When we last left our hero, he was leaving his job at Wizards of the Coast and hanging up the game for an extended and well-deserved break. I knew when I finished my internship and returned to New York City that I would need at least a year away from the game. I also looked ahead to a potential Worlds in New York City. That would be the year I was eligible for the Hall of Fame and the debut of the first set I had nothing to do with during my time at Wizards. If I was going to come back, that seemed like the time that it would happen.
As the time drew closer, things began to take shape. I was back in the city where I grew up and the place that I love. I found a great job that I enjoy and that pays me well. This is New York, so my place isn’t that big, but it has everything I need and a kick-ass television and computer setup. I even decided to go from being thin to actually being in shape and joined a dojo. Life was good, but something was missing.
That something was gaming. The reason I got into Magic in the first place was because gaming and competition are what I love to do more than anything. I stayed for that reason, and because Magic players are the smartest, most interesting and all around best people I’ve ever known. I may want to find a Tichu group and a good board game group, since the only one I know about plays at Columbia University on Friday nights and even without a social life that’s not usually a good time for me, but there’s still no substitute for the real thing. Some day Magic may be knocked off its perch, but today is not that day. That day won’t be here for a long time.
The break solved my twin problems that were keeping the good times from rolling. The first was that I had simply played for too long without a break and then been brought back just as I had made my peace with being out. The second was Time Spiral. I did development work on Time Spiral, and I didn’t enjoy it. At the time I thought that was me not enjoying Magic; I would play games that objectively should have been fun, but I had little fun playing them. I had some issues with the block, and had a fierce hatred for Damnation from the first time I saw it, but I thought those were but quibbles.
It turned out it was more than that. There are a lot of cool concepts in Time Spiral, and a lot of neat individual cards, but it doesn’t come together as a Limited set at all in my mind. It’s just a bunch of cards doing a bunch of things we’ve seen before. The first day we put together Sealed decks with stickered cards there was no mystery. There was no adventure. We were just playing Magic, but without the simplicity that such a concept should bring and with enough extraneous stuff going on to muddle the mixture without peaking our interest. None of the drafts I did with the set felt fresh and new. I got on a mailing list that organized drafts, but never felt motivated to attend one with Spiral cards.
Lorwyn was different. Tribal has always been good times and the execution of the concept in Lorwyn is amazing. This is the best single-set Limited format of all time. Every draft I’ve been in has presented unique problems and interesting questions to solve. Whenever I sit down it’s fresh and new, but more than that, it’s cool. Even when I don’t do so well, as we’ll see later on, it’s not about sitting there and hoping your opponent doesn’t draw lands. It’s about making the most of what you’ve got, and combining all your skills to get every ounce of gas out of what you’ve been given to fill the tank. From the moment I started drafting it, I knew this set was something special, and if I could enjoy drafting again then what was stopping me?
There was also this format called Standard and this other format called Legacy. That meant I would need to do this thing known as “work” and find this entity known as a “team” if I wanted to return to competition. I wasn’t about to walk in unprepared. When I do that I lose, and I hate losing. I hate deserving to lose even more. If I was going to shuffle up for round 1, I was going to be in it to win it. There’s no reason to suddenly develop a case of low standards. I didn’t know how much work I would feel like doing or have the time for, but I wanted the option.
I was left with two choices. Choice 1 was to test with the Chapin group, and choice two was to test with the Sadin group. At the Mockvitational tournament run by Brian David-Marshall, Chapin and Sadin made their pitches. Chapin’s pitch offered a powerful package of strong professional talent. Sadin’s pitch offered a bunch of local friends who wanted to play some Magic at some future time at the Javitz Center. So, would it be Chapin, Nassif, Heezy and a cast of thousands? Or would it be Sadin and a cast of a few others when they felt like it?
As anyone who looked at the decklists knows, I chose Steve Sadin. To Chapin it must have seemed like an insane choice, but I did it for five good reasons:
1. I wanted to test in person.
This was hugely important. I knew I was out of shape in the extreme, so playing online wasn’t going to cut it. I had to remember how to shuffle, how to read players, how to not have tells, how to get used to the tempo of the game. Getting back in the habit wasn’t something I felt I could cheat. Looking back, not only was I right about this, missing a spot may have been what cost me the chance to do better. I also felt that I would enjoy testing in person far more than testing online. I like hanging out and playing Magic, and it’s always been a better game with cardboard than with pixels even when Magic Online or Apprentice is running reliably at full power, which is less often than we’d like.
2. The New York team offered me the chance to learn a lot more about my options.
Sadin could have been the Next Big Thing, a hopelessly over his head amateur, or anything in between. I knew he was a good man, but no idea if he would make a good partner. Testing with him let me find out. Flores was another huge question mark, and I wanted to find out if he had the chops at this level and whether we could get along in the process. True, I’ve never worked with the other group either, but I felt like I knew what I could expect there. In New York I could find out about a lot of different people, most of which would be local and therefore bigger potential assets in the future. Which brings me to perhaps the biggest point of the five:
3. All real work is done by two people, and I wanted that second person to be Sadin.
As already noted it was possible that Sadin wouldn’t be skilled enough for the task, but I knew this was someone I could work with. We could play games, analyze them, discuss ideas, and have a strong process, accomplishing much in the time available. He trusted me and was eager to learn about my way of doing things, and I saw in him the potential to be the next testing partner. While teams have many members, most have a core of two or three people. Most real work is done by that core, who have to know everything. Everyone else is in a support role. Godzilla was an attempt to upgrade this model by having three separate cores working together, and for a brief time it succeeded, but the talent and work levels required to pull that off may never happen again. In the end, I believe a two person team that uses the openness that being small lets you use can compete with the big boys and win… so long as it’s the right two.
4. The New York team allowed me to relax and have fun.
These are the good guys. They might not be the best, but I knew they were good times and that no one was going to get overly stressed. That can be a bad thing, since it can mean less work, but I had no idea how much time I’d be putting in either. I just knew that I could have a fun tournament this way. In the past, certain people on teams have led to large amounts of stress due to personality conflicts, effort levels, or other issues. There are certain people in the Chapin group that carry that risk; no one in the NYC group carried a similar risk. I also got a promise of complete card access. Logistics was going to be Somebody Else’s Problem.
5. That All-Star trick NEVER works.
Large alliances don’t have a good track record. They tend to involve a lot of very talented people and end up leaking like faucets without breaking formats all that often. A lot of effort and potential is wasted. That doesn’t mean it can’t work, at least for a short time, but the description Chapin gave in his pitch, which was basically “why test with no one when you can test with everyone” sounded like it was well over the limit. That was the last thing I wanted. Finally, the NYC team agreed to provide me with all the cards I needed, no matter what, as long as I would kick in for my share of the cost. Logistics is not something I wanted to worry about.
Of course, there was a decent case for the other side as well, but my decision was never in much doubt. In the end, I learned everything I needed to know about the local option and I’m confident I made the right decision, even though Chapin’s group ended up breaking Standard wide open. What will I do next time? A fine question. I’d have to decide exactly what my goals are, what kind of investment I want to make, and how to make that happen. I can safely write Sadin’s name in pen as the second team member, but beyond that anything could happen.
Back in the world of preparations, there were three formats: Standard, Draft and Legacy. Standard was the Top 8 format, which makes it the most important of the three, but it was also the one I knew would receive solid work no matter what. It’s a lot easier to work on Standard than Legacy, and it was clear quickly that Standard would have a bunch of respectable decks that sat down and played Magic. I didn’t have to worry about walking in dead. The worst case was that someone pulled a rabbit out of their hat, and I wasn’t that afraid of that. Given how little time was available and the existence of what one might call a “real job,” I knew that giving proper time to all three formats was impossible.
With so much Standard testing naturally going on in and out of the team, I was far more worried about draft and Legacy. In Legacy I was genuinely concerned that I could go in dead and be at 20% against innovative concoctions that squash me like a bug, and I hoped that I could be the one at 80% doing the squashing. On a similar note, I knew I’d have to learn how to draft or be at a great disadvantage. No one can do that for you, and I quickly discovered that Lorwyn Limited is incredibly difficult, subtle, and complex. If you think it’s easy, you don’t understand it.
I built a few early lists from spoilers to see how various ideas would play out, many of them Lorwyn tribes. They seemed strong, and I figured that building around new cards gave me the best chance to be innovative. The first deck I built was based on Elementals, and it was fun but it wasn’t much good. The second version of it was better and just as fun, but not good enough. The Elves proved poor, as I was too focused on the theme and didn’t branch out as much as I should have, although I still don’t think the strategy is all that good. There were several others as well, but this was the one that’s worth noting:
4 Nightshade Stinger
4 Cloud Sprite
4 Spellstutter Sprite
4 Oona’s Prowler
4 Scion of Oona
4 Mistbind Clique
4 Familiar’s Ruse
4 Faerie Trickery
4 Cryptic Command
4 River of Tears
4 Underground River
4 Secluded Glen
4 Faerie Conclave
The idea was to maximize tempo by getting the clock started as quickly as possible, then sit behind counters, including those enabled by those early drops. With sixteen counters that can act as twenty, you play a strong imitation of a counter deck while attacking in the air and try to control the game in classic Skies fashion with an excellent creature set. It’s scary how close that is to the list I ended up using. I played with this deck and what struck me right away was that it was far better than it had any right to be. I was winning tons of games. Opponents seemed to present to you a few spells, and you figured out how to deal with them. The best way I can describe it is that nothing good ever happens when you face this deck. You might start with more powerful stuff, or faster stuff, but nothing good happens. Only bad things happen. Creatures become untargetable or too big. You get tapped out or lose creatures in combat due to flash. Important spells get countered. You hold back and lose tempo to flash or walk into counters. When you’re behind, the Conclaves attack, often at 3/2.
Bad things can happen, but they’re limited to a very small range of cards. I was fearing only Desert and Shadow Guildmage, which I didn’t expect to see at all and only mention because my teammates tested and then played a deck that used that card. Later I would learn to fear Cloudthresher and Sulfurous Blast, but that was still a very limited range of cards to fear.
When I saw the decks from GP: Krakow, I was almost positive I had my Standard deck. I compared my deck to the Green version from Krakow and couldn’t see how mine wasn’t strictly better. The Green model gets Green mana, but I didn’t want Green mana. My manabase was far better due to having eight (count them… eight) extra dual lands. I had better sideboard options thanks to the Black. I gave up an annoying little trick-happy sprite, and gained a 3/1 in exchange. He gave up Cryptic Command due to his manabase being a walking disaster area, as U/G bases usually are, and in exchange got Mystic Snake but had to similarly give up Familiar’s Ruse for Rune Snag. Those are both big losses, and his Spellstutter Sprites are far, far worse as well.
Why then did more people use Green than black? Why then did StarCityGames.com explicitly give Green their Seal of Approval the next day? The second was due to the first, with the mathematically expected one copy making it to 5-0 from the Green listings and the blue-black versions happening not to go undefeated. But that was due to the first concern, which was Krakow. Players copied a Top 8 deck from a Grand Prix, and a loosely built one at that. I’m sure the designer has a better version by now, but we probably won’t ever know what the changes are. Meanwhile, the Blue/Black players need to build their own versions despite it being “obvious” that the Blue/Green version is better — I mean come on, it got an extra win at a Grand Prix and made Top 8! It must be good! The cult of results knows no bounds. Think for yourselves, everyone.
The Standard testing from that point on was brief for me, since I knew exactly how such decks played. From the beginning Faerie Trickery was the slot that was up for grabs. It wanted to be a three mana spell, but which one? Pestermite was the choice of the other version, and it had two power while picking up some tempo and/or tapping Desert, but it seemed like a terrible card to hang your hat on. Pendelhaven couldn’t save or pump it, and the tap effect wouldn’t do that much to a Constructed manabase. A counter seemed far better. Psionic Blast was a far more interesting alternative, but something about it bothered me. I loved that the deck was all good fast men and counters, which let me overload players on those two things while still keeping a lot of options to sculpt my play to the situation. Psionic Blast seemed like it was setting me up for problems, especially in otherwise strong matchups like Guile, but it did kill Teferi. I also wanted people to be thinking about it as a threat. Trickery was solid and solved a lot of corner case problems, but it was tribal for Tarmogoyf and in the mirror it’s pretty darn terrible especially if they don’t run Cryptic Command. Cancel solves the issues but gives up a lot of what makes the card attractive.
My teammates all hated Faerie Trickery, but I tried to hold onto the card until the last minute when I learned that Faeries would be a major deck after all… far too important to risk it. I also noticed that I was sideboarding it out in almost every matchup, since it was the weak link; you wanted to preserve the better counters and the creature base. It turns out it stays in against Red/Green Big Mana, since that matchup is all about playing Draw-Go, but I didn’t take that deck seriously until the day before and the marginal gain from Trickery was still small. The first two Trickeries became Psionic Blast to make sure that it was a threat and to give my deck more flexibility; they would come out more often than not but something had to fill that role. The third presented an interesting dilemma. For game 1 it would have stayed Trickery, but the sideboard was overflowing as it always does once you know what you face. I realized that Terror is never dead in this field; everyone had targets. That wasn’t what you wanted to focus on, and many decks didn’t have worthy targets but by starting a Terror I effectively got a sixteenth sideboard card. It’s quite possible that it’s right to start more than one for that reason, now that Thoughtseize needs to find itself some space. You don’t want to start Thoughtseize because the deck is usually engaged in some form of a race.
The fourth copy turned into a second Pendelhaven. This came after the realization that Desert was the only card in many control decks that is any kind of threat to you. With Conclave and Pendelhaven always useful in other ways and a curve that goes up to four, you can often make good use of a mana flood. When you drew Pendelhaven, it was very hard to lose to Desert decks. Now it’s even more important because Sulfurous Blast and Cloudthresher are both mortal enemies of yours. You need to be able to play Mistbind Clique into mana without risking losing the entire game to a response, and Pendelhaven lets you protect one man that you can then champion. It is of course better to get to six mana and protect with a counter, but that’s not always possible. The third copy is in the sideboard as the best anti-control card. You want to make sure it shows up even if it means you effectively mulligan.
The sideboard modified itself as we learned more about the deck. Terror won out over Deathmark when we realized it cost less to pay 1B as an instant than to pay B as a sorcery. The issue now is that you’re going to face Doran, the Siege Tower and possibly Nath of the Gilt-Leaf. Both of those die to Deathmark but not Terror and need to die in a major way as quickly as possible. I think that now forces you to mix it up; you want Terror to kill Red men and to stay generally flexible, and in general it is better, but having to counter or steal Doran is something I’d prefer to avoid.
Flashfreeze was our response to the realization that Terror was a bad response to Cloudthresher; you killed the 7/7 if it tried to stick, but you still lost the game. Losing the game is bad. Flashfreeze, on the other hand, took care of the problem in excellent fashion and was generally amazingly great in the R/G matchup while being good against other Red and Green decks as well. It also was easy to sideboard in, since it’s an upgrade for Familiar’s Ruse when you didn’t want to go up on counters. Sower of Temptation is great, especially behind Scion of Oona — end step Scion then untap and Sower stealing Packmaster or Doran, or even something like Vanquisher is pretty much impossible for Green decks to come back from without Cloudthresher. The problem is that you don’t want to tap out, ever, ever, ever (see Cloudthresher, Sulfurous Blast, Bogardan Hellkite, Sower of Temptation to take your Scion, Damnation, Wrath of God, etc) after the second turn if you can help it. After sideboarding you don’t even want to do it as an instant if they have four mana up. In the matchups where it is safe, I wasn’t worried that three wouldn’t be enough to win.
Finally there was Peppersmoke, which is amazing in the mirror whichever color they’re supplementing with, and whose drawback of pumping Tarmogoyf is less relevant when you’ve got lots of ways to counter or take it, and they’re playing Eyeblight’s Ending and Nameless Inversion anyway. It’s often going to lose out in matchups where it seems like it should belong, but it’s very strong against a deck like Uri’s. His manabase is his biggest weakness, and if you go first or don’t have to kill a first turn Bird or Elf then this is a cantrip. If you can get out ahead of such decks this way and get enough men down to get Sprite working, it’s hard to lose from there. This contrasts with the Imperious Perfect versions, against which you generally leave Peppersmoke out since you have plenty of other good cards and there’s no reason to chance it. It also kills some randomly highly annoying men, such as Shadow Guildmage. We finished up with Dodecapod since I thought there was a good chance there were a bunch of Stupor and Auger of Skulls out there, and I wanted the threat of the card for the Top 8.
The whole time I was reluctant to lose Thoughtseize, but the argument was made convincingly that the only enemy where you wanted it that badly was Blue control and that matchup was already very strong for us. My other objection was that it would come in handy if we faced something we didn’t know about, with my biggest worry being and I quote “some kind of Dragonstorm deck.” Alas, one cannot spend slots chasing phantoms.
This was the list I played:
- 4 Cloud Sprite
- 4 Mistbind Clique
- 4 Nightshade Stinger
- 4 Oona's Prowler
- 4 Scion of Oona
- 4 Spellstutter Sprite
If I played this deck again, which would require actual testing against Dragonstorm, a few changes would be needed. Psionic Blast was very unimpressive and the idea of sideboard expansion was strong, so I’d lose it from the maindeck entirely for two more copies of Terror. The added flexibility after boarding is worth the sacrifice in game 1, which is a marginal sacrifice anyway. In most matchups the card is fine. For those wondering, yes, instant speed is far more important than the option to tap out for a Shriekmaw. Shriekmaw is great, it’s just not for us. That frees up two slots, and two more are easy since Dodecapod isn’t necessary. I’d cut Terror out of the board completely at this point and replace it there with Deathmark. Then we want four Thoughtseize and four Flashfreeze, which is the plan against Dragonstorm. Trying to get cute with Trickbind is an overinvestment in the matchup; Dragonstorm is beatable. Meanwhile you’ll need to choose which of the other anti-creature cards gets trimmed. Since Cloudthresher is a threat out of all sideboards that make you want Sower of Temptation that much, and that’s not the right side of that fight, you probably want to go down to two there. Where you want it, you’re in fine shape. Similarly I’m willing to sacrifice a Peppersmoke since the only place it’s clearly progress is in the mirror.
That gets us here:
- 4 Cloud Sprite
- 4 Mistbind Clique
- 4 Nightshade Stinger
- 4 Oona's Prowler
- 4 Scion of Oona
- 4 Spellstutter Sprite
Against Dragonstorm, your plan is to bring in the third Pendelhaven, Flashfreeze, and Thoughtseize. What comes out is trickier, and I leave that as an exercise to future playtesters. You have a lot of options. In general you don’t go below seven one drops, but I can see using six in the face of Grapeshot since he can force you to counter to get up some storm. Also remember that Cryptic Command is made for bouncing storage lands.
If I remember correctly, I convinced Steve Sadin, Scott McCord, and Dan OMS to play this deck along with me. I also had Jon Finkel in my corner for a while. Jon decided that he trusted my judgment more than his own given his complete lack of preparation, so he’d play whatever I played. However, the night before Chapin stayed with him and after seeing the Dragonstorm deck he paid up and switched to the best deck. I can’t blame him; I would have done the same thing, and reached that conclusion by the end of round 1. Once I heard what the pieces of the puzzle were, I knew that Chapin was right.
In Part 2, I will tell the story of the first five rounds…