Monday, September 27, 2010

Grim Tidings #24 - Scars & 5-Color

I skipped a set review (actually two) over the summer as I took a break from Grim Tidings. Now that I’m thinking about Magic again, I’ll insert my thoughts on the latest big expansion, Scars of Mirrodin, and its impact on Casual 5-Color.

What is 5-Color Again?

For those who have forgotten, 5-color Magic is a format that requires you to build a deck of at least 300 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 there is a special Banned/Restricted list specific to this format. Highlander is optional, but extremely fun.

When I consider a card in this discussion, it’s in terms of a “big-deck” format. There will be a lot of cards out there that are better for Standard or Legacy or whatever 60-card format, but for this review, I’m really just looking at the best cards and their impact for 5-Color (and to a lesser extent EDH).

Also remember, I generally play highlander (meaning everything is restricted to one-of). This is important to realize, as clunky combos and interactions and far more difficult to execute in decks this size.

No Rankings!
Finally, there will be no countdown this time around. I’m only going to discuss cards that will make it into my personal decks, and tell you why I like them. There is no particular order whatsoever, other than rarity.

First Reminder
It seems that in every article I write I drone on-and-on about my primary deck, First Reminder. I treat it as a collection of the best-of-the-best, so to make that list, the card really has to be special, or be strictly better than its predecessor. In Scars, I find two cards that earn my highest honor to join its ranks: Venser, the Sojourner, and Skithiryx the Blight Dragon!

First Reminder is predicated on card advantage, so it is no surprise that I have a high density of 1-8-7 creatures with enter/leave-the-battlefield abilities. Look at the plethora of come-into-play abilities it features:

• Duplicant, Nekrataal, etc. – Kill Creatures
• Gravedigger, etc. – Raise Dead
• Karmic Guide - Resurrection
• Avalanche Riders – Destroy Land
• Acidic Slime/Angel of Despair – Destroy Permanents
• Stonecloaker – Exile Graveyard
• Mulldrifter, Wall of Blossoms – Draw Cards
• Bogardan Hellkite, Anathemancer, etc. – Direct Damage
• Wood Elves – Fetch (Dual) Lands

Venser’s strongest ability is his first one. As a repeatable blink effect, he generates enormous card advantage with all of these creatures. In addition, he can reset Planeswalker counters, and negate ugly -1/-1 Persist counters (Hooray for Glen Elandra Archmage!) He doubles the activated abilities of all of my Haste Creatures (Kiki, Bonded Fetch), as well as granting Vigilance to a creature that needs to attacks. Finally, Venser provides a clever method to dodge your own Wrath Effects, a you can blink out that your best creature just prior to resetting the board with Final Judgment!

If that wasn’t enough, Venser packs a second incredible ability: Alpha Strike. A late game Venser will allow you to muscle through defensive stalemates immediately. I see this as a game ender.

What? There’s more? Yes its true, there is a third ability as well. As incredible as it is, I find it higly unlikely I will ever get his “ultimate” off. But if I do, I will almost feel sorry my opponents. How completely unfair it is. GG!

I’m gushing all over this card, and rightfully so. Venser the Sojourner does it all in 5-Color. He is a marquee card, and by far the best the set has to offer, in my opinion. A+!

Venser the Sojourner IN, Catastrophe OUT
(Reasoning: Catastrophe is essentially an overcosted Wrath #12 for me. I hardly ever use it to destroy lands, so I will exchange Venser's versatility and card advantage over redundancy in a heartbeat.)

Meanwhile, there is Skithiryx, the Blight Dragon. Awesome! A big bad-ass black dragon with 4 abilities: Flying, Infect, Haste, and Regeneration! My inner Timmy rejoices! "Skitter" is right on the curve as a 4/4 flyer for BB3, but his additional abilities are fantastic!

I think Poison, by itself, is fairly underwhelming. Most of the creatures that possess the poison ability in the past were small, and required many turns to deal 10 poison counters. Not so with an Infectious Skithiryx. He’s huge, so it only takes three turns (one of which can be negated by granting him haste!) Since you only have to deal ten posion counters, think of Skitter as an 8/4, which combined with a few pieces of Equipment, puts your opponent is put on a very short clock.

In addition, he makes a great defender. People generally tended to shy away from blockers with wither that permanently damaged the attackers. This dragon is a 4/4 blocker, so it has a lasting effect on the game-state any time he is played. The fact that he regenerates is even more of a incentive to turn away attacks, as opponents have nothing to gain from slamming into your big bad dracolich defender. A+ as well!

Skithiryx, The Blight Dragon IN, Divinity of Pride OUT
(Reasoning: Divinity has the same spot on the mana curve, but with more difficult color requirements. In addition, two additional abilities puts Skitter over the top. I'm really excited to see how often I can poison my way to victory with this card. I can't wait!)

Thus concludes my in depth review of all of the cards for the Scars of Mirrodin Expansion. Thank you for your interest in reading my article…

Second Reminder
What do you mean there’s 247 more cards? Really? Good thing I have a second 5-Color deck primed and ready to put the other cards through their paces. (Well, at lest the good ones!) Where to begin?

Geth, Lord of the Vault - He certainly has a unique way to generate card advantage. The milling aspect is irrelevant, but at least it keeps feeding his built-in Beacon of Unrest. Needless to say, Geth could become a headache to deal with if left alone. He’s deserving of a immediate Swords to Plowshares.

Sword of Body and Mind - Its already in Second Reminder, as it was pre-released with FtV: Relics. What’s not to like about it? You have to be an idiot not to appreciate an Equipment that provides 4 abilities, even if the milling ability is mostly irrelevant against another 300-card deck. I look forward to the two remaining swords, hopefully to be released next year.

Argent Sphinx - This card is very good. It will replace Sphinx of Jwar Isle as my pesky blue flyer of choice in Second Reminder. It is entirely reminiscent of Rainbow Efreet, another long time favorite “PBF” of mine. Consider it a flying, blinking, vigilant, 4/3 for four mana.

Hoard-Smelter Dragon - Shivan Dragon really isn’t that bad of a card. It has an above average 5/5 body with evasion and a nice aggressive ability. Sadly you need to be much better than that in today’s modern cardpool. Enter Hoard-Smelter: He’s a living Shatter that doubles up as firebreathing. Of course, if there is nothing to shatter, he can’t be pumped, but in that case, you’ll probably be casting other spells anyways. Even with conditions, it’s hard to be disappointed with this dragon.

Steel Hellkite - Like Hoard Smelter above, this is great too. He’s bigger (6/6) and destroys more stuff. I honestly would consider Steel Hellkite over Oros in First Reminder, if I didn’t need that last red slot filled. It’s definitely on my watch list for promotion.

Blackcleave Cliffs, et al. – These lands generally suck, but at least they are good on turns one, two, and three. They will be played in Second Reminder because I need alternative dual lands, but no where else. As soon as another dual land variation comes out, these 5 cards are “Adios, muchachos!”

Skinrender - Decent Nekrataal knock-off, but since it doesn’t always guarantee a kill, its on the second team. The art is super cool though. He looks like a Alien!

Trigon of Infestation - I find myself quite eager to try this card out. Most artifacts that generate creatures only make vanilla 1/1’s. However, these insects have an ability: Infest. Like Skithiryx above, the Insects provide an alternate win condition. This is the best of the Trigons for 5-Color.

Infiltration Lens - I like cards that reward clever play. Infiltration Lens creates great card advantage as long as you can equip it to a big creature to make the opponent fearful. However, it’s useless when equipped to a 1/1, as the opponent will just let it through (which in that case, you are dealing them damage.) Most people will toss this card aside as trash, but I will try to break it. Put it on a Trigon Insect token for better results.

Blight Mamba - Quickly summarized as “An efficient 2 drop, with two abilities. Makes for a great defender.” Not much to say about Infect that hasn’t been said previously. I only wish the Mamba had Islandwalk too.

Moriok Replica - Last, but not least, I recognize 2/2 that sacs for Nights Whisper. This is pretty decent, really. You get a chump creature if your desperate, or two extra cards (net +1 CA) if you are top decking.

Out of Contention
Despite maintaining two 300-card decks, not every card can make it into circulation. There are lots of cool cards out there, but rather than whine why I dont like them, I'll be quick and just list the also-rans: Elspeth Tirel, Molten-tail Masticore, Platinum Emperion, Genesis Wave, Necrotic Ooze, Revoke Existence , Nihil Spellbomb. All of these cards are decent, but for whatever reason, I dont want to waste time talking about them. Give them a shot, and let me know how they do.

Kiki EDH
Believe it or not, I do play other formats than just 5-Color. Along with Legacy, I currently have three EDH decks: Intet the Dreamer, Kiki Jiki Mirror Breaker, and Child of Alara. Scars offers a few cards for these decks, but so as not spoil my next article, I’ll just say Kiki is getting both Koth of the Hammer and Myr Battlesphere. In fact, I would say I’m more excited to play the Battlesphere than any other card in the entire expansion. (Seriously!)

Until next time…

Friday, September 24, 2010

No Money Magic: A Success Story

At the beginning of the year, I drew what I felt at the time was a bold new line in the sand, setting a $0 budget for my Magic activities for the year. I am very proud to say that so far so good. Not only have I not spent a dime on my Magic collection this year, but I am still projected to be at zero for the end of the year.

Now that doesn't mean I have not been able to expand my Magic collection, grow my deck options, and have a lot of fun in the doing. In addition to a play set of all the released un/commons this year, I've managed to collect a number of meaningful cards for my collection.

3 Arid Mesa +1 foil
4 other enemy fetches
one of each of the M11 titan
16 other rare/mythic cards for my casual deck
7 foils for my casual deck
4 signed rare/mythics for my casual decl
2 signed foils for my casual deck
1 each of the aligned fetchlands +a second Wooded Foothills
2 Taiga
3 Plateau
Underground Sea
2 other Dual-lands, but I can't remember which ones
4 Grove of the Burnwillows
3 Goyfs
4 Grim Lavamancers
4 Wasteland
Foil Promo Jitte
3 Aether Vial
upgraded my Lightning Bolts to foil textless promos
Elspeth vs. Tezzert box set
FtV: Relics box set

Now I really don't mind saying, that is hundreds of dollars which I have been able to trade into. I don't believe I'll miss any of the cards I gave up for them, even for a moment. My Zoo deck now has 13 foil cards, and 8 signed cards. I've also been able to build "10 proxy Belcher" for Vintage, although I did have to scrap my efforts to build Belcher for Legacy. I've refocused my Legacy efforts in building Merfolk, but I'm still several critical cards short. I hope that I can finish the deck in the coming year, but FoW's can be hard to trade into.

I also manged to build two similar budget Standard decks, Warp World and Mass Polymorph, with no financial outlay. I'll really be watching Standards shift over the next few weeks to see if it's something I want continue being a part of or simply give it up all together.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Grim Tidings #23: The Curious Case of Eight-and-a-Half Tails

With the rebirth of Second Reminder (See GT #21), I am brought back to a long-standing debate of a very specific card selection. It was reinforced again during my last Cube draft, when I selected none other than my old buddy, Eight-and-a-Half-Tails.

To give you a brief history, "8.5" has been on my internal “watch list” for quite some time. 8.5 appeared in the original Grim Reminder 750, and then in both incarnations of Second Reminder as well. It has been a favorite pet-card of mine since Kamigawa block, due to both its flavorful name, and clever game-warping abilities.

Last night was no exception. I drafted a WG weenie deck, packed with a plethora of great cards, including Academy Rector, Mirari’s Wake, and Debtor’s Knell. Eight-and-a-Half was a third or fourth pick for me, perhaps based on his relative obscurity in the common Magic vernacular. What transpired next drove me to write this article.

We played two group games with our decks. (8.5 fortunately is the lightest card in my deck, as he floated to the top in both games.) Of course I cast him, followed with a slew of other mid-range creatures to set myself into a solid defense. As the game evolved, it seemed apparent I could do whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted. 8.5 provided both offensive and defensive flexibility, allowing me to “bleach” all of my opponents’ permanents and muscle through with a single pro-white attacker. I became an immediate threat as people quickly realized that there was little they could do, and I was attacked en-masse. Although I lost game 1, I was amazed with the dominance 8.5 exhibited. Game 2 was much of the same, and resulted in a decisive victory. Eight-and-a-Half was again, the obvious MVP.

So why hasn’t this little fox been promoted to First Reminder yet? The simplest answer is color: Its too white. Its abilities require an extensive dedication to W fully support it. Hence, Mother of Runes has always been mycreature of choice for this role in First Reminder. She's cheaper and essentially fulfills the same role: a quirky protection trick that causes headaches for my opopnets. Since they are both great cards, let’s breakdown the Pros and Cons between the two to see their benefits.***

Eight-and-a-Half Pros & Cons:
1.) Con: Its double WW two-drop. Normally this isn’t a problem to color-fix late game, but on your second turn in a 5-Color deck, it is a little harder to consistently guarantee you will have two of the same color.

2.) Pro: Eight-and-Half-Tails is a 2/2, rather than 1 wimpy 1/1 like Mother. Well, its something…

3.) Con: It requires up to three mana (1 + 1W) to activate. Mother only needs to Tap. In addition, the more you want to use it, the more W you need. In a 5-Color deck, where colors are more-or-less distributed evenly, you mana sources may not be able to support this as much as you would like them to.

4.) Pro: Eight and-a Half can do its business the turn it comes into play, while Mommy still has summoning sickness.

5.) Pro: Eight-and-a-Half can protect multiple targets at the same time. There is amazing defense flexibility that exists when you can white-wash Firespout while its on the stack and give all of your creatures pro-white to survive, rather than just one.

6.) Pro: Mother can only protect creatures, while Eight can protect anything. Bleach your opponent’s Strip Mine, Maze of Ith, Naturalize, as well as Terror.

7.) Con: It can require a holding back a lot of mana so you can react with it. This really alters the pace the deck will play at, as using it in a reactionary state will limit the amount of other spells you will cast on your turn. (Note, made better by Terefi, Orrery, and Leyline of Anticipation).

8.) Pro: Its both defensive and offensive. While you can try to nullify your opponent’s removal, you can switch it into high gear when you are in a winning position. Your opponent will have to helplessly watch as your army slips right on through the defenders for the alpha strike.

8.5) Con: Eight-and-a-Half Tails is pretty obscure. Hardly anyone plays with it (compared to Mother of Runes) so its an unlikely card to name with Grim Reminder.

Reading through all of this, its not hard to support the inclusion of Eight-and-a-Half over Mother of Runes. However, I cant discount the impact I think Con #3 has. I need to look at the specific scenario it would be used though in MY deck, rather than out-of-context.

First Reminder Composition
Admittedly, First Reminder is more white than any other color. There are 34 mono-white spells, and 20 additional multi-color cards that include white. As a result, my manabase has significantly more basic Plains and white sources than the other four colors. 52/110 of my lands can produce W, as well as 5 artifacts and 6 creatures. Is that enough? For the regular every-day application of the deck, yes, I’m certain it is. However, I do not know if there is an exact “formula” to follow for Eight-and-a-Half-Tails though.

That said, I can look at the ratios of the mana distribution and come up with a plausible scenario. By my count, of the 132 mana sources in the deck, a total of 63 of them produce white. That’s 47%. Lets assume an average game state with ten lands in play. By this ratio, I could reasonably assume at least 4 (or more) of them could produce white.

In this example, I could offensively spend 3 colorless mana to bleach three of my opponent’s permanents, and easily have W1 available for three more activations of the 8.5’s pro-white effect. That sounds great! Or I could defensively just set aside (1 + W1) for use during my opponents turn without severely hampering my ability to cast other white spells on my turn.

Seriously, how many times would anyone really want to activate Eight-and-a-Half in a single turn? Once? Thrice? Any more than that seems very unlikely.

So I don’t think I need much more convincing. I’ll promote 8.5 to First Reminder and see how it does in practice. By this rationale, it seems as if I will be pleasantly satisfied.

*** Before anyone gets cute and replies with some snarky comment like “Why don’t you just play both cards?” I’ll remind you that even though my 5-Color deck is 300 cards, each and every card serves a specific purpose. I don’t need to be diluting First Reminder’s effectiveness with redundant effects that can be tutored for if absolutely needed. From experience, there can be only one slot for this protection-trick !