Magical Hack – Obvious In Hindsight

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Looking at the Hideaway lands, it’s very easy to misinterpret their values. The Blue one is reasonably easy to trigger in Limited, but a good deal closer to useless in sixty-card formats, while the Black one more or less seems terrible all around… though sadly I can confess to having won a game with it out of nowhere in a draft, because it required my opponent to be an idiot in order for me to do so.

With Worlds this past weekend, it was a bustling time around these parts as the Pro Tour stopped by New York City. My efforts to win the car were somewhat undercut by having an absolutely awful day preceding the Friday-evening scrum to get into the Sunday tournament, and it’s rather difficult to play Magic well when larger concerns like “so did I just get fired?!?” are going through your mind. We don’t need to go into the details, other than to say I’m fully aware of the mistakes I made and why I made them, and I still don’t believe the mistakes had anything to do with the deckbuilding portion. But Worlds did have one very radical effect, at least in my mind, and that was to reveal once again how easy it is to miss a key card when thinking about a format and thus ending up with very different testing metagame than actually appears at the tournament.

Looking at the Hideaway lands, it’s very easy to misinterpret their values. The Blue one is reasonably easy to trigger in Limited, but a good deal closer to useless in sixty-card formats, while the Black one more or less seems terrible all around… though sadly I can confess to having won a game with it out of nowhere in a draft, because it required my opponent to be an idiot in order for me to do so. The Green one is just such a large number, in either format, shenanigans with Nova Chaser aside… which leaves us with Spinerock Knoll and Windbrisk Heights as the two we might ever expect to really fire off. Windbrisk Heights is limited by the fact that attacking with White creatures is generally a poor play, and even when it isn’t that theoretical White attack deck will rarely be willing to skip a turn’s worth of aggressive mana development to maybe get a card out of it later. It’s likely the easiest to fire off in draft, but in sixty-card formats you have to face opposition like Tarmogoyf and Damnation blunting the weenie swarm or dampening the effectiveness of an all-out attack, all while board development to get three men is slowed by skipping your one-drop. That leaves us Spinerock Knoll, easily laughed off as one of the worst Hideaway lands (and only spared that title because of the train wreck that is the “Hellbent” Hideaway) by everyone in the world before Worlds, and now steadily an object of desire for deckbuilders everywhere.

You see, there’s just one thing about Red decks nowadays that we’d just plain forgot. Seven damage is a lot to get to in one turn, and conventional wisdom says you’d have to spend a lot of mana and play a lot of spells to get there, or find a way to pretend it’s the White Hideaway land with fast beaters without running into an even worse version of the “Win More” problem. Investing mana and spells just to get a free spell seems foolish, for a Red deck… until a little light-bulb clicks and points out that Red is now the color of Storm, and you can actually do some pretty degenerate things with Spinerock Knoll if you do the work for it. Unlike the other lands which take a lot of work to get to and then “just” get a free spell, with the Red Hideaway land you can get more than just a mere single spell out of the avalanche of spells you have to set into motion to trigger the Knoll anyway, thanks to the Storm mechanic… you can fire off a murderous shot indeed to finish the opponent off thanks to your putting all that work into this effort.

While complaining about the loss of Seething Song from Standard slaying Dragonstorm, nobody looked at “the Gassy Knoll” and saw a way to spend seven less on your Dragonstorms… at least not initially. (Except for possibly one John Mathias, who can be “proven” to be the first Innovator of the deck as far as you can prove anything on the Internet, who paired Knoll, Dragonstorm, and Hellkite with platinum hits like Spark Elemental and Conflagrate.)

Welcome, all, the latest competitor to the Standard metagame, the combo deck that has been found at last at Worlds… Dragonstorm.

12 Snow-Covered Mountain

4 Spinerock Knoll

4 Molten Slagheap

4 Fungal Reaches

4 Dragonstorm

4 Bogardan Hellkite

4 Grapeshot

4 Incinerate

4 Rift Bolt

4 Shock

4 Pyromancer’s Swath

4 Rite of Flame

4 Lotus Bloom


4 Dodecapod

3 Sulfurous Blast

2 Ancient Grudge

2 Ignite Memories

2 Empty the Warrens

2 Wheel of Fate

This is mixing Chapin’s sideboard with Nassif’s main-deck list, as I feel the execution is just that extra little bit cleaner with Nassif’s fourth copies of Pyromancer’s Swath and Rift Bolt instead of the two Tarfires in Chapin’s list… an argument I expect Worlds finalist and StarCityGames.com “The Innovator” will likely argue in his articles following up on Worlds. Just how extensively the deck has been goldfished to support either plan, I don’t know, but I suspect it would take a lot to drag us away from “clean” lists full of 4’s like the one above to drop in a few Tarfires. The leading argument behind three Swaths instead of the full four is that you never want to draw two, as they are ineffective in multiples, and I can accept that as a lesson learned via testing… but the Storm-friendly Rift Bolt seems harder for me to get past, and thus I like Nassif’s list better and likely will until I’ve gotten to test a month worth of games and have an independent opinion that is able to discern such a small difference between the two.

Seeing the deck in action, however, you really do have to say… congratulations, Mr. Uses Spinerock Knoll To Save Seven Mana On Dragonstorm Guy, you are a Real Man of Genius.

Legacy at Worlds was a far less interesting animal; nothing that was played seemed truly revolutionary, other than to note that the lowered population of the Goblin tribe matches pretty neatly with the trends I’d begun to point out last week from some hands-on experience the day before at Worlds. Counterbalance-Top-Goyf decks stapled onto a Threshold skeleton seemed to be the deck of the day, including some unusual additions intended to win the mirror match. A large variety of decks both well-known and relatively unknown hit the field, with an unusually high number of Dredge decks being perhaps the real surprise. A varied format played out across five rounds to end the tournament, though it did seem as if Tarmogoyfs had perhaps too big of a role in shaping the post-Flash metagame… but we still saw a large number of decks, like High Tide or the Goblin Charbelcher deck representing the “combo” portion of the field or controllish decks like Landstill or “42 Lands” – a deck using a Life from the Loam draw engine alongside a heavily spell-like manabase and enchantments that let you play a lot of lands quickly, such as Manabond, called such regardless of its actual land count in an individual build. For aggro or aggro-control you got Survival-based decks of various flavors, such as Welder Survival, and the whole host of Goyf Threshold decks, as well as newcomers such as “Dragon Stompy” (the Arc-Slogger deck played by Olivier Ruel, Omar Rohner, and nine others) which aims to prey on the heavily nonbasic land base of Legacy by overloading on Blood Moon effects.

What is truly surprising is the absolute paucity of Goblin decks, with 34 pilots out of some 400 or so being a far cry from its previous popularity in the format, also seeming to be a backlash from the printing of Tarmogoyf making the Threshold-type strategies just that much better than before. Perhaps ironically, the Goblins seem on the wane just as a fresh Tribal block has rotated in, and the main inclusions in Legacy so far seem to be one-mana wonders Ponder and Thoughtseize instead of any of the Boggart tribesmen. This is a sea change to the format that began at GP: Columbus, despite the Goblin deck finishing in the finals there, and it seems that the tightly-knit, highly-focused metagame in which Goblins was the best deck has unwound itself considerably to have a large number of highly relevant decks play out in the format.

Some hint of that had been obtained last week as well, playing through seven rounds of Legacy in hopes of skipping to Sunday play directly in the “Win a Car” tournament, which noted when I passed the deck off to Chris Manning to play in Legacy that it was heavily over-sideboarded against a matchup that would no longer be quite so common and which wasn’t quite as lopsided as it used to be if you drew too much discard in game one. The suggestion, to him and to those playing at home, is to replace the sideboarded Hail Storms with additional Shriekmaws, allowing you to sideboard up to the full four copies against Goyf/Counterbalance decks, as Shriekmaw dodges Counterbalance pretty nicely (even when Evoked) and the Threshold decks have a habit of folding to the pressure you can apply with the goofy Survival Madness deck if you can but get Tarmogoyfs out of the way. Early predictors showed Goblins was fading fast and Threshold-type builds were the flavor of the hour, a fact which was obvious both in foresight and in hindsight… Tarmogoyf really is the best Blue creature ever printed. They even made sure you can’t remove him from the game to cast Force of Will because that would be the wrong play, adding some element of artificial intelligence to the Threshold decks thanks to his Green border.

But the truly astonishing thing about the World Championships, if you were there to watch it and if you just sifted through all of the gems hard enough to find it, was to find a dissenting opinion on how to draft Lorwyn so successful at Worlds. One feature in particular, an interview with Adam Chambers by Bill Stark, pointed out that the undefeated-in—draft-at-Worlds Adam Chambers held to two very unusual beliefs that he put into practice for the draft portion… or perhaps two and a half, if you look at it from the right angle, as the third fact is more a matter of preference than truly shocking revelations.

1. Chambers prefers to draw first in LLL draft, a format generally considered by those who feel they are knowledgeable about what is going on to be tempo-oriented enough that playing first is generally accepted as “right,”

2. Chambers feels that drafting creature removal is much more important than drafting a good tribal deck. Instead of maximizing his own Tribal synergies, considered at best a tertiary priority behind quality removal and his mana curve, being able to isolate a tribally-themed deck’s key players like Lys Alana Huntsman and assassinate them on sight every game with your removal spells is, in his world-view, a much greater relevance of the Tribal-themed block than having such “all-or-nothing” Tribal themes in his own decks.

To quote: “I don’t really look to draft the tribes. If they come I’ll draft them, or if I open some card, like Thundercloud Shaman maybe, I’ll draft them, but I find that removal is more important than tribes. If you take away the key creature, the rest of the tribal cards aren’t too good. If you can kill the creature a deck is based around the rest isn’t so good.”

3. Chambers prefers to play 18 lands in his decks, to ensure he never misses an early land drop and to help afford expensive but high-quality cards in the four- and five-slot, as things like Mulldrifter, Warren Pilferers and Marsh Flitter have such a huge impact on the game that you don’t want to miss out on playing them in a timely fashion just to play some 23rd spell or creature of dubious quality.

With none of the other four 6-0 drafters seeming to eschew the tribal theme of the set, and at least one of them capitalizing heavily on the tribal interactions of the Kithkin (least-loved tribe that they often seem to be), it seems that this is not some “ultimate solution” but instead perhaps a second valid perspective on how to draft Lorwyn. Two of the five 6-0’s heavily favored an aggressive strategy with definite attention to its curve, one favoring White-based beatdown while the other trended towards Black-Red for its fast men, which kind of puts a damper on the “draw first” strategy as “the only valid strategy.” However, with eight different tribes and plenty of ways to mix and match, it should come as no surprise that there would be more than one valid way to draft Lorwyn… even if these competing draft strategies have little to do with the tribal theme of the set.

Striking out to attack a meta-theme instead of bowing to the tribal theme, it seems most interesting that the key to Chambers’ drafts was summed up as “If you take away the key creature, the rest of the tribal cards aren’t too good.” As good as it is to have a Lys Alana Huntmaster powering up your Elf deck, how much better is it to be able to murder said Huntmaster before his mischief is managed? With the top commons in each color identified as the key signals to send you into one or another tribe as a potentially open draft archetype, it should come as little surprise that killing those commons that tie a deck together is likewise a powerful plan. Ultimately a really good Lorwyn deck has some key synergies, and if you excise the core of that synergy before it has had any effect then the opponent’s cards go back to “just” working together maybe as part of a theme.

Opposing theories have been known to work in different Limited formats… one need look no further than the Dampen Thought archetype from Kamigawa Block Limited to see that sometimes things could get a little crazy if you look at things differently than everyone else. A more accurate comparison however would be to the “all removal” draft strategy of Time Spiral Block, something that never really caught on but did catch attention as a competing strategy, or the “Drake Draft” strategy that appeared towards the end of triple Ravnica Limited. And some elements of this opposing theory resonate quite well — after all, it doesn’t take a lot of figuring to realize it might be a good idea to always point your Nameless Inversions at their Lys Alana Huntmasters — but other parts make me nervous as all too frequently I draft decks that, well, want to play first. I find blanket statements, including “draft decks always want to play first,” to be too general… and thus find just as much fault with “always draw” as I do with “always play” when instead you can use a mix of both strategies as is appropriate for the deck and matchup.

It’s hard to argue with success, though. Clearly there must be something going on if he can choose to draw first six rounds out of six, and win six rounds out of six. Unlike “Spinerock Knoll is an Impulse that favors Storm decks,” which I might go so far as to say seems obvious in hindsight once the innovation has been let loose, I don’t think that the “ignore tribal and draw first” perspective is “obvious in hindsight.” Frankly it makes me nervous as it clashes with everything I think I know about the format, in what must at this point be a hundred or more drafts worth of experience, and it’s much more comfortable for me to chalk it up as it being well-suited to one person’s play style rather than to learn that everything I know is wrong.

However, it’s always a good idea to challenge one’s assumptions, and that element of nervousness and resistance to change is an excellent way to not learn in the future because I’ve stuck my fingers in my ears. Suffice it to say I think that this perspective will take some time to work into my brain and will have to argue with everything else I seem to think I know about the format, but that elements of such a radically different approach seem reasonable enough that it needs to be mulled over instead of dismissed. After all, it could just be true that everything we know is wrong, and that a radically different perspective on what is going on in Lorwyn Limited happens to also fit with “how things work.”

I’ll still likely pump the fist anytime someone wins the die roll and chooses to draw against me on MTGO… it’s happened a few times already, and I’ve pretty much always won those matches, so one man’s competing opinion functioning as part of a whole different strategy might just win me more matches if those emulating that strategy fail to espouse everything it intends to encompass. It pays attention to an entirely different aspect of “how Lorwyn draft games play out,” on a higher level of the draft meta-game, and failure to apply such concepts in full are really just going to butt heads with what you should be doing.

Coming into the New Year, then, what have we learned from Worlds? We have learned new things about a few formats, getting some food for thought about Lorwyn limited that we have about a month to apply before Morningtide comes out, and will have the basic skeleton of the 2007 Dragonstorm deck available for play throughout the next year or so of Standard play. Black-Green decks took the top honors overall, some including Doran the Siege Tower, whose power as a three-mana 5/5 was never in doubt… apparently adding some of the best Planeswalkers and the most dangerous of the Commands can make a color combination good, who knew? And if we learned anything about Legacy it’s that it didn’t break when you threw the Pro’s at it, despite the apparent penchant for attempting to throw Cephalid Illusionist decks and Dredge decks into a format that previously had not taken a great interest in attempting to abuse the Dredge mechanic. While Legacy has certainly changed in recent months, with Goblins on the way out and Tarmogoyf as the rising star, it’s important to note that this change was fundamental to the format before seeing play at a Pro Tour stop… and also important to note that recently unbanned cards like Replenish did not have a great impact on the format.

With Standard and Legacy seeing evidence of being amazingly balanced formats, and word on the street about Vintage and its So Many Insane Players is suggesting that Vintage is at the moment an incredibly open and dynamic environment where a wide variety of decks can do well and nothing is truly overpowering (even if there is, per se, a ‘best deck’) gives us hope that the same might prove true of the upcoming Extended format PTQ season. While Counter-Top-Goyf decks reigned supreme in Legacy as the most-played individual deck at Worlds, we might yet have cause to hope that its Extended version, “Chase Rare Control”, won’t dominate the metagame. With Wizards’ goal having been to stabilize Magic across many formats into the ‘tier two’ metagame system where there are plenty of viable decks and strategies, the hope is that Counterbalance-Top and Enduring Ideal decks don’t just make the Extended metagame worthless and uninteresting.

Looking to put Lorwyn into Extended, however, doesn’t seem to change the format in any massive way. Doran requires some attention as a high-octane beating in the fetchland-Ravnica dual format, and Thoughtseize needs to be carefully balanced against the pre-existing Duress in that same fetchland-Ravnica dual format where playing even more cards that include the phrase “lose two life” can be a dangerous prospect indeed. Ponder will likely see play in a reasonably wide variety of decks, just as a high-power selection spell that works nicely with fetchlands, and Tribal spells have to be considered for their interaction with the now-ubiquitous Tarmogoyfs of the format.

Moving the format into the future, we can start looking at Extended now with the results of the first PTQ in the format, with just a few short weekends left before we leave Lorwyn sealed deck and Kuala Lumpur qualifiers behind to chase Extended and PT: Hollywood instead. “Chase Rare Control” put up good showings in the super-huge, super-hard Worlds PTQ, unsurprising following its most-recent-PT win, and we have to consider the fact that the PTQ winner included Lorwyn cards like Thoughtseize and Duran (sounds like the deck that won Worlds!) that have only just begun to impact upon the new metagame following PT Valencia. More interesting still is the fact that a lot of “good stuff” type decks did well and made the Top 8, while “linears” like Affinity, Enduring Ideal, and Dredge decks did not. What exactly that says about the format can’t be stated clearly, but it likely will impact the metagame of the first weeks of PTQs based solely on being the only point of information after Valencia, and will likely dampen the amounts of those sorts of decks played.

I for one am thinking about the sickness that is turn 3 Doran following up a turn 2 Boros Swiftblade and turn 1 Kird Ape, and biting my knuckle at the idea of just what you can do in Extended with an aggressive beatdown strategy just by throwing a few copies of Doran into your otherwise standard Domain Zoo deck. My personal exploration of the format for the next few weeks will be focusing on that strategy and figuring out where to take it into the future, and I hope to report back on that in a week or two with preliminary results in time for the PTQ season’s first week.

So the state of Magic as it stands is that Worlds 2007 capped the year nicely by displaying that the formats played are dynamic and interesting, capable of frequent changes and lacking a clear “best deck in the format” as things progress towards cementing the “metagame of Tier 2 cards.” Magic right now is in an amazing place… which, as the article’s title suggests, is pretty obvious in hindsight.

Sean McKeown
s_mckeown @ hotmail.com