’re using plastics nowadays.
It makes a fella proud to be a soldier!
Tom Lehrer, “It Makes A Fellow Proud To Be A Soldier”