Sullivan’s Satchel: The Magic Online Advisory Board, How To Beat Burn, And Nissa’s Signature Spellbook

Patrick Sullivan answers mailbag questions on the Magic Online Advisory Board, beating Burn, and what he’d like to see in Signature Spellbook: Nissa.

Nissa, Who Shakes the World, illustrated by Chris Rallis

Hello and welcome to Sullivan’s Satchel, which I am writing shortly after the Ravens/Browns game in which I had Cleveland +3.5. This might be nonsense to some readers, but hopefully charming for those in the know and, in any case, allow me to offer that, as lucky as I am in almost every respect, sometimes I catch the wrong end of some hilarious, low-stakes outcomes.

I’m still playing Dimir Control in Zendikar Rising Standard Leagues on Magic Online (MTGO). It is an extremely intimate setting, insofar as there are like nine of us dead-enders still playing in these Leagues and so you play against the same people over and over again. It would be an approximation of socialization during this pandemic if I didn’t resent all of them and also mute the chat. I still prefer it to the anonymous wave of people on Arena.

With that, the satchel. You can submit your questions over at [email protected] or my DMs on Twitter @basicmountain. Every week, the best question will be selected as The Question of the Week and its author will receive $25 in SCG credit. With that:

Mishra’s Photoshop asks:

Did you get a random email from WOTC about the MTGO player advisory board about 2 weeks ago?

So, funny story here. A few years ago in the aftermath of the #paythepros stuff, Wizards of the Coast (WotC) decided to make an advisory board of “pro” players, plus me I guess, to help advise WotC before significant changes were made to Organized Play. I believe I’m under a broad NDA due my current design consultation with WotC and I don’t want to blow up anyone’s spot, but allow me to simply say that a lot of the pros did not acquit themselves very well and the whole thing sort of petered out without being formally disbanded.

Magic Online has Organized Play connected with physical play and the whole thing was an animating cause in the community for a long time, so they decided to do something similar around the same time. Again, I was selected, as with most things, because Magic players seem to enjoy hanging out with me, and so was Photoshop, Sam Black, maybe a few other people? I don’t really remember. In any event, to sweeten the pot they offered 300 Play Points per month in exchange for answering the occasional email.

I think the last email I wrote or even read was in like 2017 or something, but the Play Points rolled in like clockwork the first of every month. It was the sweetest peach; the greatest grift in a lifetime full of them. I hoped, foolishly, that there was enough turnover and ambiguity about the accounting such that this would go on forever, but at the first of the month I was received an email telling me the Magic Online Advisory Board was disbanded and that December’s deposit of Play Points would be my last.

It the light of morning I think it is questionable to be upset about receiving about $1,000 worth of entry fees in exchange for literally zero work over the past few years, but such clarity is distant when you watch the golden goose get slaughtered in front of your own eyes. Long live the Magic Online Advisory Board!

From friend of the satchel, Marc-Andre Pelletier:

How do you beat a Burn deck?

A lot of this will depend on the exact cards that are legal but in general you’ll have to get in front of an early wave of creatures and then stave off a flurry of burn spells. That typically means you need to block (sketchy, since your blockers can die) or play cheap removal (also sketchy, since they are often useless to draw later, in contrast to creatures) to get through the first phase of the game with any reliability.

To beat the burn spells, you typically need some combination of lifegain, ways to interact with spells (usually counters, though sometimes discard or other sideways measure will suffice), and some way to win the game fairly quickly once you’ve stabilized. It’s usually best to be hammering on at least two of these fronts, since a lot of Burn decks will have workarounds to one of these dimensions.

A good example of this is Grixis Death’s Shadow in Modern. It has plenty of good, cheap removal; some counterspells to fend off the final points; and plenty of ways to win the game fairly quickly between the namesake card and Gurmag Angler. Collective Brutality is such an effective sideboard card in part because it plays no matter what the shape of the game looks like. It isn’t the perfect example because that deck deals so much damage to itself that it can get tripped up against Burn, but that collection of cards and overall strategy is a good blueprint for engaging with burn strategies.

From Nicholas Machado:

What cards do you think will (or should) be included in Nissa’s Signature Spellbook?

I don’t know anything, but off the cuff I’d like one Nissa planeswalker (probably Who Shakes the World), Regrowth, Crop Rotation, Abundance, Utopia Sprawl, Scapeshift — some blend of stuff with multi-format appeal, stuff that speaks to growth and evolution, stuff that’s very tonally green, but I don’t know much about designing these things or what the goals are, so.

Lastly, the Question of the Week, from Steven Williams:

Hi there!

For my question, what do you believe is the correct power level for Standard? Since this is usually the easiest format for a new player to get into, should this be a format that is turned down a bit in that regards to be more welcoming to newer players or more powerful, so show what the game can truly do?

I can’t remember if it is Garfield or Rosewater, but one of them wrote an article once about how people often talk about “luck” and “skill” in games as though they are opposed concepts, when in reality they exist on different wavelengths. To prove the point, they mentioned Chess, Poker, War, and Tic-Tac-Toe as four games that exist on four different plots on the “low to high skill” and “low to high luck” four square.

I think a similar misuse of terms litters discussion about the right power level for formats; that as power levels increase, the assumption is that the games become less fun. I don’t think that has to be true. Thragtusk is very powerful and shows up in very powerful formats and was a foundational piece of a healthy and popular Standard format.

Ugin, the Spirit Dragon is very different on Turn 8 than Turn 4, even if it often does the same thing once it is on the battlefield. Part of what makes Ugin fun (or not fun) is the opportunity cost of getting it onto the battlefield; part of it is the amount of game that happens before and after it resolves. On Turn 4, it’s likely to be overwhelming no matter what your opponent has done, and on Turn 8 your opponent has had plenty of time to build a foundation and maybe produce their own card of similar cost that could be as good, or even better. The details matter.

I think a diversity of play patterns (within reason – this doesn’t give license to Turn 2 combo or Winter Orb lock decks, even at modest rates/frequency) is more important that each play pattern being optimized for abstractly “ideal” play, if that makes sense, and one massive power level outlier, even one with ostensibly healthy play patterns, is more likely to make things awful than subsidizing “unhealthy” play patterns at the right frequencies.