Friday, March 8, 2013

six games of cube

Somewhere in the Magic: Online user agreement that no one has ever read, there is probably some clause prohibiting more than one person from influencing decisions on a draft, and that clause was written by someone with a PhD in funhating. Everyone should try playing Magic: Online with people they know, because a) it’ll stop you from doing some really dumb things that you would have smacked yourself on the head about five seconds later, b) it’ll make you consider options that never occurred to you, c) you’ll find out what other peoples’ internal monologues are like when they consider drafting/play decisions, d) it’s just a good way to spend an evening.

I arrive at the home of my friend Natalie, who is not just a Google programmer, but by far the most-programmer-y person I know. Her laptop is hooked up to her rather large HDTV, and she is halfway through drafting some sort of mono-red deck in Holiday Cube. Let’s not dwell on this: she drafted mono-red in Holiday Cube, and the lack of success was entirely justified. She is also being advised by a guy named Ben, who advocates for taking combo-esque cards and generally trying to drop nuclear weapons on the play area at all times, an approach I wholeheartedly endorse.

Natalie takes a second to record the results in her master file that tracks all tickets/product incoming and outgoing, and we fire up the next draft. The first pack doesn’t have much of interest to me other than Exhume, so I advise taking that. I had forgotten that she would actually listen to advice I give, and she takes the Exhume. The next pack has some generically Good Spells and a Sneak Attack, which Ben and I passionately lobby for (arguments consist mostly of “it’s Sneak Attack!” and “SNEAK ATTACK!!!”). We follow this up with Myr Battlesphere and Palinchron (unquestionably the most ambitious and cool-seeming but actually not very good of all the cube’s expensive creatures). Our fortunes take a turn for the better in pack two, when we’re passed Mana Vault, then open Sol Ring in pack three. The final decklist:

1 Exhume
1 Sneak Attack
1 Eureka
1 Necromancy
1 Firestorm
1 Goblin Welder
1 Faithless Looting
1 Nether Void
1 Vampiric Tutor
1 Wildfire
1 Necropotence

1 Myr Battlesphere
1 Palinchron
1 Emrakul, the Aeons Torn
1 Sphinx of the Steel Wind
1 Frost Titan

1 Worn Powerstone
1 Mana Vault
1 Gilded Lotus
1 Selesnya Signet
1 Boros Signet
1 Sol Ring
1 Basalt Monolith
1 Dark Ritual

1 Simic Growth Chamber
1 Gruul Turf
1 Dimir Aqueduct
1 Ancient Tomb
1 Scalding Tarn
1 Bayou
1 Shelldock Isle
2 Island
3 Swamp
3 Mountain
1 Forest

Game one has a hand with lands, Mana Vault, Basalt Monolith, Myr Battlesphere, and Necromancy, so all of our decisions leading up to this moment must have been completely correct. Further cementing this fact, our opponent leads with Karakas, Isamaru, no further lands until turn six. Hopefully, they didn’t offer up their firstborn child in exchange for drawing a land, because on that turn, they play Maze of Ith. By this point, we have Myr Battlesphere in play, and that’s at 50% effectiveness against the Maze. Based on our opponent bouncing Isamaru at EOT with Karakas, we know that they have Balance and are trying to draw the second land for it. When they finally draw the Island to cast it, they’re at eight life. We cast Firestorm for five in response, hitting them and all our creatures, allowing us to cast Necromancy at end of turn on Battlesphere, in order to attack with four tokens, only one of which can be stopped by the Maze.

Game two shows us a couple bad hands, then a five of Swamp, Mountain, Sol Ring, Selesnya Signet, Frost Titan. Our concerns about the potential for Turbo-Nothing are diminished when our first draw is Gilded Lotus. Our opponent curves Isamaru into Nearheath Pilgrim (it really was in Holiday Cube!). We draw Necropotence and cast it off our Gilded Lotus, drawing five, going to 13, then 9 off our opponent’s attack. Their Land Tax seems like the less-effective card advantage engine. We cast Frost Titan tapping a land (in case they have one-mana removal and another land), go to 5 to draw four cards, and block the Pilgrim going to three. Gideon’s Lawkeeper does not seem very effective, either. However, that does leave our opponent with multiple creatures that can attack, and our life total is not too high, so we cast Wildfire, leaving them with a board consisting of Land Tax. Then we attack, tapping Land Tax. Land Tax does not untap, and they have no plays on their turn. We skip our draw step and cast Palinchron off zero lands. Our opponent concedes at 18 life.
Now that we have defeated the cube juggernaut that is White Weenie getting terrible draws, we move on to round two. Our first hand has a black-producing land, Dark Ritual, Necropotence, and I don’t care if that’s not really all that hot in Cube it’s still really cool and retro and all that so stuff it. We go to 15 and discard some reanimation spells and targets.

Our opponent has turn three Izzet Signet into Wake Thrasher (clearly coveting the Basalt Monolith we drafted), which temporarily gives them more of a threat than our Simic Signet into Sneak Attack. They attack us down to 7, because turn one Necropotence is a hell of a self-inflicted clock. Our Nether Void draws Mana Leak, but our Sneak Attack activation resolves. Sphinx of the Steel Wind makes the life totals a bit more palatable. On their next turn, he attacks into open red mana, which leads to Sneak Attacking Goblin Welder, which leads to Sphinx, which leads to them conceding.

Our game two hand has lands, Mana Vault Worn Powerstone, Sneak Attack, Nether Void. We play Nether Void on turn two. They concede. We high five over our ability to outplay our opponents.

Round three leads with Faithless Looting, discarding Dark Ritual and Necropotence. We continue our earlier high-fives, this time for having the presence of mind to avoid Cool Things and make The Tight Play. Anyway, our first spell is Basalt Monolith on turn three, and on turn four, we’re at six life facing down Treetop Village, Flinthoof Boar, Boggart Ram-Gang, and a Bloodbraid Elf that cascaded into Sword of Fire and Ice. We cast Eureka in order to put Myr Battlesphere and Sneak Attack into play. We choose not to put Emrakul into play for free. We Sneak Attack Emrakul, and our opponent concedes.

In what COULD BE the final game of this report, our hand has a bunch of lands, Sol Ring, Frost Titan, Emrakul. My rules about keeping hands that can cast Sol Ring are fairly strict. We draw a couple more artifact mana sources in the first couple turns, then draw and cast Wildfire on the third turn, leaving our opponent with Chrome Mox (R/G from Boggart Ram-Gang) and Sword of Fire and Ice. A couple turns later, we add Gilded Lotus to our magnificent collection of mana sources, and that leads to Frost Titan the turn after. The second-most-heated debate of the night: do we tap Treetop Village or Chrome Mox? Magic is a difficult game. We go for the Village. Our opponent attempts a comeback with a 1/1 Stormblood Berserker, which we swiftly lock up with our next Frost Titan attack. They cleverly equip the Sword to the tapped creature, preventing us from tapping it in the future. We draw Vampiric Tutor, and are faced with the most crucial decision: how do we hardcast the Emrakul in our hand? We use some of our remaining clock time to stage formal debates about whether to tutor for Dark Ritual or Mana Vault. The conclusion is that the most dramatic possible play is to cast Emrakul off nothing but permanent mana sources.

So we do. Cube is great.

What did we accomplish in this draft? We ended up with a deck that doesn’t play like anything from any “real” limited format, of course, because Cube decks rarely resemble non-Cube limited decks. We got a deck with the rare virtue of being able to surprise us as we were playing it. This is quite a difficult attribute to end up with, as decks constructed for the purpose of winning games value consistency as a path to victory, and surprise can only come via the deck doing different things. In the six games, the deck did a different thing every time, and they were each spectacular in their own way. Did these wonderful conclusions occur against the best decks in situations that gave our opponents the best possible chance to be competitive? Absolutely not. Our opponents had some combination of terrible decks and terrible draws the entire time, but that only served to reinforce our perception.

Drafting Cube is like a personality test to tell you what you enjoy about playing Magic. People will naturally drift toward certain archetypes, while justifying each decision they make as the logically sound one; others unapologetically force the same archetype every draft they do. Drafts like this one are the best tool for reinforcing notions people had going in. It would probably take at least five complete disasters attempting this sort of deck before I even consider it’s not a very good strategy, solely because of this one fantastic experience. It would be easy for anyone to read this and nod their head, saying how they can plainly see that it was all the result of good luck, but will you say the same thing about your own draft when everything goes perfectly? What about when you draft the same deck you always do and it collapses in every game?

Part of what gives Magic such lasting appeal is the amount of variety in decks and archetypes. Not because players enjoy playing twelve entirely different decks, but because they settle on one strategy as Their Thing, and play it at every opportunity in every format, and if there’s nothing close to it in a certain format, then that format obviously sucks and is no fun.

Cube is another example of how, as Magic has aged, the community has obtained more and more power in designing their own experiences. When Magic was brand new and everyone was bad, all players were able to control was what colors they played (since picking two colors and playing every card in those colors was the best way to get enough cards for a deck). Then, when people bought way more cards than the designers of the game assumed they would, Deck Design became a possibility; players controlled not just the plays made within a game, but what game pieces they had, and that was a crucial step forward in game design. Years passed, and the large number of players and cards necessitates separating Magic into “type one” and “type two;” now players could control what cards other people would be playing, and go into tournaments knowing roughly what to expect. More and more formats followed, obviously, but Cube is the first way to play that puts power previously allocated only to Wizards in the hands of players: Cube isn’t really a format, but a structure for people to design their own formats. The designer of a specific Cube chooses what aspects of Magic to include or disregard, and if that designer doesn’t like a certain strategy, playstyle, or card type, it may as well not exist for the purpose of that Cube. The designer gets to unilaterally revise the history of Magic to their liking, and the participants play games from some of the cards they selected which came from some of the cards the designer selected.

When I first visited Seattle about a year ago, I had never played cube before. Then, when I moved here six months after that, it became the default way to play Magic with people I was hanging out with. Cube requires no additional money from people playing, no one needs cards other than the person providing the cube, and it’s perfectly at the intersection of playing Magic because playing Magic is fun and playing Magic to win. I would still go to tournaments, sure, but then I would leave with the miserable feeling that really, I’d have enjoyed myself more if I had been playing cube, which led me to the even-more-miserable realization that I, Jesse Mason, have become that thing I’ve been trying to escape, trying to overcome, trying to be better than for the last dozen years: I have become a casual player. I am no longer interested in trying to qualify for the Pro Tour, because I am not currently good enough to play on the Pro Tour, and becoming that good would require hundreds of hours of honest-to-god work, and the idea of doing that much work sounds dreadful, and if I’m going to spend that much time slowly learning more and more without really enjoying it then maybe I should use that time getting a better job or something.

So that’s what has brought me here: writing about Magic, a tournament report about six games played online, and I didn’t even play the games. Because we all must find, within the things we claim to enjoy, what it is we actually enjoy about them, and sometimes we have to dig pretty deep.