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Monday, June 29, 2009

Grim Tidings #5: Chaos Orb Techniques

(Contributed by John Kozlowski)
Did you know that one of the most enjoyable, game swinging, and mechanically bizarre cards ever printed in Magic history is LEGAL in the 5-Color format?

Chaos Orb
Wizards of the Coast has provided a lot of errata and clarifications to this wonderfully quirky card, but since the emergence of competitive play, it has become a distant memory. The reality is that it is too hard to adjudicate how exactly the artifact’s ability resolves. Its unfeasible for a judge to be present during the casting and resolution of a Chaos Orb to make sure the card's instructions are followed as written. So to alleviate the problem, the DCI banned Chaos Orb in 1995, and it has not seen tournament play since.

The 5-color format doesn’t necessarily abide by official rulings, and has come up with a solution of its own to allow the use of this famous card:

“At any point if Chaos Orb is involved in any spell or ability, no permanents may move from their locations in play. Essentially, everything has a "pin" in the center around which the card can turn to tap. This condition remains for as long as there is a Chaos Orb in play.

If a Chaos Orb lands on a stack of cards, the following 5-Color ruling applies: If cards are stacked and a Chaos Orb lands on top of those stacked cards, any cards that are under that area of the Orb are affected, including cards underneath other cards. Only cards that would touch the Orb are destroyed in this way.

If you would flip a card onto the playing area, you must remove the card from any sleeves before flipping.”

As a result of these rulings, Chaos Orb remains fully legal in the 5-color format. (Although it is still restricted to 1x per deck.) Yay! That means fun for us!

Technique
I acquired my Chaos Orb (I believe) around 1998 while I lived in Bloomington, Indiana. At that time, the 5-color format didn’t even exist, so using the card was pretty up to the casual play group I participated in at the time. We were a pretty innovative bunch back then when we played at the IU Memorial Union. I distinctly remember playing my “Chorb”, because even then, it was pretty rare, and only myself and one other player even owned one.

I’ve thrown quite a few Chaos Orbs in my career, and have the technique down to a science. It requires practice, but with a little concentration, you’ll find its actually pretty easy if you break down the steps and pay attention to what you are actually doing.

What I learned through my experience is that you need to be a sniper when executing it. Chaos Orb doesn’t have to fall chaotically to live up to its name. The card still needs to fall from a height of at least one foot above the playing surface, and still flip 360 degrees, but other than those two requirements, don’t try to embellish the toss.

Timing
A good practice when attempting to play a Chaos Orb is to only cast it when you want to use it. You will have better luck in hitting multiple targets if your opponent is caught unaware that it is in your hand or play. After is resolves, if you do not pass priority, you will be able to activate it immediately and hit stacked cards, or a grouping cards that are clustered together on the table.

Sleeves
The first thing you want to do when you activate your Chaos Orb is take it out of its sleeve. The 5-color rules actually made a clarification requiring this, but honestly, I prefer flipping it this way. I think you get a better grip on the cardboard, and better control on handling the edge of the card. While it’s inside a sleeve, you are feeling the flimsy perimeter of the plastic edge, not the rigid cardboard. From experience, I believe you get much better results when you flip it sleeveless.

Height
The card text requires the Chaos Orb to fall from a height of one foot. For best results, keep it to the minimum. Don’t exceed the 12”. If you can’t eyeball it, bring a ruler until you can. (Seriously!) The longer the distance the card falls, the more chance that it will drift or land on edge, and miss the intended bullseye.

I don’t know what you would do if you tried to flip a Chorb in Europe. Europeans don’t know what a foot is. (They use the metric system, Duh!)

Directional Control
The next step when lining up to flip a Chaos Orb is aligning your direction. What you really want to do is get your trajectory plumbed to the table, so that the Chorb’s flight path is 90 degrees perpendicular to the play surface. This is probably the most important factor in, next to the release of throwing an Orb. If the trajectory is out of plumb, you increase the odds that the Orb will skip or slide when it finally hits the table. If the trajectory is plumb, there is a much greater chance the card will stick where it lands.

You may find it easier if you get out of your seat and actually stand when flipping an Orb. This way you can clearly see the spot you are positioning over, and assure where it will land.

Rotation
The next step you need to consider is rotation. If you can minimize the movement while its in the air, the chance that it will land on edge is lessened. What you are aiming for here is to get the card to only flip exactly one time. Measuring your distance to exactly 12” will help control this too.

To practice this, hold your Chaos Orb face up, horizontally, one foot above the table surface. As you practice flipping, closely watch the card as it falls. When it lands, it should complete the required one flip, and land face up on the table. If it doesn’t, you either a.) under-flipped, and it only turned 180 degrees; or b.) you over-flipped 270 degrees. You really want to limit the movement to the absolute minimum required to resolve the ability.

This part of the technique will require the most practice to master, but it is certainly achievable over time.

Axis
This may appear obvious, but you do have a choice which axis you flip the Orb along. It is always better to flip along the longer axis of a card, as the rotation will be tighter and more focused. If you choose to flip along the short axis, the rotational arm will be longer, leading to more uncontrolled movement.

Release
The release of the card needs to be fairly precise. The best description of this would be a “snap release”. You want the card to leave the motion of your fingers as quickly as possible so that as the card begins flipping, it does not come into contact with your hand.

Place you thumb along the edge on side of the card. Position your index finger beneath it, so that your middle knuckle is below your thumb. Try to hold your wrist steady, as you align your position. When you are ready for release, dip your wrist slightly so that the card will clear your index finger in the release. Snap the card downward as your index finger slides forward. The card will naturally pivot on your index finger as the thumb snaps downward, beginning the flip.

Force
Apply a sharp downward force as you snap the release. The more force you apply, the shorter the duration will be as the Chorb falls to the table. Remember, you still need to balance the amount of force applied with the amount of time it takes to still flip the card 360 degrees. Both mechanics are critical in achieving accuracy you want to hit your card every time.

DBAD
The sheer power taking out multiple cards for three colorless mana makes Chaos Orb a powerful and essential tool in every 5-color deck. I urge you though, try not to break the DBAD rule when flipping your Chaos Orb. Just because you can wipe out your opponents entire stacked mana base, doesn’t mean you always should. Be nice. The card is mean to be fun.

Alternate Resolution Procedure
Many years later while I played in Ypsilanti Michigan, my play group decided to resolve Chaos Orb in a different (and in my opinion, un-fun) manner. The problem was that the games became TOO chaotic when Chaos Orb was announced. People would literally panic, and quickly begin scattering their cards all over the table, far exceeding the reasonable 2’ x 3’ play area that they normally allotted. Arguments would ensue as to what you could and couldn’t move, and when. It completely disrupted the game. As a result, it just became easier to say you didn’t actually have to flip the Chorb on the table to resolve it. Instead, you would just pay three mana, name your card, and destroy your target. Chorb essentially became a colorless Vindicate, since you normally only wanted to hit target a single specific card anyways. How un-fun! Needless to say, I’m glad my current group doesn’t practice this resolution.

Falling Star
Like the Chorb, Falling Star uses the same mechanic to resolve its ability. I have found the same card-flipping techniques apply, even though this spell is loaded with red ink, and is a sorcery rather than an artifact. Too bad the effect is only about 1% as powerful as the Chorb. I would still give you MEGA-style points if tried to flip one against me.




Chaos Confetti
Occasionally, I still see people with this homage to the original Chaos Orb in their binders or wish board. Although Unglued cards are not legal in the 5-color format, I’d probably be pretty lenient if you wanted to tear up your card and use it to get out of a sticky game situation. (Note, you actually have to tear it up in front of me to get the effect. Pre-torn bits in a baggie are not acceptable to me!)


Well, there go, another installment of Grim Tidings. Who would have thought flipping a piece of cardboard could be so complicated? I hope you all consider this, and enjoy playing Chaos Orb in 5-Color as much as I do.


Bonus Kudos: Ultra Pro!
I need to give props to the Ultra Pro company this week. I’ve played Magic the Gathering for 15 years, and used Ultra Pro products for the majority of my career. Over the years, I’ve been satisfied with the quality of their products.

Last week I purchased a few packs of sleeves, and was surprised to discover that they were defective: The backing was reversed so that the textured exterior was actually inside the sleeve! This hardly seems worthwhile to mention, but on a whim, I opted to not return the defective sleeves from point of my purchase, and rather contact Ultra Pro, just to see what they would do.

To my delight, Ultra Pro’s customer service department responded to my issue within 5 hours of submission! They informed me that they will replace the defective sleeves at no cost, and mail the to my home. They were prompt, courteous, and seemed genuinely interested in tracking down this QC problem. Thank you Ultra Pro for making me, a mere consumer feel valued. Good job!

Friday, June 26, 2009

First Level Magic: Investments in the Game


Like most good things in life, Magic requires a commitment or investment of some sort. Now Magic is a very forgiving mistress, and can be enjoyed at different levels, depending on just how much of an investment you are willing and able to make. It is important to remember, that at any level, there is a required investment, and the more you want to get out of if, the more investment is required. Lastly keep in mind, that this isn't something you can simply buy your way into. No matter how much money, time, or effort you put into this, if they are not invest protortionaly, you won't get the same effect as some one who does. Make noe mistake though, your investment in the game, defines you as a magic player.


In such, the first question is are you a Magic player, or simply someone who plays on occasion? I've developed the following 4 points as an acid test of a Magic player.


1. Own your own cards.

2. Make a measurable, impactful, and consistant investment of your time.

3. Have an understanding of the rules.

4. Some concept of current events related to the game.


It's pretty simple if you can't say yes to these four things on some reasonable level, you aren't a Magic player. Now, don't get mad if I'm talking to you. At some point we were all probably enthusiast of the game, who only collected the cards, played with borrowed decks, only played because it was the game of choice for the night, had no real understanding of the rules, or had no concept that there was current events related to this game. We have all been there on some level, and perhaps you are reading this today becasue you are now ready to make the investment and become a Magic player.

Owning your own Collection;

So like I said, Invest here refers to many different aspects of the game. First up is card acqisitions. My first rule of Magic, as much as there are any, is that you have to own some cards. There just is no getting around this. If you still borrow a deck from friends, and are testing the waters, playing from time to time, thats fine, but you aren't a Magic player yet. This is a collectiable card game, which by definition requires any player to have a collection.


Have no fear, the barrier to entry for this game can be pretty low, in fact a cash on the barrel investment of $20.00 is enough to get any noob some playable option. It may be an intro pack from Wally World, entry into a prerelease event, or an instant collection of 1000 cards from an online retailer. The barrier to entry can be even lower, if you ar elucky enough to have stumbled into a community of gamers. I know that often the best thing I can do with my excess cards is give them to new players, to help them get their feet set. (I don't give people anything, unless I know they have made some fiancial investment in th game though).


The fact is, it really doesn't matter how many cards you have, or how you got them. As long as you own enough cards to suffle up one playable deck, you are on your way. Now that you are on the road, the larger collection you cultivate, the more play options you will have. I had planned on writting this as a much larger section, but I already do a lot of budget perspective writting, so I've decided that elaborating further here would be redudant on this point. Your cards are also your tools in this game, and they need to be treated as such. The way you keep your cards, speaks volumes about your quality and ability as a Magic player. Again, I'm not going to go into to much detail here, as I have already addressed this topic about a year ago. Give it a read if you are looking for best practices on card organization. Organization of your collection (big or small), represents an investment of time, that will pay off year after year.

Time is Magic;

Next up, I'd like to go a little more in depth about the investment of time. After owning your own cards, this is the thing which most defines you as a Magic player. The fact is you have to be willing and able to invest some time into any hobby. Magic is a wonderful example of a minimal investment can go a really long way. Everything you do in this game is going to take time, from purcahsing and organizing your cards, to building decks. Oh, and you may want actually play from time to time too. Folks that don'e invest time are going to develope the exact same problem, as those that don't invest in their collection. The game is going to get stangnant, because you can't find your cards, you are always playing the same old deck, or you never find time to play.

So this is a dificult mental bearier for a lot of people to cross, but an easy fix once they do. Once you accept that any hobby takes a devotion of soem time, finding ways to make it work will just start to flow. As a single father, I can relate to not having all the time in the world to devote to a hobby, but I've found some pretty easy ways to make what time I have really pay off.

As I previosly mentioned I found a way to stay organized that works for me. This took an investment of almost an entire weekend, but I did it three years ago, and it has been paying me back time dividends ever since. Now it's a matter of simple maintenance. it takes about 2 hours for me to work in new cards each time a new set drops. Once a month, I put away cards I've been working with. I keep this number low, buy doing deck testing from list rather then true assembled decks. I made one test deck 2 years ago, and have been using it ever since. Tweaking is requires a couple of minutes in a spreadsheet, and I'm good to go. This is a tip I picked up from the pro community a while back, and something I plan to write a feature on in the near future.

So now you have organization, and deck construction testing locked down, you can devote nearly all your "available time" to actually playing and thats what it's really all about. I plan to go into this crecial step in the coming weeks when I tackle the concept of a Magic community. Like wise Learning the Rules can be a major investment of your time, especially when Wizards tends to shake things up on you. This really is the best thing do to improve your game, even at the begining. It truly effects everythign you do. Understanding th erules may impact yourr organization, group cards that work the same together perhaps. It will also positivly impact your card choiced during deck construction, pointing out the gems that make best use of the rules constructs. Since Wizards just changed some things, it's the perfect time to invest in Learning the Rules, and will be the focus of my next article.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Grim Tidings #4: M-10 Rules Changes & The Effect of 5-Color

(Contributed by John Kozlowski)
5-Color is an alternate format for Magic: the Gathering, consisting of a 250 card deck, with a minimum of 20 cards from each color. It maintains its own Banned & Restricted list at http://www.5-color.com/.

This last week Wizards of the Coast released an preliminary explanation of the upcoming M10 revisions to the Magic: the Gathering game. Many long-time people have jumped on the band wagon, complaining reasons why they are disgusted with the revisions, and ranting that this might be the end of their Magic career.

Whatever.

A lot of people complain about a lot of things on the Internet. Its mostly hot air. The percentage of people who actually quit because the Game designers tweak a couple of rules and changed a few fantasy metaphors with terminology is small. If you examine the people who are doing most of the complaining, you’ll find a group who is wildly passionate about their hobby, and love the game that entertains them. What you have to remember though is that these people are still “wildly passionate”. Their passion is already present, and will remain despite the changes. They wouldn’t get so worked up over this if it wasn’t.

All it will take is a few weeks until the new rules are mandatory, and they will adjust. Its happened before (Sixth Edition) and it will likely happen again. Get over it. Complaining isn’t going to change anything.

That said, I do feel a bit disenfranchised as a veteran casual player by Wizard's explanation of why they proceeded with this action:

“To figure out exactly where the problems were, we got into the mind of the casual player—not the player knee-deep in regular sanctioned play or Magic Online, but rather the one who plays our game at home, at school, or at the small local shop… We went out in the field and played against such players—players who love, love, love Magic but don't have the need or desire to devote themselves to learning all the ins and outs of the rules.”

“So why is it important to make sure these players' intuition is most often correct? Aren't they content playing with their own messy version of the rules? They are—up to a point, and that point is when they leave their circles and joins the larger, more rules-compliant crowd.”


This reasoning ticks me off, to a degree. I have supported this company and game for the last 15 years, and have made every effort to be competent and familiar with the rules. It is not too much to ask new players to abide by the correct rulings. If they truly “love love love” the game, I would expect them to invest some time and actually read the rulebook. They should not be intimidated when the “larger, more rules compliant crowd” informs them that they aren’t playing the game correctly. They should be relived that the rules compliant crowd exists to tell them what they are doing is incorrect, and be happy to learn and become better players. I do not feel it is necessary to revert the game to meet their guesswork. Its insulting to the veterans, including myself, who have made the commitment to the game.

Meanwhile, the rules changes are already made, and their effect will inevitably be discovered on or before July 11, 2009. How will they effect the 5-color format?

I’ll examine them in the order as presented by Wizards, and I’ll attempt to point out examples of relevant 5-color cards that have actually been used in my experience with the format.
“1) Simultaneous Mulligans - The Fix: Mulligans will now officially be handled simultaneously. This will significantly cut down on time spent shuffling before each tournament game.”

This honestly has zero impact on the 5-color format. The 5-color format already have a unique “Big Deck” mulligan procedures, and they are far more generous than the standard Paris mulligan. Most casual 5-color players I know are so lenient that they even allow additional mulligans anyways.

Needless to say, the new Mulligan rules hardly apply to competitive 5-color, much less casual 5.

“2) Terminology Changes
2A) Battlefield
2B) Cast, Play, and Activate
2C) Exile”

Blah blah bah. Mechanically, this doesn’t really do anything to change the game. I think this actually may cause confusion to the newest of players who aren’t necessarily familiar with the previous wordings from Alara and prior. But overall, these changes are truly cosmetic.

Wizards admits a slight functional change to the Six Wishes and Ring of Ma'rûf. This certainly diminishes these cards o some degree, as they are commonly played in 5-color games. Living Wish is probably the worst effected, as Swords to Plowshares is the most ubiquitous RFG removal spell in the format, but due to other graveyard hosers such as Tormod’s Crypt or Jund Charm, all of the wishes are effected in some manner. Most 5-color players I know who use the Wishes prepare a separate Wishboard anyways, which mostly serves as a Toolbox for difficult situations.

“2D) Beginning of the End Step”

Again, this is a mostly cosmetic change that doesn’t really effect 5-color as far as I can see, although I chuckle at the example given with Rakdos Guildmage.

“It boggles the mind that if you activate this ability during the end step, after "at end of turn" triggers have already triggered, that you'd get to keep the token through nearly the entire next turn. This was called the "end-of-turn loophole," and it wasn't a problem for power reasons—it was a problem because it was ridiculously unintuitive. I think that confusion is alleviated not only by using the new template, but by adding the word "next" within it…”

So what they’re essentially saying is by adding the word “next” we can justify how unintuitive it still is. The mechanics didn’t change, so you still keep the token through the next turn, but if they are happy with this explanation, alright, so be it.

“3) Mana Pools and Mana Burn
3A) Mana Pools Emptying - The Fix: Mana pools now empty at the end of each step and phase, which means mana can no longer be floated from the upkeep to the draw step, nor from the declare attackers step to the declare blockers step of combat.”


This doesn’t specifically affect 5-color any more than it affects Magic in general. If you find yourself occasionally floating mana in your upkeep just in case you want to use for your draw, I guess you’ll have to get used to the change. Braid of Fire wasn’t a very popular 5-color card anyways. This removal should have little effect.

“3B) Mana Burn Eliminated - The Fix: Mana burn is eliminated as a game concept. Mana left unspent at the end of steps or phases will simply vanish, with no accompanying loss of life.”

Wizards claims it is” jarring” for players to learn about mana burn. I find this hard to believe, as it has always been part of the rules, and its not hidden. The introductory rules handout explains this concept well, so if a beginning player is unaware of the rule, its their own fault.

However, you can’t deny that many competitive and casual 5-color decks include a decent quantity of artifacts, and/or are packed with really juicy, expensive spells to spend the excess mana on. As a result, I suspect Mana Drain and Tolarian Academy will start to see more play in 5-color. I’ve typically chosen to not include these two cards in my decks unless the deck was heavily artifact- or counterspell-centric, but now I may have to reconsider. If there is no downside to having all of the excess mana (no burn) why wouldn’t I try to reap the benefits of tempo swing by always playing Mana Drain?

Another somewhat popular 5-color card that is slightly affected by this revision is Spectral Searchlight. Although it is not normally intended for damage, it did have some innate versatility to “ping for 1” if you were desperate, (or just wanted to be a jerk at the end of your opponent’s turn!)

There are some quirky 5-color decks out there that make use of Mirror Universe as well. The elimination of Mana burn will revert Mirror Universe to its original intent, a way to save you from dying, rather than a kill mechanism. At least there is still Necropotence available for this combo.

“In 99.9% of Magic games, of course, you'll never even notice mana burn is gone.”

Where exactly does Wizards get these stats? Please, let us be the judge of this.

“4) Token Ownership - The Fix: We are matching most players' expectation by changing the rule such that the owner of a token is, in fact, the player under whose control it entered the battlefield.”

I have to admit, in 15 years, I never really thought about this obscure rule. It never occurred to me that my opponent didn’t own the occasional token that I give to him. How could I have missed the fact those were MY Crib Swap changelings, MY Forbidden Orchard spirits, and MY Hunted Troll faeries. Well, its too late now. I feel like I missed out on years of exploitation.

Anyways, Some of these cards are used commonly in 5-color, but the exploiting cards never were. Warp World and Brand combos were never consistent enough to be used in a 250 card library. Now that they’ve fixed the ownership rule, I’m positive they never will.

“5) Combat Damage No Longer Uses the Stack - The Reality: The intricate system via which combat is currently handled creates many unintuitive gameplay moments. For starters, "the stack" is a difficult concept, even after all these years, so it is no wonder that many players go about combat without invoking it at all. Second, creatures disappearing after damage has been put on the stack leads to a ton of confusion and disbelief: How is that Mogg Fanatic killing two creatures? How did that creature kill mine but make your Nantuko Husk big enough to survive? How can you Unsummon your creature and have it still deal damage? While many of us may be used to the way things are now, it makes no sense in terms of a game metaphor and only a bit more sense as a rule.”

“The Fix: As soon as damage is assigned in the combat damage step, it is dealt. There is no time to cast spells and activate abilities in between; the last time to do so prior to damage being dealt is during the declare blockers step.”

This rule change has caused the most consternation and unrest amongst players than any other revision.

This fix may actually be more complicated, as players now need to track and manage ordering their blockers. This by itself in counter-intuitive in the combat metaphor, as in a melee, I can hardly imagine blockers lining up and taking their turns getting clobbered by a much larger attacker. I think ordering blockers may ultimately become the next point of confusion for new players to comprehend. Afterall, if they couldn’t grasp the stack, how will they manage this? I think this could have been simply fixed (for the most part) by just adding a clarification saying you cant sacrifice a creature that has been assigned lethal damage.

Regardless, what’s done is done. The biggest loss for me with this change is Mogg Fanatic. I really liked Mogg Fanatic; one because he’s red, and two because he is a 1-drop. Red has traditionally been the worst color in the format, as the card pool isn’t as deep as it is with other powerhouse colors, such as white. With the revision to the combat damage, I’m sadly going to have to find a replacement.

Sakura Tribe Elder is another 5-color staple that is going to take a hit. STE now can’t fetch a land after chump-blocking. I won’t miss him too bad though, because I’ve always advocated that Farhaven Elf is better anyways.

A long time favorite of mine is Etched Oracle. I still find myself playing with this. It’s certainly a mid-range card, but for 4 mana, you get a 4/4, that can Ancestral Recall before it dies. I suppose it will still draw three before a Wrath or Plowshare, but it is diminished slightly by not being able to sacrifice itself after a block.

There are certainly other cards that see play in 5-color that will be hurt. Morphling tricks will be a thing of the past. I guess its unintuitive to see a Shapeshifter pump up to a 5/1, putting damage on the stack, and then switch to an 0/8.

Ravenous Baloth and Fulminator Mage are other cards of note that I can think of that with some 5-color relevance.

"6) Deathtouch - The Fix: First, deathtouch is becoming a static ability. Creatures dealt damage by a source with deathtouch will be destroyed as a state-based effect at the same time lethal damage would kill them. As a side effect, multiple instances of deathtouch will no longer be cumulative.
Second, deathtouch allows a double-blocked creature to ignore the new damage assignment rules and split its damage among any number of creatures it's in combat with however its controller wants to."


I view this fix as collateral damage to eliminating the damage on stack. It probably won’t have much impact on 5-color in any event. After scanning my current and archived 5-color decklists, I could only find one related card in Ohran Viper. And technically it doesn’t even have Deathtouch!

So what does it really mean for the future 5-color? Well, for starters, Deathtouch is kind of the new trample. It is the ability that lets you circumvent the new ordered blockers, and gain card advantage in a sneaky fashion.

I may test out Quietus Spike to see how advantageous it really is. I always prefer equipment for special abilities, because eif my creature dies somehow, I will still retain the artifact for later use.

Tidehollow Strix may be another Deathtouch creature to emerge in 5-color, as it combines a very efficient casting cost with a pair of excellent abilities. Could this be my future replacement for Mogg Fanatic? Perhaps, perhaps.



“7) Lifelink - The Fix: Lifelink, like deathtouch, is turning into a static ability. If a source with lifelink deals damage, its controller gains that much life as that damage is being dealt. This brings the timing much closer to spells like Consume Spirit and Lightning Helix. As a side effect, multiple instances of lifelink are no longer cumulative.”

This is another collateral fix to changing damage on the stack. And the fact that it is static will effect 5-color. Some of the most popular cards out there for 5-color utilize Lifelink, notably: Exalted Angel, Loxodon Warhammer, and Divinity of Pride. While you certainly still gain life from these creatures, the cumulative triggers from the pre- M-10 rules will probably be missed.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

From the Wire to the Soap Box: The Sky is Not Falling

There have been a lot of recent changes to the world of Magic, so lets jump in.

First up, the M10 Rule Changes. Now, I will leave the wheres and whys of this to the better minds then I, but to sum it all up, this is not that big of deal. Creature combat is the only significant change, and 6 months from now, it will be second nature. Mogg Fanatic does get a down grade, but the few cards which are inversely effected are well worth the potential new blood that will come into the game thanks to simplified combat mechanics.

While we are talking about M10, the rumor season has started in full swing. That's right Lightning bolt may be making in 21st century debut. In that vein Ball lighting has been confirmed. The net result is It's a good time to be JD, or for the sleigh in general. Zac aka "Rage Quit" has pledged fewer mid-game walk outs, in the event that he owes me John's deck over the reprinting of Lightning Bolt. Frankly I think everyone wins in this one.

And Speaking of Generals (sort of), the world of EDH has some changes this week. The most powerful general met the ban hammer, and a few other banned cards received new life. Fastbond + Crucible of worlds = just silly! I really don't get what they were thinking about on this one? Oh, and John sorry I never got the "treat" of taking on Braids. I can't help but notice they didn't ban this until you started playing it. Broken!

The DCI also brought us some BR list changes, which I think opened Vintage up a bit. Is it too much? Only time will tell, but honestly I think most of these cards were way over due for a status change. Thirst for Knowledge perplexes me a tad, but it may be a change in anticipation of the Mana Drain effect of the rules changes. Honestly not sure why else they would have restricted this card, in a format they appear to be opening up a bit. Maybe someone else can clue me in on this? ***edited 06/22/2009: Someone explained this, and now it makes much more sense.

While it is true that changes has been coming at us pretty fast, the sky is not falling. In the scope of the game, all of these changes are pretty minor, and I am certain that the truly skilled Mages out there will be able to ride them out. There is only two ways the Magic truly ends, if you quit, or if they quit making changes, and it becomes stagnant. Keep an eye on Wizards this week, as they continue to announce the Sweet sixteen survivors as they become the elite eight. Thats right folks, now only eight cards can claim the eternal status in the core set. Nightmare has been confirmed as in.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

FutureFlavor/LovePie

(submitted by Bert Phillips)

Part I

When Wizards announced the changes that would accompany the release of M10, I tried not to be a "they're killing the game" reactionary. Some changes I liked, some I didn't, but all will eventually settle in and start to feel normal, no differently than the 6th Edition changes. What I want to talk about though, is the policy behind the flavor changes. Starting with the Grand Creature Type Update a year ago, Wizards began to take great strides toward streamlining the flavor of Magic. As with everything, some changes have been good, some... questionable.

The Grand Creature Type Update was a good idea, although Wizards probably overreached - I agree that "Summon Murk Dwellers" doesn't really add much to that card's flavor, but by taking every ambiguous Black creature and making it a Zombie, Spirit, or Skeleton you miss out on some cool creature types that DO add flavor (Wights, Mummies, and Ghosts all get absorbed into their respective super-categories, for instance). And then they killed Townsfolk, for which I, and the great nation of Icatia, will never forgive them.

Then Wizards, in an attempt to loop in new players with appealing, easy-to-identify fantasy archetypes, flipped the script with M10. As a whole, I love the idea. More Knights, Zombies, Dragons, Angels... fewer Kavus, Slivers, Vedalken, and, uh, Lhurgoyfs (noooo!!!)... at least in the base sets. I honestly think it's a brilliant idea, no doubt because those characteristics are what originally drew me to Magic in 5th grade.

M10 also ushered in some drastic changes to the surface texture of the game, including the renaming of two zones to The Battlefield and Exile. I'll omit my discussion of Exile's flavor problems (another article...). Suffice it to say, I generally approve of those changes and think they make the game a more aesthetically appealing experience.

My problem is this - why stop where they did?

When I play Call of the Herd, I am casting my sorcery which puts an Elephant onto the Battlefield. But when I activate my Survival of the Fittest I am searching my library (so far so good) by "discarding" a "card", searching for a "card" and putting it into my "hand". Sounds like something I would do in a game of Go Fish. Oh yeah, and all that is done by a "player", not by a "planeswalker," which is theoretically what I'm supposed to be.

The problem is that Wizards has gone only half-way in addressing this broad flavor change. Magic "lives" within a binary that forces upon it a fundamental predicament. It is a game with normal game parts, like chess, but it is also a metaphor, a story, every bit as complex and storied as the world of, say, Harry Potter. Wizards needs to figure out whether it wants to fully upholster the game with this metaphor, or leave some gameplay terminology on the visible surface.

Magic is a game that asks you to pretend you are in a different universe (multiverse :) ). To enjoy the Vorthosian aspect of Magic, you have to buy into the metaphor. Magic is fun partly because of the gameplay, but partly because you are living within in this story. If you stripped away all the art, changed the mana costs from WUBGR to ABCDE, and changed all the card names to "Combat Permanent 1" or "Continuous Game-Modifying Permanent 33" or "Temporary Effect 9,402" - the gameplay would stay the same, but the game would be horribly bland. Chess would be ok if you renamed the pieces ("multi-directional long-range unit to G-2"). In 52-card decks, the parts are already almost stripped to their essential game-related minimal elements ("two of diamonds"). Magic, on the other hand, shrivels up if you take away the metaphor.

I guess what I am suggesting is that Wizards should have thought about this. They might want to make these changes I'm talking about in five years, and by then they will have 20 additional sets worth of cards to errata. We have artifacts that come into the battlefield tapped (another example of a good metaphor, "tapped" being another word for "expended"), and creatures that exile zombies. Why not have sorceries that deal damage to planeswalkers (the player or directly to the permanent!), and lands that you can "forget" ("discard") in order to "acquire" ("draw") another card.



We could redefine what "spell" means, so that a "card" can be called a "spell." Demonic Tutor would allow you to search your library for any "spell," including lands and non-lands, and "acquire" it (not "put it into your hand"). Opportunity would allow you to "acquire your next four spells." Ostracize would force your opponent to forget a creature spell, Remove Soul would counter a creature spell, and Zombify would be a sorcery spell that puts a creature spell from your graveyard into the battlefield. It would be a huge rules change in terms of how cards move though zones, but it would simplify things a ton, which is something Wizards has been looking for, as well as streamlining flavor.

Wizards could add a rule to the rulebook so that you cast land spells without using the stack or triggering abilities. Tell me, what's wrong with that, other than shaking up tradition? (Yeah, you'd have to do something about Rule of Law.)

Admittedly, my changes have serious issues (both mechanically under the current rules and flavor-wise), but there are certainly other workable ideas to compliment them, and the end result could be to complete the story metaphor of magic:

And if you complete the metaphor, you absolutely have a better, more marketable, not to mention a more logical product. I only wish Wizards had had the foresight to do it all in one fell swoop.

Part II

The idea of renaming "card drawing" to "spell acquiring" is an interesting prospect. In one way, this makes perfect sense. I cast Concentrate, I acquire three spells, and now I can cast them. Or when Elvish Visionary comes into the Battlefield, she prophesies a spell I then have acquired from her. I have used "forgetting" for "discarding" but shied away from naming "drawing" "learning". This is because, in my opinion, there is a problem with this cognitive metaphor for card drawing.

I guess it all started with calling the deck "the Library." That made it seem like every spell was something you learned in books, whereas in reality there is flavor room for spells that are cast from the heart, the gut, just from yelling really loud (think of "To Arms!"). Nevertheless, cards that manipulated the hand started being flavor-associated with memory and/or forgetfulness. But I don't really have a problem with the library and/or hand somehow representing a planeswalker's mental process. I don't even have a problem with being able to "learn" a battlecry from my library. Where the problem starts... is the color pie.

For some reason, Blue has always been associated with cognitive magic (among other things). And that is fine. Teaching, Genius, Brainstorming,Inspiration... all fine cards, good flavor. Sure, you need your brain to process new spells, but why is the only way to engage your brain by reading books?? The library could just as well be an "arsenal" for a Red mage, or an ongoing prayer by a devout White mage.

Like card draw, both countermagic and stealing cards, two incredibly powerful abilities, had their flavor classified as cerebral-based (read: Blue). But why does taking your creature have to be done by mental manipulation of loyalties? Can't I get him to come over to my side by threatening orevangelizing or outright enslaving him?

Those examples prove that there is a flavor basis for "Blue" (and other colors') abilities to be spread more evenly around the color pie. One reason they aren't spread around more is tradition. Another reason is that because of the library metaphor, all of Magic's spells are cognitive in flavor, and thus Blue gets first dibs at almost everything. Black and White get second dibs because White likes to control the mind and Black likes to corrupt it. But Red doesn't like to use the mind at all, and Green is just always getting high, so they have last dibs, even though, flavor-wise, it doesn't have to be all about the mind, and thus they should all get equal dibs.

I would say "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." But it is broken. In at least three ways.

1) There is a real power discrepancy. Just ask any multiplayer player how many Red cards they have in their 5-color decks. It's also very perceptible at the competitive level. As a rule of thumb, Red sucks, Blue dominates, and all the other colors are pretty serviceable.

2) Some colors are more versatile than others. Sure, Red decks routinely crop up and do pretty well, or even dominate, for part of a season. But what do those Red decks do? Almost invariably, they cast some efficient little creatures, swing, and then burn you out. When was the last time a Red deck was completive (i.e., not Warp World) with a different gameplan than that? (And no, Swans doesn't count. I guess Wildfire decks from wayyy back.) But even Green, for instance, has mana fixing, recursion, efficient small creatures, efficient big creatures, enchantment/artifact/land removal, life gain, and some card advantage. Black is great at creature removal, they have 1 or 2 great creatures of various sizes in any given format, and they have some life gain and recursion. That's it. I won't even start in on blue, which never destroys anything, but does everything else.

3) Design Space. As of now, blue has almost all counterspell effects. Thus, as of now, "counter target spell" seems like a unique ability, so Cancel is as far as we need to go. But if Black had counterspell effects, you would need to find a way to make black counterspells uniquely black... *ahem* you would GET to make Black effects on permission cards!

(Oh yeah, while I'm at it, I'm renaming "instants" - where's the flavor in that??)

Think about it. It wouldn't be obsoleting the color pie, it would be opening up color pie essentials onto design space they have never gotten to interact with due to tradition tradition. If you look at one of those "how to play" inserts, it says nothing about Black being the color of destroying creature permanents, it just says Black likes ambition and death. Well, here's some death for a creature on the stack, thanks.

The remedy to the color imbalance (as I've been getting at) is that this "spells/hand/cards = cognitive activity" metaphor isn't necessary. Ok, so spells are supposed to be memorized incantations that you can cast by using your mind... but all colors can cast spells, not just Blue. Think of it like this. Blue mage acquires the spell by studying in a library, and casts the spell from memory or a spellbook, etc. Green mage acquires the spell by, oh, say, Harmonizing with nature or consulting with a wise woodland sage, and casts the spell, perhaps, by singing a chant or doing a dance. Red mage acquires the spell by beating up the librarian, and casts it with a magical battle-cry. White mage acquires the spell by praying to god or polling its citizens for information. Black mage casts the spell in a sacrificial ceremony. Etc. The point is, there are any number of ways to "acquire spells" and "cast spells." Thus there is no reason flavor-wise that card drawing, for instance, should be a Blue ability and thus only appear on one or two Red/White/Green/Black cards per year.

If we opened up unique veins of card drawing or countermagic (or for that matter unique veins of creature-kill or mana acceleration) to other colors, so much design space would emerge, and Red and Green could become so much more playable and enjoyable. Take another look at counterspell abilities. Blue mage stops your spell by knowing the opposite spell (if this were Harry Potter, the counter-jinx) that will stop it. But why can't there be other ways to counter spells? Maybe White can counter a spell by levying a tax on it... how very White. Maybe Black can counter a spell by making the caster really frightened while he's trying to cast it. And Jaya Ballard doesn't need a piddly counter-jinx to shut down a spell. She can justblast it! So why can't Chandra Nalaar counter some crappy planeswalker's Giant Growth (or whatever) just by the sheer power of her burning fury?

Hmm.

If they can print Burnout as a color hoser, it doesn't seem like Catastrophic Response is too far off-base, at least flavor wise. If Wizards was willing to do a reinterpretation of what the color pie binds them to, there's no flavor reason why Red can't get a little better (and all the colors can get a big infusion of amazing design space), I'd say.

I'm not asking for a Disenchant that costs 1B, a Terror that costs 1G, or a 4/4 trampler for 2UU. Then everyone would just play mono-colored decks. But if I consider myself a powerful Red-aligned planeswalker who loves to burn things... well, let's just say I think I could be angry enough to stop your CoP:Red when I saw you casting it.

True, there are a lot of people who, if asked to choose one card and one color that are most representative of each other, would say "Counterspell for Blue." It's a reasonable choice. But then if you asked them to come up with a flavor reason why Blue defines Counterspell it would just be "Blue has always been the countermagic color!" But that, friends, is not a reason - 'tis a tautology. There is a flavor reason, based on color pie essentials, why Angel of Salvation is White (healing!) or why Fiery Gambit is Red (chaos!) or why Kaervek's Spite is Black (suicidal malice!). But if you say Counterspell is Blue (complex technical spellwork!) (painstakingly prepared countermeasures!) I could just as easily say it is Red (blunt, all-purpose answer!) (instantaneous retribution!). Even Force of Will: the Bluest card ever, but the mechanic (pitching a card as part of a cost!), the name... even the art is just all so Red to me.

The same goes for creatures with flash. What is the flavor reason for Blue creatures to have flash? The mechanical reason is to allow Blue creatures to counter spells (Spellstutter Sprite) or to keep mana open for counterspells. But flash seems very very Red to me. Flash is about speed and crushing your opponent out of nowhere (sure, it's about trickiness and keeping tabs on your opponent's activities too, but I'm not saying Blue can't have any flash creatures). This seems like a perfectly archetypal creature to me, moreso than, say, Pestermite:

There are other changes I would like to see made for the purpose of evening out the colors and bringing the color pie into accord with the colors' true identities. For instance, Blue has always been the artifact color, Green the land color, and White the enchantment color (give or take). But what about Black and Red? Could Wizards make them the sorcery and instant colors, respectively? (Red did cool stuff with instants from the beginning, and Black, well... it's never too late to start in on sorceries.)

I also think the "Grand Creature Typing" could use some finalizing touches. Merfolk had long been the hope of Blue summoners everywhere, Blue's equivalent to G's Elves, R's Goblins, B's Zombies, and W's... Angels (? Hmm....). But Merfolk ran into flavor problems when they were attacking through forests and mountains. Then Wizards tried to introduce Vedalken as the Blue tribe, but they were always horribly ambiguous, mollusk-like, and unloved. Wizards finally shifted Faeries from G to U, which was brilliant, and fits the tricky nature of Faeries/Blue. Wizards should solidify that change, maybe with a block of Pixies as a subset of Faeries (in the same way that Goblins have Moggs and Boggarts) so that Blue will finally have it's flagship tribe.

There are more changes that I could suggest, but I'll save them for another day. These changes, though - both to the color pie and to the metaphor that is the game of Magic - all deserve some consideration from the folks at Wizards. They also deserve consideration from the magic community, which is why I'm spreading these ideas at large. All I'm asking for is a careful reevaluation of the game's flavor, mechanical balance, and the color pie, and their relationship to each other. Far from "killing magic," as, of course, people are prophesying, I think the M10 changes will be great for the game and draw in new players. I just regret that the changes couldn't have been more thorough. Oh well. Next time. Until then, I can't wait to put some townsfolk into my Battlefield...





Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Grim Tidings #3: 5C Manabase Basics

(Contributed by John Kozlowski)
My first two articles (part1, part2) for Grim Tidings have been pretty advanced in terms of 5-color deck construction. I’d like to slow things down a bit and explain some basic manabase techniques to improve your 5-color experience.

5-color Magic is a format that requires you to build a deck of at least 250 cards, with a minimum of 20 cards from each color. I encourage everyone to go to the actual http://www.5-color.com/ link, but basically all cards are legal, except for the Unglued/Unhinged expansions, and there is a special Banned/Restricted list specific to this format. Highlander is optional, but extremely fun.

Forty Percent
My first piece of mana base advice is simple: Play with around 90 to 100 lands and/or mana sources. I get asked this question all the time by new players, because they have never built a deck of this size before. The same rule that applies to 60 card decks applies to 250 card decks: 40% mana is about right. If you play less than 90, you’ll likely find yourself screwed more often than not. If you play more than 100, you’ll start to get flooded. I like to use 90 lands, and have about 10 +/- additional sources from creatures or artifacts to help smooth and accelerate my colors.

A Simple Sample
With this basis framework in place, there is still a lot of consternation that you need an expensive manabase to build a competitive 5-color deck as well. It doesn’t hurt to have the original duel lands, but you would be surprised what is available recently and/or cheaply. Consider this very simple 90 card highlander manabase (And remember, Highlander is optional!):

14x Forest
9x Plains
9x Swamps
9x Mountains
9x Island

10x Painlands from 10th Edition
5x Time Spiral Storage Lands
5x Coldsnap CIPT Dual Lands
5x Lorwyn Vivid Lands
5x Shards Tri-lands
5x Shards Panorama Fetch Lands
1x Gemstone Mine
1x Terramorphic Expanse
1x Shimmering Grotto
1x Vesuva
1x Treetop Village

This mana base is a great starting point for 5-color decks. It primarily uses cards available in the last two years of Magic from the Lorwyn / Shadowmoor / Alara blocks. I would argue that this has been the best two year period for mana fixing that has ever occured in the history of the game. There has never seen so many variations on multi-colored lands in such a concentration! The majority are uncommon too, making them very accessible to new players.

Common fetch lands such as Terramorphic Expanse, and the Shards of Alara Panoramas are acceptable too. I would never fault a new player for using the Vivid Lands from Lorwyn or the Shards Tri-lands, even if they do (to my chagrin) come into play tapped.

With a little research, you can find many alternates from the older Magic expansions. Torment provided a cycle of uncommon “Tainted Lands” which work well if your deck is Black-centric. Odyssey provided a cycle of filter lands precursor similar to the Shadowmoor Hybrid-lands. In most cases these lands can be obtained for no more than $1 each, if not less.

Basics
Don’t be afraid of using basic lands! Sometimes people are misled to think that non-basic lands are always better than basics because they do something special. True, many non-basic lands provide multiple colors or “do stuff”, but don’t underestimate the power of a basic land. They always come into play untapped, and always provide colored mana without any strings attached. They are immune to hosers like Wasteland, Anathemancer and Price of Progress. Sometimes just using a basic land is the best solution.

Green
You may notice from the sample manabase I provided above that I included 14 basic forests in comparison to 9 from the other colors. Green has always been an excellent for color-fixing, featuring famous cards like Llanowar Elves and Birds of Paradise. Most players agree it is the best color for fixing and acceleration. As a result, many 5-color decks become green-centric, and contain a higher proportion of green cards compared to the other four colors.

Beside Birds of Paradise, there are actually many cards that have similar abilities you may not be aware of. Utopia Tree is about 80% less expensive than Birds, and has the exact same ability. So does Gemhide Sliver, and it is Common! Fixers such as Druid of Anima, Skyshroud Elf, and Urborg Elf provide access to 60% of the color wheel in the common slot too.

Green also provides a few unique solutions that are not creature based. Crap rares such as Prismatic Omen and Scapeshift can be found fairly easily, and quickly provide access to all five colors upon resolution. Green provides enchantments like Utopia Vow and Fertile Growth which help as well. There is no denying that Green can solve many problems with your manabase.

Artifacts
Meanwhile, I highly recommend playing artifact sources of colored mana. Its impossible to get color screwed to not be able to cast these fixers, because by their nature, most artifacts are colorless. There are many cheap artifacts that produce colored mana, such as Fellwar Stone, Spectral Searchlight, Darksteel Ingot. Fellwar Stone is a fairly great source, because in most games it provides you access to all five colors within the first two-three turns.

Do not forget about Scuttlemutt either. This is an extremely versatile card as well, for not only does it produce any color mana, it is a 2/2 creature, it has a secondary color changing ability, and its common!

I hope this explanation helps debunk any fears that all 5-color manabases are valued at $100s of dollars. I’ve tried to provide many inexpensive solutions that are likely already part of collection to smooth out your mana fixing. If you follow these guidelines, you should find its really not as hard as you think.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

First Level Magic: We All Start Someplace

Magic has taken on a life of it's own, be it on the American east coast, or the Island of Japan, it is found nearly every where. Language barriers fall, bringing the game to nearly every corner of the world. Technology shows us the best players in the world in virtually real time throwing down in remote locations, and allows the meta game to develop at hyper sonic speeds. Even now technology is bringing me to you, in order to share what meager wisdom I have about he game, the community, the life which is Magic the Gathering.

Now please allow me to clear the air on something. I am not one of the greats. If you have digitally wandered here today in the hopes of garnering some kernel of wisdom, some super secret tech, that will allow you to place higher at your chosen level of play, I am afraid I have bad news. Odds are you are not going to find it here. There are Magic minds far better then I, if that is your worthy goal. If you want to take your game to the "Next Level", read Chapin, from whom I draw my inspiration for this topic. If you want to be a better casual player read Abe Sargent. If you want to master multiplayer politics read The Ferrett. If you want to ease your development along any or all of these paths, keep reading.

Today my intent is to discuss the "first steps" in ones Magic journey. Regardless of your intended goals, or your time in the game so far, if your intention for Magic is anything beyond sitting alone, looking at the cards, there are things which will universally help you on your journey. These first steps do not apply just new noobs, in fact I know many players with 10+ years of history, which are still struggling to complete their first steps. Certainly you can enjoy the game, and find your chosen measure of success with in it, without making any of these steps. The fact is that your journey will be easier having done these things. The things on my mind tend to be so basic, that they do not break cleanly into individual topics, but represent to much material for a single endeavour. For this reason I have grouped these concepts into 4 broad topics of discussion, each overlapping the other a bit, which I will be addressing separately over the next few weeks.

-Tie into a Community
-Mind Your Investments
-Learn the Rules
-Take Action Now

As I'm sure you guessed, these are in no particular order. It is also important to realize that these are not check list items, but the basis for developing habits which will carry through out your game. "Take Action Now" is not something you will do once, check off, and never return to again. It is the basis of a habit of Action, of working towards your goals, what ever they may be. It is something you will do from this point on, and topic of the remainder of today's discussion.

In order to add value to action, once most apply purpose to that action. This means knowing yourself, and what it is you want to accomplish with that action. This can't simply be an act of doing. You have to know who you are, and where you are in your Magic journey. You can have the a map and a compass, and never be able to reach you desired destination because you don't understand where you are starting from. To thy own self be true, but to do that one must first know thy self. Not everyone is destined to be on the pro tour, not everyone is a collector driven to have every card, not everyone is satisfied with the casual side of the game. Truth is you probably don't represent any one single extreme aspect of players, you like most represent a mix of these any many more player aspects, which will rise, fall and shift through out you magic journey. Now who you are, and from time to time, apply a reality check to test your assumptions of yourself. You will change over time, and you need to continue to know who and where you are, as those answers change.

The good news is the next portion of this topic is something you are already doing. By reading this article, you are taking action in order to reach your goals. Good job, keep it up. You also need to play the game. Get the cards in your hands, shuffle, build decks, read the cards. Observe the players, community, and plays around you. You can't learn anything from the things you never saw. Make playing a two tier activity, play the game, and observe it. Take notes, go over them later, learn from what happened, and what didn't. This represents an investment of your time, and will be a focus of our next discussion.

So until next time, remember who you are, as well as where you want to be. Apply purposeful action towards those goals, investing your action towards an intended result. Grab the cards an shuffle up.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Budget Building: Gifts from Wizard

We have entered what I believe to be the most exciting time of the Magic year. The begging of summer, and the end of the traditional school year, ushers in the largest recruitment time for the game. It appears Wizards recognizes this opportunity too, and is making a special offer to encourage existing customer, but primarily to create a unique opportunity for noobs.

This doesn't present a huge boon for most established mages, but if you are new to the game, or been waiting for the right time to jump in, the sound you are hearing may just be opportunity knocking. In most of my budget articles, I have established $20.00 as the relevant entry point. For this amount a careful mage can establish a reasonable collection, and create one or more playable decks. You may have noticed that Wizards is targeting a $15.00 purchase, and committing a potential for a bonus $10.00 in freebies. The chance to get an extra 40% bang for your buck, just shouldn't be missed out on by any new mage.

So now the question becomes, what can you do with your $15.00 to get even more for your money. The quickest answer is 4-5 packs, depending on your local retail prices. Honestly, this answer is probably your worst alternative. The pack contents will, as always, be random. The chances of creating much beyond the training decks given with your purchase is slim at best. You could always get lucky, pulling a chance card of some sort, after all, someone has to win the lottery once and a while. Most people will tell you I prefer a sure thing. The discussion then turns to Intro Packs.

For those of you who may not know, Intro packs are Wizards latest efforts to put player recruitment on the retail fronts. For an average retail of $12.00 you get a ~40 card preconstructed deck, plus a sealed booster to get you started. These typically represent a reasonable value for a new player, and a jumping off point for a new mages collection. Today, we will attempt to separate the best options, from the sea of 15 such decks you are most luckily to encounter in your local retails store. My goal is to focus on the decks from the current Shards block. These should be readily available, and will remain in the current Standard for roughly another 15 months. Below, you will find each of the decks I feel represent a better then average value for your collection, a return figure to allow you to gauge the potential value of each deck, a brief description of the deck concept (excerpted from Wizards promotional materials), and a list of key cards from the deck.

Esper Artifice (WUB) +80%

In this world of wind and wave, control is the guiding force. Cut off from the chaos of red and green mana, Esper has become a magocracy. The forces of high magic rule supreme. The plane of Esper is dominated by brilliant wizards, artificers, and sphinxes who seek to control the very forces of nature through a magical alloy called etherium. Construct an army of unstoppable artifacts using the power of etherium, and dominate all who would stand in your way. Everything here is observed and controlled.

Master of Etherium, Sharding Sphinx, Arcane Sanctum, and Oblivian Ring.


Eternal Strugle (GW) +50%

The best strategy against an overwhelming enemy is to stay on the offensive. You’ll forge a new alliance between Bant and Naya against the forces of Nicol Bolas, charging into the fray with an array of efficient, battle-ready knights and behemoths. As you cast trick after game-altering trick, victory will dawn over the trampled resolve of your foes.

Knight of New Alara, Dauntless Escort, Qasali Pridemage, and Path to Exile.





Bant Exalted (GWU) +30%

Without the destructive or selfish impulses of red and black mana, Bant has become a golden utopia. Angels rule the realm with benevolence and grace. Humans and the birdfolk called aven resolve their conflicts with ritualized combat. Duty and honor are the bedrock of this kingdom of light.

Battlegrace Angel, Rhox War Monk, Sigiled Paladin, and Seaside Citadel.








Grixis Undead (UBR) +20%

What becomes of a world without new life? The dark wasteland of Grixis answers the question. Its denizens desperately cling to its remaining lifeforce. Without the communal forces of white and green to bring life and compassion, it's every ghoul, demon, and necromancer for themselves.

Crumbling Necropolis, Gravedigger, Vein Drinker, Blightning, and Cruel Ultimatum.






Primordial Jund (BRG) +10%

In the absence of white or blue mana, Jund has devolved into a roiling, primordial cesspit. Dragons top the food chain, at home in Jund's countless volcanoes. While dragons stalk the skies, humans, goblins, and the lizardfolk called viashino lie low in Jund's tar-spotted, vine-choked canyons.

Savage Lands, Flameblast Dragon, Mycoloth, and Sprouting Thrinax.

So get out here folks. Grab a friend, and both of you jump on this deal. Between the two of you, you will have access to a thriving little community of your own, rip with trade options, and mage battles to be had. Remember the options I have outlined above will give you the most bang for your buck, but any intro pack you pick up this weekend will give you a good deal. Buy packs if that's all they have, you will still have enough to begin playing. Hang out fro a while, you may just stumble on to a little community to help you get started. Trading is great, but hang on to your key cards until you understand how card values work. Ask about a Friday Night Magic, or a casual night, as both are great places to meet people and learn more about the game.