Removed From Game – Two for One

Grand Prix GP Columbus July 30-August 1, 2010
Tuesday, June 29th – Not one, but two articles this week from Rich. One is about the Deck Builder’s Toolkit. The other… well, a bit less about Magic, and a bit more about life and death.

In this very special edition of Removed from Game, you get two articles for the price of one. Since the price of one is ‘free’, that’s a good deal. Free — twice. Never let it be said you don’t get value for your no money. It’s possible that some of you will only be interested in one of the two articles. For those of you that aren’t interested in either, simply clicking elsewhere will suffice. For those of you still here who haven’t clicked by mistake, expecting the latest from Patrick Chapin (we’re confused with each other all the time), I have a cunning scheme to allow you to read whichever article you like.

Article one is all about the Deck Builder’s Toolkit. I’ve taken it for a test drive, and that article will feature a considered review of said product, a ton of decklists, and plenty of, I trust, good times.

Article two will be in italics, like this. For the full effect this week, I recommend just reading everything, but then I would, wouldn’t I? Nonetheless, in the interests of full disclosure, article two might turn out to be some difficult reading. I’ll give you the first couple of paragraphs from article two, and then you can work out whether you want to avoid the rest of it.

I’m sitting in a chair, on a gorgeous Summer day. Underneath my ample backside is an electric cushion that periodically pumps air into itself, gently massaging my rear end, and ensuring that I don’t get painful sores from sitting in one position for too long. While my backside is grateful for this treatment, the cushion isn’t meant for me. I’ve been sitting in this chair, with my backside wiggling up and down, on and off, for the best part of three months, and for most of that time I’ve been looking about two feet to my right.

There lies my best friend, and the person I cherish most in the entire world. She is seventy-six. She is confused, scared, and in pain. Yesterday I convinced a roomful of surgeons to give her dignity back, and put her comfort ahead of all else. It may be hours, it may be a few days, but there is now no hope. She is dying. She is Mum.

So, this Deck Builder’s Toolkit. I’ve tried to examine it from the perspective of what I imagine a new player to be, and how I felt when I was just starting Magic. In other words, a place of huge innocence, amazement at the beauty of the cards, puzzlement at the rules, an insatiable appetite for knowledge, and a dawning excitement that maybe I’ve just found the ultimate gaming experience.

What exactly is in the Toolkit? It starts with a full color storage box. On the plus side, it’s beautiful, like just about all the packaging currently being produced by Wizards. They really have upped their game in that regard in the last few years. The box is spacious — so spacious that plenty of the interior is taken up by a piece of cardboard designed to keep the rest of the contents from falling all over the place. I’m not sure how long the box will stand up to use. This is no storage box like those that come with the fatpacks. This is a distinctly lower-quality item. It’s horrible, flimsy cardboard, and within two days of being carried back and forth, is showing signs of wear and tear. A big fat minus.

Once we’re inside, we get 125 semi-randomized cards. In truth, I got myself two of these Toolkits, as I wanted to see what ‘semi-randomized’ might mean. I’ve yet to examine box number two, but there’s an intriguing distribution amongst the colors. I’ll come back to that in a bit.

Next up come four booster packs from ‘a variety of recent sets.’ In this case, the variety featured M10, Conflux, Zendikar, and Worldwake. With a more experienced eye, we’d be wondering what foil Rare we might open — could I get a Baneslayer Angel please? Where are my Planeswalkers? However, that’s almost certainly not how most Toolkit owners will approach the opening of their boosters, so neither will I. For now, I’ll just leave them wrapped up, full of promise.

Part three of the contents is a little awkward, in that it’s 100 basic land. To most of us, this has zero intrinsic value. Understandably, Wizards couldn’t put full art land into the Toolkit, as the price would simply rocket. That’s fine. Slightly disappointingly, every land comes from M10. When there are so many wonderful basic lands out there, it seems an odd choice not to give a wider flavor than just the same four of each land, over and over. Another slight minus point is the marketing of this part of the product. Three times the box proclaims that there are 285 cards in the Toolkit. Well, technically, yes there are. 125 semi-random, 60 in the four boosters, and 100 basics.

Everyone needs land. I get that. Actually, I have so many old sealed and draft decks archived at home that another hundred basics will probably turn out to be quite handy. That said, the ‘285 cards, 285 cards, 285 cards’ message feels somewhat like saying ‘Buy your ticket to your Transatlantic flight, and we’ll include wings on the plane to help you fly there.’ Just a teeny bit disingenuous.

The final part of the package are a couple of full-color inserts. The first is all about learning to play, and I’m on record in this column as saying that whoever dreamed the current iteration up needs a knighthood. It’s simply glorious, and the companion piece, the Deck Builder’s Guide, is every bit as spectacular. On one double-sided sheet the size of a large dinner mat, the guide takes you through six steps to a good deck (Sort your cards; Find your key cards; Explore your options; Focus your deck; Add your lands; Play and refine your deck). The advice here is both really solid, and actually pretty deep for someone just starting out. Peppered with quotes from LSV, Mark Herberholz, Patrick Chapin, and Frank Karsten, that first side alone is a triumph.

Once you turn over, though, you hit pure information gold. This side is devoted to Deck Themes, and is enough to get even hardened gamers positively salivating at the possibilities the game has to offer. Nobody has been left out. If you’re all about flavor, you can read about Elves. For speed, there’s White Weenie. Control players get Blue Control, with pictures of Cancel, Divination, and Mind Control. There’s Red Burn, Mana Ramp, Blue-White Fliers, Vampires, Black-Red Destruction, Red-Green Aggro, Green-White Auras, and the Eldrazi. There are enough people listed on the credits for the Toolkit that it would be invidious of me to suggest who is actually responsible for this work of creative genius, but I trust that whoever you are will drop me an email to let me know, so that I congratulate you properly. Truly my friends, this is a sheet of paper bursting with promise. Top marks.

Five years ago, I went down this road with Dad. He’d had a difficult life, and as a result Mum and I had become closer than many Mum/son relationships. In fact, it was much more a partnership than a friendship. Most often at times of desperate need, when life was threatening to overwhelm us, we’ve turned to creativity to get us through, and our many stage musicals are a testament to many months spent in assorted clinics and hospitals watching Dad being put through the mill.

I have no brothers and sisters, and for the vast majority of my thirty eight and a half years, I’ve thought this was an awesome state of affairs. I’ve spent my adult life almost always self-employed, and fundamentally I love not having to rely on others. Of course it can get lonely when there’s nobody to blame but yourself, but equally, when you know that you can get a job done, you know that nothing will go wrong. Yes, I’m a control freak, and yes, there’s a Force of Will and a Counterspell under my pillow.

Now, though, as we approach the end, I wouldn’t mind a handy sister or two. Mum has always lived a life of Service, looking after my grandmother and great-aunt for many years, and subsequently dealing with the ups and downs with Dad whilst remaining fundamentally sane. This, believe me, is a triumph. For as long as I can remember, I’ve known that this time would come, and that walking with her to the gates of Whatever Comes Next would be my final duty to her as a son. Top tip — knowing, and preparing, isn’t enough.

So, to business. Once I’d sorted out my semi-random cards, I had 30 White cards, 21 Blue, 15 Black, 16 Red, and 31 Green. I then opened my four boosters, which was a surprisingly interesting experience. Even long-time players rarely open up boosters from different sets in one go, and it was really fascinating getting a sense of the feel of each of the sets. I got a foil Manabarbs, which is amazingly beautiful, and a Conqueror’s Pledge. That brought the numbers for each color to 39, 29, 26, 24, and 40 respectively. Conflux initially felt like an odd choice to include, since it’s so geared towards multi-color strangeness, and in my head I’d worked on the basis that the first place people would start would be to build a deck with each color alone. As we’ll see, including Conflux turned out to be awesome. Here’s how the decks panned out:

White had a ton of goodness, featuring plenty of removal, cheap monsters, triple Serra Angel (the third was in the M10 booster), and an Armored Ascension, which is clearly bonkers in a plains-only deck.

Elite Vanguard
Fledgling Griffin
Kor Skyfisher
Veteran Armorsmith
Veteran Armorsmith
Blinding Mage
Kor Firewalker
Stormfront Pegasus
Kor Hookmaster
Veteran Swordsmith
Serra Angel
Serra Angel
Serra Angel
Totem-Guide Hartebeest
Harm’s Way
Journey To Nowhere
Armored Ascension
Divine Verdict
Iona’s Judgment
Iona’s Judgment
Conqueror’s Pledge
17 Plains

Blue had 29 cards to choose from, so there are some pretty dodgy choices in the deck. That said, it’s a distinctly Blue deck, featuring flyers, countermagic, and multiple variations on Control Magic:

Sejiri Merfolk
Coral Merfolk
Merfolk Looter
Wind Drake
Jwari Scuttler
Illusionary Servant
Sea Gate Oracle
Horned Turtle
Phantom Warrior
Snapping Drake
Living Tsunami
Surrakar Banisher
Sky Ruin Drake
Shoal Serpent
Essence Scatter
Paralyzing Grasp
Aether Tradewinds
Traumatic Visions
Vapor Snare
Mind Control
17 Island

Black had only 26 cards, so I was only looking to cut three. As a result, the deck is a real Discard Special, featuring some spectacularly bad monsters. Still, part of the appeal is that this could be a format where Death Cultist might actually win a game…

Death Cultist
Blood Seeker
Child Of Night
Child Of Night
Giant Scorpion
Vampire Nighthawk
Looming Shade
Heartstabber Mosquito
Zombie Goliath
Quest For The Nihil Stone
Sign In Blood
Doom Blade
Last Kiss
Tendrils Of Corruption
Mind Sludge
Mind Sludge
Mind Shatter
Nemesis Trap

The Red deck looks just like it should, despite the fact that it had the fewest cards to choose from:

Goblin Arsonist
Akoum Battlesinger
Sparkmage Apprentice
Goblin Shortcutter
Prodigal Pyromancer
Goblin Roughrider
Goblin Roughrider
Bladetusk Boar
Bladetusk Boar
Dragon Whelp
Lightning Elemental
Berserkers Of Blood Ridge
Lightning Bolt
Lightning Bolt
Lightning Bolt
Panic Attack
Slaughter Cry
Claws Of Valakut
Inferno Trap
Heat Ray
Lava Axe

Green had the largest pool to choose from, and it turned out to be an utter belter:

Llanowar Elves
Llanowar Elves
Llanowar Elves
Elvish Visionary
Elvish Visionary
Nissa’s Chosen
Nissa’s Chosen
River Boa
Aura Gnarlid
Aura Gnarlid
Aura Gnarlid
Wildheart Invoker
Giant Spider
Timbermaw Larva
Stampeding Rhino
Snake Umbra
Boar Umbra
Savage Silhouette
Savage Silhouette

Mana acceleration, double Overrun, six Auras to go with triple Aura Gnarlid… eek.

At that point, of course, there were a ton of cards left over. I assume that even a beginner play is going to manage to avoid the urge to play with Kraken’s Eye, but there were a few tasty little items that really wanted to be played with, not least Fusion Elemental and Maelstrom Archangel. These, you may have spotted, are both five color. There were plenty of green and white cards left over, but you know where the real problem was? Ironically, the land. Yep, with seventeen of each basic already gone, the Five Color Special was going to be exactly that. Check this lot out:

Soul Warden
Soul Warden
Silvercoat Lion
Lone Missionary
Griffin Sentinel
Palace Guard
Kor Sanctifiers
Snapping Creeper
Greenweaver Druid
Rhox Meditant
Makindi Griffin
Rhox Bodyguard
Maelstrom Archangel
Fusion Elemental
Ulamog’s Crusher
Giant Growth
Might Of Alara
Rampant Growth
Nature’s Spiral
Mammoth Umbra
Terramorphic Expanse
Terramorphic Expanse
Terramorphic Expanse
Terramorphic Expanse
3 Plains
3 Forest
2 Mountain
2 Island
1 Swamp
Halimar Depths
Piranha Marsh

What an absurd concoction.

I love Magic. You know I do. People often comment that this is the one thing that comes through when I write or talk about the game. To me, it seems obvious. Doesn’t everyone love the game as much as I do? I find Magic all around me in everyday life, whether it’s in the names of cards in normal conversation, a place I see and think ‘that would be a great card art,’ or just in dealing with everyday things in terms of the game and Game Theory.

What’s been going on here is like a twisted game of Magic. You’re the player, and you only have one creature. The main difference between this game and real Magic is that this game isn’t about you, it’s about your creature. You have to do everything you can to protect it, to help it gain life, to prevent as much damage as possible. In this game, there’s no graveyard recursion, and no Indestructible. The real difficulty with this game is that you spend your time piling -1/-1 counters on your creature, in the hope that you’ll be able to draw the cards that will save your creature. Oh yes, and you don’t know your creature’s power and toughness. In the end, though, it doesn’t matter, because if you don’t draw the cards you need, you just keep piling on the counters regardless.

Unlike real Magic, you can’t concede at any time. Even when all hope is gone, and you think there are no answers left in the deck, you keep on going. Even when you’re certain that power and toughness have reached 0/0, it takes a very long time to check state-based effects. And that’s where we are now. I’ve consulted with the best players in the world. They play this game with people like me all the time. They know we’ve lost. I know we’ve lost. There is no more lifegain, and no more countermagic. We might run out of cards, or have zero toughness, or even die to poison counters. Unlike real Magic, we don’t get another round. This was win or go home, and soon — very soon now — she’ll be going home.

Time to play some Magic. Round one features White against Blue, Black against Red, and the Green deck against the Five Color Special. My gut feeling was that White would murderize the Blue deck, and that was the case. In two of the games in the 3-0 whitewash, it was over really, really quickly, as Blue drew counterspells way too late, and had no chance to stabilize the board. The third game was epic, with white having a dysfunctional start, blue managing to clog up the board, and get going with Vapor Snare and Mind Control. Blue got White down to two life, but Kor Sanctifiers came to the rescue, and Blue couldn’t get over the line, dying to Serra Angel.

Black against Red looked like it might be the most evenly matched of the three fixtures, since it was the battle of the crap monsters. I suspected Red might just have the edge, since Black’s monsters were just rubbish, and Red ought to have the removal for anything foolish like a Vampire Nighthawk. That said, it seemed unlikely that the games would be over too quickly, and that meant Black was likely to have the time to fire off one of the big discard spells. In the event, the games were mightily entertaining, featuring gigantic Looming Shades, Claws Of Valakut giving +8 power, and Tendrils Of Corruption rescuing Black at the last, before Black eventually won the decider, giving it a 3-2 victory.

Then came the one I was most hopeful for, but had the least expectation of. The Five-Color deck had the possibility of casting Maelstrom Archangel on turn 5, casting Fusion Elemental on turn 6, attacking for five, and putting Ulamog’s Crusher into play off the Archangel. Saucy, I think you’ll agree.

The priest has just been in. He doesn’t know. Mum is trying to talk. In my notebook, under the six decklists, I’ve scribbled in giant letters ‘It’s over. Perhaps few days, but no more treatment.’ He tries to comfort her, but seems largely nonplussed. I know how he feels.

Of course, the trouble is, that Green deck looks so relentlessly efficient. It’s the only deck of the six that looks like it’s halfway towards a coherent Constructed strategy. With triple Llanowar Elves, turn 2 Aura Gnarlid should happen a bunch. From there, any of the three casting cost auras are horrendous news for an opposing deck. Oakenform? Aura Gnarlid is 6/6, on turn three. Savage Silhouette? 5/5, with Regenerate. Snake Umbra? Just 4/4, but as an Ophidian. And if the opposition isn’t already dead, double Overrun. I try to remain impartial when I’m playing both sides, but it says something that I’m holding the Five Color Special, and hoping to assemble all the colors of the rainbow.

It doesn’t happen. The Green deck is every bit as smooth as it looked on paper. In one of the games, the Five-Color deck assembles all the mana it needs, casts Maelstrom Archangel, and Fusion Elemental, and puts Ulamog’s Crusher into play. When the Crusher attacks next turn, the Green deck sacrifices two of many Forests, and trades a Llanowar Elf for the Crusher, with the help of a Giant Spider with Savage Silhouette and Oakenform attached. Seriously. Oh well.

How is it possible that I can think about Magic at a time like this? I have Sudoku puzzles, quiz books, my laptop with the last season of Lost on it, not to mention Glee. I have works of fiction and fact. I have a TV, with the football World Cup and Wimbledon. I have my faith, and hers. And yet it is in Magic that I find solace. Again I ask, how is it possible that I can think about Magic at a time like this?

In the end, there is only so much poking and prodding and fear and hope and crushing expectation before the mind rebels, and demands something else to focus on. I’m a smart guy. By many measures, a very smart guy. Yet every time I turn up to a Pro Tour, I’m the three hundred and eighty fifth smartest guy in the room. (Pros, if you want to know where you are on this scientifically accurate list, email me, and I’ll let you know.) Trying to play good Magic is the most mentally demanding thing I’ve ever done. It’s a mental workout like no other. Every single decision has consequences, many of them barely glimpsed. Building a great deck is like juggling a dozen hand grenades blindfold. And at the end, every game tells a story.

Overall, I’ve been tremendously impressed by the Toolkit. The box is a lousy cost-cutting measure, and there are no rares beyond the random assortment afforded by the four boosters, so it’s certainly possible to come away with very little in terms of card values. But that isn’t what the Toolkit is about. My six decks have already provided a ton of fun, and if — God help me — I’m still sitting in this room at the end of the week, I’ll probably have completed the entire six deck round robin tournament. Between you and me, I think Green’s got it made.

I’ve had several top-quality hours of Magical entertainment, with more to come. When I take the plunge and open up the second Toolkit, I’m hoping that ‘semi-random’ is random enough to mean the decks will look at least a little different. Even if it doesn’t, this is the kind of product that takes a new player by the hand and positively screams at them to start exploring the Multiverse. It’s a wondrous thing, and I’d recommend that you recommend it to all your friends who find Magic just that little bit daunting.

Mum has only ever been to one Magic tournament, which was a World Cup theme event I held back in 2006. On video, she’s seen Mike Hron win in Geneva, heard me interview Jake and Chris the Sliver Kids, commentate on Simon winning in San Diego, and seen Paulo’s head rock back in exultation at the end of Pro Tour San Juan. What did she make of the game that has been such a huge part of her son’s adult life? Her answer:

‘It’s just astonishing. Thousands of you, millions of you, thinking about the game, building decks, playing online, travelling the world, playing for thousands of dollars. And all those cards, with the funny flavor text. And such beautiful, beautiful cards. Amazing.’

As my backside shifts once more under the tender ministrations of the electric cushion, we’re well and truly into Extra Turns. To be fair, we were here more than four years ago, with a minimal chance of survival. Four years. That’s a lot of bonus playing time on the battlefield. As I look at her morphine-induced peace, I realize I’ve lied to you. I said there were no cards left to play, whereas in fact there are two still to come. Sometime soon there will be a Last Gasp, and, before or after — it doesn’t matter which — there will be a Last Kiss. You are all my friends, and belong with me to an astonishing community of fellowship, but even I don’t think you should be there for that.

And so now, if you’ll excuse us, Mum, Son, and our Maelstrom Archangel would like to be alone.

As ever, thanks for reading.


Patricia Anne Hagon. b. 12th March 1934. d. ?? June 2010.