The Chump Block – Allied Strategies

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Monday, March 29th – After the severe pummeling at the hands of the W/R Ally deck that I faced at the StarCityGames.com Indianapolis Standard Open, I breathed a small breath and took consolation in the fact that Allies was not a very popular deck. “Boy, am I glad no one plays those allies!”

After the severe pummeling at the hands of the W/R Ally deck that I faced at the StarCityGames.com Indianapolis Standard Open, I breathed a small breath and took consolation in the fact that Allies was not a very popular deck. “Boy, am I glad no one plays those allies!” I exclaimed to no one in particular. “Allies is a really solid choice that is thankfully under the radar!” I continued as I logged on to the MTGO client and eagerly signed up for an 8-man queue. The mini-tournament reached the requisite number of players and we were off, the Gods of Magic bestowing unto me fairly decent opening hand which I quickly kept. My opponent had chosen to keep his hand as well, and promptly started out with a Hada Freeblade

I was beaten in short order, at which point I joined a new queue, won my first round, and was again paired against an Ally deck. I was able to take a game off him, and had things been different I might have won the match, but they weren’t and I died. I amused myself in the meantime, prior to the start of a Daily Event, by joining a 2-man queue… and met a quick demise at the hands of Akoum Battlesinger and crew yet again, a glut of Negates sitting in hand mocking me with their inability to do anything whatsoever.

When did the collective unconscious of Magic Online suddenly decide to all start playing allies? Despite my repeated trouncing, I was nonetheless excited and intrigued, as I am when most goofy/innovative decks rise to the forefront, so I decided to do a little research on Mtgonline-dot-com. The most recent Standard daily event had 2 out of 6 decks that 4-0’ed the event sporting allies. Nice, but who cares about the results of Daily Events? I went and checked the latest Premier Event. This was the list that won the event:

Surprised? I was. I realize that all of this immediate and frequent exposure to allied strategies is more of a fluke that a clear indicator of the current metagame, but I think the time has passed to casually dismiss Allies as a cute and harmless deck. Most builds that I’ve seen have eschewed the solely R/W build that I battled against in Indianapolis, and have opted for a more powerful Naya-based color scheme. One loses the extra reach provided by Red’s ubiquitous burn spells — Lightning Bolt and, to a lesser extent, Burst Lightning — but there are several advantages that adding Green to the mix provides.

First and foremost, the threat density of the deck becomes much higher. Green gives access to Oran-Rief Survivalist, an arguably undeniable upgrade from the mediocre Highland Berserker. While the first-strike provided by the Berserker can be relevant in creature heavy matchups, it should for the most part be a non-issue for three reasons. If you’re playing the deck right, your dudes should almost certainly be bigger than theirs as allies tend to grow surprisingly fast, the first-strike only ever occurs when you’re attacking which can sometimes not even matter (especially on a 2/1 body), and your army can occasionally just slip by the opponent’s defenses thanks to Kabira Evangel. Second, Green provides a level of insurance against Day of Judgment in the form of both Raging Ravine/Stirring Wildwood maindeck and Dauntless Escort from out of the board. The enters-the-battlefield-tapped lands do slow the deck down, but not nearly as much as one might think.

I like the above deck for a couple reasons. First and foremost, it doesn’t cost a whole lot to build; my guess is that it will run about 40 tix to assemble when everything’s said and done. That might seem a little on the pricey side, but that’s including cards like Path, Bloodbraid, and manlands that are staples in a vast majority of the decks out there right now. I’ve said it before, but these cards should be considered more as “investments” than anything else. Even if you buy the deck outright and end up hating it, 80% of what you just spent money on is still viable in other decks.

Second, this is the first Standard deck that I’ve seen that actually puts Violent Outburst to good use. Because it doesn’t weigh itself down with occasionally clunky removal such as Path to Exile and Lightning Bolt, every cascade is going to hit an ally. That is huge. That means that all of your Violent Outbursts effectively also say “Put a +1+1 counter on most of your creatures”. With a Kabira Evangel out, it is essentially a huge blowout wanting to happen: either you counterspell some targeted removal or suddenly make a combat phase extremely awkward for your opponent. Either way, knowing that you will 100% hit a helpful spell is a wondering feeling to have and a good way to plan out a turn without the cascade lottery being sometimes a hit-or-miss investment.

Naya Charm is also a card that has so much potential but hasn’t seen much play in Standard as of late. It can serve as mediocre removal, it can fetch up your best dead ally (and thus providing another trigger for all of its living brethren), or it can provide the game winning Fog-effect/falter that wins oh-so-many games. It might be an awkward card to cascade into in the early game with Bloodbraid Elf, but hey, no card’s perfect.

There are other builds out there for those who want options, and I wanted to highlight one so as to talk about a couple of card choices. This build 4-0’ed a recent Daily Event:

I doesn’t run the fun non-land spells that I mentioned earlier instead opting for boring, safe Path to Exile. It does, however, run two creatures that the topmost deck did not. First is the singleton Goblin Bushwhacker. This inclusion should be old hat to anyone that’s ever played with or against Boros Bushwhacker, but seeing as how the Premier Event-winning deck did not run it, I felt it worthy of mention. The second difference is the Harabaz Druid. The Druid, while weak on its own, can lead to some ridiculous turns where the ally player simply vomits their hand upon the table. A turn 1 Hada Freeblade followed by a turn 2 Harabaz Druid means that one has a whopping 5 mana on turn 3 or, if one were to play a random two-drop ally beforehand, an unbelievable 6 mana. Access to 6 mana on turn 3 is comically powerful, and I imagine not many decks can handle an onslaught where all of that mana is put to good use. Finally, the manabase in the latter build is of a much safer, sleeker design. It loses the utility of the Raging Ravine and Stirring Wildwood, but gains the incredible fixing power of Ancient Ziggurat. With only 4 non-creature spells in the entire deck, the drawback on the land is essentially negligible.

For those looking for a viable alternative to Jund, Naya, or any other mainstream snoozefests, these decks might just be the spice you’re looking for. Don’t get too carried away, though. It’s not a particularly good matchup for me, and I don’t particularly want to hang up my Hedron Crabs just yet. Before I go, there’s an unrelated subject I’d like to discuss for a moment since I have this soapbox.

Inspiration struck last night with the fury of a thousand angry bees. A flash of insight caused my entire musculature to contract instinctively, accidentally leading me to rend in twain the telephone book I was casually perusing. I seethed and foamed at the mouth, the saliva forming in large, corrosive pools on top of my laptop, and my pupils dilated obscuring my vision with a hazy mist of ferocity.

I’ve wanted to write on the subject of sportsmanship for a while now. For most people (aka you, gentle reader), being a good sport does not require an extensive input of extra effort. The majority of Magic’s participants are people that understand the game for what it is, namely, a game and treat it with the respect that should come out of such an endeavor. People are generally willing to shake your hand, and perhaps begrudgingly comment “good game” even if they don’t feel like the cards particularly fell in their favor. I am of the camp that believes the phrase “good game” simply implies “I’m glad neither you nor I cheated or tried anything dubious” rather than “I’m glad neither one of us had to mulligan and we always hit our lands drops on time”. Whether or not you want to wish your opponent good luck at the beginning of the game is up to you. I certainly don’t fault anyone for hoping their opponent has miserable luck, especially if you happen to be playing in a tournament where any amount of money is on the line. Regardless of your interpretation, a cordial match should not be too much to ask.

I’ve encountered far fewer instances of poor sportsmanship in real life than I have across the vast stretches of anonymity known as the internet. Having to interact with people on more than just a game-to-game basis tends to be enough of an incentive not to burn all interpersonal bridges by being a horrible sport. The main offenders with whom I have beef are the Magic Online players who take a sadistic joy out of exactly one final humiliation against their opponent. The not-personal-whatsoever interactions of cyberspace make people feel as if they are beyond reproach which, in a sense, they are. This sort of statement isn’t really any sort of groundbreaking revelation, as anyone who has ever encountered any variety of chat room/message board/forum should immediately know to what I’m referring. In a game of Magic Online, there is neither anyone presiding over the players to make sure that they participate cordially, nor is there any way to physically reach through the computer monitor and throttle the somehow-smug opponent to within an inch of their life. These offenders often come in two varieties:

The first is the trash talker who constantly berates the opponent. I probably get this one more than most, as I tend to play non-Tier 1 decks whose very presence is enough to earn the snide comments from some players. This sort of behavior is more annoying than actually harmful. I actually tend to enjoy playing people who proudly proclaim how bad the deck I’m playing is, as when I beat them it makes the victory that much sweeter. I have certainly made assumptions about the quality of my opponent’s deck before; however, regardless of whether I am beaten or victorious, there is no reason to bully the opponent for playing whatever deck they chose to play.

The second and far more common offender is the Magic player who deems it their civic duty to show you what a bad player and/or idiot you have been by forcing you to wait until they’ve disconnected before you can finally claim the victory. I can understand the frustration at losing; I love winning. But it says something about you as a person when you need redemption against losing to, with your last dying breath, annoy them for a solid ten minutes. This sort of behavior is even more abhorrent in a tournament setting when you force innocent bystanders to suffer your wrath by holding up the very last match of a tournament.

There are even subsets within this subset. Some players simply, I imagine, stand up and walk away from the computer, their disgust at losing so great that they cannot stand to even look at the computer screen, let alone finish out a match. More insidious than those players, however, is the mastermind who stall with an “Oops, the phone is ringing”, “Thinking…” or “Brb”. I find it hard to believe that you need to think for a solid ten minutes when I have a lethal Lightning Bolt targeting you and you are tapped out. This sort of ingenious behavior is simply covering their bases, as they can then produce an alibi for their extended decision-making absence. Even worse is the player who takes their time, slyly clicking “Okay” to extend their delicious torture another 10 minutes longer.

This whole rambling spiel has led circuitously to a call for action. I assume most people who have played online has experience some sort of action that I’ve detailed above. The next time you are stuck sitting, waiting endlessly for your opponent’s timer to slowly tick down until you finally achieve victory, take the time to report them. It may take a few minutes to accomplish — you almost certainly will have to register an account on the Wizards site – but if your opponent is going to force you to occupy yourself for a ten minute spell the least you can do is return the favor by putting your time to good use. Unfortunately, Wizards of the Coast does not comment on the resultant sanctions (or lack thereof) with regard to unsportsmanlike conduct reports. While it is a little frustrating to think that nothing is being done, I have grown to respect that they decline to comment for good reason.

It is my hope that if more and more people start calling out these poor sports then a pattern of behavior can start being tracked. If a person’s computer suddenly crashes with imminent death staring them in the face, clearly they should not be punished. But when a person starts to accrue more and more complaints about their mysterious disappearances, hopefully some sort of penalty will be levied against them. People who actively attempt to ruin the experience of Magic for others should not be the type of player to whom Wizards of the Coast should cater

On the other side of the sportsmanship coin are the ungraceful winners. It is a hard pill to swallow, but I definitely think that I, Zach Jesse, am guilty of this. I mention this so that if people who have played me feel like I am being a horrible hypocrite talking about poor sportsmanship, at least I am a hypocrite who is looking to change. I tend to talk a lot of the time when I play. I windmill game-winning cards. I make sound effects. Most of this behavior is the result of the boisterous personality that I have, but I never understood how my actions might be perceived by others until my friend Mehran pointed out to me about how I wasn’t exactly tactful when I won sometimes. What I considered “jovial” and “playful” was coming across as “arrogant” and “rude.” I suppose that I realized that I was being loud, but I didn’t realize that it would be taken as anything other than a passion for the game.

Even online, I like to occasionally talk to my opponent, as I like the human interactions that is sometimes lacking without face-to-face contact, but even there sometimes it comes across in a way that I don’t intend. As a shining example, there was a Modophoto that I posted not too long ago that inspired some debate as to whether my comments made the photo a gem, or whether they painted me as a huge jerk. I would like to think the latter is an opinion shared by the minority of people, but it’s taken me a moment to step backwards to even realize how it could have even been misconstrued in the first place.

Hopefully this little outburst of mine has had some effect on how you view your play style. Not everyone needs to change their habits. It would be too much to assume that 90% of the people playing this game need a major attitude adjustment, but it is, in the end, simply a game. One of the most fun, most interesting, and most competitive games I have ever played.

Thanks for reading…

Zach Jesse