You Lika The Juice? – The Shards Prerelease

Read Bennie Smith every week... at StarCityGames.com!
Thursday, October 2nd – Sealed Deck is the format I least enjoy of all Magic formats, you have so little control over what you get to play with, you’re really at the mercy of luck with what card pool you get. However, this was a prerelease, and this would let me play with these new cards before I could buy them… sure, why not?

All right, rant time. I’m usually a glass-half-full kinda guy, but I really love Magic and when I see gross mistakes being made I feel a responsibility to get up on this soap box that you readers and StarCityGames.com have been kind enough to give me and say something.

That something is: The changes that Wizards’ Organized Play has made to the Prereleases are an utter disaster, and they’ve got just a couple months to do some serious reconsidering before the next Prerelease. If their goal is to destroy “big event” Prereleases, then they are certainly well on their way, but no matter what their true intentions are, it seems painfully obvious they’re making a gigantic mistake here.

I understand how this ball got rolling; Wizards is trying to help the stores attract new players, and they want to drive more events at the store level. As someone who has always believed in the responsible gamer’s creed “Support Your Local Store” (especially in regard to purchasing their product), I can certainly get behind this sentiment. Gaming stores are truly the lifeblood of whatever gaming community you belong to, outside of online gaming of course. To a new gamer, there’s nothing quite like the experience of walking into a game store for the first time and stumbling across a few people sitting around a table and having a great time with some new game you’ve never played before, and it’s certainly easier to approach learning a new game in the comfort of a small store than some huge event with tons of people who know a lot more about the game than you do.

So now you’ve got your new player… what then? It seems that Wizards has decided that all new players are going to be jump on the tournament wagon, start playing Friday Night Magic at their local store, get in on the City Champs qualifiers, start playing in PTQs and Regionals and Grand Prixes, and ultimately strive for the Pro Tour blue envelope. All newbies are going to be steered onto the “Road to Worlds” and all the glorious things that brings. So the focus is: acquisition, then assimilation.

How very ‘Borg’ of them. Resistance is futile?

Distractions from the acquisition/assimilation focus are put on the chopping block. First they killed States (though thankfully the grass roots Premier TOs reversed that, for this year anyway); now it appears they’re trying to kill “big event” Prereleases.

It seems to me that Organized Play has totally overlooked, ignored, or forgotten about the huge number of truly casual Magic players who really don’t have the desire or time to play a lot of tournament Magic. I’ve been working Prerelease tournaments quite a few years now, and there are a large number of players who I see only at the Prereleases. Many of these folks are kitchen-table players who have a handful of Magic buddies that get together weekly for game night, play multiplayer Magic or some other game, and just have fun. When they show up at the Prereleases, they’re excited – this is the big time for them! They like the casual, laid-back attitude, and they’ll play in several flights, excited to open and play with the new cards no matter how well they do in the actual tournament. Many of them enjoy some casual drafting of the new set too. For some of these players, the Prerelease is the only structured event they play in all year, and it was exciting to go from the kitchen table and tap into the energy and excitement of a “big event” that wasn’t so focused on tournament performance (like a Pro Tour or Grand Prix) and instead was focused on having fun and experiencing the upcoming new set. One thing StarCityGames.com and other PTOs were able to do in the past, when attendance was going to be large enough, was to have Magic artists come to sign cards and sell Magic prints. I know a large number of casual players for whom that was a huge attraction. These people play for the love of gaming, and they eat up artwork and the flavor of Magic. Plus, it’s always good to give the people involved tangentially with the game, like the artists, some love from the gamers too.

Last Saturday, I know a lot of players I’m used to seeing at every prerelease just never walked through the door. I’m hoping some of them instead went to their local store and played, and many of those who did I’m sure had fun. But I can’t help but wonder — and worry — about those who didn’t bother coming out at all. If there wasn’t going to be any “big event” excitement to warrant taking the time and making the drive for, why go? Why not just order your boxes of new product online, have it delivered, and run your own little “release” event with your buds around the kitchen table at home?

Big event Prereleases — and to a smaller extent the State Champs — were a great way to bridge the gap between casual players and their more tournament-focused brethren, to get Magic players of all stripes together in one big room and build bridges to a larger community through the fun of experiencing a new set and having fun just playing Magic. Why Wizards would want to wreck that dynamic just baffles me.

Diffusing the player base for prereleases away from big events has another detrimental effect. Used to be, you could roll up to a Prerelease no matter what time you woke up or got into town, jump in queue for a flight or draft and have at it; get there early enough, and you could play a couple flights and/or drafts. Unless you didn’t get to the event until late afternoon, you’d never be too late to play. This meshes perfectly with casual players, who often have time constraints such as family, kids, jobs, or other commitments that make it difficult to show up at a specific time and be able to stay for hours and hours to finish up the tournament. There are reasons why many of these players don’t play in the more structured, competitive-oriented events, and there are reasons why they would come out to the Prereleases.

With a much lower attendance base now to each prerelease, the tournament organizers have to run just a few flights, or 1-2 “big” tournaments like we did here in Richmond, one at 10am and one at 2pm. So it’s not nearly as “casual” friendly, you’ve got to plan to be there at a certain time like you would a PTQ – only there’s not even any side drafts available! If you showed up later looking to play the new set, you were screwed. Working the admin table, I know of a few people who got there too late for the morning tournament, though I’m not sure whether they waited around for the afternoon tournament. I know of two guys who were lured off the highway by a House of Pancakes and, sated on carbs and looking to play some Shards, they instead arrived too late for the 10am tourney. Bummer!

So you’re turning people away here at the “big” events? What about those people who decided instead to go to their local store, only to find that the store had more players than their prerelease “kit” could accommodate? Can you imagine making a drive to one of these events and be told, “sorry, you missed out”…? What a complete and utter failure in its quest to try and acquire players!

Anyway, enough of my rant. I’m hoping that enough people complain to Wizards through various forums, email them at [email protected] or phone them at 1-800-324-6496 to let them know that they don’t like these changes.

On the glass half-full side of things, I thought StarCityGames.com did a great job running the event despite the disappointing changes, and once people sat down, opened up the brand new cards and started playing Magic, they did have fun. It is Magic, after all; even a mediocre day of playing Magic beats a good day at work, right? We had a pretty good turnout of 100 or more people.

There was a silver lining to the change in program for me personally; I work these events doing admin, basically signing people up to the various events and collecting their entry fees, and typically I’m doing this all day long to kick off the constant flights and drafts. Without having to do those, after we got the 2HG and second Sealed tournament signed up, my services weren’t strictly needed anymore, so the tournament manager Jared asked if I wanted to play in the second Sealed tournament. Now, Sealed Deck is the format I least enjoy of all Magic formats, you have so little control over what you get to play with, you’re really at the mercy of luck with what card pool you get. I do know it takes skill to figure out what works best given your limited card selection, and it takes skill to maximize every card in your deck, especially the mediocre ones. But at the end of the day, it seems to me that the good players who happen to get a good card pool nearly always rises to the top of the tournament in the end; I rarely see a skillful player with a mediocre-to-bad card pool make it to the end.

However, this was a prerelease, and this would let me play with these new cards before I could buy them… sure, why not?

Turns out it was a good choice. Check out what I opened:

Green: Elvish Visionary, Cylian Elf, Naturalize, Gift of the Gargantuan, Savage Hunger, 2 Algae Gharial

White: Angelsong, 2 Soul’s Grace, Oblivion Ring, Elspeth, Knight-Errant, Yoked Plowbeast

Red: Rockslide Elemental, Hissing Iguanar, Vithian Stinger, Viashino Skeleton, Incurable Ogre, Bloodpyre Elemental, Skeletonize

Black: Bone Splinters, Shadowfeed, 2 Blister Beetle, Infest, Viscera Dragger, Dreg Reaver, Skeletal Kathari, Corpse Connoisseur, Ad Nauseum

Blue: Cathartic Adept, Call to Heel, Cancel, Spell Snip, Tortoise Formation, Coma Veil

Jund: Jund Panorama, Savage Lands, Rip-Clan Crasher, 2 Resounding Thunder, Sprouting Thrinax (foil), Obelisk of Jund, Carrion Thrash, Broodmate Dragon

Naya: Naya Panorama, Steward of Veleron, Bloodthorn Taunter, Resounding Roar, Quasali Ambusher, Exuberant Firestoker, Branching Bolt, Obelisk of Naya, Mosstodon, Rakeclaw Gargantuan, Bull Cerodon, Cavern Thoctar, Spearbreaker Behemoth

Bant: Bant Panorama, Akrasan Squire, Sight-Caste Sorcerer, Jhessian Infiltrator, Hindering Light, Deft Duelist, Obelisk of Bant, Dawnray Archer, Bant Charm, 2 Stoic Angel (one foil!)

Esper: Esper Panorama, Sphinx’s Herald, Dispeller’s Capsule, Relic of Progenitus, 2 Etherium Sculptor, Tidehollow Strix, Etherium Astrolabe, Marble Chalice, Windwright Mage, Tower Gargoyle, Sanctum Gargoyle, Immortal Coil, Steelclad Serpent

Grixis: Grixis Panorama, Obelisk of Grixis, Grixis Battlemage, Fire-Field Ogre

I was totally disarmed by this card pool. Normally I struggle to find enough cards worth playing, but I had an embarrassment of riches here across nearly all colors and Shards. I had infinite mana-fixing, with a Panorama for each Shard and four different Obelisks. I had a good amount of removal. I had playable bomb rares. I had a solid card foundation for four of the five Shards (sorry for the short stick, Grixis).

Due to my Green bias, my attention was quickly drawn to the bounty found across Jund-Naya-Bant. Sure, that’s technically five colors, but I did have the mana-fixing to pull it off. Esper was intriguing too, I did have two Etherium Sculptors and a fair number of playable artifacts, and I could easily splash in some Bant goodies like the two Stoic Angels. In the end though I couldn’t resist the call of Broodmate Dragon and Spearbreaker Behemoth, two cards that scream “Game-Winner!” Here’s what I ended up building:

1 Steward of Valeron
1 Rip-Clan Crasher
1 Cylian Elf
1 Naturalize
1 Quasali Ambusher
2 Resounding Thunder
1 Branching Bolt
1 Oblivion Ring
1 Bant Charm
1 Vithian Stinger
1 Gift of the Gargantuan
1 Obelisk of Naya
1 Obelisk of Bant
1 Elspeth, Knight-Errant
1 Skeletonize
1 Mosstodon
1 Bloodpyre Elemental
1 Rakeclaw Gargantuan
1 Broodmate Dragon
1 Bull Cerodon
1 Cavern Thoctar
1 Spearbreaker Behemoth
1 Savage Lands
1 Jund Panorama
1 Esper Panorama
1 Bant Panorama
1 Naya Panorama
1 Swamp
1 Island
2 Mountain
4 Forest
4 Plains

I know some of you are going, “what about Resounding Roar? What about the Stoic Angels?!” I know, I know! It was hard not to end up with a 45-card deck. I kept trimming the Bant cards until I ended up splashing Blue only for Bant Charm, which may seem a little silly but I really, really like that Charm a lot. If I had a stronger crop of Exalted cards I would have likely kept the Angels.

On the Jund side it was hard not to play Sprouting Thrinax and Carrion Thrash, but I decided I wanted to focus the deck more tightly on Naya big beats, so I just splashed the swamp for the Dragon (along with the cycling ability of a late-game Resounding Thunder or to regenerate the Skeletonize token). Overall the mana worked well, with only a few times where things were a little awkward, but in retrospect I probably should have just given up the Bant splash and focused on Jund-Naya… Or maybe the other way, Naya-Bant? Agh!! I don’t know…

I ended up going 5-1, finishing somewhere around 4th place. Being a fairly limited Limited player, I give total credit to an insane card pool that I’m sure I misbuilt, and I’d be curious to see how you all would have built it instead. My takeaways from this first foray into Shards Limited?

1. Jungle Weaver is a beating! I had used up my early removal during a game and once my opponent dropped this gigantic spider, all my huge beaters suddenly looked like Hobbits to his Shelob with no Sting to be found. I ended up losing that match. I suspect this will be a key common to be looking for, coupled with the mana acceleration to play it.
2. Being stingy with Resounding Thunder seemed to pay off quite a few times. If possible, I tried to use whatever other removal options I had first before resorting to the normal casting of Thunder. Having the option of cycling this off for six points of damage that can’t be blocked or countered won several games that had gone long and stalled. It gives you an inevitability that’s nice to have.
3. Bull Cerodon is definitely as ridiculous as you think it is, and I’m pretty sure the threat of a 5/5 haste guy dropping into play and attacking will have people being much more cautious about counterattacks.
4. Maindeck Naturalize definitely seems worth it.

It felt good to go 5-1 at a Sealed event, and I picked up some packs for my efforts. I cracked them open as soon as I got home of course, picking up a selection of cool rares including a foil Ethersworn Canonist.

This Friday I’m going to give Shards draft a whirl and hope I can continue my Shards Limited good fortune! See you next week…

Bennie Smith

starcitygeezer AT gmail DOT com

Listening to:
Hang onto Yourself, David Bowie
Mass Romantic, The New Pornographers
Dizzy, Throwing Muses
Welcome to the Occupation, R.E.M.
Portions for Foxes, Rilo Kiley