Magical Hack – Science Fiction Double Feature

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Lorwyn Sealed Deck and Lorwyn Booster Draft were seen by some as ‘too repetitive,’ ‘inbred,’ and ‘boring’ because they felt you always had to focus on one of the same eight archetypes with nary a thought slipped in edgewise to distract us from that hyper-attenuated focus of “Tribe Matters.” Sure, you could have your preferences… after all, who doesn’t like Faeries or Merfolk if they are plentiful?

I. Good Morningtide, Vietnam!

My usual custom on the eve of each pre-release is to have a look at everything that has been spoiled across each of the different magazines and websites that happen to have advanced information on the new set published. There’s still usually a lot of information floating around out there, much more than you’ll see ‘just’ on the MagicTheGathering.com homepage, so it tends to be an informative little look at what there is to be seen without spoiling too much, and edges off into a look at the changes due to come our way in Limited.

It seems to have been such a good idea, collating all of this information for those who are excited by tracking down all of the public information, that it’s now a feature. The Morningtide mini-site now has a daily update collating each card that hits the public’s eyes somewhere, anywhere, and you can see that here. As you can imagine, though, this leaves me somewhat less than usual to write about for the eve-of-Morningtide edition of Magical Hack, so we’ll just poke on over at those and skip that part of the adventure, getting a look at what there is and heading straight for the “so what does that mean about Limited?” part of the analysis.

Where Lorwyn is the “Race Matters” set, Morningtide is the “Class Matters” set… but thankfully it hasn’t left Lorwyn’s “race” theme completely alone as all the same races appear and there are still plenty of rewards for doing a lot of what you were doing beforehand. What we are seeing, then, is an embellishment of that which has come before; you just happen to have to look at both the creature types on your cards now because the “Elf Matters” theme might now be looked at as an “Elf Warrior Matters” theme as we see the neatly-compartmentalized eight tribes branching out and intermixing with interesting and often unintended consequences.

Lorwyn Sealed Deck and Lorwyn Booster Draft were seen by some as ‘too repetitive,’ ‘inbred’ and ‘boring’ because they felt you always had to focus on one of the same eight archetypes with nary a thought slipped in edgewise to distract us from that hyper-attenuated focus of “Tribe Matters.” Sure, you could have your preferences… after all, who doesn’t like Faeries or Merfolk if they are plentiful? But instead of a fluid and dynamic system where truly interesting things happen all the time, they saw as an oversimplified sketch of what it actually was, especially by those who didn’t do well at it. Sure, it wasn’t as bad as Coldsnap draft, which holds a place in the Special Hell in every Magic player’s mind, but for those who found it uninteresting that distinction wasn’t important. I for one found it very interesting and quite dynamic, but I can see why others might have a different opinion.

Time changes all things, however, and Morningtide adds a fresh new spin to Lorwyn whether you found Lorwyn draft particularly exciting or just somewhat dull. If you add in a lot more bridges from one archetype to the next, things really do become quite thoroughly dynamic even to the worst naysayer. When you have to give honest consideration to having the Black-Blue Faeries and Green-White Kithkin overlapping because that second creature type gives powerful benefits… such as +1/+1 counters or reduced mana cost, among others… then things have just gotten more interesting. Decks as a whole will be less highly delineated as far as any one tribe goes, since other things matter too now, and this means there is a whole lot less “drafting by numbers” going on and a lot more skill and finesse gets involved in the process. Card valuations now have to fluctuate based on something we weren’t even looking at before, as we try to figure out how good those Warriors and Shamans are now (and even who is which!) or maybe even whether Bog Hoodlums really is as truly unplayable as he looked before. Hoodlums is, by the way, still awful… that question still has an easy answer, there’s no need to be worrying that we’ve ended up in Bizarro-Draft-World.

Everyone that hated Lorwyn because it was drafting with the training wheels still on… this is your wake-up call, come out and play. For those of us happily in the majority who liked Lorwyn because drafting with it was much more interesting than those naysayers thought it was, well, things just got a whole lot more complex and thus there’s a whole new breath of life in these cards we’ve been shuffling up for the past few months. With all the overlap between the sets, changelings become even more important than they were before, since both race and class are creature types and thus changelings are not just members of every tribe but also holders of every job, too… they really are the glue that holds everything together, and should be thought of as perhaps even as important to success as perhaps bounce-lands were in Ravnica limited.

One thing that also jumps in complexity in Lorwyn limited is the nature (and value) of combat tricks. The ‘Reinforce’ mechanic staples combat tricks onto a bunch of cards, turning every card with Reinforce into some form of split card with the spell on one side and a permanent Giant Growth on the other. Previously, Lorwyn didn’t have a lot of combat tricks, just a few things here or there but not enough to perhaps guarantee that your opponent will always ‘have the trick.’ Now, though… there are so many tricks, and you can play so many tricks without them going dead in the wrong situation. One thing to keep in mind, especially at the pre-release, is to just assume your opponent has it. The value of the trick side of a Reinforce card is directly proportional to how often you drop your pants and expose yourself to losing something of considerable value to a trick, and the truly close races where just a few points can swing things massively now get a good deal more complicated as either side can reasonably expect to have what they need to swing things in their favor.

This likewise gives us a whole new dynamic to think about, especially since you could also say that Prowl and the Lords and the Bannerets all favor aggressive strategies. Previously we looked at Lorwyn as something of a slow-ish Draft format, with very few truly aggressive deck options (and fewer still that anyone wanted to touch with a ten-foot pole). Now, though… attacking trumps blocking again thanks to Reinforce, and attacking comes with clear benefits that can provide cards back or mana discounts or extra effects thanks to sneaking a Rogue in while the opponent insufficiently defended their life totals. Meanwhile, ‘Kinship’ just exaggerates the Tribe mechanic further, thus slowing the format as Kinship accumulates its benefits slowly over time. This gives another aspect to consider, as it seems we will see plenty of reasons to want to hurry up and do things more aggressively, and a decent chunk of ones that ask us to slow down and reap long-term rewards for playing the control role.

Fast, slow… race, class… pre-established ‘archetypes’ dissolving into chaos as we look at things from the bottom up all over again… I’d say this is promising to be a groundbreaking set for Limited, and we’ve only seen a dash over 10% of it so far.

II. Walk Softly And Carry A Big… Rock?

Extended continues to develop in an interesting fashion, as the key focal shift has turned from the ‘wide-open’ metagame to one where Doran Rock seems to be the most prevalent deck in the metagame. This has had interesting consequences, as you might note if you look at the PTQ results pouring in as we speak; following the NYC ‘debut’ of the Doran Rock deck on the PTQ Top 8 lists with six of eight slots playing the deck, ‘only’ half of the Top 8 competitors at the geographically-nearest PTQ the week following (in Rockville, Maryland) were playing Doran Rock. Another three played Goblin decks, the kind of beatdown deck that actually can present a reasonable attack in the face of cheap Green fat and plentiful removal.

Personally, I went with my Gifts Rock idea presented in this column last week and found grace under pressure at least for a time as I hit the metagame right on the head and played against Doran Rock decks for the first four rounds with a game score of 7-3 to show for it. Unfortunately I had the bad luck of seeing two of those losses in the same match, however, and fell to 3-1 before I finally forayed out of the comfortable land of the Rock mirror-match, only to lose to a Blue-Green Tron deck that set up a Mindslaver lock just that little bit too quickly for my liking and started looking at the long ride home longingly. (Playing a PTQ four hours from home, on a Sunday, when one has to be up early the next morning for work… I’ve had better ideas lately.)

But as far as hitting what I’d aimed at, I’m pretty sure I did just what I had intended to do. It took some more time to figure out, as I’d known it would, but the basic idea of templating a deck off the general design of the Rock decks I was aiming to beat and then innovating a way to do it while changing many of the surface elements only slightly led to something of a peculiar Gifts Rock design. I had assumed that at least one of the three different skeletons I wanted to hang the design on would hold firm, and thus after some solid testing we said goodbye to the Divining Tops and Counterbalances as I learned that I was just trying to be cute and cute equals dumb equals dead when I could just stick with the general kinds of cards that brought a reasonably high margin of victory to the more “generic” Rock decks. Basically I threw the entire Gifts Rock archetype that made Top 8 at Valencia in the hands of Tine Rus right out the window for something of my own to work with, losing some of that deck’s fascination with the control role out and getting some of that early-game beatdown potential back to be an ‘aggro’ Gifts Rock deck.

As the matchups played out, we did the usual Rock mirror-match stuff… a lot of the same cards are good, and there is plenty of removal on both sides for all the creatures that matter. The big difference was they had another man that just died, albeit a very nice man that just died, and I had the easy-access multiple broken card drawing engines available for the mid-game. It wasn’t fair, it wasn’t pretty, and it wasn’t intended to be… and meanwhile I had many of the same capabilities of a regular Doran Rock design at my fingertips even if my numbers were a little bit different and I was looking more at classes of cards I had access to in four-of quantities instead of specifically cards I had as four-of’s. Instead of four Vindicates, I had a Vindicate, Pernicious Deed, Damnation, and Engineered Explosives, for example… and I drew ‘potent removal’ as a four-of even if the cards had different names, so prior to using Gifts I had most of the same capabilities as the deck I was emulating, and with Gifts I had access to some high-power cards that can bludgeon an opposing deck into submission.

What I finally settled on, for the tournament, was this:

Right off the bat I will say that there are too many decisions to be made with each individual card choice to have any certainty that I made each decision correctly… or even identified where a decision needed to be made instead of stumbling forward blithely ignorant of my mistakes. I was very content with the list overall, but am somewhat certain that the sideboard needs work to fully tune the deck’s capabilities against a wide variety of matchups. I wasn’t really aiming at overall capabilities when I settled on the sideboard, picking instead to make sure I was absolutely firm in what I wanted to do against my fellow Rock decks and having a similar attentiveness to “the plan” against beatdown-style decks like Affinity and Domain Zoo. While I think I packed in enough of the right kinds of things to tune the deck correctly against controlling and combo decks after sideboarding, it wasn’t specifically what I was focusing on and thus I have a general warm feeling instead of any level of actual certainty besides “I think these are the right kinds of tools.”

When sideboarding for the mirror, I found I wanted to take out Cabal Therapy and put in the Darkblast, Smother, Jitte and Moment’s Peace, with each serving their own purposes. Jitte serves as both Jitte-answer and powerful threat to break their back from an even board position, with added long-term synergy with the Gifts/Loam/Academy Ruin ‘angle.’ Darkblast serves to ‘permanently’ solve the Dark Confidant problem and win Tarmogoyf wars, while we want the fourth Smother for the obvious reason of four being the right number in the Rock mirror after sideboarding. Moment’s Peace comes in as a way to downplay the power of their Profane Commands, because they can Fireball you with it all they want but X creatures gaining Fear (the more dangerous side of it when it comes to ending the game in one fell swoop in the mirror) will never touch your life total.

All in all, it has a variety of tools to dig into the sideboard for, from Ghost Quarter lock on a Tron-playing opponent to setting up Haunting Echoes against say Next Level Blue as a punishing game-ender that follows early-game discard nicely. With the world at your fingertips you can customize as you wish, and frankly I didn’t get the chance to give my sideboard much of a workout… I boarded for the Rock mirror in four of the five matches I played, and didn’t really get a workout for the decisions that went into picking the sideboard other than the decision to settle on herd immunization from the Dredge threat that won in Richmond the week before and thus was actively hated in many a sideboard at the event. I do aim to investigate more thoroughly into what constitutes the right sideboard for the deck, which unfortunately likely changes from week to week as the metagame twists and turns, but it’s good to have a solid deck concept to develop and tune starting over a month before the next local Grand Prix. The main-deck plan fits so well, being basically a Doran Rock deck designed to beat the mirror, while filling the niche Doran Rock has carved for itself in the metagame and fighting with more powerful cards to perhaps gain something in those matchups as well.

With a month to work on it, I might even have a chance to figure out which ones are the right one-of’s in the deck. Conceptually, the main-deck choices all fit pretty well… everything is geared towards recursive elements, from Genesis plus either Shriekmaw or Eternal Witness to Engineered Explosives plus Academy Ruins to Life from the Loam and Cycling lands. For the mid- and late-game, it’s a rock solid deck that does fair things repetetively in an unfair fashion that grind the opponent to grist and win the game… so it’s getting to the point where these recursive things come online that demands our attention, as well as supplementing the main approach to setting up future draws. Because Doran Rock happens to get to the mid-game so well and so consistently against a wide variety of decks, we’ve templated our starting numbers off of its own… though admittedly our ‘spare’ Duress effects are in the sideboard while slowly but surely the Doran Rock decks consistently sneak in an extra few by cutting a slot here or there for them. Where they have four Smothers, we have three plus a Shriekmaw… great in the late game, but overall worse in the early game if Doran and Dark Confidant are the problems to solve instead of Tarmogoyf. Where they have four Vindicates, we keep one and pick up Engineered Explosives, Pernicious Deed and Damnation to have a Gifts-able number of mass removal effects that ensures that end of turn Gifts will always be followed by untap-and-cast-removal… and admittedly it’s less ‘pinpoint’ removal and thus is less useful than Vindicate when you are ahead, but the concern of the deck is not about maintaining a lead once it has gotten one but getting a lead in the first place. This version of Gifts Rock has multiple avenues of approach for inevitability, thanks to its multiple recursion elements, so the goal is to make sure you get to the point where you can Ancestral Recall every turn with Life from the Loam, not worry that your opening of Dark Confidant and Tarmogoyf is awkwardly supported by the Damnation in your hand. (After all, it’s your fault they’re in play instead of waiting in the wings to bat cleanup after the Wrath, dummy.)

The lands make solid sense, though I waffled about Ruins versus Ghost Quarter for far too long before settling on Academy Ruins as the obvious best candidate as it advanced the recursive potential of the deck further despite having just one artifact in the maindeck. It made Gifts piles more interesting and more powerful, with or without Life from the Loam, and frankly I wanted a 24th land regardless… the aftereffects of having cut four Sakura Tribe Elders for other spells. For card-drawing, we have Life from the Loam as a singleton that combines with fetch-lands to artificially ‘draw’ multiple lands for the cost of a single draw step, and which starts humming pretty nicely with even just a single cycling land as the sheer action of Dredging in this deck starts firing off the recursion elements as cards flip into the graveyard, enabling their re-use. Many a mid- to late-game began both in testing and in actual practice in the Rock mirror match with non-abusive Loaming replacing the standard draw with some ‘fishing’ through the deck to turn the engine on properly with a second cycling land, eventually leading to drawing three or four cards more than my opponent each turn until they were so overwhelmed that just blunt force trauma about the head and shoulders with all of those extra cards just did them in.

And obviously if you draw Gifts Ungiven, you can Loam all you want… how any other versions of Gifts Rock, Elder or no, can neglect to add the singleton Life from the Loam and switch a few lands around at the cost of some coming into play tapped on the off chance you have to play one, I frankly don’t get. Gifts Ungiven is powerful card drawing when you can use it as effectively as this deck can, and it can start any number of powerful engines off and running or just get you the four best things you want right now… either way, it’s obviously great with the support this deck gives it. But look at the other awesome card drawing engine in the deck… again, something neglected in most Gifts Rock decks, and one of the best cards in the Rock mirror match: Dark Confidant. I’d worried previously about cutting Sensei’s Divining Top back when the deck started forming in my head as a means to splice Counterbalance into a Gifts Rock shell, ending up with two copies as an after-effect as I was theorizing my way back away from the Counterbalances that had snuck in while I was having my ‘blind theorizing’ stage of the deck design process. And then I realized, in the immortal words of Dale Armstrong, that I was putting tape around my ankles to keep ants from crawling up my pants leg and eating my [censored censored – this is still a family friendly website!].

After all, we have 24 lands… casting cost zero, 40% of the deck right there. Engineered Explosives costs zero for Bob, so 25 * 0 = still 0 when we are weighting the average costs for the deck. Birds and Therapy cost 1, so 8 * 1 = 8 and we’ve used up 33 slots out of 60 already. Fourteen cards cost two mana – Dark Confidant and Tarmogoyf as four-of’s, Smother as the seemingly random three-of, and both the Profane Commands plus the singleton Life from the Loam share that cost as well even if Profane Commands frequently cost five or seven mana. As with Engineered Explosives, we get the X-spell discount. 14 * 2 = 28, for a running total so far of 36 mana total out of 47 slots tallied so far. At the three-slot we have two Witnesses, Pernicious Deed and Vindicate, 4 * 3 = 12; 48 mana total out of 51 slots. The remaining nine slots are seven 4’s and Genesis/Shriekmaw as 5’s, for a final count of 86 mana out of 60 slots… an average cost of 1.43. In modern Extended, if Dark Confidant is flipping you up free cards you are winning, so you don’t have to sweat the ‘will he kill me?’ question unless you’re getting quite reckless with the fetch-lands and Ravnica duals or if Bob really wasn’t that great of an idea to deploy in the first place. You can get rid of him at no cost with Cabal Therapy and can in the long-term recurse Loxodon Hierarch or Ravenous Baloth to afford his advice.

Everything in the main deck fits so well together as a plan, managing the opponent’s hand as well as resources in play and providing you with both short-term advantage and long-term inevitability. Admittedly we’re something of a dog to Dredge decks where the Valencia lists at least could sacrifice Elders and shield up with Collective Restraint main-deck, but I’ve found Dredge to be a minimal presence overall compared to the amount of work it would take to beat it and have more or less decided that everyone else’s sideboard cards will be enough to keep the monster away. Between its unwillingness to risk things in the face of long rounds of potential hate and others’ willingness to have six to eight cards for it if it seems to be rearing its ugly head, I haven’t found much of a problem either in my own PTQs or those of others at least in my overall region with facing too many Dredge decks… after all, you can still drop one match to it and win your PTQ. Sometimes this bullet will catch you, and I’m not as sold that this is the ‘smart’ strategy for a Grand Prix, but at least for the PTQ season it seems a reasonable gambit.

And so begins our third year here as the Magical Hack. While I have been writing under that title before I locked in as a Free-side weekly columnist, it was the third week of January in 2006 that kicked off the weekly column of that name and we have had a more-or-less uninterrupted stream of Hack writing from that auspicious beginning to today. I’d almost made it that far without a break but ended up taking a vacation for the month of August while I sorted my life out a bit… and with 52 weeks to a year, two years in and five Fridays missed during that vacation, it seems that this is my 100th “Magical Hack” article. Sure, there were some other writers filling in occasionally that one month and a few one-of ‘Issues’ articles that don’t tick themselves in the weekly-column count, but it seems that for #100 we have some looking forward towards the upcoming Grand Prix to do instead of looking backwards to where we’ve been along the way.

And that is exactly how it should be. I could wax over-long about the times we’ve shared here, but the frenetic pace of the metagame leaves no time for such things to any who are leashed to its whimsy. We have a weekend off to play the Prerelease, as far as this PTQ season is concerned, and that’s all the time we have to look behind us and see the path that led to this place. Forward, ever forward… after all, even that Prerelease is not so much a ‘break’ as something overwhelming and demanding of our attention as the tournament circuit goes. Morningtide comes to change things once again, and we will feel its impact all too soon as we scramble to quickly fit Morningtide into our understanding of the current Pro Tour Qualifier format… after all, it goes legal in Extended the moment it goes on sale, and we have to start figuring things out as soon as possible. Even the casual, fun tournament of the upcoming Prerelease can have far-reaching impact on the next cycle of PTQs… maybe not the very next PTQ, one week after the Prerelease, but certainly the PTQ after that: Morningtide will be legal for that one.

It’s been a good two years, and a pleasure to be aboard. Traditionally, I’m supposed to say I’m looking forward to the next two years of Hack writing here on Star City Games, but there is a vocal portion of my readership that would not take kindly to such threats. So instead for today at least I shall say simply, so long and thanks for all the fish.

Sean McKeown
s_mckeown @ hotmail.com