Magical Hack: Spiralling Through Sydney

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With Grand Prix: Sydney now behind us, Sean takes us through the make-up of the undefeated decks of Day 1. We know that the balmy days of Ravnica multicolored goodness are now behind us… can Sean guide our Limited hands in a winning direction?

It’s a well-known curiosity that water swirls around a drain “the wrong way” south of the Equator; you may take it to be normal that you flush the toilet and the water goes clockwise in a whirlpool as it whisks down the bowl, only to suddenly notice in the loo at your hotel in Sydney that all of a sudden everything you know is wrong! The toilet in Australia is under the same force as the toilet in your comfy home in the Northern Hemisphere – be it America, Europe, or otherwise – but the same force (the Coriolis force) is exhibited in different ways in different places.

Does the spiraling of time function in a similarly odd fashion? Perhaps we won’t know right away, but until we do we shall have to take our results as if they were the gospel truth, and wait to see if we face such an innocent and unexpected “culture shock” when the Grand Prix cycle comes back north of the Equator.

The Grand Prix this past weekend in Sydney, Australia is our first answer to some pressing questions, and by examining the usual culprits of information we can mine the coverage provided by Ray “Blisterguy” Walkinshaw for the nuggets and tidbits we have been craving ever since the Time Spiral prerelease. We are now faced with a world vastly different from our experience in the past year, where we do face some significant culture shock problems… not only does this year’s Limited play promise to fly in the face of the lessons of Ravnica Block and its greedy-gobbler manabases, but it also threatens to fly in the face of all the conventional wisdom we once thought we knew about each of the mechanics. The key to Limited is not “location, location, location” (though that was the key to Ravnica Block, if you were smart enough to take your Karoos as highly as they needed to be), but instead “context, context, context.”

When last we saw Shadow, it was in a very different context, a plane of existence where the Shadow creature was clearly the end-all, be-all efficient attacker and thus the most desirable creature on the block. Echo came to us in a block filled with powerful (Black) cards, with mighty spells abounding all over the colors (or at least Black, though Blue made out like a bandit once we left the realm of 40-card decks), and mighty creatures available as well… if you don’t mind paying for them twice, that is. Each and every keyword, plus a few non-keyworded returnees like Mercadia’s Rebels and Spellshapers, was a key part of the contextual puzzle of its block… and while I spent the weeks looking up to the prerelease trying to decode the monstrously huge puzzle of “the context of Time Spiral,” just assembling these elements from the past sight-unseen was not enough to unhook each of these things from their previous context.

Playing Limited with Time Spiral is an enormous chain of lessons, as we learn (or for many of us, re-learn) what all of these abilities do, and how their existence impacts upon the rest of the format. In some cases we can completely ignore their existence – after all, if your entire impact is just one Purple Timeshifted card, we don’t need a diatribe on the impact Threshold cards have on your deck-building efforts, and contemplating the Poison alternate kill is at best a joke when we’re talking about the rarer-than-rare (and fragile as all-get-out) Swamp Mosquito as the only source of Poison counters. Players who have experienced all of these things in the past have the early advantage, with years of Limited experience in some of these mechanics as we look through the annals of history to remind us of how to properly look at Flanking in an aggressive strategy. That advantage of experience and personalized information quickly evaporates, as we all have to un-learn the lessons of the past in order to live in the world of today, rife with shifting time-streams and churning eddies of the past, present, and future all entwined.

Now that the set has been officially released, “getting packs to draft with” is not nearly as big a problem as it was for most writers and test-groups in the two weeks between the prerelease and the actual release. I know I for one was out of packs a week and a day after I got mine, and I started with two boxes of product from judging that weekend… judging the same event that Mark “Mm-Mm-Good” Young attended and wrote prolifically about in this week’s A Beautiful Struggle. When we’re talking about eight-man drafts, and a considerable quantity of people didn’t even attend the prerelease much less win sufficient packs, funding the drafting collective runs you through product lickety-split. (That one of my two boxes went to Flores’s apprentice, Julian Levin, and most likely disappeared with an entirely different play-group over at Finkel’s apartment, didn’t necessarily help either, for the non-Finkel-draft group meeting up at Neutral Ground.)

With the wealth of product comes the slow trickle of the wealth of experience, as can be seen with Benjy Peebles-Mundy’s look at drafting White in Time Spiral that hit Premium earlier this week. Considering that his analysis of just one color was as extensive as his analysis of Coldsnap as a whole, and his analysis of Coldsnap was at the time considered the deepest, most knowledgeable look at drafting that format, it just goes to show we’ve all got a lot to process, and a lot to re-learn. In Sydney, however, the training wheels came off the bike.

Our first look at Sydney will be at Sealed Deck, where we get to look at the Undefeated Day One Decklists. Sealed Deck is expected to differentiate in speed significantly from Draft play, as the aggressive potential of an assortment of cards pulled from two boosters and a starter is very, very different from the conscientious choices one can make as they draft a more honed deck. Face off against the best White-based beatdown deck, or the meanest Sliver deck you can draft, and compare it to your White cards in your jumbled Sealed pool, or a random assortment of Slivers, and the proof is clearly in the pudding that the aggressive power of a Sealed Deck is going to be considerably lower than we’re seeing in Draft unless something goes horribly, horribly awry.

This doesn’t mean that aggression and tempo are less important – for surely, they are no less important just because the Sealed Deck card-pool does not suffer from the same benefits of intelligent design. It does mean, however, that the flash-point is that little bit slower, and you’ll have a better chance of living long enough to let more expensive cards have their impact. It also means that balls-out aggression isn’t the only thing of value, when an extra card has the time to be played before it is invalidated by an attacking swarm. Knowing what we know now about Time Spiral that we didn’t know at the prerelease, let’s see these undefeated decklists and see what lessons they are reinforcing. (Unfortunately, we don’t seem to have the complete card-pool of the undefeated sealed decks; I’ll have to send an e-mail to Blisterguy to point out that it’s a key asset at a Limited Grand Prix.)

Steven Aplin

1cc: Lightning Axe, Thrill of the Hunt, (Search for Tomorrow)
2cc: Gemhide Sliver, 2 Temporal Isolation, Sudden Shock, Strength in Numbers, Candles of Leng
3cc: Amrou Seekers, Sacred Mesa, Search for Tomorrow, Thunder Totem, Weatherseed Totem
4cc: Watcher Sliver, Serra Avenger, Fungus Sliver, Scarwood Treefolk, Mwonvuli Acid-Moss
5cc: Gustcloak Cavalier, Might Sliver, Stonebrow, Krosan Hero, Venser’s Sliver
6cc+: Havenwood Wurm, Disintegrate
Lands: 7 Forest, 6 Plains, 2 Mountain, Terramorphic Expanse

Sacred Mesa, Disintegrate… must be nice. The first deck we look at pairs Green fat with a bit of White evasion, and a bit of Sliver cooperation. Since you can’t play it till turn 4 anyway, we’re putting Serra Avenger as a four-drop, and the mana curve of the deck looks like this:

1cc: 2 (3)
2cc: 6
3cc: 5
4cc: 5
5cc: 4
6cc+: 2

Adam Witton

1cc: (Greater Gargadon x2), (Keldon Halberdier x2), Lightning Axe
2cc: Errant Doomsayers, Grapeshot x2
3cc: Cloudchaser Kestrel, Icatian Crier, Outrider en-Kor, Basalt Golem, Blazing Blade Askari, Ironclaw Buzzardiers, Foriysian Totem, Fiery Temper
4cc: Flickering Spirit, Magus of the Disk, Sulfurous Blast
5cc: Castle Raptors, Pentarch Paladin, Keldon Halberdier x2, Stuffy Doll
6cc+: Jedit’s Dragoons, Greater Gargadon x2
Lands: 8 Mountains, 9 Plains

For the second deck, we see White/Red… our second White aggressive deck, and our second deck featuring Red direct damage as its removal. This one seems to have its fair share of bombs: Sulfurous Blast, the variable Pyroclasm effect; and Magus of the Disk, the Wrath you can see coming… and the Wrath you can kill. Not to mention Pentarch Paladin, and double Greater Gargadon; Gargadon was originally dismissed as a Limited card, but thanks to its sheer size and the flexibility with which you can remove the time counters when Suspended, taking a second look at it for Constructed use has many players reconsidering its Limited “unplayability.”

Looking at the mana curve, we’ve got some early drops due to Suspend, and a nice fat curve of three-drops to follow up the turn 1 Suspend. The first deck we saw had sixteen drops in the 2-4 portion of the curve, while this one has fourteen in the same cost range… plus all but a guarantee that turn one will be spent profitably, setting up either a hasty Halberdier attacking on the fifth turn or a Gargadon coming out fast as ends up being reasonable… and faster every time a creature trades in combat.

1cc: 1 (5)
2cc: 3
3cc: 8
4cc: 3
5cc: 5
6cc+: 3

James Zhang

1cc: Greenseeker, (Durkwood Baloth), Lightning Axe, (Search for Tomorrow), Chromatic Star
2cc: Looter il-Kor, (Riftwing Cloudskate x2), (Errant Ephemeron), (Fathom Seer), Sudden Shock, Prismatic Lens
3cc: Fathom Seer, Vesuvan Shapeshifter, Primal Forcemage, Yavimaya Dryad, Search for Tomorrow, Weatherseed Totem, Stormbind
4cc: Crookclaw Transmuter, Giant Oyster, Herd Gnarr, Penumbra Spider, Mwonvuli Acid-Moss
5cc: Riftwing Cloudskate x2, (Vesuvan Shapeshifter), Verdant Embrace
6cc+: Errant Ephemeron, Bogardan Hellkite, Durkwood Baloth
Lands: 8 Forest, 6 Island, 2 Mountain

1cc: 3 (5)
2cc: 3 (7)
3cc: 7
4cc: 5
5cc: 3 (4)
6cc+: 3

This one is a bit harder to place… Blue and its Morphs blur the distinction of the mana curve, and in this case the Morph cost is considered the “standard issue” while the card’s actual cost is considered the “alternate” cost… after all, no one’s very likely to cast Fathom Seer face-up unless they really, really need to. Blue/Green is a bit of an unexpected color combination, but this is an amazingly solid U/G-based deck, with plenty of bounce and even the “this is Blue?Giant Oyster. For bombs, we get Stormbind, Bogardan Hellkite, and to some degree Verdant Embrace… the “Hug” that hugs you back by giving a steady stream of useful Saproling tokens, either for use with your Thallid effects or “just” as spare attackers and blockers. For consistency’s sake, though, Greenseeker is starting to get the nod of approval, being closer to Looter Il-Kor than was first thought… as anyone who’s ever used it to first get the perfect mana they need, then fished every land remaining out of their deck, could tell you.

Looking at the two-to-four curve, we have as few as fourteen and as many as nineteen of the deck’s cards fitting that spot on the curve, and that’s with all but the Hellkite and the Embrace fitting in under five one way or the other. Which isn’t mentioning that the Embrace could come down turn 4 if Yavimaya Dryad, Weatherseed Totem, Prismatic Lens, or Search for Tomorrow had been deployed. (Sexier still, though, is the chance of a turn 2 Mwonvuli Acid-Moss off either Prismatic Lens or suspended Search for Tomorrow… and even sexier would be following that up with the dynamic duo of turn 4 and turn 5 Riftwing Cloudskates, bouncing the opponent’s land… it may never happen, but a boy can dream, right?)

George Zhou

1cc: Greenseeker, (Search for Tomorrow)
2cc: Looter il-Kor, Gemhide Sliver, Spinneret Sliver, (Coral Trickster), (Errant Ephemeron), (Riftwing Cloudskate x2), Tribal Flames, Strength in Numbers x2
3cc: Coral Trickster, Sprite Noble, Vesuvan Shapeshifter, Wormwood Dryad x2, Yavimaya Dryad, (Nantuko Shaman), (Thornscape Battlemage), Search for Tomorrow, Weatherseed Totem
4cc: Nantuko Shaman, Thornscape Battlemage
5cc: Riftwing Cloudskate x2, Cockatrice, (Vesuvan Shapeshifter)
6cc+: Errant Ephemeron, Havenwood Wurm, Phantom Wurm
Lands: 8 Forest, 7 Island, 2 Mountain

Didn’t we just see this deck? James Zhang and George Zhou have nine of the same cards, including the Blue suspend critters and your Green accelerants, not just Search for Tomorrow but also Weatherseed Totem and Yavimaya Dryad. Add the fact that we’ve got a lot of interchangeable parts, like Tribal Flames versus Sudden Shock and the mid-range cheap creatures (Coral Trickster versus Fathom Seer is pretty much the exact same card on turn 3…). Interestingly, despite very similar curves we have two different land configurations but the exact same record… 8-0.

1cc: 1 (2)
2cc: 6 (10)
3cc: 8 (10)
4cc: 2
5cc: 3 (4)
6cc+: 3

Looking at the two-to-four curve, we again see the early turns are very busy: as many as nineteen of the deck’s cards can be played in those three turns, and the twentieth costs just one mana, again the mighty Greenseeker. Only Cockatrice, Phantom Wurm and Havenwood Wurm can’t ever be deployed one way or the other in the first four turns, and the Cockatrice theoretically can if we start off with Search for Tomorrow, the Totem, or Yavimaya Dryad.

Three of our four decks were Green, and half were Blue while the other half were White.

All of them, however, played the Mountain, one way or another.

When looking for things in common, it’s downright uncanny that we see the “best” four decks played Red removal, and zero of the four played Black removal. This may not be a sleight against the color Black… after all, without the rest of the card-pool, we don’t know whether there was any decision at all to be made between Black cards and Red cards. However, we do see that Red is up and Black is not… possibly because most of the Black removal in Time Spiral could be best described as “fussy”: requiring a heavy black commitment unless Condition X is met, like the quadruple-Black or infinite-turns Pthththththththththsisisisisisisissis, or the Swamp-hungry Tendrils of Despair which asks “you need how many Swamps before you do anything?”

Now, which of the above decks is “the best?” Last season when comparing Grand Prix Undefeated Day 1 Decks, it didn’t occur to me to check the number of Byes awarded to the player, to gauge how powerful their deck was: presumably, the more rounds you had to actually win to be undefeated, the better your deck. That said, we see the following by paging through the first three rounds’ pairings:

George Zhou – 1 bye (U/G/r)
Adam Witton – 1 bye (R/W)
James Zhang – 2 byes (U/G/r)
Steven Aplin – 3 byes (G/W/r)

This doesn’t tell us much of anything interesting, except that the Red/White deck had to be really good to march through six rounds without fail… and given some of its Rares, yeah, it was.

Next up we get to top off our coverage after-the-fact of Grand Prix Sydney by rounding up the Top 8 decks, to get our first look at drafting with this format. (Our second look, next week, will include the Athens coverage… and hit about three rounds into Pro Tour: Kobe, because midnight Eastern Standard Time U.S.A. is about lunchtime in Kobe, Japan. Hopefully, our third look will include Kobe as well… and by then we should have some concrete beliefs about the format set in stone.) So, pop on over to the Top 8 Decklists

Top 8:
Jeremy Neeman defeats Shouta Yasooka
Takuya Oosawa is defeated by Anatoli Lightfoot
Steven Alpin is defeated by James Zhang
Tomoharu Saito defeats Hugh Glanville

Top 4:
Jeremy Neeman is defeated by Anatoli Lightfoot
James Zhang defeats Tomoharu Saito

Anatoli Lightfoot is defeated by James Zhang

This translates, in matchup terms, to:

G/b defeats R/B/g Slivers
G/B (splash Red for activated abilities) defeats G/B
U/R defeats B/W Beatdown
W/u Beatdown defeats R/W Beatdown

G/B splash Red defeats G/b
U/R defeats W/u Beatdown

U/R defeats G/B splash Red

Translated to look at a few other tendencies, we see:

17 lands defeats 16 lands.
15 lands defeats 17 lands.
18 lands defeats 16 lands.
17 lands defeats 16 lands.

15 lands defeats 17 lands.
18 lands defeats 17 lands.

18 lands defeats 15 lands.

In all cases save for the first two matches played by Anatoli Lightfoot, in each other instance the deck with more lands won. Taking a quick look we see an average of 16.5 lands in the Top 8, 16.75 lands in the Top 4, and back down to 16.5 lands in the finals… but a whopping 18 lands as the winner! We also see that the only “actual” Blue deck at the table, Zhang’s, easily won the tournament, winning two solid matches against a pair of White-based beatdown decks. Considering that the two best colors, according to most pundits, are White and Blue… three players share White, and are eliminated by the finals; one person greedily gobbles all the Blue he could want, and wins the tournament. Meanwhile five players drafted Black cards, ending all over the place, only three players took Red cards (again, ending all over the place), and four players took Green cards to one degree or another… ending up all over the place. It’s too early to mark out clear trends… but if one of the “best two” are underdrafted, that color is probably going to have a decent shot of 3-0’ing the table. We are, however, hoping to back up the presumption that there are a “Best Two” colors, rather than just take Benjy’s word for it (or, well, my own draft experiences as well… where the numerous White-centric decks I have drafted have averaged a much better result than any of the other strategies I’ve tried so far).

Tune in next week as we take our second look at Time Spiral Grand Prix results… and I’ll have my own bit to hem and haw about, as the first NYC Pro Tour Qualifier for Geneva is tomorrow, and I’ll have my first chance to build a Sealed Deck I’ll have to actually play for seven or eight rounds. After all, looking at a deck and building it without playing it can only take you so far, and I’m hoping to contribute my own experience to the commingling of results between Sydney and Athens.

Sean McKeown
smckeown @ livejournal.com