Removed From Game – Better Than Neil

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Tuesday, May 13th – A total of 156 Shadowmoor boosters got Drafted at Rich Hagon’s palatial villa in the heart of England this weekend, a figure which should make Event Logistics Co-ordinators throughout Seattle happy campers. And since ten of the finest decks are here for you to pore over and dissect, there should be some happy campers elsewhere (flask) too.

Our illustrious Editor refers to the process of putting home drafts together as ‘Herding Cats,’ and having done it a bunch of times, I have to say he’s got it pretty spot on. Numbers vacillate wildly in the days leading up to a Draft weekend chez moi, and the two hours before we’re due to actually sit down and play Magic is littered with last-minute disasters of the I’ve missed my train / lost my wallet / missed my alarm / lost my brain (delete as applicable) variety. Oh, and with it being the weekend you can add in, ‘went out and got totally wiped and can’t remember my name. Or yours.’ Still, labyrinthine plotting helped me get 6, 6, 8, 8, 6, 6, 6, and 6 players to sit down simultaneously for a whopping eight drafts this past weekend, and in a turn-up for the books, I propose to share some highlights with you in this very document.

Our guide and travelling companion this time around the drafting block is Neil Rigby, one of the best Limited players here in the UK. Think Quentin Martin, but with even more women hurling themselves at him. I began the weekend by finding out a bit about what he was hoping to accomplish, seeing as he’d made a 250-mile round trip to make it happen.

Rich: So, plans for the weekend?
Neil: Apart from win?
Rich: Apart from win.
Neil: Learn.
Rich: Enough with the pithy answers. Learn what?
Neil: I guess the first thing I want to do is try out a bunch of different archetypes. Because your draft weekends aren’t sanctioned I don’t have to worry about losing ranking points just because I’m trying out a few marginal or suboptimal cards. I can quite happily try and force a really strange archetype, and if I go 0-3, no bones broken. Second, I want to try and get a handle on what makes the good decks good. What are the key cards? How badly is the archetype affected if it’s missing these components? Are any of them uncommon, and therefore unlikely to be seen that often? Related to these ideas is the concept of Pick Orders, and I’m interested to see how I value the cards as the weekend progresses. Since there are a bunch of different people playing in the different drafts, I expect to find people’s assessment of card values varying wildly, and hopefully I can take advantage of that. And it’s great to spend time talking Magic with players like Tom Harle, Dave Grant, and Craig, none of whom are exactly catastrophic. So, play, learn, chat… seems like the perfect weekend.
Rich: You’ve been playing for ages, haven’t you?
Neil: Since just after The Dark.
Rich: Blimey, you are ancient!
Neil: Thanks.
Rich: Does that give you an advantage?
Neil: To an extent. Wizards are always trying to ask you different questions with a new draft format, so knowing how to draft Invasion-Planeshift-Apocalypse doesn’t get you automatic knowledge of Kamigawa block for example, but there are always fundamental principles that underlie the surface changes. Until they get rid of ‘start at 20, finish at 0,’ experience is going to count for something.
Rich: Do you have a preference then, particular format constraints notwithstanding?
Neil: Generally I like to draft control decks. Some decks and players like to ask questions. Some decks and players like to have answers. I prefer answers to questions.
Rich: Why?
Neil: Because when someone asks a question and you have all the answers, you win.
Rich: But there only needs to be one question that you don’t have the answer for, and that’s it.
Neil: That’s right. And generally that one question is ‘Okay, I’ve dealt with every threat you’ve thrown at me. Now I’m in complete control of the board and I’m going to kill you next turn in one of approximately 3 different ways of my choice. What you doing?’ And the answer to that question is for my opponents to say ‘move to game 2.’ Which is of course the correct answer.
Rich: Okay, we’re almost ready for draft one, but one final question. This weekend there’s going to be a mixture of 6 and 8-man drafts. How much difference does this make?
Neil: Clearly playing 8-man draft is advantageous since it’s the format you’re most likely to play, especially if you’re a Magic Online player. However, 6 is interesting too. As far as decks go, there’s obviously a difference in deck quality.
Rich: With your regular 8-pod stronger presumably?
Neil: No, generally I think it’s the other way round. See, although there are fewer boosters in the draft, and therefore fewer power uncommons and rares floating about, there are obviously fewer people competing for the good cards. I think the main difference is in the middle part of your deck. First pick cards are first pick cards in any size of draft, but the middle-ranking cards tend to get left later in the pack, and with two fewer people to get past, you have more of a chance of a nice card that you don’t pick 4th coming back to you pick 10, whereas in an 8-man that probably won’t get as far as 12th. Plus, with a six-man pod, you sometimes get the chance to be the only main drafter of a color, although that’s tougher given the nature of Shadowmoor.
Rich: I know I said one final question, but hey, it’s my column! You sound pretty prepared. Have you already done much drafting of Shadowmoor?
Neil: Today is my second draft.

So off we went into the first draft of the day, with 6 contenders including yours truly. I felt really rather pleased with my opening deck. It was overwhelmingly Black, with some Islands thrown in. Having opened Incremental Blight, pretty much the stone-cold best uncommon in the set, and then been passed Corrupt, things started swimmingly. With Gloomlance and Biting Tether as well, there was always a nice target when it was time to Beseech The Queen (one of my friends, who shall remain nameless, thought that ‘Beseech’ was a pretty strange name for a Queen). With plenty of flyers I comprehensively beat my first two opponents, and then came up against Neil. My God, the final was depressing. I kept looking at my extremely good cards and realising they were going to do absolutely nothing against Neil and his deck of tricks. Here’s the first undefeated deck of the weekend:

Rich: Tell me about that first deck.
Neil: Because I knew I was going to be doing six drafts during the weekend, I had no agenda to try and force anything, because the chance would probably come later on to test out a few different archetypes without forcing in this first draft. I took Thistledown Liege as my opening pick.
Rich: And did that not feel like a really heavy color commitment?
Neil: Not at all. It’s not just the hybrid thing, either. Look, the Liege is fine in Blue, he’s fine in White, and I never mind not playing the first pick of a draft anyway.
Rich: But as it turned out you got to make the most of it. What other cards were key?
Neil: I just love Silkbind Faerie. It’s exactly the kind of card that allows good players to outplay bad players, and you need those kinds of cards in a Limited environment. Knowing what to tap isn’t generally something people think too much about beyond the obvious ‘their biggest guy’ or ‘the only one that can block,’ but with a bit of planning you can really gain an edge. I guess my favorite card in the deck is Mistmeadow Witch. This is just incredibly unfair.
Rich: You’re not wrong. I sat there working out how to get rid of your irritating monsters, you made the Witch, and suddenly my Gloomlance was irrelevant, most of my Incremental Blight was irrelevant, my Corrupt could only go to the dome as a feeble lifegain spell, that one card basically voided my entire deck.
Neil: Yeah, once you get to 8 mana the game is essentially over. Even if they somehow find a way to deal with it, it’s almost certainly cost them huge resources. It’s an utter beating.
Rich: We’ll be keeping an eye on the landcount this weekend. You ran 16 here. Explain.
Neil: I’m quite happy to vary the number of lands considerably, and don’t really think of there being an ‘average’ number, although I suppose 17 is the default for most sets. My deck here was quite cheap, I had a little bit of card draw, and wasn’t going to get swarmed under quickly. Late game, seeing an extra spell could be the difference. 16 felt fine, and I had no mana issues.

In the second draft, also featuring 6 plucky spellslingers, Neil came up with this lot:

With Swiss pairings, there was no undefeated deck this time. The other 2-1 records belonged to a UR affair with plenty of removal, including a pair of Pili-Pala to match 2 Power Of Fire, and a GW deck that seemed to chiefly win by putting Shield Of The Oversoul on a hybrid monster and grinning a lot.

Rich: Neil, I have to ask… 2 Swamps for 2 Gloomlance. You’re kidding!
Neil: (puts on serious face) Well Rich, I’m glad you asked me about that. See, there isn’t a huge amount of removal in the set, and you really shouldn’t pass up quality like Gloomlance if you can possibly help it. I had a Manaforge Cinder, a Morselhoarder, Prismatic Omen, and a Pili-Pala. The thing is, Gloomlance is so far and away better than any cards I might play as my 21st and 22nd card that it’s worth it for the amount of time I get to draw and use them.
Rich: (gives Neil a hard stare.)
Neil: Yeah, I was just greedy!
Rich: How good are the creature enchantments? I’ve just been beaten by a 7/6 Loamdragger Giant being turned into a 9/8 Double Strike Trampler via Runes Of The Deus, and it looked for a while as if Shield Of The Oversoul was going to be an issue for you.
Neil: Well, nobody’s beaten me with a silly creature enchantment yet, and I don’t really see why you wouldn’t have the answer.
Rich: You mean having enchantment removal?
Neil: Not necessarily. The thing is, you don’t even have to kill the monster, or the enchantment. Turn To Mist, Consign To Dream, Aethertow, flash out Glamer Spinners and send the enchantment onto something less relevant while you butcher their now-unexciting guy. Look, Wizards invented Equipment to get round the problem of inherent card disadvantage with creature enchantments. Now we’re back where we used to be, with people saying ‘please 2-for-1 me,’ and generally, when I’m invited to a bit of 2-for-1 action, I’m not going to turn it down. So, I can see that cards like Armored Ascension and Runes Of The Deus and so on CAN do horrible things, but especially as people come to understand that their success rate will fall. And I don’t think it’s that high to start with. It’s just that you tend to remember when you hit someone from 20 to 0 in two turns with an unblockable indestructible flying untargetable whatever it is. So, overall, not convinced yet.

As we know, Neil promised to try out a bunch of different decks, and he certainly held true to that in the third draft of the weekend, this time featuring a full complement of 8 players.

Rich: Now let’s be clear. When it comes to building draft decks where angels fear to tread, you’ve got form.
Neil: I don’t know what you mean.
R : Okay… are you or are you not the player who, at a Limited Pro Tour, went Turn 2 Fertile Ground, Turn 3 Harrow, Turn 4 Genju Of The Realm, Turn 5 activate Genju hit you with my 8/12 Legendary trample man?
Neil: I am.
Rich: And are you or are you not the man who, on Day 2 of a Grand Prix, made Glint-Eye Nephilim Turn 4 and Ink-Treader Nephilim Turn 5?
Neil: I am.
Rich: So what’s the deal here?
Neil: I got passed Reaper King pick two of the first booster, and although I wasn’t absolutely committed, in my head that seemed like a reasonable jumping-off point to try and build the Scarecrow deck.
Rich: You ended up with nine Scarecrows in the deck.
Neil: Yeah, but they weren’t necessarily the ones you would have wanted. I got 1 Pili-Pala, but that’s in high demand for lots of people, and didn’t see a single Scuttlemutt for the same reason. Clearly, if I got to make the Reaper King then I pretty much won, since the quality of the Scarecrows in that situation isn’t that important. But to be honest I had just as much success with Rhys The Redeemed and Presence Of Gond.
Rich: So would you try this archetype again?
Neil: Well, I’m not going to see Reaper King all that often, but if it turned up I’d consider taking another stab at it, sure.

That left the way clear for this deck to ace the pod:

Draft 4, the last of Saturday, was back to basics for Neil, and it definitely paid off as he utterly dominated the pod, not dropping a game en route to 3-0.

Rich: Another 16 land concoction?
Neil: Yeah, and again no mana problems. In this kind of deck it really seems totally fine.
Rich: Knowing that you’d already won a draft with UW did you actively pursue it this time?
Neil: Not until I opened Thistledown Liege again! What was surprising was the I had another base-UW player to my right as it turned out. I was able to get a Silkbind Faerie from my left, and then rather nicely got an Augury Adept from my right in pack three, which isn’t something I’d have passed very often if I was UW.
Rich: Why? Isn’t he a Gray Ogre with an ability that you never get to utilise?
Neil: Not in this kind of deck. You’ve got Somnomancer to tap a guy, you’ve got Silkbind Faerie to tap a blocker, Inquisitor’s Snare to clear a path for next time, Steel Of The Godhead to make it unblockable… and that’s just in my actual deck, never mind all the other tricks out there that can sneak a man through. And the ability is pure card advantage, quite apart from the lifegain bonus.
Rich: By this point are you happy with the view of many Pros that UW is the best archetype?
Neil: It certainly seems to be. It has all the right cards you need to be successful. It has lots of really efficient aggressive monsters that mean, even in the worst case, you’re not getting vastly behind early. But where it really shines is in the tricks department. Everything is so cheap, and that’s really important because it allows you to make a guy and still have mana up for a trick like Last Breath or Turn To Mist, Inquisitor’s Snare… There’s also the fact that you can spend most of your mana pre-combat and give the impression that you have limited options when in fact you still have plenty going on. Bad players run into that sort of thing all the time. Like you, Rich.
Rich: Thanks.

Having just spent 12 hours playing Magic, the five people who were staying for the weekend decided that the logical thing to do was play Magic, so we settled down to some Cube drafting, which really is tremendous fun, even if you have to play a couple of rounds before you discover that Umezawa’s Jitte and Siege-Gang Commander are rubbish! Following a decent few hours of sleep, it was back to the draftstone, with a full dozen players getting down to two 6-man pods. La plus ca change…

Rich: Alright then, without getting too cocky about it, tell us what you did this time.
Neil: This was quite a bit different than the last UW in terms of how the draft went. I opened Jaws Of Stone and passed it on, and also shipped Murderous Redcap early, trying to encourage the half-decent player on my left to work out that I was basically saying ‘the Red is yours.’ That plan didn’t work out entirely as I hoped. I only ended up with 12 monsters, but the deck was still very aggressive, largely due to the triple Somnomancer. But, as seems to be the case, it’s the spells that really shine. Double Barkshell Blessing is a real beating in a format where tricks that change combat math are often as close as it comes to ‘real’ removal. The deck has any number of bounce and tempo effects, and coupled with the late-game nonsense of double Biting Tether or even Armored Ascension, I could basically win quick, middle, or long-game.
Rich: This time you went down again to just 15 land. Is this something you’re actively experimenting with?
Neil: Yes, because it’s an area of the game that a lot of people don’t bother to do their homework on, and just kind of take the word of someone in an article – which this week I suppose could be me! I’ve done a few Lorwyn-Lorwyn-Morningtide drafts online where I’ve gone down to 14 land, and I’ve won the draft every time.
Rich: What were you drafting?
Neil: Merfolk all the way. Think triple Merrow Witsniper, Silvergill Adept, absolutely everything as cheap as possible, maybe going up to 1 or 2 Summon The School at 4, but sometimes the entire deck at 3 or less.
Rich: And you’re not worried about screw, clearly.
Neil: Not at all. Maybe at 14 I would be, but a deck this cheap is fine at 15 and, obvious truth though it is, if you have more spells in your deck than the other guy, over time you draw more action than they do.

Meanwhile on the other table a certain Craig S. was sweeping his table aside with this little number:

That left one more draft to experiment. Here’s Neil’s final deck of the weekend:

Rich: So what was the thinking this time?
Neil: This was the only draft of the six that I actually went into with a dedicated pre-meditated plan. I wanted to see how it felt to actively draft an off-color (or enemy color) strategy, and as I’m really comfortable playing Blue I was really looking to pair it up with Red. When I opened up Jaws Of Stone I was like ‘hooray, that’s settled then’ and the draft went from there.
Rich: Hmm, there seem to be some pretty powerful things going on in this one.
Neil: Yes, double Burn Trail is never shabby. Then there’s comedy rare Knollspine Invocation, and I opened a second Jaws Of Stone in pack three. And then there’s the possible insanity of Power Of Fire on Pili-Pala.
Rich: I thought you said you should have the answer to a creature enchantment like Power Of Fire.
Neil: That’s why I drafted three of them! But seriously, there’s a world of difference between a ridiculously powerful effect like a machine-gun Pili-Pala or Leech Bonder, and a straight-up creature enchantment like Helm Of the Ghastlord or Fists Of The Demigod. If they don’t answer your Power Of Fire before it goes on, you’re almost guaranteed card parity at the very least, as they use removal in exchange for some serious board decimation.

In part due to mana issues, the deck came up short in the final, falling to this old-fashioned BR aggro deck, with efficiently-costed evasion men, a few big and angry men, and just enough removal:

While those two were going at it, Craig S was again clearing the board against all comers with this, almost certainly the purest deck of the weekend:

So before the players headed for homes around the country we tried to ascertain what was clear and what remained uncertain. On the definite side, the format was broadly welcomed, both by experienced campaigners and new blood alike. There was general pleasure that the feeling some had of Lorwyn being ‘Wizards build your decks for you’ wasn’t replicated here. Enchantment and Artifact removal were definitely maindeck choices, although Smash To Smithereens sometimes found itself without a juicy, or indeed any, target. One-drops seemed to be surprisingly prevalent for a game that has traditionally had a hard time making its one-drops justify their inclusion in Limited decks. For every Neil who basically yawned at the stories of mighty creature enchantments winning matches, there was someone willing to tell those stories, which at the very least means that Neil is right when he says you should always have the answers. Removal is indeed light, at least in the traditional sense of ‘kill your man… no, actually kill your man… stop talking, your man’s dead’ kind of removal. Instead, cards like Barkshell Blessing have risen in stock. The big question mark that failed to be resolved during our 52 seats-worth of drafting this weekend was about the speed of the format. There were games over in, effectively at least, 4 turns, as one drop became 2/2 haste and then another 2/2 haste plus ‘can’t block’ and then removal or trick just about being gg. There were games where base-W decks came screaming out and used their tempo to end the game at breakneck speed. And there were accelerated GR affairs with Scuttlemutt and Morselhoarder and Devoted Druid that flung out enormous men and then put unfeasibly silly enchantments on them to win turn 6. But there were also games where Windbrisk Raptors were well within range of not being too expensive, and grinding defensive wins on the back of 2/1 unblockables nibbling irritatingly away while a strong defence was maintained throughout. So how fast is the format, and what can you and can’t you afford to play? Don’t know. But we’ll close with Neil, who did rather well this weekend…

Rich: So, over the six drafts you went 15-3.
Neil: Yep.
Rich: What did you lose to?
Neil: I lost to Tom in the second draft. He was playing UR.
Rich: And then?
Neil: I lost a match in the next draft, against a UB deck with Incremental Blight.
Rich: Who played that?
Neil: Tom.
Rich: And then you lost the final of the last draft, right, against Tom’s BR aggro?
Neil: Yes.
Rich: So basically you’re saying you beat everyone all weekend except Tom, who beat you 3-0?
Neil: Yes.
Rich: Seems like the final word should go to someone else… Neil, thanks for your help. So, Tom, what’s the secret of Shadowmoor Limited?
Tom: Be better than Neil.

As ever, thanks for reading.