Magical Hack – Tilting At Windmills

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We all know what it’s like to go on tilt. It’s just one of those things that happens sometimes, often feeling entirely beyond our control, and at its worst it can pervade how we look at and feel about the game. I’ve been on tilt for a few weeks now, and the game has really been all about minimizing the damages I do to myself outside the game (i.e. financially) because I am going to make these blunders…

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Before we set into today’s topic, I wanted to take a moment to ask for help with something. A friend of mine, a female gamer from Connecticut named Tara, is part of a contest held by V Magazine to find the next hot modeling talent… and it seems that vote fraud and cheating has run rampant as people tried to set up bots and other ways to hack the vote illegitimately. They’ve since corrected for the “how did she get twenty thousand votes in a day” problem, making actual votes count… and thankfully, actual individual people voting once every 24 hours is a legitimate means of voting regardless.

So if you’d be willing to help a little to rock the vote legally and do a good turn for a female gamer, please click the link and enter your vote. If you’re willing to do a bigger favor, the voting continues till the end of the month and you can vote once every twenty-four hours… so if you’d be willing to save that as a bookmark and vote repeatedly, that’d be even more awesome. I figure if Ferrett and Craig can plug their webcomics, which might in some way eventually profit for them, nobody’d be hurt if I mentioned this for the next week or two, since there is little to no chance I might directly profit from this whatsoever. (Said female gamer friend is married, after all. Sorry if that disappoints… please click the link anyway!)

Now, down to business…

We all know what it’s like to go on tilt. It’s just one of those things that happens sometimes, often feeling entirely beyond our control, and at its worst it can really pervade how we look at and feel about the game. I’ve been on tilt for a few weeks now, and the game has really been all about minimizing the damages I do to myself outside the game (i.e. financially) because I am going to make these blunders. It’s too early to go about correcting the blunders themselves, because they have been damnably persistent and rooted in my confidence in the decision-making process by which I decide which play is the correct one.

Let me give you an example that came up this past week. My opponent has two Plains, three Mountains, and an Island, all untapped, and I’d not previously seen what the Island was for but dreaded a Lightning Angel that I know went around the table early. (I’ve been able to draft a lot more online than I have been in real life, for months now, and yes my inability to draft Lorwyn despite having a box of packs is starting to get on my nerves. Thanks for asking.)

He’s also got a single card in his hand, a tapped Malach of the Dawn that’s trying to race me, Gathan Raiders with Bound in Silence enchanting it, and an Errant Doomsayers that has been trying to contain my Sliver horde. I, for my part, have Sinew Sliver, Necrotic Sliver, and Poultice Sliver, all trying to race. My opponent has known he can’t sit back on his Malach because he can’t regenerate it and I can just toss a Sliver at it, which is already an eventual plan but I’ve been stuck on five mana with a lot of three-mana cards in hand, including some more Slivers I’d really like to get into play so I can really go crazy Vindicating stuff. It’s my turn and I’ve just declared my attack, and he’s used his Doomsayers to tap the only valid target on my side of the board, Sinew Sliver. I attack with the other two, since I have a significant advantage in the life race – I’m at eight, he’s at nine, I’m cracking for six while he’s cracking for two. He has one card in hand, I have a board full of Vindicates.

The opponent casts Momentary Blink targeting Gathan Raiders after attackers are declared. What do you do?

If you’re any sane, reasonable person with half a hint of a clue, you stop and think about the correct course of actions. I did, too, after all… it’s not like the game clock was working against me, with twenty minutes left and us on game 3 of the match. If you want to explore your actions, start thinking about what happens if you sacrifice which sliver… throw the Sinew Sliver at the Raiders and you leave your remaining Slivers to be picked off by a re-use of the Blink to untap the Malach, picking off Necrotic Sliver and thus most of your hope of winning the match. Throw Necrotic Sliver at the Gathan Raiders and the match might as well be over, because your hand doesn’t have another way to contain Malach of the Dawn, and while you might draw one of the numerous Banishing effects in your deck you shouldn’t choose a plan that requires luck. Throw Poultice Sliver at the Gathan Raiders and you get a cookie, having found the best plan in this game of Choose your Own Adventure.

Do what I did, which was think long and hard then say “well, what is the worst thing that can happen if I let this spell resolve?” and try and advance further down the decision tree before committing to using your one activation of Necrotic Sliver for the turn, and you lose the match, like I did. Five plus two plus one equals eight equals your life total, and any way you try and fudge it your opponent still keeps the Raiders around with the second use of the Momentary Blink, and attacks back for the kill so long as he can cast his next card to go Hellbent. If this was merely the worst mistake I’ve made, I might almost be able to live with it… my brain was on disconnect, these things happen sometimes, and that’s what you get for treating it like a video game you can play while you watch TV. I can’t pay to play the game, as might have been explained previously, so losing my safety buffer of about 40 tickets has been frustrating after more or less a year spent going infinite in drafts and picking up cards for my online collection here and there in the meantime. However, this is merely the easiest one in which to reconstruct the game-state, and thus the clearest example of my problem.

Where some people would trust their judgment and the critical thinking skills that they’ve worked hard to build up through playing the game, I’ve been saying “Well what’s the worst thing that could possibly happen?”… which, by the way, sounds an awful lot like “Deet da dee!” from the mouth and the Mind of Mencia.

It’s not easy when you lose your confidence in your ability to solve an intellectual problem with known pieces and perfect information… especially for us brooding intellectuals who measure our success by what percentage of the people in the world one could out-think over a table strewn with colored bits of cardboard. After all, you know every possible play your opponent could make in the above scenario, and can easily craft a situation that survives the crux point with minimal damage. Playing Magic has not been pretty for me this past month, and with the release of a new set gearing up for the new PTQ season it’s a bad time to have one’s faculties betray you. So, to pick myself up again after last week’s article having a first look at Lorwyn Sealed Deck, I decided that this week’s article would be about my experiences at the Release Event, and we’d have another look at a Sealed Deck card pool and discuss the decision-making process for Lorwyn Sealed Deck.

In the three-on-three team draft afterwards, I drafted a vicious-looking Elf deck with some serious bombs, then managed to find the exact point where I could make the most blatantly wrong decision and made it, tanking my first two matches instead of handily winning 2-0. I left to go meet up with my new girlfriend Anita instead of starting up another draft, because we lost 1-5 when we should have been 3-3 if my brain was plugged in at all, and it was just a better idea to escape with draft packs still intact than to forfeit more product and time in frustrating fashion to my blatant misplays.

How did the Release Event go? Well, we’ll look at the card pool in just a second. I got a pretty decent deck, and I think it’s an especially good one to look at for the purpose of our ongoing discussions about how Lorwyn Sealed works. But anything less than a 4-0 finish was apparently disappointing, as at a 48 person, 4-round tournament with no cut to elimination, prize was to be distributed to the top four players only. Given I’d just dropped my online Limited rating from 1865 to 1810 in the past week by picking up loss after loss after loss, all theoretically at $15 each experience before you make up some of that gap by drafting rares… well, let’s just say my chances of being one of the three 4-0 players, even in a room relatively full of unestablished players, was shaky at best. When you’re getting quite good at beating yourself, you don’t really need a competent opponent to beat you, anyone across the table with a stack of forty cards will do. To use a metaphor that is colorful but still printable on a family-friendly website, I fancied my chances about as well as I would if I were a one-legged man in an ass-kicking contest.

I did, in fact, go 3-1 at the release event with my quite acceptable Sealed Deck. Any guesses why I lost that one match? The traditional answer is of course mana-screw or mana-flood, but the recent answer has been “not thinking things through.” Somewhere in there once again I unplugged my brain. The better question might have to be “so how did I beat three living, breathing human beings,” and to be honest I’m not really sure. The first round was a girl who started playing two weeks ago, and that was quite a pleasant experience since I’m on the “non-jerk” side of things. I can read upside down with just as much comfort as I do right-side up, so I played with everything untapped facing her way so she could read the cards and not make mistakes due to not seeing something… there’s no reason we can’t have a “normal” outcome instead of one relying on her not reading a card and me capitalizing on it to close out an otherwise close game. If the game was close against someone who’d played all of two weeks, I could accept losing and happily leave the tournament well aware of the fact that I probably shouldn’t have plopped down thirty real dollars when I’ve been running through my online dollars far, far faster than I’d earned them in the first place.

She won the first… and I got nervous, to be sure, but no reason to be anything less than completely polite and civil, even when she checked after the fact and confirmed she’d played the first game with 37 cards. Plenty of people will take the chance to pounce a new player who won their first game of the match with a game-loss penalty, and even at the relaxed tone of a release event “presenting an illegal deck” is still game-loss-worthy, but when we’re really not playing for anything (and usually even if we are) I’ll always favor the moral stance that lets me sleep at night confident of the fact that I am a good person over the one that might make sure I win the match. I somehow scraped together two wins, the last right as we were about to hit the time limit and enter extra turns, which as far as I’m concerned is a reasonable reward for not being a [Censored!] even when the opportunity was ripe and presented itself. For that matter I also kept up with her over the rest of the tournament, and was taking mental note of lessons that might need to be learned, such as the classic “why instants shouldn’t be played on your turn” lesson.

Two points go to those who guessed that might also be due to the fact that she was very attractive, quite smart, and Asian… especially since I am apparently a zombiesexual, since I dig chicks for their braaaaaaains. Just because I’m happily taken at the moment doesn’t mean I’m suddenly not a flirt… it’s the correct play, and I still know how to make those away from the card table.

The third literally wasn’t thinking when he did anything at all, throwing multiple cards away each game, was playing a non-threatening Green-White deck and cast terrible cards I’d never look at twice and certainly not play “because I wanted another one-drop Kithkin”. I didn’t really pay attention to my opponent because he didn’t warrant attention; I was much, much more threatened by the newly minted player who was well-practiced in using her brain to work through problems than I was by the experienced player who was experienced at being terrible, and that sounds about right. I’m not sure about the person I beat in between those two, looking back in retrospect. It was right after my loss against a reasonable (if young) player where I got my first taste of drawing into a mana-flood when deciding to play eighteen lands in Lorwyn sealed, so the details are hazy. I’m sure my exaggeration of the facts could be counted on to say that he was probably on life support, there was no backup generator, and the freak power outage in the middle of the round might have been crucial to my victory.

It’s probably not very far from the truth, even if it is 100% fictional embellishment. After all, there was no freak power outage in the middle of the round. That I noticed anyway.

Card Pool – By Color

Black: Boggart Loggers, Cairn Wanderer, Eyeblight’s Ending, Facevaulter, Fodder Launch, Ghostly Changeling, Moonglove Winnower, Mournwhelk, Nightshade Stinger, Peppersmoke, 2 Scarred Vinebreeder, Squeaking Pie Sneak

Blue: Aquitect’s Will, Broken Ambitions, Faerie Trickery, Familiar’s Ruse, Glimmerdust Nap, Guile, Merrow Commerce, Merrow Reejerey, Paperfin Rascal, Ponder, Protective Bubble, Ringskipper, Scattering Stroke, Stonybrook Angler, Streambed Aquitects, Thieving Sprite, Tideshaper Mystic, Zephyr Net

White: Austere Command, 2 Avian Changeling, Cenn’s Heir, Hillcomber Giant, 2 Kithkin Harbinger, Goldmeadow Harrier, Kinsbaile Balloonist, Kinsbaile Skirmisher, Oaken Brawler, 2 Pollen Remedy, Springjack Knight, Triclopean Sight, Wispmare

Green: Briarhorn, Bog-Strider Ash, Elvish Handservant, Elvish Promenade, Gilt-Leaf Ambush, Gilt-Leaf Seer, Immaculate Magistrate, Lace with Moonglove, Lys Alana Huntsman, Nath’s Elite, Oakgnarl Warrior, Rootgrapple

Red: Boggart Forager, Boggart Sprite-Chaser, Caterwauling Boggart, Changeling Berserker, 2 Consuming Bonfire, Faultgrinder, Flamekin Bladewhirl, Ingot Chewer, Inner-Flame Acolyte, Mudbutton Torchrunner

Artifacts: Moonglove Extract, Runed Stalactite, Springleaf Drum

Land: Wanderwine Hub, Vivid Grove

While the standard presentation of information does sort things by color, and thus follow the general rules we’ve used in prior formats to figure out which colors to play, as discussed last week splitting things up by tribe has obvious benefits. After all, card synergy and favorable interactions are the hallmark of a solid deck in this format, and looking by color instead of by tribe misses this level of nuance.

2 Consuming Bonfire
Flamekin Bladewhirl
Ingot Chewer
Inner-Flame Acolyte

Hillcomber Giant

Cenn’s Heir
2 Kithkin Harbinger
Goldmeadow Harrier
Kinsbaile Balloonist
Kinsbaile Skirmisher
Springjack Knight

Aquitect’s Will
Merrow Commerce
Merrow Reejerey
Paperfin Rascal
Stonybrook Angler
Streambed Aquitects
Tideshaper Mystic

Bog-Strider Ash
Oaken Brawler
Oakgnarl Warrior

Elvish Handservant (See also: Giant)
Elvish Promenade
Eyeblight’s Ending
Gilt-Leaf Ambush
Gilt-Leaf Seer
Immaculate Magistrate
Lys Alana Huntsman
Moonglove Winnower
Nath’s Elite
2 Scarred Vinebreeder

Faerie Trickery
Nightshade Stinger
Thieving Sprite

Boggart Forager
Boggart Loggers
Boggart Sprite-Chaser (See also: Faeries)
Caterwauling Boggart (See also: Elementals)
Fodder Launch
Mudbutton Torchrunner
Squeaking Pie Sneak

2 Avian Changeling
Cairn Wanderer
Changeling Berserker
Ghostly Changeling

Black: None.
Blue: Broken Ambitions, Familiar’s Ruse, Glimmerdust Nap, Ponder, Protective Bubble, Scattering Stroke, Zephyr Net
White: Austere Command, 2 Pollen Remedy, Triclopean Sight
Green: Lace with Moonglove
Red: None.
Artifacts: Moonglove Extract, Runed Stalactite, Springleaf Drum
Land: Wanderwine Hub, Vivid Grove

This is a difficult card pool to work with, and not for the same reason as last week’s too-thin gruel of deckbuilding options. Instead of very few good colors, like last week, this week we have more or less every color being good… and some bomb rares besides. Guile and Austere Command are the kind of cards you think really hard about opening on your road-trip to a PTQ, since pretty much all of the (non-Red) Elemental Incarnations are stupidly powerful bombs in Limited play, and a rare Wrath effect that can be scaled to the size of your needs is flat-out absurd. The problem with this Sealed pool is that you can’t just chase your bomb-rares, because White and Blue start to get pretty shallow after the first five or so cards each, and neither Austere Command nor Guile are particularly splashable. If you wanted to try really, really hard you could probably play U/G and still cast Austere Command off the two nonbasic lands as helpers, but cards you should be aiming to not play in an unfocused Limited deck (see: Tideshaper Mystic, Springleaf Drum) start to look entirely too good at that point.

With so many options, it’s time to start looking at what tribes we have present, to figure out what the most synergistic tribes are and grab a few hints about putting your deck together. Giants can be dismissed immediately… there’s only the one and no other cards that reference them, so we have a vanilla Hill Giant with landwalking as a generic White card instead of a “Giant” tribe. Following up on that Guile we’ll see that Merfolk are lightly represented but have a bit of oomph to them, with the somehow still under-appreciated Streambed Aquitects mucking up the ground on defense, a tapper, a Lord, and a few less noteworthy members that nonetheless fill a deck. The other Blue tribe, Faeries, is lacking in Blue members, or at least they are lacking in non-terrible Blue members. If we want to play Guile we’ll be relying on our non-tribal cards, which include one of the weaker removal spells in the format and a variety of counterspells.

With the Giants absent, and no cross-over from the Merfolk tribe into White besides for a dual land, let’s look at Kithkin… the other white meat. Much like how the Merfolk stayed in one color without fail, the Kithkin here are all White, and have very little Tribal synergy… you have some Harbingers that are pretty weak 1/3s, Cenn’s Heir, and some cards that are playable in their own right but hardly follow a Tribal theme. Looking at the Treefolk we see yet another poorly populated tribe, with a 2/4 body in White and a truly small smattering of Green fat, plus Rootgrapple as a multi-purpose spell… great as an answer to a Planeswalker; bad at solving mundane problems like killing a flier.

We’ve now looked at the colors of our two main bombs, and found their tribal synergies generally muted. There’s not much pulling us into those colors other than some six-mana bombs, and though you could get a serviceable deck with that as your core it’s distinctly possible that the other colors’ tribes work better with each other and thus might build a better deck. You’re basically going to play White for Austere Command no matter what, but Blue as its companion color is plainly open for debate.

Following Treefolk from White to Green into Black, you’ll note they are absent in Black, yay. There are some Black faeries, all miserable 1/1 fliers, one of which happens to Blackmail… good in theory plenty of the time, terrible here. Continuing the romp of Green into Black brings us to Elves, who are quite potent even if somewhat small. You’ve got Sosuke’s Twinstrike Flip-A-Coin, or “Gilt-Leaf Ambush” as the card is printed; some more token generators; a Banishing effect; and some cards that really begin to benefit you for following the linear theme. We can make more men, and pass around +1/+1 counters, as a reward for sticking to this tribe. Some of this tribe happen to be terrible, ’tis true, but this is why you have the power of rational thought to stop you from doing things like put 2x Scarred Vinebreeder into your Limited decks.

Green also has Lace with Moonglove, a solid combat trick to ensure the opposing creature dies, which should be mentioned before moving out of Green entirely for Black and Red. Once we get there, though… for Black we’ve already looked at Faeries, Elves, and Treefolk, so now we needs must look at our Boggarty friends the Goblins of Lorwyn to see how they work. And we have some solid evasion, a bit of removal from the Torchrunner (as a Red card, regardless of his Goblin-y stature), and Fodder Launch (not a splashable card outside of the tribe, obviously) and then it starts to dry up.

For Elementals, we have some slight representation from the four non-Red colors: Wispmare as a flier for White, Guile as a bomb rare, Mournwhelk as an unplayable, and Briarhorn as a power Green card regardless of its tribe… and between the Ambush and the Briarhorn we have some pretty tricksy Green indeed, if the opponent is attacking into open mana. For the Red portion of the tribe, the Flamekin, we have two removal spells, a Jackal Pup that needs friends to get anywhere, and some associated hangers-on with spell-like effects of varying levels of awesomeness.

We are well and truly all over the place… full of power and light on synergy outside of the Elf tribe (or Goblins, to cast Fodder Launch), and with a Sealed Deck pool that so far refuses to gel into an obvious deck. Despite the paucity of the Blue tribes and spells I decided it was weak but not too weak for me to run with, as you could get a decent bit of removal if your countermagic came up in the right order, and the mix of defensive creatures and evasion when you put Blue and White together was quite pleasing to me. But what finally broke the decision for me was a simple fact… on top of these other things, White and Blue together had the most incidental Clash effects, giving us a reasonable expectation to dig three or four cards deeper into our libraries each game in search of bomb rares, which is one of the key ways to break the otherwise symmetrical benefits of Clashing. None of the cards with Clash were “bad” per se, just unimpressive if you didn’t hit, or acceptable in their present form: a Grey Ogre with a useful creature type, instead of a Blue version of Nessian Courser, or “merely” a counterspell of sorts.

Clash makes the game pretty random, as anyone who has died to Fistful of Force in the past two weeks could easily attest. When it hits, it’s pretty clearly saving you several mana from the cost of the “full” spell, like the “three to you / three to your man” version of Lash Out which most Limited mages would happily spend three or even four mana for if they could get it with certainty. Instead of focusing on getting lucky, though, Clash has a subtler effect on the game, which is on its surface symmetrical: it smoothes the draws of both players over the course of each game, ultimately evening out mana-flood or mana-screw. This is clearly symmetrical except for one fact: by choosing when to use it or when to hold it back, you can time these benefits for your own advantage, playing Clash cards early in the game if you need a bit of help digging for lands, or playing other cards instead if your opponent seems to be the one needing that help.

Another way you can gain advantage, if only slightly, is by the fact that your Instants with Clash (like the aforementioned Power Sink variant) let you benefit from the additional information about the top of your deck first, since you’ll draw that card if you want it before your opponent draws theirs. But at least as far as this build we’re talking about is concerned, there’s a much more obvious brute-force application to it: if your bombs are bigger and nastier than your opponent’s, and thus much more worth digging towards than theirs, getting to see more cards via Clash means you’ll draw your bombs more often every game and can lean on them like a crutch. Remember when I said I wasn’t quite up to the task of beating your average opponent because I am, at least at the moment, far off into the realm of tilting at windmills? Even a player who’s deeply tilted and doesn’t even feel able to trust their judgment can pick up a rock and bash the other guy’s skull, and that’s about the equivalent of how it feels to cast Guile and turn sideways even before adding the fact that this deck has as many as four counterspells if it wants them.

Add to that the fact that this was the best deck I could build that didn’t lose to fliers / could punish the opponent with its own fliers, and there you go. The subtler nuances of Magic have escaped me for the moment, as seen by my “Deet-da-dee!” moment(s) mentioned at the start of this article… but caveman Magic, that I still know how to play!

The deck I selected:

7 Island
7 Plains
3 Swamp
1 Wanderwine Hub

Eyeblight’s Ending
Moonglove Extract
Austere Command
Familiar’s Ruse
Broken Ambitions
Faerie Trickery
Glimmerdust Nap

Cairn Wanderer
2 Avian Changeling
Hillcomber Giant
Kinsbaile Balloonist
Goldmeadow Harrier
Kinsbaile Skirmisher
Oaken Brawler
Tideshaper Mystic
Streambed Aquitects
Merrow Reejerey
Stonybrook Angler
Paperfin Rascal

In retrospect, with all the Clashing going on, I wasn’t lacking for my splash color or the triple Blue for Guile enough to really be happy with the Tideshaper Mystic, and should have replaced that slot with the Springjack Knight left unplayed. I’d left the Knight out because I’d somehow convinced myself it was a bad creature instead of merely a ho-hum one, because I didn’t want to play any “bad” cards just because they had Clash. Most of the tribes in Lorwyn focus on ogre-sized creatures rather than bigger-than-Ogres, except for a few noteworthy Elves and the Giants and Treefolk, which from what I’ve seen so far are not very likely to appear in great numbers in a Limited pool… it seems there’s just fewer of them overall. That said, my excluding the Knight and playing the Tideshaper Mystic was erroneous, as by the end of the tournament the only reason I had left in my mind for playing Tideshaper Mystic was to enable a turn 2 Familiar’s Ruse… which is both not necessary (it’s only a two-drop, nothing can be that bad!) and not even a very good use of the card (it likes hearing the words “damage on the stack” or otherwise countering stuff during combat). Instead I could have played with a reasonable if uninspiring creature that furthered my symmetry-breaking Clash plans of “drawing Guile a lot,” making this deck off by exactly (okay, “at least”) one card from its conceptual ideal.

The tribal synergies worked reasonably well; Cairn Wanderers is quite an impressive creature, and the Avian Changelings reaped small but noticeable benefits from my Merfolk cards that kept them in more fights than they were supposed to have survived. Blunt force trauma via drawing bombs worked about as well as you’d expect, and despite having zero card advantage I did note that there was enough Clashing going on from both sides that I could reasonably expect to draw either one.

I still didn’t win. But I did learn a lot about some of the nuances of a good Lorwyn sealed deck, this time, instead of exploring the murky depths of the loser’s bracket and how to try and wriggle your way to a consistent deck out of a weak card pool like in last week’s example. Hopefully some of those lessons have been passed along even if they were obvious ones like “clash is symmetrical but choosing when you clash controls its otherwise symmetrical benefits” or “open rares, crack heads”… and if you’ve gotten a laugh or two out of my plight along the way, well, that’s for the good.

Next week: Our spotlight on “relevant formats” switches over to focus on States…

Sean McKeown
smckeown @ livejournal.com

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