Magical Hack – States, Interrupted

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Friday, October 31st – While we are clearly motoring on ahead to the State Championships, I felt I should take a moment veering off the Road to States in order to look at the variety of things going on in Magic this weekend and in the past few leading up to it.

While we are clearly motoring on ahead to the State Championships, I felt I should take a moment veering off the Road to States in order to look at the variety of things going on in Magic this weekend and in the past few leading up to it. While there is little I can usefully add to the discussion of Extended, and certainly cannot provide anything meaningful when my article goes live a scant few hours before the Pro Tour in Berlin kicks off, we’ve recently had a Grand Prix featuring Shards of Alara Limited, a PTQ season focusing on Sealed Deck play, and the official release of Shards of Alara on Magic Online. Yes, the StarCityGames $5k Standard Open tournament was this past weekend… and yes, Chris Woltereck won again, surprise surprise… but in addition to the rush for technology leading up to States we also we’re right in the middle of a vibrant PTQ season. I’d almost somehow managed to forget it… I haven’t made it to one of the area PTQs yet, with nearly a full month of play to them already… but slinging the Shards cards in decks of 40, not 60, is a key focus to a considerable number of tournament players.

I missed the first Pro Tour Qualifier flying to Chicago with my girlfriend to play some awesome LARPs, including the much-acclaimed “Dr. Who”-themed LARP “House on the Hill.” I missed the second Pro Tour Qualifier because I’d promised to dedicate time to actually having a date weekend, after things went wrong on the first weekend, and I’m still quite comfortable with that decision. This past weekend I decided not to reprise my role as the out-of-his-mind caravan leader, taking a PT Cruiser-load of gamers down to Richmond for the big SCG event and hitting up the PTQ the next day… last time I did that it ended with a twelve-hour drive from Richmond to New York with no replacement drivers, ridiculous traffic, and 4am speeding in the rain on the New Jersey Turnpike. I for one would find dying in New Jersey to be a personal affront, so I’ve decided for the moment that as far south as Richmond is just outside of my driving radius. Ditto that for why I won’t be in the nearest PTQ this weekend, because Pittsburgh’s seven hour drive is something I only needed to do once in my life before I’d know better than to try that again. I’ve also found myself able to get into exactly one Shards draft between now and the Prerelease, and I didn’t even get to play out all three matches from that three-on-three team draft so previous to the release of Shards of Alara on MTGO I found it quite difficult to even think about the Shards cards in 40-card decks. I just had no experience, and thus no basis for comparison.

With Shards of Alara out on MTGO, however, I find I am able to run myself through draft queues at a feverish pace, gaining experience in how the format works by drafting and playing, learning how to value cards and how the opponents are valuing cards to wedge themselves into archetypes.

Going into this experience, I assumed that color discipline was something your average Limited player didn’t have, and thus given the potential to just snatch whatever they felt like and making the mana work afterwards they would play five-color monstrosities with every Rare they opened or were passed, with Ultimatums and huge Dragons defining the format. In actuality, color discipline is key, and perhaps even more key than it is currently being acknowledged – two-color decks splashing a third color to match their Shard, and with an aggressive bent, tend to beat the pants off the slow and ponderous five-color decks relying on Hellkite Overlords and Cruel Ultimatums to win them long-game attrition wars. Card synergy is much more important than overall card power – the internal synergies of Red/Black focusing on its mixing of Unearth and Devour, the power of small creatures in large numbers thanks to the Exalted mechanic, and the various ‘Artifacts Matter’ cards combine very well to create good decks, and that card synergy can readily defeat the “power matters” focus that the all-rare Five Color Control decks rely upon to win.

And nobody, I mean nobody, takes the mana-fixing highly enough. Except GerryT, and apparently me. No one else even bothers picking tri-lands, never mind first-picking them like I’ve proven willing to, as I’ve seen entirely too many decks playing the Mishmash of Basics plan across the table from me now. Friends don’t let friends play Rip-Clan Crashers and Stewards of Valeron with no fixers in their decks. Having pushed through a few of these things recently, I’ve spotted a few things worth noting.

First up is that Shards packs get very empty very quickly, so it can be a delicate task getting to 23 playables if you don’t want to play any cards that would cause you to frown later. This isn’t merely due to the extra basic land in each pack, giving us 42 cards instead of 45 out of which to build our decks, though certainly they can’t help. It’s due to the fact that there are so many “skill-tester” cards in the set, just terrible pieces of cardboard you should be happy to see your opponent play… not going to lie, I’ve picked basic lands as high as twelfth under just this premise, because I’d rather give a terrible “playable” to a potential opponent than give them a land in their last pick of each pack.

Rounding out the bottom third of each pack, you’ll find awful enchant creature cards, miserable dorks, and terrible lifegain or pump spells. I find I end up with five or six basic lands each draft, simply because I’d be happy to give my opponent the opportunity to play as many 1/1 Mountainwalkers and 2/1s for 4 as they wanted. Maybe that makes me a jerk, but I have to say I smile every time my opponent casts Tortoise Formation, so I simply acknowledge the fact that you have to make a deck with 23 of your 35 or so picks in this format. With packs emptying that quickly, you’re going to find yourself playing some substandard cards, certainly in comparison to the best spells and creatures in your deck. Reading through the Grand Prix: Paris coverage, I had to click a link on the Day 2 coverage to say Antoine Ruel cast what?!? And as Card with Cycling #23, I can see it being perfectly acceptable… I’d never want to run it, but I guess sometimes I would. Things can get a bit thin after all, and that’s part of the story of Shards draft.

While I would certainly never play any card that started with the word “Soul’s” and didn’t end with “Fire”, you have to get comfortable with the idea that there may be a bit of chaff rounding out your deck, and recognize the fact that unless you’re very careful this is going to mean you have a new way to be screwed by your deck’s inconsistency. The concept of mana screw, mana flood, and color screw are all well-known; color-screw is very easy in this format, when you’re picking Woolly Thoctars but not taking any fixing to help you cast them by turn seven much less by turn three, and mana flood is equally common when five-color decks start looking at 18 lands and four Obelisks as their manabase. But consistency-screw… those times where you don’t get your Broodmate Dragon but do have to try and kill your opponent with late-pick mediocres… that’s a new concept. Five-color decks try to make up for this by taking everything good regardless of color and making it all hang together somehow, but your more disciplined decks are going to end up running some terribles in amongst their playables and trying to win with them, or at the very least cycle them.

Color discipline is something I’ve just seen to be incredibly lacking; it’s common for my opponent to commit the above sin of playing Rip-Clan Crashers and Stewards of Valeron where what he really wanted to be picking was the simple Grizzly Bear with fewer color requirements, Cylian Elf. Back in the days of Invasion Block, or perhaps more recently in Ravnica Block, it was very common to end up with a polychromatic mish-mash of spells and creatures and rely on careful deduction to make our manabases work, often with as little fixing as you’ll see in the common draft deck of someone who doesn’t properly value their mana fixers. In Invasion Block especially it was normal to see manabases of one lucky nonbasic land, sixteen basics across all five colors, and a little help from the spells and creatures to get there on time somehow. Ravnica Block ultimately hinged upon the value of the Karoos, as was eventually figured out, and this let us abandon color discipline… but there are some tough lessons to be learned in Shards Limited, which are slowly but surely starting to trickle out.

In Sealed Deck it’s easy to put an appropriate value on your fixers, because you open all the cards at once and either love them or leave them depending on what in your card pool they let you mash together, Godsires and Cruel Ultimatums. But in Draft, if you don’t value them you don’t get them, and so far the lesson seems to be falling short especially on the subtle notes of how to value Panoramas in your manabase. The tri-lands and Obelisks clearly make all three colors of mana and can be relied upon accordingly, but most decks won’t want more than one Obelisk (if even the one, as most aggressive decks would rather play without any) and as Uncommons the tri-lands aren’t especially common. While they’ll go late at some tables they certainly shouldn’t, and this will correct itself over time. So the most common mana-fixing available is Panoramas… which are pretty terrible for aggressive decks, especially ones that are trying to cast double-colored bears on the second turn as part of their strategy, and can make things quite complicated indeed for a five-color deck as you mash multiple Panoramas into the same manabase.

A common mistake I’ve seen is five different Panoramas, many of which only fix two of your three colors, and twelve basics. This sounds great, since you have a bunch of dual lands, but let’s put it into actuality. You have a deck with the following color requirements:


This isn’t necessarily very unusual. You’ve got a GW/r deck splashing off Panoramas for its various bombs, Broodmate Dragon, Rafiq of the Many, and Empyrial Archangel, that figured it would sneak in that Bant Charm while it was at it. It also picked up some fixing: a Grixis Panorama, two Bant Panoramas, a Naya Panorama and a Jund Panorama. At first glance it looks like you can count on two free Black sources, Grixis and Jund Panoramas, plus one Swamp in your deck, and three free Blue sources, the two Bant Panoramas plus Grixis Panorama, plus the one Island in your deck. But look what you have to work with now in your main colors if you’re “relying” on these as splash color fixers:

Naya Panorama
10 Basic Lands

This is not going to cut it for making a three color deck work… so you’re naturally going to have plenty of situations where that Grixis Panorama has to get you a Mountain to even have your deck near operational, leaving you a swamp and Jund Panorama to ‘topdeck’ for that Broodmate Dragon. This kind of situation comes up more and more the harder you strain your mana, thinking that Panoramas are a stable source of all three colors, when in fact they only are a stable source of the one color of mana you are relying the most on it finding. The harder you strain, the more likely it is that you have to get your main color with your Panorama, because suddenly we’re talking about four or five basics of your main color and a handful of Panoramas to make it work somehow. You may need to get your first Plains or Forest with the Bant Panorama you draw, so you’ll be waiting a long time before Rafiq or Bant Charm become operational. And if you do any of these things, getting the Swamp or Island out of your deck, suddenly that difficult-to-cast Titanic Ultimatum doesn’t need just the right balance of Forests, Mountains, and Plains to be castable at all, but now it also needs to have you not draw (or fetch) Island or Swamp if you want to cast it when you get to seven. Its inflated “actual cost” is now more like nine or ten, i.e. “unplayable,” where before you could have reasonably stretched it in your three color deck. That Woolly Thoctar at RGW is never going to be a three-drop unless you’re very, very lucky, when you split the lands in your main colors into some awkward 4-3-3 or 4-4-2 split and rely on the five Panoramas to work their magic from there. Maybe that’s acceptable, but you have to know that going into things and planning on it when you pick the card, that it’s an efficient five-drop that lets you keep mana up, not a power three-drop unless you start drafting good fixers or you’re your splash plans down to a more sane level. Likewise in this same scenario the WW and GW two-drops are absolutely unplayable, never ever going to do what you ask them to do, because your two-drop is going to be ‘fix my mana with a Panorama.’

Figuring out how to make a proper manabase, and what you can and cannot afford to stretch for, is every bit as important as knowing what goes into making the manabase work for you. Replace those two-drops with single-colored drops, be they Cylian Elves or Sighted-Caste Sorcerers instead of the ‘superior’ Stewards of Valeron and Sigiled Paladin, and you get much the same effect but without the same risk of being stuck in your hand. Go back to the draft portion and decide “no, really, this Rafiq of the Many is not something I can splash for” and you’re probably crazy… but start adding to that splash with Bant Charms and more creatures and all of a sudden you have to have a good answer as to why you’re trying to cast both Rafiq and Woolly Thoctar in the same deck. Start taking Seaside Citadels and Savage Lands and all of a sudden your mana works… and when you’re playing five colors of Magic, five colors of tri-lands will all work well in your deck, so there’s no excuse like “but I didn’t see the RIGHT one…”

The hardest thing to know how to do is to know when not to go crazy with the mana-fixing, because there are two competing curves: first, the learning curve for how high you should be taking mana-fixing, and second, the learning curve for how frequently you should be splashing. These two things are related: the more often you pick mana-fixing highly, the more often you can splash. Decreasing willingness to pick tri-lands highly (or even their availability) pushes you to either splash more conservatively or put yourself at risk for color-screw, and losing matches because of something that is “beyond your ability to control” is only actually acceptable when it is actually beyond your ability to control… frequently the answer is, “you could have drafted differently”. But what is less obvious is that the default deck for splashing into is two colors, not three, and thus the point at which you should be trying to splash cards is for your third color, not your fourth. A solid example of that is from a draft I had last night:

Savage Lands
Crumbling Necropolis
Naya Panorama
3 Forest
6 Swamp
6 Mountain

Branching Bolt
Jund Charm
Magma Spray
Bone Splinters
Resounding Thunder
Volcanic Submersion
2 Blightning

Dragon Fodder
Blister Beetle
2 Dregscape Zombie
Blood Cultist
Sprouting Thrinax
Viscera Dragger
Thorn-Thrash Viashino
Caldera Hellion
Bloodpyre Elemental
Skeletal Kathari
Scourge Devil
Carrion Thrash

I’m effectively splashing Green for just four cards, and have very few color-intensive creatures that require me to have the right color mana early on in the game… and what heavily colored plays I did have were starting on turn 3 and afterwards, with Blightnings and Blood Cultists and even that Sprouting Thrinax. No Goblin Deathrenders nor any Rip-Clan Crashers (though I could have had them if I wanted them), just the humble 2/1 for 1B that works well with Devour, Bone Splinters, and as an aggressive play that can still sneak in damage and maybe hit for another two later. Devour is a theme of note, sure, but almost purely as an afterthought rather than as the plan in and of itself, and more importantly for the purpose of this example is how the mana works out: a heavy commitment to Green mana, with three Forests, a tri-land and a Panorama, for just four cards. I could get away with three whole Forests because I had two tri-lands and chose to run eighteen lands in order to make sure I got to five mana consistently, and two of those eighteen lands tapped for both Red and Black before I started adding basics, going with six of each (and noting that the Naya Panorama can act as a virtual Mountain in addition to being the fifth potential Green source).

I list this deck because it wasn’t particularly greedy, and because while it did clearly get to make good use of its one awesome rare (Caldera Hellion, which outright won the final match and was held in reserve in previous matches in case my opponent got back into the game) it didn’t rely on the Rare You Out Of The Game plan that other decks (even decks at the same table) did. I felt the deck had a lot of internal synergy, thanks to the “Sacrifice Me” theme, and it also displays the fact that it can be tough to get to enough playables in the format… Card 22 was Volcanic Submersion because it would maybe do something, as opposed to vanilla five-drops in a slot I felt was already over-crowded. I never cast the Submersion, though if I had it might have made a dent in a game that was soon thereafter lost to Empyrial Archangel, so that’s a lesson for future consideration: cutting off the opponent’s late-game development and spell options might just be better than an extra card, even when they already have seven lands, because Land #8 could be trouble sometimes. The aggressive potential of the deck was very solid, and the Blightnings and cheap removal often allowed me to play a tempo game to steal extra damage and put my opponent in reach of death before I ran out of cards to use against him, aided by the fact that I had multiple Wrath effects to let me get back control of the game if I fell behind, a ton of Unearth creatures that Do Something even after death, and even a little card advantage in those Blightnings that helped to attack the polychromatic decks some people favor in this format.

Card synergy is more important than anything else during a draft, because you can’t control the future flow of bomb rares, and with the concept of “two colors plus a splash” you’ll find it is profitable to start thinking of Shards as a sixteen-archetype format. First you have two archetypes each for the five allied color pairs, based on which of their neighboring colors they are splashing. To be fair, though, there’s only a little bit of a difference between G/W splash Bant and G/W splash Naya, since in the end you’re still G/W and will succeed or fail based on the core of the deck rather than the power of your 4-6 splash cards. Then you have one archetype for the enemy colored pairs, bridged by a splash for the third color in their Shard… U/R splash Grixis, or G/U splash Bant. I haven’t seen a lot of exploration of these archetypes yet, but I’m certain they exist, and it’s just that they are overshadowed by the apparent popularity of the allied-color gold cards. I had a similar faith in Ravnica draft, and it was reasonably well-deserved as we found new archetypes in the mature draft format we had never considered when we started drafting with it… by the end of the days of ‘just-Ravnica,’ as we awaited the release of Guildpact, I was drafting Izzet far more often than I was drafting any of the four guilds actually from Ravnica, and I expect we can only see Jhessian Infiltrators tabling for so long before we try and take advantage of that fact.

And then there is the five-color mishmash, which is certainly formidable but which lives or dies by its ability to fix its mana, and the rewards that flow freely in later packs simply because something has to be underdrafted. But I find myself uncomfortable aiming for a deck that has such inherent risks and will rarely look the same way twice, when I find I can learn the ins and outs of drafting each particular Shard and figure out how to draft that Shard’s deck well and consistently. Certainly, there is a time for that… but I’d like to think that it’s the exception, not the rule. And perhaps as the format matures we’ll know more about that… but right now I find I’m not nearly as interested in “five color everything” in Draft, even if it is probably the answer in Sealed Deck far, far too often. I like controlling my own destiny far too much to jump on the “anything goes” bandwagon.

Sean McKeown
s_mckeown @ hotmail.com