There are few better days in the Magic year than Pre-Release day for a major set, and few places better in the world to enjoy it than The Games Club, located in central London, and the premier tournament venue here in the UK. Tournament Organizer Jason Howlett and his huge team of staff and judges do a cracking job of putting together a great day out that has the traditional Pre-Release Sealed Deck as just one small part of the equation. There’s Drafting, there’s Artist Signings (when they can fly into the UK!), the chance to play multiple Sealed flights, Two-Headed Giant, Open Dueling, Team Trios… Oh, and there’s Gunslinging too, and that’s where I and fellow Event Coverage writer Tim Willoughby come in.
For eight hours straight, I sat and battled through the brave new world of Eldrazi Sealed, and today I want to share what happened. To start with, see what you would have done with the pool I opened. You may be tempted just to scroll on down to see what I actually played, but practice at building Sealed decks is an opportunity that doesn’t often come without ripping open six boosters, so if you’ve got a few minutes, take your time, and note down your own version:
Affa Honor Guard
Knight of Cliffhaven
Knight of Cliffhaven
Inquisition of Kozilek
Suffer the Past
Not of this World
Coming into the event, the one card I really wanted to open in my pool was… Heat Ray. Seriously. It isn’t new and it isn’t sexy, but it is scalable instant removal. There may be others, but I’m pretty certain that Heat Way is a card that should be played exactly 100% of the time that you open it. If you’re UW, you splash for it. If you’re GB, you splash for it. If you’re mono-Black, you splash for it. Hell, I’d even play it if I were mono-Red.
White — I was mostly unexcited. Demystify seems like an auto-include, given all the Totem Auras, and the Knight of Cliffhaven looked decent. My question mark was with the Kor Line-Slinger. Not knowing the environment, how quickly would its ability be turned off? Multiple people played Ikiral Outrider against me, and it was uniformly crap. A 3/10? It could be 3/4768 for all the difference it makes. It stops a 4/4 from attacking profitably, and saves you that 4 life when two big men are attacking. It kills no big guys, and can almost never attack. In other words, it’s a catastrophically expensive Wall.
Blue — Skywatcher Adept was appealing, because at the max a four power flyer is a quick clock. I was also interested in the counterspells. Partly this is because I’m a control player at heart, and partly because I assumed there would be a lot of enormous threats running around that I’d want to counter late in the game, with Deprive and Lay Bare acting as pseudo-removal. I didn’t play the Blue, but came to the conclusion that this stance was over-reacting to the hype about Eldrazi and other naughtiness. Maybe Deprive is fine, but Lay Bare probably wouldn’t have been the correct answer. Frostwind Invoker is an ‘oops, I win’ card, which is incredibly important in a long game. Okay, so we were all stalled up, then I cast this guy, you didn’t kill it straight away, and I had eight mana available, so (oops) I win.
Black – By and large, the Black looks pretty miserable. Gloomhunter is fine, Shrivel is good at keeping opposing Spawn in check, and Suffer the Past strikes me as a gamewinner. Six mana, five point Drain Life. That seems the value. Plenty of people were playing Zulaport Enforcer. Isn’t he just ghastly?
Red — Well, clearly there’s good stuff here. As you’ll see, there’s a build which features five Defenders, with double Vent Sentinel, double Reinforced Bulwark, and Battle Rampart. As Tim said, Walls are hardly ideal Gunslinging material. The grinding deck isn’t often fun to play against, and you want to get through plenty of matches during the day. The one genuine question for me was whether to play Devastating Summons. I was nervous, and didn’t play it. Sacrificing three lands when you have eight seems fine, but by then two 3/3s maybe aren’t up to much. Sacrificing five land when you have seven makes two 5/5s, giving you the vague possibility of rebuilding somewhere down the line, but really you’re into the realms of riding them to victory. At that point, you might as well sac all seven or eight lands you have, make two 8/8s, and say that’s your last spell of the game, and can they defeat that?
Green — Hugely good, hugely deep. See more below.
Artifacts and Lands — Prophetic Prism turned out to be an obvious include, especially once I realized I was going to be playing Sarkhan the Mad as my only Black splash. With the Prism, I felt I could quite happily run just a singleton Swamp, and I’m always happy when my splash intrudes as little as possible. Dreamstone Hedron is fine if you mostly want it for mana, but nine mana for draw three cards is a lot. Maybe I should have played it.
My deck ended up like this:
1cc — Joraga Treespeaker, Leaf Arrow, Flame Slash
2cc — Nest Invader, Nest Invader ,Kazandu Tuskcaller, Spawning Breath, Prophetic Prism
3cc — Sporecap Spider, Sporecap Spider, Brimstone Mage, Boar Umbra
4cc — Kozilek’s Predator, Kozilek’s Predator, Traitorous Instinct
5cc — Stomper Cub, Stomper Cub, Stomper Cub, Emrakul’s Hatcher, Emrakul’s Hatcher, Sarkhan the Mad
7cc — Pelakka Wurm
8cc — Ulamog’s Crusher
1cc — Leaf Arrow and Flame Slash are removal. The Treespeaker is an amazing turn one play, and is good any time up to about turn five.
2cc — Three ways to accelerate mana, removal, fixing, and an absurd Leveller, which cannot help but win games if left in peace.
3cc — The Spiders are dull and uninteresting, but a necessary insurance policy against cheap flyers. Brimstone Mage is a stupendous Limited card, and anyone thinking they can stall forever gets severely disabused once this levels to the max. Three a turn? To the dome? Really? Thanks. The Boar Umbra was one of the few cards I fiddled about with during the day, taking it out to see whether I’d prefer the Crusher.
4cc — Tons of acceleration, and a card that is a superb gamewinner time after time. It’s in the nature of the set that players not only tap out, but sacrifice all their Spawn, to make their huge threat as early as possible. Traitorous Instinct turns an 8/8 into a 10/8 with Annihilator 2 or whatever, and when they’ve just sacrificed their Spawn, that’s going to bite. Levelling up a huge flyer does the same. Oh look, you’ve got a 4/4 flyer now. Wait, sorry, I’ve got a 6/4 flyer now. Die.
5cc — Infinite Trample, tons of acceleration, Mythic Planeswalker. Somebody actually tried to tell me that Sarkhan wasn’t very good. Does he, or does he not, instantly protect himself with a 5/5 flying Dragon? And, having done so, does he, or does he not, proceed to make two more over the following turns? Crazy good.
7cc — Pelakka Wurm. The seven life is relevant, the dying bit is a small consolation, but it generally doesn’t die. Instead, it wins games.
8cc — Ulamog’s Crusher. Yes, clearly I should have played this from the start, but I’m scared of new things. By the way, Hand of Emrakul is rubbish. 7/7, oooooh. It’s like the new Craw Wurm. Woefully disappointing.
Xcc — Like I said, I wanted to see Heat Ray in my pool.
Right then. What follows are brief summaries of all my games. My plan is fairly straightforward. I have plenty of mana acceleration, and want to cast Pelakka Wurm as soon as possible. Kazandu Tuskcaller or Brimstone Mage are primary win conditions, as are a variety of monsters that put pressure on opponents spending entire spells on Spawn rather than making creatures with an actual power, as well as a toughness.
Anthony — Playing for about 8 months. Pulse Tracker, Pulse Tracker, Blade of the Bloodchief! Okay, not quite what I was expecting! Still, I go with it, make Pelakka Wurm on turn six, make Sporecap Spider good with Boar Umbra. WIN
Ieuan — Playing for six months seriously, but on off for years. He opens with Beastbreaker of Bala Ged, and makes it a 4/4. I Flame Slash it. On Turn 5 I make Emrakul’s Hatcher, and since he has Soul Attendant, he gains 4 life. Then I make Sarkhan the Mad plus a Dragon. Then another Dragon. Then another Dragon. WIN
Charlie — Playing since Scourge. Ah. okay, so we’re in a set where THIS sort of thing can happen — On turn three he casts Growth Spasm, getting him both a land and a Spawn. Turn four he has Kozilek’s Predator, which nets him another two tokens. And then on turn five he casts Eldrazi Conscription, making his Predator a 13/13 Trampler. LOSE
Eugene — Playing since Revised. I opened on Joraga Treespeaker, and he very sensibly aimed Forked Bolt at it. My Kozilek’s Predator traded with Ogre Sentry, but I added Stomper Cub, Nest Invader, and filtered through Prophetic Prism for Brimstone Mage. He drew all expensive stuff. WIN
Kieran — Playing for 3 years. Playing Red-White Aggro, a deck that in theory you shouldn’t be able to play, ideally, Kieran opened on turn two Glory Seeker. I made a Brimstone Mage, but he quickly nuked it with Flame Slash. In quick succession, down came Kor-Line Slinger, Grotag Siege-Runner, and Lagac Lizard. I needed to stabilize very badly, but when he found Staggershock for a potential blocker, and then dealt me two on the Rebound, dropping me to five, I was in big trouble. When he dropped a Brimstone Mage, I thought I was done, but I found a Flame Slash on top, and sent it packing. Sarkhan the Mad came down, and I started making Dragons, because Kozilek’s Predator and Emrakul’s Hatcher gave me guys, and clogged up the ground. He still got me to two, though, by the time shields were up. I hit him through the air to 15, and again to 10. A second Brimstone Mage arrived for him, and got ready to Level. He drew Spawning Breath, cast it, which gave him a Spawn mana, allowing him to Level up, and pinged me for the win. LOSE
I found this a tremendous game. Any time someone tells you that the environment is going to be slow, you should always look for the opportunities to make the environment fast. My deck was by no means sluggish or top heavy, yet I was out-tempo’d in classic fashion, with early curve, limited but effective removal, and a tiny bit of reach (not Reach) to Get There. Frankly, I was delighted to lose this one.
Ross — Playing since Mercadian Masques. He had Goblin Arsonist and Skywatcher Adept early, but skipped a turn when the Adept met Spawning Breath in response to Levelling up. Kozilek’s Predator started me off, and then Kazandu Tuskcaller went all the way to Level 6 before Ross could deal with him, and by then he’d made four 3/3s. Heat Ray cleared a path for victory. WIN
Chris — Playing since Legions. Now this was an interesting opening. I suspect Death Cultist is poor, Lone Missionary is poor, and Survival Cache is poor. He opened Death Cultist, Lone Missionary, Survival Cache. That Cache allowed him to gain four and draw two cards, and the life totals were 16-28 by turn three. He added Ikara Outrider, which was mildly irritating. I got Brimstone Mage to Level 1, but needed to block, and Puncturing Light killed it. I replaced it with Stomper Cub, while he added the 2/4 flyer Makindi Grffin. I attacked with my Stomper Cub, and walked right into Gideon Jura, who killed my tapped trampler. Up against the ropes, I found Traitorous Instinct to steal the Makindi Griffin, and the extra +2+0 killed Gideon. I was still in trouble, though, and Bala Ged Scorpion killed my Kazandu Tuskcaller before it could get me back in the game. LOSE
Maciej — LOSE. So, Maciej from Poland, Mr. 4-0, what were you playing? Here’s his list:
Gelatinous Genesis (FOIL)
Mul Daya Channellers
Artisan of Kozilek
This was one of the best decks I saw all day. He knew some of his spells were nuts, so played both counterspells. Gelatinous Genesis is spectacular. Seven mana gets you three 3/3s. Nine mana gets you four 4/4s. Eleven mana gets you five 5/5s. All of these are stonking value. He had all the acceleration you could want, the Kazandu Tuskcaller, Mul Daya Channellers, and another ‘oops I win’ card in Reality Spasm. Awesome deck.
Ben — Playing for 10 years. This was a really interesting and long game, which showcased what happens when you execute most of a plan flawlessly, but don’t have a conclusion. Ben had a deck that was extremely tough to get through. He had Stalwart Shield-Bearers, Awakening Zone making Spawn every turn, Daggerback Basilisk with Deathtouch, Ikara Outrider Levelling up. I was going to struggle to get through that lot. However, he had little evasion, and, as Green-White, little removal. I made Brimstone Mage and Kazandu Tuskcaller, and took both of them to the max, and two 3/3s a turn, plus three damage a turn to the dome, against essentially a bunch of Walls, only ever had one winner. Talking to him about it afterwards, he hadn’t been looking for win conditions, and had got as far as ‘they’ll have trouble dealing with this lot’ without the ‘what will I have trouble with?’ bit. WIN
Ben — Playing since Urza’s Block, left during Mercadian Masques, and came back in Lorwyn. I opened with Joraga Treespeaker, and quickly Levelled it. Turn three got me Kozilek’s Predator, so I had a chance for Pelakka Wurn on turn four, until he killed my Treespeaker with Staggershock, and then used the Rebound on my Spawn. He, meanwhile, is playing Eldrazi, because he’s running the Eldrazi-only land, which is, in my view, something of a tell. Kazandu Tuskcaller gets to Level 2, before Consume the Meek kills it. I get Pelakka Wurm eventually, but he makes Sarkhan the Mad, and Dragon. I attack, and use Spawning Breath and Leaf Arrow + my 1/5 Sporecap Spider to kill the Dragon, and go on to kill Sarkhan. My Wurm meets Induce Despair for five, and then Spawning Breath plus a 1/1 gets to trade with it. Into topdeck mode, I find Stomper Cub, and Stomper Cub. WIN
Rik — And now, suddenly, I’m no longer playing Magic. Magic is a game of creatures, and a game of spells. Suddenly, I’m playing this weird game where there’s only one relevant thing on the other side of the table, and the entire game is about that one thing. It’s Transcendent Master, which Levels to infinity and beyond, and has a Warmonger’s Chariot along for (or providing) the ride. I cast Nest Invader, Nest Invader, Emrakul’s Hatcher, Stomper Cub, Stomper Cub, Pelakka Wurm, and more. He gains 11 life a turn from his 11/11 indestructible dude. At one point, I deal him 27, hitting him from 30 to 3, but he always has just enough to carry on attacking. I can see that being utterly dominated from the very beginning could get tiresome quickly, but this experience of one monster ridden all the way to victory is a neat idea, and was an utterly different Sealed experience than I’ve had before. LOSE
At that point, Tom wanders over, having won six straight games to claim his first Draft victory in triple Rise. I had a look at his deck, and thought it would warm the hearts of all Aggro fans out there. Take a look:
3 Lone Missionary
3 Dawnglare Invoker
Repel The Darkness
Linvala, Keeper of Silence
Ben — Playing since Time Spiral. This was another interesting one. He opens on Nest Invader, Brood Birthing, and Rapacious One. I steal it with Traitorous Instinct, but he adds a second Rapacious One. Tediously, I can never find a window to kill Mortician Beetle, which goes from 1/1 up to 10/10. Ulamog Crusher + Flame Slash kills it. I stabilize, and because almost all his mana has come from Spawn, the ability on Ulamog Crusher has left him very little mana. He attacks with his one remaining Rapacious One, and I need the mana from my Spawn tokens for Pelakka Wurm. I choose to drop from 7 to 2, which gives him 5 mana, and he’s able to cast Essence Feed for the win. LOSE
Elliott — Playing since Time Spiral. I have double Nest Invader, he had Zulaport Enforcer (irrelevant), Bloodthrone Vampire (vaguely irritating, but really irrelevant), and Guul Draz Assassin + Spider Umbra (super-relevant). I find Heat Ray to ‘kill’ it, but of course it only actually kills the Umbra. LOSE
There was a real lesson here. Even the worst of the Umbras are useful. I had ignored the +1/+1 and Reach (Spider Umbra) as being not worth the effort, but in reality these are counterspells for future removal. Think Vines of Vastwood, but as a permanent. If I have key cards to protect in future, I will definitely play these as proactive counterspells.
Thomas — Playing since Zendikar. Ouch. This is what curve looks like: T1 Joraga Treespeaker, T2 Level up, T3 Stomper Cub, T4 Emrakul’s Hatcher, T5 Pelakka Wurm. He made a Level 0 Brimstone Mage. WIN
Oli — Playing for 7 or 8 years, but at his first ever Prerelease. He opens on Knight of Cliffhaven, while I accelerate with Kozilek’s Predator and Emrakul’s Hatcher, and used Leaf Arrow on the Knight. Kazandu Tuskcaller went straight to 2, while he made a second Knight of Cliffhaven. I got Ulamog’s Crusher down, and used Traitorous Instinct, for what felt like the 38th time during the day, to kill the last blocker. WIN
Chris — Playing on and off since Darksteel. I won this when he stalled on two land. However, what was slated to come my way was pretty startling. He’d managed to cast Caravan Escort, Lighthouse Chronologist, Ikaral Outrider, and Time of Heroes off his two land. He had two Venerated Teacher in hand. We worked through the sequence of him continuing to draw land, and the way those Levels started stacking up would have made a ridiculous army round about turn four. Interestingly, he’d been seduced by the power of one of the tastier Combos in the set. Sphinx of Magosi is a spectacular ‘only Rare’ flyer. The turn after you cast it, you make it at least an 8/8 and draw two cards. With all those Levelers running around, Chris couldn’t resist Training Grounds, which reduces the cost of all your activations. Paying just one mana for drawing a card on the Sphinx seemed a deal too good to pass up, and similarly turbo-charging the Levelers. However, mana is fairly plentiful. Make no mistake, this is a set where Land Doesn’t Matter (TM) and the advantage of Training Grounds probably isn’t worth it in Limited. WIN
Maciej again. Having gone 4-0, he came back with a second pool, which was already 2-0. I opened with Nest Invader and Kozilek’s Predator, but he has Drana, Kalastria Bloodchief on turn four. Leaf Arrow + Spawning Breath killed it. He had Hand of Emrakul, but I end up with the Predator, Emrakul’s Hatcher, Pelakka Wurm, and Sarkhan, while he draws nothing. WIN
It could be just because of the deck I was playing, but it felt to me that there were a lot of Card Disadvantage situations going on. A big monster on the battlefield was being eaten by a triple block where two of the three died. Two removal spells got used. Or, a removal spell plus a smaller monster. Finding straightforward 1 for 1s was much harder than usual.
Maciej and I played one more, and ended up with the most absurd game of the day. He has the 7/7 Hand of Emrakul, while I have the 7/7 Pelakka Wurm, and the 8/8 Ulamog’s Crusher. He gets the 6/6 Lord of Shatterskull Pass well up the Level path, but even his ultimate would have been useless, as it ‘only’ deals six to each opposing monster! Traitorous Instinct gave me the victory yet again.
Daniel. Playing since Lorwyn Block. I got properly murderised, and thought I’d share his list with you:
Wrap in Flames
Lord of Shatterskull Pass
Guul Draz Assassin
2 Ulamog’s Crusher
Wrap in Flames, by the way, is yet another ‘oops I win’ card, and is a card I intend to draft highly in my Aggro decks. Kill your guy, make your other two guys irrelevant, smash. Nice, nice card.
Keith — Playing for 6 months. I curved out perfectly with Joraga Treespeaker on turn one ramping into Stomper Cub turn three. Keith had a rather different plan, featuring turn 2 Manamorphose, then Elvish Visionary, Wren’s Run Vanquisher, and Imperious Perfect. Would it amaze you to learn that I lost that one?
At this point, there was a train to catch, back to the Magic capital of the world, Scunthorpe. Prerelease hype is all about trying to educate the punters about what kind of environment they might expect, and always focuses on the new, inevitably. From what is still only the first day, here are some observations to take away:
Yes, there are enormous monsters, but they’re not seen very often. Mythic Rares are Mythic for a reason, and impacted players far more psychologically than on the battlefield, where they mostly weren’t.
Aggro decks always exist, at least until Wizards decides that everything can be played for free, and you’ll just dump your entire deck into play and see who wins. If you’re playing a four cost on turn three, and a seven on turn five, that’s Aggro, if your opponent is waiting to spend ten on turn seven. Yes, the acceleration is there to make Eldrazi playable, but everything that comes before it is also accelerated out. I had a lot of Spawn, true, but I had approximately three longish games out of the twenty I played. Rise is every bit as brutal as Zendikar, albeit in a slightly different way.
Lands: 17 land is almost certainly going to be enough. Most players seemed to have mana coming out of their ears. 16 is going to be too few, because you really do need to get to your four and five drops which produce multiple Spawn, but 18 really leads to the risk of flooding.
Flyers: I hardly saw any all day. Seriously, it was like a no-fly zone. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so little evasion in a set. That’s an anecdotal observation, not a comparison of exactly what cards are at what rarity and so on, but you generally got beaten by things that were bigger, not sneakier.
Removal: If I’m right that you’re often spending two removal spells on one guy, having legitimate threats is really important. Walls are all well and good, and so are Spawn-makers and so on, but having cards that actually say ‘Kill me, kill me now’ are really important, because players want to really keep hold of their removal. I had Pelakka Wurn, Ulamog’s Crusher, Kazandu Tuskcaller, Joraga Treespeaker, Brimstone Mage, Sarkhan the Mad, and arguably the three five-power Tramplers. There were lots of cards being played that really weren’t an issue, and that plays into your hands. Apply pressure, force them to use removal, and win with the threat they can’t deal with.
Mana: This set seems built for five-color Green. You have Terramorphic Expanse – oh wait, Evolving Wilds. You have Prophetic Prism, you have some time to assemble your splash color or colors, Growth Spasm, Ancient Stirrings. If there are single-mana-required threats outside your main colors, try to squeeze them in. Removal is at a premium, and more threats are worth the occasional mana stumble.
Levelers: My gut instinct is to say don’t be in a rush to Level up. While the early turns are fine to do so, both players understand that the good Levelers will dominate if allowed to flourish. In that sense, actually Leveling them isn’t as important as the threat of them doing so. If you have Instant removal, it’s probably well worth holding on, rather than tapping out to Level up. Several times, I Leveled, and then my opponent spent a ton of mana on a Leveller from scratch — cast, L1, L2, L3, and took it out of range of the kill spell in hand. Overall, I thought this was a great mechanic, and any complainers about it not being instant are just ignoring the fun to be had driving a Porsche when all they want is a Ferrari.
Overall, Rise is quite clearly still Magic. For the most part, all the things that make Magic Magic still hold true, at least in Sealed. However, there were occasional games that bore no relationship to any Magic I’ve played before, with 7/7s and 8/8 squaring off, dealing six being insufficient, and watching a lone Leveller utterly dominate the game from start to finish. This was a nice change of pace.
Your comments are, as always, valued in the forums. I will, of course, have made mistakes both building and playing, but specific card evaluations are of much less interest than the overall shape of the Limited format. For those of you who went to a Prerelease (and if you weren’t getting married or going to a funeral, that should be all of you), please come and share your experiences. What were the weird games? Did Rise play the way you expected? What were your hits and misses?
Oh, and one more thing before I go: If you happen to be in the UK during the first weekend in May, check out the excellent Magic Weekend being run by Level 3 judge Glen White down in Gravesend. Vintage, a Legacy National Championship, tons of old and foreign Drafts as well as ROE, and more Magical stuff than you can shake a stick at. Check out gravesendmagic.co.uk for details!
Until next week, as ever, thanks for reading…