Two days, two events, two champions. These StarCityGames.com Open Series are dense in information.
These are my notes from this past weekend.
– Team Sealed will be more interesting to watch than any other M14 Limited format. With twelve packs of cards, you will have far less power level disparity between decks. Everyone will have a similar number of powerful rares/uncommons and a good concentration of removal. In a format where it appears very difficult to out synergy/beatdown some of the more powerful cards, this is very important in making sure matches aren’t just "he played Sengir Vampire and I died."
– Despite being better to watch, the format is going to be less skill rewarding than most. If your games are focused so heavily on bombs, there is still a lot of inherent variance in drawing the right answers or better cards. There are fewer major deckbuilding decision points than something like DGR. The better players will definitely have a considerable edge since those decisions aren’t necessarily easy, but on a game-to-game basis, that edge will be at a minimum.
– Maindeck Plummet. Your opponent has to be G/R for it to be "bad," and even then it takes down Shiv’s Embrace, Shivan Dragon, and Scourge of Valkas. Four colors have an Air Elemental style uncommon that you have to deal with: Serra Angel, Air Servant, Sengir Vampire, and Shiv’s Embrace. Every Sealed pool is about a coin flip to have any given uncommon, and the odds your opponents have these cards probably goes up as you win more rounds.
Night 1 Aside
While forcing Mono-Black in Cube, I turned to consult the expert, Cedric Phillips, and caught him in a compromising moment. He was browsing a Facebook photo album, and it was all Cloudgoat Rangers. Lorwyn, Modern Masters, just the art, foil, you name it.
His immediate response: "Look, I can explain. I was talking to a girl about Goblins . . . "
[Editor’s Note: Way to out me, Ari.]
– I was shocked by how much synergy was actually possible in Team Sealed. Owen Turtenwald had the awesome Act of Treason theme deck, we saw a hyperaggressive W/R deck with multiple copies of Path of Bravery, and Reid Duke had the wish for more wishes deck. I doubt this will extend to Draft or Sealed, but it’s a good sign for future Team Sealed formats.
– White is borderline unplayable. All of the random defensive bodies have no value going deep. It has a few redeeming qualities, but they can mostly be summed up by fliers and removal. See also: why Giant Spider is bad. This does not apply if you are Suntail Hawk + Fortify the deck.
– Green was also pretty bad aside from the big creatures and Enlarge. The ramp is a trap that leads you into drawing more blanks going past turn 5. Way too many commons in green just don’t matter, and Briarpack Alpha is not as good as a Serra Angel that just wins the game.
– Black’s commons all do things that matter. Kill anything (Quag Sickness and Liturgy of Blood), two-drops that also rebuy relevant guys late (Corpse Hauler), two common finishers (Accursed Spirit and Nightwing Shade). It is probably the second best color behind blue.
– Far too few people were playing Celestial Flare. It kills 4/4s.
– Act of Treason looked like it will be fairly bad outside the Regathan Firecat or Blood Bairn deck. Games in this format are won by one card dealing twelve-to-twenty damage. One attack back is not enough.
– I did not realize Bubbling Cauldron gains four life. It seems much easier to have a deck where that card is good now (see: Owen’s feature matches).
– I also did not realize Illusionary Armor just makes you sacrifice the enchantment and not the creature. That card is awesome and likely the fourth best blue uncommon.
– Archaeomancer was unreal every time I saw it. I did not see it close to enough.
– Intimidate is very good in this format. Accursed Spirit is either three power unblockable or trades for any black creature. Academy Raiders saw less play than I expected, but I’m sure it’s great. Card filtering takes games away in this format.
– Minotaur Abomination is massive. Nothing ever fights that guy and lives.
– Altar’s Reap was shockingly good. Even just as 1B: Cycle this and a random now blank creature, I was impressed. As 1B: Sacrifice my Pacifismed guy and Corpse Hauler it back, I was more impressed. As 3RB, discard an Act of Treason: Good game, I was really impressed.
– Most of the Sliver interaction was incidental at best or involved a rare.
– Barrage of Expendables seems like a very important card in red decks. You need sacrifice outlets for Act of Treason, Pitchburn Devils, and Dragon Egg, and this one is not only on color but also functions as a Fireball.
– One huge caveat: these all were observed in Team Sealed. It’s a very real possibility that Draft is drastically different.
– There will be 0-1 Kalonian Hydra decks in the Top 8 regardless of how good the card is or isn’t. Obtaining and framing new chase mythics the week after release is a huge constraining factor. I expect it won’t be as good right now as Thundermaw Hellkite is in a similar deck, but I’m willing to be surprised.
– Garruk, Caller of Beasts will likely not be on camera as a result of us not running coverage rounds 1 and 2 of the event. The one case this won’t be true is if Brad Nelson is playing it, in which case it will be on camera round 4 and then never again.
– Imposing Sovereign and Brave the Elements are amazing with Geist of Saint Traft. While they obviously enhance White Weenie-style decks, those decks play bad cards when you could just be a Geist deck.
– Path of Bravery is one of the cards in the set that I think could make a significant impact and create archetypes that don’t exist. Glorious Anthem is a powerful Magic card alongside Lingering Souls.
– I like Lifebane Zombies as a good value sideboard card and alternate win condition out of midrange and control decks with black. I’m not quite as excited about it out of Zombies, where the issue of "my deck dies to red spells" is not solved by a 3/1.
– Jund Midrange likely benefits the most from this set. It is fairly streamlined and powerful against bad decks and gains Doom Blade. Esper Control is another contender for most gained. Again, Doom Blade, and again, you will beat people because they durdle around with cool but mediocre cards. Basically, if you wanted to win this event, your options were spending insane amounts of time fine-tuning a new deck or playing something established and punishing brews.
– Watching Chandra, Pyromaster in play in the Sealed portion reminded me a lot of watching Elspeth, Knight-Errant. It’s another planeswalker with a fairly incidental ultimate that can just sit on board and keep doing either of its things as long as your opponent can’t kill it. There’s none of the tick up, tick down nonsense. It just keeps flipping cards off the top of your deck or casting Shower of Sparks until they attack it to death. In my mind, this card is very clearly playable; I just haven’t put enough time into the format to know how.
– Scavenging Ooze surpassed my wildest dreams. It does everything the maindeck Ground Seals in Jund Midrange did and then some. It’s an early drop. It’s another big life-gain creature. It often gets to 6/6 and over the top of Thragtusk. The fact that this card is now Standard and Modern legal and good is great for the game.
– Scavenging Ooze is also the nail in the coffin for Junk Reanimator. Having a maindeck answer that so many decks want to play almost regardless of Reanimator’s presence in the format makes your engine quite bad. Angel of Serenity loses a ton of value when it can’t Raise Dead, but it’s still fine as a Plague Wind if you can get it from a non-graveyard zone into play.
– Jund Midrange is the default best deck. Every reasonable deck has to have a plan to beat Olivia Voldaren; Thragtusk; Bonfire of the Damned; Garruk, Primal Hunter; and Rakdos’s Return. So far, get them dead as fast as possible is what I have come up with.
– Seeing above, Elf Ball with Garruk, Caller of Beasts is just trying to make fetch happen.
– Four Terminuses is not the answer in control. You need some number of Supreme Verdicts to not just die to early red creatures or even just a turn 3 Huntmaster of the Fells. The other option is just playing U/W/R Flash, which seems great. Warleader’s Helix changes everything, allowing you to maindeck a massive burn spell for control mirrors that’s amazing against aggro as well (aka not Boros Charm).
– I want to believe in Mono-Red Aggro, but I don’t think this Dynacharge list is where you want to be. It’s very all or nothing in a format that rewards a little more resilience. See: Pyreheart Wolf, as always. Flames of the Firebrand may also be required to beat the new Humans-Tokens deck.
– After watching more, Lifebane Zombie seems like it is quietly one of the best cards in the set. Todd Anderson compared it to Vendilion Clique, and it isn’t far off. There are so many Huntmaster of the Fells, Restoration Angels, and Thragtusks floating to snag, and a 3/1 Intimidate pressures planeswalkers and players very well. Expect this card to be coming to a maindeck near you. Tidebinder Mage, on the other hand, is fragile and not card advantage if they kill it.
– Another Lifebane Zombie note: Flinthoof Boar, Ghor-Clan Rampager, Burning-Tree Emissary, and Boros Reckoner are all legal choices to exile with it. You aren’t likely to hit Emissary, but on the play against R/G Aggro, boarding in the 3/1 is very reasonable.
– There are far fewer Pillar of Flames than there were a few weeks ago and many more Tragic Slips. Gravecrawler and Voice of Resurgence’s stock rises, and Falkenrath Aristocrat’s falls. This may change in response to Xathrid Necromancer.
– Gladecover Scout seems decidedly unimpressive in Bant Hexproof. You need a specific set of Auras to make it able to attack, and unlike Geist of Saint Traft it doesn’t result in near immediate death to your opponent. Fiendslayer Paladin seems fine, but the full eight three-drops with only four mana guys might be wrong. Not that people didn’t max out on Silverblade Paladins, but they didn’t also have to support Unflinching Courage.
– If I had a tournament to play in tomorrow, I would play Jund Midrange. We said it over and over this past weekend, but Jund just wins. Its cards are better than the rest of the format’s decks by miles. It has all the best sideboard cards, such as Curse of Death’s Hold. It has all the best maindeck cards. I’m not really sure what else to say; the cards are just too good. The way the Top 8 bracket fell made Jund look less dominant, but the three copies in this event are just the beginning.
– If you don’t want to play Jund Midrange, think about the ways people beat Jund last time. One way was extremely focused blue decks, but the power level of Jace, the Mind Sculptor is not something you can match in this format. The other was linear decks that play in a way that completely ignores the normal interaction of Jund, but unfortunately I don’t see any Primeval Titans floating around.
We have a format that looked simple but was shockingly deep. We have a format that has slowly narrowed down to a dominant front-runner. I’m excited for both. A bit of an uphill challenge in Standard is exactly what we needed there, and a reasonable return to good old five-color Magic is what we needed to shift out of Return to Ravnica into Theros.
All in all, a solid weekend.
P.S. In case you’re wondering, here are my thoughts on Legacy for the Invitational in New Jersey.
1. Play Dark Ritual.
3. If you refuse to do these things, play Show and Tell.
What, did you expect anything else?