Monday, December 24, 2012

Bolas does his thing

Okay, okay. So, I lost. But, I lost with style. And that's what really matters. :)

I've been on-and-off with this Grixis deck: Bolas Is Behind It All!

Nicol Bolas

I like making new decks because there's something thrilling about seeing if it "works." Things aren't quite right with the Bolas deck, but I suspect the reason is that I'm not using any cards from my other EDH decks in it. That's right: no duplicates.

Without all the "mana rocks," I'm just not accelerating like I want to. The spells I'm running are on the expensive side, so all too often I'm in the position of holding onto a handful of good stuff but with no way to throw it out there. I may have to bend my rule to put a few staple cards in to boost the mana production around turn 4-5 in most games.

Sol RingWorn PowerstoneThran DynamoGilded Lotus

I had a chance to play a three-player game this weekend with the deck, though. And the core concept actually worked out the way I wanted it to. I lost the game, but it was worth it. Chris was able to infect me out with Glistening Oil, but before he did I had lots of fun stuff out on the table. Heck, Rhystic Study was even working for me!

For one, Kaervek the Merciless totally lives up to his name. Once he drops, I get to start shooting things left and right. At one point, Ben cast Elesh to which Chris responded with Gather Specimens. Blamo.

Kaervek the MercilessElesh Norn, Grand CenobiteGather Specimens

I also had Vicious Shadows out. Talk about scary. Suddenly, everyone starts to get real careful about who attacks who and when. Blamo.

Vicious Shadows

I was grabbing other commanders with Control Magic and Slave of Bolas. I was dropping Planeswalkers as speed bumps. I was drawing fistfulls of cards with Consecrated Sphinx. It was a good ol' time. At one point, Ben cast Congregation at Dawn putting Sun Titan on top of his deck along with a few other creatures. I cast Telemin Performance. Blamo.

Congregation at DawnSun TitanTelemin Performance

Like I said, I may need to bend the rule about not including cards I have in other decks to really make this deck work. But, despite losing, it was one of the best games of Magic I've played in a while.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Spotlight: Rings of Brighthearth

I'm not the only person to sing the praises of Rings of Brighthearth, but if you are looking for a more "technical" line in your deck, check this out:

Rings of Brighthearth

On the surface, this card doesn't look like much. It's a 3-mana artifact with some confusing rules text on it from the Lorwyn set. In reality, it's a card that does cool stuff and fits in a lot of different decks. What can it do?

"Whenever you play an activated ability..."

What's an activated ability, you might ask? Well, activated abilities are all over the place in Magic. Look for things that are formatted like this: {cost}:{effect}. Here's an example.

Polluted Delta

If I tap this card, pay 1 life, and sacrifice this card, then I get to do the stuff after the colon. I have to "activate" this ability.

"...if it isn't a mana ability,"

Just because an ability is on a land, like Polluted Delta, doesn't mean that it's a mana ability. Mana abilities produce mana. Polluted Delta doesn't. So, it's not. So, there.

" may pay (2)."

Putting this all together, Rings of Brighthearth so far lets me pay (2) mana whenever I play an activated ability. If that's all it did, it would be pretty unspectacular, but check out the next part.

"If you do, copy that ability. You may choose new targets for the copy."

Woah! Hold the phone.

Copying things in Magic is often very strong. And this is no exception. Note that you can only copy the activated abilities you play, not the ones that your opponents play. But still, there are plenty of those.

The fetch lands, like Polluted Delta, are great to copy. Here's what happens. You drop your fetch land on the table, tap it, pay the 1 life, and then sacrifice it. Now, you pay 2 mana and copy the activated ability. In other words, you are going to get to search your library for a land card... twice... and then put them into play untapped. Not too shabby. But it gets better.

Guess what else has activated abilities that can be copied?

Karn Liberated

Yeah, that's right. Planeswalkers. For a measly 2 mana, you can smack-a-roo two cards from a player's hand. Double-activations of Planeswalker abilities are usually very strong. There are plenty of situations where doubling up makes things quite one-sided. Like with Karn's second ability.

Look closely at how the Planeswalker abilities are formatted. Changing the status of the loyalty counters is part of the cost. Rings of Brighthearth copies the "effect" part of the ability. So, you could activate Karn's "Exile target permanent" ability for -3 loyalty, copy it with the Rings, and exile a second permanent too - all while leaving Karn at 3 loyalty to do it again next turn.

If you put your mind to it (and start searching for {cost}:{effect} cards), you'll see plenty of devious opportunities to apply the Rings and bring the heat. But I'd like to point out one other activated ability where the Rings can really kick things into high gear: Cycling.

Lonely Sandbar

Cycling is an activated ability. See, there's the colon right there on the card. So, if you are holding a Lonely Sandbar and want to get rid of it, just pay U and discard it to activate the Cycling ability as normal. Then, pay 2 to use the Rings on the effect. Now, draw a card. Then, draw a card again. Not bad. 2U for two cards. And it can't be countered.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Commander for Brand New Players

Everyone who loves playing Magic has that moment where someone they've met who has never played before shows a glimmer of interest. That's a special moment because it holds so much possibility for bringing someone into the fold and building a friendship around a great game.

But here's the thing: Playing Magic is tricky. The rules are dense. The timings, restrictions, formats, combat, and everything else that makes Magic so wonderful takes a while to even explain, let alone remember and apply. I know someone out there reading this is thinking, "I've taught plenty of people to play Magic and it's been just fine." Well, congratulations.

Wizards has done a good thing with releasing Duels of the Planeswalkers. I was floored when my wife introduced me to a couple of people and the conversation steered to toward gaming. It went something like this:

"My daughter plays Pokemon and loves it."
"Oh, hey I've been playing a game on my iPad called 'Duels of the Planeswalkers', ever heard of it?"
"As a matter of fact, I have. It's based on a card game. Let me know if you want to try it sometime."

My guess is that this is the conversation that Wizards imagined people having when they designed the Duels of the Planeswalkers trainer... er, game. That, and they imagined big piles of money. We call that a win/win.

But, showing a new player the ropes with a pre-constructed deck and getting them into Commander are two very different things. A lot of Commander games are wacky and random, and chock full of technical interactions involving stacks of spells and several players. Besides, one of the biggest barriers for new players is understanding combat. Combat in Commander is crazy. And the games can be extremely long. "Sit down right there, draw some cards, and don't move for about 4 hours." Sounds like fun, right?

What we need is a step between just-getting-started and full-on-Commander.

I recommend pre-building a couple of decks using the modified rules below. You can get a new player up to speed quickly so that they can get the main concepts down and so that they aren't completely lost at the table.

Champion (mini-Commander) Rules

Your "Champion" must be a Legendary Creature just like in Commander, but the "color identity" rule is relaxed a bit. You may include spells in your deck with one additional color besides your Champion's color(s). In other words, if you Champion is a White creature, you may include White spells in your deck along with spells of one other supporting color: Blue, Red, Black, or Green.
-This retains the "feel" of Commander, with your "Champion" creature giving your deck "flavor," but opens things up for deck-building. This is especially important for new players with small collections.

60-card deck, Highlander (Singleton).
-One copy of any given card still gives the decks a "random" feel, so that it's not the "same game" over and over.
-This lowers the barrier of entry for a new player that doesn't have a large collection.
-The reduced deck size is easier to shuffle and less prone to random bad draws.

You start with 30 life. It takes 15 poison counters to kill you.
-This speeds the game up compared to Commander, but pushes things out enough turns to still cast big spells.

Your Champion deals double the combat damage to players.
-Instead of tracking damage from every Commander separately, the Champions simply deal more damage.
-Yes, this makes some Champions better than others. Have removal ready.

If your Champion would put into any zone from play, it is put into the Champion zone instead. Pay 2 more mana each time to cast it.
-No more tucking the Champion into the deck or bouncing it back into your hand. It's simple. If it leaves play, it goes back home.

At the start of the game, set aside two basic lands from your deck. Shuffle the remaining cards and draw 5 cards instead of 7 into your opening hand. Put the two basic lands that you set aside into your hand. You'll end up with 7 total cards in your opening hand, 2 of which are the basic lands you set aside.
-It's super crappy to teach someone to play when they get mana screwed.
-Muliganing takes a long time. New players don't want to watch you shuffle for 10 minutes while you hem and haw over what to set aside for your partial paris. They want to play.

With these changes, teaching a new player about the format is much easier. They can build a deck with a smaller collection since the deck size is smaller and more forgiving with the Champion's color identity. The games are shorter since the life totals are smaller. And, it puts the focus on your Champion since they do extra damage.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Tutor, Draw, and Manipulate

Way back in Alpha, the original set, Richard Garfield laid the foundation for what Magic would be for years to come. Along with the core rules, many of the core concepts we know and love were created in that early set. But not everything went according to plan.

Check out these three concepts and how they do the same thing, but in different ways. This is important to consider when building your deck because it gets at the heart of what the designers are trying to do with the cards.

Tutoring, Card Drawing, and Deck Manipulation

Demonic TutorAncestral RecallNatural Selection

Two of these cards are restricted in the Vintage format (where almost everything is legal) and banned in the Legacy format. One of them is not. The reason for the restrictions is that two of these cards are not costed properly. They "warp" or even "break" the formats where they are played, especially in multiple copies. Natural Selection is all good, though. Go nuts.

Warping and Breaking is what happens when something is under pressure. In Magic, there are a several ways to win. Cards that let you get other cards (tutoring), draw lots of cards (card drawing), or manipulate your library (deck manipulation) enable winning scenarios. In other words, in a game where one of the fundamental concepts is "randomness," being able to get the card(s) you want when you want them puts the rules under pressure. It breaks the game.

Of course, breaking the game is fun. Lots of cards break the game. Look at Omniscience. That's pretty broken... or it would be if the cost was 2U. Demonic Tutor costs two measly mana (1B), only one of which is Black. Compare this to Diabolic Tutor. It does the same thing, but at 4 mana (2BB), two of which are Black.

Demonic TutorDiabolic Tutor

If Demonic Tutor is broken, Diabolic Tutor is the "fixed" version of the card. They figure that you have a heavier commitment to Black, need to generate two colored mana instead of one, and the total cost is 4, putting it in the turn 3-4 range. All that combined make for a card that works as intended. Tutoring is strong, but not format-warping at 4 mana.

Okay, so what about Ancestral Recall? If Demonic Tutor, a Black card, lets me get any card I want for only two mana (1B), what should a Blue card look like? Since I can't get any ol' card I want like I can with the tutor, I should be able to draw three cards instead. Plus, it's not like I can even necessarily use the cards. What if they are lands and I've already played a land this turn? So, it should cost even less mana to cast. Oh, and it should be an Instant so that I can cast it on my opponent's turn. Yeah, that sounds fair. Well, it did at the time because that's how they printed it. Ancestral Recall is totally broken.

There isn't really anything like Ancestral Recall. The designers have made many variations on card drawing, though. The closest Blue, Instant that draws three cards without any other funny business is probably Jace's Ingenuity at 5 mana (3UU). Otherwise, you could run Concentrate at Sorcery speed for 4 mana (2UU). Either way, you can't force your opponent to draw the cards like you could with Ancestral Recall. For that, you could run Inspiration at 4 mana (3U), but someone draws only two cards that way instead of three.

Jace's IngenuityConcentrateInspiration

It's not a coincidence that all this card drawing shows up in the 4-5 mana range. The designers figure that at that point in the game, you deserve to draw some cards. Go ahead, treat yourself.

The last concept is deck manipulation. This started in Green, as you can see with Natural Selection, but mostly ended up in Blue. Green got a few other cards along this line, but not as many (or as good) as what Blue got. Cards like, Brainstorm, Ponder, Preordain, and Impulse let the Blue mage see a bunch of cards and choose the one they like the most. It's somewhere between tutoring for the exact card you want and outright drawing the cards you are looking at.


Notice the costs of the Blue mini-tutors, though. They are usually one or two mana, bringing them in line with the "fixed" versions of the cards above. Tutoring and card drawing both cost 4-5 mana. Manipulating your deck, however is much less mana-intensive. With tutoring, you effectively choose the card you want to "draw." With card drawing, even though you don't get to choose the cards you want to draw, you get to hold onto all of them to give yourself more options later. Deck manipulation works in a different way, giving you access to three or four cards on top of your library. Pick the best one! You can manipulate sooner, since the cost is lower. And, you can actually play the card you keep somewhere around the turn you'd be using the fixed tutors and card drawing.

What does this have to do with Commander? Well, this is foundation-of-the-game kind of stuff here. So, it applies to all formats. By all means, if you have a Demonic Tutor to run in your Commander deck, go for it. Just know that it is way under-costed. Running the properly-costed tutors (especially if you run all of them) makes your deck less "random," but you also usually give up the turn you tutor unless it's late in the game. I hate that. At two mana (1B), I can cast Demonic Tutor and usually play the card I got right there. Making things happen. At four mana (2UU), I can cast Diabolic Tutor and often pass my turn. Boo-hoo.

Ancestral Recall is banned in Commander, so that's out. But if you want to draw a bunch of cards, there are options: Fact or Fiction, Covenant of Minds, Fathom Trawl, and even Tidings are all going to give you a bunch of cards for about the right price. But you have the same problem as the tutoring. You draw a bunch of cards, but now what? If you've tapped out, you now have a snazzy handful of "waiting until your next turn while getting attacked."

Fact or FictionCovenant of MindsFathom TrawlTidings

Deck manipulation doesn't give you the exact card you need, but it does give you options. Options are king because they open up new lines of play. Options make good cards better and good decks better, without making every game a carbon copy of the last one. There's little doubt why Sensei's Divining Top is one of the best cards in the format. It's a low-cost artifact, cheap to activate, that manipulates your deck turn after turn, with a way to protect itself, and draw the card you really need when you need it. Woo doggie.

Sensei's Divining Top

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Spotlight: Rhystic Study

As it turns out, Rhystic Study is one of "those" cards. You know what I'm talking about: the cards that everyone seems to profess undying love for, but that just don't do a thing for you.

Rhystic Study

Rhystic Study shows up in Commander's Arsenal. So, that's a nod to its popularity. Otherwise, you're looking at a 2U (3cc) enchantment from the Prophecy set circa 2000. I've run this card a number of times in a number of decks. Whenever I draw it, I think: Well, there's a card that isn't going to do anything for me this turn. But I play it anyway. In the 10-or-so times it's been on the table, I've drawn maybe 3 cards... total. And it's not like the 1 mana "tax" on my opponents' spells is breaking things wide open for me, either.

When I see the word "Rhystic" on the card, I immediately think the same thought I had when I saw this set for the first time: I wonder if "Rhystic" means "Terrible"? Just about anytime your opponent can choose if you get to do something, you've already lost. Rhystic Study hangs around instead of being a one-shot deal, but it still just sits there.

Rhystic CaveRhystic CircleRhystic ShieldRhystic Lightning


I suspect that all the love for Rhystic Study comes from the "politics" of the Commander format. Most people I know frown upon flat-out alliances at the table. But there's nothing wrong with raising your eyebrows at the Rhystic Study player after casting a spell then tapping the extra mana to "pay the tax" before taking it back with a casual comment, "No, go ahead and draw the card." Subtext: Wink, wink. Further Subtext: How about you attack someone else next turn. I am the guy who let you draw that card, after all.

Maybe I'm just no good at politics, but it doesn't ever work out this way for me. I'd rather be in control of the cards I draw, and when I draw them. For the same casting cost, I can draw some cards or filter through a few more and end up with the one I want.

Assuming you are already running Ponder, Brainstorm, Impulse, Forbidden Alchemy, and Thirst for Knowledge, consider Compulsive Research. Draw three cards, discard one or two from your hand. Great! I get to see three new cards. Plus, if I draw a land or have a land in my hand, I get to keep two of them. There's nothing saying I can't drop things in the graveyard that I want there, either. Maybe I have a Reanimate in my hand. Maybe I have a Crucible of Worlds on the table. Either way, I see three cards immediately. Things are happening.

Compulsive ResearchReanimateCrucible of Worlds

Not your style? Want some major upside with super surprise factor baked right in? How about Theft of Dreams, Borrowing 100,000 Arrows (yes, this is a real card), or Keep Watch? Sure, you might have to wait around for a particularly good time to cast these, but boy-oh-boy when it works out it really works out!

Theft of DreamsKeep WatchBorrowing 100,000 Arrows

But the options don't stop there, folks. Want to feel raw power? How about a broken card from Urza's Saga? Restricted in Vintage and banned in Legacy for a reason, Windfall can spring out of nowhere and refill your hand for a measly 2U (3cc): the same cost at Rhystic Study.


On the plus side for Rhystic Study, it does sit there ticking away. In a big enough game, with enough time, you might end up drawing a bunch of cards. Maybe. (But, I doubt it). If that sounds like more your speed, Tamiyo, the Moon Sage is the card you want. It's more mana, but there's some serious strength in her Planeswalker abilities. You can use the -2 loyalty ability to duplicate Keep Watch and Borrowing 100,000 Arrows right off the bat. And if you do get the emblem, well, blamo. :)

Tamiyo, the Moon Sage

Plus, "Moon Sage." So, that's fun.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Grixis, Bolas and Planeswalkers

As a mentioned a few posts ago, playing against Eldrazi isn't always fun. So, my Arcanis / Braids / Eldrazi deck is on hiatus for a while. In it's place, behold: Nicol Bolas!

Nicol BolasNicol Bolas, Planeswalker

Okay, maybe Bolas isn't tons of fun either, but this deck isn't designed to go all out. With Bolas in the Commander slot and no way to cheat him into play, it's not like you won't see him coming. Besides, I'm not running ANY equipment (no haste, shroud, or hexproof). A couple of other things to note:

1) There are no sweepers other than O.Stone and N.Disk.
2) There are enough Planeswalkers to see a couple per game.
3) The creatures are few. And they are ones that I felt made an impact on the game that other players would feel. They aren't just random beaters.
4) These are my leftover cards. I'm not taking anything else apart to build this, so most of the "staple" EDH cards are not here: Solemn Simulacrum, Sol Ring, etc.

The Creatures:

Clone and Evil Twin are both there to cause problems to Legendary creatures, particularly Commanders. Because of the Legend rule, both of these cards work as very effective Commander removal. Phyrexian Metamorph and Phantasmal Image are probably both better, but I don't have them. :)

CloneEvil Twin

Charmbreaker Devils, Kozilek, Consecrated Sphinx, Magus of the Future, and Sphinx of Uthuun are all spectacular at giving me more fuel for the fire. The Devils throw a spell back into my hand. Kozilek is a powerhouse. He doesn't just beat up Truth; he butchers it. The Consecrated Sphinx is ridiculous. No, seriously. Future Sight is one of my all-time favorite cards, so the Magus of the same gets the nod, and who doesn't like Fact or Fiction stapled to a big, flying Sphinx?

Charmbreaker DevilsKozilek, Butcher of TruthConsecrated SphinxMagus of the FutureSphinx of Uthuun

Geth, Kaervek, Prince of Thralls, Psychosis Crawler, Gilded Drake and Thraximundar are all trouble-makers. Geth's ability fits my theme of "stealing" creatures, only his thievery happens after they are dead. The Drake steals the best targetable creature on the table. How is the flavor text on that card not, "Here, have a drake."? The Prince lets me ask this question over and over, "Do I get it?" No end of fun there. Psychosis Crawler can get really out of hand, fast. And as Bolas' Zombie Assassin, Thraximundar is in-theme. Although he is a great creature (and causes a sacrifice), I'm not sure that I want him here. He's on my watch list. Saying his name is fun, though.

Geth, Lord of the VaultPrince of ThrallsPsychosis CrawlerGilded DrakeThraximundar

With all the Planeswalkers running around, Savor the Moment and Rings of Brighthearth really shine. Savor the Moment basically reads: Activate your Planeswalkers again. Oh, and play a land if you've got one. Blue ramp! Rings of Brighthearth is crazy and deserves a separate post altogether. Pro-tip: You can use Rings with the Planeswalker abilities, and the fetch lands, and cycling, and the list goes on.

Savor the MomentRings of Brighthearth

I'm thinking that the deck might want Keening Stone. There are a few other possibilities I'm considering, but I want to try it in this configuration before I start making wholesale changes. I love building and testing new decks! There's something fulfilling about testing out themes and pushing them. I like winning as much as the next guy, but this is about winning with style.

Keening Stone

Minor Note: I switched out Syphon Mind for Liliana of the Dark Realms in my mono-black demon deck. Syphon Mind can be a spectacular card, but it doesn't really fit the themes in my deck and I've never had a big turn from playing it. Your mileage may vary. Plus, Liliana is what the deck is all about. :)

Syphon MindLiliana of the Dark Realms