I haven’t done a casual play article for a while – so here’s one recounting the design, testing, and play of a theme deck for multiplayer. Although the format and metagame is probably not all that common, the theory and concepts are the same that I use in designing decks for any format. The design and theory sections are followed by a mix of humorous and semi-useful comments on how the deck worked in practice.
A quick background on the format. Ingrid and I get together with another couple every couple of weeks for some Magic. We play Type One rules, two against two teams chosen randomly, and each player has their own life totals and so forth. We try to minimize the power level and encourage theme decks, and play the same decks all evening.*
This is the difference between playing for fun with friends, and playing tournaments. I want to win every match at any tournament I enter. In casual play, I want to win my share, but I am more concerned that all involved are having fun and that the games are interesting.
I have to restrain myself a little – I have built at least one deck (a Bargain/Academy/Mind over Matter deck with cards that are now restricted) that won consistently against both opponents on turn 1, and have built some lockdown and control decks (like Land Tax) that can win repeatedly, but only painfully slowly and only after demonstrating that I have complete control. I also believe that I won more than my share of the games last time out, so I want a balanced but reasonable deck this time. (Ingrid noted – when she edited this – that she and John actually most of the games. She even described the decks we all played, and some of the plays and interaction, but I don’t believe it for a moment…)
Okay, so I want a reason to build a solid (but not broken) deck. That usually means a theme deck, since theme decks have a smaller pool of cards and an interest premise. It is also an excuse to my ego if I lose (hey, I was playing a theme deck), and a boost if I win (ditto).
This week’s theme ingredient – anyone else ever seen Iron Chef? – is age and old stuff. (My birthday is next week.) I thought this over during the drive to and from work, and I think I can find a deck. The theme has a lot of mana creatures, like Nantuko Elder. It has some fatties, like Ancient Silverback. It has limited removal in the form of Ancient Hydra. Some white creatures are interesting, like Ancient Spider and Venerable Monk, and four Yavimaya Elders should make three colors work. Combat tricks and so forth are limited, unless I decide to play EmbOLDen, but that’s a stretch. So is ArmAGEddon, although a bunch of mana creatures and some fatties mean that the card would really help – if I weren’t playing with a partner.
So, the first step in this process is to fire up Magic Suitcase or D’Angelo’s site – which has a much better search feature now – and look up cards. I searched on Age, Ages, Elder, Old, Venerable and Ancient, and anything else I could think of as being in theme. Veteran Bodyguard and the other Veterans are tempting, but I decided that’s too far outside the theme.
I also had to think about adding blue for card drawing and so forth. Ancestral Recall and Ancestral Knowledge are almost in theme. Time Stretch is just that – a stretch – but including it would be fun. It would leave the door open for Time Walk, Time Spiral, Time Warp, and so forth – which would be strong. Maybe too strong, and blue would be a fourth color, making mana problems more serious. If I wanted a really good deck, I’d take the blue Power 9 and some other broken stuff and drop the theme. But I want a theme without stretching, so I plan on sticking to primarily green, with splashes of red and white.
At least that’s the plan. I always have trouble sticking to the plan. When I actually pull the cards this weekend, I’ll see whether I can avoid pulling the broken stuff.
Okay – time to breakdown cards for the theme:
I have a bunch here, although most come in at the three casting cost and above. Fyndhorn Elder, Nantuko Elder, and Argothian Elder all accelerate mana, meaning I can drop a fattie faster. Argothian Elder also combos with Maze of Ith and Whetstone or Rocket Launcher, but I’ve already done that. (But maybe I’ll put those in the sideboard. Nothing says”age” like Rocket Launcher.) Yavimaya Elder is the best card here – four go in the deck for sure.
This is how the deck is going to win, if it does. Ancient Kavu, Ancient Hydra, Ancient Silverback and Yavimaya Ancients (Ice Age’s common treefolk – I must have a couple around. Ingrid bought a box or two of Ice Ages once.) Elder Land Wurm fits the theme, but he has a bad drawback.
Ancient Spider will block fliers and the like, and is more threatening if I can play something like Giant Growth (I’ll call it”old school.”) Revered Elder is a Masques block wall. Abbey Matron is sort of in theme, and is really a wall. I guess Venerable Monk falls in the defense category – what else would you call a card that reads”gain two life and chump?”*** Elder Druid can also be considered defensive, since it can work as an expensive Master Decoy / Puppeteer. Pentacle of the Ages is expensive, but it would solve problems with unblockable creatures. Shield of the Ages is smaller, but costs more to use. Ancestral Tribute could also fit – and the deck is likely to drop lots of cards into the graveyard, so it might even be good.
Samite Elder can give protection to some colors. Village Elder allows me to regenerate creatures. Ancient Hydra is direct damage, which works together with the Ancient Spider’s first strike, I guess. Maybe I can claim Scars of the Veteran fits the theme…
Alternative Win Conditions:
Ancient Runes could hurt opponents with a bunch of artifacts (and my partner, if he or she has artifacts, so we’ll see.) Sword of the Ancients would be great if I get into a creature stall, but I don’t know if we have any. Ancient Hydra is direct damage, if need be (and if I have a lot of mana free.) Hidden Ancients (sleeping enchantment that becomes a 5/5 Treefolk when opponents play enchantments) is good but situational.
Dealing With Problems:
Maze of Ith is a perennial problem in our group – especially for a deck that has to win by beating with creatures. Deepwood Elder can make the Maze of Ith a basic forest for the turn – at the cost of a card. Staff of the Ages can deal with landwalkers. And that’s about it.
Ugh. This is not looking all that good… So let’s build the deck. I’m aiming at 70 cards, at least 27 land.**
Mana Acceleration (10 cards)
4 Yavimaya Elders
3 Nantuko Elders (single G in casting cost, can provide second green)
2 Argothian Elders (4 casting cost is a bit high)
1 Fyndhorn Elder (Nantuko Elder is a 1/2, not 1/1)
3 Ancient Silverback (1 more in sideboard)
2 Ancient Spider (1 more in sideboard)
2 Ancient Kavu
2 Verdeloth the Ancient (I should have a lot of mana available late game)
2 Yavimaya Ancients
4 Ancient Hydra
2 Samite Elder
2 Elder Druid
1 Deepwood Elder
1 Village Elder
1 Venerable Monk
1 Ancestral Tribute
2 Scars of the Veteran
2 Ancient Ruins
1 Pentacle of the Ages
1 Staff of the Ages
Lands (28, exact mix depends on what duals Ingrid is using)
9 R/G: Taigas, Shivan Oasis, Karplusan Forest
6 G/W: Savannah, Elfhame Palace, Brushland
2 R/W: Plateau, Forge[/author]“]Battlefield [author name="Forge"]Forge[/author]
6 Forest (I need basics for the Yavimaya Elder)
I could also do a casting cost analysis, but I already know how bad that is. The mana curve starts at three and goes up from there. I need enough land to ensure that I draw a third land early. I just wish I had more to do with extra land if I draw it (besides pumping out tokens with Verdeloth the Ancient). I’ll have to just play the lands and smile, since the group frowns on Armageddon and the like (they screw your partner, too).
All my mana acceleration creatures have green in the casting cost, so the land mix is weighted heavily towards green. I have only one card with double-color costs other than green – Ancestral Tribute – and I want to cast that very late anyway. The mix should work, and I can pretty much avoid painlands. Since my deck will be slow already, I should be able to play lands that come into play tapped early on.
Okay, on to the sideboard. Fortunately, we do not have a limit on number of cards in the sideboard, so I can add anything I need. That’s necessary, since we will be playing the same decks nearly all day – you need to plug holes. It’s not like a PTQ, where you will play maybe thirty games against a known metagame. We play more games, against a wide-open field.
First, the third and fourth copies of important cards, like Ancient Spider, Ancient Runes, Samite Elder and so forth. Three Second Thoughts, because you have Second Thoughts when you get old. Then four Giant Growth, and maybe two Might of Oaks or Sylvan Might, in case I need the surprise factor. Four Hidden Ancients in case someone is playing Enchantress. Two Dustbowls, because it is an important part of the history of the Great Depression (okay – I’m stretching again), but it is important against some decks. Three Stream of Life – it is kind of age related, I guess. Three Disintegrate, because that’s what happens to elderly things, and because I have two opponents and lots of mana. Four Emerald Charm and four Creeping Mold, because I refuse to lose to Ensnaring Bridge, Moat, or Abyss. Plus one extra Pentagram of the Ages and a Staff of the Ages – just in case.
I don’t know what I do if an opponent plays a bunch of shadow creatures and Armadillo Cloaks. Die, I guess. Or draw a lot of Elder Druids – and hope I have more Icy Manipulator dudes than the opponent has attacking shadows.
Okay, early that morning I started to pull the cards to build the deck, and got a bad surprise: We have just one Elder Druid. Shadow dudes could be a real problem, since I an unlikely to be able to tap them down.
On to the game. We rolled for partners, and John and I were teamed up this time out. John had a G/W/U deck with various Legends – like Gabriel Angelfire and company, plus an assortment of fatties. He has nabbed his and Cathy’s complete set of Moxen, lots of duals and their Black Lotus, so his mana was pretty good. Angus Mackenzie – Fog on legs – is also pretty good. He also has a few counterspells and some enchantments – a couple Rancors, a Knighthood, Zephid’s Embrace.
Ingrid’s theme is creature enchantments, utility walls (Wall of Roots, Wall of Blossoms) and creatures that cannot be targeted (Blastoderm, Blurred Mongoose, Multani, etc.) This seemed ridiculous, until she added Crown of the Ages and Enchantment Alteration. Yes, you can move a Rancor onto a Blastoderm – neither Crown of Ages nor the enchantment targets. Her deck did generate some strange results, though: At one point she had a 2/6, plainswalking, doesn’t tap to attack wall – a Wall of Blossoms with Traveler’s Cloak and Serra’s Embrace. All that was less funny when those enchantments moved onto a Blurred Mongoose.
Cathy was playing an elves and stuff deck, with Priests of Titania, Taunting Elf, and the elf that broke the format: Titania’s Chosen. Titania’s Chosen can get big fast when just one player is playing green. It is insane when all four players are playing a lot of green. At one point, John played a turn 2 Rushwood Elemental (Black Lotus was involved), and Cathy played a turn 3 Titania’s Chosen. A few turns later, the Chosen was much bigger than the Rushwood Elemental. Cathy also has Jayemdae Tomes in the deck, and they worked quite well with all the elf mana available.
I finished sleeving my deck during the inevitable catching up session before the games, and even tried a few draws. Everything was working well – I usually got three land in my opening hand. Then, game one, I had one land. Since we play old-school mulligan rules (you can only mulligan if you have no lands or all lands), I had to keep. I drew my second land on turn 8 or so, at the point where I needed to draw three land and a Wrath of God (even though I didn’t have one in the deck) to survive another turn, but I think John pulled this one out.
The second game I was mana flooded. I drew a couple Yavimaya Elders, and made my first twelve land drops. No one else had much pressure – although both John and Cathy had large forces that had to stay back on defense. I got to the point where I was one mana short of being able to cast and flash back Ancestral Tribute in one turn (that takes nineteen mana, but with twelve land, two Nantuko Elders, and a Argothian Elder, I was almost there.)
After that, my mana finally sorted itself out, and some sideboard cards started to make themselves felt. Hidden Ancients was a beating against both Ingrid and Cathy – especially Ingrid, since her deck revolved around enchantments. At first, I brought in all four, but a turn 2 or 3 Hidden Ancient generally would kill at least one opponent almost immediately, and neither Cathy nor Ingrid seemed to be playing enough Disenchants to deal with them. As a result, I cut them to three, then two. Longer, more complex games are more fun than lots of short, frustrating games and lots of shuffling.
All four of us follow the same general concept – Ingrid is especially good about siding out cards that trash everyone (after she has won a game or three, of course.) One very nice play: Cathy was attacking with a Taunting Elf with Armadillo Cloak and Rancor, plus a Teeka’s Dragon. I was the victim (I think John was already dead) and blocked with more than enough creatures to kill the Taunting Elf. Ingrid had a Crown of Ages untapped and mana available. After damage was assigned, she and I both looked at the Crown, but she said she had no effects. I mouthed a”Thank you.” I was concerned that she could have moved the Armadillo Cloak to Teeka’s Dragon, which would have meant I would have lost a turn faster. Later, she explained that she could also have moved her Gaea’s Embrace onto the Taunting Elf, and regenerated it, which would have been even worse. (I missed that completely.) However, both plays would have been rubbing it in, since Cathy and Ingrid had the game well in hand.
John had a couple of good creatures, but Ingrid could mess with his attack phases. At one point, John was attacking with Gabriel Angelfire, who was wearing a Zephid’s Embrace, when Ingrid used Enchantment Alteration to move the Embrace onto her Blurred Mongoose. It was a rather unpleasant surprise, since I think it was the first time we had seen her play that card. After that, calculating combat damage was always iffy, since there was almost always a Rancor somewhere on the table, ready to pump up one of her or Cathy’s blockers.
John’s best creature was unquestionably Angus Mackenzie, since he could fog every turn, and since neither Cathy nor Ingrid were playing removal or counters. (Actually, Ingrid was playing Swords to Plowshares, but she almost never drew one when it mattered all night. Ingrid has a great ability to not draw critical cards. There have been a couple of times we finished out an evening, and I asked her why she left out some critical and appropriate card – only to find out she was running four maindeck.)
My best creature was Samite Elder. All of Cathy’s creatures, and most of Ingrid’s, were green. I always had green permanents. I survived for quite a while chumping large creatures with all my little elders, then giving them all protection from Green. I also won a few games when I could swing with all my 2/2s, after giving them protection from any potential blockers.
One big game swing occurred when no one was doing anything, but Ingrid had, if I recall, Voltaic Key, Crown of the Ages, lots of mana and a Wall of Roots wearing Rancors and a Serra’s Embrace. Then she drew something like Blastoderm, which soon became an 11/7, untargetable, flying, trampling, isn’t-tapping-to-attack monstrosity. We scooped before she could get an Armadillo Cloak on it, too.
The only time I cast Second thoughts, it caused a game swing. Cathy had a 17/17 Titania’s Chosen wearing Druid’s Call. I suspected that she also had Coat of Arms in hand. When she attacked, I had the choice of trading all my blockers for the Chosen, but giving her a lot of squirrels in the bargain, or dying in two swings. Explaining that getting old always gave you Second Thoughts was sweet.
Almost a game swing: One game, when I had a ton of land, I cast Verdeloth the Ancient with a sixteen-Saproling kicker. Cathy was beating down with a flier with an Armadillo Cloak, so I attacked all out the next turn. I managed, thanks to the Giant Growth in my hand, to deal exactly forty damage.
She was at 41 life. And it was all moot, since Ingrid had a Rancored Mongoose that would have killed me immediately if Cathy had died. As it was, Cathy killed me.
A funny event in one of the last games of the evening: John had finally had enough of having Maze of Ith stop his attackers, and Ingrid move enchantments to save opposing creatures and kill his, so he played a fast City of Solitude. I looked at my hand (Giant Growth, Scars of the Veteran, Emerald Charm and Second Thoughts) and my permanents (four lands and Pentacle of the Ages) and just sighed. Then – I hate to admit it – but I heckled him for that for quite a while.”John, if you need more mana, I can untap that Sol Ring with my Emerald Charm – oops, sorry, not with City in play.””Guess I can’t prevent the damage from Cathy’s spirit-linked fatty with my Pentacle… Not with City of Solitude out…” Eventually, I had to Disenchant my partner’s enchantment. I probably wouldn’t have been so much of a problem if Ingrid hadn’t Plowed John’s fattie the turn after City resolved.
Also in the screw your partner category – Cathy played a Dense Foliage, although that was probably before she realized that Ingrid’s entire deck was built around creature enchantments.
The biggest game swing came when Cathy had just resolved her third Deranged Hermit, and since she had been paying echo, all her squirrels were now 3/3s, and my 2/2 and 2/1 Elders were not going to kill any. I had Samite Elder, but Cathy had nine or ten squirrels left, plus a Priest of Titania and a Taunting Elf. Ingrid had a Blastoderm in play. Then I drew an Ancient Hydra. The Hydra killed the two Hermits who had been echoed immediately, then sat around looking threatening until my next turn. I untapped, put fading on the stack, then shot the last Hermit, the Taunting Elf, and the Priest of Titania.
Bonus track: New set review.
Torment’s out. It has eight cards that are amazingly broken, twenty-six strong Constructed cards, fourteen”don’t play anywhere” cards, and a few really strong limited cards that you will want to sell your soul for (or would, if it that helped for more than one draft – maybe leasing is the answer). Two cards will be great in my theme deck. And that one black rare is absolutely insane. Take my word for it – it will get banned or errataed almost immediately.
No, I haven’t read the spoiler – but did you get that much more from any other set review?
* – I have a bad habit of building decks that are too good, so I generally bring two decks, in case I judge the power level wrong. It isn’t fun, even for me, to bring a deck that just cannot lose all evening. (I would instead say something to the effect that you get tired of playing the same deck all evening, so you often build a couple just for variety. When you can’t lose all evening, you tend to play the same deck unless we make you change; when you do lose more than a game or two, you tend to change decks. – ILJ)
** – Another function of playing the same deck all day long – I value variety over consistency. The deck might win more if it were a tight 60 cards, with four each of the best cards, but it would get boring after a few hours of solid play.
*** – The correct answer is probably”unplayable” in anything not running Lifeline or Living Death… But even then I would prefer Radiant’s Dragoons.