You Lika The Juice? – Elder Dragon Forsythe

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Friday, January 9th – This week I’m pleased to present a very special interview with Wizards of the Coast’s Magic Director, Aaron Forsythe. When I heard he was gunslinging some Elder Dragon Highlander decks at Worlds, I had hopes he’d be willing to share some of his thoughts on the format with my readers here – and sure enough, he brought the noise!

This week I’m pleased to present a very special interview with Wizards of the Coast’s Magic Director, Aaron Forsythe. Aaron and I go back a little ways — not as far back as car seats, but he was my editor for a little while when I wrote for Magicthegathering.com (see my column Giving Thanks, where Aaron comes in at #7). So when I heard he was gunslinging some Elder Dragon Highlander decks at Worlds, I had hopes he’d be willing to share some of his thoughts on the format with my readers here – and sure enough, he brought the noise!

I want to touch on a few things before I get to it, though. First, I just wanted to give you all a big thank you for the feedback I got from last week’s column, A Bigger Slice of Pie for Green. It got a ton of response – over 1900 views on the forum thread, 4 pages of posts, and I got some emails too. I don’t know how many hits the column got, but obviously the topic generated premium-level attention, and even Patrick Chapin weighed in with his thoughts in the forums, so if you missed it I’d recommend going in and checking it out. I think the notion of “trickiness” and cleverness in Magic is a topic worth discussion, and hopefully the big response got some attention in the halls of Renton. If the words “why not give Twiddle to Green?” are uttered in a meeting up there sometime down the road, I will be thrilled.

I was interested to find Richard Feldman even weighing in on the notion of tricky cards. In Richard’s column this week, he said this:

“Playing tricky cards makes the unknown cards in your hand powerful. I once noted that, simply by playing countermagic in my deck, I could always choose to leave two mana untapped to get my opponent to play around it. Even simply making a normal play can get me extra mileage and create situations for my opponent to punt – if I am playing aggro-control and curve out with a couple of creatures, then suddenly decline to play one (because I don’t want to overextend into a Wrath and don’t have countermagic to stop it), my opponent might hold off on casting Wrath until he can play it with countermagic backup (after all, he’s only got the one copy, right?), netting me two free attack steps in the process.

“These things don’t happen all the time, but when they do happen, they are often such game-changing effects – literally the difference between winning and losing – they boost the power level of your deck up much farther than most people realize.”

Richard had a lot more to say on the subject, so if you’re a Premium subscriber go check it out. I have a feeling that Richard likely comes down on the same side that Patrick Chapin did, in that tricky cards are good, but that Green isn’t supposed to be tricky, thus Green shouldn’t get many tricky cards. But I just have to point right back to the meat of what Richard said, quoted above – if you have access to tricky cards, you’re playing an entirely different game of Magic than if you don’t, and making one particular color — Blue – the “tricky” or clever color means that decks that don’t play that color are going to be at an inherent strategic disadvantage. Playing tricky cards makes the unknown cards in your hand powerful. Green – and all other colors, not just Blue – need more and better tricky cards. Once you take “tricky” out of Blue’s color pie description, you stop thinking that cards like Twiddle just don’t “feel” right in Green. Sure, giving Green more quality flash creatures will help some (though now that Remove Soul is standard maindeck fare, Flash isn’t nearly quite so potent), but I still think Green needs more good quality instants to help Green decks play the kind of games that Richard talks about.

Second, I did indeed play some EDH this past Sunday at Richmond Comix, and I will do my normal write-up next week, since I figured it would be rude to keep Aaron Forsythe waiting!

When reading the Worlds coverage, I’d picked up that some of the Wizards gunslingers had brought EDH decks to Worlds. So I ask my readers, if any of them made it to Worlds did they get a chance to play EDH with anyone from Wizards? On December 18th, Stephen Hagan sent me an email:

“Bennie, I played a few EDH games against Aaron Forsythe. I played both my Vorosh (twice) and my Brion (twice); I faced off against his Sliver queen, his Saffi (twice), and his Bladewing.

“Three were close games with me being up early and him coming back late to win (combo out with Sliver Queen etc). Only his Saffi versus a slow draw from my Vorosh was a slaughter. But he did win all 4 games.”

Forsythe! Duking it out with Saffi Eriksdotter EDH-style!! I knew I had to try and get an interview with him. After the holidays and a west coast blizzard caused a slight delay, Aaron got the chance to get back to me with an awesome Q&A. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!

Bennie: I had a good friend of mine send me a day-by-day recap of his Worlds experience, and it sounded like he had a great time. A big part of his fun appeared to be getting to play against you, Garfield, and other people who make this game we all love. What’s it like from the other side of the table?

Aaron: Gunslinging (the term we use when “famous” people take all comers at big events) is a blast from our side of the table. Against competitive players, you can get into some pretty good conversations about what people like and don’t like about certain sets and formats, and against casual players you get to see what kinds of cards and decks are popular under the radar – stuff that doesn’t make it into event coverage or deck databases. It’s all incredibly reassuring and useful.

Bennie: How do the gunslingers decide on what decks to play? Are they made from your personal collection? Or do you send decklists to interns to assemble from the WOTC card vault?

Aaron: For starters, we definitely don’t bring “netdecks.” When people come to play against us, they want to have a memorable experience, not play against Faeries or Five-Color Control. That said, we do try to build good decks based on some of our initial playtesting, stuff that might get people’s wheels turning about new decks to build themselves. Our decks also tend to have fewer four-ofs and more ones and twos just to make them less repetitive to play. I personally don’t want to be casting the same nine spells for four hours straight. The cards for the Standard decks we build are all property of the department, but if we choose to make Legacy or Extended decks we usually have to tap into people’s collections, as all the department’s Ravnica duals, fetchlands, Jittes, etc., have long since been thrown away, stickered over, or lost. And all our EDH decks are from our own collections.

(Yikes! I have to admit to being a bit horrified envisioning Jittes and Overgrown Tombs getting stickered over and thrown away… – Bennie)

Bennie: I’ve been preaching the EDH gospel for a year now; how long have you played the format? How were you introduced to it?

Aaron: I’ve been playing it for maybe a year at this point. I got interested in it because Ken Nagle – one of my designers – had a couple of decks for the format on his desk all the time, and his desk used to be right outside my office. Ken played once in a while with Scott Larabee and some other guys from the OP department. I made some decks of my own, and now a bunch of people in R&D have decks, including Mike Turian, Brian Tinsman, Kelly Digges, and Mark Gottlieb. A bunch of the MTGO programmers like to play as well.

Bennie: Yay! EDH power to the people! What do you find appealing about the EDH format?

Aaron: It seems to solve a lot of the problems I had with multiplayer back in the day – turns took too long, decks were too degenerate, it was too easy to gang up on people – and adds a really cool flavor element to it as well. I had basically sworn off free-for-all multiplayer for a decade before I played EDH. On top of that, I love the deckbuilding challenges that the format’s rules create.

Bennie: What was the most memorable time you’ve had playing Elder Dragon Highlander?

Aaron: Most games have some kind of awesome moment in them. A lot of my wins involve some convoluted long turn that I need to apologize for afterwards. My most memorable deaths, though, tend to come at the hands of designer Greg Marques. His Brion Stoutarm deck killed me from 39 with a single thrown Phyrexian Processor token, and his Kresk deck killed me from a similarly high life total with the little-known Portal gem Final Strike.

(Yep, I had to click on it to see what that was too — StarCityGames.com has a few for sale! -Bennie)

Bennie: Do you prefer to play EDH as a duel or with multiple players? Do you get to play much EDH at work or after work?

Aaron: I like multiplayer better than duels because I enjoy the politics, but most of my decks tend to play well in duels naturally, mostly because I like playing cheaper spells than other people do. I want to get the game moving quickly. We tend to play after work every so often, usually in a group of 4-8.

Bennie: I need to upgrade my computer to play MTGOv3, but before the switch over I really enjoyed playing the Commander (EDH) format on Magic Online. I seem to recall hearing that adding that format choice was a “labor of love.” Who in Wizards pushed to make that happen? Is it available in v3?

Aaron: Lee Sharpe was the guy that brought it to life, almost entirely on his own time. Because he couldn’t do any back-end coding, he had to come up with his own versions of some of the rules, and some of his tweaks are being considered and/or have been adopted by the paper players. The format is available on v3, and Lee urges all fans of it to hop on and play!

(For those who don’t relish the task of trying to acquire playsets of cards for both real life and online Magic, EDH and Commander are ideal formats for whichever platform you play secondarily, since it’s much easier to acquire random singletons through drafts, sealed, and trades. – Bennie)

Bennie: I got an email from a fellow who played you in four EDH games: once against your Sliver Queen, once against your Bladewing, and twice against Saffi. Can you describe what you built each deck to accomplish, what themes or combos you were looking to implement with that particular general?

Aaron: The Sliver Queen deck is essentially an Enchantress decks – it has no other Slivers. I wanted to build a griefer* deck with Back to Basics and Destructive Flow because they seemed so brutal, and a five-color enchantment deck sprung forth. The Queen is the best general for it because she combos with enchantments like Mana Echoes and Earthcraft to make infinite tokens. (*Anyone know what a “griefer deck” is? Sounds like a “haterator” deck maybe? — Bennie)

The Bladewing the Risen deck is a very “fair” deck – it does nothing but try to overwhelm you with Dragons, and it does a decent job of doing it. You have a very high threat density when most of your creatures are Dragons. Buried Alive and Entomb are key cards.

Saffi Eriksdotter was the first deck I built – I wanted a deck that could use and reuse all of Green and White’s comes-into-play creatures. Cards like Erratic Portal, Tawnos’s Coffin, and Parallax Wave let me make the most of all the creatures that make tokens, gain life, draw cards, and break stuff when they come into play. It’s another “fair” deck that wins a lot of games.

Bennie: Can you share any of those decklists?

Aaron: Here’s the Saffi one:

1 Saffi Eriksdotter
1 Sakura-Tribe Elder
1 Wall of Blossoms
1 Tilling Treefolk
1 Uktabi Orangutan
1 Eternal Witness
1 Spike Feeder
1 Yavimaya Dryad
1 Yavimaya Elder
1 Forgotten Ancient
1 Wickerbough Elder
1 Spike Weaver
1 Indrik Stomphowler
1 Arashi, the Sky Asunder
1 Deranged Hermit
1 Seedborn Muse
1 Tornado Elemental
1 Regal Force
1 Woodfall Primus
1 Weathered Wayfarer
1 Whitemane Lion
1 Stonecloaker
1 Flickerwisp
1 Galepowder Mage
1 Knight-Captain of Eos
1 Reveillark
1 Cloudgoat Ranger
1 Twilight Shepherd
1 Eternal Dragon
1 Selesnya Guildmage
1 Fleetfoot Panther
1 Harmonic Sliver
1 Kitchen Finks
1 Loxodon Hierarch
1 Solemn Simulacrum
1 Duplicant
1 Triskelion
1 Skullclamp
1 Sol Ring
1 Synod Sanctum
1 Lightning Greaves
1 Umezawa’s Jitte
1 Erratic Portal
1 Soul Foundry
1 Tawnos’s Coffin
1 Minion Reflector
1 Sylvan Scrying
1 Search for Tomorrow
1 Natural Order
1 Akroma’s Vengeance
1 Eladamri’s Call
1 Condemn
1 Tithe
1 Swords to Plowshares
1 Otherworldly Journey
1 Congregate
1 Sylvan Library
1 Defense of the Heart
1 Pattern of Rebirth
1 Oblivion Ring
1 Faith’s Fetters
1 Parallax Wave
1 Elspeth, Knight-Errant
1 Savannah
1 Temple Garden
1 Elfhame Palace
1 Selesnya Sanctuary
1 Wooded Bastion
1 Sungrass Prairie
1 Brushland
1 Horizon Canopy
1 Windswept Heath
1 Grasslands
1 Krosan Verge
1 Terramorphic Expanse
1 Gaea’s Cradle
1 Treetop Village
1 Mosswort Bridge
1 Llanowar Reborn
1 Tranquil Thicket
1 Pendelhaven
1 Secluded Steppe
1 Windbrisk Heights
1 Flagstones of Trokair
1 Yavimaya Hollow
1 Vitu-Ghazi, the City-Tree
1 Wasteland
1 Maze of Ith
8 Forest
4 Plains

(Mmm, lots of great “Blink” — style cards, which of course I love from my TurboBlink Saffi decks! – Bennie)

Bennie: I love the card Saffi Eriksdotter; as a long-time player who cast more than his share of Lhurgoyfs over the years, I thought the card was a great blend of flavor/nostalgia and function. Since I really like to keep my creatures in play, I also loved how she could help keep your best creature in play despite removal spells. Later on I had all sorts of fun with her and Evoke creatures! Do you have a particular soft spot for Saffi too, or did you just happen to have a neat idea or two to build with her?

Aaron: The original general for that deck was Tolsimir Wolfblood, mostly because he’s my favorite card from Ravnica. I was at the Time Spiral prerelease in Pittsburgh and opened a foil Saffi there, which I had artist Chris Moeller sign. I stumbled across it a few months later, and thought: Wow, she’s a much better general than Tolsimir for a comes-into-play deck. And she is.

Bennie: You worked on both the Design and Development teams for Time Spiral; do you have any cool stories to tell regarding getting Saffi from concept to cardboard?

Aaron: I was a big proponent for brining old characters from names and flavor text to life in both Coldsnap and Time Spiral. Saffi was one that Mark Rosewater decided to try to make a card for. Her initial design was mono-Green, and she had a variant on the “Lure” ability, as her character is known for one thing: helping her friend Hans escape by essentially letting the Lhurgoyf eat her instead. Mark wanted a “martyr” feel for the card, but that one wasn’t all that interesting, so when we decided to do a cycle of rare gold legends, someone proposed her new ability.

It’s funny, if you read her Time Spiral flavor text, you’ll note that she was sucked into a time rift just before the Lhurgoyf could devour her, so maybe ol’ Hans didn’t survive after all.

Bennie: When R&D is designing/developing legends for Magic sets, do you think anyone specifically thinks “wow, this would be a kick-ass general for EDH!”?

Aaron: Yeah, I’ve heard that comment once or twice. We definitely look at cards in a multiplayer light, and with EDH gaining in popularity, we’d be foolish to ignore it. I don’t think a card has been made specifically with the format in mind yet, but we do talk about legends (and other cards) in the context of EDH. Ken Nagle has even started putting cards that are still in development into some of his decks to see how they play.

Bennie: Assuming there are legends in Conflux, is there any one you think would be a particularly kick-ass general for EDH? Not looking for details obviously, but maybe a tease…

Aaron: There are several that will be nasty, especially the mythic rare ones. Stay tuned to MagicTheGathering.com!

Bennie: Thanks, Aaron – I appreciate your time for the interview, and all you do in making this great game a lot of fun!

Mmmm, keep your eyes peeled for some Mythic legends in Conflux! I hope you enjoyed the interview with Aaron as much as I did… I’m going to try and build his Saffi EDH deck to have to play at one of StarCityGames.com big events coming up, either the prerelease or the $5K, it looks like a lot of fun.

See you for some more Elder Dragon Highlander action next week, and after that we’ll dive into Conflux, Standard, and Extended ideas!


starcitygeezer AT gmail DOT com

What I’m listening to:
Left of Center, by Suzanne Vega
Bobby Shannon, by Sister Double Happiness
Madame Bosso, by Feufollet
Mexican Radio, by Stan Ridgway
Wise Up Sucker, by Pop Will Eat Itself