The Secret Lair – Guess Who’s Back?

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Friday, September 4th – Craig “Lightning Helix” Jones, currently exiled on Knutson Island, returns to a weekly column with fun stories and casual decklists galore! Today he talks about the ups and downs of Magic change, and shares a fun-looking Green deck. Welcome back, Prof!

It’s a trap! I have to warn them. I have to escape and warn the world. He must be stopped. Those poor unsuspecting fools. I have come into the clutches of a master intelligence even more diabolical and nefarious than my own colossal intellect. The brightest minds, all lured to an island paradise for purposes so foul my mind cannot bring itself to contemplate the awesome horror of it all. And we can’t escape, ever.

But what about Jelger, Prof, you might say? Wasn’t he at Worlds getting inducted into the Hall of Fame? That bronzed Dutchman was not the real Jelger Wiegersma. The real Jelger Wiegersma is locked in a tiny dungeon cell with only a small pair of dice for company. And the other people you’ve seen at tournaments recently that look like us… Fake! Clones, facsimiles and robots all of them.

They say I was seen in Hawaii this year. Lies! I would never voluntarily enter a two-headed giant tournament.

But I will get the word out. God bless you Richie Hoaen. Your sacrifice will not be in vain.

I need a weapon. I must sift through these parts to assemble a devastating juggernaut. Within this pile of discarded junk are the tools to build a machine of awesome destruction. If only I could find the missing piece. I must find that missing piece.

Wait what’s that I hear. No you can’t take me, not yet. I must get the message out.


I’m fine now.

It was just a touch of the sun. This wonderful warm Caribbean sun as I lounge on the beach and give all praise to The Knutson.

I’m back.

I’m back and I’m… er… relegated from Premium. Oh well, that’s probably for the best given I lost about ninety per cent of you with those first few paragraphs.

I suppose I should introduce myself for those that don’t have the faintest idea who this crazy Englishman is. (Has it really been two years?).

If you look through the clips and highlights of past Pro Tours and find the clip marked ‘Most Exciting Topdeck in Magic’s History.’

No, not that one. My name isn’t Gabriel Nassif.

Ah, that’s the one. The dork in the black is me (although I’m a little heavier nowadays). The other guy might be a little more familiar to you. French, really good at Magic, about to pass Kai Budde in lifetime pro points, writes for this site. The reason he looks like someone took his favourite puppy and ripped its arms and legs off right in front of him is because I just topdecked two perfect cards in a row to turn a deciding game completely on its head and sneak into the final of PT: Honolulu (where my admittedly shaky manabase decided to throw a stroppy fit).

That’s a roundabout way of saying I was quite good once. Along with the PT Top 8 I have three more PT Top 32’s, a GP win, a Nationals win and I’ll be clogging up the Hall of Fame eligibility list for another year at least (before I drop back into the ignoble obscurity I deserve).

However, if you think this means I’ll be spitting out the sweet deck tech for you to suck right down, then I’m afraid you’re going to be a little disappointed. There’s a reason this ain’t Premium, brah.

I’m mostly retired. My physical cards are all boxed up in a warehouse on the other side of the world. I have a real full-time job. Nowadays I play for fun, and what I find fun is trying to build decks out of some of the most mediocre rares imaginable. So I guess “casual” is probably the best tag for where this column is going to go.

That doesn’t mean it’s a total bust for the more Spike-ish of you out there (if you haven’t already clicked away in boredom). Good deck design is good deck design, whether you’re building a tournament-caliber Five-Color Control deck or a silly Jund deck based on the Devour mechanic. Playing casual doesn’t mean you have to abandon good playing philosophy either. Also, some of the nastiest tournament decks ever came about because some mad fool thought it might be cool to pair Bad Card A up with Bad Card B to make truly monstrous Wrecking Ball (Illusions Donate, anyone?)

And I’m not ruling out occasional lapses back into Spikedom either. Sometimes a guy just has to burn somebody’s face off.

(I hear Dan Paskins goblin operatives are already implementing a scheme to exile Baneslayer Angel from existence entirely.)

Anyway, two years ago I thought taking the new job and moving down here would pretty much be the end of me playing Magic. As it happens, you just can’t quite get away from the game that easily.

-help me please-

The internet down here is not as bad as I originally thought. Sometimes I even get to first pick Battlegrace Angel rather than being stuck with Soul’s Grace after timing out. Magic Online, keeping old Magic players hooked even when they should have had the good sense to hang up their cards.

-I’m serious-

When I bowed out of competitive Magic at Worlds 2007, I was also wondering if Magic itself wasn’t setting itself up for an eventual final bow. There was a lot coming out of WotC HQ that seemed, well, let’s not sugar coat it, completely brainless.

WotC have done unpopular things before. Things like Pro Player cards and the card face redesign all provoked pages and pages and bile on the comment boards. It didn’t really matter too much as most of that was the usual nonsense you get from the frothing morons that inhabit these curious corners of cyberspace.

That year all the people who had been traveling around in order to get the necessary points for level 3 and the associated financial benefits suddenly found out they’d got eff all (about the same as me as it happened, and I think I might have managed to pick up the minimum amount of points possible despite attending every Pro Tour that year). Admittedly this affected only a minimal proportion of the player base, but it was a worrying message, especially when followed with the news of a Pro Tour being cut, States going up in smoke, and the cancellation of the Invitational.

I’m not going to wade into the Pro vs Joes debate —

-Pro players need to act less like arrogant d*cks, and Casual players need to stop being so damn precious. There you go-

— but Magic without the Pro Tour lasts a few more years and then dies out with a whimper. I’ve already gone over this before though (or was that in a random comment, I can’t remember. Something about Dragon Dice).

Anyway. Things were jittery back then. If the axe could be taken to all these things this year, then what would it be used on next year? Would it be worth investing money on flights and hotel rooms to earn Pro Points that could be wiped out at the end of the year? What would this mean for Grand Prix or PTQ attendance? Would the much vaunted push for new acquisitions be at the expense of the existing player base?

And then there was that bizarre web page redesign that looked more like a textbook case of how not to build a web page. Throw on top the launch of Magic Online v3.0 — sort of like v2.0 but with missing bits — and it seemed like every new announcement from WotC was like watching behind splayed fingers as they chopped off and tried to eat their own feet.

Some of these changes seemed like they were clearly forced by financial considerations, but others really didn’t seem to make much sense.

However, Magic the game still looked strong. The sets were good and I think one of the real strengths over the last few years is how strong the flavor is, and how well realised they’ve made the worlds at the heart of each major expansion. I’ll admit that part of what drew me back was the switch from the light and fluffy Lorwyn world to the brooding menace of Shadowmoor. From a flavor point of view the cards looked interesting, and there were plenty of interesting options to build decks around, although ultimately I ended up disliking the draft format.

Then the new changes started to be less “huh…?” and more “ah, that’s smart.”

Take the Mythic rare thingy. How do you drop sets down to Coldsnap size while still retaining some essence of collectability? Make some cards rarer (or rather have some cards retain a similar rarity to what they had before). I’m not naïve enough to believe the Mythic rares will always be big dumb unplayable giant monsters, and there are some that are clearly tournament staples (hello again, Baneslayer Angel), but as long as they don’t get too greedy and start shoving dual lands into that slot then Mythic rares are probably a good thing.

Have PTs be both Limited and Constructed? Sucks for me if I ever get any desire to get back to playing on the Pro Tour as I can’t draft worth toffee, but part of the wide appeal of the PTs is to see what new decks the Pros come up with. Again a perfectly sensible change.

Then there’s M10.

Got to say they really nailed that one. Sure, they were sneaky. A good number of the promised ‘new’ cards are really old cards with new names, but there’s enough genuinely new and interesting cards to forgive them for that. It also sorts out the flavor problem in that they create these wonderfully evocative worlds each year, but then the core set ends up being a hodgepodge of everything that makes absolutely no sense to a first time player. M10 feels more like the generic fantasy game of its roots.

I’m also finding the draft format to be quite a lot of fun. For once the base set actually feels like it’s made out of five colors. They even made Grizzly Bears (sorry Runeclaw Bear) more playable than an extra land.

And of course there were the new rule changes. That definitely kicked up a controversy. Like everyone else I remember reading through that announcement and going, “yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, what the f-?”

I must admit to having some trepidation over the combat rule changes. I can understand why they made that change though. Until it becomes second nature there are too many aspects of the ‘damage on the stack’ model that are downright unintuitive. Reading a lot of the comments I thought a lot of people mixed up experience with skill. Having to make the correct choice between using a Sakura-Tribe Elder to kill a Savannah Lion, or Fog and fetch a land, requires skill. Knowing you can Unsummon a creature with combat damage on the stack is just experience. In terms of retaining new players it’s probably better if they feel they got beaten by someone with better skill rather than feeling they got ‘cheated’ by a rule they didn’t know and doesn’t make intuitive sense.

I still don’t think they’ve really sorted this out. We still have damage prevention and regeneration ‘shields’. From a flavor point of view it wants to be more like: Critter A got bashed by a Lightning Bolt or Critter B in combat, you have this special step to apply medicine or Critter A kicks the bucket and shuffles off to the graveyard. But then this starts to sound like the chaos of Pre-6th edition.

The biggest surprise I found was how little the new combat rules seemed to affect the game. I was expecting more of an impact. The world didn’t end, Magic didn’t crash to a fiery death. Even more amazingly, all of my regenerators managed to survive through the first week intact. I adjusted my game, re-evaluated relevant cards accordingly, and carried on as normal.

This is actually one area where the card name changes are quite helpful. I remember Nantuko Husk as being awesome, but new boy Vampire Aristocrat is only sort of okay. I’m fairly sure that wasn’t too high on the list of reasons for why they renamed Nantuko Husk, but psychologically it provides less of a disconnect between the old and the new.

If anything I think the major mistake of M10 might turn out to be Baneslayer Angel. She’s so grotesquely undercosted for her stats, she makes a mockery of mana costs in general. But that’s sort of missing the point. She was designed for another purpose in mind, and that purpose was to generate excitement about the often dull core set release, and also to get people to bust those packs. In that role I’d hazard she’s been an unqualified success.

(Alas, poor Ball Lightnings. I knew you well.)

Anyway, that’s enough historical ramblings through the eyes of a formerly lapsed player. I’ve got a new regular column going, but what to talk about? Maybe it’ll be easier if I just throw out a deck list first.

Oh crap, I think I just lost the remaining ten per cent.

It’s a Primalcrux deck and yes, I do know I’ve just caused every self-respecting tournament player to vomit into their keyboard. Shoo, this isn’t for you.

I picked this list because it’s one of the casual decks I like to bust out for a spin in the casual room every so often and it also conforms to the more relaxed deck building philosophy I like to follow nowadays.

The simple truth is the majority of tournament decks just aren’t very interesting. That’s not wizard’s fault. There will either be a deck that is statistically better than all the other decks or three decks that form some kind of quasi-stable papers-scissors-stone. The rest are just noise piloted by people who, let’s not sugar coat it here, haven’t a clue. It’s to WotC’s credit that the metagame often seems much more complex and in more of a state of flux than would be expected. However, at any one time the number of actual remotely playable cards in the environment is considerably lower than the available card pool.

Take Cryptic Command. From a player’s perspective this is an interesting card, full of all kinds of choices and possibilities during a game. From a deck builder’s perspective it’s incredibly dull. Are you playing islands (or a collection of Vivid Lands and Reflecting Pool)? If so then start your deck list with four Cryptic Command as they are so far above anything else in terms of power level.

Same for cards like Baneslayer Angel and Bloodbraid Elf. They’re so far ahead of anything else on the curve they should always be auto-includes in decks that can run them (although the cascade part of Bloodbraid Elf does place some odd restrictions on the rest of the deck).

So back to the Primalcrux deck. When I’m building a deck I like to work on a theme and see how much synergy I can fit in with that theme. I also believe there’s no such thing as overkill and the more cool, stylish things your deck can do then the more fun it is. A lot of people make the mistake of going for a generic good stuff type deck, that doesn’t really have any real theme or focus. A deck built with synergy and a purpose will often tear those decks to shreds.

In this case the theme is the obvious Green chroma of Primalcrux.

The overkill, the flash (you gotta look good while you’re smearing their entrails across the floor), is we’re not going to be content with our Primalcrux as a 6/6 or 7/7 or 8/8, we’re going to slam every damn green mana symbol we can find into the deck to see just how monstrous we can make our Hulks.

The framework of the deck becomes easy. Elves and BoPs (especially Devoted Druid) both power out and power up our Primalcrux’s. The triple hybrid cards fill out the deck. Cavaliers are ahead on the power curve (although I know they should be Ram-Gangs, I don’t actually own any online and they kind of have the ‘seen them in too many other decks anyway’ boredom factor) and Wistful Selkies manage to smooth out the deck, be a warm body and be an efficient forest symbol source for Primalcrux.

Then we get to all the awful one-ofs and this is where the deck is deliberately detuned. By detuned, I mean the opposite of tuning a deck. In this case instead of narrowing down the focus we’re broadening it out.

I’m not going to lie. Deliberately detuning your tournament deck before entering a big tournament is probably not a good idea. This is a casual deck though and the objective is more to have fun.

So why would you want to detune a deck?

Well, you get more variety. Games play out differently as you draw different one-shots.

You get more versatility. Up against a burn deck? Gaining 30 life off Phosphorescent Feast is going to cause a major malfunction in their ‘do you 20’ plan. Annoying enchantment or artifact? There’s a Woodfall Primus in there you can draw.

You get to weaken your deck. Obviously anathema to tournament strategy, but not a bad thing against new players in your playgroup. Evening the playing field should make for closer, more fun games. Making Deus of Calamity on turn three every game and blowing up their land before they get a chance to do anything, less enjoyable.

You want to try new cards out. Is Cream of the Crop any good? Throw it in and try it out. (It’s okay, but I’m not sure I’d run it in a more serious versions)

The thing with detuning is it might initially seem to run counter to the whole synergy plan. In this case the one ofs either fit the synergy and/or provide redundancy. The fatties manage to be redundant big threat (if the Primalcrux eats a Terror), lots of green forest symbols to make any Primalcrux on the same battlefield monstrous and also have additional roles such as drawing cards, dealing with fliers or blowing up annoying enchantments/artifacts.

It’s all about getting more bang for your individual pieces of cardboard. That’s synergy.

As decks go this is fairly mean for casual. It wins about 8 or 9 games in 10 in the casual room, including beating up the odd tournament deck that wanders in by accident. Some of the draws are grotesquely powerful. A turn 3 8/8 trampler that attacks for 14 on turn 4 after you make a backup can be a handful even for serious decks.

It’s still a big dumb Green animal though, barely tier two even if properly tuned. I had a couple of Treetop Village in there before the rotation to steal games off Wrath decks. Without them it’s a lot more vulnerable.

A more budget version that cuts down on the rares would look like my initial build when I picked up four Primalcrux and then built the rest of the deck out of what I had. That ran Elvish Warrior and more Wickerbough Elders.

Tuning up would see Great Stable Stags coming in to combat the decks normally accustomed to beating up big dumb green decks. Some combination of Deus, Oversoul of Dusk and Cloudthresher would monopolise the redundant fatty slots. There is a proper Primalcrux list floating around somewhere that would make a good starting point for a tournament version. I haven’t seen it so I don’t know how close or far off this is (I’ll guess at far off).

Which kind of brings me to the end and thoughts of where to take this as a column. I play on Magic Online, but I don’t really have the time to examine the nuances of the current standard format in enough detail to write regularly on it without looking even more of a fool than when I last tried that in a premium column.

I’m mainly interested in building cool decks. They can be from the budget end of the spectrum or from the ‘ooh what cool things can we do with that niche card’ box.

I’m limited to Magic Online pretty much by geography, so that rules out most of the exotic casual stuff. It also makes building decks outside of standard rather pointless.

Experiences of Extended in MTGO casual room:

Me: Build silly deck out of fun rare that had just rotated out with fun new rare that had good synergy with it.

Opponent: Turn 1 Isamaru, turn 2 Watchwolf, swing, bash, smash.

Me: Cast irrelevant spell, go down in hail of fiery doom.

Hmm, I remember that deck. I played it on the PT. This is the casual room right?

This was a while back. I imagine it might have improved of late.

Opponent: Turn 2 cascade into Hypergenesis, put large fatty monsters with haste into play.

Me: Lay second land. Pass turn. Die.

Maybe not.

Thanks for reading, and don’t be shy with any suggestions.


“I’m better now.”

“Tragic isn’t it, to see a once mediocre player brought so low.”