Tuesday, December 16, 2014

the ideology of modern bannings

All discussions of format banned and restriction lists are ideological debates. We have different ideas of what cards, decks, and strategies people should be allowed to play, because we have different ideas of what we want Magic to be like.

Modern brought with it a new banned list, comprising far more cards than its predecessor, the seven year Extended format, had before that format was destroyed. These bans were not targeted at making sure one specific deck wasn’t dominant, but rather, ensuring that all the good decks from old Extended wouldn’t be allowed. That metagame consisted of Thopter-Depths, Faeries, Elves, Dredge, Hypergenesis, Affinity, and Scapeshift with Punishing Fire, among other decks. Not only did all of those have crucial cards banned, but lesser decks that weren’t playable had cards banned as well, because they would have been playable in their absence.

Why were all these cards banned? The “turn four” ideology. If a deck consistently wins before turn four, it isn’t allowed in Modern. This is a new development for Magic banned and restricted lists: things are banned not for oppressing tournaments, but because if they show up at a tournament, that is A Bad Thing. Blazing Shoal Infect didn’t even have to win a single tournament before getting struck down by the DCI, because it is ideologically opposed to their idea of what Modern should be.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

kill reviews addendum: coldsnap

Coldsnap was not a good idea. The execution has its ups and downs, but the core concept of reviving the themes of Ice Age for a set that “completed” that block was bad.

I reviewed the original Ice Age block as my second review. Ah, how we’ve all grown since then. Remember the good old days, when these reviews would come out on a weekly basis? I’m glad that we’ve moved beyond such trivial preoccupations. Readers from way back when will remember that it was an alternate vision of Magic that emphasized marginal value gains and horribly bad creatures over the sort of immersive flavor-based gameplay that defined Alpha. Its mechanics included snow-covered, which had as many cards that punished the player for using it as it did ones that rewarded it, and the rewards were mediocre at best. There was also cumulative upkeep, which needed no external influence to make it bad.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

if you're an MRA, don't play magic

Magic players pride themselves on being an opening, welcoming community. Anyone can enter a Magic tournament at a store they’ve never been to and make a dozen new friends. This is good, until the people the community is being opening and welcoming toward are awful. Then, because Magic players are so nice and kind, they’re unwilling to ever tell people to get out.

A rare exception happened this week. Alex Hinkley wrote a review of a Duels of the Planeswalkers expansion for StarCityGames. Some people, notably Erin Campbell, found out that he happened to be a horrible misogynist who would rant at feminists on twitter and loosely use words like “faggot” in his tweets. I found her research and crossposted it as an article comment to Hinkley’s review. Half an hour later, he’d been fired from SCG.

He’d like to think that the only reason he got fired is that he called one of his friends a faggot. I hope this isn’t the only reason this happened. Personally, I’m happy he’s gone because Men’s Rights Advocates like him are horrible, hateful people that have no place in the Magic community.

There have been some thoughtful long-form pieces about this awful group of likeminded dudes. This is not one of them.

I have no interest in starting a dialogue with MRAs, debating them, or comparing our ideologies in rational discourse. I want them to get out of my community.

If you identify as a Men’s Rights Advocate, don’t play Magic.

If you support the #gamergate “movement,” don’t play Magic.

If you harass feminists over their ideologies, don’t play Magic.

If you search for MRA-related terms and try to argue with women, don’t play Magic.

If you try to argue with anti-racist minority activists about who the real racists are, don’t play Magic.

If you unironically tell people to take the “red pill” when it comes to gender issues, don’t play Magic.

If you defend your right as a straight person to call people a faggot, don’t play Magic.

If you defend your right as a white person to call someone a nigger, don’t play Magic.

If you complain on a regular basis about “Social Justice Warriors,” don’t play Magic.

If you write screeds about how “cultural Marxism” is doing whatever, don’t play Magic.

If you identify as a “pickup artist,” don’t play Magic.

If you are in any way bigoted against minorities, women, trans people, whoever, don’t play Magic.

If your response to the above is that maybe these people agitating about feminism and minority rights are the real bigots, don’t play Magic.

This is not the opening salvo in a long campaign. This is not intended to change the minds of these awful people. This is setting the boundaries of who I want in my game store, in my cube drafts, in my Twitter feed, in my group of friends who play Magic.

It is our duty, as longtime Magic players, to throw out people who don’t belong. If I go to a PTQ and my first round opponent is a known hateful piece of shit, I don’t have to grace them with my presence and treat them like a human being playing a game. I’m standing up and walking out, because they have no business playing a game with me.

There is plenty of room for political diversity in Magic. There are conservatives, liberals, libertarians, socialists, whatever. That’s fine. But MRAs are bigots, and bigotry has no place near a game I play.

Men’s Rights Advocates, upon reading this, might take it not as a call to leave, but as an enormous “fuck you.”

Good. MRAs: fuck you. I might catch more flies with honey, but I’m not trying to catch them. I’m trying to force them out.

Questions, comments, and concerns should be directed to @KillGoldfish

Thursday, November 6, 2014

kill reviews: lorwyn mini-block

Have we all recovered from the last installment about Time Spiral? Don’t get your hopes up for this one, because regression to the mean affects both writers and Magic sets.

Fortunately for Lorwyn, though, it avoided what seemed like an inevitable drop in quality from the brilliance of Future Sight.[1] Rosewater’s 2007 State of Design described it as a “return to their roots,” and it seems that from a high-level perspective, they didn’t think of Lorwyn as attempting anything revolutionary: it was another tribal set. It would be pretty difficult for them to fuck up a tribal set. Legions broke sales records, and it sucked, so if they spent ten minutes making sure the new one was better than the weirdness of Onslaught, it would fly off the shelves.

Monday, October 20, 2014

kill reviews: time spiral

pt i: the magic block about magic

In any art form, it’s inevitable that people eventually make new works that are about the art form itself. This is generally met with gasps from critics trying to comprehend the paradigm shift, stunned admiration from college students taking an introductory class about that art, and eye rolls and hand-jerking motions from the general public.

Sometimes, of course, they become widely-hailed classics. Singin’ in the Rain, Slaughterhouse 5, Ziggy Stardust, and Watchmen are popular works that address their medium without alienating the masses too much. So, then, 13 years after the game debuted, in the eleventh block of expansions, we get a Magic block about Magic.

And it was the best.

Friday, October 17, 2014

kill reviews: ravnica block

There’s not much that’s unique to Magic. By design, the setting of Magic emphasizes things that anyone remotely familiar with fantasy is going to recognize: elves and goblins and wizards and spells, and no pesky electronics or guns or anything. It is purposefully generic.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

kill reviews: kamigawa block

Week after week, I bring you, my devoted readers, nothing but the most relentlessly positive takes on Magic sets from years past. It is in this spirit that I’d like to question the established consensus on Champions of Kamigawa: people think it was bad, and they are wrong.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

kill reviews: mirrodin block

Before we get to talking about the modern era of Magic, I want to backpedal a bit on the previous blocks. Those of you who read my descriptions of Odyssey as a bizarre amalgamation of Spike-friendly mechanics and squishy squid people, or my explanation of how Onslaught was partially created by artists attempting to destroy culture, might come away with the impression that I don’t think those cards are fun to play with. This isn’t true. Those blocks each had severe flaws running through them, but somehow, Odyssey-Onslaught emerged as one of the classic Standard formats. There are arguments for Invasion-Odyssey as well, but each of these were certainly better than Standard formats that came before, and it would be many years until Standard was as fun and diverse as those.

I can dissect design philosophies and the settings of various blocks as much as I want, but what I sometimes get away from is that these sets are just groups of game pieces. These game pieces form together into decks, which are entered into Magical combat. Were those games fun? If yes, the set did its job, at a very basic level.

Friday, September 19, 2014

kill reviews addendum: storm

Storm is widely known as one of the most broken mechanics ever printed. It lent its name to various combo decks: from several Vintage strategies since its debut, to blue/red Extended decks, even to Pauper, where Grapeshot and Temporal Fissure ruled the day. Mark Rosewater invented “the Storm scale,” to rate the likeliness of mechanics returning to the game. This is a big impact for a keyword that appeared on a dozen cards in Scourge.

Because of the vast whisperings about its power level, it has often become more legend than anything grounded in fact. Let’s start with what Scourge’s cards did on release. Players who didn’t experience them firsthand might assume that, like Affinity, it dominated Standard immediately. This isn’t remotely true. Mind’s Desire was, at best, a tier two strategy for a few months within the extant Tight Sight deck; numerous pro players attempted this combo concoction at high-level tournaments to disastrous results. Once Odyssey left, Mind’s Desire was FNM-level if not completely unusable.

But how about the next step up at the time, Extended? Keep in mind what else was legal with Desire: Necropotence had only been gone from the format for a year, and decks like Oath of Druids were tournament staples. The next year would bring Mirrodin’s brokenness, ushering in a new wave of combo that made Mind's Desire look like a kitchen table strategy by comparison. This resulted to 2003 banning six cards from Extended, none of them with Storm.

Even after that, Mind’s Desire was just another Extended deck. It was, in fact, the deck that made me a true tournament Magic player. Before it, I had always taken pride in constructing my own decks, but seeing this turn four combo deck take down tournaments had me goldfishing it in Magic Workstation endlessly. I ordered the whole thing online for a PTQ. We weren’t home the day before the tournament, when the cards were supposed to be delivered, so my mom drove me to the post office as it opened to get the cards, then dropped me off at the PTQ after the player meeting had already started. I sprinted up the stairs, gasped at the judges as to whether I could still get in, they pointed me at an empty chair, and I threw money at someone for entry. I sleeved up my deck before the first round and made it to top 8.

So… that’s because the deck was absurdly good compared to the field, right? Still no. Elves with Glimpse of Nature had a full turn on the deck, winning on turn three instead of four. Storm, instead, had a more favorable matchup against control, and those games of combo-on-control are fascinating if you enjoy Magic at its most strategic and chesslike. There are baits, gambits, wild sideboarding strategies, and playing around a dozen cards at once. I adore those matchups.

Okay, but… it was broken in Legacy and Vintage, right? It’s true that Mind’s Desire was restricted in Vintage and banned in Legacy before it was even released. It’s difficult for me to muster much animosity at them for this. They realized immediately the effect it would have, and didn’t let anyone play a single match of sanctioned Desire-legal Legacy. This is a thousand times better than allowing one GP: Flash, then banning the deck afterward, or printing a “not broken” but miserably unfun card like True-Name Nemesis.
There was also Tendrils of Agony, of course, which has gone on to see a lot of Legacy play. But I ask: is this truly a bad thing? Is giving Legacy another combo archetype an inherent evil in a format with Force of Will and a dozen other “instant win” decks floating around?

Why does Storm get more hate than Griselbrand, Goblin Charbelcher, or Mindslaver?

There is one indisputable truth about Storm: of all sets, it did not belong in Scourge. Juxtaposing a “play lots of spells” mechanic with a “large converted mana cost” theme is comedic. But this does not make Storm bad, it makes Storm bad for Onslaught block.

The reason that Storm defines “the Storm scale,” the reason it is held up as the epitome of brokenness, is that it appeared in the middle of the largest push toward creature-centric Magic in the game’s history and thumbed its nose. It is a mechanic not for the drafter, not for the Standard player, not for the average Joe. In a small town art museum, it is next to tender realist portraits and smooth impressionist works as a jarring, violent, postmodern sculpture. Mothers gasp in shock and hide their child’s eyes. It is a vulgarity.

Keep in mind that Storm does very little on its own. The actual cards with Storm are not enablers, they are kill conditions. Mind’s Desire costs six mana, and requires a ton of setup. It needs efficient card filtering and tons of cheap Ritual effects. Without those, it is unplayable. With those things getting excised from modern Magic, Storm could exist today. It would be completely irrelevant.

The idea of Storm’s return being impossible is also a bit funny, because it already returned in Time Spiral. Those cards were, arguably, more problematic than Storm the first time around. Dragonstorm, a Timeshifted Scourge card, did absolutely nothing in Scourge, but when combined with Rite of Flame and Bogardan Hellkite, it won tournaments. Grapeshot killed uncountably more players in Standard than Tendrils of Agony ever did.

I’m happy that Storm exists. It provides an alternative to creature-based Magic, allowing a different sort of player to interact on a completely separate axis. I enjoy this. This blog as a whole, in fact, traces its lineage to Storm. I started playing Elves in Extended because Mind’s Desire rotated out (it was never banned). I then made a blog to talk exclusively about combo decks, with a name that fit my penchant for sitting alone for hours, practicing the mechanics of solitaire combo: Killing A Goldfish. I would be nowhere in Magic without Storm.

Storm isn’t just a card for combo. Storm has, by this point, defined what combo can be. Instead of just a dumbass combination of two cards like Pestermite and Kiki-Jiki, Storm provides a deck that functions as one holistic machine, each Sleight of Hand a glimmering cog to turn the Tendrils of Agony. These decks, to me, are the highest form of beauty that Magic has achieved.

As we’ve learned over the years, not every card is for everyone. Storm might not be for you. Storm is for me, and I love Storm.

kill reviews: onslaught block

Last week, Odyssey gave us the strongest single theme ever presented in one block: every mechanic pushed forward its emphasis of the graveyard, to the point where it overwhelmed sacred ideas of “card advantage” relating to cards in hand. Onslaught doesn’t attempt anything quite as grand, but it ends up being almost as weird.
Their lack of inter-block planning really hurt them here. Odyssey attempted a strange gambit where it eschewed previously-established creature types, emphasizing Insects (not Elves), Cephalid and Wizards (not Merfolk), Barbarians (not Goblins), Birds, and Minions (not… well, white and black didn’t really have races they emphasized, so nothing was lost). This was because they didn’t know Onslaught was about to push hard on traditional creature types. Oops. Therefore, all the new creature-type-based decks from Onslaught wouldn’t be able to use hardly anything from Odyssey… other than Wizard decks, a creature type that was dramatically underpowered because of Odyssey’s printing of Patron Wizard.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

kill reviews: odyssey block

After the huge success of Invasion, the pressure was relieved off Wizards a bit. Old-time players came running back to the game in droves, and future blocks had a successful block design model to follow. No block for a long time would be as broadly well-received as Invasion, but that sort of success is nearly impossible to duplicate.

Here is the point in Magic history where the design gets a bit more recognizable, the values that Wizards holds are closer to the ones they currently do, and set reviews will get more controversial. Early Magic sets are easy: the ones that did something good and new for the first time are good sets. The underpowered ones that didn’t are bad sets. Power levels swung widely, and neither extreme was desirable. But with Odyssey, they made something that some people really liked. It just wasn’t for everyone.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

kill reviews: invasion block

Last week, Magic was at its dreariest point in the game’s history. It needed something good to save it.

Mark Rosewater wrote an article about things that many people said were going to kill Magic, but guess what, they didn’t. I found this piece profoundly annoying because of its smug, “heh, look at how silly people were to think this would kill Magic” attitude, while leaving out things that genuinely came close to killing the game. A few sets, and their immediate aftermath, are in this category.

The seven-month gap after Fallen Empires probably should have killed Magic, or if not, then the eight-month gap after Homelands could have finished it off. Urza Block saw tournament players fleeing in droves. Masques Block didn’t sell for shit. We can very easily look back on the introduction of Sixth Edition rules, which happened between Urza’s Legacy and Urza’s Destiny,[1] as a great thing now… but that’s because we’re used to Wizards going, “no, really guys, we’re sure this is great for the game long-term. Just trust us on this one.” Who, after those last two blocks, still had faith in Wizards? No one rational. The logic surely went, “they clearly have no idea what in Christ they’re doing with making cards, so why should we assume they know what they’re doing with the rules?”

[1] Yes, Sixth came out two months after Legacy, and was followed by Destiny two months later. They changed the entire ruleset of the game while printing those absurd cards.

After a suck-awful set like Prophecy, the statistically-minded would imagine that the following set, Invasion, would regress to the mean and be better. It turned out to be the most revolutionary expansion printed to that point.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

a gp portland story (guest post by Cool Magic Pro)

06/26/2015 update: I've never removed a post from my blog before. Then again, this was also my only-ever guest post. Cool Magic Pro didn't have anywhere to post it at the time, so we talked, and agreed to post it here.

Cool Magic Pro now has their own tumblr. If you'd like to read this (extremely good) story, please read it here:

Monday, August 18, 2014

kill reviews: masques block

This review available in podcast form thanks to hitting my goal on Patreon:

Mercadian Masques continues the tale of Gerrard and the crew of the Weatherlight as they go to different planes or whatever, there’s some stuff with a court, blah blah blah, this block fucking sucks.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

kill reviews: urza block

Everyone has their nostalgia sets. The sets come out at the right time for them, where they’re introduced to Magic, or have an opportunity to devote more time to it, or hang out with a lot of people that play Magic all the time. The Urza sets are my nostalgia sets.

I didn’t start playing with it, exactly. After my friends showed me some cards, my dad got me the Portal intro pack and a 5th edition tournament pack for Christmas one year. As an only child, I played countless games with those cards against myself on the floor of whatever room I was in. I then played a lot against my best friend at the time, whose mom’s patient had given this friend a huge box full of Revised and other assorted cards from that era.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

kill reviews: the rath cycle

This review is available in podcast form thanks to hitting my goal on Patreon:

Last week, we reviewed Mirage block’s attempt to tie more than one set together. This week, the Rath Cycle takes things a lot further: they had a real plan for an entire block (rather than just a set or two) where everything is tied together by the story of Gerrard and the Weatherlight. 

Monday, July 28, 2014

kill reviews: mirage block

In our last installment, Alliances saved Magic from dumb mechanics, bad art, and whatever was going on in the storyline of Homelands. But one small set isn’t going to do that: we needed to get some Block Planning in the game.

At this point, people had gotten over their early reservations about Wizards printing more expansions to the game, and instead just looked forward to the next one. Magic’s second large expansion was also the last one to have been designed before the game was released (before it got the name Mirage, it was known as Menagerie, which would have been a fine set name in its own right).[1] Like Ice Age, it must have fallen into a development hell at some point; Memory Lapse was poached for Homelands when Bill Rose, Mirage’s head designer, interviewed at Wizards. This makes sense until one starts to think about the design of a Magic set occurring before the person in charge of it even got an interview at the company. After Alliances, the team inside Wizards came together to develop Mirage.

[1] What idiot called it Mirage Block instead of Menagerie Trois?

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

the story of magic art in 89 cards

Monday, July 21, 2014

kill reviews: ice age block

So! Yeah. Ice Age block. It’s… certainly cool! Am I right guys? Is anyone still reading this?

Ice Age, the second set and first large expansion in the grey-bordered era (has this caught on since last week? I hope so), was not a good set. It was the first large set expansion in Magic’s history, and gave them the opportunity to reboot a good chunk of Magic design: because you could get everything you needed to play from Ice Age (unlike previous expansions), they could toss out all the dregs of previous design and really give players something to sink their teeth into. This is not what happened.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

magic online: 7/16/2014 never forget

Today is a magnificent day in the history of Magic. It is a day when a subset of Wizards revs their engine and zooms past the userbase of Magic Online, their grotesque yellowed middle fingers flubbering in the breeze as they plow straight into the nearest building and tell us it’ll be right back up in no time. Welcome to the Beta Era, shitbags.

For years now, we’ve read fake-cheery articles announcing More Sweet Features in the fabled Fourth Version of Magic: Online, and today, it was formally released with all the expectation and excitement normally associated with waiting for the vet to put your dog to sleep. It is beyond criticism, because every criticism is answered with “we’re aware and totally working on it” from a representative of both of its programmers with a combined $60,000 salary. It has become such a frequent punchline that it is the unstated end joke to anything that happens in the program.

A community of people so focused on the next new thing when it comes to Magic, the people lining up in front of their local Wal-Marts to get the latest Android phone the second it comes out, were so horrified at the idea of using the new client rather than the basically-eight-year-old-one that Wizards had to have weekends when it forced its players to use the new client, or they couldn’t log onto Magic Online. Magic players responded in droves by not logging on to Magic Online.

Wizards genuinely cannot seem to fathom why people would rather not use a client that, by default, has everything in the program as a separate window, shows the cards in hand as so big that they overlap unreadably, and presents a handy scroll button to reveal the entirety of one’s opening hand. Brian Kibler’s encounter with the Wide Beta should be enshrined as a classic piece of Magic history: presented with baby-sized cards in the most important zone, all he can do is laugh and ask why. When a monolith of a corporation makes a terrible product and throws fake-sympathetic community relations agents at us instead of fixing everything, laughter is the only response left.

Today, Magic Online called us drunk at let’s say 2:17AM. “HEY! Heyyyyy it’s our annivvversary and wewerereally greaaatt together aand I knoww you liked, like the uhh… the Modern Master… master-“ *giggle* “MASTERS and the vintage one aaaand holiday in cubeodia soooo yeah come on over?”

We gleefully give Magic Online another chance, try out this Holiday Cube again, and Magic Online is passed out face-down on the couch with vomit dribbling from his mouth before the draft is even over.

This was your special day, Magic Online. This was supposed to mean something.

7/16/2014: the day Version 3 is retired forever.
7/16/2014: the day someone forgot to hit the “phantom draft” checkbox next to the “launch Holday Cube” button.

Should we have expected any better from the program that couldn’t ban Æther Vial for an entire day because they didn’t know how to add a card with that little “Æ” to the banned list?

The logical conclusion to this isn’t that they gave people Black Lotuses they weren’t supposed to have, then shut down the Holiday Cube to fix the problem, then took them away. They’re not capable of that. First, they had to make everyone who had acquired illicit Cube cards on a No-Trade List while they figure out how to remove them from people’s accounts. The emails they sent to those people mention doing it for everyone manually. On the plus side, this wasn’t communicated via stone tablet thrown through their window.

A rough timeline:

2002: Magic Online 1.0 by Leaping Lizard released for Windows.
2003: Magic Online 2.0 released by Wizards internal development, after wresting control from Leaping Lizard.
2003: MTGO 2.0 so unusably server-crashingly buggy that Wizards turns off the ability to give them money, reverts it to a beta.
2003: Wizards apologizes for the servers crashing by launching a free event called ‘Chuck’s Virtual Party.’ This crashes the servers.
2006: the rebuilt-from-the-ground up Magic Online 3.0 scheduled for release.
2006: it is not released.
2007: “
2008: Magic Online 3.0 released.
July 2012: Magic Online 4.0 (“Tha Beta”) gets first Wide Beta Spotlight.
7/16/2014: see above.
20XX: Macintosh client? Android? iPad?

Another timeline:

March 2013: Blizzard announces Hearthstone.
August 2013: Hearthstone enters closed beta.
March 2014: Hearthstone released for PC and Mac.
April 2014: Hearthstone released for iPad.

Magic Online turns to the camera and shrugs. Audience laughter. Applause. “That’s Our MODO!”

Monday, July 14, 2014

kill reviews: early sets

kill reviews: introduction

This review is available in audio format.

Five expansions to Magic came out from 1993-1994: Arabian Nights, Antiquities, Legends, The Dark, and Fallen Empires. These sets are by far the most difficult to write about from a modern perspective, because the processes of designing, playing, buying, and collecting Magic were so dramatically different. The best reading on the subject is Richard Garfield’s piece on the design of Arabian Nights, but the most enlightening, to me, was the second issue of Scrye Magazine, available as reading material in my workplace’s lunch room.

Magic was a runaway success, as any history of early Magic has to note. The philosophy of printing cards was way different: they’d print cards, those cards would sell out, and they’d use the money to print the next batch of cards. They didn’t give much thought to how you’d get cards from the last expansion, because that was a few levels of thought beyond “let’s design some cards and print them.” Card availability was a legitimate concern, rather than its current usage as a Hasbro Legal-sanctioned euphemism for card prices. Packs of Legends were selling for several times MSRP before disappearing entirely, and that’s when it was the newest set.

kill reviews: introduction

Magic players are focused on what’s new, and what’s about to be new. This is a wonderful aspect of the game: there’s always something new around the corner. Step away from the game for a couple years, and the new sets will completely transform the game. These sets are the backbone of playing Magic, just like new albums set the conversation for music fans.

But there’s no guide to going back and looking at old sets. Trying to read about things from even two years ago can be difficult, because people are so focused on creating with the new cards that they don’t step back to review what Wizards has given them.

I’m writing that guide. It’ll be comprehensive, starting with the very first Magic expansion, and going through every block through the present with an essay-length review of each block. Think of it as like the Rolling Stone Album Guide, but for Magic, and not written by Rolling Stone. (I’m writing it. I said that already.)

What this will tackle: what makes an expansion good? What gets people excited to sit down and play with fresh packs of Magic cards? What influences the future design in a positive way, or pushes people toward less frustrating hobbies, like clubbing themselves in the head with a baseball bat?

I’ll be covering everything about a set, from its design philosophies to its developmental decisions, as well as how everything looks and feels. The exact points of conversation will change from set to set, but things will always come back to how these (oftentimes very old) sets relate to the modern day. I’ll touch on some historical tidbits as they come up, but this is not an unbiased, encyclopedic project. These are reviews. They are opinions. No one who reads it will agree with everything. If this happens, I must have stated exclusively boring opinions.

What are my qualifications? I am not a pro player. I am not a game designer. I’m simply a fan who’s been playing since midway through Urza block, and I’ve written about the game a bunch: here, as well as my six-month stay at GatheringMagic.

I will be publishing all of them on this blog weekly. (The first one is up right now!) They are entirely free, and always will be. I’m going through Patreon so that, if people like the reviews and want to support my doing them, they can.

Why should people give me money for this? Well, that’s a pretty good question. I admit, I’ve paid no money to many creators I really like, even when their work was not free. By supporting this project, I can do things like record audio versions for people (like myself) who like listening rather than reading, because I currently have absolutely no way to record good audio. I’ll also write some short content exclusive to Patreon donors: for example, about Unglued.

I hope everyone enjoys these reviews. If you have any feedback, feel free to comment here or (preferably) hit me up on twitter: @KillGoldfish


Tuesday, June 10, 2014

cult classics compilation (#1-#12)

Two out of every three weeks, I write a 200-300 word column for the Card Kingdom newsletter called Cult Classics. As a Music Nerd, the albums I tend to like are the ones that don’t sell terribly well when the first come out, but music critics won’t shut up about them for the next three decades, and nerds like myself get the album art on t-shirts so we can nod to one another and go “nice.” These are the Magical equivalents, or the closest thing tournament Magic has. None of them get at the horrific despair and loneliness that those albums do, but I’m hopeful that Khans of Tarkir remedies this.

The criteria to be a Cult Classic: it had to be a reasonable tournament deck, not someone’s awful ‘rogue’ concoction they played at FNM, nor an experiment to do the weirdest thing possible. During the time it was legal, maybe it even won some tournaments. However, it can’t be the #1 deck that people remember from an environment. Any deck that was ever “the best” for more than ten minutes is almost certainly out (though there’s a very specific deck I’ll break this rule for; that’ll probably be next week’s column).

Most importantly, it has to be cool, and since this is my column, what’s cool is entirely subjective. The deck that I immediately knew I had to write about, as soon as I had the idea for the column, was Tight Sight. If you don’t think a creatureless combo deck that kills by infinitely looping Predict once it has infinite mana off an empty library is cool, we have very different aesthetic sensibilities, and you might not enjoy these decks as much as I do. Basically, if a deck does something that sounds completely unbelievable for a competitive deck to do, or if it’s constructed in such a bizarre way that it looks like the base of it is going to creak and fall over at any second, it has potential to be a Cult Classic.

A lot of this I don’t consider to be my best writing. Due to the medium and the audience, I stay relentlessly positive the whole time, and I don’t have enough space to go into the personal connection I have with certain decks. Others, I needed to write something and only had one 15-minute break to write it. There are some passages and phrases, like the intro to “Dredge,” that I enjoy, though.

All the writing and coming-up-with-the-deck-to-write-about is mine (unless I’m forgetting someone’s suggestion and imagining I remembered it myself), but the writing shown has received some edits from a few people at Card Kingdom: Jordan Short, Chris Rowlands, and Justin Treadway, for which I’m very thankful. For example, there was one Frankenstein monster of a sentence that had a comma, a semicolon, a parenthetical, and maybe even an ellipses in it. They made sure to replace that with periods, and it certainly reads better for it.

The columns here were published from March to June of 2014. Anything I’ve added will appear after an “Additional commentary:” tag.

If you’d like to read these as they come out, along with some other excellent content from the aforementioned Card Kingdom people, go to and enter your email address on the righthand side of the screen.

One final note (really): sometime soon I'll go back and link all these cards to have mouseover functionality so that people aren't expected to know what Telekinetic Sliver is off the top of their head, but for now, I'd just like to publish this while it's current. Paste decks into or something similar to see what everything is.

Wild Pair Slivers – Time Spiral Block Constructed

4 Forest
4 Grove of the Burnwillows
6 Island
1 Mountain
1 Pendelhaven
1 Plains
4 Terramorphic Expanse
1 Urza's Factory

1 Darkheart Sliver
4 Dormant Sliver
3 Frenetic Sliver
4 Gemhide Sliver
1 Might Sliver
1 Mystic Snake
1 Reflex Sliver
3 Telekinetic Sliver
1 Venser, Shaper Savant
4 Wall of Roots
1 Whitemane Lion

4 Coalition Relic
4 Foresee
2 Take Possession
4 Wild Pair

3 Detritivore
2 Extirpate
1 Frenetic Sliver
1 Mystic Snake
3 Riftsweeper
1 Sliver Legion
1 Telekinetic Sliver
1 Teneb, the Harvester
1 Vesuva
1 Whitemane Lion

Wild Pair Slivers is a deck that takes all the “bad” slivers left over from drafts, four copies of a six-mana enchantment that does nothing when it comes into play, and what appear to be leftovers from someone’s trade binder and turns them into one of the most bizarre and powerful decks ever played in a Block Constructed format.

Six years ago, before Birthing Pod or Combo Elves made creature-based combo engines a normal part of Magic, Wafo-Tapa was putting his entire deck onto the battlefield with Wild Pair, removing creatures with Frenetic Sliver to flip a ton of coins (he won the flips, obviously, because this deck gives great karma), then drawing cards with Dormant Sliver when they came back. Wild Pair only cares that creatures have the same added power and toughness, so casting Wall of Roots and adding a counter fetches Dormant Sliver or any of your silver bullets for zero mana. Nothing. Which is about all your opponent can do against all-stars like Telekinetic Sliver.

Have you read those cards before? His opponents hadn’t. Some of them were probably too embarrassed to ask what just happened as they signed the match slip in his favor. The text boxes included such implications as “tap your entire board every turn for the rest of the game,” “I have a two-mana counterspell with buyback zero” (Whitemane Lion into Mystic Snake does quite a bit), and “I can attack with my entire deck because it all came into play with haste.”

Decks with small creatures got stalled out and combo’d. Decks with large creatures were too slow to compete. The incredibly popular blue-black control couldn’t draw enough cards to deal with Slivers. Next time you’ve never heard of your opponent’s cards, watch out.

Additional commentary: I don’t like how much I play up the “you’ve never heard of these cards!” in this explanation, because hopefully, all of the decks I write about use obscure draft leftovers. Otherwise, what are they doing in this column? Plus, Time Spiral Block Constructed had so many goddamn cards that no one could keep them straight. Still, though, I’m in awe that they designed a Sliver variant of Frenetic Efreet, got it to print, and it was actually good. Those must be the two best coin-flipping cards of all time, almost by default.

Tight Sight – Odyssey/Onslaught Standard

1 Flooded Strand
9 Forest
11 Island
1 Windswept Heath

4 Careful Study
3 Cunning Wish
3 Deep Analysis
4 Early Harvest
4 Far Wanderings
4 Future Sight
2 Krosan Reclamation
4 Mental Note
3 Moment's Peace
3 Predict
2 Quiet Speculation
2 Rampant Growth

2 Delusions of Mediocrity
3 Mana Short
1 Memory Lapse
1 Moment's Peace
1 Naturalize
1 Opportunity
3 Ravenous Baloth
1 Ray of Revelation
2 Roar of the Wurm

This deck is Art. In thirty years, when there is a Magic wing in MoMA, there will be a looped video of someone playing Tight Sight. Sure, any combo deck can sneak in a one-of as the only way to win the game, but how many decks can hide the fact that they have any win conditions at all?

Step one: get Future Sight in play. Step two: mill your entire library. This was before any fancy-pants dredge or Tome Scours existed, so you had to do it the hard way, meaning fetching every land from your deck, drawing cards, and using Early Harvest to not run out of mana. Step three: with zero cards in your library, cast Krosan Reclamation targeting Krosan Reclamation and Early Harvest. Cast those spells from the top of your deck with Future Sight an arbitrarily large number of times, then do the same thing except with Predict to mill your opponent. To reiterate: the deck’s win condition is Predict.

While it might seem a bit slow for modern tastes (a turn five win happens with a good draw), it’s surprisingly resilient against seemingly-faster agro decks with Moment’s Peace, which will make them sigh deeply every time you flash it back. The Cunning Wish package has some tricks, as well, including some surprise anti-control cards if they’re keeping their mana up for your big turn.

Anyone interested in combo decks should take a few minutes to goldfish Tight Sight a few times, because there has never been a more machine-like combo deck to see play in Standard. Once Future Sight is in play, all those cards that seem to do nothing work together to create a harmonious masterpiece, and that, deckbuilders, is true beauty.

Additional commentary: I started this blog several years ago to write about combo decks. At that point, I was playing Elves religiously. I started playing that deck because Storm was no longer legal in Extended. Years before that, I attempted to play Tight Sight in Standard. I say “attempted,” because I think I only ran it in a tournament once or twice; the local card store only had two Early Harvest in stock, which as you might imagine, was rather key to it functioning.

For some unknown reason, I thought my four rounds at a local tournament with a known-suboptimal version of a deck was worth writing up and sending to StarCityGames, back when The Ferrett was the editor in charge. He sent me a very nice personal rejection note, explaining why he wasn’t going to publish it. I don’t remember if I sent that in before or after my card-by-card review of Legions.

My strongest memory of the deck, though, was proxying it up to goldfish. I wasn’t up on the technology of using draft leftovers to make proxies (also, I didn’t draft), so I wrote the names of the cards on index cards and shuffled those, then played endless games sitting crosslegged on my bed next to my stuffed animals.

I haven’t actually tried goldfishing this deck in many years. I used to try to port it to Extended on a regular basis, which never worked out. I’m a bit worried that trying it now would be like seeing present-day Facebook photos of my biggest high school crush.

Ghost Dad – Champions/Ravnica Standard

6 Plains
6 Swamp
4 Caves of Koilos
4 Godless Shrine
1 Eiganjo Castle
1 Shizo, Death's Storehouse
1 Tomb of Urami

4 Dark Confidant
3 Kami of Ancient Law
3 Plagued Rusalka
4 Tallowisp
4 Thief of Hope
4 Ghost Council of Orzhova
2 Teysa, Orzhov Scion

1 Indomitable Will
3 Pillory of the Sleepless
1 Strands of Undeath
4 Shining Shoal
4 Sickening Shoal

2 Pithing Needle
1 Kami of Ancient Law
1 Enfeeblement
1 Pillory of the Sleepless
2 Blessed Breath
2 Umezawa's Jitte
3 Cranial Extraction
2 Persecute
1 Miren, the Moaning Well

It’s one thing to blindside people with a one-turn ‘win the game’ combo, or a colossal creature on the third turn, or burning people out from 15 life. But sometimes, you gotta take things a bit steadier. Play some 1/3s for two. Enchant some creatures. Trick people into thinking you were giving yesterday’s draft deck a shot in today’s Standard Pro Tour.

That’s right: this deck made its debut in a 2006 Pro Tour. The engine behind the madness is Tallowisp plus the Shoals: your doomed opponent targets one of your guys with a burn spell, and you respond with Shining Shoal for free, tutoring up a sweet aura, saving your guy, and killing theirs. And you were tapped out the whole time. Now you can understand why the deck boasted an unbelievable win percentage against the aggressive Zoo deck that was one of the format’s most popular strategies.

Once the deck has survived the early game with its legion of rejects, forget it. All their guys are not attacking, not blocking, and they’re losing a point of life per turn for the privilege of having them remain in play. The midgame Tallowisp engine coexists happily with the Dark Confidant/Thief of Hope (!) engine to provide an endless stream of removal and 2/2s. Then, when it was pretty much hopeless anyway, Ghost Council provides a completely-impossible-to-deal-with threat to close things out.

In a lot of ways, the deck was ahead of its time: it controlled the game not with huge Wrath effects and “draw three cards” but creatures that subtly took over. The genesis of Faeries is here if you look hard enough, with its two-mana guys that aren’t worth a removal spell but annoy the crap out of you.

Additional commentary: I don’t have a direct personal connection to this one, but I know a lot of people who do. This is The MiseTings deck; for the short period that every good player on that site banded together and played Magic, this is what they came up with, and it led them to the Pro Tour. I’m pretty sure I was banned during this. Most of the people involved are now on GoodGamery, by far the best Magic forum on the internet.

Turboland – Extended (2003)

5 Forest
14 Island
1 Treetop Village
4 Yavimaya Coast
1 Battlefield Scrounger
4 Accumulated Knowledge
1 Capsize
4 Counterspell
4 Exploration
2 Gush
4 Horn of Greed
2 Intuition
2 Krosan Reclamation
3 Moment's Peace
4 Oath of Druids
2 Scroll Rack
3 Time Warp

1 Capsize
3 Deep Analysis
1 Dust Bowl
1 Gainsay
1 Intuition
1 Misdirection
1 Naturalize
2 Powder Keg
3 Ravenous Baloth
1 Thwart

Oh, Extended, our beautiful lost format. Where now we have Modern, once we had the seven-or-more year format where any amount of broken decks ran wild in a shockingly healthy metagame. This week’s deck is not some overlooked also-ran, but a deck that won a Grand Prix whose top 8 also included Psychatog with Gush, UG Madness with Daze, Tinker with pretty much every broken artifact not printed in Alpha, and Angry Hermit which would kill you on turn two with a single two-mana creature. The winning deck? Zvi Mowshowitz’s beloved Turboland.

True to its name, the deck works by playing Lots of Land. Exploration plus Horn of Greed is the basic acceleration and card-drawing engine, with Accumulated Knowledge for when three cards a turn isn’t enough, and Time Warp for when you’re not quite ready to let your opponent untap. Then, you Oath of Druids for… some enormous monster? Some untargetable, you-win-the-game-upon-entering-the-battlefield unbeatable thing?! No! Battlefield Scrounger, of course, everyone’s favorite common 3/3 for five. With Scrounger in play and your library in your graveyard, you can recur Time Warp for infinite turns as you cast Capsize with buyback to put your opponent’s board safely back in their hand.

The deck was famous for a few things: having one of the most powerful engines in a high-powered format, taking about half an hour to actually execute its infinite combo, and being nearly impossible to play correctly. Handing it off to anyone else is like tossing the keys to the International Space Station to someone who just got their learner’s permit (for cars, not space stations).

Two-card combos like Splinter Twin make for cool decks, but to me, this is real combo: the entire deck is the engine, with victory subtly nestled among its interlocking parts.

Additional commentary: I had an issue of InQuest magazine (maybe exactly an issue, even), and it featured a piece by Zvi about how the deck works. Can you imagine explaining this deck to InQuest readers? They even made him talk about what you could change for budget reasons. I remember that he compared it to changing an F1 car into a go-kart, and he said the closest thing to Oath of Druids was Propaganda, which I still find to be an interesting idea.

Snap – (Urza Block Constructed)

9 Forest
4 Gaea's Cradle
5 Island
2 Thran Quarry
1 Yavimaya Hollow

2 Barrin, Master Wizard
4 Cloud of Faeries
4 Deranged Hermit
2 Elvish Herder
2 Elvish Lyrist
4 Priest of Titania
4 Raven Familiar
1 Yavimaya Granger

2 Crop Rotation
4 Fertile Ground
2 Frantic Search
4 Snap
4 Stroke of Genius

4 Absolute Law
3 Contamination
4 Meltdown
1 Morphling
1 Mountain
1 Plains
1 Swamp

A creature-based aggro-control-combo deck that could repeatedly replay Deranged Hermit, tap Gaea’s Cradle over and over, create a huge wave of card advantage, or make the opponent draw their deck. Welcome to two-set Urza Block Constructed!

One of the true “what could have been” stories in competitive Magic, this is a deck that finished Top 16… because it was tragically stolen before that round. Now, if it was me and someone was playing a Snap/Gaea’s Cradle deck in a Pro Tour and their deck disappeared, I’d crack open my binder and lend some cards, but what are you gonna do?

Chapin had to be ecstatic just to get this far with something so goofy: the deck starts off looking reasonable, with a familiar acceleration/Priest of Titania beginning into the popular Deranged Hermit, then things take a turn for the weird once the Snap/Frantic Search action to untap Gaea’s Cradle starts happening. Crop Rotation can even replace the Cradle with a fresh copy. Since your opponent is probably doing something that’s also blatantly unfair, because it’s Urza Block, the Elvish Lyrist and Barrin, Master Wizard should stall them for just long enough to do… whatever it is this deck did.

Before looking it up, I remembered the rough outline of the maindeck, but not the sideboard. That might be the most beautiful sideboard I’ve ever seen. A strictly blue-green main, with basic Mountain, Plains, Swamp, and 11 cards in those three colors in the side. The Contamination, it… it’s for… so that… look, I got nothing here. The Snap deck has broken me completely.

Additional commentary: there are a couple decks that I only know about because Flores wrote them up. I know, Chapin and Flores, my favorite people. Truth is, I used to read mothership Flores articles religiously, and this is one of the coolest things I got from that. Of all the decks I wrote about in the column, this is the one that I most desperately wish I could take to a tournament.

Mirari’s Wake – Odyssey Block Constructed

6 Forest
6 Island
4 Krosan Verge
1 Mossfire Valley
2 Mountain
3 Plains
3 Skycloud Expanse
3 Burning Wish
3 Circular Logic
3 Compulsion
4 Deep Analysis
4 Far Wanderings
2 Flash of Insight
2 Kirtar's Wrath
1 Living Wish
4 Mirari's Wake
4 Moment's Peace
2 Quiet Speculation
3 Time Stretch

1 Ambassador Laquatus
3 Bearscape
1 Cleansing Meditation
1 Envelop
2 Firebolt
1 Firecat Blitz
1 Kirtar's Wrath
1 Mountain
1 Quiet Speculation
1 Ray of Revelation
1 Skycloud Expanse
1 Time Stretch

Readers who’ve been playing for over a decade will scoff at this selection. “Mirari’s Wake?”, their old, creaking voices will ask, “what’s a tier-one Standard deck that won the 2003 World Championship doing in Cult Classics?” Well, I admit, it might be a bit higher-profile than most things featured here… but have you seen what it does?

A sideboard that supports Burning AND Living Wish. Nearly unbounded turns with Time Stretch. Quiet Speculation for Moment’s Peace, which was practically 150% of a Time Stretch against aggressive decks. Finally ending the game with Firecat Blitz tokens, and that art is just adorable.

Wake was that rarest of monsters: the combo-control deck, possibly the first of its kind in Standard, that was just as comfortable sitting back on card selection, mass removal, and counters as it was going nuts and making tons of guys. This is an earlier (Pat Chapin-designed) version, because I think it’s the coolest. The deck eventually evolved more toward three-color control that just happened to win off three copies of Wake; the more combo-oriented ones would have gladly played six. Such is the fate of powerful wackiness: the oddities get stripped off, the deck streamlined, and things like Burning Wish for Time Stretch fall by the wayside.

Time for some Serious Deckbuilding Lessons inspired by this: just because a new deck idea seems completely out-there, bizarre, or like a rickety schoolbus screaming down a winding hill at 120MPH, doesn’t necessarily mean there’s not the framework for a viciously-tuned championship-winning behemoth waiting for the right tuning (or a couple cards from the next set) to move it from the casual tables to the Top 8. Don’t write off weird decks just because they’re not quite there yet.

A final note: other Wake decks used Mirari to cast Cunning Wish, copy it, and return the original copy of Wish to their hand. It was amazing. It doesn’t work anymore. This keeps me up at night.

Additional commentary: Chapin deck number two. I found this because I wanted to show off some Wake deck, and this one popped up on a search. I think Chapin said something about how the format would be unplayable once people knew about Wake, or something, whatever. I didn’t even realize it was a Block deck and not Standard until I had to look it up while compiling this.

Gassy Knoll – Time Spiral/Lorwyn Standard

4 Fungal Reaches
4 Molten Slagheap
12 Snow-Covered Mountain
4 Spinerock Knoll

4 Bogardan Hellkite

4 Dragonstorm
4 Grapeshot
4 Incinerate
4 Lotus Bloom
3 Pyromancer's Swath
3 Rift Bolt
4 Rite of Flame
4 Shock
2 Tarfire

2 Ancient Grudge
4 Dodecapod
2 Empty the Warrens
2 Ignite Memories
3 Sulfurous Blast
2 Wheel of Fate

We’ve all played burn decks, right? Even the Mountain-averse among us have a basic familiarity with how they work. First, you spend a couple turns picking off important creatures or whatever. Then you build up some mana. Then you deal ten damage to your opponent, which lets you play a nine-mana spell for one mana off your land that was hiding it, then you tutor up four dragons that kill your opponent on the spot.

Classic mono-red burn deck, or something.

This deck was a very brief flash in the pan before Morningtide invaded with its Bitterblossoms, but what a flash this deck was. Though it didn’t win, the deck (yet another Patrick Chapin creation- what can I say, the man makes cool decks) had an incredible showing in the Standard portion, and two of its pilots made it all the way to the top 8. Its hybrid of Pyromancer’s Swath burn with Dragonstorm combo isn’t really comparable to anything in Standard; my researchers tell me the best analogy they can make is to the bizarre Cephalid Illusionist infinite life/reanimation combo decks of old Extended. When a mono-red deck with 17 burn spells has no point of comparison, something weird happened.

Time for our serious business Deckbuilding Lesson of the day: if your weirdo combo deck isn’t quite there, try shoving it together with another not-quite-there deck that shares some overlap. In this case, both Pyromancer’s Swath and Dragonstorm weren’t quite enough to make it on their own at the time, but the hybrid attack impossible to plan a gameplan against. Think of it like a Reese’s cup, on fire.

Additional commentary: holy hell, ‘Gassy Knoll’ has to be the worst deck name ever devised. ‘Tight Sight’ is embarrassing enough, but this is a deck name that’s 1) a pun, 2) awful magic slang, 3) a reference to the assassination of a President. That is simply unacceptable. When I told Justin Treadway the name of the deck, well… he wasn’t happy. Also, this is the third Chapin deck in a row, prompting Justin to threaten to change my column’s name to “Chapin It To The Limit.”

Full English Breakfast – Extended (2001?)

3 City of Brass
4 Forest
6 Island
1 Savannah
1 Taiga
4 Tropical Island
2 Undiscovered Paradise
4 Birds of Paradise
1 Bottle Gnomes
1 Elvish Lyrist
1 Flowstone Hellion
1 Gilded Drake
1 Morphling
2 Phyrexian Dreadnought
2 Quirion Ranger
1 Reya Dawnbringer
1 Sliver Queen
1 Squee, Goblin Nabob
3 Tradewind Rider
1 Uktabi Orangutan
4 Volrath's Shapeshifter
4 Wall of Roots
3 Counterspell
4 Force of Will
4 Survival of the Fittest
1 Academy Rector
1 Bottle Gnomes
1 Carrion Beetle
1 Circle of Protection: Red
1 Gilded Drake
1 Masticore
1 Oath of Ghouls
1 Phelddagrif
1 Pygmy Hippo
3 Pyroblast
1 Recurring Nightmare
1 Seal of Cleansing
1 Spiketail Drake

Back when naming combo decks after breakfast cereals was the cool thing, Full English Breakfast came along to shake up the convention and provide the tournament scene with one of the most complicated decks ever made. It’s a creature deck! It’s a counterspell deck! It’s a combo deck with a ludicrously involved combo! It has 23 different creatures between main and sideboard!

This is an Extended deck from way back, when Extended was Ice Age forward, and specifically allowed the original dual lands, but not the rest of Revised. Yes, that was a real format. Survival of the Fittest-based decks were a pretty common alternative to Necropotence-fueled combo archetypes, but FEB was weird even at the time.

A bit of background to start with: Paul Barclay, the deck’s designer, was a Wizards employee who gave official answers to rules questions. He went on to be in charge of all rules for all Wizards TCGs. This is relevant, because no one else would be able to figure out that this works, let alone do all the other timing tricks involving the cards in different arrangements:

Play Volrath’s Shapeshifter. Activate Survival of the Fittest, discarding Flowstone Hellion. Volrath’s Shapeshifter now has haste, so attack. Activate Shapeshifter’s new activated ability eleven times. Before those resolve, activate Survival, discarding Phyrexian Dreadnought. The activations resolve. Shapeshifter is now attacking as a 23/1 with trample.

Okay! Now you know how the basic combo of the deck works. How do you actually play this monstrosity? Well you… cast… spells? Play guys??? Look, I’m a writer, not a pro player. I haven’t the slightest idea how to win a game with this deck. But please, put it together and share the confusion with friends and family.

Additional commentary: I’m sad both that any mention of this deck has to spend two thirds of its time explaining The Combo, and that I can’t find any specific record of when and where this deck saw play.

The naming conventions really went haywire after this deck came out. Cephalid Illusionist got featured in some sort of “variant” that barely resembles the deck at all, hence Cepahlid Breakfast, then it got merged with Life, forming Cephalife… columns like this are actually kind of necessary, just so the experienced players can bring newer ones up to speed on this arcane tournament history.

Also, a personal FedEx Arrow-type moment occurred for me when I realized that Life wasn’t just named that because of how the combo worked, but because that, too, was a cereal.

Cocoa Pebbles – Extended (1999?)

4 Badlands
4 City of Brass
4 Gemstone Mine
3 Peat Bog
3 Phyrexian Tower
4 Scrubland
4 Academy Rector
2 Phyrexian Walker
4 Shield Sphere
1 Aura of Silence
4 Dark Ritual
4 Demonic Consultation
4 Duress
3 Enduring Renewal
4 Goblin Bombardment
1 Mana Vault
3 Mox Diamond
4 Necropotence

1 Abeyance
3 Aura of Silence
1 Defense of the Heart
2 Peacekeeper
4 Pyroblast
2 Mana Short
2 Wasteland

Back when Tempest came out in 1997, it brought a new Big Scary Combo Deck in Extended called Fruity Pebbles: with Enduring Renewal, Goblin Bombardment, and a zero-cost creature, the deck could deal (gasp!) infinite damage. Now, this might seem pretty normal nowadays, but back then it was a bit more special. Around the same time, Necropotence-fueled black decks were the expected deck. Then around 1999, someone tried the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup technique (my favorite) of mashing the two together. The result: Cocoa Pebbles. Tony Dobson played this version at Pro Tour Chicago.

“Okay,” you might say, “so it added a completely broken card advantage engine to an existing combo deck. So what?” Well, this was actually a pretty big innovation. When you’re casting a turn one Necropotence the win condition you use after that almost becomes irrelevant. In a lot of cases, if you’re doing something as absurd as that, just find whatever kills them the fastest (especially if you can assume that they, too, have access to the same incredible engine that you do).

The big takeaway here that deckbuilders kept coming back to: three-card combos where none of the pieces do anything individually are bad. Card draw engines that pump out a near-endless stream of mediocre guys are pretty good. Card draw engines that find your previously-unreliable combo… okay, that works a lot better. Thanks, Necropotence!

Additional commentary: this one is just a history lesson, because I couldn’t come up with anything else that week.

Miracle Gro – Extended (1997)

6 Island
4 Tropical Island
3 Gaea's Skyfolk
4 Lord of Atlantis
4 Merfolk Looter
4 Quirion Dryad
4 Brainstorm
4 Curiosity
4 Daze
3 Foil
4 Force of Will
4 Gush
4 Land Grant
4 Sleight of Hand
4 Winter Orb
2 Boomerang
4 Chill
3 Emerald Charm
2 Misdirection
4 Submerge
Fun. Card.

In 1997, Alan Comer invented Legacy.

Now, I don’t mean the format called “Legacy.” That didn’t even get named until 2004, and this deck was made for old Extended. But with this monstrosity comprised of ten land, fifteen creatures, nineteen free spells, and sixteen card draw spells (none of which cost more than one mana), Comer gave us the basic shell for today’s Legacy Blue decks.

The creatures might not seem very impressive today. They were just some two-drops, but they did what the deck needed: you played a guy and used your free spells to make your opponent miserable. Their cards had a very low chance of resolving, with Sleight of Hand and Brainstorm keeping Gro stocked up on free countermagic. Then, you dropped Winter Orb to make sure they couldn’t even try to play anything. With that card on the table, Daze becomes better than free -because clearly that spell wasn’t backbreaking enough when it didn’t cost negative mana.

This deck is to modern Magic what mid-1940s computers are to iPhones. Sure, not all the parts existed yet, but the ideas are all there. With the printing of Odyssey, this deck moved toward Threshold. With Onslaught, the fetchlands made Brainstorm even more incredible. Then Legacy became a format, and UG aggro-control dominated.

Now, Delver of Secrets is king of the top tables, but even Tarmogoyf has the now-forgotten Quirion Dryad to thank for the long history of green dudes and Force of Will.

Additional commentary: the lengths people had to go to before fetchlands existed. When was the last time anyone cast Land Grant in a serious tournament deck? Whether Belcher counts is an exercise for the reader. While this deck’s ten lands was certainly, uh, novel, it turns out that you get to cast more spells when you play more lands, and the deck’s successors played something more reasonable in the fourteen-to-twenty range (and were often three colors).

Spread ‘Em – Jund Standard (Alara/Zendikar, pre-Worldwake)

4 Jungle Shrine
4 Seaside Citadel
2 Terramorphic Expanse
3 Arid Mesa
2 Misty Rainforest
3 Scalding Tarn
4 Island
2 Plains
1 Mountain
1 Forest
4 Bloodbraid Elf
4 Baneslayer Angel
1 Sphinx of Jwar Isle
4 Spreading Seas
3 Convincing Mirage
4 Ardent Plea
4 Captured Sunlight
4 Ajani Vengeant
4 Day of Judgment
2 Sigil of the Empty Throne
4 Lightning Bolt
4 Wall of Denial
4 Rhox War Monk
1 Sphinx of Jwar Isle
1 Sigil of the Empty Throne
1 Convincing Mirage

What do you do when there’s one ‘best deck’ in Standard? Well, you play something that beats it. But what do you do when that deck doesn’t do anything other than play the best cards in the format? Well… you have to get a bit creative. Gerry Thompson’s solution: turn their rather awkward manabase into Islands. Sprouting Thrinax gets significantly more difficult to cast when you have to tap Islands for it.

The previously-thought-unplayable card Spreading Seas was so good that not only is the deck playing a much worse version of it in Convincing Mirage, but also a ton of cascade cards… to get more Spreading Seas and Convincing Mirages into play.

The previous decks I’ve covered in this spot have often been goofy, playing overlooked cards because there was so much synergy with the deck. There is no synergy here; there is only hatred. When tournaments turn into 40%+ of the top deck, and no one can find anything that consistently beats it… well, extreme measures become necessary. You don’t want to be the guy with some brand-new deck that thinks your matchup against Jund might be pretty good-ish, then lose your first two rounds against it.

How’d this deck do against the Vampires decks in the format? Lost. Any sort of aggro? Well, that’s what the entire sideboard is for. But tournament Magic isn’t always pretty, and sometimes it’s the ugliest kinds of strategies that are necessary to defeat the hideous monster at the top tables.

Additional commentary: one of the hardest of the columns to actually write, because the deck doesn’t really do anything interesting. It’s more of a Fun Police deck than an actual fun deck; something better talked about than played, like Stasis, or Eggs. Feel free to look back at all my closing lines and marvel at the more awkward-sounding ones. To me, they often read like a nerdy kid crossing his arms and quoting an action movie in front of the school bully, who then punches them in the face.

“Dredge” – Same Standard As The Above

4 Crypt of Agadeem
2 Drowned Catacomb
3 Island
2 Misty Rainforest
1 Mountain
4 Scalding Tarn
3 Swamp
3 Verdant Catacombs
4 Architects of Will
4 Extractor Demon
2 Fatestitcher
4 Hedron Crab
3 Monstrous Carabid
4 Rotting Rats
4 Sedraxis Specter
4 Viscera Dragger
4 Grim Discovery
1 Ponder
4 Tome Scour

3 Blister Beetle
3 Deathmark
3 Immortal Coil
2 Kederekt Leviathan
4 Spreading Seas

“You can’t call that deck Dredge!” the old man cries in futility. “There’s no actual cards with Dredge in it! Dredge is a specific mechanic, you maniac kids!” This deck doesn’t care. Sunglasses on, it’s skateboarding down the railing of your grandparents house while playing a wicked guitar solo. “Whatever, dude,” it says as it slams a Gogurt in like two seconds. This Dredge deck doesn’t care about your “rules.”

Like the original Dredge decks, this one has one goal for its early turns: put cards in its graveyard. It has Hedron Crab, Tome Scour, and a bunch of dudes with Cycling to do that. Then, the real engine of the deck comes online: Crypt of Agadeem. Unlike the original Dredge decks, which looked at spending mana the same way that gazelles look at lions, this one can power out some huge things with Crypt for 15, then untapping it with Fatestitcher, then Unearthing pretty much the entire graveyard in one turn. Then, the Extractor Demon triggers means your opponent’s library disappears.

It’s not the fastest graveyard-based deck ever made, but it has a surprising amount of disruption with Rotting Rats and Sedraxis Specter. Even if your engine isn’t fully operational, you can still just cast guys and make attacks and blocks until your graveyard is in a better state. If they use removal, well, there’s a decent chance they’ll see those creatures attacking them again soon.

It’s called “Dredge” because “graveyard-based deck that put a lot of cards in its graveyard to use it as a resource before instantly killing the opponent” was too long, and decks this effective need something snappier than that.

Additional commentary: I was worried the opening paragraph, especially the Gogurt reference, would get edited into oblivion. Instead, Justin linked the word to an image of the product. The man is a true artist in numerous ways.

Monday, June 9, 2014

don't pass conspiracies in cube

It’s pretty common that I’ll disagree with people about how good certain things are. It’s pretty rare that I’ll know for a fact that I’m right, and anyone who disagrees with me is wrong. Conspiracy-type cards in cube are unbelievably powerful, and the only reason people would disagree is not playing with or thinking about them enough.

I know that not everyone is on the same page as me, because I’ve seen discussions pop up: “how high do you take Backup Plan?” First, obviously. “Well, there are a few conspiracies that seem good enough, but the Hidden Agenda ones don’t seem powerful enough for my cube.” The Hidden Agenda cards will immediately be among the best cards in your cube, and it doesn’t matter what kind of cube you have.

First, let’s categorize them. There are four good non-Hidden Agenda conspiracies:

Backup Plan
Power Play
Advantageous Proclamation
Worldknit (this one is a bit weirder; I’ll get to it)

There are six good Hidden Agenda Conspiracies:

Iterative Analysis
Unexpected Potential
Brago’s Favor
Double Stroke
Muzzio’s Preparations
Secrets of Paradise

Here’s what all conspiracies have in common: they don’t go in your deck. Normal drafts, where you’re struggling for 23 playables, are a bit different than cube, where you might have 5-15 cards you don’t want in your deck. Every card you pick is forcing out another card, and chances are, there are good reasons for the card leaving your deck to go in; there’s even a decent chance you picked it highly and were pretty excited to play with it. Drafting a card that doesn’t take up space in your deck is a very big deal. This already puts conspiracies in a good place.

Then, you get to actually looking at the global conspiracies, and holy god are they good. Backup Plan is more powerful than any card in a Modern, Legacy, or otherwise non-powered cube, and the only question is whether it should get picked over Sol Ring, Black Lotus, and other cards at the peak of powered cube. As long as you have one card of that power level, you should absolutely take Backup Plan: you have twice as good a chance of having that Ring or Lotus in your opening hand. (Actually, slightly more than that: as your deck gets smaller, you are more and more likely to draw it.) Cards like Preordain are in Cube—and actually quality cards—because they make our initial draws better. Backup Plan does about ten times as good a job of that. Your hand is better half the time, and you practically never mulligan, and the best cards in your deck are far, far easier to find.

Power Play is the other easy one. If we assume that playing first in cube gives the player about a 55% win rate (I don’t have the data, but I think it’s around that), a 5% increase in win rate per game is monstrous, and very difficult for even the best cards in any deck to do that by themselves. It won’t visibly win the game by itself like a lot of powerful cards do, but again, you get it every game. Slight advantages every other game add up to a similar effect as a windmill first-pick powerful spell.

Advantageous Proclamation is very straightforwardly useful. I don’t think it’s nearly as good as the above two, because it’s a fairly marginal benefit: you cut the worst three spells in your deck (not easy), so your other cards get drawn marginally more often. I don’t think it results in too much net increase in power level, but it’s still noticeable.

Worldknit is the real oddball. It’s not good, but it’s a hell of a lot of fun to make it work. I can’t remember ever being as happy during the drafting portion as I was making a Worldknit cube deck: started mono-blue, then Worldknit, into Mutavault (!!!) then every good spell in GWUB, including a very late Chained to the Rocks. 40 spells, 21 Mountains, 5 nonbasics. My deck wasn’t close to as good as the people who had drafted actually powerful conspiracies, but sometimes that’s not what it’s about. If you’re actually trying to win a draft with conspiracies in it, I wouldn’t recommend being the Worldknit deck. However, if you pass Worldknit, you will be immediately be branded as The Worldknit Passer and correctly mocked the rest of your life for it. Look at all the fun you passed up. Look at it.

Now, to the real meat of the disagreement: how good are Hidden Agendas? The immediate reaction people have is that they’re not very good in cube, because you only have one of every card! You actually have to draw the card! Draw a card that you drafted!

Shockingly, it’s not that difficult to draw a card that’s in your deck. Believe me, I checked: every game, you draw seven cards in your opening hand, and hopefully, some of those are ones that you drafted. It does happen. Not even the most obnoxious of variance-induced-tilters, or black-turtleneck-clad of fatalists, will claim that drafting Jace is pointless because you have to draw it.

Say you’re drafting blue, and 12th pick, you get a Divination. Why is Divination in the cube? Whatever. Then, next pack, you get a Thirst for Knowledge. Hell yeah! That card is so good! So, you build your deck, and Thirst makes it, but Divination doesn’t. That makes sense.

You spent a pick to upgrade your Divination to Thirst for Knowledge. That’s what Hidden Agendas do, except that some of them do it a lot better.

You can probably get a Preordain in the middle of a pack. But what if you have Double Stroke? Scry 2, draw a card, then Scry 2, draw a card… that’s power nine-level. Mana Leak for U is absolutely unbelievable. Even with something as dinky as Miscalculation that you can get fairly late, you now have a super-Force Spike, and Force Spike was already a first pick-caliber card. Lingering Souls that draws a card on both ends is disgusting. A one-mana creature that’s already good enough to play, but now it taps for mana, is quite a bit better than Birds of Paradise, which again: already a first-pick.

What Hidden Agendas do is allow you to build your own top-tier cards, either by making your best cards practically unbeatable, or making your 23rd card as good as your first.

Overall, I’d rank them like this:

Backup Plan
Power Play
Double Stroke
(Extremely good cards go here: power, etc)
Iterative Analysis
Brago’s Favor
(Other classic first-picks go here: Karn, Jace, Swords, etc)
Secrets of Paradise
Muzzio’s Preparations
Advantageous Proclamation
Unexpected Potential
(NOW ENTERING THE --->FUN ZONE<--- br=""> Worldknit

The one that people might overrate a bit is Unexpected Potential. Unlike the other cards on the list, it requires you to have an off-color card that otherwise could not make your deck. The only exception is if you just make an already-playable card easier to cast, in which case you deserve a medal for being the world’s most boring person. The medal is brown.

This requirement means that it’s forcing a card that would otherwise make your deck out, and you might have to pick that good off-color card over something that might make your deck better already. This probably isn’t a good way to play Jace in your green-red deck, because you’re passing some good cards to get it. A better use is playing something that goes around late because of color requirements, like Cruel Ultimatum, Sphinx’s Revelation, or a multicolored planeswalker. The best use I’ve seen is Qasali Pridemage in a mono-red deck. Unexpected Potential certainly has its place, and rewards creativity, but I wouldn’t pick it over the best spells like I would the better conspiracies.

Hopefully, everyone reading is on board with The Truth that conspiracies are incredibly powerful. So… should they go in your cube? The answer is probably not, at least not long-term.

After some drafts with them, they change things a lot. The normal rules of what cards cost what, and have what effect, go out the window. The first draft I did with conspiracies, my first-round opponent led with turn one Plains, Stoneforge Mystic, search up Batterskull, go. My turn one was not quite as exciting.

It’s a similar experience to powered cube: lots of incredibly powerful things happening, laughing and calling over friends to watch what happens, huge blowout games that start with things like one-mana Farseek that gets copied.

It’s a very different, and fun, experience once in a while, and I encourage everyone who wants to spice up their drafting to give them a shot a couple times, but if you have a lower-powered deck through no fault of your own, it can get rather exhausting. Some matches feel completely out of hand before they even start because of the power level you’re looking down, which isn’t a good experience. It’s definitely a time where the peak of the fun happens in the first or second game, but after a match or two, I wanted to shuffle up and try another draft.

The exception to this is Worldknit. While I think it would get a bit boring to see someone with a huge Worldknit pile every single draft (especially since they probably will not win most of their matches), drafting it is really, really fun, and any open-minded cube designer should throw it in if not permanently, then once in a while. I specifically recommend putting it in when the other conspiracies aren’t in, and not running Worldknit when they are. A 66-card concoction isn’t going to stand much of a chance against the better Backup Plan or Double Stroke decks, but free from their oppression, it might do pretty well as the only conspiracy in the draft. It might trainwreck the draft of the person to their left due to the incredibly confusing “signals;” whether this is a disadvantage or a hilarious bonus is up to the reader.

I probably wouldn’t put Advantageous Proclamation in a cube, because it’s just not a very interesting card to draft. Yes, the deck that has it gets a bit more consistent. But there’s no interesting impact it has; it’s just an across-the-board slight increase in everything. It’s more of a modifier on a spreadsheet than a Magic card. No one is having a better time because they have Advantageous Proclamation under almost any circumstances.

If you’re drafting with Conspiracies, just take them. If you’re building a cube, consider them carefully, but know that your Magic drafts might not resemble Magic as you know it.