This last weekend, I got to watch a good friend lose a heartbreaker of a match in the finals of the Legacy Champs after being down a game. Admittedly he did lose to one of the best Legacy players on the planet, but losing in the finals sucks in almost every event. At the same time, my teammate Steve Rubin was busy losing in the Top Eight of the World Magic Cup Qualifier running in parallel.
While the losses sucked to watch, it sucks almost as much to be watching via Twitch and Twitter 2500 miles away instead of in the trenches battling. I’m really sad about missing Vintage Championships because Vintage is just awesome and one of the best Magic formats… and now I sound like some old rich guy telling everyone that driving Lamborghinis and drinking thirty-year-old scotch is the best.
Instead, I opted to spend this weekend testing for Worlds in Seattle with Brad Nelson. Sometime sacrifices must be made, and in Magic the scale can vary greatly. One card, one game, one hour, one event, one week.
Starting from the smallest, let’s go up the curve.
Time for the super odd comical anecdote based on the literal use of the term “sacrifice”.
I’ve drafted every format Nantuko Husk has been printed in. Yes, I did draft Ninth and Tenth Edition, don’t ask me why. Until this last week, I had played the card in two Constructed events. Cedric, Tommy, and I even opened five of the card between our two Grand Prix Detroit pools and had zero Enthralling Victors or Act of Treasons to go with it. I finally got to play the card in draft for the first time this last week, and it was literally a random creature in my B/W deck that needed the fourteenth body to participate in combat.
This is clearly case of spurning a card and getting what I deserve.
Many, many years ago at one of my first competitive events, a thirteen year old me was playing an Academy Rector + Pattern of Rebirth deck using Cabal Therapy as its main sacrifice effect. The secondary sacrifice effect was… well, not necessarily Nantuko Husk. Phyrexian Ghoul was also Extended-legal at the same time and was functionally identical unless someone played Engineered Plague on Insect. That was shockingly not 100% irrelevant as one of the Pattern of Rebirth targets of the deck was Symbiotic Wurm, but I had some really dumb reason for playing two Phyrexian Ghouls and one Nantuko Husk instead of the reverse involving people naming the newer, more familiar card with Cabal Therapy.
Years later, Nantuko Husk is clearly still hurt about the fling on the side. Please Husk, I didn’t mean it, I was a stupid kid. I’m older, I’m wiser, and I regret my mistakes. I hear you are doing great things these days with Act of Treason and I want to at least try to be a part of it. So please forgive me?
The Art Of The Chump Block
Not every sacrifice effect has a color or “as an additional cost” stapled on to it. There’s always the sacrifice effect inherent to the game rules: the chump block.
The thing everyone is told from the start is to never chump block unless you have to, and generally that is correct. Opting not to block is basically exchanging life for in-play cards, which is somewhat a Necropotence. Okay, that might be stretching, maybe just a Greed – but still, you can usually get more utility out of the creature later.
But what about when you can’t? What are some of the indicators that an early chump block is the most you are getting out of your creature?
The most common one is staying out of range of some pump or burn spell. You throw your 2/2 in front of their Akroan Sergeant when you’re at seven because you know they have Chandra’s Fury in their deck. Just be aware of all the things that they can throw at your face in the format and consider if you can actually win in the end if they do have it. Maybe chump blocking that turn is good enough, maybe they will be able to get those points through regardless by the time the game ends and you will eventually just lose to the burn spell.
There’s also the Momir Basic classic chump block where the board is going to clog up and that is the last time you will ever have to chump block that creature. They attack with their 3/3 into your 1/1, but for the rest of the game everything is going to be 4/4s for days in a way that the board will never clear. You can get three life out of your 1/1 here when there won’t really be a shot at chumping later because the game will be resolved by some giant flier and blocking early buys you an extra turn later if they hit one before you do.
The last big one is when you are going to chain chump blocks together. You are chumping this turn because you are also chump blocking next turn and the next and so on until the game is just over. Imagine you are being attacked by a 5/5 and a 3/3 at ten life. Each turn your chump block is gaining you the most life possible if you block the 5/5, and not blocking it forces you to start chumping the 3/3 a turn earlier
Note that in each of these cases, you’re still blocking at the last point possible, but the last point possible is just earlier than the basic math implies. You already knew the basic principle, but the application is a little more complicated than it looked at first glance.
The Power Of Card Disadvantage
In the entire period between Blood Artist and the rest of Innistrad Block rotating and the release of Magic Origins, people have tried and failed to make sacrifice decks work. This was especially interesting all of last year as Voice of Resurgence and Dark Prophecy were in the format, which were both powerful incentives to sacrifice things. Still, nothing ever surfaced and we were treated to a long year where the only sacrifices going on were to Devour Flesh whenever everyone decided Hexproof was cooler than Mono-Blue Devotion.
Part of it was that the mana was just so bad that you couldn’t get all the pieces together in the same deck, but another part is that the sacrifice effects just weren’t doing what you need sacrifice effects to do.
The point of the whole sacrifice engine in a format is creating a resource engine where you get to trade one thing for another. Specifically, sacrifice cards as your engine cards have to be reasonable on their own as your engine is slow and not a true combo where your opponent dies on the spot, so you have to play a lot of Magic with them on the battlefield. The problem last year was that all of the things that let you funnel creatures on the battlefield into “dies” triggers cost mana to use (Undercity Informer), cost too much to play (Maw of the Obzedat), or were completely out of Constructed-playable range (Corpse Blockade). The first one means the exchange you are setting up is a little more intricate, as you have to leverage multiple resources, and the last two mean your deck sucks when it doesn’t draw all the pieces up front.
Looking at this year’s sacrifice deck, you can see the difference. Nantuko Husk is more of a combo piece than an engine card with Rally the Ancestors, but when you have Liliana, Heretical Healer or Grim Haruspex on the battlefield it can easily become a value engine. The pieces are all cheap, they are all easy to find under the Collected Company umbrella, and most importantly they all execute their actions in a fluid way. There’s no additional payments, turn limits due to tapping or summoning sickness, or anything like that. You just get to directly convert creatures on the battlefield into access to your graveyard via Liliana or cards in hand with Grim Haruspex.
So the next time you want to ask Sam Black if he is going to rebuild a sacrifice deck for the format, think about it differently. He isn’t necessarily building a sacrifice deck because that’s his kick, he’s doing it because he is good at finding powerful engines that let you do something awesome with game resources.
Only So Many Hours In A Day
Worlds is a really strange and unique event. Testing for four formats at once is a real resource drain. It’s hard enough to get proficient at Limited and Constructed for a Pro Tour, and Worlds is asking you to do twice that. Not only that, but the formats are very challenging. Modern and Modern Masters are both extremely intricate formats with a lot of moving pieces, Standard is a Red Queen format where you are pushing forward as fast as possible just to not fall behind. Not only that, but Worlds fell extremely close to a Pro Tour this year.
How do you plan to have enough time to work on everything? Is that even possible?
I’ll see later this week, but I really just took the normal good preparation practices I had and pushed them to the max.
Plan before acting. What are the important things I need to figure out today? What matchups do I need to test?
Delegate. You test that, I’ll test this. Or my personal favorite, we watch you draft Modern Masters then go back to battling Standard while you play rounds and mention interesting things. Thanks Matt for being willing to take point on the tough job of repeatedly drafting on Magic Online.
Iterate. Don’t mindlessly breeze through testing and miss the point you were supposed to juke to a new option. When you acquire the information you set out to acquire in your plan, stop and figure out what is next.
But the biggest one that no one talks about? Knowing when to just cut your losses and move on.
There is a point where you get some awesome new idea but have to bin it because there just isn’t time to work on it. Twenty-four hours before the Pro Tour is not the time to go down some Mogis Marauders + Spike Jester rabbit hole, as I know from experience.
There are sometimes matchups you just have to throw away. In a broad format, maybe that just doesn’t matter. I’ve run head-first into tournaments before knowing the most popular deck is my worst matchup, but because that deck is only 10% of the field it didn’t matter. Or maybe I lose to a deck, but it turns out in the metagame is skewed enough to remove that deck from the field before I have to face it. The challenge I’m currently struggling with is how these will play out at Worlds. How do these patterns change when you are only iterating a metagame over four rounds, or your sample pool for matchups is only 24 people instead of 2400 people? Needless to say, it’s a pretty interesting problem and it almost reminds me of playing tiny local events… only with about a thousand times the stakes.
The Big Picture
In the resource game of life, the sacrifice is always time. At some point, everyone who plays has the same thought: “So, what now? Should I play again?” Sometimes it’s after a bad loss, or typically a long string of them. Or it’s the reverse: you hit your goal, and then wonder what’s next.
Here I am this week, waiting to play in what is basically the end boss of all competitive Magic events, and obviously this has come up. I’ve hit Worlds, and regardless of result, what’s next? I’ve already done it all, do I want to spend the time and do it again?
And the snap answer is obviously “Yes!” because at the end of the day, it’s still fun to do. It really doesn’t matter what scale I’m playing at, solving the puzzle of each event, each round, each turn is constantly interesting.
Magic is great, and I’m glad to sacrifice my time playing it.