Removed From Game – Limited Lessons From Lyon

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Monday, May 17th – The European Grand Prix circuit came to France last weekend, and Rich was on hand to collect the Limited Lessons from more than 1400 Sealed Decks, a Day Two of Drafts, and a winning deck that was about as old-fashioned as it’s possible to imagine.

It’s been a few weeks since I’ve written here, and it’s good to be back. Real life has well and truly intervened, and it was great to leave some family illness behind for a few days and get on a plane to cover Grand Prix: Lyon last weekend. One of the casualties of the last few weeks has been my internet access, meaning that I’ve seen very little comment about Rise of the Eldrazi after I spent Pre-Release day gunslinging at The Games Club in London.

As a result, I came to Lyon less aware of the overall view of a set than I have been for a very long time, and although that was obviously a problem in some respects, it also provided a rare opportunity to formulate some views unsullied by the experiences of others. It’s possible that my overwhelmingly positive view of the weekend was in some measure a degree of relief at leaving external cares behind, but overwhelmingly positive my view certainly was.

It’s possible that everything I learned about Rise of the Eldrazi during those two days are all things you learned for yourself a few weeks ago, and if that’s the case, I guess I really am out of touch. I hope, however, that there will still be some useful nuggets of information that I can provide, especially as much of it comes from a Pro perspective.

Super Friday Night Magic

The first thing to say about Super FNM is that it existed. It’s starting to look as if this is going to become the norm for a European Grand Prix, and frankly, this is great news. At Grand Prix: Brussels, the GP Trials were all Standard, and some players went as far as playing five of them in pursuit of the three Byes for the following day. Economically, that was an unlikely scenario in Lyon, where Sealed Deck was the Format of the Trials. I confess to thinking this was pretty steep, since each Trial was single elimination over five Rounds. The winner got the three Byes, while winning matches got you boosters. However, once you looked a bit deeper, the economics weren’t too bad. Of course, you could open a pile of awfulness and lose your first match, but you could just as easily open a Gideon Jura or Vengevine, win a few boosters, and all for the cost of less than the retail price of six boosters.

Nonetheless, the number of Trials was obviously going to be lower than Brussels, but by the time Super FNM rolled around, they’d still shifted a ton of product, the place was buzzing, and well over a hundred players were staying around for the evening’s main entertainment. I went 1-2 from a pretty unexciting Pool, but there were still some useful things to take away. First of all, my initial lack of excitement over the Eldrazi as a whole now seems to me to be unjustified. I’ve always been sniffy of gigantic monsters, being very much of the ‘Doom Blade Guy’ school of Magic, which probably explains why I’m a Control player at heart. In Sphinx of Jwar Isle, it’s the Shroud bit that gets me all excited, and I’ve always felt an utter failure if I’ve ever played with a Craw Wurm.

What became clear during FNM is that it’s actually really exciting when a decent Eldrazi hits, even if it isn’t yours. For all their awesome power, they’re pitched at just the right level where you feel you have at least an outside chance of dealing with them before they kill you. I distinctly remember staring at some gigantitude, and trying to sculpt three turns of survival without sacrificing any of my lands, in a bid to get my Heat Ray to lethal. I didn’t manage it, but the fact that the game kept me interested despite being Annihilated every turn is a real credit to R&D.

Another thing that became clear is that ‘you can’t take it with you when you go’. If you’re unfamiliar with this expression (it may be a UK thing, I’m not sure), it refers to the idea that you can be as rich as you like, but when you die, the money stays here, and you toddle off to…wherever. In Magic terms, and in Rise of the Eldrazi in particular, money means mana. You can have as much as you like, but it’s only when you have stuff to do with it that all that extra mana matters. I saw tons of players who had cast their expensive Hill Giants (Emrakul’s Hatcher) and were sitting with ten, twelve, fourteen mana, but didn’t have anything to do with it. Related to this is the number of land you need to play in the Format, and, for all big spells sound like they demand a big number of land, I don’t think that’s the case. Erik Lauer from R&D, talking to coverage writer Tim Willoughby, suggested that seventeen land was the correct answer. That was shown time and time again to be correct.

Before I get to the main event, I’d just like to say what an absolute pleasure it’s been to play FNM at the last couple of Grand Prix. I get to play very little Magic in real life, and the friendship and camaraderie of FNM has been spectacular. I’m about as competitive as competitive gets — I really, really want to win — but these have been two fantastic evenings. Even if you’re Attila the Hun when it comes to needing victory, if you haven’t been playing FNM, you really should, because you’re likely to get a major surprise. I did.

Sealed Deck Play

So, onward to the main event. There were just over fourteen hundred players, meaning that ‘only’ eight and a half thousand boosters got opened. The first bit of news was that there would be ten Rounds on Day One. This is not in itself news, since this has happened several times before, but my understanding is that there is now Official Policy in place. This says, if I have it right, that any time there are more than 1,000 players, there will be a tenth Round. Nine Rounds are still the point at which the cut to Day Two is made, but everyone who gets to twenty one points (7-2 or 6-0-3 if we’re being fussy) or better gets to play one extra Round with their Sealed Deck. What this achieves is a more-or-less statistical guarantee that you can still make the Top 8 from 7-2. From 7-3, it would be much more of an uphill battle, but if you’re a Pro and you’ve only gone 4-3 in actual matches on Day One, you can’t sensibly expect to be in contention.

As it happened, two players did indeed make the cut at 13-3, although neither had their third defeat before Round fourteen. Before the Drafts on Day Two, there was Sealed on Day One. What lessons were there to learn? First, and most important, if you’re good at Magic, you want to play some Rise Sealed. Play enough, and you will be rewarded. I’ve been doing a lot of work for The Magic Almanac (the book I’ve been writing with Brian David-Marshall, out very soon!), and one feature of M10 Limited was that most Pros felt there wasn’t sufficient room to outplay opponents. That’s not the case with Rise. Not in any way.

Time and time again, Pros were grinning from ear to ear about the skill level of the Format. At the most basic level, more turns equates to more opportunities for correct plays yourself, and for incorrect plays from your opponent. In particular, there was a feeling that one of the most unfortunate aspects of Zendikar Limited — if you played something on turns 2 and 4, and your opponent on turns 2, 3, and 4, you’d probably lost — had gone away. In Rise Limited, you had the chance to gradually sculpt a game plan that was about more than aggression and tempo.

I confess that I was concerned that a Format that had so many huge monsters at the top end could degenerate into those kind of Sealed games where you feel like you’re playing ‘proper’ Magic for a while, some Eldrazi or other comes down, and that’s that. I’ve already talked about how well balanced the big Eldrazi seem, but there was more to it than that. Several of the Pros I talked to spoke about the way you could manipulate opponents into playing in a particular way. One, who shall remain nameless, even talked about actively putting a ‘dummy’ monster into play with great physical flourish, and even saying ‘deal with that!’ or something similar, all to encourage the wasting of a piece of removal, before then laying down the real deal once the opposition cupboard was bare.

The lesson from that was that holding onto removal is absolutely essential. Sealed almost always has more targets than removal for them, but that seems to be all the more true in Rise. Even a 1/1 can kill you, but the better players were asking themselves not ‘how can this kill me?’ but ‘is this going to kill me really soon, is there anything that might come along that could kill me even sooner, and do I have anything other than this piece of removal I’m contemplating using that could nullify it without having to spend my removal on it?’ That’s quite hard to do when you’re looking at what would, by normal Magic standards, be a significant threat.

As an overall Sealed Format, I heard very few complaints. There are still ridiculous possibilities (I heard tell of fifteen mana being spent, not on Emrakul, but on seven 7/7s via Gelatinous Genesis), but that’s true of every Format. In part because the Level creatures are so good, even Blue got a look-in, and that’s rarely true for Sealed, where it’s been the weakest color for as long as I can remember. Every color combination seemed to be viable, and although games went longer, there was no significant increase in the number of draws around the tables.

Aggro was still utterly viable, it’s just that Aggro didn’t mean turns 1 to 4, but more often turns 3 to 6. One of the more speculative gambles of the weekend was the coverage quest to find Emrakul in action. Most people I spoke to in advance suggested that there would almost never be circumstances in which you played the 15/15, on the basis that almost no Sealed Pool would be sufficiently equipped to cast him legitimately. To be honest, I expected our quest to end in failure, with various references to spotting assorted Eldrazi along the way. When we found Emrakul getting played (seven players in total played with it), it was in the hands of Two-Headed Giant Grand Prix winner Michal Havlik. He managed to cast Emrakul on turn 8! Now, that’s obviously an extreme example, but his deck was ideally suited to ramping up towards huge numbers. In short, you can play anything in Sealed.

Draft Play

What about Draft on Sunday? A few observations spring to mind. First up, you probably already know that the Blue-White Levelling archetype can be really good. Something that may not have struck you yet is how important it is to have the right mental attitude when playing this kind of deck. It’s a natural part of Magic that the more you invest in a card, the more reward you want from it. In general, we become much more attached to our 5/5 for six mana Rare flyers than our 2/2 for three Common flyers, even though the Common may easily be enough to win a certain game. Where this becomes important is when you sink mana into your Levelling creatures.

Remember, the Levellers generally start off as either low threat or no threat. Their value comes in the possibility that they may become a threat. This is an environment where cards are critical, but mana often isn’t. Therefore, it’s important to be sanguine about the death of your levelling creatures. I watched multiple players on Day Two seeming to give far more weight to the death of their levellers than they really warranted. The whole point of levelling is that you’ve turned a no-threat into a threat, and you want them to die. Well, obviously you’d like your opponent never to do anything ever, but that isn’t realistic. Any time they have to spend their turn using a really good card — a whole removal spell — just to kill something inherently poor that you’ve piled some spare mana into, that’s cause for celebration. You haven’t, by and large, been putting in lots of ‘work’ to make it good. You don’t ‘nurture’ levellers. You simply force your opponent into doing something they don’t want to do. In other words, if you’re going to play the archetype, you need to be ready for your levellers to die. That’s what they’re there for.

Another archetype that’s a ton of fun, and makes me think of Lorwyn, is the Aura Gnarlid deck. I heard various Pros discussing the possible merits of this in Block Constructed, so you can be certain that it’s powerful in Draft. The link to Lorwyn is that the Draft Format there involved many cards that were extremely powerful but only within very narrow archetypes. That meant that many players could have powerful, synergistic decks, because they weren’t competing over the same good cards as everyone else. Plenty of the Totems are unexciting, and Aura Gnarlid is rubbish without them. Together, they can be amazing, especially if you can Ophidian them up with Snake Umbra.

While both these archetypes are very Rise-centric, relying on a mechanic or particular card, it’s also worth noting that old-fashioned Magic hasn’t gone away. The Top 8 Draft was a prime example of traditional values trumping new-fangled strategies. Florian Koch won the Grand Prix with this deck:

8 Mountain
10 Swamp
2 Bala Ged Scorpion
2 Bloodrite Invoker
1 Cadaver Imp
1 Emrakul’s Hatcher
2 Escaped Null
1 Nirkana Cutthroat
1 Pawn of Ulamog
2 Skeletal Wurm
2 Valakut Fireboar
2 Induce Despair
1 Last Kiss
2 Surreal Memoir
3 Vendetta

This deck is so un-fancy. The monsters, typically for Red-Black, are mostly unexciting. The deck is all about the spells, and they aren’t fancy either. Six spells kill things, and the two Surreal Memoirs allow you to kill something else. The whole random element of Surreal Memoir seems to put some people off, but most of the time I saw it used, it was as a straight graveyard tutor for a Heat Ray. Yes, Koch could have ended up getting a Last Kiss back when he really wanted a Vendetta, but it’s a pretty odd set of circumstances where he couldn’t set it up to cast the Memoir with just the Vendetta in his bin, and then cast Last Kiss subsequently.

Also worth noting is the pair of Escaped Nulls. This positively screams ‘bad card’ as a 1/2 for four mana, but the lifegain it tends to bring with it is a lot. And besides, if that doesn’t happen, how can you possibly complain about your opponent wasting removal on a 1/2?

One noticeable feature of both forms of Limited action was how friendly the mana seemed to be. There always seemed to be a way to cast the spells you needed, and plenty of ways to find third color splashes, most often Red for removal, Heat Ray proving almost irresistible. Another facet of play that had shown itself at the Prerelease was the way the game could mutate into something really unusual. Up until Rise, you could generally feel that anyone attempting to put multiple Creature Enchantments onto one solitary guy was just asking for trouble. Think for a moment. Remember when your opponent opened up with a one drop 1/1, and then attempted to put strengths, both Holy and otherwise, onto it? And how dirty it felt when you cast Pacifism as a three-for-one?

Things have definitely changed. One of the weird skills I’ve had to develop over the years is to work out what’s going on from a glance at the board, and I look at hundreds of them every event weekend. In Rise, that doesn’t work terribly well. There can often be only one monster in play, suggesting it’s early in the game, and yet it can be late (turn six-ish) but with both players having a ton of cards still in hand. Levelling is largely responsible for this, with both players dedicating multiple turns to growing their threats. Then there are the games where there’s one monster on one side, and eight on the other, and the one monster is utterly dominant. One of my FNM wins was with a Knight of Cliffhaven that Levelled all the way, and had Hyena Umbra, which certainly gave me the last laugh. Since it was Vigilant, there was no way my opponent could attack through it meaningfully. Equally, lots of men on board doesn’t necessarily equate to dominance. There are so many irrelevant monsters that seem to sit in play doing nothing, of which the Spawn are only the most noticeable.

That last point is really key for Red-Green ramp Drafters. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with this archetype, and it is, of course, a successful Constructed strategy. However, in Constructed you have plenty of threats to ramp into, and that’s not always the case in Limited. There’s a tension between taking the ramp cards that can get you to big mana versus taking the threats that make the ramp worth building. Although he was unlucky in the Final, Tobi Gräfensteiner made a ton of mana and did nothing with it. That said, he demonstrated one hugely effective route to victory — Broodwarden. As a 4/4, it’s quite hard to deal with instantly, and when Spawn have been sitting around doing nothing for a while, it’s easy to doze off and mentally discount them. I saw plenty of games won during the weekend with the Broodwarden coming down late and suddenly adding 14-20 power of damage to the combat math.


Rise is a really skill-intensive Format. It may look at first glance like the Top 8 wasn’t packed with big names, but I knew seven of the eight for some Magic achievement or other, and it’s been a while since I’ve been able to say that. A high percentage of the best players made it to Day Two, and it’s been a while since I’ve been able to say that, too. There are definitely new styles of play that need to be learned, and I suspect it’s going to be a stiff learning curve for some of us — Rise is undoubtedly very different in some respects from much that has gone before. You only need to see Hand of Emrakul going last in virtually every Draft pack to see that. Even so, there’s something reassuring about seeing Black-Red decks packed with rubbish monsters and quality removal still doing well, suggesting that you can do just about anything, if you make the right choices.

Next week, a beginner’s guide to Block Constructed, ahead of the Pro Tour in San Juan. Until then, as ever, thanks for reading.