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Thursday, July 30, 2009

From the Wire to the Soapbox: 5-color at War?

That's right folks, the world of 5-color has recently been turned on it's ear through the unnatural act of civil war. Lines have been drawn, allegiances tested, shots have been fired! What we the community are left with now, is a virtual Mason-Dixon line breaking the community in two. Regardless of which side wins out, or if they choose to co-exist, we as a community are left to deal with the turmoil.

The folks at, have initiated change by upping the deck size to 300 cards (25 required of each color), and making great strides to open up the B&R lists. The group of have regrouped, and are working to revise their B&R list. Frankly, I'm not certain that there is a clear winner, or best choice, and there may never be. It may be that these groups find a way to co-exist, but one thing is clear. Both these groups still seem to be putting the cart before the horse.

Watching these two groups argue and fuss about the hows, whys, and whats of this recent rift is like watching two drunk Irishmen scrap over the last drop of beer. The fact is 5-color's relentless focus on the tournament community is exactly what has allowed the format, and it's community to dwindle and stagnate to the point we have now.

To the best of my knowledge, no player in the history of Magic, or any of it's formats has ever started playing by stumbling into an organized tournament. Even if such a thing were to occur, it would be so infrequent as to have a negligible impact on the growth and health of the community at large. Games, their formats, and their community at large, live and die through the casual play. Even Wizards has started figuring this out. It took them 15 years, and they still have not come full circle, but the idea has sparked, and the powers that be are making strides to adjust to these facts.

Until 5-color begins to make similar considerations, I fear that the community will suffer. You can't focus solely on tournament play, and then be all shocked and amazed when turn out is single digits for those tournaments. Imagine if you would a farmer who spent all his time constructing and perfecting his road side stand, with which to sell vegetables. When tourist season comes around, he suddenly realizes that he has nothing to sell, because he only focused on the stand. Of course this would never happen to a farmer, because they understand that fields have to put tended, and seeds planted, in order to have the desired harvest. When is 5-color going to figure this out? The law of Genesis applies, accept it, embrace it, and start building from the beginning, not solely focused on the end.

I got news for all my 5-color peeps out there. Those eight guys (or what ever), that turned out to your last tournament event is all you are ever likely to have unless you start cultivating a player base. Those eight guys would show up regardless of what you do to the rules, restrictions, or the B&R lists. They are the dedicated players, and you don't have to cater to them, and certainly not to the exclusion of all others. It is time to start making decisions to support a casual player base, because that is were tomorrows tournament interest will come from.

With this in mind, there is a few things which need to be taken into consideration as soon as possible. One, regardless of how decisions are going to be made, the casual players need to have a voice. We can't all travel to Michigan, Philadelphia, or outer-Mongolia, to stop by the latest tournament, in order to "validate" our selves as players. At the very least, TO's need to have a voice to organize, and report results for the format. It's not that people don't have anything to say, or that they don't know what they are talking about, it's that no one is listening long enough to make an intelligent determination about what is being said. As it is now, people are just summarily written off, input is discounted or ignored. Nothing changes, and the community and the format stagnates.

The second issue which needs immediate attention is the shoe-horned in ante rules of 5-color. Ante has to go for the good of the format. I know, the eight guys currently playing this at the "organized" tournament level, really like it, and it adds something to the game for them, but it is creating a huge barrier to entry for new players. The out dated concept of ante turns new players off cold, and there is no getting around that. Period. The outdated desires of this controlling minority can not be used to justify the loss of hundreds, if not thousands of new players which are deterred from this format any longer.

Lastly, on my soapbox for today, is the issue of the format split. Both of these now radically different formats continuing to refer to them selves as 5-color, is wrong, and will only foster confusion in new players, and contribute to a needless barrier to entry. One (or perhaps both) of these formats need to make a change. Somebody grow a pair, and step up for the good of the format, and make a change.

In conclusion, the recent rift has brought about a lot of turmoil for the community, but has not resolved many of the core issues deterring the growth of the format, and in some ways has created new ones. While the community is making changes, lets try to get on the ball, and make some changes that will have real positive impact for the community.

Magi's Guide to Repack Drafting

Repack Drafting originally finds it's inspiration from a conversation years ago. The topic was Final Exams at great schools of Wizardry, like Urza's own Tolarian Academy. The idea was that students would have participated in a draft exam with spells from through out the known multiverse. It also turns out that this offers a wonderful budget alternative to the drafting concept. The cost of a repack draft ends up being roughly the same cost as a new pack of retail product, but nets you a drafted collection of 45 cards.

Now because of these two factors, this draft environment becomes completely different than what most mages are used to. First off, Rare Drafting as a concept is out. Secondly, block drafting strategies are out the window too. There simply is not enough valuable cards, or single block cards to make either of these a viable option.

Beyond that, most of your general draft strategies will still apply. You want to keep most of your drafting to two colors. Draft decks of 3+ colors will require dedicated fixing in order to function consistently. Dedicated fixing can be hard to find in this format, since the majority of Magic's history has not focused on such things. Aligned colors will be easier to play, as they combine concepts more readily, and are supported by more cards in Magic's history. Enemy pairs will produce more powerful decks when constructed properly, but have seen fewer sets supporting these combinations thus far in Magic's history.

A number of old concepts will raise their heads in events like these. Banding actually becomes a playable ability, allowing it's controller to make very favorable blocks. Since this format is often ruled by small creatures, banding on a creature larger then 1/1, can be a real power piece in combat mathematics.

My personal MVP for the month of April (the last major repack month) was Wall of Spears. It's colorless casting cost makes this an ideal early pick, allowing the drafter time to read the color signals coming around. The combination of first strike, power of 2 and a relevant toughness of 3, make this a power house card that will hold the red zone amazingly well.

Now this brings up an interesting regarding repack drafts. Often cards are printed at different commonalty levels at different points in time. Wall of Spears has had five printing, 3 at common, and 2 at uncommon, so it is readily available, but how should it appear in packs? Most of the time cards will appear at the highest commonality for which they were printed. Wall of Spears for instance has so much impact as a common, that it truly warps the envirnment. One draft event in April featured a deck with two copies of Wall of Spears as a common, basicly giving it sure victory in any ground war. The deck only lost two games in the three round event. One loss was to a deck full of dedicated flyers, and the other was a loss to sideboarded in dedicated artifact removal.

The M10 rules revision have made deathtouch a far more relivant ability for creatures. Only 11 common creatures exist to date with deathtouch, and three additional non-creature commons make use of the key word. This will become more relevant to the format, as more creatures are printed with the ability.

This format like any other drafting format, is ruled by commons, and it's important to recognize a "bomb" common when it comes around. For instance did you know the two thirds of all the common creatures printed in magic have a power and or toughness of 2 or less. Yes really, 2/3rds! What this means is that a creature with a power and or toughness of 3 or more is a bomb in this format. So now the question is what colors will bring you more large creatures on average? The answer is not a surprise, Green.

Green currently sports 199+ creatures with toughness of 3 or more, and 170 with power of 3 or greater, and 25 of those have trample! After that comes (in order) Black, White, Red and Blue. It's also important to remember that one in three blue common creatures feature an evasive ability. This format is ruled by good common creatures, simply because good removal is so scarce.

Creatures with firststrike and a power of 2 also need to be given additional consideration, as they kill roughly 65% of all common creatures in the game. This point is well illustrated again by Wall of Spears. A force like that will not be denied in this format, and most be dealt with either by some form of limited removal, or multiple block situations. Many of these will leed to card advantage for you. There have only been arounf 50 creatures to sport this combination of attributes. All of them sould be considered carefully as a pick. Anaaba Bodyguard in particular is one to be on the look out for. It has been printed at common 3 times, one of which was in Homelands (arguably the most overprinted set inthe history of Magic). Since it has never been printed at any higher commonality, and may be one of the most printed commons in history, you are almost certain it will pop up in nearly any repack draft event. Be sure before you pass it, as it may be worth going/splashing red even late in the picking process.

The ability to interact with your opponent, or their board position, is the next important consideration in drafting. There is very little good removal to be found, and what there is most often is found in red and black. Artifact and Enchantment removal are pretty easy to come by, but tend to be less relevant. This makes artifact creatures a bit of a gamble, but some can be well worth it, like with Wall of Spears detailed above. My next article on repack drafting will focus on interactive cards, and other factors for consideration.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Grim Tidings #8.5: 5-Color Reborn!!!!

(Contributed by John Kozlowski)

Well that didn't take long! Within five short days, the 5-Color world has been shaken to its core, and a brand new format has been re-launched! All I can say is that I'm stunned. I truly thought the beuracracy of a Ruling Council would necessitate a vote and months of debate and inaction. Instead, Jeremy Bush, aka Zombor, aka 5CRC Chairman relaunches a new website with a new deck size, color requirements, and new B&R!

This will take a little bit of time to fully digest and figure out, but basically here's the new format rules:

Minimum deck size and color requirements:
300 cards minimum.
No more than four of any card (except basic lands). Banned and restricted lists do apply.
At least twenty five (25) cards of each color are required. Multicolored cards count toward any one of that card's colors.
Proxies are allowed for any number of cards in a deck.

Banned & Restricted (2009/7)
Banned (Only 9 cards!)

Battle of Wits
Bringer Of The Black Dawn
Holistic Wisdom
Insidious Dreams
Panoptic Mirror
Parallel Thoughts
Phyrexian Portal
Sundering Titan

Academy Rector
All Sun's Dawn
Ancestral Recall
Black Lotus
Chaos Orb
Crop Rotation
Crucible of Worlds
Cruel Tutor
Demonic Consultation
Demonic Tutor
Divining Witch
Enlightened Tutor
Eternal Witness
Gifts Ungiven (No longer banned!)
Grim Tutor
Hermit Druid
Imperial Seal (No longer banned!)
Intuition (No longer banned!)
Isochron Scepter
Library of Alexandria
Mana Crypt
Mana Vault
Merchant Scroll
Mox Crystal
Mox Emerald
Mox Jet
Mox Pearl
Mox Ruby
Mox Sapphire
Mystical Tutor (No longer banned!)
Nostalgic Dreams
Oath of Druids (No longer banned!)
Personal Tutor
Regrowth (Restricted again!)
Sol Ring
Strip Mine
Survival of the Fittest (No longer banned!)
Sylvan Scrying
Time Spiral
Time Vault
Time Walk (No longer banned!)
Tinker (No longer banned!)
Tolarian Academy
Transmute Artifact
Vampiric Tutor (No longer banned!)
Weathered Wayfarer
Wheel of Fortune
Wild Research (No longer banned!)
Yawgmoth's Bargain (No longer banned!)
Yawgmoth's Will (No longer banned!)

More to come soon, but needless to say, I'm pretty excited!

Friday, July 24, 2009

Grim Tidings #8: Highlander 5-Color (H5C)

(Contributed by John Kozlowski)

It’s no secret to anyone who knows me that 5-Color is my favorite magic format of all time. However it seems lately the format is in a moment of crisis, perhaps the greatest ever. 5-Color participation is waning, the B&R hasn’t been reviewed since January, and recently, the website has recently unexpectedly gone down.

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. There is a special Banned/Restricted list posted at but basically most cards are legal except for the Unglued/Unhinged expansions.

The format is governed by the 5-Color Ruling Council (5CRC), a group comprised of seven members spread regionally across the country. Their representation is supposed to voice the opinions of the players, based on local trends and tournaments results. Over the years, the 5CRC has actively shaped the format to be the “most electrifying format” in all of Magic.

A few members of the 5CRC are still pretty in touch with the format. They still organize events, and are in tune with what is unbalancing. But while 5C may be casually healthy here in North Carolina, national participation has me concerned. The official 5-color forums have been ominously quiet for the last two or three months, with little discussion or innovation of new cards and/or deck ideas. Some point to EDH as the reason for decline.

// EDH Rant
I interrupt this article for a quick little rant regarding EDH. Every year or so, I find myself re-engaged with EDH once again. And then a few months later, I can’t stand it. I always fall back to 5-Color in these situations. I think the format can tend to be degenerate, as the life totals are overly huge, to start, and the main combo piece of your deck is auto-tutored EVERY game, and auto-regrown EVERY time it destroyed. Games become a race to breaking your general, with predictable, boring results every game. While I understand EDH’s appeal, at the same time, I hate it. End rant. //

Meanwhile there are some scary comments being said. “If this is the end of 5-Color, so be it.” “The format is stagnant, I’ve moved on.” I’ve been wondering where the format was heading, and this doesn’t look good. Props to the 5CRC Chairman for stepping in and listening to ideas from (the few remaining) players to come up with ideas to save it. Suggestions to increase to 25 cards of each color, or loosening up the B&R list (Unbanning Time Walk, Yawgmoth’’s Will, Vampiric Tutor, & Oath of Druids, among others) are all being considered. Time will tell if they passed by a vote, but at least the 5CRC is doing something.

Casual versus Tournaments
Its too bad I don’t have the drive (or time) to organize 5-Color tournaments. It seems organized play is the only effective way to get a format legitimized. That’s too bad, for I think 5-Color has grown in popularity in Raleigh/Durham over the past few years, even if we are soley a casually-competitive community. There needs to be a happy-medium for the casual-competitive 5-Color crowd to keep playing the format in case the “official” format dies.

Highlander 5-Color (H5C)
I have a tentative solution – create another version of the format. What if 5-Color was required to be Highlander, just like EDH? This would mean ALL cards are restricted (other than basic land, of course). I would certainly make it more difficult for new players to get involved with the format, but is 5-Color really a beginner’s format anyways? (No.)

I essentially been playing H5C since 2005. The previous version of my Grim Reminder deck was 750 cards, and entirely highlander (except for the 35 Reminders, but since the deck was so big, no one ever seemed to notice!) However, my playing highlander was purely a voluntary decision. I was playing th eexact same set of rules standard 5C required. What I would like to do is officially establish Highlander 5-Color as a unique variant format, where highlander is mandatory.

In H5C, the games tend to always be different, due to the huge diversity on the deck contents. Since no card appears twice I think the dilution of deck contents would actually shrink the banned & restricted list too. In light of the current buzz about loosening up the B&R, we've been talking about what effect it will have locally. Obviously a H5C Restricted list would be moot, as everything is restricted anyways. The banned list is of more importance.

I'm blessed that I play in a very responsible gaming community. Most players I regularly face off against are thoughtful, and never forget that we are only playing a game. In an ideal world such as this, there really isn't a need for a banned list, as the community polices itself. Unfortunately, once you step outside these boundaries, you find differing definitions of what "fun" is, and B&R lists become a necessity to keep the peace!

Last week, a few of us sat down and reviewed the entire B&R. We discussed which currently banned cards would be blatantly unbalanced in our community, and the potential effect it would have on us if it were moved to “R”. Here’s a list of the current 5C banned cards:

All Ante cards
Battle of Wits
Bringer Of The Black Dawn
Crucible of Worlds
Demonic Consultation
Gifts Ungiven
Holistic Wisdom
Imperial Seal
Mystical Tutor
Oath of Druids
Panoptic Mirror
Parallel Thoughts
Phyrexian Portal
Sundering Titan
Survival of the Fittest
Time Walk
Vampiric Tutor
Wild Research
Yawgmoth's Bargain
Yawgmoth's Will

Note, there's not even this much on the Vintage (aka Type 1) banned list! The vintage list is essentially just the Ante cards. The only real difference is that 5-Color allows Chaos Orb & Falling Star, but I think there are sufficient existing 5C rules on how to resolve so I think they can stay. Plus they are fun!

As a player with real 5C tournament experience, I have an understanding of the historical development of the B&R, I experienced what transpired when players repeatedly recurred Time Walk however many years ago. I suffered (and abused) Tinker-Sundering Titan combo. I have used all of the 1 cmc tutors to cast Contract from Below four times in a single game.

Surprisingly though, as I explain this to my play group in terms of H5C, many players who were oblivious to all of this old crap are still open to moving the majority of the banned list to restricted. Note, many of these people don’t even own Time Walks (or even Yawg-Win for that matter!) They just thought it would be cool to play as many cards in the most open format out there. Except for Ante, Battle of Wits and Shahadrazad, there isn’t much objection to any of it. (Yet.)

So that leaves me with a casual-competitive mission statement, and a new format to develop. I’d like to start testing H5C out, and see where it evolves to. I’ll assemble a group of playtesters together to experiment with the entire H5C card pool. I have a feeling this may work. I need to think about it in depth, and seek feedback from other players. More to come next few weeks, for sure.
In the meantime, the 5CRC will continue to discuss the state of the format and see if it can be salvaged. But for now, I have an idea that might become the replacement for the casual-competitive crowd. It’s better to be proactive than inactive.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Budget Building: M2010 Additions

Up till this point my new, my new set budget article, has always focused on the Intro packs (and formerly the Preconstructed theme decks). Which one to get, and what you could do with it, what other cards you should pick up, and what to trade away out of it. I have not been shy over the last year when it came to expressing my general displeasure, and today will be no different. The M2010 theme decks stick firmly to the general trend of mediocrity in this product line. Each new release brings at most one of the intro packs worthy of consideration, while the others remain lack luster. My recommendation here is simple, if you are looking literally for your first product purchase, these are a great product that will give you a starting point, and instill a drive to expand your collection, and you will be fine picking up picking up what ever you can find, or is of particular interest to you. Otherwise, if you can get the White Intro Pack, you should. The cards included (looking at you Honor of the Pure) far exceed the the MSRP, and create an excellent value either for play or trade opportunities, all the others should be avoided by all but the newest players.

Since this would make for a remarkably short, and boring article, and in the interest of making the relevant to existing players, I have decided to examine the set from a budget perspective, and recommend certain cards for consideration in the budget collection. Since this is a budget perspective I am going to start by looking only at the un/commons, after all, if you want advise on rares and mythic cards, you probably can read one of the many other new set articles out there. In keeping with the budget perspective, I am only going to look at truly new cards. I am purposefully eliminating the reprints, and nearly functional reprints. Frankly you should already have what you want on these, and/or already know what is good.

My number one card from this perspective is Gogon Flail. This is a remarkable equipment, and a welcome addition to any limited deck. It gives the creature death touch, allowing it to have sudo-evasion under the new combat rules, and will make opponents think twice about swinging, even when they are other wise on the beats. Along with it's other colorless brothers Teramorphic Expanse, and Whispersilk Cloak it makes up much of the early pick MVP draft picks, and are nearly auto includes for any limited deck.

Next up is the collective strength of the Soldier class (clearly the strongest budget tribe in M2010), led by Rhox Pikemaster, and the Veteran commons. Elves may have more impact on constructed in the long run, but there is nothing new there, the budget player will be commanding soldiers. It is also relevant that these are strikingly absent from the White Intro Pack, and are any easy way to add focus and strength.

My third pick is a two way tie in the form of blue control. Wall of Frost lets you very effectively combat Time walk nearly any agro deck, while Sleep allows you to take the same combat time walk trick on the offensive, allowing you to swing into a nearly empty field multiple times off the one card. Control will lack focus this call when the collective crutch of Cyrptic Command rotates, but tools like this will make a more combat oriented control deck a real option.

In slot five is a well hyped white support card, Harms Way. I'm not certain this card will live up to all the press coverage it got pre-street date, but if it comes even close, you will be glad you picked them up early. Blue may be the color of control, but once again this spell dictates the difference between blue control, and white control. While a blue mage really needs 3 mana to ruin your day, the white mage only needs one. Playing around blue is an option, bu it is rare that you can play around a single white mana source. Harms way has a lot to compete with, against Path to Exile (also one mana), and Oblivion Ring as an answer package. I'd also like to give an honorable mention to Safe Passage, which may also add some thunder to white, if Soldiers have anything to say about it.

In the number six spot comes comes Windstorm. I know, it looks a lot like Hurricane, but it is strictly better (or at least significantly different), on two points. It's Instant speed, so it can be used as a combat trick, and it doesn't hit players, most importantly, you! On the down side, you can't use it as a finisher, but it's casting cost make sit highly splashable, and allowed it to edge out my number seven pick based solely on versatility.

Speaking of number seven, allow me to present Acidic Slime. It's a creature, it's removal, and it has death touch. I'm pretty sure it has been fluffing my pillow, and leaving me a chocolate at night also. This may be one of the most under rated uncommons in the set right now, simply because it can do so much.

In at number eight, is the non-elf creature, most likely to be seen accompanied by a swarm of little-green-men. No, not those, elves! Nothing says "Elves swing for lethal" like a Unicorn leading the charge, and flashing some horn. This is what Nath's Elite really wanted to be, without all the silly pretense. Why print lure, when you can just give it legs?

If you have been paying attention up to this point, you will realize that not a single black or red card, has popped up on the radar yet. That's right, these color are really lacking from this perspective. No redeeming value at all. All the good cards, are either out right reprints, or poorly masked functional reprints. Simply because I envisioned this as a top ten list, I am going to give the last two slots to Child of Night, because it's a vampire with Lifelink, and Burning Inquiry, because, well frankly, it's as close to imaginative as they got in red.

Now I couldn't leave an M10 budget article on M10, in good standing, without mentioning the new dual lands. They are rare, they are already expensive, but if you are planning on playing Standard over the course of the next year (and probably 2 years) I think you need to pick these up when you have the chance. I know $200.00 would be a lot to ask of a budget player, but this is the new mana base, and you should start investing in them as soon as possible. I see nothing driving these prices down at this time, and they are far more likely to go up. These are likely to be reprinted in M11, and we may even see the enemy pairs in that set too, only time will tell.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

First Level Magic: Learning the Rules

So you have taken the road of a Magic the Gathering player. Hopefully you have embraced my last article, and have begun making investments in the game, to provide yourself with the resources you will need. Now we take on what may be the biggest challenge to playing the game. Now you need to learn the rules.

The Comprehensive rules document, is a huge chunk of work. Containing not only everything thing you ever need to know about the hows and when, but also a tun of stuff you will probably never need to know. Learning the rules is going to represent a a significant investment of your time and intellect, but it isn't insurmountable task that it may first appear.

The trick is to start some place, and just move through it at your own pace. For some players this pace has taken months, years, or decades. In my opinion the best place to start is the rules guide that comes with product. My reasons here are simple, it prevents you from getting bogged down on things you won't put to use very often. So this begs the question "What do you need to know" ?

To be a magic player you at least need to understand the basic of the rules. No one expects you to pass your rules advisor test, or Judge Certification the first week, or to even know that there are such things, but other players will expect you to either understand, or quickly catch on to a few things. If you have note already done so, I recommend reading the basic rules.

1. Parts of the Turn, and when you can do different things. Untap, upkeep, draw, main1, combat, main2, end. The best source of information for this may be an insert which came with your first product purchase, the Floor Rules (section five). Magic the Gathering is a strategy game above all else, and one can not make good strategic decisions, with out understanding the timing of events.

2. Card Types, and what makes them different. Land, Creature, Sorcery, Instant, Enchantment, Planeswalker. Your rules insert, and basic rules will give you the fundamentals. Once you have this begin to expand you knowledge with use of the Floor Rules (section three).

3. How to read a card. Name, casting cost, type, effect, power/toughness etc. Here again, your rules insert, or basic rules can be used as a jumping off point, and the Floor Rules (section two) can be used to further sharpen your understanding.

4. Lastly, you need to understand what the card does. Obviously start by learning your own cards. It's one thing not to have heard of some older/obscure card you opponent plays, but not knowing how your own cards work is fairly in excusable. If you have cards you don't understand, try not to play them until you do. If your skills thus far, and the cards reminder text are not enough, try using one of the many card databases that exist on the web. Wizards of the Coasts own Gather is as close to canon as it gets. Be sure to understand that cards can change over time, so be sure to understand the Oracle rulings, so you are up to date. Once you know what your own cards do, begin to expand you card knowledge to other sets. You can always play around with Gather, and the Floor Rules (section 7-02), to learn about what ever cards, sets or abilities strike your fancy, but I recommend working through the cards with the following plan of attack. If you don't know what these terms mean, use Basic Rules (section four) for clarification.

A. Most recent Core Set (M2010 at the time of this writing, but is expected to change in October 2010).
B. Most recent Block (Currently Shards of Alara, Conflux, and Alara Reborn. Expected to change October 2009).
C. Standard card pool (Includes the above cards, plus the second most recent block).
D. Extended card pool (Includes all the above cards, plus the 5 next most recent blocks, and their associated core sets).
E. The Legacy/Vintage card pools. (Includes very nearly every Magic the Gathering card ever printed).

Hopefully you see how this plan of attack is intended to build on itself, preparing you for an ever increasing field of competitive/casual events. As you take on a new group or level of play, it is also important to be familiar with the banned and restricted lists for that level of play, but they only become really important if you are considering a competitive event.

Learning the rules is important, but it doesn't have to be a job, just invest your time and effort with purpose, and you will be surprised just how much you can learn and how quickly you understanding will build. Back in my day the complete rules was literally a tiny book, about the same size as a stack of 15 cards, and you carried it around in your pocket. Today, technology allows people to carry much more information around in a variety of convenient ways. Just find something that works for you. It is also important not to underestimate the value of your greatest learning resource, the people around you. If you don't have other Magic players around you, that is something we are going to have to change, and will be the next topic we take on in this series.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Grim Tidings #7: Casual-Competitive

(Contributed by John Kozlowski)
If you play long enough, you soon discover that there are a lot of different styles of Magic players out there. And when I say “style”, I don’t mean “skill level”. Rather, what I really mean is philosophy, or the players approach to the game. I believe there is a wide spectrum of philosophies, ranging from purely competitive at one end to purely casual on the other.

Competitive players are a pretty diverse bunch. Each player has their own scope of competitive play, and what they expect to achieve when they sit down. Some competitive players just go to FNMs, some try to win States/Regionals, while others travel around the country to participate in as many domestic and international PTQs as they can. They may be inspired by the glory of winning, or increasing their DCI rating, or actually making money in the Pro Tour. But in the purest sense, competitive players play to win.

Casual players on the other hand are equally diverse. Their game expectations still include winning, but they have other considerations too. While some purely casual players do go to FNMs, many only play pick-up games at the local gaming shop, while others just stay at home and play on their kitchen table. They may be inspired by the joy of socialization, or immersing themselves in the game’s fantasy metaphor, or a chance to just get away from the stress of every day life. In the purest sense though, casual players play for fun.

Yes, yes, yes, I know. Making broad classifications like this is always contentious. Everyone gets upset about statements like these because we all have our own opinions of who we think we are. Let me assure you, the point of this article isn’t to segregate all players into one category or the other. In fact, it’s to prove the opposite. That there is a middle ground that serves both ends of the spectrum. I like to call it Casual-Competitive.

Casual-Competitive is a hybrid of both elements. It is a style that encourage players to build the most imaginative decks, that use the broadest of card pools without (much) limitation. The players tend to have large collections, and have experience in understanding subtle card interactions. It encourages fun, creative, and themed decks. It strives to find synergies. I think it the highest level of deck building, focusing on quality, rather than effectiveness.

In a sense, Casual-Competitive is akin to “Taking it to the next level”. Good Casual-Competitive players understand the rules, and are aware of the various global effects and threats that they face randomly each and every game. Through this adversity, they can analyze and adjust their game play to maneuver through the difficulty and succeed.

But it’s more about deck construction than just being a good player. Every format has Tier 1 decks. The Casual-Competitive player doesn’t play Tier-1 decks. His deck is excellent, but it is not net-decked. Rather, it focuses on theme first, instead of efficiency, and then scours all of the available resources to take the theme to the next level.

It Sure Isn’t Casual…
In no way do I claim that the Casual-Competitive style is “casual”. In my opinion, casual play is a way to socialize relax, and have fun. The technical mechanics of the game aren’t nearly as important as the experience you have doing it. You will still have fun while playing a Casual-Competitive style, but the quality of deck construction and complexity push it far beyond casual terms.

…but It Isn’t Really Competitive Either
I think this style is closer to being competitive that I give it credit for. The depth of the card pool tends to makes each card choice optimal. (Example: why would anyone choose Counsel of Soratami to draw 2 cards if Mulldrifter was available as well?) Unfortunately, as the casual-competitive theme crystallizes, the efficiency and power drifts away from Tier-1 status.

Many Casual-Competitive players I know voluntarily agree to limitations when building their decks. Self-imposed Highlander/Singleton restrictions force these players to research four times deeper than they normally would if the standard deck construction conventions were used. Simultaneously, I see a trend lately of using big decks, well over 60 cards. Popular formats such as EDH and 5-Color challenge Casual-Competitive players to build more complex decks (while maintaining reliable consistency) while giving players more opportunities to express their cleverness.

What happens is that while the card choices are optimal, the deck itself is not optimized. A streamlined 60-card deck that uses four-ofs of only the best cards is reliably consistent. Using an assortment of one-ofs and/or increasing the deck size dilutes the efficiency, but simultaneously makes each game different and more challenging.

Maybe Casual-Competitive needs a mission statement to help define it:
“I am Casual-Competitive. I endeavor to build creative, thoughtful, quality decks, that both myself and my opponent to be entertained by. I want my cards to be optimal, but I don’t necessarily want my deck to be optimized. I always want to win, but I don’t necessarily need a tournament setting to do it.”

The side effect of the Casual-Competitive style is that sometimes the cards can become so degenerate that its detrimental to the game experience. No one really wants to be facing down a turn 3 Braids, Cabal Minion, nor do they want to be on the wrong side of Erayo, Soratami Ascendant, or locked behind a infinite Panoptic Mirror combo. So how do you draw the line to still keep the game casual?

The answer is fairly simple actually: Don’t be a dick. If you abide by this rule, hopefully everyone in your play group will comply as well. (And if they don’t, perhaps you need to find a better play group!) This is a game afterall, and it is meant to be fun. DBAD is a gentleman’s rule, and it can’t really be enforced. All I say is Don’t do it, and don’t encourage others to do it either.

Example – Hurricane Swans
Last year, I tried desperately to build a Casual-Competitive deck with Swans of Bryn Argol. I tried virtually every color combination until I settled in on UG. In the meantime, the Standard environment perfected the Seismic Assault combo (as later improved it with Cascade!). I however didn’t want to merely mimic the combo deck. Instead I wanted a Swans deck that was unique and interesting, and capable of quick establishment in a duel, and sustained resilience in a multiplayer game.

Here is the final version of my Casual-Competitive decklist:

4 Swans of Bryn Argoll
4 Wall of Roots
3 Razormane Masticore
3 Silklash Spider
2 Venser, Shaper Savant

4 Hurricane
3 Reins of Power
3 Loxodon Warhammer
2 Spitting Image
2 Iron Maiden
2 Krosan Grip
2 Psionic Blast
2 Snakeform

6 Snow Covered Island
6 Snow Covered Forest
3 Yavimaya Coast
3 Mouth of Ronom
3 Flooded Grove
2 Desert
1 Scrying Sheets

Here’s basically how it works: In your early turns, you will establish a defensive line with Wall of Roots, while concurrently ramping up to four mana for the Swans. Hide behind the Swans until you cast can Silklash Spider (another solid defender) or Hurricane. As a result, you will end up damaging your own Swans to draw more cards. Razormane Masticore feeds itself in the upkeep when you target Swans. If your opponent chooses to attack into your 4/3 flier, let them draw the cards and feel the effects of the Iron Maiden. Or if they start swarming you, exchange creatures with Reins of Power, and attack into your own Swans. You’ll draw the cards and hopefully kill off their creatures in the process.

This decklist qualifies as Casual-Competitive. It exceeds a casual deck, because it is far more than just a pile of cards that just happens to include 4 Swans. It is packed with many creative tricks that synergize with Swans ability in multiple ways, both defensively and offensively. It’s somewhat competitive, but would never be seriously viable in a tournament.

Like-Minded Individuals
What’s unfortunate, is that you can’t just randomly show up at casual night at your local gaming store and expect to find a plethora of Casual-Competitive players. What you will find is a sea of people there, with skill levels ranging from the Intro-pack beginner, to tournament-caliber T8 finisher. That’s fine, everyone can get what they want to out of Magic.

But you need to understand that these players are going to bring their deck that matches there philosophy too. When you play your Casual-Competitive deck against the beginner, you will stomp him pretty handily. The beginner’s card pool is far too weak to compete with a tuned Casual-Competitive deck, so you will either have to lower your standard and play something similar, or just avoid him.

Likewise, the Tier 1 Competitive player can (and probably will) probably roll right over you too. Sure occasionally you will win a game or two, but unless you enjoy getting beat down game after game with Tier 1 aggro/control/combo, look for someone else.

If you want to get the most of your gaming time, you need to develop your community. That will mean playing with many people, and observing their style. When you come across a like-minded player who builds Casual-Competitive decks too, recruit him to play again.

I’ve lived in four states and played Magic in every one of them since Magic started in 1993. Here. I’ve encountered many players that I remember fondly whom I would include in this great Casual-Competitive crowd.

While in Bloomington Indiana, I fondly remember playing Will L., whose creativity always amazed me. Will was shrewd and crafty, and always seemed to get the most out of his artifacts, counterspells, and Humility. Those afternoons we spent at the IU Memorial Union ceratinly were the glory days!

While in Toledo, Ohio , I had the pleasure of joining Abe S. in his Magic Nights. I gladly made the weekly commute to Ypsilanti Michigan so I could share in the fun against Abe’s Deck of Happiness and Joy, as well as well as his nearly famous Equinaut machine.

Simultaneously, I met Aaron B. in Ypsi. Aaron maintains the 5-Color Essentials decklist, as well as the Almost Essentials, which still inspire me to this day. I still refer to him and his decklists for advice and feedback. He is in Korea now, but I maintain my friendship with him overseas.

Now that I’m in NC, I’ve found a new group of players that live up to the Casual-Competitive mantra. Mike L. regularly pushes the limits of competitive creativity, and his table defining/warping 100-card pseudo-highlander Oath of Druids deck is no exception! It’s not often that you see all seven people sitting in a group game actually request and cheer for their opponent’s deck selection!

My final props go out to Kenny A., whose ability to build clever theme decks always delights me. Kenny has a refreshing approach to deck building, combining current and older cards into decks that are unique and fun to play against. His knack for finding dusty old enchantments (and everything that could possibly synergize with them) regularly surprise me.

There are countless other people I’ve had the pleasure of playing against too throughout the years, but these five certainly rank highly, and I won't forget. Thanks for all of the good times!

Monday, July 6, 2009

Grim Tidings #6: The Top Ten from M-10 for 5-Color

(Contributed by John Kozlowski)

Its that wonderful time again when every Magic author writes their obligatory review of the upcoming expansion set. I’m no different, but rather than expound upon why the majority of the crappy rares aren’t going to be included in your deck, I’ll just do a Top Ten list of the good cards that might make an impact on 5-Color.

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 link, but basically All cards are legal, except for the Unglued/Unhinged expansions, and the is a special Banned/Restricted list specific to this format. Highlander is optional, but extremely fun.

Its obvious that there are a lot of great cards in M-10 (such as Silence, Elvish Archdruid, and Goblin Cheiftain) that are going to make an impact on Standard. I won’t even mention them other than this paragraph. Isochron Scepter is restricted, and the nature of a 250 card deck makes tribal decks very difficult to consistently work amongst all five colors. Besides, everyone else will talk about them, so why should I waste my time?

I’m also going to exclude all of the reprints, because they were already available ito us n the 5-color card pool, and they are nothing new. Instead, I’ll only talk about new cards that are particularly relevant to this format. Let’s get started!

#10 - Magma Phoenix - 3RR
Creature - Phoenix (Rare)
Flying. When Magma Phoenix is put into a graveyard from the battlefield, it deals 3 damage to each creature and each player. 3RR: Return Magma Phoenix from your graveyard to your hand. 3/3.

I would feel bad if I wrote a 5-color article and didn’t mention at least one card from each of the colors. The flavor problem with Red is that it is so impulsive and chaotic that the cards tend to be too much for a 5-color deck to handle. As a result, Red is often minimized in 5-color, because there is so much other better stuff available in the other four colors. Nonetheless, I chose Magma Phoenix as the #10 card just to get Red in the countdown. I admit its really not that great, but it does have built-in recursion AND a board sweeping effect for control, bit of which are useful in 5-color games. Plus it’s a Phoenix, a cool creature type I’ve always thought was representative of Red.

#9 - Gorgon Flail – 2
Artifact - Equipment (Uncommon)
Equipped creature gets +1/+1 and has deathtouch. Equip 2.

As mentioned a few weeks ago, I think Deathtouch might become the next “super-ability” for its unique ability to circumvent the new ordered blocking rule in M-10. The Gorgon Flail might not be better than Quietus Spike, but it is cheaper, and provides another way to exploit the rules revisions. It may prove itself worthwhile over time.

#8 - Lurking Predators - 4GG
Enchantment (Rare)
Whenever an opponent casts a spell, reveal the top card of your library. If it's a creature card, put it onto the battlefield. Otherwise, you may put that card on the bottom of your library.

This card seems pretty interesting. I suppose I tend to play my 5-Color decks in multiplayer games more often than not though, so Lurking predators is probably better in my eyes than it actually is. With that in mind though, the ability to “cheat” big creatures into play for free might put this card in the same ranks as other similar enchantments, such as Wild Pair. Anytime you can get something for nothing, it’s worthwhile to consider.

#7 - Harm's Way – W
Instant (Uncommon)
The next 2 damage that a source of your choice would deal to you or a permanent you control this turn is dealt to target creature or player instead.

White Shock! Harm’s Way though is different than Shock though, because it has the potential to produce some clever form of card advantage when you use it. Cast it in response to blockers, redirect 2 damage to the attacker. If your opponent casts Lightning Bolt on your Scuttlemutt, redirect 2/3 of it back to his Wayfarer. There are many obvious uses for this card. What makes it better is that you can target a player with the redirection just in case there isn’t a valid creature target in play.

#6.1 through 6.5 - Drowned Catacomb, et al.
Land (Rare)
Drowned Catacomb enters the battlefield tapped unless you control a Island or Swamp. TAP: Add U or B to your mana pool.

I’ll include the entire cycle of M-10 dual lands in this slot since they are all essentially the same. When analyzing new cards in the 5-color, you must compare it to all other existing cards in the history of the game, which is sets a pretty high standard to match up to. Obviously the M-10 lands aren’t as good as the original Beta dual lands, nor are they as good as the Shock lands from Ravnica block. Are they better than the Shandowmoor block cycle of Hybrid-lands? I don’t think so, but they might be next in line.

The problem in 5-Color is that in your typical 90 land manabase, you have so many non-basics which dilute your chances of playing the M-10 lands untapped. Compile that with the need to have access to all five colors, and your chances of having one of your seven Islands in play on Turn 1 when you want to play your Drowned Catacombs on Turn 2 are less.

The M-10 lands are certainly respectable, but you need to consider how many of each corresponding basic land are in your deck to determine if they would be any better than Salt Marsh cycle the from Invasion.

#5 - Planar Cleansing - 3WWW
Sorcery (Rare)
Destroy all nonland permanents.

Anytime a new set comes out, I always look for the next incarnation of Wrath of God. There always seems to be a creature sweeper in some form or another, and M-10 is no different. Planar Cleansing is actually more similar to Akroma’s Vengeance than Wrath, but the purpose is the same. It will probably see some play, but the triple WWW in the casting cost might prevent it from being used in non-white heavy decks.

#4 - Baneslayer Angel - 3WW
Creature - Angel (Mythic Rare)
Flying, first strike, lifelink, protection from Demons and from Dragons. 5/5.

The power curve seems to continually get better and better. When the original Beta set came out, 3WW would get you a 4/4 flying, vigilance, angel. Now for the exact same cost you get a 5/5 with five abilities! What a difference 15 years makes. Granted the two protection abilities are pretty narrow, but flying, first strike & lifelink are top notch. I expect this versatile beatstick to be seen in many 5-color deck for years to come. Nice artwork too, I can't wait to see it foil!

#3 - Sphinx Ambassador - 5UU
Creature - Sphinx (Mythic Rare)
Flying. Whenever Sphinx Ambassador deals combat damage to a player, search that player’s library for a card, then that player names a card. If you searched for a creature card that isn’t the named card, you may put it onto the battlefield under your control. Then that player shuffles his or her library. 5/5.

Wow! What an original idea! I like it! (I’d rank it higher if it didn’t cost seven mana.) Regardless, I really like its ability, because in 5-color, you really cant predict what you are stealing because you will have so many choices to choose from. I don’t recommend getting Darksteel Colossus the first time, every time, though. You’ll have to play some mind games with your opponent first to throw him off-guard. Perhaps choose some utility first, like Shirekmaw. Then confuse him with random jank like Guardian of the Guildpact. Then go for the Darksteel Colossus! Keep it interesting, and you’ll have him guessing incorrectly all game. What fun!

#2 - Acidic Slime - 3GG
Creature - Ooze (Uncommon)
Deathtouch. When Acidic Slime enters the battlefield, destroy target artifact, enchantment, or land. 2/2.

Creeping Mold reborn! This is a pretty potent card, and well deserving of my #2 slot. It provides an option of a disenchant effect or land destruction, which is actually pretty useful in 5-Color when you are trying to get past a Maze of Ith or Academy Ruins. It has a Deathtouch ability, which I feel is the best new ability in M-10. Plus since its only 2/2, it is recursive with Reveillark. I admit it’s a little pricy at 3GG, but overall the abilities should make up for the cost. In this case, you do get what you pay for.

#1 - Cemetery Reaper - 1BB
Creature - Zombie (Rare)
Other Zombie creatures you control get +1/+1. 2B, TAP: Exile target creature card from a graveyard. Put a 2/2 black Zombie creature token onto the battlefield. 2/2.

I said before tribal decks are pretty tough to play in 5-color, mostly because most tribes don’t have representative creatures in all five colors. Cemetery Reaper is no different. Other than a few multicolor zombies, you’ll have a hard time finding enough good zombies outside of Black. So why is this card #1 then? The answer: Versatility.

Cemetery Reaper seriously disrupts graveyard manipulation. In response to Dredge, or Reveillark, or Eternal Witness, or Recurring Nightmare, you can repeatably target and remove problem cards before they are regrown. Similar to Nezumi Graverobber, this ability is a very useful tool in 5-color, where the graveyard is frequently exploited.

Secondly, it makes Zombies. Not only is useful when you need to chump block a few turns until you top deck an answer, it makes creatures that over time that will attack and kill you opponent. Note the tokens are Zombies, so they benefit from the Reaper's first ability actually making them 3/3!

Cemetery Reaper combines elements of Control, Defense, Offense, and Card Advantage into a neat efficient package, making it very attractive for 5-Color decks. Not bad for three mana. I think I will find a place for this “gem” in my First Reminder deck very, very soon.

(Then again, I suck and my deck is junk.)