The Weekly Shift Sift: The Day We Could Not Win

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StarCityGames.com!Today, both Stephen Menendian and Nick Eisel relate their tales of failing horribly, and what they learned in the process. And heck, who am I to leave myself out of the proceedings? Watch with horror as I open a card pool with solid cards, and somehow manage to go 0-5. Why? That, my dear readers, is a mystery I need your help to decipher….

You know what I like about the Magic Online Sealed Leagues? The scoring system.

See, if you win one of the five vital matches you have in any given week — the ones that count for prizes, mind you — then get two points. And if you lose, you get one point.

One point. Which means that when you’ve 0-5ed the week with a deck that should have at least taken one damn match at some damn point, you don’t feel like the utter loser you are.

“Five points!” you think. “That’s not so bad.”

And then you realize that a real player would have ten points by now, and five points is the new zero points, a big fat zero that means your entire Magic-playing skills are a huge toxic wasteland filled with sewage and flesh-eating bacteria, and oh God you want to set your head on fire.

Personally, I think all tournaments should have a scoring system like this.

“How’d you do at the Grand Prix?”

“I went forty zillion in the first three rounds! My tiebreakers are ten to the seventieth power!”

“That bad, huh?”

Hell, it works for Yu-Gi-Oh. You’re not just dealing four damage, you’re dealing four thousand damage! And the kids love that senseless thousand, yes they do. Make it so that the worst they can do at FNM is to go 1,000,000,000-5,223,173,432 and we’ll pack the damn house.

Not that I’m bitter or anything, but here. Take a look at the cards that stabbed me in the back, then reached around to stab me in the front, then laughed and stabbed me in the crotch while they laughed and set my head on fire.

Not bitter. Really. Not bitter.

Solidly Playables: Benalish Cavalry, Castle Raptors, Errant Doomsayers, Gustcloak Cavalier, Ivory Giant, Temporal Isolation

Ivory Giant, I must admit, is moving slowly off my Solidly Playables, with the emphasis being on “Solidly.” I like the big guy, of course, but if White is not my main creature color, it often winds up hurting me more than I’d like. There have been a couple of times playing a B/R deck that killed all of my White critters while the Ivory Giant was off taking a siesta, and then swarmed me on the next turn when the Giant was my only defender.

Jedit’s Dragoons, on the other hand, is slowly moving up in Sealed play. It’s too slow for Draft, but sometimes the life can be awfully nice, and it’s a large butt that holds off all but the largest threats in the format. The cost is a little prohibitive — for six mana, I want a damn dragon — but it’s not completely unreasonable.

Benalish Cavalry is in that weird spot of being “Completely playable, but not.” He’s great in an aggro deck, but not particularly good at control, since he’s meant to attack on turn 3, period, and then keep the pressure up. I don’t know whether he belongs on the Solidly Playable list, which is probably not so much a ding against him but an indication of just how porous and ill-defined the category of “Solidly Playable” is.

Not bad White, though. Some strength, and one of the better tricks in the format (even if Josh Ravitz disagrees that Temporal Isolation is all that and the bag o’chips). Still, do we have more?

Solidly Playables: Coral Trickster, Crookclaw Transmuter, Fledgling Mawcor, Looter il-Kor, Viscerid Deepwalker

We have power, very much concentrated. In fact, take these five cards away and you have “mostly crap,” including a set of two Clockspinnings without an array of Suspendy things to abuse them. And even so, Clockspinning’s never impressed me; spending four mana to speed up the arrival of an Errant Ephemeron by a turn isn’t bad, mind you, but that’s about as good as it gets. The rest of the time, it sits in your hand and cries, since it’s either not going to have a target or you’re using up four mana a turn to stave off a Keldon Halberdier while your opponent, you know, casts threats.

Spell Burst, on the other hand? Better than you’d think, but still not an automatic playable. It’s flexible, taking out morphs (as, again, Josh Ravitz noted) and you can buy it back a lot in the late game, but I’ve been burned by the “not enough mana” syndrome on this one enough that it hurts.

But take the Solidly Playables out, and you have a large number of cards in Blue but nothing to back it up. Viscerid Deepwalker requires a deep commitment to Blue to work, which means that you’d be building a deck on the back of five cards. Not the synergy I hope for, even though it looks set to be a decent splash.

Solidly Playables: Corpulent Corpse, Dark Withering, Feebleness, Mana Skimmer, Phthisis, Plague Sliver

Ah, Black. The most dependent color in this whole damn block. I know people think it’s pretty weak in Draft, which it probably is, but in Sealed it’s often your go-to color for removal, making it a bit better.

Still. We have Dark Withering, which can be excellent if you have the discard, and Phthisis, which is a game-winner if you a) suspend it and your opponent is dumb enough to walk into it, or b) you have infinite black. We also have Liege of the Pit, which if you are very lucky you will unmorph sometime in 2008, and the double-Black cavalcade of Withered Wretch and Sangrophage, both of which assume you have two Black mana by turn 2.

This is solid Black, but it’s rife with Black’s usual drawback. However, Plague Sliver is a damn house, since “losing a life” is a fine trade-off for a 5/5 critter that sometimes hoses an opposing Sliver army all by its lonesome. And Mana Skimmer just gets better every week, since Sealed is about clunky mana, meaning that sometimes you just randomly win by cutting someone off of a splash (or even a main color).

Mindstab, on the other hand… It’s not automatically playable. I’ll usually run it, but I’ve survived the turn 1 Mindstab and been beaten despite Suspending it. It’ll wreck an opponent sometimes, or sometimes it takes two lands and a spell out of their hand when their real force is on the board.

Solidly Playables: Bogardan Rager, Empty the Warrens, Grapeshot, Ironclaw Buzzardiers, Jaya Ballard, Keldon Halberdier, Wildfire Emissary

That’s not bad. A little light on removal, but we have some nice storm spells to work out with some strong Suspend themes in Black (and a Suspend of our own). This leads me to believe that a storm-o-licious Suspending deck may be the way to go.

Jaya Ballard is theoretically strong. When she works, she works great. Generally, she serves a fine function I call “Summon Counterspell,” which is my oh-so-clever way of saying that if your opponent has any removal or Counterspells, this will bring them flying out of his hand.

Solidly Playables: Might Sliver, Nantuko Shaman, Search for Tomorrow, Spinneret Sliver, Thallid Shell-Dweller, Tromp the Domains

There’s a minor Sliver theme here, but with my Slivers spread out all over the color map, I’m pretty sure it would benefit my opponents more than it would me. Plus, one of my big guns is the “Sliver that hurts me for playing Slivers,” so the Might Sliver is probably out.

A rather weak Green overall, though there are some highlights. I would like to remind the world at large, however, that you can hard-cast Nantuko Shaman. I know, I know, you want that card so badly your teeth ache… But in the past month, I’ve beaten not one but two opponents who suspended it when they really needed the blocker that turn, and lost when I struck past the empty air in which a Nantuko Shaman was forming.

Sometimes, a 3/2 for three mana is a good thing. Don’t get greedy.

But the good thing is that Green isn’t that good. I like that, because that gives me the opportunity to splash for Tromp the Domains, which gets better when it’s in a deck that’s not primarily Green. Oh, I have visions of +4/+4 dancing in my head….

Gold, Artifacts, and Lands
Solidly Playables: Paradise Plume, Prismatic Lens, Terramorphic Expanse

Well. If we’re looking to splash, we could hardly ask for a better set of artifacts and lands to go with it. Paradise Plume is annoying expensive for what it does, even if the whole “Gain a life” thing randomly works in your favor sometimes — if I have four mana, usually I don’t need the help. Still, when we’re going to be splashing for two colors, as we are here, every bit helps….

What? Splashing two colors? Oh well.

The Deck
I decided to go with the R/B Suspend-o-storm build, since it gave me a couple of things:

1) Two potent Storm spells;

2) Four Suspend spells;

3) A fair amount of removal.

What it lacked was “an end game,” since we had a bunch of mid-range critters but no finishers outside of the Plague Sliver and the I-don’t-think-this-will-ever-see-play-as-a-7/7 Liege of the Pit. Thus, I could probably get in some damage, but I didn’t see this deck lasting in a long brawl. Thankfully, we have Tromp the Domains and enough mana-fixers to use it, which will turn pretty much anything we have into a gigantic army.

Especially, you know, a bunch of 1/1 Goblin tokens after a Suspendy Stormy fight.

Still, that didn’t give me a lot of evasion, so I went over to Blue for — unbelievably — creatures. There were four splashable creatures I thought might do:

1) Viscerid Deepwalker;

2) Crookclaw Transmuter;

3) Fledgling Mawcor;

4) Looter il-Kor.

Viscerid, while easy to cast, relied on a lot of Islands to work, and the lack of early Islands meant that it wouldn’t be helping our Suspend theme. So out it went. Transmuter was a nice combat trick and an air force, so that was an automatic, and Fledgling Mawcor was easy on the mana because we could always lay it as a morph if we didn’t have the Island.

Looter il-Kor? Oh, I wanted it. I know, it’s not a real force, but the whole “draw a card” thing was so sweet I was tempted to splash it. I might well have done, too, except for the fact that I was already stuffed with cards anyway.

Thus, my final deck was this:

1 Forest
3 Island
7 Mountain
5 Swamp
1 Wildfire Emissary
1 Corpulent Corpse
1 Crookclaw Transmuter
1 Dark Withering
1 Empty the Warrens
1 Faceless Devourer
1 Feebleness
1 Fledgling Mawcor
1 Grapeshot
1 Ironclaw Buzzardiers
1 Jaya Ballard, Task Mage
1 Keldon Halberdier
1 Liege of the Pit
1 Mana Skimmer
1 Mindstab
1 Mogg War Marshal
1 Paradise Plume
1 Phthisis
1 Phyrexian Totem
1 Plague Sliver
1 Prismatic Lens
1 Terramorphic Expanse
1 Tromp the Domains
1 Aetherflame Wall

Now this was not the best deck I’d ever had, but it certainly had a lot of power behind it. I thought that it’d go 4-1, maybe 3-2.

0-5, however, was right out of the damn question.

Part of it was my mana. Not to bitch overmuch, but in five matches I mulliganed one-landers seven times, each one like a car antenna jammed up my meatus. I went to five cards on three occasions, which hurt even more.

But even aside from that awful, awful run of manascrew, the deck was just outmatched by its opponents. I’m not discounting my own poor play — personally, I don’t see what I did wrong, but I’m excruciatingly aware that if I lost, there’s a darned good chance that I made a bad decision at some point, even if I don’t know what it was. I’m willing to acknowledge that hey, probably I should have mulliganed more aggressively, or played my hand in a different order, or saved my removal for something else.

But still. The decks I ran into were juggernauts. They had the worst nightmare rares; Akroma, Angel of Wrath, Avatar of Woe, you name it. They had the Tribal Flames to destroy anything I cast, and the Subterranean Shambler to destroy my Mogg army the turn before I would have Tromped, and….

Screw it. I wish I could tell you my bad beats stories with this deck. They were legendary. But I was too busy getting hammered to write it down, which I should have, because I was convinced that the next game would bring victory.

I can do this, I thought. And yet I didn’t. Ah well.

In any case, it was humiliating. (And given Steven Menendian’s and Nick Eisel articles today, I suspect that “humiliation” is the theme of this Monday’s update.) Now, I’d like to go into the kind of detail that they reveal their judgmental lapses in… But my biggest problem was probably that I got rattled.

One loss? Fine. It happens. (Especially to me.)

Two losses? Not great, but hey. This is a good deck. I’ll pick up something.

By the time loss #3 came alone, I was furious, and I instantly clicked the “Play” button because dammit, I would win the next one. I was almost certainly not using my best judgment at the time; I was irritated, short-tempered, and probably making snap decisions that ruined me quietly.

So I lay in the ruins of my own ego. 0-5. That hasn’t happened in a while in League.

Where did I go wrong? I’m pretty sure it’s not the deck; it may well be misbuilt, but not so poorly misbuilt that I should go 0-fer. But there are questions:

Was it greedy, splashing for the Blue?
I don’t think it was. I had enough mana-fixers to make it work, and a raw dog Red/Black would have left me throwing in substandard defensive cards like Aetherflame Wall and Drudge Skeletons for a deck that wants to be aggro. I think the deck needed the Blue splash.

Was it wrong, splashing for the Blue?
That’s a better question, since it asks whether Blue was the color to splash for. Would it have been more helpful to get the White for things like Castle Raptors and Temporal Isolation? That may well be the problem, although I note that without the splash we’re running a pitifully few creatures. Still, a Temporal Isolation might have been able to help me against the bombtastic beasts I saw during the day, and upped the Storm count.

Was the Red/Black Storm plan the right way to go?
There are arguments to be made for White/Black, which would get us a lot of reasonably solid creatures with a few combat tricks. Or perhaps White/Red was another option, but I don’t like that because you get the worst of both worlds; not a lot of advantage to be taken out of Storm (even as you have a lot of cheap creatures, perhaps, to work with in the late game, but why were you holding those creatures back)?

In retrospect, I think Black/White would have been a better option (still splashing for Tromp the Domains), which would have given me less removal but more solid creatures with better evasion. The mana would be ugly, of course, with double-White and —Black all over the damn place, but as I said we do have mana-fixers.

(Or, perhaps, I just got unlucky. That’s the problem with Magic. Some very talented players have bombed out of tournaments with good decks due to the luck of the draw. If it was easy to narrow down the exact spaces where skill mattered in Magic, we’d all be masters.)

Am I overestimating Black?
I like Black here. It’s strong, with both removal and some beefy. Or is it?

I don’t know. I’ll have to analyze and get back to you.

A Note On Format Changes
I’ll be addressing some of your ideas to shake up the column’s format next week. But I should add that the Monday column is “Lessons in Limited,” and that means that every Monday I have to discuss Limited formats. I can’t take a couple of weeks off to discuss Dragon Elder Highlander; I got a niche here, and that’s what I gotta work with.

Anything else has to take that into account.

The Weekly Plug Bug
This week sees The Return of Princess Fluttershine, continuing one of the longest stories that Home on the Strange has ever had. When last we left off, Tom — the grumpy, opinionated nerd — had agreed to use e-mail roleplaying as a way of teaching the hopelessly-asocial Branch how to interact with people. And things are going… well, you’ll see.

This is gonna spiral out of control any day now.

Signing off,
The Ferrett