The Secret Lair – Constructed Casual Staples and Crunchy Goblin Popcorn

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Friday, October 16th – So here’s the scenario. There’s this cool game Magic: The Gathering. You’ve not played it before or are coming back after a break from the game. You want to pick up some cards, but funds are limited. What do you get, or rather which cards will give you more Bang for your Buck?

Constructed Casual Staples

(Or why dual lands are so f***ing expensive)

So here’s the scenario. There’s this cool game Magic: The Gathering. You’ve not played it before or are coming back after a break from the game. You want to pick up some cards, but funds are limited. What do you get, or rather which cards will give you more Bang for your Buck?

For me, the best value cards are ones that are played in multiple decks. If you have a bunch of rares that only go in Deck A, then if you decide to stop playing Deck A, either because you’re bored of it or because it keeps losing, then those rares are going to sit around in a (virtual) binder doing nothing. Your best value cards are those that get played in Deck A and then also in Deck B.

Of course, you can always trade away the rares from Deck A to get Deck B, but to be honest I find trading one of the most tedious aspects of Magic. Unfortunately, a while back, it got out that the best way to build up your collection was to be smart in the trades. Don’t settle for the even value trade, make sure you get a little extra on the top as well.

Do you know what happens when you have a group of people that all know the approximate value of things and want to get a little extra on top of each trade….?

Not a lot of trading, that’s for sure.

(This precludes transactions between example person and Small Child. These transactions go by the more common name of Rip Off rather than Trade though.)

Anyway, let’s look at the current core set, M10, and go through the cards as I value them from a casual deck building perspective. I’ll make a nod towards tournament deck building, but largely that’s a case of picking the current best deck that suits your style and getting those cards. This is more for assembling a collection from limited means that will still enable you to build a wide variety of decks.

The good news is, out of the M10 rares/mythics, there’s only one card I regard as an out and out Essential:

Birds of Paradise (2 tix).

One of the easiest, and most frustrating, ways to lose in Magic is through not being able to cast your spells. This can because you either don’t draw enough mana or don’t have the right color mana. Birds of Paradise fixes both as it gets you to higher cost spells more rapidly and provides you any color mana you’d like. If I’m playing a base Green deck and there’s no specific reason not to, it will probably contain four Birds of Paradise.

As it turns out, there is currently a very good reason for tournament decks not to play Birds of Paradise, namely Bloodbraid Elf cascading into Birds of Paradise is very Sad Panda indeed. The upshot is that there will never be a better time to pick up your playset online than now (unless they reprint it as an uncommon). At 2 tix or even less you’ll get a card that will go in a multitude of your decks and make them a lot more enjoyable to play (as you’ll find it a lot easier to cast stuff).

Don’t rely on them too heavily though. Evil Red players like myself love torching Birds of Paradise out of the sky and leaving our opponents with a hand that only looked good providing the Birds stayed around to actually enable casting all those spells.

Next five quasi-essentials and their prices in tix from a very brief amount of time browsing:

Dragonskull Summit (3 – 3.5)
Sunpetal Grove (2.5 — 3)
Rootbound Crag (2.5 – 3)
Drowned Catacombs (2)
Glacial Fortress (2 — 2.5)

Back when I was Small Child and first playing the game, I used to bemoan my luck with opening boosters. There was my brother busting open Force of Nature and Lord of the Pit, and I kept getting these stupid rare lands that were two types.

Yeah, I was dumb.

Say you have a Red-Black deck which needs 24 lands. You can play 12 basic Swamps and 12 basic Mountains and it will probably function okay. But you will lose games because you drew Black spells and Mountains and vice versa (or you will at least mulligan a lot more). This gets more likely if the cards in the deck have double or even triple colour requirements in the casting cost.

Dual lands smooth the mana draws out. Take the same 24 lands and instead make it 10 Swamps, 10 Mountains and 4 Dragonskull Summit. From the exact same amount of lands you now have 14 Red sources and 14 Black sources instead of 12 each. The chance of color screw has been much reduced. I’m a big fan of actually being able to cast my spells, regardless of whether it’s competitive or fun.

When you start getting into three, or even more, color decks, then often dual lands are the only way to build a manabase that will allow you to play your cards consistently.

The reason dual lands are often so expensive is because of their versatility. It doesn’t matter if the Red-Black deck is a goblin deck, a vampire deck, or some kind of creature-mincing control deck, all three will still want Dragonskull Summit to make the manabase more consistent. That versatility makes them terrific value as cards, as you’ll use them over and over in different decks, but will also push up the prices as more decks want them.

The prices of M10 duals are actually fairly reasonable, especially when compared with past dual lands. A lot of this is because normal (gold) rarity is now a lot more common than it was in the past and also because there are plenty of other cards that provide a similar benefit. The shard lands in Alara block and the new refuge lands from Zendikar do the same kind of thing at uncommon and the common borderposts of Alara Reborn can also be functionally equivalent.

Be wary of playing too many enters-the-battlefield-tapped lands. That can also sometimes lead to ‘not able to play cards in a timely manner’ frustrations.

These cards are considered utility cards. They don’t make a deck in themselves, but they’re the oil or grease that makes the engine of the deck run smoothly. They represent tremendous value as you’ll use them over and over again in different decks.

Other cards from M10 that fall in the same category:

Terramorphic Expanse. (Slow, but is the best budget way to fix your mana)
Borderland Ranger.
Elvish Visionary (A push admittedly, but I do love cheap cantrip critters)
Llanowar Elves (Budget Birdie)
Rampant Growth.

The card I was saddest to see fail to make the transition from Xth to M10 is Mind Stone, as that would go straight on this list. I found it essential in any kind of non-Green deck short on two-drops as a way to ramp up to four mana. They might have left it out because they wanted that functionality to remain unique to Green.

The other class of utility is the answer cards. Creatures are the most efficient way of dealing damage in Magic so most decks will require efficient answers. I tend to avoid adding these cards when building casual decks as I prefer more synergistic builds where the answer cards also give benefits to other parts of the deck. Sometimes you just need to devote a section of your deck to making opposition critters dead and these will get the job done best:

Unsummon (barely creeps onto the list, but it has its uses in the right deck)
Doom Blade
Fireball (for also making opponents dead occasionally)
Lightning Bolt
Pyroclasm (for making lots of small critters dead)

Critters aren’t the only thing you might need to kill. If it’s artifacts or enchantments:

Acidic Slime

And some more ‘catch all’ approaches:

Cancel (although quite a lot of casual players really don’t like playing against heavy counterspell decks)

Then there’s the standard ways to gain card advantage through drawing cards:

Sign in Blood
(Elvish Visionary probably belongs here)

These are staples. They’re tools that you’ll reuse over and over to fit specific roles within a deck. The only problem with these commons is that they’re often overvalued in the online bots. Paying 0.25 tix to get a Lightning Bolt is just painful. Even if you’re not that good at draft, the best way to get the commons is to do enough drafts to get the bulk of the commons or just crack boosters.

Outside of utility then we start to think about the juicy stuff. These are the cards to build interesting decks around. They might only go in their one particular deck, but they’re the centrepiece of that deck and the reason to build it in the first place.

If you’re purely casual, whether or not it’s worthwhile to pick these up will depend on how likely you are to build the deck around them and how much they currently cost. Online prices often hit substantial spikes if an archetype becomes very popular. Sanity Grinding was on my list of fun deck types to try out from Eventide. It got taken off when I found out Sanity Grinding was going for 8 tix. It’s a narrow range card, so that kind of price isn’t really cost-effective for a fun deck.

From M10:

Captain of the Watch (0.5)

For your Soldier theme deck.

The same applies to the other lords: Merfolk Sovereign (0.15), Cemetery Reaper (0.35), Vampire Nocturnus (7 – 8), Goblin Chieftain (0.75), Elvish Archdruid (0.75). If you want to build a tribal deck, the tribal lord is a good place to start.

Of these, Vampire Nocturnus is currently in the price spike category as the forthcoming Zendikar set contains a lot of vampires. The Goblin Chieftain price surprises me. I was expecting that to spike same as with the Vampire Nocturnus (although the Mythic status of the vampire contributes to the spike)

Mesa Enchantress (0.1)

Enchantress decks are usually fun.

Open the Vaults (0.15)

Big flashy effect to build a deck around.

Polymorph (0.1)

This card first debuted in Ice Age and has appeared in the core set on and off since without really attracting much notice. Now it actually has the tools to really shine. There are plenty of decent token producers to give you control over which fatty to bust out and fatties don’t come much more Nigh Unkillable than Darksteel Colossus or Progenitus. Probably not a legitimate ‘good’ deck — Baneslayer Angel and Sphinx of Jwar Isle are perfectly adequate finishers in the same type of control deck shell and require less hoops to jump through — but fun enough to be worth a twirl.

Traumatize (0.25)

Either at opponent as part of a milling strategy or at yourself for crazy graveyard based strategies (such as seeing exactly how many creatures you can unearth in the same turn with Crypt of Agadeem).

Megrim (uncommon) / Underworld Dreams (0.15)

It never works, but it always looks so enticing.

Sanguine Bond (0.5)

Maybe, maybe not. Highly specific, but I am tempted to try and build a deck around it.

Warp World (0.1)

A casual staple ever since it first appeared, although I haven’t actually ever built a deck around it for some reason. With Zendikar there’s even murmurings it might even be a real deck with Ob Nixilis, the Fallen.

Coat of Arms (0.25)

Finally now at a reasonable price if you want to make your tokens into giants.

Howling Mine (0.75)

Another card made more available by the rarity changes.

Mirror of Fate (0.1)

A Johnny deck-building challenge of a card. I’ve seen it done though as I played against a very interesting version using Relic of Progenitus and cascade chains.

Contrast these prices with the whopping 25+ tix tag on BaneOfSensibleManaCosts Angel. Her price reflects a perfect storm of factors. She’s mythic, she’s an angel (a creature type that traditionally commands a higher price because of its popularity with collectors), she’s very aggressively costed, and she’s also a tournament staple as the default finisher of choice in a variety of different decks. This creates a lot of demand to push the price up.

Now if you are tournament player sometimes you have to take it on the chin and get the best possible card for your deck. Trying to compete with Serra Angels instead is only going to end in tears.

If you’re not a ruthless tournament player then you’ve got a choice. You can spend 25 tix on a Baneslayer Angel. Or you can build a whole bunch of different weird and wonderful decks instead.

That’s a quick run through the core set, and some pointers on how to value cards depending on how much fun they’ll give you. The other tip I’d give is to look to get the bargain basement cards from the bigger bots rather than the X-for-a-tix bots. The X-for-Y bots remind me of pound stores in the UK (I don’t know if the U.S. has a dollar store equivalent). Everything for a Pound! Sounds like it’s good value until you look closely and realise that most of the stuff selling for a pound would in fact cost less than a pound if you bought it somewhere else.

Lying MTGO clocks

This is something that’s been bugging me recently. I don’t actually know if it’s a bug or a feature (the difference in IT parlance between a “bug” and a “feature” being nobody said it wasn’t supposed to behave in this way when the documentation was handed down).

If I remember correctly, on the old MTGO (v2), if you got disconnected you knew straight away because something (time clock in the bottom right I think) started flashing in red. That was the cue to close the thing down and then try and scramble back on before you timed out.

The current MTGO… um, well no, I think.

I’ve had a few games recently where I’ve been sitting there, watching my opponent’s clock tick down as I wait for them to make an action, wondering why they’re taking so long. I mean, there could be plenty of reasons. They could have gone to the bathroom, be answering a phone call, nipped off to the kitchen, be playing another match simultaneously.

Then the clock continues to tick down and you just know your MTGO client is lying to you. That somewhere on the other side of the world somebody else is watching their opponent’s clock tick down and wondering, ‘when is this stupid chump going to log back on and make his move?’

Sure enough I log out, come back in, and the clocks reset to a true reflection of the game set, me with very little time left.

My internet connection is fairly crappy. It’s wireless and shared between the other seven apartments in my building. Occasionally we get someone in that likes to bittorrent all the US TV shows 24/7, at which point it’s bye-bye internet. (Or rather bye-bye Conflux; I never knew you at all, as it turned out.)

I’ll admit to being a little hypocritical here, as I’m also partial to downloading old Doctor Who episodes, although I try to have the decency to only run it at night when presumably everyone is asleep because I know what a bandwidth shredder bittorrents are.

Anyway, I know my internet connection is crap. But it would be nice, when I get logged out of a game, to be told that I’ve been disconnected from said game, and that sitting there, staring at the screen like a lemon, is only going to equal death by timeout.

Actually, it’s a bit weirder than a disconnect, because it isn’t quite a disconnect from what I can make out. I’ve been able to load up the marketplace or other web pages, and have even been able to concede from a ‘locked’ game. It’s just that the game seems to be waiting forever for notification of an opponent’s action that has gotten lost in the AEther somewhere.

Eaten by wolves.

Miniaturized, digital wolves.

That’s what’s happened to the signal. You can indeed stop the signal if you throw slavering digital wolves at it.

Mid-draft it’s annoying, but the one time it happened the random picks included a Capricious Efreet and a Sleep to go with the Magma Phoenix I chose to pick. I can work with that I reckon.

In draft games it’s also annoying having to shut down and restart MTGO to get back in.

Yes, I know I can Log Off and Log back on… Now.

For casual games it’s the most annoying as disconnecting on anyone is a fairly (Prof searches for an appropriate word and fails to find anything appropriate for a family friendly site, even with strategic asterisk) thing to do. Most people won’t wait for you to come back, so good luck with ever finishing any games when this is happening.

So anyone that has played me recently and thought I was being a complete (censored) for disconnecting or generally not actually doing anything… it’s not me, it’s my dodgy internet connection. Honest.

Crunchy Goblin Popcorn

After doing the Devour article last week, I went back to the goblin-focused offshoot and messed around with it. First I made the obvious upgrades from Xth to M10 and changed Sulfurous Springs to Dragonskull Summit.

And removed Festering Goblin after MTGO shouted at me. I completely forgot they took Uncle Fester out of the base set with M10.

This is where I’m at the moment:

Before I go on I should clear up some confusion that arose last week. When I talk about Standard decks, I’m talking about Online Standard. We’re currently in one of those out of synch moments when MTGO lags behind the latest release. So yes, I know this deck is only relevant as an online construction for a week or so, but on the plus side, the Lorwyn block goblin rares are dirt cheap at the moment. It’s fairly inexpensive if you want to give them a final blast before the tribe once again becomes a vicious tournament staple.

On the lands…

Yes, that is 26 lands.

No, I don’t have 4 Auntie’s Hovel, and yes I would play 4 if I had them.

Back to the 26 lands. That might seem out of place for a goblin deck, but the deck is actually a real mana hog. Bizarrely, there have been a few times when I’ve wondered if I need to up the land count again as I’ve had more than a few frustrating games where the deck sticks at three or four land. It made me realise how important cards like Birds of Paradise, Mind Stone (sorely missed from M10), and cantrips like Elvish Visionary and Wistful Selkie have been at smoothing out the draws of my other casual decks. I even considered Frogtosser Banneret, but the high end cards like Voracious Dragon don’t get the benefit. In a less Devour-themed deck, a goblin deck based around Wort, Boggart Auntie for example, I’d cut a land and run the full four Frogtossers.

The important lesson here when you’re building a deck is not to get locked in on a pre-conceived number of lands because it sounds right. If you find you’re having plenty of games that come down to ‘if only I can draw that damn land,’ then maybe the correct decision is to add more land to the deck.

I might even go up to 27 land. Between Rise of the Hobgoblins and Weirding Shaman there are cards that can take advantage of mana-heavy draws.

The big problem occurs if you find you’re losing games to either mana screw or mana flood in equal proportions. That’s a sign there’s something fundamentally wrong with your mana curve.

Most of the deck is fairly obvious. Sometimes it plays out as typical goblin beatdown deck. Other times you settle in for the long game and use Voracious Dragons as enormous flying Flametongue Kavus. The three-ofs rather than four-ofs are a necessary evil to pack in all the cards I wanted to try out.

As much as I’ve come to like Goblin Assault against control decks, it’s just plain suicidal in a heavy base goblin deck, even one that wants plenty of goblin tokens. There are safer, if less efficient alternatives.

Auntie’s Snitch, a card I hadn’t played in the deck before, complements the sacrificial goblin theme nicely. I won one game where I Tarfired my own Snitch in response to Path to Exile, because I could see the Snitch continually coming back was giving my opponent fits. It’s a play I can see happening often with cards like Bloodghast.

Wort, Boggart Auntie is such a nice card I wish I’d built a deck around it sooner. The problem with Goblins is sometimes you have to slow them down just to get an interesting game. With Lorwyn they recognised the problems Goblins had caused in the past, and so took them in an interesting, more attrition-oriented direction (and then completely undid it with the Rogues in Morningtide).

Unfortunately, they’re still goblins, and the Dragon Fodder into Mad Auntie opening does get immediate concessions from people sick to death of tribal strategies.

It’s a fun hybridisation of Devour and Goblins anyway, even if most of the time it seems like it wins through the time-honored goblin strategy of turning men sideways until the opponent falls over.

Next week I’ll look back over the exiting Lorwyn/Shadowmoor block and talk about the things I’m sad/glad to see going.

(Where you can all disagree violently with me about Cryptic Command)

Thanks for reading…