Removed From Game – Thinking, In The Box

Grand Prix GP Columbus July 30-August 1, 2010
Monday, July 19th – It’s time to start counting the dollars, pounds, or yen, stuffed under the mattress at home. Can you afford a box of M11 now it’s hit the shelves? It might seem like a big investment, but Rich explains how to get every drop of value out of thirty six boosters, and why buying a box is one of the best entertainment deals ever.

Early 1998. I’ve been playing for five months, and I’m besotted. I’m also working on a cruise ship, with nobody else to play Magic. I started playing just before Tempest came out, but, aside from the boosters I’ve opened at assorted Sealed Deck tournaments, I don’t own many cards. Now, it’s time for Stronghold to appear, and my new Magic friends are telling me that I should buy a booster box. The cost is round about $90. This is a huge decision for me. I collect Monopoly sets, and agonize over whether I can justify spending $20 on a game. Magic wants me to spend $90 on something that isn’t even a game in itself, just part of a wider game. My box of Stronghold will come with no lands, and, because of where I am, without any opponents.

I buy the box, rip open every pack in an orgy of excitement, and then sit in my tiny cabin, silently contemplating the magnitude of what I’ve just done to myself. I’m looking at this mound of wrappings, a pile of near-useless cards, with nothing to do with any of them, except stockpile the rares, and wait for my chance to return to my playtest group and — maybe — find something useful to do with a few of them.

Looking back, I realize that my fun factor through this process was almost nil. I felt literally physically sick at the money I couldn’t really afford going on something so pitiful as five minutes of rancid tearing. I vowed that I would never do that to myself again….

You might be thinking that this is quite a downbeat way of starting an article for a website that specializes in, you know, selling cards, especially when there’s a brand new expansion just about to hit the shelves. But, rest assured, this article is going to explain exactly why you should absolutely buy yourself a box of M11 when it comes out, and how you can gain the maximum benefit from your purchase.

I chose that word ‘benefit’ quite carefully, as many of you look to get different things out of your Magic experience. What I’m going to outline today is primarily geared towards the competitive player who wants to get better at the game, but I’ll also highlight the opportunities for more straightforward fun. By the end, I hope you’ll come to see what I’ve discovered, which is that a sinle display of a new set can be one of the most incredibly valuable gaming expereinces you’ll ever have.

In order to prove my theory, I enlisted the aid of an unopened box of Rise of the Eldrazi. You may be wondering why I didn’t just wait for M11 to roll around, and I’ll probably replicate the experiement when it does. So why Rise? Simply put, we all have a common frame of reference for Rise. You’ve almost certainly played plenty with it, you know what cards you like, what archetypes and so on, and what the power cards are. Talking about things that we know can help us develop an understanding of what things we don’t know. Plus, Rise is the unopened box I just happened to have handy…

There are thirty six booster packs in each display, and every one is packed with information, as well as a bunch of cards. If you’re going to be thorough about this, it’s worth setting up an Excel spreadsheet to keep track of everything you’re opening. To start with, take six boosters. Open the first booster. Don’t go hunting for the rare, it’ll still be there once we get there. Look at the first card. Just the first card. If you’re a flavor fan, now’s a good time to have a read of the flavor text, take a good stare at the card art, and so on. Read the card carefully, noting the cost, double mana requirements, creature type, power and toughness, keywords, and abilities.

Now comes one of the most important steps to getting value. Ask yourself questions about this first card. Does the card strike you as being good? Why, or why not? How does it compare with other cards you know in the same color with similar casting costs? What would you want to know about the card in order to evaluate it better within the context of the set as a whole?

Here’s the first booster I opened:

Zulaport Enforcer
Eel Umbra
Nest Invader
Battle Rampart
Merfolk Observer
Lone Missionary
Fleeting Distraction
Raid Bombardment
Skittering Invasion
Soulsurge Elemental
Prey’s Vengeance
Affa Guard Hound
Deathless Angel

There’s no need here to go into the details of every card — you know what you think of them — but even in this first booster, there are useful questions that can help us understand the Limited formats we’re going to work with. For example, it costs four to Level a Zulaport Enforcer. Is that going to be too much? Or, in other words, is the format (either Sealed or Draft) going to be too quick to allow us the luxury of spending a turn doing this? Then there’s Staggershock. This gives you two Shocks over two turns. So how many creatures will it kill? Since the answer to this will always be zero, one, or two, I’d use a corner of a notebook for this, so that every time you see it used, you add one to the appropriate column. Yes, there will be times when it ‘half’ kills a creature, when your opponent blocked and then Staggershock finishes it off, but you can add that information too. In any case, knowing how effective Staggershock is as a piece of ‘hard’ removal is well worth discovering, in much the same way as you’d want to know how much of a ‘hard’ counterspell Mana Leak is.

Next up is Soulsurge Elemental. Clearly, it’s only as good as the number of creatures you have, so how many creatures are you going to have? Is Rise a set which has tons of creatures roaming the battlefield, or is this the kind of set featuring threat-removal-threat-removal-threat, where the last threat left standing is the one that wins? This is the kind of question that gets you double value, because you discover whether or not a particular card is good, and find out something about the wider game you’re playing.

The last card of note in that first booster is Skittering Invasion. Any time you see something that costs a lot (remember, ‘costs a lot’ and ‘expensive’ are not the same things. One mana can be ‘expensive’, seven mana can be ‘cheap’, but seven mana always ‘costs a lot’) you should question whether you’re ever going to be able to cast it. If you can, you want it to be doing something pretty spectacular. Is making five tokens something pretty spectacular? This is why we playtest, and Skittering Invasion is the kind of card we want to prioritize when it comes to building decks. Since there is very little frame of reference from elsewhere in the game, giving it a thorough test drive is a good idea, to the point at which it’s worth making room in a deck even if there’s a card you’re sure is better. Winning or losing isn’t the idea, fun and knowledge is.

See? That’s the first booster, and you’ve still got thirty five sitting comfortably in their wrappers. Now you’re going to do the same thing with boosters two to six. These are some of the questions that arose from those boosters. As you’ll see, while they are all notionally about individual cards, they’re really about getting a handle on the set as a whole:

Bloodrite Invoker — Do you get to 8 mana, and if you do, when?
Kiln Fiend — Is this a Draft deck?
Raid Bombardment — Is this a Draft deck? How many two power or less dudes are there that are playable? How many tokens will there be?
Hellion Eruption — Is the format kind to creatures? How many will I get to trade in when I cast this?
Lagac Lizard — A real bellweather for any set. A vanilla 3/3 for four mana, is this going to be a standard part of a Sealed deck, utterly ghastly and quickly outclassed, or somewhere in between?
Last Kiss — Does it kill things, or does it need help? How often is the lifegain relevant?
Knight of Cliffhaven — How important is evasion in general, and flying specifically?
Essence Feed — Is there time to justify spending six mana, probably a whole turn, on this?
Kor-Line Slinger — Are there plenty of targets, and, more importantly, are they worthwhile targets?
Goblin Arsonist — How important are one drops? Will it have many useful targets?
Regress — Is this the kind of effect you always want in your deck?
Grotag Siege-Runner — Are there lots of Defenders, and how playable are they?
Fissure Vent — How many relevant targets?

There are a lot of questions here, and by making a list of them now you allow yourself to subconsciously — and consciously – be looking for the answers as you start to play. In order to do that, though, you’ll be needing a deck, so the next step is to build a forty card Sealed Deck with your pool of six boosters. I ended up with this:

Eel Umbra
Hyena Umbra
Distortion Strike
See Beyond
Reality Spasm
Ikiral Outrider
Knight Of Cliffhaven
Knight Of Cliffhaven
Deathless Angel
Champion’s Drake
Enclave Cryptologist
Sea Gate Oracle
Merfolk Skyscout
Hada Spy Patrol
Skywatcher Adept
Venerated Teacher
Halimar Wavewatch
Halimar Wavewatch
Halimar Wavewatch
Student Of Warfare
Gideon Jura
10 Island
7 Plains

Remember, simply being good isn’t the purpose of the deck, it’s to learn and have fun. With this deck, we have some obvious awesomeness in Gideon and Deathless Angel, the chance to form some views on a couple of Umbras, the usefulness of cards like Regress and Oust, and, above all, a chance to see the new Level mechanic in action. Are those Halimar Wavewatches going to be rubbish walls, or utter beatings? How much difference will Venerated Teacher make?

If you’ve got a friend who’s doing this with you, by now they should have their own list of questions that the cards they’ve opened have thrown up. Talk about these questions together, and add theirs to your mental list of things to watch out for while you play. And that’s exactly what it’s time to do. It’s possible that one of you is clearly the better player. Even if you’re pretty evenly matched, it’s likely that there will be subtleties you’ve each missed within your own deck, and allowing the other player to run their eye over the deck is a good plan. Therefore, play five games, and then swap decks before playing another five. If there’s a card that one of the decks simply can’t beat — an absurd enchantment for example, that the other deck has no removal for — it’s sometimes worth ‘cheating’ and leaving this card to one side. You already know it wins games, so why bother?

You’ve now played ten games together, five with each of the two decks. Take the time to talk again about what you both discovered, or, if you’re playing both sides as a solitaire exercise, make sure you make notes on the games. Memory is great, but it’s hard to fault pen and paper for fact retention.

Now it’s time to explain a little bit of necessary self-deception. If I told you at the outset that your task was to build three decks out of the six boosters, you’d approach that task knowing that your resources needed to be distributed carefully. For example, in a typical Sealed Deck, you might easily play two Mountains in a Blue-White deck in order to fund double Heat Ray. In fact, that’s almost a given. However, when you build your first ‘A’ deck, don’t compromise. Build the very best deck you can.

Now it’s time for a challenge. Go back to your remnants, and try to build an acceptable second deck, your ‘B’ deck. It’s almost certainly going to be made up of colors three and four. The ‘B’ deck for my first six boosters looked like this:

Goblin Arsonist
2 Nest Invader
Aura Gnarlid
Sporecap Spider
Lagac Lizard
Soulsurge Elemental
2 Wildheart Invoker
Stomper Cub
Akoum Boulderfoot
Spider Umbra
Prey’s Vengeance
Spawning Breath
Prophetic Prism
Boar Umbra
2 Raid Bombardment
World At War
Hellion Eruption
Skittering Invasion
9 Forest
8 Mountain

The benefits of building a ‘B’ deck like this are many. Inevitably, since the ‘A’ decks may well have ‘run off’ with all the removal, the cards in the second-string decks are going to have more of a chance to shine. This deck is full of stuff that’s interesting to see how it works. Skittering Invasion — is this going to be good with Raid Bombardment, or will I be spending the mana on other things? Is World At War a card that might make it into a first-string deck, or is it all a bit too much effort for not enough reward? Will Spawning Breath actually kill something? And how many games can Aura Gnarlid + Aura pull off?

Play the B decks against each other, again swapping after the first five games. It’s good to remind yourselves that you’re playing with decks that you wouldn’t necessarily want to in a proper tournament, as otherwise you may come to believe that certain cards or strategies are stronger than they really are. Take whichever of the B decks does best, and try it out against the best A deck. Is it a massacre, or are things pretty close? If it’s a massacre, that might suggest that there isn’t a lot of depth to the set, with plenty of cards that can’t cut it even at Sealed level. If it’s close, that’s a good indicator that Draft could be pretty deep.

You’ve now played thirty games of Magic, and have opened twelve boosters. The next step is to put those twelve boosters back together again, using your spreadsheet from earlier. Choose six of them, and then shuffle them together. Now it’s time to try a Winston Draft. There are several articles all about how to Winston if you’ve not done it before, and since one of them was written by me, I’m going to recommend that one.

Although you’re going to be using some of the same cards you’ve already seen in action, the small card pool of only six boosters between the two of you, with both of you competing for the good cards, means that you’re likely to end up playing some really marginal cards. Although you might never want to play with them in ‘real life’, somebody somewhere is probably going to think they’re good, and try to beat you with them. Occasionally reminding yourself that Haze Frog exists is a good idea.

When I Winston, I generally play first to six ie best of eleven. This ensures that you have ample opportunity to see all the cards in your deck, and evaluate their usefulness. Although the pool of cards is still small, you’re both actively Drafting, and can start to get an idea of what might be possible in terms of speediness, control, tricks, and so on. If the decks seem uneven, with one or two super-powerful bombs warping things or bringing games to premature ends, you can play with the phantom split card ‘Naturalize/Terminate’ which costs you exactly zero mana. Simply skip your draw step, announce that you’ve drawn what you need to deal with the threat, and then carry on. This can save time watching games get interesting before super-Rare comes along to spoil things.

Now Winston the other six boosters. By the time you’ve done this, you’ll have played somewhere between fifty five and sixty games of Magic. From a third of one box. Clearly, you get to repeat this process another twice through with the remaining twenty four boosters. With the second and third ’rounds’, you’ll have a much clearer idea of what you’re doing, what questions remain unanswered, new questions that those answers have given rise to, and an overall shape to the set.

Once you’ve done all this — and you’re now well past the one hundred and fifty games mark — it’s time to sort the whole box out by color. Build a deck with each of the five colors. This is where you get the best appreciation for what each color is thematically doing within the set, and how well it’s doing it. Yes, White always has damage prevention and lifegain and flyers and weenies and enchantment removal, but how good is it at each of these things? Where is the emphasis within the set? By playing the five decks against each other in a best of five matchup, you’ll add another layer of knowledge, and play another forty games or so, taking you to close to two hundred.

At this point, it’s time to reset the box. Using your spreadsheet, reconstitute all thirty six boosters. I’m not going to be able to remember the name, but a few years ago there was a Japanese Pro who wasn’t able to test ‘properly’ for a Limited Pro Tour, so he ran Drafts just for himself. That’s what you’re going to do next, or with a friend, alternating packs. Lay out twenty four of the boosters in the eight positions for a normal Draft. Putting yourself in each seat, one at a time, work out what your first pick would be from each pack. Sometimes the first pick will be obvious, but even then you can ask yourself why it’s so obvious. Is it because of raw power? An unusual type of permanent that players struggle to deal with like a land or enchantment or artifact? Is it a key card in a particular archetype that won’t work without it, like Aura Gnarlid? Are you looking to force an archetype?

Once you’ve done this with all the first picks, you need a little bit of imagination to pull this next thing off. I have a sneaking suspicion that this will come a lot easier to those of you without brothers or sisters, since only children have a tendency to automatically create opponents where none exist. What you have to do is make your second selection without taking into account what the ‘player on your right’ has taken. In reality, of course, you know, but here you need to make your decision ‘in the dark’. That shouldn’t stop you from thinking about what that player ‘might’ have taken. Is the rare missing? An uncommon? Have you spotted any patterns in the way the boosters were distributed? Does Staggershock always go with Aura Gnarlid, and if it does, is one of them left in the booster?

Eventually, you’ll have run an entire Draft, and can then go about the business of building the eight draft decks. If there are two of you, you’ve each got four decks to build, but either way there are now a ton of matches waiting to be played in a Draft format. Even playing just best of three, you’re going to play another seventy games or so before each of the decks have played each other.

Now it’s time to bring six more friends into the mix. I have special Draft sheets that allow each player to note each pick they make, whether or not that card eventually made their deck, and how their deck looks in terms of mana curve. It also has space for summaries of each of three rounds of play, giving a clear overview of what went right or wrong. Use the same twenty four boosters that you’ve already solo Drafted. How did your eight decks compare to what your friends ultimately Drafted? Were the first picks different? If so, why did they choose something different?

After the three rounds of draft, you’ll have a winning deck. Go round the table, and find out what everyone has learned about the format. We’re almost done now. Reconstitute the boosters, and choose twelve of them. Now add the remaining twelve boosters, and draft again. This portion of the exercise will take eight of you four or five hours, and include roughly another sixty games.

Now, let’s suppose for a moment that you’re not much of a Constructed player. I know that most of us are these days, but there are certainly players out there who can’t afford the investment in either time or money to keep on top of Standard, Extended, and Legacy. If that’s you, now — finally — it’s time to look at the thirty-six or so rares you got from your booster box. Are any of them ‘chase’ rares? I got a Gideon Jura in mine, so even if I just trade that one card in to a dealer, I’m going to get maybe $25 or so back from my initial investment. Of course, we can’t guarantee opening a money rare, and even if we do, we may well want to keep it. Even then, we’ve just generated sizeable value, since this is one copy of that particular planeswalker we don’t have to trade for or outright buy.

So, what did our single box of thirty six boosters give us?

Roughly 360 Commons
Roughly 100 Uncommons
Roughly 36 Rares or Mythics
Building six ‘A’ Sealed Decks
Building six ‘B’ Sealed Decks
Playing 90 games of Sealed
Building six Winston Decks
Playing roughly sixty games of Winston
Building five Color decks
Playing roughly forty games of mono-Color
Building eight Draft decks
Playing roughly seventy Draft games
Building two actual Draft decks each with 8 real people
Playing roughly 60 games of Draft between 8 people
A vast amount of information about cards and formats

In total, that’s almost five hundred cards, thirty three decks to build, and over three hundred games to play, and almost everything you need to know about the set as a whole.

From one box.

Five minutes ripping open boosters mindlessly? Never again.
A box of each new set? Always.

As ever, thanks for reading…