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Saturday, December 27, 2008

Budget Building: Postcards from Bant

Welcome Back! It's been about 2 months since our little weekender in plane of Bant, and about a month before our next mini-vacation in the planes of Alara. This makes it a perfect time to revisit what we have pulled together so far for block, and to shadow the coming of Conflux. We were able to use our $20.00 budget to assemble an impressive power level for our collection, but did we make the right choices? Strap in, because I'm going to be hitting on a variety of topics today, bridging the Past, Present, and Future of Bant, and Magic at large.

How did we do?

We have had a major shake up to the price structure of Magic cards, how did our collection ride out the change? First off lets talk about the change it self. The price for a NCC (non-chase common) went from $0.25 to $0.10 or a reduction of 60%, meanwhile a NCU (non-chase uncommon) from to $0.25 from $0.50, a 50% reduction. Several factors aligned to make this shift happen. First off S/D (supply and demand) have rebalanced due to the addition of Mythics in the new product mix. In short, people want Mythics, and more packs are being opened to meet their demand. This increases the supply of NCCards has driven down the prices. This has also effected the price of many rares, but since this is a budget focus article, this has little impact on our collection. A second component has also effected the S/D relationship. US and Global demand are down due to stagnant economic bases. People are simple spending less money to participate in hobby activities, and Magic has been no exception. Lastly, the secondary market has recently seen competition at it's highest levels, something unheard of for over 5 years. A new market maker from the west coast has forced SCG.com to reevaluate it's price structure. The net result is that the average aftermarket price of a Magic card has dropped by 50%.

In October, I advised my readers to trade Knight of the White Orchid, Knight-Captain of Eos, and foil prom Ajani Vengent up for trade for a decent $17 in trade value. Since that time both the Ajani, and the Orchid Knight have dropped in value nearly 30% from their October highs, the captain has held firmly at $1 at almost all times. These three cards today would only bring $11 in trade. I call this side of the equation a win, netting our collection 35% more value then havin held the cards. So how did our purchases fair? With the $17 in trade we picked up;

4 O-rings
4 Relic of Proginitus
4 Wild Nectal
2 Bant Charm
Quasali Ambusher
Rhox War Monk
3 Sigiled Paladin
2 Whisper Silk Cloak

These cards today value out at $15.00, just an 11% reduction in value. I think we fared pretty well. The one miss-step was the Quasali Ambushers which have slipped off the chase-radar, and fallen in value a fair bit. I still think these are great cards, and I look forward to picking up our fourth copy at today's bargain pricing, but for the moment, I have to count this as a failed pick.

What to play!

Now, Magic is about playing and having fun! Stretching our budget is only a way to have the most bang for our buck, so how does out collection play? That is were this collection really shows it stuff. Not only does this deck appeal to every player profile, but it is incredibly effective, with high degrees of synergy, and draws on some of the most powerful uncommons in the block to date. The obvious choice for the deck was the back-breaking synergy offered by the Exalted mechanic. We start the deck off with a full set of Squires, and Paladins, 3 Guardians, 2 Avens, 2 Chargers, a Benediction, and Battlegarce Angel. This gives the deck 17 potential Exalted triggers, plus the Angel's lifelink bonus, and the Benediction's tap down. I rounded out our creature selection with the talents of our lifelinking Monks, and card drawing Visionary.

On the other side of the equation, we ride to victory with a full set of Sigil Blessings, 2 Whispersilk Cloaks, and Kiss of Amesha. Our non-creature MVP's are Bant Charm, and Oblivion Ring. The O-ring is pretty well known at this point. If you are playing white, and not playing this card, please help me understand why? enough said! Bant Charm is clearly the best of the Charm cycle, and gives so many options in this deck as every option is not only playable, but potentially game breaking every time. 1)Destroy target artifact is pure Esper hate, being one of the key players moving into block consideration. 2) Put Target creature on the bottom of the owners deck equals clear the way fro your Exalted monstrosity. 3) Counter target instant spell, like those trying to break your lines.

The land base of this deck really builds itself. After some tinkering, I have found that 3 Seaside Citadels, 2 Bant Panorama, 2 Islands, 5 Forests and 12 Plains gives me a good supply of the right mana at the right time.

Looking forward to Conflux

Very little is know yet about the Conflux set, but one card is an early stand out.

Noble Hierarch
G creature Rhino Monk? 0/1
Exalted
tap: produce w, u or g.

This card is going to shoot Bant into the upper atmosphere. It is a choice one drop, has Exalted, and a man fixer all in one. It will make Bant decks hum like a well oiled machine. The best part is it's going to uncommon, and here is why. 1) Wizards does not reinvent the wheel for no good reason. If they wanted a card like this at a rare slot they, they would simply use Birds of Paradise. The removal of two colors and flying, does not balance against the addition of exalted, so a clear down grade of power has occurred. If this is printed as a rare, it will be a clear sign the BoP will be mythic in future printings. This not only would be a huge mistake, but would violate Rosewaters commitment to keep utility cards from reaching Mythic status. 2) Wizards has shown a clear commitment to keeping color fixing available in the common and uncommon slots, to allow a Sharded limited environment to be playable with ease. This card will need to appear as an uncommon to hold that course.

It would not surprise me to see a similar creature with Jund colors that either comes into play with depletion type counters based on the devour mechanic, or which makes token creatures when it leaves play. As an uncommon, the Hierarach will reach a chase status quickly, but will be worth the price for an Bant based deck. I plan on adding 4 copies to our test deck along with 2 Forests, and a Seaside Citadel, in place of Kiss of Amesha, 2 wave skimmers, 2 panoramas, and 2 islands. The new set will undoubtably bring about other changes, and may even place a new Shard in our arsenal. Clearly the Naya, and Esper shard offer potential Bant synergies which Jund, and Grixis are unlikely to match.

An asside on Quasali Ambusher

This card is so under rated right now. This fits into a very narrow group of cards with in Magics history, which can be played or free. It's pedigree alone makes this card destined to have an impact on it's environment. The problem is that right now it is nearly impossible to cast it for free. The current sharded meta makes the forest and plains in play a tough trick in the early game since both Bant, and Naya are using non-basic lands to bring their tri-colored mana bases on line as quickly as possible. The Hierarch is expected to change the Bant base significantly, potentially bringing this card back to the spot light. The anticipated domain focus of Naya in Conflux, may similarly make basics, and in turn this card back into favor. Similarly, 11th is highly anticipated to include the shock lands from Ravnica block either a a full cycle or a half cycle. These lands carry with them the land types, so a single land can carry multiple land types. This addition to standard makes the domain theme of Conflux, and the Ambusher potentially even more attractive. Prismatic Omen, Tideshaper Mystic, and Lush Growth may all find favor in the coming months.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

From the Wire to the Soapbox: The End of an Error

Wizards has recently confirmed long standing speculation that all print releases will be black bordered. This brings to a close a 10 plus year mistake, and paves the road for improved international re-printings. Beginning with Wizards second major release of Unlimited in December 1993, the precedent was set that all reprinted cards, like those of the base or core set would be white bordered. This also represents the first time in the fifteen year history of the game that I can recall a single Wizards DCI policy change which was universally met with approval.

I have to admit that I have mixed feelings on this issue. I clearly remember my very first magic cards were white bordered, from the Revised released April 1994. I even recall how odd the the Ice Age cards seemed when they were released, and how inferior black bordered cards felt at the time, simply because I had grown accustom to my white bordered ways.

Black bordered cards (BB's for short) quickly became much more highly sought after by both collectors and players, as the mark of a "real" or "experienced" player, and carried with them a prestige that WB's have never been able to match. Even today the same card from the Unlimited printing can often be had for pennies on the dollar when compared the far more desirable Beta printing.

Ancestral Recall brings a whopping $700.00 for an average condition in Beta, but a mere $500.00 for a similar condition from Unlimited. Armageddon fetches $50.00 for Beta and $7.50 Unlimited. The highly sought after Dual-Lands often fetch 300-500% more as BB then their WB counterparts. Casual Table swingers like Balance can fetch a 10 fold premium for BB or WB. Even cards currently rendered unplayable like the Lace cycle, or Ante cards routinely fetch premiums of 8-10 fold for BB or WB.

So why this seemingly in explicable difference? DCI does not recognize any difference of cards from different print runs but for 2 exceptions to address the the physical difference in size of Alpha addition, and certain "collector only" print runs which have different card back, thus potentially marking these cards in sanctioned play. Even cards with different card wordings, printed from different runs, are rendered functionally the same thanks to Oracles over riding effects. So then some will inevitably ask why one black lotus is worth more then another when the only difference is the border color of the cards?

The reason here is both simple and complex at the same time, and finds it's roots in both the early days of the game and the core of what Magic was and has become. Magic was and always will be a collectible card game or CCG for short. A certain population of it's ownership will always be collectors, all though most of us would describe our selves as players first and foremost. The majority of the time a BB represents an earlier printing, and thus a more sought after collectible then the later WB equivalents. There always has been, and will be a certain prestige derived by collectors and players alike from BB cards which WB will never be able to match. Nothing says "Noob" like flopping down a WB card, and for years WB basic lands was a sign to take it easy, since the player was bound to be new to the game.

This really caused very few real problems except with the ever growing international releases. Since cards had not been printed previously in some language, their first printing was expected to be BB. This often made even mid range power cards from Spain, Italy, Germany, and the like collectors items simply do to the fact that they were BB. This brought with it extreme price fluctuations due to highly sporadic supply, and made some cards a danger to collect because the next international flight could flood your local market with relatively cheap, highly sought after cards.

Admittedly, I often use this virtual card racism to my advantage, and pick up white bordered cards cheaper for decks and my collection. In the end winning is winning, and the WB will do until I can afford to black out my collection. While I have never taken any formal measurements on the subject, I would guess that 20% of my collection is WB. This stems primarily from my earliest cards which are, and will probably remain WB do to the cost of what few BB equivalents exist. My complete set of 9th and what little 8th I own is almost entirely WB, although I suspect that I will discover BB in other areas of my Vintage collections as I continue to organize, and purge out duplications.

Just as I will continue to purge and replace by WB's for the more prized BB's, so to will the community at large. The day will come were WB will have run it's course, and become extinct to the multiverse, seen only in museum displays, and old timer stories about the "good old days". Rapidly 99% of all WB's will be destined to the penny boxes of retailers, or continually recycled to the future generations of noobs until their fibers give way to the demands of time, and use. Only a few WB cards will retain any real value as the demand for the card in any condition will outweigh it's supply. In any case we witness these days an end of an error, and a fundamental change to the game.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Big Deck Hunting: DoMT 2.0

Despite months of good intentions, many requests from friends and colleagues, I just hadn't gotten around to doing. Even though I had been playing the deck for months, and it had clearly become my deck of choice, I still had not documented a significant amount of my Deck. So what miraculous thing has changed that has allowed me address this startling shortfall of my attention? In truth it is a combination of many things.

For one, we finally have the proper amount of staff in my office. For those of you who had not heard one of my woe filled tirades over the last several months, 80% of the staff in my office turned over with in just a few weeks. This took me from "new guy" to "senior guy" in a frighteningly brief matter of days. This also had the impact of dramatically reducing my down time in the office, and made my off time an often exhausted blur.

Next up was the rigidity of the recent meta game. With nearly every tier1 deck out their revolving around the cards Cryptic Command, and Reflecting Pool, coupled with my lack of insight to have acquired these cards in the early days, I discovered a real disinterest in the current Standard Environment. My ever present budget constrains had nearly eliminated draft as an option. I sought refuge in what is often refereed to as the last refuge of a magic player, the lowest levels of play: the casual table.

I was really enjoying casual, probably more so then I have enjoyed any sort of higher organized magic in at least the last year. My vintage collection unfortunately was still in a mostly unorganized shambles. I had managed to get them into a single box, done several purges for duplication, and get then roughly organized by block (a step which I may not keep for vintage?). At any rate I still could not easily identify what I had, much less locate it for a deck. In fact my Vintage and Extended collections were being stored in my bedroom closet, as opposed to my office where I do all my deck construction and writing. I really don't know why other then my office was a disorganized mess, and I guess it was the only viable alternative at the time. A recent contribution to my retirement home for old sleeves, and an under-scheduled weekend of cold weather have allowed me to organize approximately 50% of my vintage collection, purge out about ~200 duplicate cards, clean my office, and relocate my vintage and extended collection to my office where they belong. Even with these additions to the space I have managed to clear a work area, enabling me to do some writing of late.

So now back to the real topic of this article. With no more further adu, or gilding of the lily, i bring you the Deck of Many Things 2.0.

As many of you will already know, I have been able to make extensive up upgrades to the mana base of my deck. I am happy to report that all of the dual lands were acquired through trade. In fact the only cards in my deck list which were purchased are the Maze of Ith, and the Kaldra trinity, totaling around $20 with transportation.

The following cards were literally found in my collection thanks to the recent organization and relocation. Nothing like literally finding $30 worth of cards on your to acquire list! I guess it really does pay to be organized.

Grim Monolith
Windfall
Transmute Artifact
Gamble
Entomb
Weather Wayfarer
Enlightened Tutor

Each of these cards is of the restricted list, and while not increasing the specific power level of my deck, does deliver a measurable increase in flexibility.

Friday, November 21, 2008

The Evolution of Protection

When Alpha first hit store shelves the concept of mana/spell color was brought paramount and reinforced with a number of cards. In the common slot White mages were given the Circles of Protection to fend off damage from spell/creatures/effects originating from a specific color. For the mere cost of 1w you could plunk down a reusable enchantment which could nullify the damage from a single source of the appropriate color.

The Circles quickly fell into two groups, with white, green, and blue seen are worthless. CoP red and black were viewed as useful, but situational. These cards had the down side of only working on once specific color, so you had to draw into the correct color circle to be useful against your current opponent. Since this was long before the concept of sideboards, this often meant you had dead cards in your deck if your opponent was not in certain colors. Equally problematic was the drawing of multiple copies on the same spell, as there was no added benefit from a second copy in play. These cards quickly gained a reputation of being not only situational, but less then useful. This reputation coupled with the commonality of the cards, made these doggedly disliked. I can clearly remember opening packs, and you were all but guaranteed to get at least one circle of protection in any given pack, and you were never happy to see them.

The Circles of Protection were not without there merits. They did fill a critical role in White’s early color pie, and even spawned a deck concept from CoP:Black's interaction with another staple card of the time Pestilence. With these two enchantments in play, you could deal out damage to creatures and your opponents, while negating that damage to your self. A minor loop hole, or lack of rules understanding, allowed for any amount of Pestilence damage, which was announced together, to be prevented by a single activation of the CoP. Protection from Black or cheap regenerating creatures would keep Pestilence in play despite large amounts of creature damage. The notoriously cheap Dark Ritual powered out black mana for the activation of Pestilence in sweeping strikes. With the 6th edition rules revision it became clear that CoP would need to be activated once for each single mana activation of Pestilence, for ever crippling this once powerful casual construct. The Circles of Protection were so fundamental infact, that they inspired several variations of the years like CoP: Artifact, Art, and Shadow.

The Circles of Protection remained common in every core set through Seventh Edition, plus were printed in the then concepted “stand alone sets” of Ice Age and Tempest. The earliest attempt to improve on this important concept was Legend’s Greater Realm of Preservation. With the same casting cost, and an increased activation to 1w, GRoP prevented damage from the already identified only two colors that really mattered: red and black. It was also printed at the uncommon level, to give the feel of a more refined work of magic. This version suffered from the general unpopularity of the CoP cycle, despite the fact that it addressed the key weakness of the concept, and was still viewed as to situation, and expensive to activate for general play consideration. It was reprinted in Fifth Edition in an attempt to fix the protection concept, but was viewed as a worthless uncommon by many since the common CoP’s were also printed in this set.

The Urza Block brought us an interesting twist to the concept, with the Runes of Protection. These spells were functionally the same as the CoP’s, but with the addition of cycling, and the minor inconvenience of requiring white mana to activate. This is clearly a superior spell in my mind. The addition of cycling very successfully addresses the issue of drawing this card when not needed. The white activation cost is a very minor issue, since most decks running this card would be using white mana to activate anyway. The commonality, and situational nature was too much for this new variant to overcome, and it fell to the wayside.

Magic’s first attempt at a universal protection spell was Mirage’s Prismatic Circle. While this spell allowed for the selection of a single relevant color represented a vast improvement over the CoP’s, it proved to be to much a mana demand to prove useful in the long run. Opponents could just wait until the cumulative upkeep had removed the obstacle, and alpha strike when ready. This card proved to be an over-costed failure in almost every regard, but was a step in the right direction for the protection concept. If nothing else the art is very cool.

The release of Mercadian Masks in 1999 brought with it a huge evolution to the protection spell concept with the addition of Story Circle. This new variant brought three relevant changes to the protection line up. First it’s casting cost was increased to ww1 to balance some of the other changes. Next it was printed at the uncommon level, address the already over printed problem with the CoP’s. Last, and arguable most importantly, the Story Circle was not color specific, instead allowing the user to choose the effected color as it comes into play. Story Circle borrowed the concept of white mana activation from the Runes cycle, reinforcing that it was a minor change to the cost, and provided balance to the now far more versatile spell. Story Circle became an almost immediate favorite since it addressed and resolved the issues from the prior protection spells.

The release of 8th edition in 2003 brought several sweeping changes to the concept, including the introduction of the Core set concept. With this the CoP’s were printed for the first time as uncommons, and the wildly popular Story Circle was elevated to Rare. In the end, the CoP’s were still seen as too situational, and continued to lose favor to their more versatile cousin. By the time Ninth Edition was released, Wizards had opted to discontinue the virtually useless white, blue, and green CoP’s, but continue to print the more useful Red and Black CoP’s at the uncommon level, while continuing to make Story Circle available as a rare. Tenth (Xth) Edition spelled the Doom of the CoP’s as the last two survivors were pulled in favor the rare Story Circle, which had proven itself to be superior in function and popularity through the last two core sets.

Rhystic Circle was an interesting twist on the protection spell, creating a tug of war situation. It was virtually useless at the casual table were you were almost sure to be out tugged by multiple opponents. The Sphere cycle from Odyssey went the opposite direction, requiring a large casting cost but not activation and a fixed reduction of damage. The Spheres were printed at uncommon, but still suffered from situational limits of being color specific. These ended up being removal targets before an opponent’s alpha strike. Another variation on this theme was Righteous Aura from Mercadian Masques which essentially cost one man to activate, and reduced any single source of damage to 2 damage.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

History of Magic:Nicol Bolas

Special thanks to the fine folks at MTGS.com for not only providing most of the content of this little history lesson, but also the inspiration. I have always been an avid learner of history. and I find that the history of Magic is no exception. I love to spend hours on the wiki learning new connections and interations of the story lines, and people which make up the Magic multi-verse. I have taken the liberty of leaving the hotlinks inthis article to take readers back to the source data. My intention is to give credit where credit is do, and to encourage others to spend some time in this digital library readingg about their favorite corners of the multi-verse.


The planeswalker Nicol Bolas was the most powerful of the Elder Dragons to survive the Dragon War. He later became the emperor of Madara until he was defeated by Tetsuo Umezawa. Bolas most recently rose again near Talon Gate and defeated Teferi, and closed the Talon Gate Rift, escaping to a plane of his own design and bent on seeking revenge on the Clan Umezawa, and any one else connected to it.

Dragon War and Ascension
The chronologically oldest bit of Magic lore we have is that about the Elder Dragon Wars, a conflict that shook the planes and killed most of their kind, some twenty-five thousand years before the Brothers' War, The Elder Dragons were ancient dragons of Dominia. Their vast power rivaled that of planeswalkers. Nicol Bolas emerged victorious and during this time became a planeswalker. The other know survivors of the Dragon Wars are Nicol Bolas’ siblings; Chromium Rhuell, Arcades Sabboth, Palladia-Mors, their cousin Vaevictis Asmadi and possibly Piru. The winners of the war became the ancestors of all dragons and drakes, while the losers were stripped of their wings, limbs and most of their power and became the Elder Land Wurms, which spawned all other wurm species. Viashino are also descendants of them, although it is unknown how.

Madaran Emperor
Some thousands of years later, Bolas fought against a demonic leviathan in the first duel between planeswalkers on the still-young plane of Dominaria. The fight lasted a month, reduced Madara to a third of its former size, and created the first rift. In the end the dragon used his magic to defeat his foe. After the battle Bolas feasted on the remains of the leviathan over the course of a year, absorbing its power in the process. When he finished, not much was left of the leviathon corpse besides what eventually became known as the Talon Gates.
On Madara three mana lines, blue, black and red, intersect at a single point. The empire was founded by a warrior-queen who styled herself a god-empress. Because of the three mana lines that met, Nicol Bolas thought Madara would be a good place to start a foothold on Dominaria. Bolas was such an ancient planeswalker that he needed a strong base of his main colors to remain on a plane for long. The dragon took the empire, becoming a real god-emperor. Bolas took over the Empire of Madara and erected his Imperial Shrine on this focal point.
The Imperial Shrine was the place where the highest ranking officers in the Madaran Empire had their audiences with emperor Nicol Bolas. The elder dragon needed tremendous amounts of mana to stay on a plane for long, so he usually only manifested partially in the shrine, which was located in the middle of three strong mana lines: blue from the Suido River, black from Madara’s various swamps and red from the Gitte-Yatay Mountains.


Connection to the plane of Kamigawa
For around 400 years Bolas ruled Madara through three individuals: the imperial assassin, the imperial champion, and the high general of the kentsu army. The dragon later realized this system was becoming obsolete as assassin Ramses Overdark was successfully replacing the other imperial officers with his own minions. Bolas then made a new system with only one placeholder of the emperor: imperial regent Ramses Overdark.
Tetsuo Umezawa was the imperial champion of the Empire of Madara around the time of the Mirage War. Tetsuo was a distant descendant of Toshiro Umezawa, ender of the Kami War. Toshiro Umezawa was exiled to the coast near the Talon Gates at Madara, Dominaria. He was trained in many martial arts and magical techniques and was arguably the most powerful human of his time. Raised with a strict honor code, he was oft torn between his honor and his master, the vicious emperor of Madara, Nicol Bolas. Tetsuo renounced his title of champion and swore vengeance. In the following weeks Tetsuo spent most of the time training on the Meditation Plane, where Bolas couldn’t find him.

After being promoted to imperial regent Ramses Overdark stayed in the Shrine, and it was there that he fought, and lost, his final battle against Tetsuo Umezawa. The Shrine was destroyed shortly after that by Tetsuo’s Meteor Hammer spell. When the dragon chased him, following him to the Meditation Plane, he was killed by Umezawa in his weakened state. A remnant of his life force still lingered in the rift by the coast. This resulted in the exile of Nicol Bolas, destroying that system as well. After this the empire plunged into chaos, with various nobles buying parts of the kentsu as their personal armies and oppressed islands and tribes rebelling. Tetsuo set out to restore balance to the empire, but how this ended was never revealed. Madara is currently overrun with the cat-dragon race, the nekoru. The humans of Madara exist solely as servants, clerics, and slaves.


Time Rifts
Bolas remained present in his land during the time rifts, existing under the name of Sensei Ryu. His home was overrun by cat-dragons (nekoru) and their followers. When he sensed that Teferi was lost in a rift and had left behind his companions he arranged for them to arrive on the Madaran beach near the Talon Gates. Using Venser's spark he was able to escape his prison and was reborn. After Teferi located his companions, he challenged the dragon to a duel in an effort to stay his revenge. Bolas easily won, but when Teferi shared his thoughts with him he saw the severity of the rifts. He quickly left and swore a vow to devour take vengeance by destroying on anyone related to the Umezawa line, and anyone who had ever come into contact with it, then presumably left to Kamigawa.



Bolas returned to Madara, where he was ambushed by Leshrac, who challenged him to a planeswalker duel; the later was defeated and imprisoned in the mask of the Myojin of Night's Reach. It was implied by Bolas that he had stripped most of that spirit's powers but she had managed to escape.

After closing the Madaran rift, Bolas left for a plane of his own devising, separated from the rest of multiverse. He escaped there, believing that nothing could stop the collapse of the multiverse. Although the multiverse survived, Jeska's Mending spell changed the nature of the planeswalker's spark, making Bolas the last true planeswalker known to exist.
It is unknown if he will ever reappear as a character since his plane was going to be isolated from the rest of the Multiverse. The current theory is that this plane of his own crafting may be Grixis, one of the Shards of Alara.

For more information regarding the recent exploits of Nicol Bolas, please read this article on the mother ship.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

History of Magic: The Houses of Kush

Recently, I was involved in a conversation centered around what people thought was the best Magic set ever. One particular answer really struck me. It was his opinion that Ravnica was the best set ever made. Now this opinion is arguable and is probably a popular opinion among many, but it wasn't the answer itself, but the reason which struck home with me. He felt that this was the best set, because wizards had finally acknowledged enemy pairs for deck construction.

Now clearly this is a post revisionist player. Long before there was Izzet, Boros, Golgari, Orzhov, and Simic, Wizards had told us a different story. This was the time before the great rules revisions, between Revised and Fourth when there were only 5 expansions to Magic. There was a story of a one eyed stranger in the city of Estark in the nation of Kush in the southwest portion of the Aerona continent of Dominia. It was the time of festival, when mages from all across the land came to compete. Most mages, like this stranger, were hanin or "without house", and came to festival to watch the arena battles. They also hoped to pledge to one of the great houses in hopes of becoming house fighters. Most had a meager magical ability, some as few as a single spell, but the houses offered the opportunity to gather mana, and learn new spells.

Magic at this point was far more simple. Most players used only single color or allied dual color decks for battles, because they were easier to pilot. More advanced players, like the house fighters of Kush, had found that enemy paired decks offered more power and flexability. These were the advance concepts demonstrated by the Houses of Kush. Ingkara, Fentesk, Bolk, Kestha, and the lost house of Oor-teael. These names are listed in the same order as their Guild counterparts listed above.

These were the power concepts which led magic from it lowest times to the 6th addition revision. Before their was a stack, DCI, or story lines in sync with the card sets, there were the Five Great Houses of Kush. The Fighters of Bolk, lead by Kilen, and later by Naru wielded the combined powers of green life and blacks death. Use of spells like Fog, Scryb Sprites, War Mammoth, Dark Ritual, Drudge Skeletons, Howl from Beyond, Pestilence, and Weakness were common place even amongst their lowest rank of fighters. Fighters who had proven their abilities to be of an uncommon caliber made use of spells like Channel, Desert Twister, Hurricane, Tsunami, Wanderlust, and Animate Dead. They held creatures like Thicket Basilisks, Black Knights, Hypnotic Specter, Sengir Vampires, within their control like so many chess pieces. Their most accomplished fighters wielded the things of dreams and nightmares alike. They summoned creatures like Lord of the Pit, Nightmare, Nether Shadow, Royal Assassin, Sorceress Queen, Cockatrice, Elvish Archers, Force of Nature, and Fungasaur then battled to control that which they had summoned.

Even though the times of spell duels had come to an end, and the ancient powers of the lotus and the moxen were already becoming the stuff of legends, it was very much a wild time. Walls still matter, because any creature which could, visited the red zone with regularity, and spells which could fundamentally alter or out right destroy your mana abounded. Rare spells were really rare, because even the most season of players had collections reaching only 1000 plus cards, and most people played with what they had, trading only within their limited community. Online brokers were still far of in the future. It was a good time, and should not so easily be forgotten. So too, now you will remember that before there was Golgari, there was Bolk.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Shards of Alara: Budget Collection Deck Building

Welcome back. Today we will attend the Shard of Alara prerelease event and use our $20 budget to participate in the open dueling event. I am pleasantly surprised to find that in addition to the 41 card Intro deck, and 15 card booster pack, that we also receive the foil promo card for the event. Although Wizards definitely trumped my last article, I really feel like I nailed the content of the new intro packs pretty well, and find myself in familiar territory sitting down for this article.

I have selected a Bant Intro pack for our purposes. Although it is not the most budget friendly of the intro packs, I feel like it's theme lends itself to the budget/new player the most and is really easy to play. For our $12 investment in the prerelease open dueling event we will get the intro pack, a random booster, and the foil prerelease card. I'm also going to recommend something a little different, and visit our local budget friendly game store and pick up a play set of the none chase commons for $4 in cash. We also need to put our promo card up fro trade, since it is off shard.

The remaining chase commons of Oblivion Ring, Relic of Proginitus, and Wild Nactal can easily be hard for $6 in trade. Pack contained Knight of the White Orchad, Bant Charm, Quasali Ambusher, and an off shard land that we trade for a Seaside Citadel. I recommend putting the Knight of the White Orchid , and the Knight-Captain of Eos up for an additional $7 in trade.

With my trade stock I will pick up 2 Bant Charms, a Quasali Ambusher, a Rhox War Monk, 3 Sigiled Paladins, and a pair of Whispersilk Cloaks. I'll use my remaining cash to pick up 2 each of Bant Battlemage, Dawnray Archer, Jessian Infiltrator, and Rhox Charger. In an unexpected last minute trade I was able to give up 2 wild griffin for a third Quasali Ambusher.

This now gives us a complete set of Shards commons
3 Bant Charm
3 Quasali Ambusher
3 Seaside Citadels
4 Rhox War Monks
4 Sigiled Paladin
2 Bant Battlmage
2 Dawnray Archer
2 Jessian Infiltrator
2 Rhox Charger
Angelic Benediction
Kiss of Amesha
Battle Grace Angel
2 Suntail Hawk
2 Pacifism
2 Whispersilk Cloak

This really gives us an incredible card pool to work with. A complete set of commons, 25 uncommons and a rare is really a lot to get fro $20, but is very attainable for somebody willing to invest a little time. Our rare and uncommons are clearly focused on our initial deck build, but we have a common base to explore and develop our collection as the block evolves. Clearly our deck is going to focus on the Bant shard, and the exalted mechanic. My next budget article will suggest a basic deck build using only this card pool, and develop a side board for competative play.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Shards of Alara: A Budget Perspective for the New Player

Once again September dims to twilight and October's dawn looms close at hand. We find ourselves again awaiting the annual cycling of the planes which will redefine the standards of Magic. This fall finds not only the planes shifting, but also the way in which new and budget players prepare themselves fro the new experiences just over the horizon. Wizards not only brings a new plane to us, but have made significant changes to how the product will be presented particularly for new/budget player.

This year the tradition of Theme Decks is replaced by Intro Packs. While Theme Decks presented a fully constructed ready to play deck, Intro packs will provide a 41 card preconstructed frame work, and a booster pack to begin your modifications. The modification here is clearly to provide new player with a solid base, but also a need to purchase additional product. This is a simple need to drive sales fro Wizards, and to increase the fun and diversity of deck building for new players, but also presents a unique challenge for the new/budget player to get a playable deck for a minimal investment.

I have long been a supporter of the open dueling concept as an ideal way to address the needs of this fledgling group of players. The fully constructed theme deck, booster pack, and foil promo card, gave an ideal return on investment for any player. This is exactly the kind of thing a new/budget player needs to get themselves started in a new plane. Sadly I must now report that there is virtually no incentive for this group of players to attend a prerelease, and I feel sure that the end of these events is close at hand. The removal of the foil promo from this program makes attending this event exactly the same as buying this product from any retailer, at any point in the set lifespan. The changes to the deck themselves shrinking by roughly 19 cards means that we must now use our budget dollars to simply increase the size of our deck to constructed playable, as well as improve the functionality.

I will once again use a budget amount of $20 for this experiment, and attempt to build a playable, competitive, and most importantly fun collection which will continue to expand as the block evolves. I feel this is a reasonable amount for any player to invest in a new hobby, and gives a reasonable minimal investment for any budget player. This budget also leaves us with a challenge to create this collection with very little product available to us. This will basically be split $15 for the Intro Pack at the prerelease, yielding a 41 card preconstructed deck, and a 15 card random booster pack, and the remaining $5 to spend on singles to flesh out of deck and themes.

I anticipate that the Intro pack deck will contain 17 basic lands, 2 rares, 14 commons, and 8 uncommons. Commons may repeat 2-3 times, while uncommons are not expected to be more the 1-2 in each deck. I honestly hope and expect eat wizards will have replace 2-3 of the basic land slots with common/uncommon lands appropriate for each shard, but it is truly to early to tell. Several Rares are known for the Intro Packs, and each is expected to include a "Timmy" rare, and a rare representative of the Shard's theme function. Vein Drinker is most likely the Timmy Rare of Grixis. Battlegrace Angel clearly illustrates the Exalted them of Bant, and Master of the Etherium personifies the artifacts matter them of Esper. Naya's Spearbreaker Behemoth could represent either rare for the deck.

So we will need to add about 7 basic lands, and 12 non-land cards to obtain a playable deck. We can anticipate that about 10 of our 15 cards from our booster pack will be playable for our shard, but only 6-7 will probably be worthy of consideration. We should also keep in mind that approximately 7 cards from our intro deck may need to be replaced with more worthy cards. This nets down to a need to purchase roughly 12 cards at a minimum, to get our deck up to 60. We will also have 3 rare cards (or 2 and a Mythic!) to consider for trade in order to increase the function of our new deck, and allow us to acquire the more sought after cards of the set.

Wizards seems to have done a remarkable job in making this set budget accessible with 101 commons, 60 uncommons, 53 rares, and 15 Mythics. This puts 161 card options unexpectedly with in our grasp, and only 68 outside our expected budget constraints. In fact our $5 singles budget could probably provide a complete play-set of commons (if bought as bulk), although I trust some of our funds would be better spent on uncommons. Wizards also has done a good job of encouraging players to play within a shard, as 75-100 of the 219 spell cards are anticipated to be gold in nature. The lands and artifact cycles expected for the set appear to make a 3-in-shard color deck very possible, while not easily lending them selves to 4-5 color decks with out extra help. These cycles should be acquired by the new/budget player , as they will prove to make your decks far more reliable.

Several other cycles have presented themselves in this set, and should be of interest, as they are expected to present themselves in each of the Intro Pack decks. Each shard is expected to include a creature and instant speed charm cycle at the uncommon level, each cost a mana of each color applicable to it's shard. I expect each of these to be a one of in the intro deck, and highly recommend picking up additional copies if your budget allows. A third relevant cycle will be the Battlemages as 2m cost 2/2 creatures with a tap ability with an aligned mana cost. I would be surprised if the battlemages did not make a one of appearance in the Intro decks.

Jund will feature Sprouting Thrinx, a 3/3 lizard which creates three 1/1 Saprolings when it goes to the graveyard. It's charm gives you the option to remove a graveyard from the game, deal 2 damage to a creature, or put two +1/+1 counters on a creature. This creature fits nicely into the devour mechanic, and will see significant play. The charm is over costed, for any single option, but having the 3 options in a single card may prove useful to a color which traditionally has only direct interaction options. Jund's battlemage cause a loss of a single life, or creates a saproling.

Naya brings us Whooly Thoctor, a 5/4 beasty beat-stick. It's charm allows 3 damage to a creature, return a card from the graveyard to your hand, or tap all creatures a player controls. This give Naya a tactical tool box of options, which are fairly costed. The battlemage from Naya gives a creature +2/+0 until eot, or taps a creature.

Bant introduces us to Rhox War Monk, a 3/4 rhino monk with lifelink. It's favorable stats and life gain ability more then outweigh it's three color casting cost. Bant's charm has the option to destroy and artifact, put a creature on the bottom of it's library, or counter target spell. Each option is again over costed, but may prove useful as a three option single slot in many decks. This battlemage grants trample or flying to a creature until eot.

Esper has fashioned Windwright Mage, a Human Wizard artifact creature. It has lifelink, and gains flying if you have an artifact in the graveyard. Of the five I think this is the least use full of the cycle, but may prove an important combo piece in a shard just begging to be broken. The Esper shard has the option to destroy an enchantment, draw 2 cards, or discard 2 cards. I think Esper got the shaft here too, as this is clearly the most overcosted of the cycle, and is easily replaced by better costed alternatives. Even the 3 option in one card may not be enough to make this card a presence beyond decks starved for utility options. The Esper battle mage can prevent 2 damage, or give a creature -1/-1 until eot.

Lastly, Grixis digs up Sedraxis Specter, a 3/2 flyer with a standard specter discard ability. It also features unearth for 1b, so repeat performances are to be expected. This card will really be sick, if Grixis develops some way to capitalize on other graveyards. It's charm puts you to rest with the option to bounce a permanent, give a creature -4/-4 until eot, or give your creatures +2/+0 until eot. This is the clear winner of the charms, and if it proves to be accurate will be a chase item of remand magnitudes, and threatens to unbalance Grixis against the other shards. The battle mage of Grixis allows you to draw and then discard a card, or make a creature unable to block until eot.

In conclusion your budget priorities will be to obtain color fixes, trinity creatures, and possibly charms. These functions will hold true regardless of which shard you end up in, and will improve any of the shard intro decks. The battlemages also present off-color utility with legs, and may prove to be worth wild for this stage of the block. The commons thus far appear to be mono colored, or aligned two color gold in nature. These will need to be evaluated once the full set has been revealed, as their benefits will very dramatically depending on the shards in question.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Alara Scouting Report

So we all know about the booster pack changes, basic lands, mythic rares, and starter deck concepts, but here is some thing you may not know yet.

It has come to my attention that there will be a new battlemage cycle. One will be named for each of the five planes of Alara. Each "plane" Battlemage has a casting cost of 2 and a color, a 2/2 power toughness, and a simple single mana activations of it's allied colors. These will be in the uncommon slot, and are already being watched as possible break out chase uncommons for the set. Odds are all will be playable for their shard deck, but one will break out for Standard and hit a 3-5 range.

There was notice taken when the Rhox artwork took it from it's beastly almost dino beater image of Nemesis, to it's current humonoid status. The origins of the Rhox have finally been discovered. There is an intelligent creature type with Rhox clan names. These are expected to be in the white shard, and represent the green overlap. These may be the foil for the white soldiers, and knights in the preview art, and would explain why so much standing military would be needed.

Many people are thinking purple for this set. Not only because the new Mythic expansion symbol is purple, but the ever present concept of a sixth color. The latest rumors put "purple" as a new kind of extremely rare mana which can be used to pay mana costs of any color. Needless to say, but this could be huge. So far I'm calling it wild speculation, but will keep my ears open for potential supporting evidence. The real color of interest for Alara is Gold, as in Gold multicolored spells. There is a projected cycle of one colorless plus a tri-aligned mana payment creatures for each shard.

example 1GWU- Stoic Angle, 3/4 Flying Vig.- hinders untap step.


Blue has been confirmed as a artifact centered shard, with strong potential ties to Mirrodin. In keeping with recent sets Tokens are expected to be present in every color;

Blue- Thopter, 1/1 flying artifacts
White- Spirit ?
Green- Saproling
Red- Goblins (get your goblin kings now, this is going to get stupid)
Black- ???

Super Secret Tech from the not yet released Guide book;

Bant- Races: Rhoxes, Avens, Humans, Leotau (semi-intellegent feline mounts), Angels
Avens, Humans, and Rhoxes exist peacefully with each other, but share a
common caste system similar to the Lorwyn Elves. Those of the Blessed caste are nobles who are allowed to interact with Angels. The Sighted are clerics and monks that take orders from the Blessed, but do not look to Angels for guidance. Sigiled are basically the Knight class, a lower class member who has performed a great deed may be given a "sigil" to increase their power and caste rank. The Mortar class fills the commoner role, but does give the ability to increase to Sigiled or decrease to Unbeholden. Unbeholden are thiefs and outlaws who for whatever reason exist outside of the rule of the Blessed.

Angels are given the duty to protect the ideals and well being of the other Bant inhabitants but are not permitted to interfere with the politics of other mortals. Angels are born when human heros die. The spirit is joined with what is called "meta-sigils" which is described as physical manifestations of the land and sky.


In each Shard, there is detailed two specific characters, more than likely legends within the set. For Bant, they are:
Lisha of the Azure - Princess turned Robin Hood-esque pirate.
Rafiq of the Many - Highest ranked Sigiled Paladin, so named for his many Sigils.

The book goes into great detail with the different nations of Bant and the political problems and
struggles as well as the different knight and monk rankings and the inner orders of the Angels, but that's not really relevant here (although an interesting read.)


Naya is a lush jungle very intuned with nature and nature magic.
The main tribes of Naya are Nacatl (leonin), Huma
ns, Cylian Elves, and Gargantuans.
The Gargantuans are enormous mammalian behemoths whose movements are said to be able to change the course of rivers, and whose enormity commands its own climate. There is a group of Elves that follow these monsters, said to be manifestations of the will of Progenitus, the Soul of the World. This group is called the Godtrackers.


The elves of Naya are Canopy Dwellers and are named Cylian after their ancestor "Cylia" who was said to be present at the breaking of the world. It is said that while the world shattered, most of the elves hid in terror from the cataclysm, but one elf, Cylia, climbed to the top of the mountain wielding a vial of poison and a dagger made from a thorn. There she saw the face of Progenitus, the five headed soul of the world. Progenitus was tired of the world and sought to end it with 5 storms - Wildfire,
Earthquake, Windstorm, Flood, and Void. Cylia plead with him to spare the world, and so Progenitus struck her blind for her insolence. Her tears of blood mingled with the vial of poison as she dipped her dagger in it and thrust the dagger into Progenitus's Ethereal heart and his true form, that of a 5 headed hydra was revealed. The amazing art of the woman with the blank stare in the blossoms accompanies this story. The entire elf culture revolves around worshipping this god of creation and making sure his slumber is not disturbed.

The Nacatl are divided into two groups, one lives lavishly in ancient Nacatl cities carved out of a mountain top. The other is a feral tribe that hunts along the forest floors. The Nacatl in the cities are dwindling in number and only their leader, Timus the Orange keeps them together through sheer strategy and intelligence.


The humans of Naya are divided as well. Those that hunt in nomadic tribes are called drumhunters, and those that have advanced in agriculture and in domesticating animals are called Sunseeders. These two groups are divided further and further as the civilization of the Sunseeders advances under the Charismatic lead of Hadran. Humans of both divisions come together in open areas to play games, most notable of which is Matca. In this game, two humans will attempt to wrestle each other to the ground in an attempt to pin them. The advanced Matca fighters wear spike armor.


Jund is comprised of active volcanoes, sharp mountain ledges, and lush jungles. The land has huge gashes in it that resemble huge claw marks if seen from above. These deep gashes in the land are where the Jungles and Swamps are found, and the deepest of which (the Pit) is over 2 miles deep.

The races of Jund are Dragons, Viashino, Humans, and Goblins.

Dragons are at the top of the food chain and feed on everything and anything below them. Fiercely territorial, they will fight over any scrap of food taken from their territory. When a dragon becomes to ancient to protect his territory, he performs a ritual called the Shriek of Flame where he will plunge himself directly into an active volcano, causing that volcano to erupt- often eradicating much of the prey left in its territory.

Second on the pecking order are the Viashino, stronger than the other humanoid races, Viashino are able to occupy the deep jungles and swamps where the hunting is harder for Dragons. These Viashino closely resemble Crocodiles and are muscular brutes that form tribes called Thrashes.

Humans are next on the Food Chain. These humans form nomadic tribes which are necessary
for survival. Humans live in the small jungles at the base of mountains and in the scarred volcanic flats. At the age of ten, humans undergo a dangerous rite of passage where the warriors will climb an active volcano and are forced to bring back a glass shard to become a warrior. Shamans take a dangerous drug called Dreamfire Draught which attracts elemental entities. The young shaman must bargain with the elemental for a cure to this poison to become a Shaman. With either test, failure results in death. These humans have developed reptilian features such as forked tongues and scales covering some of their skin. In battle, a human warrior will mark a victory by weaving part of his hair into a small braid and binding it with a piece of his enemy's flesh.

Goblins are last on the food-chain, and are so used to being devoured by dragons, that their culture has become one glorifies that death and recognizes itself as "divine-food". Goblins inhabit the highest regions of the mountains which are easy prey for young dragons. The goblins resemble rodents (and were seen in that predator dragon art).

There is one character depicted for this shard and that is:
The Warrior Kresh: A human warrior said to be in his forties (where the average lifespan of a human in Jund is 30). Kresh does not desire the politics of leading a tribe, but lives for the hunt. He boasts twenty-two braids: more than anyone has ever recorded.

Grixis is described as a hellscape where the landscape is made up of the remains of various large corpses, eroded earth, and the stench of death.
Races on Grixis include: Humans, Skeletons, Zombies, Fleshbags, Fleshdolls, Dreg Reavers, Incurables, Banewasps, Kathari, Vampires, Devils, Demons, Lich-Lords and the Damned.

The still living beings on Grixis are called Vitals, and the lifeforce of those beings is called Vis. Vis empowers Demons and fuels all of the magic on Grixis. Necromancers actively hunt down Human and Ogre encampments to take slaves to obtain this Vis through arcane rituals. Demons have the power to drain a vital of its vis at will. A Human or Ogre whose life force has been drained is still considered alive, and actually is alive, and oftentimes not distinguishable for some time is called "the Damned". There are two groups of Humans: Necromancers and a group of humans who adhere to an ancient Kingdom that was destroyed when the shard was removed from the rest of Alara. This group is called the Vithians and they actively hunt the undead.

Incurables are the Ogres on Grixis, inflicted by a terrible form altering curse that happened when the shards split.

Dreg Reavers are huge undead designed to lay waste to other armies or necropolises in times of war. (The art shown looks strikingly like the Ravenous Baloth judge promo)


Banewasps are insects that feed on carrion and are used by necromancers as a weak source of Vis.

Kathari are Vulture-humanoid scavengers that feed on the dead before necromancers are able to harvest their Vis.

The Legends of this shard are three-fold as well:
Eliza of the Keep: A young human necromancer who uses necromancy and vis to keep her own vis safe and retain her vitality.

Thraximundar: His name literally translates to "He-who-paints-the-earth-red" is a seven-foot tall undead abomination who is muscular and clad in spiked black armor. He can be seen wielding his greatsword astride his Dreg Reaver mount as he fulfills his need to simply slay the living.


Malfegor: A beast who is the product of a Dragon and a Demon. His appearance is mostly Draconic, but he has black scales, huge bat-like wings, eight limbs, and is said to possess the soul of a demon.

Esper Races: Humans, Vedalken, Sphinxes, Aether-Liches, Homunculi, Gargoyles, Drakes, Stirges

The environment of Esper consists of Islands, a great sea called the "Sea of the Unknown", various underground waterways, and a great desert where the sand is actually finely broken down glass. It is said that despite the vast pursuit of knowledge, not much is known about the inhabitants of the sea. The glass in the desert occasionally shifts and fuses with itself to form giant glacier-like masses of glass.

Humans and Vedalken exist for the sole purpose of furthering the plane's understanding of magic. The Sphinx are treated as Prophets and Consults, but rarely rule or give judgements regarding disputes. What we know of as Filigree is a metal called Etherium which is an alloy infused with Aether (the essense of the universe). The inhabitants of Esper believe that all life and every physical form is incomplete without some connection to the Aether via Filigree or Etherium fusing. The supply of Etherium is very limited, so the mages who infuse different life forms are beginning to use more subtle fusions with lower class life forms. Filigree is administered to humans as a graft by the Aethersworn, a group of gifted mages who dedicate themselves to instilling every life form with a connection to the Aether under the belief than doing so will cause the plane to transcend its physical and mortal limitations. Vedalken filigree consists of replacing much more of your body with Etherium. The body's functions are kept up through a series of complex enchantments.

While the Vedalken mages specialize in learning more about magic specifically, the human mages tend to specialize in one of many types of sorcery:
Arcanist: Studying lost lore
Stormcaller: Weather Magic
Mechanist: Artificer capable of infusing creations with magic.
Clockworker: Manipulates the forces of time
Mentalist: "Trafficer of thoughts"
Tidemage: Uses magic to affect tides and the sea

Mages of high ranking have entourages to showcase their power, sometimes these consist of mages that are intentionally lower ranked to gain notoriety, these are called Telemins, and are basically servants who have given their masters control of their minds.

The specific characters in Esper are all Sphinxes, one of which we know already (but there are three).
Sharuum, the Hegemon: An ageless, female philosopher-queen of Esper who cannot create new Etherium, but taught mages how to thin the existing Etherium.
Crucius, the Mad: A genius artificer who created the Etherium and taught the inhabitants of Esper of its signifigance, believed to be a planeswalker by many. Humans and Vedalken took his teachings too far and ended up replacing too much of their anatomy with Etherium, eventually becoming Aether-Liches. He was blamed for these abominations and that's how he earned his moniker. After that, he disappeared from Esper, and it is rumored that only Sharuum has any idea where he may be.
Kemuel, the Hidden One: A nomad Sphinx who lives in a maze in the middle of the glass-deserts of Esper. He lost a wing and hind leg in a fight with a great Leviathan centuries ago, and the few travelers that actually meet him find his words and his advice to be prophetic.

So thats all I got for right now, orb of insight goes up Monday or Tuesday, with a pack teaser on Friday.