Magical Hack: Setting the Stage for Paris

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Worlds is just around the corner, and Sean is ready for action! While he’s not attending the event, today’s article takes a timely look at each of the formats that’ll see play in the 2006 Parisian Big Show. How will the metagames shape up? Read on to find out!

Another week crawls by, and another Grand Prix passes into the history books, with a newcomer to the spotlight taking down an amazingly experienced Top 8, and the Player of the Year race solidifying to see Shouta Yasooka heading off the race by seven points as we take our last turn and rev up for Paris next week. This is by necessity going to be a somewhat abridged article – after all, there is a lot to talk about across all three Worlds formats, and silence is golden as far as most of the top-level circuit are concerned. We’ve got Yamagata to add to our tally, but we’re seeing similar things – the deck that played the most lands and mana sources won the tournament, and he has the most mana in the elimination rounds by far – eighteen actual lands, two Dryads that get land, Gemhide Sliver plus Search for Tomorrow. A Green deck of some flavor, in this case G/W/r with bombs like Evangelize (he’s got the most mana, he can maybe just maybe buy it back…), Stormbind, Spectral Force, and Verdant Embrace, beat out Black-Red in the finals, because B/R among other things has a bit of a problem with cards like Spectral Force and Phantom Wurm, and has a creature-base that can automatically lose to Stormbind.

The lessons of Yamagata are the same as what we’ve seen before – Green is better than you think, in both Draft and Sealed, and makes it as a key part of half of the Undefeated Decks from the first day. Seventeen lands plus a Totem (so long as it’s not Blue, that is) is about the “optimal” land base you can expect to see in a Sealed Deck, and Green decks can cram even more mana in than that if you get Greenseeker, Search for Tomorrow, or Gemhide Sliver action going… but consistent decks are key, which is why we tend towards seeing two-color non-Green decks in these slots, and Green decks that are two colors plus at least one splash, like Tomoharu Saito’s Sliver-licious 8-0 Sealed Deck. At this point we’re just confirming the prior trends, as delineated in articles you’ve seen as recently as last week, and why bore everyone with repetitive math about uninteresting things?

This week I’ll riff on a bit about the three Worlds formats, and since we’re already on-topic let’s just segue right into it…


So far we’ve reasonably learned that the initial strong dislike for Green was mistaken, and while you can see cards like Tromp the Domains passed at draft tables much later than they ever should be (which is to say, getting the option of having it second pick), it seems to be reasonably true that pretty much any color combination can win if you know how to draft it. There are some odd-ball ones that really require your deck to come out perfectly to get it right, like Black-White, but basically eight out of ten two-color combinations are solid just to begin with, and it’s only Green-White and Black-White that start off underpowered and have to get a little lucky with card synergy, like making good use out of the generally-poor Gaze of Justice. There are definite preferences, it’s true… but they vary greatly from player to player, and different pros will tell you they swear by different archetypes.

Drafting with Time Spiral, at least in my experience, brings us back to the good old days of drafting, days we haven’t seen frankly in years now… prior to Ravnica Block and its multicolored theme, Kamigawa Block and its Spirit / Arcane Tribal mini-theme, where the colors you were getting mattered less than how much Spirit or Arcane synergy you could tie into your deck, or Mirrodin Block, where we didn’t even have colors yet. For anyone who hadn’t started drafting prior to three years ago, this is a much harder game to get a hang of… but it’s the game many of us started with, and the game which some people got their first taste of (sort of…) with Coldsnap drafting: color signaling and conservative drafting. This is a format with very high card-power and a very even power band after you get past the obvious bombs, and it is card synergy that makes powerful decks.

Fortunately, there are some clear synergies available to work with, like the many colors of Sliver archetypes, or Suspend + Storm, or the Rebel or Thallid mechanics. This is the kind of thing we got used to a bit during Kamigawa Limited, but more so during Mirrodin Block, where obvious card power didn’t necessarily tell you what the right pick was… after all, most players were behind the learning curve when it came to picking Artifact lands, and Time Spiral is full of gems like that, little subtle hints and interplays that create a powerful deck or plan of attack out of cards that do not themselves seem innately powerful. Drafting with Tim is very different than Drafting with Rich, but both made Top 8 at Grand Prix: New Jersey despite having very different draft strategies… and the clear suggestion is that they are both doing something right, and that something presumably has similar aspects to it.

Throw out the window your preconceived notions that one color combination is clearly better than another. This is not Ravnica, or Kamigawa, or Mirrodin, where regardless of anything else you will have a better deck if you force through Plan X. Yes, the colors are imbalanced… but each has its own internal synergies and modes of gaining an advantage, and each can work well with other colors, as everything is more or less crafted together to be aggression-friendly. Picking your first card is very hard nowadays, because there are likely to be several cards of similar high power unless you open something like Sulfurous Blast or Firemaw Kavu. Keeping your options open is a wonderful thing, as is being open to the idea of splashing a third color… maybe you’ll get passed (or open) a Strangling Soot for your already-Red deck, or perhaps your already-White deck wants a taste of Blue magic in it to work in Momentary Blink to its fullest advantage. More importantly, there are often times when the winds will shift over the course of a draft, because more people get to give you information about what they do and do not want as the draft progresses more fully… each additional pack after the first tells you more about the likes and dislikes of one more person upstream, and picking two colors in your first two cards does not count as “signal reading.”

All other things being true, I’ve found triple-Spiral draft to work more or less like this for those who do well at it: a first color is chosen arbitrarily out of a pack, taking the outright most powerful card if there is one, or exerting some kind of preference or internal judgment if there isn’t one. Continuing to read signals for the next two or three picks happens, as the player tries to solidify one color, careful of the signals they are passing, in order to ensure picking up their main color in pack 2. While reading these signals, around pick 6 or so it becomes clear what is being passed that is stronger than should be done at this point, because most players are trying to exert control over their drafts and leftward-bound signals by taking their cards with a bias for their current colors. If what you are getting passed matches with the information for your signals you’ve received before, then golden… the person exerting the most influence over you is the person feeding you, and their initial preference or signal has remained true over the course of the draft and they still aren’t taking the higher-quality cards in the color you are reading from them.

If it isn’t, that means that in addition to the person feeding you not being interested in them, further upstream of you these things are going unwanted. A willingness to abandon prior colors and take the new signal is an excellent decision, and better yet if you didn’t commit too heavily to the two colors you saw before, either by biasing to take a card that will be desirable in any deck (like Prismatic Lens) or taking cards you could work in as a splash color if that color does not turn out to be available (like Strangling Soot or Lightning Axe). This is the kind of thing you’ll see Rich Hoaen doing, early in the draft: being hesitant to commit to a color combination unless the rewards are obvious… he’s more interested in committing to cards that will make his deck, and keep his signals to the left fairly clean while reading signals to the right, taking the cards he wants to get in pack 2 as a reward for clear signaling while also taking the cards he’ll get late in pack 1 but again in pack 3 because it is already clear that upstream these things are not wanted.

Sometimes, your main color is the underdrafted color coming from upstream, in which case it is in your best interest to gorge yourself on that wonderfully sweet crack flowing into your pile and not even bother with a second color, because you won’t be getting your second-color signal this direction. If you’ve basically committed to just one color and get fed more and more of that from upstream, it is from downstream in pack 2 that you will be getting your second-color signals; it’s more likely someone downstream of you is also in your main color than it is for someone in your colors to be upstream of you, so it is in the second pack that you won’t see quite as much of your color coming to you… and thus the under-drafted color in pack 2 is the one that is going to fill out your deck to completion.

If I’m certain what my second color is going into pack 2, I had better have some amazing cards to show for it. Watching Paul Jordan draft in his second pod at Grand Prix: New Jersey, I was glad to see he’d picked a solid card first and gotten rewarded from upstream with the same color, basically being given permission to gorge himself on Blue as much as he wanted. He even opened one of the best Blue cards in the format, Vesuvan Shapeshifter, from his second pack… and coming from downstream he got passed Tromp the Domains, a reasonably solid signal that Green might be the under-drafted color to his left… and a little part of me cried when he took something else, a Red or a White card, because instead of reading for signal power he was aiming for an individual archetype off the preconceived notion that it was a good archetype. He wasn’t aiming to read signals that might not have immediately meshed with his world-view and given him the chance to pack the least-drafted color from the left next to the least-drafted color from the right and reap rewards in card quality and strength throughout the draft.

Essentially, knowing how to draft is something everyone assumes they are proficient in, and “how to draft” changes with block to block as years progress forward, and even within each block over a matter of weeks or months… secrets like “pick Myr high” or “draft Convoke” often take a month or two of intensive experience with the given format to learn, and when the next set comes out everything changes anyway. Drafting with Time Spiral is something in and of itself, and because so many of these cards or mechanics are things we have seen before in different contexts, the lessons of experience are things that in some cases need to be un-learned as we figure out the new context in full. Experience is much more valuable than Preconceived Notions, and it’s very hard to look at a card like Akroma or Whirling Dervish and properly put it in its new context… everyone has strong feelings and strong prior experiences with these cards and mechanics, but it’s how much Time Spiral have you played with these cards that tells you how good they are in Time Spiral draft, not how good they used to be back when you saw them the first time.

These are hard lessons, and harder still to put into effect. But the simple fact remains that there are no “best” archetypes right off the bat – the best archetype you can draft is the one that is being passed to you from your neighbors because they are taking different colors. With so many high-value cards to potentially add to your deck in each pack, and no reward for hate-drafting or really throwing elbows at an eight-man draft, reading signals tells you the archetype to draft, not forcing Blue/Red or nearly mono-White beatdown. Anything is possible, and coming into a draft with preconceived notions is a great way to read signals wrong… it takes a lot of experience to read signals correctly, and a lot of experience with each potential archetype and each color to pick the right card for deck-synergy purposes.


Extended is a puzzle so wide-open it’s almost beyond imagining, a place with so many options and so much power that it’s nearly beyond reckoning that even with Frank Karsten’s occasional look at Online Extended the puzzle has only just begun to unravel. Online Extended narrows the choices down to Aggro-Loam versus Gifts Rock, but none of these take into consideration the changes due to Time Spiral… or even, really, the impact provided by Invasion Block, as it’s distinctly possible that Luis Scott-Vargas’ online build of Gifts Rock should have three Pernicious Deeds, not two, but an $8 card in the paper world can be a $120 card in the digital realm.

On the one hand, you have the mana to do anything you want. Nothing is challenging to try and squeeze next to each other, so long as you have a tuned manabase, and it’s even possible some decks will try to use the life-loss of Onslaught fetchlands into Ravnica-block duals to power some trick or another, like getting a free hit of buyback off of Forge[/author]“]Pulse of the [author name="Forge"]Forge[/author]… while others may use the fact that this helps work you to Threshold, or provides another kind of resource, like cards to buy back with Life from the Loam. Clever design and proper resource allocation is key, as can be going balls-to-the-wall in your quest for the right deck and stringing together just the right sequence of events… Extended has ever been the home of fast Reanimator decks and Storm-powered combo decks, in both “fair” metagames and at times like PT: Tinker.

Essentially the decision for Extended is to pick a game-plan, fair or unfair. Even the “fair” decks can do what they do very quickly and very well, and Red-White beatdown may be ultimately fair in every way… but it can also demolish you very quickly, and there are some strategies (like Affinity) that can basically never, ever beat that kind of approach. (And this was before the printing of Sudden Shock…) Formerly “unfair” decks like Psychatog are still interactive, and thus technically “fair,” even if the things they aim to do (abuse Life from the Loam) are not in and of themselves fair. Actual “unfair” decks are more like Friggorid, the dominant deck the last time we played paper Extended in any format that mattered; Mind’s Desire; or perhaps something crazier yet that we haven’t seen. Pick a plan and see it through, but pick the wrong plan and you don’t beat the metagame. However, “beating the metagame” is impossible because the metagame is so wide-open that you can’t account for everything, a facet I am sure makes deckbuilders like Mike Flores cringe to think of… when looking for a means to get an edge over the expected field, learning that “you can’t” is not what you want to hear.

The lessons of Legacy and Vintage may well apply to Extended, however, at the moment… those being that you live in an incredibly complex environment, full of incredibly powerful decks, so that even when “playing fair” things come at you hard and fast. Forcing interaction is going to be key… as is accomplishing your goals quickly and efficiently. As a relative newcomer to Legacy and an effective non-entity to Vintage, besides reading avidly when able, I may be learning parts of the lessons wrong… but as they seem to apply to Extended, maximizing your deck power and increasing the speed with which you can present threats and deploy answers is critical. Even the fair decks can kill you on the fourth turn if you let them, after all.

Starting with the assumption that the actual paper metagame at Worlds is going to look like the online metagame is unreasonable. The impact of the first block available to Extended, and the last set available to Extended, are more than likely bigger than the online metagame is currently compensating for. The lessons learned from last year’s Extended are probably still more or less valid, and teach us the value of the best, most powerful, fast cards, like Cabal Therapy. Last year around this time I started looking at Extended with an article called “Extend Your Point Of View”, that pointed out “fast” and “powerful” were key things. This was before the Pro Tour, so things like Life from the Loam didn’t impact much yet, but even the basic lessons on what works in Extended is worth noting. One thing that comes to mind is that we have a very cheap, very solid lock-down component (Counterbalance + Divining Top) plus a possibly critical mass of free spells (the Betrayers “Shoals” and Coldsnap “double-pitch” cards) that might allow you to take advantage of a similarly critical mass of creatures that attack to draw cards (Ohran Viper, Shadowmage Infiltrator, Dimir Cutpurse) or can otherwise procure them for you at very reasonable costs (Dark Confidant, though I don’t want to flip Commandeer off it anytime soon). Free is the best number of all, and free counterspelling or zero-mana spells with a high impact are worth at least thinking about… Counterbalance is almost guaranteed to have an important effect at Worlds in Extended, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see some crazy creation with Chrome Moxes and Gemstone Caverns plus pitch spells and all the card-drawing machines you can staple together. (I don’t know if it would work, but I’d expect someone to try. “Free” really is the best price.)


For Standard, we see another wide-open Constructed format, so wide-open that metagame master Mike Flores had to play an ultimately fair deck at States, a deck that (much like any other he tested) didn’t have that edge on “deck” as he likes to call it… that certain something that tells him that he has correctly pointed out the weaknesses of the dissected metagame and loosed his Momir Vig-tuned creation to wreak havoc like a good little Experiment Kraj. One thing worth noting is that however fully-tuned and developed the States metagame may have seemed… the fact that one month later there is such an incredible disconnect between the States results (as marked by Flores in “Swimming with Sharks” here) and the first pass of MTGO Premier Events results (as marked by Karsten in “Online Tech” here).

Much like how the difference of such-and-such a percentage between the tally of a vote and the simultaneously-collected exit polls tell you something fishy is going on, seeing such a huge difference between the State Championships results and the ever-evolving world of Online Magic tells us that whatever the metagame at Worlds does look like, it should be more heavily biased by the MTGO metagame than the IRL metagame. MTGO has over the course of this past year had a greater and greater effect on the in-real-life metagame… both as a practice tool for online drafting, and as a means of battering a large number of diverse decks against each other to see what comes out on top, and how often it does so. From online teams such as Cymbrogi making a splash in real-life professional events to National Championships seasons driven hard by the twists and turns of distant places thanks to MTGO, more and more the online metagame is indicative of reality because the real world just moves too darn slow. And so the metagame to be expected is much more like Karsten’s analysis, which has plenty of Magnivore and Izzetron decks, the kind of things that pack Wildfire and mana control elements to cripple the metagame that existed as of the last match of States… but nothing like the Glare and Flare heavy metagame often spoken of.

This means the metagame to aim at is very much a control-oriented format, and one in which resource attrition wars focus not on creatures but on mana available, the kind of format where KarstenBot and other nearly-forgotten decks might make an impact by carefully aiming at the aspects of the metagame that matter and disrupting the kinds of control decks that seem to be appearing. It also means that it’s quite possible that the decks you aren’t seeing on the radar anywhere are the decks that are going to appear at Worlds… last year the Japanese players successfully kept their deck out of public knowledge, and some of the key contenders weren’t even known until the end of day 1. In the space between the lines in Jeroen Remie’s weekly “Ask Jeroen!” column, you can read him thinking about a Black-Red deck inheriting the mantle from Sand Burn from the last format… and benefiting from some pretty amazing one-drops, not to mention the potential to use an impressive variety of very fast, very efficient tools.

Also seen slipping around between the cracks in the walls of reality is Brian David-Marshall’s “Pickles” deck, mentioned briefly in the Online Tech column from this week, a deck that can absolutely demolish, Stasis-lock-style, some components or aspects of the potential metagame… like actual counter-control Blue decks or Green-White Glare decks, for example. As happens all too often with BDM’s ideas, beneath the core components of the deck you have a very rough skeleton begging for some polish, but I have in the past taken some of Brian’s totally wacky deck ideas and run them at serious events, nearly grinding my way into U.S. Nationals a long, long time ago (give you a hint… Flores was playing Hatred in Type Two) with a Shard PhoenixPyromancy trick deck that sprung fully-formed from his deformed genius brain. “Pickles” is just on such deck, completely devastating to some things it’s pointed at, but ultimately unprepared to seriously face down a pure aggressive deck like Zoo (… even if Brian tells you otherwise, about how his Fathom Seer often blocks and laughs off Kird Apes…) or even resource-denial decks like Magnivore that can disrupt the combo by a reasonable variety of means, including land destruction, Boomerang effects, and Pyroclasm/Wildfire.

But the metagame of Worlds likely hasn’t even been defined yet, nor will it be till the deck-lists are handed in and round 1 begins, waiting to see who best performed in the crap-shoot that is metagame identification and analysis in such a wide-open and diverse field. Last year’s Worlds saw Werner Cloete of South Africa introduce us to Blue-Red Tron, and there’s no way of knowing what may or may not pop up in the meantime to surprise and enthrall us this year. Listening at the door to hear what is going on in others’ heads is pretty high on a lot of peoples’ priorities, and I’d be amazed if anyone had finalized what they thought the metagame is going to look like in Paris before this weekend was out. Intensive testing is necessary to succeed, it’s true… but even more intensive brainstorming and information-gathering is needed before testing can even really succeed in this wide-open format.

It’s going to be a wild ride in Paris… check back next week and we’ll see what’s developed so far. Juggernauts have been sighted on the horizon, and so many of the pieces that drive the metagame remain hidden from view… I’d say Worlds is going to be an amazing and exciting tournament, and the nail-biting anticipation waiting for it to start is shared by many a team preparing for the event, wondering what in tarnation is actually going to be played in both the Constructed formats.

And don’t forget, somewhere in the meantime you have to learn to draft, too. Fun.

Sean McKeown
smckeown @ livejournal.com