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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.