Tribal Thriftiness #42 – Shards of Alara Adventures in Prereleasing

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Tuesday, September 30th – Shards of Alara makes its grand entrance into the Magic world, with Pre-Releases popping up in about a thousand times as many places as last year. Dave went, and came back not only with some prize packs, but with some real opinions about Shards of Alara.

I’ll never understand how kids can stay up until all hours of the night, get two hours of sleep, and be bright-eyed and ready to go at stupid o’clock in the morning. Me? I need my beauty sleep (although, honestly, we probably ought to call it something different, I’m about as pretty as I’m gonna get). For that reason, I hate that I live in the Mountain Time Zone, where I have to wait until midnight to get to watch the Daily Show. I rarely stay up through Colbert.

And yet, there I was Friday night at 2am, watching DVRed episodes of General Hospital with the missus, knowing full well that I was going to need to get up early in the morning to head up to Denver for the Shards of Alara Pre-Release. It’s only about an hour drive, but sign-ups start at 8, so I’m aiming to be out the door by 7.

Hokay. That didn’t happen.

You may be wondering why, with the late night and the hour-long drive and early morning, why I didn’t simply head to one of the local Pre-Releases that Wizards has been championing for the last four months. Why didn’t I support my local gaming environment? Why didn’t I put my entry fee towards a TO who’s building up a new community with fabulous events? Well, quite simply, in Colorado Springs, that person doesn’t exist. Despite the push by Wizards to have what is essentially a week-early Release Party in every city larger than 150,000 people in America, that just didn’t happen for the Springs. The local shop, I guess, is content with the Release Party (for which we get 35-40 people, and that’s another item that I’ll get to in a bit), or maybe didn’t know that it could run an event a week early. So that cut one option out – and it was either truck the hour to Denver, or truck the hour to Pueblo and find the small store there and HOPE that I wasn’t person number 25.

And if you’ve been reading this column over the last year, you know that I am a big proponent of the big, community-building Pre-Releases, so it really wasn’t ever a choice.

So back to 2am. I can feel my eyelids getting heavy despite the fact that someone is about to get shot at Sonny and Kate’s wedding (I know! If it wasn’t for the Sunday deadline I’d be able to spoil it RIGHT HERE!) and, desperate for sleep, I make the decision to adjust my alarm and get some much-needed sleep. It’s fitful. The cat wakes me up, needing food and (for unknown reasons) unable to leap the eight feet up to the cabinet where her food is stored. I get back in bed, feeling like that little kid in the Disney World commercial who says, “I’m too excited to sleep!” Pre-Releases are the one thing I know I can look forward towards, three or four times a year. I drift back into sleep, dreaming of red expansion symbols and giant dragons eating goblins.

The alarm goes off at 7. I shower, grab my bag, stop for a bagel, stop BACK at the house to drop off a bagel for the missus, and I’m on the road.

Getting up to the Pre-Release around 9 shouldn’t be a problem. I usually show up late and get into the last pod, so really I’m “on time.” I’m driving my Jeep, though, and the wind is a little strong coming down off the Front Range, so I’m not even approximating the 75 miles per hour that the road signs say I can go. I hit Denver’s urban sprawl around 9.

My phone rings. It’s my friend Kevin, who is usually the person who calls to see if I’m running late for FNM, or just not bothering to show up. When I tell him I’m in Denver and should be at the site shortly, he says, “Okay, they just started sign-ups for Flight 3, you should make that one, there’s only like five people in it.”

Flight … three? An hour into signups? They’ve only got 50-some people there?

I make it into Flight 3. There are about a hundred people at the site, with the remainder of the populace made up of the participants in the Two-Headed Giant event. The room, which has held Pre-Releases in the past, is only about half-full, where before it would have been full of people, trading, tell stories, and playing with the hot new cards. It’s tragically quiet, almost. It’s what I envisioned when I would think about the death of Magic – tournaments that were once full of people enjoying themselves now reduced in size to only the true diehard fans.

After wandering about with literally nothing to do as I wait for my flight to start, I finally give up and sit down and start playing Archon on my cell phone. (Go ahead, Google it if you need to, I am a child of the 80’s and Apple IIe’s, but I realize most of you are probably NOT.) I shoot down a unicorn, and then they announce that the flight is starting.

The set I open up is unremarkable aside from the fact that it has two Mythics in it: Rafiq of the Many and Kresh the Bloodbraided. It also, as some sort of sign (of what I dunno), has five (FIVE!) Mosstodons! (This may have to be what I collect from this set.) I opine to the people around me that I would be okay getting it back. I suggest to the judge that they should select a subset of players to keep their decks, like they do in PTQs (or did), and that I was willing to volunteer. Across the table it goes. I wave it goodbye and give myself over to verifying the registration of the deck across from me, then get ready to wave a Sealed Deck over my head like a crazy man as we pass it left, left, across, left, or whatever sadistic pattern will take my Mythics away from me.

“Is everyone done verifying? Good. Pass your deck across! Now, start building!”

I am shocked! I am exuberant! I get my Mythics! (And my Mosstodons!) So now… which do I build around?

What I Learned About Shards #1: Exalted is Great. Rafiq is Ridiculous.

Much of what has been said and bemoaned about Rafiq is that, while his ability is surely backbreaking, he’s still a 3/3, which means he dies to just about every removal piece in Standard. That incorrectly-spoiled 3/4 would have been amazing! So initially I was looking the other way, influenced by all the naysaying that’s spreading around the Internetz. But… none of that removal is actually IN Shards! Your opponent may be able to deal with Rafiq with Oblivion Ring, Agony Warp, or Bone Splinters, but by that time, Rafiq will already have had a chance to influence the game state with (hopefully) a big double-striking attack. Even if your opponent CAN immediately deal with him, he’s just taken 8, 10, 12, 14, and he’s not actually dealt with the attacking creature or anything that’s buffing it up outside of Rafiq.

And this pool is FULL of other Exalted guys. None of the uncommon guys – just the commons, but in decent numbers. Exalted is a mechanic custom-made for Limited, I think. Wizards has built a mechanic that rewards, to some extent, building up a creature stalemate on the ground, and finding one flyer or evasive creature to send in and defeat your opponent. It used to take ten turns (or more!) – now, with a handful of Exalted guys, it takes four or five turns. It also pushes each player to be at least somewhat aggressive, since the reward only happens when you’re attacking. I came into the Pre-Release thinking Exalted was going to be strong in Limited, and I’ve left thinking that I would try and force Exalted if ever I drafted this set. All of the Exalted commons are fair, and pulling one of the uncommons (or, heaven forbid, Rafiq or Battlegrace Angel) can push your army head and shoulders over the rest of the field.

The problem with Bant, though, is that removal is hard to come by. I mean, you’re purposefully avoiding the two “removal” colors – Red and Black. My pool only has one Oblivion Ring and one Resounding Silence as permanent removal, although I did have some temporary removal. I decided to try and splash (yes, splash) a fourth color and pull in two Executioner’s Capsules to give me some actual answers, and since I had the Black, why not a Tower Gargoyle as well?

What I Learned About Shards #2: The Color Fixing is Really “All That.”

My splash was two Swamps, an Esper Panorama, a Savage Lands, and an Obelisk of Grixis. I never had an Executioner’s Capsule without the Black to at least CAST it – and sometimes I had the ability to use it immediately, even. I also never had any issues with casting Rafiq – and only one additional Bant Panorama to help with the color-fixing.

All day long I would see many of the Panoramas, which seem to have been universally accepted as “okay” in Limited. Sure, they aren’t as efficient as the Onslaught fetchlands (or probably even the Mirage ones) but… they’re commons, which means that you can get four or five in a sealed pool, and since all your opponents are going to be willing to “slow themselves down a turn” by playing them, you can go ahead and play them too. It reminded me of the bouncelands in Ravnica Limited and how they essentially set the pace of the format.

Here’s the deck I played:

Bant Battlemage
Oblivion Ring
Resounding Silence
Sighted-Caste Sorcerer
Welkin Guide

Call to Heel
2 Cloudheath Drake
Courier’s Capsule
2 Kathari Screecher
2 Outrider of Jhess

2 Executioner’s Capsule

2 Court Archers
Druid of the Anima
2 Naya Battlemage

Deft Duelist
Rafiq of the Many
Steward of Valeron
Tower Gargoyle
Waveskimmer Aven

Obelisk of Grixis

Bant Panorama
Esper Panorama
Savage Lands

2 Swamp
5 Plains
5 Island
4 Forest

I know. It’s 46 cards. I hate making cuts at Pre-Releases. You’re there, ostensibly, to play for fun, and there’s no need to force yourself to make cuts when you have literally ZERO idea about the power level of any of the cards (you’ve just met them!) and no one else there does either. So what’s so wrong with running a few cards over “ideal” in the name of fun? Nothing, that’s what.

I’ll spare you the details of my small personal triumph, mostly because I don’t remember them, but I went 5-0 in the flight and ended in first place. Rafiq was the blunt instrument used over the head of most of my opponents, but there were a couple of games won with merely flyers and Exalted guys. One game I went turn 2 Steward, turn 3 Tower Gargoyle, turn 4 Rafiq, attack for ten. The end of the last round came when I O-Ring’ed an O-Ring hiding Rafiq to swing for the win.

I picked up my prize support and learned lesson number three.

What I Learned About Shards #3: The Wizards Pre-Release “Kit” Plan Is a Joke.

My prize for 5-0?

Six packs.

Wizards’ big plan for “local” Pre-Releases is a kit. That kit has product for 24 players, including prize support. That prize support is in the form of “one booster pack per person.” That means that a small store with one kit will have 24 packs to hand out as prizes. And you know what? If I was at a small store, playing in a Release Party, I’d probably be okay with essentially 25 bucks in prize. But the old Pre-Releases? The one in Denver gave out “one pack per person” just as “pack round” prizes. Grey Matter handed out “one pack per person” as the top prize. Wizards instead allowed them to order much more product, but still severely restricted what they could award as prizes.

These Premier TOs are the ones who run PTQ after PTQ for Wizards, who run the “public” events for Grand Prixes and Pro Tours, and this is the reward that they get? They’re still paying out big bucks to rent out halls and conference rooms, but are less and less recouping these costs. The prize payout was one of the “draws” of the Big Pre-Releases – now that they’re trapped into Wizards’ kickback scheme, there’s literally NOTHING to separate them from the smaller stores, short of the number of flights they’re capable of running. If Wizards keeps going down this path, the Premier TOs will stop running Pre-Releases altogether as it becomes less and less profitable, and the profit margin for ALL their tournaments will drop. At that point, will it be financially worthwhile to run PTQs? Will Wizards have to take over running their own “public” events at GPs?

I really hope that Wizards will come to its senses about this stuff. Pre-Releases, States – these changes have been met with public outcry, and the Premier TOs have gone to extreme lengths to try and give us, their constituency, what we want. Let’s hope Wizards comes around and at least gives them the ability to run their events how they want – after all, they’re the ones who are really doing all the work maintaining the existing playerbase.

What I Learned About Shards #4: Shards Has Potential

Playing with Shards has given me a lot of ideas, and it’s going to be important to try and organize everything as States looms on the horizon. The changing face of Standard is always hard to decipher this time of year, and States is usually the first big event, and always seems to have lasting effects on the format. I want to talk about Exalted, Elspeth and the other Planeswalkers, Devouring little creatures (and saying OM NOM NOM as loudly as possible while doing so), and giant Dragons (without Dragonstorm)… the October release always brings dozens of new topics for columnists like me. So let’s pick it up back here in seven!

Until next week…