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Good Beats: Departmental Review

Ten items of sheer randomness, but it manages to be in the”strategy” section anyway thanks to a big juicy section on understanding signals in draft.

Full plate today, muchachos. None of these topics would make a decent-sized article on its own, so here’s a little buffet. I’ll take things one at a time.

1) First, from the "I’ve Always Considered Myself a Soldier of Fortune" Department:

Everyone on the ‘net has been talking about Five-Color Magic – or "5" – lately. You know, the format with at least a 250-card deck and 18 cards of each color. I enjoy new competitive variants, so once John Rizzo told me he had a deck, I vowed to complete mine.

My "5" deck is base black with lots of discard and land destruction, including four Sinkhole and four Choking Sands. Seemed like fun. But those few LD spells aren’t the deck’s "defining" cards… Here’s a truncated decklist to show you what I mean:

LAND
4x Thawing Glaciers
4x Bad River
4x Rocky Tar Pit
2x Grasslands
2x Mountain Valley
a bunch of other lands

ARTIFACTS
1x Citanul Flute
1x Grinning Totem
some other artifacts

BLACK
1x Vampiric Tutor
1x Demonic Tutor
1x Rhystic Tutor
other evil cards

GREEN
1x Survival of the Fittest
1x Worldly Tutor
1x Crop Rotation
1x Silverglade Elemental
various random stuff

BLUE
1x Mystical Tutor
1x Time Spiral
1x Intuition
other broken cards

WHITE
1x Land Tax
1x Academy Rector
1x Enlightened Tutor
other sundry items

RED
nothing noteworthy

GOLD
1x Sterling Grove
1x Lobotomy
a couple more

I’m fixated on those particular 30+ cards because of one common phrase: "Shuffle [someone’s] library."

This is not fun. I mean, we’re talking decks the height of Coke cans in which greater than one-card-in-ten requires shuffling, and some of the cards give you the chance to shuffle every single turn. It isn’t physically possible to repeatedly shuffle a 250-card deck quickly or thoroughly. It got to the point where I was saying, "I probably should Thaw, but I don’t want to," or "I should Survival this Man-O’-War for a Crypt Angel but I’m not going to."

If I want to enjoy this format, I guess I need to ditch the "good card" approach and stick to Kird Ape and his friends.

Actually, maybe I will, because all the shuffling effects didn’t even help me. I lost two of three to Rizzo (whose deck almost never needs shuffled) and his retarded/high-tech Ill-Gotten Gains. "I’ll get back Black Lotus, Urza’s Rage, and Ghitu Fire." And he calls ME cheesy. BT4B (Bad Times For Becky – cool shorthand version).

2) Next, from the "At Least I’m Not Playing Magic Every Weekend, Mom" Department:

Two vehicles were leaving Pittsburgh bound for the Columbus PTQ last Saturday – Andrew Johnson’s SUV and John Rizzo’s pickup. There was some confusion leading up to that event about who was going to be picking up whom at what time and where.

Mike Turian sent a message to Eugene Harvey on our mailing list saying Johnson would pick him up "in that little circle area," somewhere on CMU’s campus. Since Turian didn’t address the message, Mike Patnik apparently thought it was for him. This gem showed up on the list around midnight on Friday:

"From: mjp9
Date: Sat Jan 20, 2001 00:04am
Subject: Re: PTQ tomorrow

Mike zTuriasn, O’m really drunk, but do you mean; that you will mean outsiee the Wiliam Pitt Union at 6:00, If so leyt m,e nmokw tomprrow, orm elws I wiillm go wotj Rizzo, anks, Patnik!!!"

This could be a popular game show – decipher the drunk guy’s email! I guess he had every intention of trying to get to the PTQ; needless to say, he didn’t quite wake up in time. Rizzo didn’t wait too long for him, I hope.

3) Next up, from the "Hounded by the Otitis Media" Department:

Two years ago – in February 1999 – I became very ill at Pro Tour Los Angeles. It happened on Day One, sometime between Round 3 and the start of the second draft. I had a fever, nausea, and a terrible headache highlighted by a fierce pain in my right ear. It took until the flight home two days later for me to feel better.

Since then, the pain in my ear has resurfaced frequently, usually during times of stress. The ear would ring incessantly and my hearing became affected. Sometimes the earache would set off nasty debilitating migraines, usually at Magic tournaments.

I have a high threshold for discomfort, and usually like to let my health problems work themselves out over time. If there was something wrong with my ear, I was sure it would go away eventually – that’s what immune systems are for, right?

Well, the laissez-faire approach didn’t work this time. This past New Year’s Day, some 22 months since the first sign of trouble, the pain finally got to me. After spending the majority of the holiday in my in-laws’ guest bed with a pillow over my head, I vowed to go to the doctor.

"Chronic Otitis Media" – or "inner ear infection that won’t go away" – was the diagnosis. I was given a nice pill sampler of antibiotics, steroids, and decongestants that was supposed to knock it out of me. No luck. More drastic measures were necessary.

This past Monday, I had a tympanostomy. You may have had one when you were six months old; it means putting a tube in the ear through a tiny incision in the eardrum. The procedure was quick and relatively painless. The tube relieved all the pressure and allowed 100 weeks worth of infected fluid to drain out. Mmmm…. Fluid. My hearing improved dramatically. My own voice no longer echoes in my skull. Hopefully the migraines are gone as well.

The experience was akin to Aesop’s fable about the lion and the thorn. I’m a new man now! A super-nice happy guy!

Yeah.

4) From the archives of the "Study, Grow Strong, and Die" Department:

I love it when random "tough guys" send crap like this to websites. From Mindripper:

"The end of The Dojo isn’t a weepy made-for-TV movie. I know Mike Flores is a respected author on the subject of Magic, so when he writes something on a Magic website, I’d kinda expect it to be about the game of Magic, not his personal emotional attachments to two websites of literally millions. Let’s keep the train on the track, the article should have more appropriately been written concerning the implications of the loss of the Dojo and how this will affect deckbuilding and the metagame in 2001. Or better yet, why not take some affirmative action and reorganize. The authors are still out there, there’s still plenty of Magic to write about. There are still magic sites that post articles…it isn’t the end of the world…

Anonymous"

Oooh, Mr. Anonymous has a beef. Mr. Anonymous went through the effort of clicking on a link and wasn’t suitably entertained by what Mike Flores had to say about the "death" of the Dojo. I’m very sorry, Mr. Anonymous. Flores will be duly reprimanded by whatever body governs what he’s allowed to write about.

Mr. Anonymous needs to put up or shut up. Hi there, Mr. Tough Guy Anonymous. My name’s Aaron, what’s yours? Maybe you don’t realize it, but the people that work to bring you all the latest "tech" have real lives. Sure, those lives may be dominated by Magic, but we all benefit because of that. Sometimes strange and powerful events occur that touch those lives. Mike Flores has been a part of the Dojo for a very long time. Its closing probably really affected him personally – most of his adult life has been spilled out onto its pages. If he wants to mourn it in some way, we should allow that without having to try TO GET SOME PERSONAL GAIN OUT OF IT, LIKE KNOWLEDGE OF HOW IT WILL AFFECT THE METAGAME. The metagame. Is this guy serious? The Dojo WAS the metagame. Mike Flores IS the metagame. Pardon Flores for having an emotional involvement with Internet Magic; I’ll tell him to get back to building Type 2 decks for you.

"Aaron, I don’t appreciate you responding like tha-" Zip it. Stay off my Internet, sucka. You should feel lucky that Scott Johns gave your sentiment the honor of some web space. I would have set it on fire and sent it right back to you.

Anyway, here’s my chapter in the weepy made-for-TV movie.

I wrote five or six pieces for the Dojo last year. I know that doesn’t put me in the "immortals" category with Flores, Wakefield, Sullivan, and Taylor, but I still feel like a part of me went down with the ship. In a fit of nostalgia, I managed to find my first submission – my first bit of writing ever to appear on-line – from October 1997, four long years ago. Its about a deck called "Mr. Funny Man." Check it:

http://www.thedojo.com/deck/dka.971029afo.txt

Note the amazing 1/2/3/4/5/6 land ratio. Also of note is the one Fallow Earth – I guess that was the right number.

The funny story with "Mr. Funny Man" is that I went to that tournament on 11/2 and came in second. The guy who beat me had read about my deck online and knew I’d be coming, and played with two Ghost Towns to fight my Winter Orbs. Plus he sided in Hydroblasts for the Firestorms that I never cast in game one. So I lost to Ghost Towns and a little personal metagaming. I was very confused after that about the value of writing about Magic strategy on the Internet, and didn’t submit another word until I qualified for my first Pro Tour in August of 1998. (Aside: Those were the days when you’d get a free booster pack at the Andon PTQs by writing "The Magic Dojo" at the top of your deck registration form.)

I’m sure people are frantically archiving Wakefield’s old columns. But there’s a ton of hidden gems on the Dojo as well – stuff akin to Mr. Funny Man that the masses could care less about. It’s BT4B that all those old decks and stuff will be gone forever one day soon. They might not have any real practical information embedded in them anymore, but they all have Stories, and that’s reason enough to care. Go read Flores’ plea again.

5) Next topic. From the "Help a Brother Out" Department:

I did some writing for the Sideboard about Planeshift cards. One piece should end up on the website, but the other two are going into the "paper version." It’s been years since I’ve seen a "Sideboard Paper Version."

Does anyone have any of the back issues lying around from this past summer through now? I’d like to get my hands on them… they’d make great keepsakes from the days when I was doing well at Magic, plus now that I’ll have written articles for them…

If any kindhearted soul has old/new "paper" Sideboards and will be at PTLA, I’d love to snag a few copies. If there are any real philanthropists who wouldn’t mind mailing them to me, well, I’d be eternally grateful. I can be reached at moggfanatic@yahoo.com.

6) A morsel from the "Super Lucky Guy Strikes Again" Department:

Pittsburgh has seven people qualified for the upcoming PTLA. That’s more than we’ve ever had for any one Pro Tour, even dating back to when Mssrs. Buehler and Lauer were eating all our O-Fries. So we’ve been getting in some pretty solid practice drafts this past month.

Normally, it’s the seven of us plus one other person, sometimes Rizzo, sometimes Patnik, or Eugene Harvey. Once in a while, all seven of us can’t be present, but there are always other people ready to fill out the table.

A week ago, Bryan Bandes sat down for a draft. If you read my last article, you’ll remember Bandes from the PTQ. Five color deck, 43 cards. Skittish Kavu; Spreading Plague. Top 8. Super Lucky Guy.

We draft – I’m passing to Dan Silberman who is passing to Bandes. It looked like Bandes ended up with a good card pool. But he has this problem – he can’t cut his deck down. He just can’t do it. So he presented another 43-card deck (this one was only 3 colors) to each opponent.

Of course, he won the draft. In the semi-finals he Disrupted Mike Turian right out of the tournament. And in the finals, he beat Andrew Cuneo with a well-timed Breath of Darigaaz.

I guess we’re going to have to unlock the secret of the 43-card deck, or at least hope none of our opponents use them in LA. Or we’re doomed.

7) A special treat from the "The Rest of My Life is Miller Time" Department:

I got an e-mail from the Ferrett a few weeks ago. He was complaining that Sheldon Menery was berating him and the rest of their group for not following the signals Sheldon was sending in a booster draft.

Basically, he wanted to know what the hell Sheldon was talking about. So here comes the minute strategy portion of our program.

In the last high-stakes booster draft I did, it was easy to send and read signals. The card pool was Masques block, which is devoid of gold cards and crazy cross-color abilities. I took Thrashing Wumpus from my first pack – good because it is a straight bomb, but even better because it was the only good black card in the pack. In my second pack, I took Sever Soul because it was the only good black card. Ditto for the third-pick Cateran Overlord. Then the black kind of dried up, but cards like Deepwood Drummer, Invigorate, and Rushwood Herbalist were left. So I took those.

Basically, I did my best to send the signal that I was black by passing no good black cards early, continued with black when it was evident the guy on my right was not black, and then respected the other signal being sent to me and picked up green a little later. It worked like a charm. I got great black in Nemesis, and good green and black in Prophecy, and then won the table.

Signaling at its essence is trying to convey a color choice to the people on your right by picking a color consistently in order to cement yourself in it and lock the next guy out of it. You can also accomplish this by passing a great card with the intention of luring the person on your right into a color. Example: I take Vendetta and pass you a Cinder Elemental. I now hope (and assume) you’ll be red, and will pass you subsequent Lunges and Kris Mages to solidify you in that color. That way, I improve my chances of getting black cards in Nemesis.

Invasion makes thing really confusing. All the different mana symbols on each card have the potential to create chaos. The initial desire to "always draft the best card" and then sort it out afterwards is hard to resist, because all the good cards look really easy to cast or "splash" into any deck. That plan is a very selfish one – your first three picks might be Barrin’s Spite, Cinder Shade, and Benalish Heralds. What kind of message does that send? None. What are you going to pick for the rest of the draft? God knows. Hopefully nothing green.

So who gets hurt? Initially, the guy on your left. He’s trying to figure out what you’re taking so he can stay out of those colors, but you’re making life really hard on him. So don’t be surprised if you get passed nothing good in pack two, which hurts you in the long run.

Signaling is a two-way street. It’s etiquette. No one HAS to do it, but people that cooperate have historically tended to succeed. Unfortunately, Invasion doesn’t punish a drafter enough for dipping into other colors. Four color-decks are a little too common. Signaling is currently at an all-time low. Some of the guys I play with, like Turian and Cuneo, believe there isn’t even a point in trying to send signals with Invasion – just keep picking the best cards and try to keep your deck to three colors. Everyone else is goofing around, so why shouldn’t you?

Personally, I think it IS possible to send and receive signals in Invasion booster draft… But you have to understand the draft on two levels: the set and the players.

Invasion lends itself to TYPES of decks, as opposed to color combinations. For example, popular configurations are the U/W/G Tapper-Cloak deck, the B/R shivanzombie.dec, and the U/B bounce-discard deck. When drafting, you may want to stick to one of these strategies, while at the same time try to determine which strategies the people on your right are employing. This will probably lead to better information gathering that just a color-watching method.

For example, Faerie Squadrons might keep being passed to you, but the guy on your right could very well be blue as part of a U/W/G tapper deck. He’s taking Stormscape Apprentice and Exclude along with green and white cards. You can get away with drafting blue here, but it should be with black. But don’t expect to get any good, cheap blue spells with one U in their casting cost from that direction. Your best bet might be to go red/black and let the next guy worry about the Faerie Squadrons. It takes some time, but you should be able to discern deck types around you a few picks into each pack. Then draft the one that no one else is.

Knowing the players in the draft is important as well. The first thing to determine (if possible) is if the people around you are going to bother with trying to signal at all. Some people don’t draft very often and pick bad cards, some people like to rare draft, some people will pick oddball cards because they’re drafting a "funny deck around Elvish Champion and Llanowar Elites." If you’re dealing with this kind of crowd, don’t bother signaling. Selfishly grab the goods and hope your mana works out right.

Most drafts, however, you will be dealing with people that have decent etiquette, and you should concentrate early on sending a clear signal and hope that others cooperate. When you are in a Top 8 draft, or any draft with strangers, you should approach it this way.

The highest level of knowing the players involves using information about players’ tendencies to predetermining their dispositions, and thus to react immediately from the first pack. From the Grand Prix New Orleans coverage on the Sideboard:

"Tony [Tsai]’s first pack had an interesting paradox – the best card in it was clearly Smoldering Tar, but Tony found he couldn’t take it, as he was nearly certain that Michelle [Bush] would be playing Black/Red, and he didn’t want to suffer as she choked off his supply of cards if he also went those colors. The next best card was Serpentine Kavu, and he reluctantly picked it. He was right. Michelle first picked Soul Burn, and was quickly set into Black/Red, even though she had to pass a Plague Spores…"

Please understand that it is illegal to sit down at a table at a tournament and say to the guy next to you, "What colors do you draft?" That is collusion. You must have the other players figured out before the draft is seated. Once you know who will be at your table, though, you may want to start doing some homework on your competition.

When you are drafting with a regular playtest group, you may want to throw that idea out the window. Drafts tend to become inbred if everyone is always drafting the same deck, with subtle hate drafting and misvaluing of certain cards occurring. Try new things and don’t always be predictable. It is practice, after all, and it will keep everyone on their toes.

So that’s what you should know at a basic level in order to keep a draft moving smoothly.

There is a third level of information beyond the "set" and the "people" – if anyone cares – and that is knowledge of the packs. Commons tend to appear in "runs" in booster packs – the same cards repeatedly show up together. Learning some of the runs can give you an edge in quickly figuring out what color your neighbor is picking. Some people feel this is "dishonorable" or "not in the spirit of Magic," but they’re wrong. Memorizing runs is a feat of mental prowess, and Magic is a game of mental prowess. I remember when Jon Finkel came to Pitt to practice before Grand Prix Indianapolis a few years ago. My friend Tom opened his Tempest pack, took a card, and passed to Finkel. Finkel flicked the cards around for a few seconds, and said, "You took either Muscle Sliver or Pacifism; I’ll figure it out in a second." Our collective jaws dropped.

The runs aren’t as clearly defined in Invasion as they were in Tempest, but some recurring clumps are evident. For example, I know a few of the more basic important ones, like Exclude and Kavu Climber, tend to show up together, and Soul Burn is often accompanied by both the green and blue Apprentices. So if I’m passed a pack with a Stormscape Apprentice and a Soul Burn, but no Thunderscape Apprentice, I’ll take Soul Burn so that I’m not fighting for white.

Tallak Tvide is a European player who constantly researches print runs. Here’s his web site with all of his Invasion information: http://tveide.net/magic.

Do I recommend memorizing print runs? No. I tried it for Pro Tour: LA last year, and it was a disaster. I spent the whole time reorganizing the booster packs to figure out what the other guy took instead of just looking at what the best cards were. I went 2-5. BT4B. So don’t memorize them all, but knowing one or two of the important ones can often give you just that little smidgen of information that you need.

Bah. Enough strategy. Go, Ferrett, go. (Hey, I’m gone – The Ferrett)

8) Here’s one from the "Insert Vowel Here" Department:

This is just a little pet peeve of mine. I don’t know what kind of amazing mental powers Chicago PT’er Andrew Nishioka has, but apparently he’s subliminally planted his name in a lot of people’s brains. Here’s the $64 question…

There is a creature in Invasion that costs GW4, is 5/5, tramples, and has protection from red and blue. What is it?

Answer: Sabertooth Ni-sho-ba. Three syllables. Not Ni-SHI-o-ba. Not Nishioka, either. Ni. Sho. Ba. Sho ’nuff.

9) A request from the "Addle – 1B – Sorcery" Department:

Please, do the world a favor, and do not write a six-part series analyzing Planeshift card by card. Even if your name is Nathan Heiss and you can’t think of anything else to write about. You will be wrong. I promise. And then I will write an article before the next set comes out about how wrong you were.

10) In closing, here’s a last-minute submission from the "Mind Sports with the Buyback" Department:

This is a quick follow-up to my "Mind Sports" column from four weeks ago. Peace, love, and thanks go out to everyone who wrote in to correct oversights or further enlighten me on the subject. A couple little tidbits courtesy of the public:

* Chess tournaments really are mostly Swiss-style; only championship-level tournaments are single elimination. My mistake.
* Magic can award prizes in England because Magic has good lawyers; backgammon does not.
* Some computer games – mostly first-person shooters like Quake – have reached similar competitive levels. But there’s just a bit too much dexterity involved for them to be considered Mind Sports, I fear.

Anyway, here’s the interesting part. Mind Sports Worldwide – the brains behind the MindZine – runs a yearly event called the MSO – Mind Sports Olympiad. Here’s a snippet of a March 26th, 2000 interview with MSO organizer, David Levy:

MSO_Admin: Why wasn’t there a Magic: the Gathering tournament at MSO III?
David_Levy: We would certainly have liked to have had one and we tried very hard to convince Wizards of the Coast to organize one, but I think they had some internal reorganization, possibly connected with the fact that the company was bought by Hasbro. Nevertheless, I hope very much that we will have a Magic tournament in the future. I was invited two years ago by the Head Office of Wizards of the Coast to attend a Magic tournament in Rio de Janiero; there were something like 1500 players, almost all of who were from Brazil. This shows just how possible it is to organize really big Magic tournaments; I don’t see why we shouldn’t be able to do something similar at MSO if Wizards want us to.

There you have it, folks. Mind Sports Worldwide is familiar with Magic and would like to include it in their international venue… But WotC is holding it up somehow. There was no Magic at MSO III in 1999 and none at MSO4 this past August in London. I’m curious as to why. The hardcore intellectual gaming population seems like a great target audience for Magic. I hope WotC rethinks this arrangement and lets them have a decent-sized tournament at the next MSO. I, for one, would like to see Magic on the same stage as the other great games – chess, Go, Scrabble, etc., where it belongs. ‘Nuff respect due.

That’ll just about do it. I’ll see some of you in LA next weekend. Give me a hug and a pound. Until next time,

Game hard,
Aaron Forsythe

P to the S: I’ll continue to answer all e-mails. Promise. Fans and readers are not just people to ignore until Invitational vote time.