Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Grim Tidings #15 - Digging Deeper in Highlander 5C

(Contributed by John Kozlowski)

It’s hard to believe that playing a 300 card 5-Color highlander deck can get boring sometimes. I’ve been playing my current incarnation of “First Reminder” now for about a year and a half. I’ve had a few side projects to fool around with, but the main deck endures. When you have 300 of the best cards ever printed at your disposal, what more could you ever need?

Let me point out, every game is still different, but in my unique play group where everyone seems to play their own concoction of the best 300 card highlander deck, patterns develop. What has happened is that the card pool has become established, and a result, stagnant. With six excellent casual-competitive minds working against each other week in, week out, we all seem to come to the same conclusions.

Kokusho is good. Body Double is good. Akroma is good. Even brand new cards like Rite of Replication become a 5C staple, literally overnight. The highlander nature of the big deck dilutes the repetition of bombs like these, but given enough games, card draw, and tutoring, it seems the same cards always appear in most every game. Sure everyone has their own pet cards, but overall, the best of the best is generally already known.

Almost Essentials
This effect isn’t unique to my North Carolina play group either. The same problems occurred in Michigan when I played in Ypsilanti. During that time I became familiar with “The Essentials” a famous H5C deck list is regularly maintained and updated to only include the best of the best cards. Unfortunately, the same repetition happened there too, as it doesn’t take long to figure out the neat tricks to make a big deck work. (Technically, the concept of First Reminder is a copy-cat of The Essentials, because it was so fun to play with and against.)

My good friend Aaron Balogh mitigated the problem in Michigan with a daring yet very simple solution: Maintain a second highlander list. Back then it was a little easier, as the deck size was still only 250 cards. Aaron only needed to identify 500 totals card cards that were optimal and synergistic together. The idea took hold, and “The Almost Essentials” was assembled for casual greatness.

Aaron was extremely generous and frequently loaned his decks out to whoever might be playing that night and wanted to give 5-Color a try. I think he enjoyed both versions of Essentials equally well, so it didn’t really matter which one he piloted. In fact, I think on top of these two decks, he had a third or a fourth that he could rotate between to keep it even livelier. What great times those were.

Fast forward four or five years to late 2008, right before the release of Shards of Alara. In the spirit of “Almost Essentials”, I attempt to create a second deck list to complement my “First Reminder”. Again, I copy the techniques I learned in Michigan, and build another unique highlander deck. The experiment fails, as I become distracted with an Enchantress subtheme, and convert the deck into my Banty-Enchanty deck list for almost the next year.

Banty-Enchanty became degenerate over time, as the exalted Bant aspect was replaced with a hardcore enchantress combo when the 5-Color BDFL unbanned Wild Research, Replenish and Survival of the Fittest. Talk about newfound consistency! Wow! And I thought 5C was supposed to be a casual format!

Predictably, I grew tired quickly and pushed it off to the side for a new idea.

Second Second Reminder
It was time to start digging deeper to find something more interesting to do with my Magic hobby. The Zendikar spoilers had begun right when all of this transpired, so my creative juices for new deck ideas were really flowing. There are lots of worthy ZEN cards that should be examined, plus literally thousands of other decent older cards that were long forgotten in my collection binders. The long search for the next 300 had begun.

This task in no way is complete, but I now have a deck put together (finally) and it seems to work. So far I’m having a lot of fun playing on it, and I’m learning more each time I play it. Perhaps in a few weeks when I’m more comfortable with it, I’ll post the entire list for your enjoyment, but for now, I’ll just highlight a few hidden treasures that I’ve become particularly enamored with in the past few weeks. Maybe these will give you new ideas to enhance your 5C or EDH games in the future:

I originally selected 8 ½ primarily as an alternate to Mother of Runes. But after playtesting, I’m seriously wondering if 8 ½ will outright replace ‘Mommy’ in First Reminder. Although it’s far more mana intensive than its predecessor, 8 ½ creates lots of headaches for your opponent. Because it can turn any permanent (or spell) white, you now have amazing versatility to circumvent a variety of difficult obstacles such as Maze of Ith and Tawnos’s Coffin (as well as common Lightning Bolts or Swords to Plowshares). Plus it doesn’t tap 8 ½, so you can use it multiple times in the same turn. I believe 8 ½ is on par with Glory, and on the verge of 5C greatness.

Sphinx of Jwar Isle
Simic Sky Swallower has always been highly regarded. Its enormous 6/6 body, complemented with flying and shroud make it nigh impossible to deal with outside of Wrath of God. Only its converted mana cost of 7 held it back from regular use in First Reminder. With the Sphinx of Jwar Isle though, we have Sky Swallower v2.0. It’s cheaper, has the same key abilities (less trample) with only a slightly smaller body.

Fleshbag Marauder
Through EDH, I’ve learned that Fleshbag Marauder is an excellent alternative to Nekrataal. Most often, there are only one or two creatures in play from each play anyways, so you’re likely to get what you’re trying to kill. What’s nice about it is that it doesn’t target, and it’s a sacrifice effect, (so there’s no coming back!) It’s proportionally stronger in multiplayer games where you get multiple creatures for a meager 2B.

Soltari Guerrillas
I’ve always been aware of Soltari Guerrillas, but for some reason it never made the cut. That may change though, as the past few times I’ve cast it, it has really worked out, far into my favor. Its shadow ability essentially makes it unblockable amongst the creature diversity of all of the legal expansions, so when you need it to damage your opponent its there for you. Its redirection ability puts it over the top, being able to generate (at the minimum) a free lightning bolt to pick off troublesome creatures that might be annoying you. If you haven’t been exposed to Soltari Guerrillas, I think you are really missing out on a true hidden treasure.

Sylvok Explorer
Akin to Birds of Paradise, or Utopia Tree, or Gemhide Sliver, Sylvok Explorer is next in line of green mana fixers that produce any color. (Remember, you’re opponent is playing 5C too.) Originally printed in Fifth Dawn, once you realize that this card is equivalent to Fellwar Stone on legs, you find it’s a pretty decent for a common.

Citanul Flute
According to Aaron Balogh, this card used to be an Essential, but it was demoted because of the heavy mana investment you need each turn to activate it. That may be true if you are repeatedly tutoring out 6 cmc beaters each turn, but if you reserve the Flute for cheap utility creatures like Ukatabi Orangutan or Goblin Ruinmaster, you’ll find that you are not completely tapping out to use its effect. Save it for your opponent’s EOT so you can pin point exactly what you need when you need it.

Winding Canyons
The only thing that is not unique between the two decks is 4x Grim Reminders, and the core manabase. I cheated and duplicated the 40-card backbone of the land-base, comprised of dual lands, Ravnica lands, Hybrid lands, and Fetches (This technique was also stolen from Almost Essentials – after all when you’re playing for fun, who really wants to be mana screwed?) That still left me with about 70 new lands to choose from to round it out.

My final spotlight is an obscure land from Weatherlight: Winding Canyons. It’s relatively insignificant, but does allow defensive combat surprises when you flash in a blocker or 187 creature when you need it. Other added benefits of this unique land is that it doesn’t enter the battlefield tapped, an anomaly in today’s modern land design.

The next part of this article will be posting the Second Reminder decklist. At least it may give you some ideas for other alternate cards to use in your primary 5C or EDH deck, or inspire your second deck as well. Regardless, I'll save my broad conclusions for hen. Adios!

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Backpackers Guide to Zendikar

I've been a long time backpacker, and really have enjoyed the many opportunities to travel the multiverse in this manner. You just havn't lived until you spend the night on the streets of Ravnica, tried to find a soft spot to take you boots off on Mirodin, or seen the water falls of Kamigawa. The most challenging multiverse backpacking trip I've taken to date would hands down be Zendikar. I do know several folks who had a mind to set out and explore places like Phyrexia, or Grixis, but I never really heard much about their trip.

First off, this is not a trip you are going to want to take alone, you simply must bring along some allies. When selecting your company, be sure to give it some thought. While the Survivalists from Oran-Rief are sure to have anything you may have forgoten, the Sell-Swords from Nimana just don't bring as much to the party. The Berserkers from the Highlands are great around the campfire, full of songs and ale, but the Bards of Joraga are sure to keep you up all night. A Master of Blades is ever vigilant, and quick on the draw in a fight. Clerics are always a welcome addition to any party, and Archers are nice for taking down wild game while on the move. The Grunts from Tuktuk stink to high heaven, but they do keep the party moving along. Diabolists tend to be a little dark, but really keep dangers at bay. Pyromancers are a nice addition, but should not be left in charge of the cooking, or everything will be overcooked. Rangers make great scouts, but can be hard to find, so be sure to contract with your guide well in advance.

Now that you have your party selected, it's time to give some consideration to your Adventuring Gear. Your backpack should be selected with great care, as you will be (hopefully) living out of for some time. There is just no substitute for a Trusty Machete, but a smaller folding nice is also a great thing to have. A good set of Boots allow you to walk those hard to find trails, and Blazing Torches can be put to a number of good uses. An Expedition Map, and Explorer Scope are really required to see the most of the lands you explore, and you will get twice as much out of your trip with a good Grappling Hook, as many places are otherwise not accessable.

Remember that the success of your trip is often determined before you even leave home, so pick your companions, and gear wisely, else you may end up on the Carnage Altar!

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Travel Division: Visit Jund

Aegis Holdings is proud to announce our latest extra-planar Casino Resort Community, in the exciting Jund district of Alara.

Folks this is absolutely the place to be if you are staying the weekend at our 5-star luxury resort, planning an eternity in one of our award winning condos, or just spending the evening on the casino floor, one of our fantastic restaurants, or taking in any of our heart stopping shows! Service is always our goal, with the largest goblin house staff in Alara, boasting a two to one guest ratio.

That’s right folks- the Maelstrom Pulse of this city unto itself, never sleeps. It has something for everyone 28 hours a day!

Our Resort and Condo towers feature spectacular views of the Dragonskull Summitt, daily tours of the Rootbound Crag, leaving every two hours, Shuttle service to the Verdant Catacombs available on request, and don’t forget to book your tee time with the Savage Lands 36 hole golf complex.

The kids will love our petting zoo, featuring wildlife from all over Alara, and recently added Putrid Leeches. Plated Geopede rides, available from 12-4 every afternoon.

The shopper in your party will find anything they want on the Jund Panarama level, with dozens of shops bringing the multiverse to you.

Check out the Bloodbraid Review nightly at 7 and 11, where there is always a surprise for the audience, and no two shows are ever the same. See it again and again, and it always feels like the first time. This show never fails to get a Resounding Thunder of applause from the audience, and praise from the critics.

The Sarkan Val celebrity restaurant features a variety of premium menu options, or the 28 hour buffet option, with taste varieties that you won’t find on Ravnica. No matter how you choose to devour it, no trip to Jund would be complete without trying one of the roast Thrinax entrees (that always comes with your choice of 3 sides). Don’t forget to save room for our award winning desserts, made fresh each day in Bantian style. They are Pyroclasmic!

So come by today, and get your piece of Jund! Don’t forget to ask for the Broodmate special package, and have a friend stay for no additional charge. You’re sure to have a Bituminous Blast!

Friday, October 9, 2009

Budget Building: A Look at Uncommon Rotations

The Fall of each Magic year is really one of the most interesting times of the Magic season. The new Fall set brings about the rotation, with many cards slipping into Extended, Block consideration ends for another group, and a brand new set bounces into consideration. All of this change really brings a lot of opportunity for a Budget Builder to pick up significant cards on the cheap.


Lets start buy looking at the cards exiting Standard. Lorwyn truly had one of the most exceptional collections of uncommons to come along in years. I'd have to reach all the way back to Urza's, to find a block with so much value to be had. The M10 release also pushed Xth edition core set into Extended, although it will rotate with the Timespiral super block in the future.

To start things off, lets talk about the lands leaving Standard. Nothing helps a casual/budget builder more then a good land base, and nothing is easier to overlook in favor of flashier spells and creatures. The Vivid lands represent uncommon versatility in a land which is truly unprecidented. These lands are not expected to have the same impact in the competitive Extended field as they did in Standard. Values on these are down 50% from their Standard highs. Pick these up now if you don't already have your playsets. These will be more relevant in future extended seasons, so don't miss out on the bargains. Similarly the "man-lands" of Xth are rotating, and Faerie Conclave and Treetop Village should be part of any casual/budget collection, along with any other non-essential man-land, which appeals to your play style or color choices.

It should come as no surprise that Lorwyn was a tribal block, and many tribes got real boosts, that should be considered for the budget minded player. Kithkin/Tokens may well see play for years in Extended, Casual, and who knows what other formats. Be sure to pick up these cards before they become hard to find. Also take a good look at any other kithkin which you may need to fill out your tribal deck. Kithkin hadn't really been seen since Legends, and it may be some time before significant numbers are printed again.

Burrentun Forge-Tender

Cloudgoat Ranger

Goldmeadow Stalwart

Knight of the Meadowgrain

Spectral Procession

Wizened Cenn

Merfolk got a long awaited, and much needed boost during the Lorwyn block. While many of the cards/decks never really took off, Curse Catcher, and Merrow Reejery are not to be missed. Fish is still a significant deck, even in eternal formats, and these two gems fit right in to many builds.

Elves were a very significant tribe over the last couple of years. The bad news is everyone knows it, and few of the cards have dropped in price. I think the possible sleepers here are Elvish Promenade, and Wren's Run Vanquisher. I'd snap these up, before supply becomes an issue, just in case. WRV is so above the curve, and has death touch, it's hard to believe that a casual/budget player will regret picking them up.

Shadowmoor's "color matters" blunder, did bring about a number a uniquely powerful and versatile cards, which are sure to see play for years to come;

Boggart Ram-Gang


Flame Javelin

Gutteral Responce

Kitchen Finks

Murderous Redcap

Last up in this group I'd like to shine the spot light on Condemn. White has been given a lot of love in the removal department in Standard the last year or so, and this card has fallen out of favor because of it. It's just as good as it ever was, and has a much higher chance to see reprint into future Standard, then many of the contemporary darlings. Even it it doesn't it's a great card in it's own right, and deserves a spot in more collections.

Shards Rotation (yes includes M10)

There are so many chase uncommons in Shards right now, as the world is still trying to figure out what will be good in the new Standard. I really want to only talk about the cream of the crop, the ones most likely to hold or go up in value as the format shakes out.

Anthemancer- this card is not done yet, one stupid good land in either of the next 3 sets, and it's a star again.

Ancient Zigguret- just what (2+ color) aggro decks need for fixing, they just haven't figured it out yet.

Tri-Lands- these are better then the new uncommon "healing" lands in Zendikar, and I think they will remain so for most decks until Shards rotates out of Standard a year from now.

Bloodbraid Elf- I read card advantage is good, discuss.

Elite Vanguard- Above the curve, and an increasingly relevant creature type. Seems good.

Harms Way- One of the most forward thinking White spells we have seen since Revilark. My guess is it's a little over powered for an uncommon.

Lorescale Coatl- Just waiting on a deck. Enemy fetchlands are going to lead to that deck.

Overrun- does this card ever get old? Giant growth and trample for the team means win, else you are doing it wrong.

Path to Exile- If you don't know why this card is good, then I really don't know why you are reading this article.

Pyroclasm- clearing the board for big beaters since Iceage!


This is a new set, and is pretty untested at this point, so most of these may seem obvious, which is all the more reason not to miss out. GateKeeper of Malakir reminds me a lot of Shreikmaw, which was really good. This is much easier to cast, but requires a bit more dedication to black mana. There really is no down side to being hard black at this point, so this will see play. Kazandu Blademaster is the new Knight of the Meadowgrain, how it will shake out remains to be seen, but it has huge potential, and is a must take in draft, so they will be chase for some time. Vampire Hexmage says "sorry" to so many things right now from planeswalkers, to quests, accensions, and even roided out creatures. We have not even seen all the good things this can do. Don't be surprised if she starts popping up in other formats too. I recently read where Vampire Nighthawk was described as Akroma's little Goth cousin, and I think they are so right. It's not Akroma, but it comes close. This will become the "why aren't you playing this" for black Standard for the next two years.

I also wanted to take a minute to talk about Harrow, and Hideous End. I know they are commons, but these may be relevant enough to pay attention to them. Make sure you have all you want, because if any commons become hard to find, it will be these.

There are a lot of other cards which were almost talked about, so don't be surprised if you want to add a few more things to your shopping list. Follow your instincts, because no one knows how you play better then you do, but think long and hard before you pass on these items.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Grim Tidings #14 - Zendikar & 5-Color

(Contributed by John Kozlowski)
Yay! I get to write another crappy article which ranks the tops cards from such-and-such expansion for this-or-that format! I agree, these list articles get boring really quick, because everyone writes about the same cards over and over again. I’ll try to keep it interesting by only talking about the crème de la crème for casual-competitive 5-Color. (Dripping sarcasm thrown in for free!)

5-color Magic is a format that requires you to build a deck of at least 250 cards, with a minimum of 25 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 5C is optional, but extremely fun. That’s how I like to play.

Zendikar Mechanics
Zendikar introduces a few new mechanics and themes to us: Landfall, Allies, Quests, and the return of Kicker.

Landfall is relevant in every format, as everyone drops lands. I don’t know how well a strategy that relies on it though will translate to a 300 card format. There’s too much other stuff going on that dilutes the mechanic. Go ahead and try it out. Rampaging Baloths generates a lot of beasty-advantage, but unfortunately will get lost in the shuffle (pardon the pun) compared to the rest of your deck.

Allies, just like any other tribal theme also tends to get diluted in the enormity of a big-deck. If you choose to play with a few Ally cards, at least make sure they stand alone. Sea Gate Loremaster always will net you +1 card each time you activate it, but never count on getting two.

ZEN Crap
#249 –Emeria, the Sky Ruin
The worst card of the set, hands down. Don’t be tricked by it’s Reya Dawnbringer-esque glitter. You will NEVER get this to o off in a 5-Color game. You’re honestly better off using a basic Plains instead of Emeria.

#248 – Archmage Ascension
Don’t be fooled by this junk either. The odds of you getting six counters on it from turns three to nine are slim to none. There are better ways of getting a tutor than wasting your entire deck strategy trying to pull this crap off. Pass.

#247 – Lotus Cobra
C’mon, a 2/1 for 2? What a rip-off. This thing ought to have First Strike and Deathtouch for a mana cost like that. And how often do you really think you’re going to trigger that mana ability in a 300 card deck? Pfft!

ZEN Good Stuff
Blah blah blah. Lets fast forward down the list, skip past reprints like Harrow & River Boa, skim over Gomozoa and Ior Ruin, and to get to the really good stuff:

#17-13 – Refuge Lands
These are actually almost playable. The key word is almost. They may not be as good as the Lorwyn Vivid Lands, but they do warrant a look-sie if you are limited by your budget. They are strictly better than the Invasion CIPT lands, though, and I occasionally see them still…

#12 - World Queller
The Queller offers moderate card advantage but is slightly unreliable. Unless you have an engine readily available to generate creatures, you ma have to sac the WQ itself to get rid of your opponents critters. It will work a little better to get rid of opposing planeswalkers & enchantments, since they are typically less common than creatures. Plus it hits all players, which makes it even better in group games. That said, it is effect optional, so you will always have a 4/4 beater at the minimum. WQ is worth a spin.

#11 – Oracle of Mul Daya
I do really like the Oracle, but think it would be better costed at G2 rather than G3. Regardless, tempo advantage is always good for 5C decks trying to gte ramped up. Hopefully you wont be too far behind when the Oracle finally hits the battlefield. Still though, its nice not having to topdeck that land when your manabase is already established.

#10 – Expedition Map
A nice colorless replacement for Crop Rotation, (if you like narrow effects like that.) Expedition Map is a tutor, so if you regularly like to search out special lands like Maze of Ith, Library of Alexandria, or Strip Mine, this card is for you.

#9 – Bloodchief Ascension
A lot of people probably are wondering where Luminarch Ascension is on this list. Don’t get me wrong, its really good for 5C, especially if you play group games. You’ll get your angels pretty quick. I like Bloodchief better though because it kills. Be aggressive, drop it turn one in your next group game. Your opponents will get you your quest counters quick enough. Then start unleashing your control elements and watch the table thin out fast. Its far more stable than Kaervek (careful, DBAD) because its an enchantment and there are generally less

#8 – Day of Judgment
This will is probably the most misspeld card in the set. “Judgment” only has one ‘E’ in it, folks. Make it simple for everyone and just refer to it as DoJ rather than imbarrassing yourself by typing ”Judgement”. Anyways, whenever they redo another Wrath of God variant, it gets attention for the big-deck eternal format. Day of Judgment is very good, as it falls into an elite group of Wraths that only cost 4. Play it (But only if you don’t have the original.)

#7 – Vampire Nighthawk
I love it when an Uncommon captures my attention like this little gem. It gives me a great budget-conscious example to suggest to new players to include in their first 5C. The Nighthawk is spectacular for its cheap BB1 cost. It has a very respectable 2/3 body. It has Flying for attacking evasion and defending versatility. It has Deathtouch to deter big attackers from coming your way. It has Lifelink to help in the war of attrition in the lengthy 5C games I tend to participate in. Nighthawk is an incredible value and my foil version has already nestled itself securely in my First Reminder deck. A+!

#6 – Rite of Replication
How can a spell that costs 9 be #2 on my list? Well, don’t be fooled by the hefty Kicker 5 cost on this spell. Kicker is optional (duh). If you look at it purely by itself, you are essentially getting Clone for the same cmc. If you luck out and actually have 9 mana available, watch out! Try this on Kokosho to net +25/-25 life per opponent. GG.

# 5-1 – Enemy Fetch Lands
Captain Obvious reports that the enemy fetchlands are good for 5C. No really, they are. Nearly all high level competitive decks run twenty of them to complement their dual lands. Plus they shuffle your library for your Diving Top effects. Now you have no excuse for a poor mana base. (BTW, WTF is a Tarn?)

Wrap up
Well there you go, short and sweet. The top 8 make my First Reminder Deck, while Bloodchief Ascension remains on the fence (for now). Although I think Zendikar will make a bigger impact to Standard format, it has a decent influence on 5C as well. Good luck and have fun!