Removed From Game – More From Inside The Toolkit

Grand Prix GP Columbus July 30-August 1, 2010
Tuesday, July 6th – On a mission to discover just what ‘Semi-Random’ means, Rich cracks another Toolkit, and sets to work, giving guidance to beginner players as the oh-so-cunning Deck Themes get a thorough workout.

Mother Theresa. Now that woman had a lot of patience. Gandhi. Same deal. Mark Rosewater. Yes, that’s right Mark, next time I’m in the office I want the chance to sit in on some design and development meetings, and maybe even help to make a Magic card or two, so I thought I’d put you together with Mother Theresa and Gandhi in my opening paragraph.

But this comparison isn’t entirely spurious. While Mother Theresa and Gandhi may ultimately come to be seen to have had more impact on human history than Mark Rosewater, the latter shares that quality of patience that was one of their greatest strengths. For months, sometimes years at a time, Mark leads the way for Magic in R&D. Meeting after meeting, discussion after discussion, the most unloved cards are given every bit as much nurturing and care as the splashy chase Rares or the killer uncommons. And at the end of it? We whine and moan about the cards we don’t like, and how we’d have costed them differently, or made Levelling an Instant ability…

To my mind, there are few things more irritating than being misunderstood. That’s especially true when communicating what you want to is one of your strengths. That’s why I’m particularly irritated when I screw up in an article, and someone takes away something diametrically opposed to what I’m actually saying and meaning. When that happens, I want to scream, which means that I imagine Mark wants to scream about 300 times a day. The phrase ‘not every card is meant for every player’ surely has to come from gritted teeth. There was a time when I would have looked at Baneful Omen and said ‘This card is rubbish. How could Wizards have printed this? Nobody in their right mind would play this card. Are you kidding? It’s a disgrace’ etc etc. Now, I get that no tournament player, and no Drafter, is ever meant to play with Baneful Omen. I mean, you can if you like, of course, but that’s not what it exists for. What it exists for is to let multiplayer fans salivate all over it at the prospect of revealing some gigantic fatties out of their EDH deck.

Since it took about a decade for me to form the understanding that not every card was aimed squarely at me, a largely ‘tournaments only’ player (a.k.a. Spike), I can imagine Mark continues to get large volumes of abuse from players about certain cards, or even products. And that’s how we arrive at The Toolkit Mark Two. Last week I spent a good deal of time investigating the Deck Builder’s Toolkit, and found it awesome in many ways. I got a number of emails about this aspect of the article, and some very helpful souls pointed out to me that I’d somewhat missed the point.

I talked last week about the ‘semi-random’ nature of the product, and that I had a second Toolkit waiting in the wings. It seemed to me entirely logical that since Magic has five colors, five single-color decks is where I should start out. I duly built and played around with those decks, and also managed to pull together a real Five-Color Special, featuring all the unused lands lying around, and Maelstrom Archangel and Fusion Elemental out of the Conflux booster.

Bear in mind that I have minimal access to the internet at the moment, so maybe this was obvious to every except me, but I truly didn’t twig that the four sets of ten cards that were each separated by a Terramorphic Expanse were designed to link into one of the Deck Themes that the Guide pointed you towards. In other words, Wizards were taking you by the hand and saying, ‘Here’s eleven deck ideas, and we want to give you a real push towards four of them.’ I genuinely didn’t realize this. Dim of me.

I imagine that, if I had lavished as much care and attention on making a product as R&D did on this, I’d be tearing my hair out at someone saying ‘I thought the Green deck was a bit overpowered’ when the comeback would be ‘but we gave you two sets of ten cards that both went in Green decks, you idiot!’ So, even though I thought the Toolkit was great last week, I thought it might be a good idea to see what happens when you use it the way you’re ‘meant’ to. I should also say that I received a very polite email, saying that they were a new player, had bought the Toolkit, and would love to know how to go about using the four Deck Themes efficiently. Well, Conley Woods I am not (a fact for which I’m sure he gives thanks on a daily basis), but I’m pretty certain I can lend a hand. So, without further ado, the Toolkit Rides Again…

Now that I know that it’s the four sets of ten where the meat of the product is, I go straight there. Consulting my Guide, it’s clear that the four Themes I’ve been given a boost for are Red Burn, White Weenie, Elves, and Green-White Auras.

Let’s kick off with the Red Burn Theme. The Core part of the Toolkit provides me with the following sixteen Red cards:

2 Lightning Bolt
Panic Attack
Lava Axe
Claws Of Valakut
Heat Ray
Berserkers Of Blood Ridge
Sparkmage Apprentice
Lightning Elemental
Goblin Shortcutter
Goblin Roughrider
Goblin Arsonist
Bloodtusk Boar
Prodigal Pyromancer
Dragon Whelp

For most of us, these are all familiar cards. But if we cast our minds back to when Magic was shiny and new to us, this is an incredibly exciting list. Lightning Bolt — three damage for only one mana. And it’s instant. And I can aim it at my opponent. Panic Attack — Ha ha, I win. You thought you could block, but you can’t. Lava Axe — You’re on eleven you say? Lightning Bolt, Lightning Bolt, Lava Axe. Claws Of Valakut — I believe +8 and First Strike is a LOT. Heat Ray — wow, X, what does that do? It can be anything I like? Sweet. Demolish

Well, alright, even I can’t remember getting excited about Demolish, but you get the idea. There are possibilities out of all these cards, with the chance to ping people with the Prodigal Pyromancer, smash face with Berserkers Of Blood Ridge, take to the air, and pump, with Dragon Whelp, have Haste with Lightning Elemental, and so on. If you’re new to Magic, and you’re not excited by the possibilities of this lot, either something’s not quite right, or you’re about to fall in love with Cancel.

The ten cards that add to the Red Burn theme are these:

Lightning Bolt
Lava Axe
Fiery Hellhound
Burst Lightning
Searing Blaze
Kiln Fiend
Rod Of Ruin
Explosive Revelation
Lust For War

This is a pretty eclectic mix, and adds plenty of layers of complexity to the sixteen cards we started out with. Burst Lightning brings us Kicker, Searing Blaze has Landfall, Lust for War is a repeat damage over time in the form of an Enchantment, and Kiln Fiend wants us to cram our deck with Instants and Sorceries.

Now there are twenty six cards to choose from, but there are still the four unopened boosters. Like the first Toolkit, this one contains M10, Conflux, Zendikar, and Worldwake. The Red cards these four generate are:

Rod Of Ruin; Tuktuk Grunts; Deathforge Shaman; Goblin Roughrider; Goblin Piker; Volcanic Fallout; Hellfire Mongrel; Zektar Shrine Expedition; Valakut, The Molten Pinnacle; Burning Inquiry; Dragonsoul Knight; Molten Frame.

Now we have to actually pull a deck together. I’m going to start by being wilfully naïve, and build the deck that the Deck Theme ‘wants’ me to. Under this theme, all I really want to do is to shove every burn spell under the sun in there, and see what room there is left. That looks like this:

1cc — 3 Lightning Bolt, Burst Lightning
2cc — Searing Blaze
3cc — Volcanic Fallout, Lust For War
4cc — 2 Rod Of Ruin
5cc — Fireball, Heat Ray, 2 Lava Axe, Explosive Revelation

With fourteen slots already taken up, we probably only have room for nine creatures. Since the idea of the deck is to get our opponents as dead as possible as quickly as possible, we want creatures that deal damage above and beyond their base power and toughness. Goblin Arsonist, Sparkmage Apprentice, Hellfire Mongrel, Prodigal Pyromancer, and Deathforge Shaman all achieve this. Zektar Shrine Expedition is a glorified burn spell, while Fiery Hellhound can end things very quickly if there’s nothing in the way — and there shouldn’t be. That’s another seven slots taken up, which means we only have two left. Why only two? In a forty card deck, you’ll usually need seventeen or eighteen land to cast your spells reliably. In addition, we certainly don’t want to skimp on land in this deck, as we’re going to play with Valakut, The Molten Pinnacle, which is simply devastating in the late game. So, for our final two slots we go for evasion, with Dragon Whelp a great finisher, and Bladetusk Boar, which is probably impossible to block in this format.

Our finished deck looks like this:

1cc — 3 Lightning Bolt, Burst Lightning, Goblin Arsonist
2cc — Searing Blaze, Zektar Shrine Expedition, Sparkmage Apprentice
3cc — Volcanic Fallout, Lust For War, Fiery Hellhound, Hellfire Mongrel, Prodigal Pyromancer
4cc — 2 Rod Of Ruin, Dragon Whelp, Bladetusk Boar
5cc — Fireball, Heat Ray, 2 Lava Axe, Explosive Revelation, Deathforge Shaman
Valakut, The Molten Pinnacle
16 Mountains

If you like burning things to a crisp, like Craig Jones, this is a ton of fun. That said, playing with just nine creatures means you’re going to have to do a lot of creature killing before your guys can get in the red zone, Bladetusk Boar and Dragon Whelp apart. With a little more experience, perhaps once we’ve played a few games, we might fall out of love with some of the more expensive spells. A much more balanced version of the deck would have a handful more creatures, and not care so much about direct damage. That deck looks like this:

1cc — 3 Lightning Bolt, Burst Lightning, Goblin Arsonist
2cc — Searing Blaze, Zektar Shrine Expedition, Sparkmage Apprentice, Goblin Shortcutter, Goblin Piker, Kiln Fiend
3cc — Lust For War, Claws Of Valakut, Panic Attack, Fiery Hellhound, Hellfire Mongrel, Prodigal Pyromancer
4cc — Dragon Whelp, Bladetusk Boar, Lightning Elemental
5cc — Berserkers of Blood Ridge, Fireball, Heat Ray
Valakut, The Molten Pinnacle
16 Mountains

This is much more aggressive on the ground, since we’ve added three creatures that cost two mana each. Since we’ve also added two further creatures in Berserkers Of Blood Ridge and Lightning Elemental, there’s now a good case for playing Claws Of Valakut, since we now have enough creatures to support it. We’re also now a bit more concerned about our creatures punching through the defenses, and so Panic Attack can help if our creatures get outclassed on the battlefield.

Overall, I’d probably veer towards the second deck. Panic Attack will often add up to five damage or more, so losing Lava Axe isn’t a big deal. Rod Of Ruin spends a lot of time dealing damage. Seven mana gets you one damage, ten mana is two damage, thirteen for three, and so on. When you remember that Lightning Bolt deals three damage for just one mana, you can see how amazingly inefficient the Rod is by comparison. Nonetheless, for fun and frolics, I’ve kept the first deck together. It is ‘Red Burn’ after all.

Next up was White Weenie. The core sixteen are these:

Kor Hookmaster
Kor Sanctifiers
Caravan Hurda
Makindi Griffin
Lone Missionary
Blinding Mage
Palace Guard
Soul Warden
Stormfront Pegasus
Serra Angel
Shieldmate’s Blessing
Iona’s Judgment
Repel The Darkness
2 Pacifism
Harm’s Way

White is really hard to showcase, since it does so many different things, and many of the strategies that White is good at actively go against each other. Only Lone Missionary, Stormfront Pegasus, and, arguably, Soul Warden truly belong in a White Weenie deck. There are all kinds of Control cards here, whether it’s the block-everything Palace Guard, removal with Pacifism and Iona’s Judgment, lifegain and damage prevention, and mid-range flyers. That means that we may struggle to make White Weenie good, even with the help of these ten:

2 Veteran Armorsmith, Veteran Swordsmith, Soul Warden, Journey To Nowhere, Kor Hookmaster, Armored Ascension, Elite Vanguard, Brave The Elements, Kor Firewalker.

Well, at least we get some decent small creatures. Now, what do the boosters give us?

Harm’s Way, Safe Passage, Wall Of Faith, Blinding Mage, Aven Squire, Shepherd Of The Lost, Nimbus Wings, Veteran’s Reflexes, Sejiri Steppe

Again, a really strange mix that’s absolutely White. A bit of this, a bit of that, very little clear direction. A true White Weenie deck is going to be close to impossible. Instead, we end up with a deck that can get a few damage in early, try to stay ahead with removal and tapping Blinding Mages, and finish things in the air:

1cc — Elite Vanguard, 2 Harm’s Way
2cc — Lone Missionary, Aven Squire, 2 Blinding Mage, 2 Veteran Armorsmith, Stormfront Pegasus, Kor Firewalker, Journey To Nowhere, 2 Pacifism
3cc — 2 Kor Hookmaster, Veteran Swordsmith, Kor Sanctifiers
4cc — Makindi Griffin, Armored Ascension
5cc — Serra Angel, Shepherd Of The Lost, Iona’s Judgment
Sejiri Steppe
16 Plains

It’s possible to bring things a bit closer to a genuine Weenie build, but there’s no doubt that this utterly weakens the deck. You can add 2 Soul Warden, Palace Guard, Repel The Darkness, Veteran’s Reflexes, and Brave The Elements. At this point, if you take out everything beyond 3cc, you can easily cut a land, and have everything costing 1, 2, or 3 mana. Unfortunately, you lose your two best monsters in Serra Angel and Shepherd Of The Lost, a piece of decent removal in Iona’s Judgment, and an ‘oops, I win’ card in Armored Ascension. It may not be a true Weenie deck, but I’d certainly leave these expensive spells in the deck.

Now we hit a bit of a snag. Last week, I blithely went about the business of building one deck for each color, and then hurling together everything good that was left. This time, I’m trying to follow the Deck Themes I’ve been given. Bizarrely, the two remaining Themes really conflict with each other in terms of the resources in the box. They are Elves and Green-White Auras. First, a word about Elves. There’s no doubt that Elves is a word that has massive resonance for anyone interested in a fantasy setting, and it makes perfect sense to showcase that Elves exist in the Multiverse. However, while Elves are awesome in flavor terms, they’re much more problematic when it comes to deckbuilding.

Lorwyn was the set where being an Elf actually meant something, and although there are individual cards that have an ‘Elves matter’ theme, none of that is true in the sixteen core Green cards:

2 Llanowar Elves, Nissa’s Chosen, Overrun, River Boa, Aura Gnarlid, Leaf Arrow, Vastwood Gorger, Timbermaw Larva, Savage Silhouette, Giant Spider, Oakenform, Stampeding Rhino, Rampant Growth, Naturalize, Giant Growth.

Yes, there are some Elves, but they might as well be Trolls for all they interact with each other. Unfortunately, the same is true of the ten Elves Theme cards:

Llanowar Elves, 2 Elvish Visionary, Nissa’s Chosen, Might Of The Masses, Wildheart Invoker, Overrun, Greenweaver Druid, Ogre’s Cleaver, Pennon Blade.

Not one of these cards cares about you having Elves. Essentially, you’re therefore dealing with a ‘Green Weenie’ deck, building up to Overrun. The Deck Guide acknowledges this awkwardness, saying that the deck can go in many directions, talking about effectively turning it into a Ramp deck, and so on. To be honest, this didn’t look that exciting, so instead I looked into the Green-White Aura deck. Remember, there are only twenty of each basic land, and while that’s fine to build any one single deck at a time, it can be problematic if you want to build more than one. Bizarrely, last week I had no problem with six decks, whereas here I’m already struggling after just two. If I build the Elves deck there’s no Forests for the Aura deck, the Aura deck is already a struggle because I’ve built the White Weenie deck and there are only four Plains left…

I do of course appreciate that, outside of multiplayer action, you only need two decks at once. Nonetheless, I can’t see players eager to cannibalize their decks every half hour in order to build the next one. Ho hum.

In the end, I try to build the Green-White Auras deck, deliberately minimizing the White element. The White Weenie deck has Journey To Nowhere, and two Pacifisms, and if I was building a genuine two-color deck I’d be using them for sure. As it is, though, I’m determined to leave the White Weenie intact, and that leaves me four Plains, and some Terramorphic Expanses to play with. The boosters contribute this:

Explore, Haribaz Druid, Relic Crush, 2 Zendikar Farguide, Cobra Trap, Mold Shambler, Oran-Rief Recluse, Scattershot Archer, Vastwood Zendikon, Sylvan Bounty, Rampant Growth, Valeron Outlander, Rhox Bodyguard.

Then we get the meat of the deck, the ten cards designed to shove us in this direction:

Savage Silhouette, Hyena Umbra, Totem-Guide Hartebeest, 2 Aura Gnarlid, Snake Umbra, Nature’s Spiral, Canopy Cover, Mammoth Umbra, Boar Umbra.

We end up with something like this:

1cc — Scattershot Archer, 2 Llanowar Elves, Hyena Umbra
2cc — Harabaz Druid, Nissa’s Chosen, River Boa
3cc — 3 Aura Gnarlid, Oran-Rief Recluse, 2 Savage Silhouette, Oakenform, Boar Umbra, Snake Umbra
4cc — Timbermaw Larva, Giant Spider, Mold Shambler
5cc — Totem-Guide Hartebeest, Stampeding Rhino, Vastwood Zendikon, Mammoth Umbra
11 Forest
4 Plains
2 Terramorphic Expanse

At this point, we’ve made two decks as good as they can be (Red Burn and White Weenie) and have a deck with some compromises (Green-White Auras). There’s no help in any of the four sets of ten Deck Theme cards for either Black or Blue, so thus far we haven’t touched any of them. It turns out that Black was somewhat viable on its own:

1cc — Weakness, Disfigure, Vampire’s Bite, Death Cultist, Pulse Tracker
2cc — Doom Blade, Sign In Blood, 2 Child Of Night, Blood Seeker
3cc — Last Kiss, Tomb Hex, Dread Warlock, Nyxathid, Looming Shade, Pestilent Kathari, Bloodhusk Ritualist, Gloomhunter, Giant Scorpion
4cc — Gravedigger, Hagra Crocodile
5cc — Zombie Goliath, Mind Sludge

Well, I did say ‘somewhat’ viable. As for Blue, that was more problematic, since there really weren’t enough cards to make a deck. However, since the Red Burn deck was going in the all-in flames to the face mode, that meant there were a few reasonable Red creatures lying around, meaning we could build this:

1cc – Nothing
2cc — Kitesail, Treasure Hunt, Essence Scatter, Goblin Shortcutter, Sage Owl, Merfolk Looter
3cc — Calcite Snapper, Jawari Scuttler, Sea Gate Oracle, Horned Turtle, 2 Goblin Roughrider, Dragonsoul Knight, 2 Cancel, 2 Divination, Paralyzing Grasp.
4cc — Snapping Drake, Windrider Eel
5cc — Mind Control, Berserkers Of Blood Ridge, Sky Ruin Drake
11 Island
4 Mountains
2 Terramorphic Expanse

So, in the end, I still managed to build five decks. To be honest, I preferred my ‘wrong’ way of last week, building five individual colored decks. That said, I think the team have been very smart in helping propel new players towards genuine archetypes. National Championships apart, Summer is a quiet time for Magic, and players are often looking for something a little bit different. I’m certainly contemplating a Deck Builder’s Toolkit Tournament, where each player has to build multiple decks, and use them all through the course of the event.

Although the approach has been somewhat different, I continue to be thoroughly impressed with the Toolkit. Leaving aside all questions of potential card values — and let’s face it, if you happen to open a Baneslayer of a Planeswalker you’ve just got the entire thing for free — the amount of entertainment value contained in the box is awesome. Christmas presents all round, I do believe…

… and I’m still sitting on that f***ing chair.

As ever, thanks for reading.