Removed From Game — Jekyll And Hideaway

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Having done about as much Extended testing for Valencia as any self-respecting reporter could face, Rich Hagon spent the weekend drafting Lorwyn repeatedly with six of his best friends and Craig Stevenson. Learn what’s Cool about Clash, what’s Hiding behind Hideaway and what’s Teasing in Tribal. Plus, his personal guarantee that Dredge will win in Valencia next week. Click here now!

Lorwyn is a strange set. As you probably gathered from my previous article, I’m not ecstatic about it by any means. As someone who generally prefers Constructed over Limited, there are always going to be relatively few cards in any expansion to get truly excited about. Nevertheless, I was slightly disappointed with the ratio of “Woohoo” to “Meh” (the acknowledged scientific measurement for all things MTG). That was last week.

Since then, my house has been invaded by a marauding army of Magicians, intent on exploring everything that Lorwyn has to offer in a weekend packed with a whopping five full drafts, and some cheeky Valencia testing after hours. As playgroups go, this lot aren’t shabby. I’m probably the worst of the bunch, which is generally a reasonable sign. The group included plenty of people with at least half a dozen Pro Tour appearances, headlined by last year’s English champion, whose name escapes me right now. [Er, it was me. — Craig.] Ben Coleman and Dave Sutcliffe are names that many of you will have heard a lot from over on MagictheGathering.com, as they’re my sidekicks on the European Grand Prix circuit, and both Tom Harle and Neil Rigby are mostly found in the Top 10 UK rankings. I mention this not to show how clever my friends are, but to reassure you that the drafts weren’t being done by monkeys. They really do have some clue what’s going on.

If you’re one of those people who don’t have a large playgroup, I absolutely urge you to create one. As you know, I believe there are few more miserable experiences than sitting at home cracking a bunch of boosters without using the cards for any kind of play. Even one friend is enough to get going on some hot one-on-one action, and if you want more information on Winston Draft, tune in for the Invitational coverage the week after Pro Tour: Valencia. Two days and five drafts of Magic for round about $60 seems like a great value weekend, and you’ll be surprised how many people are willing and even eager to do this. Go on, get yourself organised for Morningtide, and get the show on the road. I promise you won’t regret it.

One of the thorny issues at these things is what to do with the rares. Ultra-competitive folk want to play winner takes all, and it’s certainly true that getting 24 rares for three wins is pretty tasty. This is fine if all of you are of vaguely equal standard. What this doesn’t do is encourage poorer players (whether in a gameplay or financial sense) to attend, since realistically they’re going to win just their own commons and uncommons that they draft. In addition, if everyone is trying their hardest to win, the opportunities for learning decrease. With less at stake, you can happily let your opponent take things back, chat over rules interactions together without worrying who “wins” the argument, and draft archetypes just to see what they’re like, rather than needing them to come together straight away. Our system involves a single rare of choice going to the draft winner, and all the rest being dealt out evenly. In addition, if any foil rare isn’t chosen by the winner, that gets dished out separately, using the following rules:

Each player in turn rolls a twenty-sided die.
The player with the highest roll wins.

As you can imagine, being a DCI judge means that I’ve given you the simplified rules, rather than the 38 page Comprehensive Rules document and Floor Rules Addendum for Foil Distribution which I could have done. Seriously, for such a stupid game, this is a surprisingly entertaining way of finishing off the draft. Sure, you went 0-3, you got three crap rares, but you’ve just rolled 17 and the foil Vigor could be yours. Yay!

While you’ve got your willing cohorts there, it’s time to let them do a little work for you. At the start of each pack, each player at the table listed the contents of their booster. As a result I now have 120 booster lists. What possible use is that? Well, there are, basically, two. First, and most relevant if you’re serious about Draft, it’s possible to spot patterns of cards that come together in packs. As is widely known, R&D rate all the cards in the set, and try to ensure that there isn’t too much variance between packs. This is clearly a good idea, since it smoothes out the kinks in a system that could lead to one side of a table profiting from super-strong boosters while the rest open unmitigated garbage. Of course, many of you will feel this is happening to you on a regular basis anyway, but it’s nowhere near as uneven as it could be without the ranking system. If you know that a certain run of commons come together most of the time, you have a better chance of being able to spot what the player on your right may have taken out of their first booster, and that’s the kind of thing that’s good to know, just like where the nearest restroom is and how to defuse a nuclear bomb. The second use is more long-term. Suppose you get to December, and you fancy doing a Draft with some friends, but, as friends tend to do, nobody wants to fork out for the product. It seems easy enough to just put a bunch of 11 commons, 3 uncommons, and a rare together and call it a booster, but the reality is that because of the ranking issue I’ve outlined above, it’s extremely difficult to accurately recreate what we might term “genuine” boosters. Trying to keep both power levels and color balance is an onerous task. Now, when I’ve got boxes of commons and uncommons strewn around the house, I can pick 24 of these booster lists at random and recreate them.

What follows is a collection of observations from the floor. As the weekend went on, certain themes became clear. Others remained obstinately elusive. It seems to me that Lorwyn really is a Jekyll and Hide kind of set. You look at it one way, and it looks shiny and fabulous. The next minute it looks tired and underpowered. Mechanics that look very cut and dried turn out to have surprising strategic depth and some unlikely ramifications. As usual, it turns out that reading the cards right the way through to the last full stop makes a huge difference, which is something we’ll be talking about in a few weeks time. Let’s rock….

Clash — let’s kick off with one of the new mechanics. The general consensus pre-Prerelease (you following?) was that Clash was likely to be a minor mechanic with limited impact on the game at any level, even the lowliest of the low (i.e. Sealed). Our experiences this weekend suggest that this is a terrific mechanic for Limited, perhaps better in Draft than Sealed. Perhaps the most curious aspect of the mechanic is psychological. Historically, few ways have shown that you’re a new player more obviously than playing with “flip a coin” cards. Any halfway decent tournament player looks at those and steers clear. Actually, any halfway decent player stays clear, period. Even casual gamers who are happy to put winning down the priority list tend to like their decks to actually do what they’re meant to do, without relying on some dead politician or living royalty for support. At first glance, Clash is the coinflip mechanic without the coin. Whilst this may improve things from a practical viewpoint in the Cashless Society, if it genuinely was a 50-50 shot it would be fairly grim. Thankfully, there’s a lot more to Clash than that.

Let’s start with the obvious — card evaluation. As a rule, you should play your Clash cards as if they don’t have the ability, since you can’t rely on the bonus any more than half the time, and actually as we’ll see shortly it’s less than that. (Math alert! Math alert!) The Clash monsters tend to reflect the fact that good things will happen sometimes, and therefore have been overcosted for their base stats. Paperfin Rascal is a good case in point. At base, it’s a 2/2 for three, which even in Blue isn’t something you ideally want to play with in Draft, or even in Sealed. Win the Clash, and it’s a 3/3 for three. Wait, that’s Nessian Courser or Trained Armodon, in Blue! That’s a total beating of a turn 3 play for Blue in Draft, before the assorted flyers start appearing turn 4. Adder-Staff Boggart is a 2/1 for two in Red, and that’s acceptable if untrhrilling. Win the Clash, he’s a 3/2 for 2 with no drawback, and that’s fabulous. Fistful Of Force is a perfectly fine pump spell, which becomes extremely Constructed level with a winning flip. As for Gilt-Leaf Ambush, if this cost two it would be amazing, and thank goodness it costs three, because it’s a top Limited trick even at that price.

Okay, here’s the Math bit. Remember that you have to actually reveal a higher converted mana cost than your opponent, and in gambling terms that’s where the “house edge” lies. There are times you’ll be higher, there’ll be times he’ll be higher, and there are times where it will be a draw, but you lose. This will sometimes happen by the vaguely unlikely chance of matching casting costs i.e. Paperfin Rascal meeting Gilt-Leaf Bacon Tree (“Bacon Tree? Bacon Tree? That wasn’t a Bacon Tree, it was a Ham Bush.”) More pertinently, it will happen every time you both reveal a land. Assuming roughly 17 land in a Limited deck, and assuming the land/spells ratio has held up on average, you will clash into two lands roughly 18% of the time. (42.5% of each deck is land, therefore probability of land versus land is .425 x .425 = .1806) Let’s call this 1/6th of the time (it’s a bit more frequent, but never mind). This means that you will win half of the remaining 5/6ths of Clashes, so your overall record will over time be 5/12 win, 7/12ths lose. As an irresistible bit of math maneuvering akin to the average family having 2.4 children, you’ll be delighted to learn that your Paperfin Rascal will on average be a 2.41666666/2.41666666 for 3. Never say you don’t learn anything here at Removed From Game.

There’s a lot more to Clash than simple math, or even complex math. One of the highlights of the weekend was watching a titanic match come down to a Clash. With his opponent on one life, out comes Lash Out. He already knows that there’s a land on top of his opponent’s deck from a Clash last turn. He extends the hand… and his opponent casts Footbottom Feast in response to put an enormous guy on top. He survives at one life. What I find particularly interesting is the reaction of the spectators. Had a coin been involved, everyone watching would have been saying, “what are you doing playing with that?’ and there would have been zero tension in the room. With Clash, everyone was watching, leaning in to see the top card revealed and doing the whole “ooh, aah” bit with the Footbottom Feast. From a spectator point of view, Clash is great, and it seems like down in the trenches players are sanguine about dying to it.

Of course, the big factor with Clash is to do with public information and deck filtering. As a Limited mechanic, the semi-regular ability to dispense with an unwanted land to the bottom of your deck is a subtle but nice mechanic. The ability to leave a land on top is less obvious outside the early turns, but can win you the game if the Clash card is your opponent’s Hoarder’s Greed. Leave the land there, leave it there, leave it there, leave it there, hmm, 8 cards you’ve drawn, that’s a lot, ah, 8 life you’ve lost, that’s game! On the non-land side of the Clash coin, there’s the question of public information. If your card is good enough to be left on top of your deck, how much is it diluted by your opponent knowing of its existence, and having the ability to plan for it? If it’s a 2/2 flyer, does that change what he does with his Neck Snap? Maybe. If it’s a bomb monster like an Incarnation, definitely. As for spells, they’re frequently worse when the opponent knows they’re coming. I won a Clash with Austere Command on top, but felt like the loser. I suspect that Clash will turn out to be extremely popular with all but the most hardened Pro players, who can’t be expected to love randomness in a gameplan that seeks to eliminate it at every turn.

Hideaway – I have to admit, I didn’t see it coming. Having asked a bunch of better players about the Rare cycle of lands, I gently suggested that they were terrible. I considered this to be one of the safer suggestions I’ve made in this column, and was intrigued by the large numbers of you who felt compelled to vigorously defend these pieces of toiletry from defamation, whether in the forums or by direct e-mail. I think truthfully this is what defines Magic as such a sumptuous feast for the intellect. I thought they were horrible. Some of you disagreed, and went so far as to devote actual quality thought time to situations in which you could show them in a good light. It’s this quasi-“ownership” of mechanics that keeps people coming back for more. “I’m going to make my Merfolk deck work, I am I am I am!!!” “I know there’s a Searing Meditation deck here somewhere, I just don’t know where.” “Creatureless decks in Lorwyn Block, I can crack it!” But the Hideaways don’t even have some long-term goal of an entire deck built around them. Instead, plenty of you jumped through considerable hoops to show a given situation in which the much-maligned lands could shine.

So here’s the thing. Sick at heart though it made me, I decided to see how these cardboard clunkers performed, and I learned some interesting things. First up, the hideaways are less clearly hideous than I first intimated. That doesn’t necessarily mean that they are “good,” whatever that might turn out to mean, but their automatic avoidance tag is unfair. You live and learn, or in this case, I do. With them being rare, across the five drafts there weren’t many in evidence — you’d only expect one or two on the probabilities — but I got to play with what looks like the best of them, the White one. Here’s the comprehensive upside:

I drew three lands including the Hideaway in my opening hand. I had no turn 1 play, so laid the tapped Hideaway, causing me no inconvenience in terms of lost tempo. I saw two land and two spells, so I wasn’t facing manascrew by putting four land either out of the game or on the bottom of the library, and increasing my chances of not seeing land numbers four and five, which my deck would need at some point. My two spells were a decent flyer in Avian Changeling, and Lairwatch Giant, which costs six. I had the Kithkin Harbinger, so I knew I could search out the Changeling if I wanted, and I was in no danger of casting the Giant. Thus the Giant was removed. Fast forward a bunch of turns. I have a bunch of Kithkin in play, including a pair of Kithkin Greatheart. These are passable 2/1 guys, but I have no giants to make them good. I attack with my team, and my Hideaway is now good to go, since I attacked with at least three monsters this turn. He blocks most satisfactorily from my point of view, and I play the Lairwatch Giant from under the Hideaway for free. Ta da! My Kithkin are suddenly very good indeed, as they are both 3/2 first strikers, a trick that it would be hard to predict from the other side of the table. The Lairwatch gets to stay back on defence as a fairly imposing body, and I win the game without ever reaching the six mana I would have needed to cast it. Windbrisk Heights, I love you.

Now here’s the comprehensive downside:

The next game I see no land in seven, and no land in six. Yes, I know, this happens infrequently. When it does happen, boy you want a stable manabase. So I keep one land in five, since I have three turn 2 plays, all of which involve a variety of small power/toughness Kithkin action. I do not want to be on the defensive with this lot, and of course I’m on the draw anyway. I lay my first land, having failed to draw a second. Next turn I do, and it’s the Hideaway. I see three land and a Lairwatch Giant. I put the Giant under again, since I may get to turn 3 men sideways. Sadly, the turn 2 that could have put me on offense quickly turns into defense as my opponent powers out a green Harbinger into expensive goodness. I spectacularly fail to draw more lands, and although I survive for a while with two, it’s game over.

Now here’s the in-between:

Any time you get to make a decision in Magic, you have the chance to outthink your opponent. Unfortunately, you also get the chance to outthink yourself. Consider the previous example. I could have put a land under the Hideaway, which might have got me out of a screw. But who wants a free land as a combat trick? Whenever you face the Hideaway four cards, you’re going to have to try and anticipate the game for quite a distance ahead, and there’s a good bet in Limited that you’re not going to be able to do that. In addition, we need to consider how many hoops have to be jumped through to get to the Hideaway goodies. The White one we’ve discussed. The Green one happens a fair amount if you’re playing Green, since it’s a natural fit (remember there’s no reason not to splash Hideaways in colors you’re not playing. Just treat them as a spell with suspend and you won’t go far wrong). The Black one is awkwardly situational. If your opponent knows that you have it in your deck, chances are that he will be able to sandbag a land or two in hand, so it will never trigger. I suppose at a stretch this could be some kind of card advantage in a super-discard-heavy Block deck, but I doubt it. As for the Blue one, twenty cards left in a library probably means we’re looking at turn 12 or so. In Sealed this suggests to me a creature-heavy board stall, and not many things are going to alter that, just in the nature of the set. Of course, having Guile under a Hideaway is better than Guile never drawn, but Blue often has ways to re-arrange the deck, tutor, shuffle, you know the drill. That leaves the Red one, and if any of them are “win more” cards, this is it. Seven damage is a lot to deal in one go if you’re not battering somebody anyway, and if you are battering them, this is just gravy.

One final word, with thanks to assorted forum posters. Cards are cards. Cards have no significance. Cards have no memory. 1 2 3 4 5 is precisely as likely as 26 34 59 1 17 in terms of the order you draw cards. The argument that “if I hadn’t played the Hideaway I’d have been able to draw X” is alluring, but bears no inspection. We love to invest significance in patterns, and to not play one of these in case the card you want is in the top four is a nonsense. The only thing you can ever say about deck order with certainty is this, “If the order had been different, the order would have been different.” You will doubtless be delighted to hear that I don’t propose to continue with a discussion on whether, simply by playing the Hideaway in your deck at all,, thanks to chaos theory you have now changed the deck order of every deck for the rest of all eternity…

Draft Observations — Drafting seems to be a fairly subtle affair. I don’t profess to be a Limited expert by any means, but a few things became apparent. First, at our table at least, very few players came out of drafts ashen-faced, claiming they’d been hideously screwed. Now in part that’s because they were all experienced drafters and have some clue about signalling. I think with Lorwyn, however, this signalling is presented in a fashion that inexperienced players should still have the opportunity to see and act upon. This is because built into the design of the set is what I call the Tribal Defense mechanism. Simply put, this applies to all the cards that are fantastic in their own Tribal slot and basically rubbish elsewhere. Consider Wren’s Run Vanquisher. It’s a 3/3 for 5, which is rubbish in Green. It has Deathtouch, which makes it somewhere between average and good. If you happen to have an Elf clogging up your hand, it’s a 3/3 Deathtouch monster for two mana. Elvish Warrior was considered a fabulous two-drop for Green, and this guy makes the harder-to-cast Watchwolf look ordinary, and remember how powerful he was. The Tribal Defense mechanism ensures that the Vanquisher isn’t an especially high pick unless you’re running Elves. If you are, happy Christmas. There are plenty of tribal-centric cards like the Vanquisher, and if you see them late in a booster, you’ve got a very good indication that Elves are open. I got mine in pack 2 pick 8, and proceeded to take a bunch of Elves from then on.

As for tempo, it seems to me that Draft is more balanced than Sealed. At the Prerelease weekend there seemed to be basically two types of matches going on. On the one hand there was the “groaning tables” matchups where eighteen treefolk stared at each other across a Green/White chasm while the lone flyer that hadn’t had it’s Neck Snapped or been sent into Oblivion proceeded to peck the opponent to death. Next door, there were the tables where everything in sight just hit the bin. Okay, these were Black/Red decks, but I’m still amazed at how much attrition was involved. I guess people just kept trading and trading and trading monsters until nothing was left standing. Draft feels much more about less swingy interactions. The Blue/Black deck full of irritating flyers and card drawers and leaves play abilities like Hornet Harasser in particular seemed capable of winning from at least three or four angles — make some flyers you can’t deal with; mess around with tap and untap tricks and flash and counters and islandwalk; stall then make something like Guile ; or simply draw many many more cards than you to overwhelm you with old fashioned card advantage, like Silvergill Adept, Mulldrifter (sooo good), and assorted Rare goodness like Fathom Trawl or even Jace Beleren.

The White Kithkin deck has any number of obvious internal synergies, although Cenn’s Heir is an utterly miserable card without multiple mates to help things along. As you’d expect, Boggarts had most of the removal, although it’s noticeable that quite a few Red cards that are notionally Goblins (Adder-Staff Boggart a good example) fit very nicely into other archetypes, be it R/W or R/G for example. This means the dedicated Goblin deck is hard to put together, another reason why the whole Tribal idea is more subtle than last time round. Mono-Green decks seem to be viable both as Elves and as Treefolk, and interestingly they seem to be supportable by two drafters quite close together at the table. If you don’t know that Imperious Perfect is a wickedly naughty source of carnage, I’m not going to tell you. But it is. Getting a 2/2 for free every turn? Yes please. Another Green monster that does ridiculous things in Draft is Dauntless Dourbark. Yes he’s rare, and so he should be. Mr. Editor over there proceeded to make this guy against me when he already had Timber Protector in play, making all his Treefolk +1+1 and indestructible. Delightful. When I died, Dauntless Dourbark was a 16/16 Indestructible trampler. Nice. Still, I mustn’t complain, the following game I had a 35/35 Hamletback Giant… that got blocked by a 1/3 regenerating Black Poplar Shaman. Life isn’t fair.

Conclusions — The draft format seems to be a lot of fun. This isn’t necessarily the same as saying it’s a good format for high-level play, and we’ll get a good idea of whether that’s true when the Pros take time out from Extended next weekend in Valencia. You seem to be able to do a lot of powerful things without destroying the game utterly, and I’ll aim to talk about a few of those nuggets you may have missed in next week’s column. It’s clear that there’s plenty of depth to be explored, even in cards that at first second and even third glance seem like a waste of a tree. A lot of the games I played in were tight, interesting affairs, and the same is true of most of the games I watched. That’s something that can’t always be said of draft formats, where the writing can be on the wall very early.

I cannot emphasise enough how much fun a weekend like this can be, and when it comes to PTQ season, having five quality drafts under your belt is going to serve people in good stead for the Top 8s, where you really don’t want to be drafting for the first time.

For the next two weeks, I’m on the road, bringing you reports from Valencia and the Extended Pro Tour, and the following week from the Magic Invitational in Essen. Expect blog-style reportage to titillate the mind and stimulate the forums.

Until next week then, when my column will be entitled “I Told You Dredge Would Win…”

As ever,

Thanks for reading.