Several years ago, Brian Weissman e-mailed me that he was engaged. I expressed surprise and commented he was marrying early. He replied reminding me how old he was when he first picked up Magic in the Bay Area, and how many years had passed, putting him in his late twenties already.
Fast-forward a few years, and I get this e-mail from Phil Stanton a.k.a. DrSylvan:
One of my friends said I’d been”writing an article a week for forever” last night, and I’ve only been at it for six months. I remember back when I read your entire archive, and you had a set review for Apocalypse… which was released back when I was fifteen.
You, sir, are *old*. 🙂
The bestest Type I article ever written!
Today’s article was inspired by a very interesting letter sent in by Josh Stegmaier:
I thought you might like to see the latest [literary work] Brainburst has seen fit to set upon us all, which can be found here: http://www.brainburst.com/db/article.asp?ID=4191
All I wonder is, has this guy ever even played Type 1? He uses the logic of a possible first turn kill involving Crucible of the Worlds and many restricted cards. Kind of like the Channel–Fireball article you took on in your first column.
Again, you might wonder why I dwell on cards I don’t think will see play in Type I, even if I end up with a list that rejects all the new cards. While the Johnnies in all of you might not like it, I want to impress the thought process upon the beginners and people like Jarvis. Only after reading his column am I fully reminded why it remains important to write about Eternal Witness for the teenager who’s at the Prerelease and has a passing interest in Type I.
Megrim, Sneak Attack, and Rakso’s keywords
You’ve heard me use phrases like”Megrim problem” (see”Deconstructing Darksteel: Artifacts“) and”Sneak Attack Problem” (see”Maximizing Mirrodin: Artifacts“) before, especially if you caught me back when Beyond Dominia was still alive.
Over the years, Magic has added several keywords like Haste, Fear, and Islandhome. Although nothing on the level of the Flores vocabulary, Anthony Alongi has coined his own subset of slang (see”Animal Elements: A Re-Primer“, MagictheGathering.com) for his articles. It’s about time I formalize my own set of sound bites for beginners.
For example, come next set, imagine a forum post that reads:”OMFG, pop a boner for Swarm of Zombie Ferretts!”
In l33t no less.
Instead of typing up the explanation, imagine yourself typing:”Megrim, nah” or”Sneak Attack, sorry dude.”
Especially with the hype that surrounded some flashy Fifth Dawn cards, I’d like to finally get around to it.
Hopefully, these recurring examples will help people develop a better feel for the resource flows in the game, which underlie all the examples (see”Counting Shadow Prices“).
Culprit #1: Megrim
As an old, old Beyond Dominia moderator, I can tell you that beginners love mono-Black. They might shy away from Phyrexian Negator at first, but they’ll want to build one, either Suicide Black or an archetypical discard deck complete with The Rack. The Suicide Black forum on TheManaDrain.com testifies to this.
No, the archetypical discard deck is not competitive, but it’s a nice step-up deck for a beginner. You’re forced to learn to balance between mana, disruption, and threats. More subtly, you learn how different an aggro, an aggro-control, and a control style of play are, depending on the exact build.
You also get flamed for posting that ubiquitous, gawdawful Black/Blue counter/discard deck that has nothing but four Avatar of Will to win with.
The cheapest discard spells are the best ones, so they kick in before your opponent has played out his hand. Duress, Unmask, and Hymn to Tourach top the list. Megrim, at first glance, seems like a perfect match, sort of like a voluptuous vixen in a bar and Knutson’s Ravager pickup lines.
Why not make a good thing better, right?
When you really think about it, you don’t have time to cast Megrim before unloading your discard barrage, so it ends up dealing a little damage slowly when you finally get around to it. Historically, it shined only when it was paired with unrestricted Memory Jars for a very, very fast kill.
Lesson: Incremental thinking. Be critical of cards that make already good cards stronger, but don’t contribute when alone.
Instead of playing cards to make already good cards better, just play more good cards. The exception is when already good cards make each other better, like Brainstorm and Polluted Delta, or Goblin Welder and Thirst for Knowledge.
In retrospect, the earliest builds of Darren Di Battista’s The Franchise had subtle Megrims. The double Gaea’s Blessings and the Tormod’s Crypt for a kill with Timetwister were chaff. It was a time when graveyard cards from Worldgorger Dragon to Academy Rector were still far from common. The Blessing recursion had no excuse to stay in after Yawgmoth’s Will saw print, and even then you should strive to win the first time you use those cards. Resiliency to Jester’s Cap didn’t quite cut it.
Moving to Fifth Dawn, I said Vedalken Orrery is a perfect example. A couple of others such as Krark-Clan Ironworks and Crucible of Worlds might be and I’ve explained why as well, but I wouldn’t blame you for testing more to make sure they’re as superfluous as I initially think.
Culprit #2: Sneak Attack
The idea of turning your crap rares into an intimidating combo is another longtime beginner’s favorite, and pairing Sneak Attack with Nicol Bolas should make anyone squirm. If something happens to our favorite Elder Dragon, then you can always make sure there’s a Weatherseed Treefolk or some other nasty right behind it.
If Sneak Attack hits the board, that is.
If it doesn’t, you’re stuck with a hand of uncastable fat.
Many decks lean on specific cards to set up, from Accumulated Knowledge to Mishra’s Workshop. However, not even modern combo decks are still brought to a screeching halt simply by knocking one card out of the equation.
Lesson: Card advantage and”dead cards” (see Rule 3 of T.H.E.F.U.C.C. in”Back to Basics: The Ten-Second Card Advantage Solution“). Be critical of cards that make a deck spectacular, but leave you with a whole lot of”dead” cards before it enters play.
A lot of old combos were too fragile because they relied too much on interactions with a single card. Sure, you’ve had combo pieces that were individually suboptimal like Donate (with Illusions of Grandeur) and Earthcraft (with Wild Growth and Sacred Mesa), but I’m talking about much bulkier combos such as Eureka and a couple dozen uncastable tramplers such as Deep Spawn.
Seemingly powerful mana fixers are subtler manifestations of the Sneak Attack problem. For example, consider why a five-color deck like older”The Deck” builds never used Celestial Dawn, aside from the problems with Force of Will and Merchant Scroll. Simply, it needed a mana base and splashable spell selection that would work before Dawn was played, to the point Dawn would be superfluous. Indeed, the only time Dawn was useful was when”The Deck” had to combat Sligh decks with eight Red Elemental Blasts and four Price of Progress in the sideboard.
You see this idea in Reflecting Pool, which is good only for getting a second mana of a color you already have, meaning it isn’t good. It also works for things that change casting costs like Quicksilver Amulet, since you want spells you can cast without Amulet anyway.
Going to Fifth Dawn, Fist of Suns is an easy Sneak Attack example. Eon Hub is another, since building a deck intent on avoiding lousy upkeeps has the same problems as a Teferi’s Veil deck stuck with Fog Elementals but no Veil.
Culprit #3: Arcane Denial
Those who knew me back in my past life as Beyond Dominia’s moderator know there’s no card I hate seeing more. Not only is it always posted in amateur Blue decklists, it’s a favorite of abrasive novices who will insist on debating that it’s the third best counter.
For example, they rationalize that your opponent will draw two cards, but you’ll draw a card plus your next normal draw meaning you’re even. (You should count your opponent’s next draw as well, meaning he’s really one up on you.)
Or, they’ll rationalize that your opponent might just draw two lands anyway. (But then he’ll clear away those two dead draws and topdeck something useful.)
Arcane Denial is a newbie’s obsession simply because it has a useful effect for a low mana cost, but the real price isn’t obvious.
Note that some manifestations are subtler.
For example, Howling Mine is really Arcane Denial with lousier art. If you do T.H.E.F.U.C.C., you realize that your extra draws cancel out with your opponent’s, but you’re perpetually down a card, or Howling Mine itself. It’s not obvious, and I once met a computer science professor who built a Blue/White control deck with Howling Mine as”cheap draw.” Many symmetric cards fit this mold.
Another category covers self-discard. Balduvian Horde, for example, was touted by Inquest as the next Juzam Djinn, but even for Type II, the difference between a few life points and an additional card was huge. Its forecast on Ritual of the Machine wasn’t as good, either. This gets interesting, though, because some CA to tempo trades are very powerful, such as Force of Will, Unmask, and even Goblin Grenade and Rogue Elephant. On the other hand, some fall flat, such as Vine Dryad and Sonic Burst.
It’s even more interesting when the value of the CA/tempo tradeoff is up for extended debate. Case in point: Isochron Scepter.
Interlude: Nevyn speaks for Type I Turboland players everywhere
The last Back to Basics column (see”Back to Basics, Part XIII: Incremental Thinking, and How to Say No to Cute Combos“) quoted Ben Bleiweiss:
“…you never know – a Goblin deck might want to recur Wastelands every turn of the game – or some deck might want to bring back a slain Mishra’s Factory every turn. Zvi’s Turboland deck has never been accurately translated to Type One… Look Type One people – another deck for you to stea… errr, borrow and retool! (see”18,000 Words: Some Words About Fifth Dawn in Type One“)“
Mark Acheson a.k.a. Nevyn, who adapted Turboland into Type I and once impressed even Zvi Mowshowitz himself with his version, came out of retirement for a few seconds to stand up for his small cadre of minions.
He said: “Hi Oscar,
“Yes I did catch that paragraph from Ben. But it didn’t really seem worth the bother to argue with him about it. His interest in type one could be called ‘in passing’ at best, so I don’t think he cares if such statements are accurate one way or the other.
“Also I didn’t think I could reply to that without chipping in on the rest of his recent ramblings, and given how little I play these days, I thought that fight was best left to others.
“Incidentally, I loved his ‘crystal vein combo’ mention. He hasn’t made me laugh like that since promising Angel of Mercy would be played in an extended pro tour.
“Anyway, nice article and thanks for the shout out.”
Culprit #4: Soothsaying
Touted as a Blue Sylvan Library back in Beyond Dominia days, it was even a part of Michael Bower a.k.a. mikephoen’s legendary mono-Blue Tournament of Champions deck, and a short-lived pet card of Darren Di Battista that gave him an infinite Time Walk combo with Gaea’s Blessing (see”Dragon Gold: Why Necro’s Restriction is GOOD for Poor People“).
But the short of it: It sucked because it cost you a card.
Lesson: Card advantage. Count carefully.
In the days of Ice Age and Mirage, we didn’t have as instinctive a handle on CA as we emphasize now. That is, you should’ve been less impressed with Lim-Dul’s Vault than with Impulse. Heck, in retrospect, we should have figured Necropotence out earlier.
Throughout the expansions, we’ve had a lot of negative-CA manipulation. Don’t mistake Scroll Rack, for example, as Impulse or a cycler, and that’s why it had to be paired with Land Tax. Same goes for cards that seem good because they do things with excess cards, like Seismic Assault and Trade Routes. And there’s the one that tried very hard, Spy Network.
Related to Soothsaying is the Jayemdae Tome mold, where you lose a card playing it, break even on the first activation, and start turning a profit only on the second activation (usually two turns later). This is a tad slow (see”Back to Basics: Counting Tempo, Part II“), and the Tome mold only got interesting with Isochron Scepter and its much lower mana costs.
Culprit #5: Helm of Obedience
If Arcane Denial is an excellent effect with an excellent tempo cost but an atrocious CA cost, there are cards out there with excellent effects and atrocious tempo costs.
Someone pointed out to me that it makes creatureless decks even MORE destructive.
“I millstone for 2. Then I Helm of Obedience 6 cards – fifth one’s a creature?
Great I take control of it.” This card sucks for those of use who play creatures.
And that was another well-hyped Inquest pick, well above the venerable CA engine called Thawing Glaciers. While you could theoretically dump all your mana into it and deck a creatureless deck, you could also waste an unholy sum and get a Fyndhorn Elf for your trouble.
Lesson: Tempo, tempo, tempo! (see”Back to Basics: Counting Tempo, Part II“)
I don’t need to dwell on cards that cost too much, but it gets interesting when cards we initially think are overcosted turn out to be playable. There are, for example, tempo-friendly alternatives or boosts like Goblin Welder and Mishra’s Workshop, which make the Mindslaver deck possible.
Going to Fifth Dawn, I think I’d pick Eternal Witness as a Helm of Obedience. Yes, Regrowth is great, but it has limitations. For example, the card has to be in your graveyard first, or it’s worse than a tutor. At 1GG, note Eternal Witness is more cumbersome than Cunning Wish, which is on the fringe of our playable tutor pool.
Culprit #6: Stasis
The most sadistic, pseudo-intellectual beginners will never be satisfied with beating an opponent down to zero-hey I was one once! No, they just have to win in some flashier way, preferably by leaving the opponent squirming helplessly as they toy with him for several turns, then win in a magnificent blaze of glory as the opponent thinks he’s about to turn the tables.
That’s right, I just described the Stasis player.
Today, however, getting the opponent in a complete hard lock and maintaining it is nearly impossible (see”‘The Deck’ is now aggro-control?“). Moreover, it’s unnecessary.
Try building a Stasis deck today. Go through all the zany components: Instill Energy / Birds of Paradise, Land Tax / Zuran Orb, Howling Mine, Despotic Scepter, Undiscovered Paradise, and Daze and Thwart. You’ll realize that for all the trouble you go through to force and protect Stasis, you’ll win in four turns with, say, a Morphling anyway.
You don’t need to protect your lock for more than the four turns you need to win; in fact, even disruption or a few counters that’ll last the four turns will do. This is why I wrote that control turns into aggro-control when it’s poised to win (see”Brainless players v. Mono Blue“).
Lesson: Don’t get too greedy. Or fancy.
Over the years, so many hard locks have fascinated players, especially mana locks involving cards like Winter Orb, Land Equilibrium, Tabernacle at Pendrell Vale, Tradewind Rider, Capsize, and Squandered Resources. Most of them require so much work to set up today that they’re obsolete.
Oh, understand this, and you’ll also understand why ProsBloom (Squandered Resources / Natural Balance / Cadeverous Bloom) is obsolete as well.
Going to Fifth Dawn, Possessed Portal could be the card that’s trying too hard, like Stasis. Crucible of Worlds / Fastbond / Crystal Vein / kill card and Auriok Salvagers / Black Lotus (or Lion’s Eye Diamond) / kill card are clunkier than existing infinite mana combos as well, like ProsBloom.
Culprit #7: Zuran Orb
Finally, there are some cards that every beginner is tempted to put into a deck simply because they look useful. Zuran Orb tops the list since it’s free, every deck has land, and every player might lose because he runs out of life.
Competitively, however, only the slowest decks like”The Deck” and Deck Parfait ran it, and even then there was additional synergy with cards like Balance and Land Tax. While these slower decks could turn things around if given a little more time, it will be too late for most decks at the point they’re so far gone that they need to lose cards to Zuran Orb.
The better option is to run cards that will help you win first or stop you from losing earlier.
Lesson: Card advantage and dead cards.
Almost every block has some attractive but ultimately dead or suboptimal cheap artifact: You have Glasses of Urza, Black Vise, Fountain of Youth, and Feldon’s Cane. Sol Ring is mistaken as a must-have for all decks regardless of spell mix, and it’s a Revised Uncommon you can easily find.
So, slap yourself each time you tell yourself it’s just one card slot.
Well, that’s it for this week. Till the next Steve Jarvis column!
(Oh, and I ended with seven delusions total. Oh, well.)
Oscar Tan (e-mail: Rakso at StarCityGames.com)
rakso on #BDChat on EFNet
Paragon of Vintage
University of the Philippines, College of Law
Forum Administrator, Star City Games
Featured Writer, Star City Games
Author of the Control Player’s Bible
Maintainer, Beyond Dominia (R.I.P.)
Proud member of the Casual Player’s Alliance