Removed From Game – Here’s Why…

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Tuesday, March 25th – In a bizarrely complementary companion piece to last week’s efficiently-titled ‘Why?’ Rich Hagon returns with every answer you could possibly need. Except the one about the Bahrainian Oil Crisis of 1736. And the winner of Pro Tour: Hollywood. But every other question. Seriously.

For the first time in ages, I’ve written a genuine sequel to an article from the previous week, so if you’re new to my column or missed out on Tuesday’s missive 7 days ago, now’s the time to revisit it. If you read last week and hated it because it featured no topless women (or for other reasons), I can confirm a similar nipple count this time around. Sorry.

Rich: Okay then Andy, first things first, I want to congratulate you on an awesome first deck. This is really excellent. There are a whole bunch of fundamental things that you’ve got right. 60 cards. That’s a great start right there. Often you’ll find people wanting to play more than that, and generally speaking 60 is always the right number, just like 40 is good for Draft. Next, you’ve gone for a clear theme, I can see straight off the bat that this is a goblin deck, and you haven’t diluted it too much, so the focus is pretty decent. What else is good? Well, your manabase looks decent too, you’ve got plenty of land but not too much. A lot of new players won’t put enough land in, because they think that land is boring.

Andy: But I want to cast my spells.

Rich: But you want to cast your spells, indeed. Now, you’ve gone with Auntie’s Hovel, and that seems like a good choice. You decided that the benefits outweighed the downside, right?

Andy: Yeah, I don’t have four of them, but I’m playing the two I’ve got.

Rich: Okay, so land, theme, 60 cards, all good. Now, there are a few things you could do to make the deck better, and because tonight you’ll be playing against some pretty ferocious net decks — where Jim and maybe Chris will have taken a Top 8 list from last weekend’s Grand Prix and put that 60 cards together — it’s probably worth us just improving it a bit before we start, or ‘tuning’ it. First of all, let’s talk about Tar Pitcher. Why have you got him in the deck?

Andy: Well, he’s a source of damage that I can use more than once, and I’ve got lots of Goblins in the deck, so I should be able to make him work.

Rich: That’s absolutely fine logic, but there are some reasons why he may not be as good as he first looks. First of all, remember that the most priceless commodity in the game is cards. If you have cards, you have options, if you have no cards, you have no options. The more often you get to influence the game through the choices you make, the better your chances of winning. So that means that every single card in your deck is incredibly important. After all, you only get to draw one card each turn (generally speaking), so you want it to be a good one as often as possible. That, by the way, is why we tend to say that you should build exactly a 60 card deck, because you’ll get to see the best ones most frequently. That’s also why we make sure that we have the maximum four copies of all the key cards. So, we want to make sure that when we draw Tar Pitcher that it’s worth its place in the deck.

Let’s look at what Tar Pitcher is going to do for us. It costs four mana. We’re playing a fast deck with lots of cheap monsters, so that four mana is at the high end of casting costs within our deck. In that sense, it’s going to come along at the very earliest in the mid-game, and for our deck, anytime after turns 5 or 6 are probably going to be late in the game. After that, the chances are that we’re going to struggle, because the other deck will have weathered our storm, and be getting on with winning. That could be with a ton of removal, or lots of card advantage, or unblockable flyers, whatever. The key thing is, our ‘turf’ if you like is in the early part of the game. So, as I said, four mana is a lot. I’d probably want four mana to do quite a lot for me when it came pounding down onto the board. The thing is, Tar Pitcher does nothing at all when it appears. As you play a bit more, you’ll find that there’s a massive difference between abilities that don’t need you to tap your creature, and those abilities that do. Tar Pitcher, of course, does require you to tap it before you can get it to do something. It’s possible that you could find a way around this, because there’s a way around almost everything in Magic. For example, there’s Obsidian Battle-Axe. If you had one in play, and the mana to equip it, you could give your Tar Pitcher haste, and then you could tap it straight away. But there’s all sorts of problems with that, not the least of which is that you’re trying to use other cards to make Tar Pitcher seem presentable. So let’s assume for now that it’s going to appear, and that you’re then going to have to wait a turn before it ‘comes online.’ Because you’ve spent four mana on it, there’s a very high chance that that will be the whole turn used up. You won’t have any mana left over to do something else. To be honest, if you did end up with mana going spare that would probably be a bad sign anyway, as your deck doesn’t want to have six land in play on turn 6, you want more actual spells at that point.

Alright, so Tar Pitcher hits play, and we pass the turn. What’s the game situation? If we’re up against some kind of aggressive deck, it’s quite possible that they’ll be sending their Kithkin or Elves into battle [we have a lot of mono-creature decks at FNM]. Do we want to block with our Tar Pitcher? Almost certainly not. After all, their 2/2 Elf cost them just tapping their Imperious Perfect, our Tar Pitcher doesn’t want to trade with one of those. What this means effectively is that not only does Tar Pitcher not work on the turn we cast it, it doesn’t really exist on our opponent’s next turn either. We’re now at the point where we effectively say to our opponent ‘I’m going to skip this turn and your turn doing anything good, because I think I can do something really good on my next turn, and turns after that.’ In terms of Magic theory, a guy called Mike Flores would call this Investment. You Invest four mana, a whole card, and a whole turn cycle, and look to reap the return on your Investment over many future turns.

But before we get to our next turn, where good things are hopefully going to happen, let’s look at things from the other side of the board. When we announce Tar Pitcher, our opponent has to evaluate the potential consequences of us having it in play. As I’ll explain in a moment, there’s plenty of reasons to suppose that they wouldn’t consider it a major threat, and that actually they’d be really glad you were playing Tar Pitcher instead of something that’s actually really good. But suppose for a moment that they share the view that Tar Pitcher is the nuts, and is really bad news for them. What could they do about this, bearing in mind that they have the rest of our turn and all of theirs to do something about it? If they’re playing a Control deck, perhaps they could counter our spell.

Andy: But they could do that with any spell we cast, right?

Rich: Sure, Counterspells are always a possibility no matter what we play, but remember that we’re spending all our resources on Tar Pitcher this turn. That means that if they do counter the spell, we’re done and pass the turn. If we were attempting to play something really cheap, like a Mogg Fanatic for instance, even if they countered it we would still have mana available to do things with. Our turn wouldn’t necessarily be over. Let’s assume they have no counterspell, so Tar Pitcher hits play. What can they do about it then? Well, unfortunately Tar Pitcher is pretty vulnerable. It doesn’t have a special ability that means it can’t be targeted, so there are an awful lot of removal cards in the format that kill it. Peppersmoke doesn’t of course, but Eyeblight’s Ending, Tarfire, Nameless Inversion, these are all spells that kill Tar Pitcher long before it gets to come online. Once we’re into their turn, they might have stuff like Oblivion Ring. Obviously there are also mass removal spells, but we don’t need to consider those especially, since all our creatures die to Wrath of God effects, so it doesn’t really matter which particular bunch of 2/2s is going in the bin.

Let’s assume that we’ve spent our turn casting it. Let’s assume that they didn’t counter it. Let’s assume that they didn’t kill it. Let’s assume that they didn’t force us to block with it because we were on the defensive. Let’s assume that we get to untap with it in play. Now what?

Well, the first thing we want to consider is whether Tar Pitcher is going to behave as a proper monster, i.e. attacking. We already know that it doesn’t want to block from the previous turn, so there’s a good bet that it won’t be attacking. That means that it has minimal benefit from its 2 power and 2 toughness. Indeed, this is the reason that so many powerful effects are better used by being on an artifact or enchantment, rather than a creature. If you’re not going to attack with it, and you’re not going to block with it, at least most of the time, all you’re doing by having a power and toughness attached is making it easier to kill – creature kill is much more likely to be in the main deck of your opponent than enchantment removal or artifact removal. Think of a card like Bitterblossom, which is a lovely card. Imagine if, instead of being an enchantment, it was a 1/1 flying creature for two mana, with that ability. It might look as if you’re getting even more for your money, or in this case your mana, but in reality all you’re getting is an insanely vulnerable creature. As an enchantment, Bitterblossom rocks. Okay, so we’ve established that the power and toughness of Tar Pitcher is mostly irrelevant. Of course there are times when you’re going to want to attack with him, but if that’s what your 2/2 is meant to be doing (rather than just what it happens to be doing) you’d be better off with any number of other monsters that cost less than 4 mana. After all, Kithkin boy over there is going to make his Goldmeadow Stalwart for just one mana.

Therefore, our attention turns once more to Tar Pitcher’s ability, and as if we haven’t paid enough price for it being a ‘tap’ ability, we’re going to get done once more. See, we need to be extremely careful when we activate it, since once it’s tapped, we can’t use it to attack, or block, or activate again.

Andy: You said it didn’t really want to be attacking or blocking.

Rich: That’s a very good point, I did, but I also said that having options is a good thing, and as soon as you tap Tar Pitcher you’re reducing your options. I’m afraid it gets worse. In addition to tapping the Tar Pitcher, you have to sacrifice a Goblin. That’s bad.

Andy: But I’ve got plenty of Goblins.

Rich: Okay, let’s assume that you have some Goblins in play. What are they there for? Are they there as cannon fodder for Tar Pitcher, or are they busy doing something else, like attacking? As an example, you’ve got four Caterwauling Boggart in your deck – and we probably need to have a conversation about that one in a minute – but you can see that the more Goblins you have in play and turning sideways, the better the Caterwauling Boggart gets.

Andy: Sure.

Rich: So the reverse is true. The fewer Goblins you have attacking, the less worthwhile the ability from Caterwauling Boggart becomes, until eventually it becomes worthless. Every time you activate Tar Pitcher, you reduce the number of Goblins you’ve got to attack or (perish the thought) block with.

Andy: Basically, you’re saying that Tar Pitcher is hideous.

Rich: Well, I know it sounds a bit like that, but I’m really not. What you have to remember about Magic is that the game is packed full of exciting and interesting cards that do all sorts of exciting and interesting things. What makes tournament Magic a bit different from just casual play is that players are generally looking for the most efficient way to get things done, and efficiency is often, though not always, linked to the idea of cheapness in terms of casting cost. The people who make Magic go out of their way to make a bunch of funky cards that do all sorts of stuff to help muddy the waters of what is and isn’t the most efficient way to get things done. If I told you about a card that dealt 2 damage for 1 mana to target creature or player, you’d be right in thinking that that’s really pretty efficient. It also has versatility, because it doesn’t mind what creature you deal the damage to, and is quite happy to be pointed at your opponent’s head. In fact, you’ve got four of them here – Tarfire. Add in the fact that it’s a Goblin as well, and you have an extremely efficient package. Although there are a few exceptions in the history of the game, hardly anything costs you no mana at all, so 1 is as good as it gets. Now, Tar Pitcher replicates that Tarfire effect, at the cost of four mana which probably equates to your whole turn, waiting a turn for it to get rid of summoning sickness, having a vulnerable creature that could be destroyed, tapping, and sacrificing a Goblin. Clearly this is infinitely less efficient than Tarfire.

Andy: See, you are saying it’s hideous.

Rich: No, because Tar Pitcher has a bunch of good things about it. The word you’re looking for is ENOUGH. Does Tar Pitcher have ENOUGH good things about it to justify a place in the deck? Here’s the good things:

1. It doesn’t cost 5 or more.
2. It’s a Goblin, which synergises with all sorts of stuff in your deck.
3. It can, in a pinch, attack.
4. It can, if absolutely necessary, block.
5. It’s a sacrifice outlet. That means that, rather than waiting for one of your Goblins to die during the normal course of combat, you can make one die at the time of your own choosing. That could be advantageous, in terms of counters on the Knucklebone Witch etc.
6. If you have any rubbish Goblins, you’re effectively giving them a new lease of life, because it’s as if they’ve got a new ability ‘sacrifice me to deal two damage to target creature or player, provided you tap Tar Pitcher.’
7. If you’re opponent can’t deal with Tar Pitcher, and you have a fair supply of Goblins, you can kill them just by using the Tar Pitcher ability over and over. Reusable sources of damage are good times.
8. In a pinch, you can sacrifice Tar Pitcher to itself.
9. You can generate card advantage during combat. Put a Goblin in the way of an attacker, put the combat damage on the stack, and then sacrifice the Goblin to Tar Pitcher. That way you’ve got double duty out of your Goblin.

There are probably some other good things I’ve missed, but I wanted you to understand that Magic is full of cards just like Tar Pitcher. It can be used effectively in multiple ways, using and aiding other synergies in your deck, and your task as a deckbuilder is to see whether it does enough good things

Andy: And you don’t think it does.

Rich: That’s true, but again, I want to tell you how excellent it is that you’ve spotted so many of the good things about it, and to be honest I think all you’ve really missed is a slightly wider view of the format. Let me show you what I mean. Gary, who we can all agree is one of the best players here, is also running Red and Black Goblins in his deck. But where you’ve got Tar Pitcher and Caterwauling Boggart (and yes, I promise to return to the Caterwauling Boggart in a mo), Gary is playing cards that you won’t have seen much of. That’s only because you’ve just started playing, so there’s no crime in not having thought of them for your deck. First of all, Gary has Greater Gargadon. That comes from Time Spiral block. Now, the Gargadon does quite a lot of different things to the Tar Pitcher, but there are some key similarities. First, if left unchecked it’s a legitimate threat to their life total. In fact, the Gargadon is a much much bigger threat than Tar Pitcher in most circumstances. Yes, it’s a creature, so dies to all the targeted creature removal out there like Eyeblight’s Ending, but that 7 toughness is truly enormous, so trying to kill it with Lash Out + Tarfire + Nameless Inversion isn’t realistic. Plus, when it comes into play, it usually has haste. That’s a 9/7 haste monster, pretty much guaranteed to chew its way through opposing monsters. Just like Tar Pitcher it’s a sacrifice outlet. However, even better than Tar Pitcher, you don’t have to tap the Gargadon to activate the outlet. Instead, you can repeat the sacrifice ability as many times as you like. Suppose someone casts Damnation on you, when you have four Goblins in play. With Tar Pitcher you could make one of their deaths a noble one, sacrificing it to deal 2 damage in response. But with Gargadon out, you can sacrifice all four to bring four counters off the suspended Gargadon, making it highly likely that you could bring it out soon afterward. The Gargadon is an awesome attacker, but you’ll very happily block with it too, since it’s almost certain that your opponent will need a burn spell as well as their own monster to kill the Gargadon. That’s known in the trade as a 2 for 1, where 1 of your cards trades for 2 of theirs. Remember I told you that cards are incredibly precious commodities? Right there, you’ve gained a 1 card advantage over your opponent. Awesome. Oh, and one final thing. Just like a good woman, good turn 1 plays are hard to find, and you can suspend Gargadon straight away. Good times.

The next card that Gary’s playing that you’re not right now is Mogg War Marshall. This guy works really well with Knucklebone Witch, since you get more than one Goblin for your mana. Oh and by the way, this guy doesn’t cost four.

Andy: But what about the echo?

Rich: Sorry?

Andy: But what about the… okay, very good.

Rich: Sorry. Right, you can of course pay the echo next turn, but if you don’t you still get to make another Goblin, and the dying War Marshal triggers your Knucklebone Witch. In total, you’re getting three Goblins for your outlay, and that’s a lot of Goblin for not a lot of mana. It’s worth saying that this is a card you might consider if you were wanting to still play your Tar Pitcher, because it helps towards a never-ending stream of Goblins to fire at your opponent or his forces. Still, it works even better with a card like Greater Gargadon, where you know that when they die you’re going to hasten the arrival of the 9/7.

So far I’ve told you about two cards from Time Spiral block, but Gary’s third choice comes from 10th Edition.

Andy: I don’t have any 10th.

Rich: That’s fine, nobody does. What people do have is a bunch of stuff from 9th, and 8th and 7th and 6th and right the way back to 4th and so on, and Core Sets are chock-full of reprints. Chances are somebody in the building has some of these. The card’s called Grave Pact. It’s a Black enchantment, which says that whenever a creature goes into your graveyard, your opponent has to sacrifice a creature too. A lot of what makes decks good is that they get to abuse apparently fair and balanced effects like this. After all, you losing a guy and them losing a guy sounds completely ‘revenue neutral.’ But your deck is going to be set up to take advantage of having the Grave Pact in your deck. Think of a situation like this, and by the way if you ever get into a situation like this, make sure you apologise to your opponent for the savage beating that’s about to happen to them:

You’re playing against a Kithkin deck. They’ve started out as awesomely as a Kithkin deck can, with Goldmeadow Stalwart, a Goldmeadow Harrier, Preeminent Captain, and a Wizened Cenn all in play. You’re not on much life. You’ve got a suspended Greater Gargadon with 6 counters left, a 1/1 Knucklebone Witch that you cast last turn so it’s still a 1/1, a Mogg Fanatic, and a Mogg War Marshall that you’ve paid the echo for last turn so you have a 1/1 Goblin that came with the War-Marshall. On your turn, you reduce the counters on your Gargadon to 5, then tap out to cast Grave Pact. This game is so completely over it’s not even funny. They untap, make a second Wizened Cenn and then attack, using the Preeminent Captain to flash in a Mosquito Guard. So, before blockers you sacrifice Mogg War Marshall to your Greater Gargadon. It now has four counters left. Your Knucklebone Witch triggers, and becomes a 2/2. Grave Pact triggers, and he has to sacrifice one of his five monsters. Let’s assume he bins the smallest, the Mosquito Guard. Because the Mogg War-Marshall went to your graveyard, you get to make a 1/1 Goblin. Sacrifice that Goblin to Greater Gargadon. Knucklebone Witch triggers, and becomes 3/3. Grave Pact triggers, and he sacrifices a 2nd monster, let’s say the Goldmeadow Harrier. Then you sacrifice the other Mogg War-Marshal Goblin. Knucklebone Witch becomes 4/4. Grave Pact makes him sacrifice creature number 3, presumably the Goldmeadow Stalwart. Oh, and your Gargadon is now at 2 counters. Next, sacrifice your Mogg Fanatic to the Gargadon. If they had a 1/1 monster you’d maybe sacrifice the Fanatic to kill that, but here it’s much better just to sac it to the GG (those initials are no coincidence). It now has 1 counter. Knucklebone Witch is now a 5/5. Grave Pact forces him into his fourth sacrifice of the turn. Oops, there goes the summoning-sick Wizened Cenn. We STILL haven’t reached blockers yet, and that’s because you’re about to sacrifice one final time, this time one of your four tapped land to the Gargadon, removing the last counter and allowing your 9/7 to come into play. Now, finally, it’s time to declare blockers. Put your 5/5 Knucklebone Witch in front of the Pre-Eminent Captain. Put your Greater Gargadon in front of the remaining Wizened Cenn. The Captain and Cenn die. The Witch and Gargadon do not.

At the start of combat, he had 20 power of monsters in play. You had 4 power of monsters in play. At the end of combat, you have 14 power of monsters in play, he has 0. Still sure you want to play Tar Pitcher?

Andy: Probably not.

Rich: Probably not. Oh, and that Caterwauling Boggart thing. I think we can basically save that for another time, but because you’ve currently got 12 monsters that cost 4, you run the risk of having hands with a lot of relatively expensive stuff that’s hard to cast, and not enough stuff that lets you deal with an early game. We say that your curve is ‘top-heavy.’ But curve is a big discussion and Round 1 is almost here.

Andy: So, Mogg Fanatics, Grave Pact, Greater Gargadon go in, Tar Pitchers and Caterwauling Boggarts go out.

Rich: That’s kind of the idea. Look, this is one of the best decks I’ve ever seen for a new player. You’ve had so many good ideas, and your deck is really focused, and tries to do good things, and has good sensible reasons for a lot of the choices you’ve made. If I was going to say one thing for you to take away from tonight, it would be to broaden your horizons. You’ve basically built a Lorwyn Block Constructed deck, and that means you’ve missed out on seeing some of the absurd synergies that can happen when you get cards from Planar Chaos and Time Spiral and Future Sight and Coldsnap and 10th Edition to go with all the great stuff you’ve seen already. You’re going to build lots of awesome decks, and this is a great first step. Will it win tonight? Probably not.

Andy: Has anyone got a Pre-Con I can borrow?

I deliberately avoided reading through the forums from last week until I’d finished this, as inevitably I’d be influenced. If you have any interest in teaching Magic whatsoever, I highly recommend looking at the mixture of inventiveness, subtlety, clear-sightedness and more that categorises the noble band of people who decided to try and muster an answer to that hideous “why?”

As ever, thanks for reading.