Sunday, August 31, 2014

Khans of Tarkir Spoiler: Fetchlands, Sarkhan, Necropolis Fiend, and Tri-Lands

It's spoiler season again. This time, we're headed to Tarkir to see what those sassy Khans are up to. Catch up on the details over at Magic Spoiler.

The big (BIG) news is that the fetchlands are back. You know, the cards that you really want to play in some of the more expensive formats, but that are so expensive it's just not going to happen in your lifetime? Yes, those fetchlands are back. This is your chance.

Polluted Delta - Khans of Tarkir Spoilers

  • Polluted Delta
  • Flooded Strand
  • Bloodstained Mire
  • Wooded Foothills
  • Windswept Heath

We suspected that this was coming, but I think a lot of people were caught flatfooted when we found out that they were being printed so soon in the block. It will be nice for newer players to have access to cards that skyrocketed in price, but that are foundational to some of the formats that have developed since they were originally printed.

The new, mono-red Sarkhan, the Dragonspeaker looks like a lot of fun. That +1 loyalty ability could be quite shocking since the dragon can come out of nowhere and flap on over on hasty wings.

Sarkhan, the Dragonspeaker - Khans of Tarkir Spoilers

With every new set, there's a least the possibility for new demons. So far, we have Necropolis Fiend to consider. At first blush, it seems like a long way to go to set up a delve that gives me a good deal on a 4/5 flyer. The potential is for a relatively large body with evasion for only two black mana. But, there's a fair amount of setup before that can happen. In addition to flying, the body comes with reusable creature kill. I'm not sure it earns a slot in my demon tribal deck, but it's worth another look.

Necropolis Fiend - Khans of Tarkir Spoilers

The other spoiled cards (so far) that caught my eye are the new tri-lands. I really, really don't like lands that come into play tapped. But, if you are running a five color deck, it gives us a good way to get there without spending a fortune on dual lands. It's also nice for a three color deck to have lands that can color fix the entire range of colors in the deck. These color combinations were "missing" before this set.

Nomad Outpost - Speed vs Cunning SpoilerMystic Monastery - Speed vs Cunning Spoiler

Eating Money: MTGO

"Cram some money in your mouth-hole."

No, that doesn't seem right. But the saying goes something like that.

"Chow down on some tasty dollars."

Still not quite right.

"Put some money where the food goes."

Eh, close enough.

With my schedule, playing one or two games of Commander per week is where it tops out. Saturday afternoon is when my friendly local gaming store puts on a Commander tournament. For good or for ill, calling it a tournament brings 20ish people out of the woodwork. But, calling it a tournament also brings out some pretty cutthroat decks. Otherwise, I am lucky enough to have a couple of friends that play Commander and are up for a game from time to time.

My FLGS is about 25 minutes from my house. Let's call it about 15 miles, one way. My car gets about 30MPG, so round trip is one gallon of gas. At $4 per gallon, it's $16+ a month to play Magic.

I'm not recommending that everyone should think this way. It's just the way I'm wired. Always has been. I end up comparing the cost vs. what I get and spending almost an hour in the car to play a few games of Magic per week is right at the edge of what I'm willing to do. My work commute has gotten longer recently, so spending an additional day driving an hour has me contemplating other approaches to getting my Commander game on.

Which brings me to MTGO.

Playing Magic online is simply not the same experience as playing in person. Like most things, it has its plusses and minuses. On the plus side, there's no travel time. On the minus side, it's less social.

Magic Forever!

I've always liked the idea that as long as I keep my cards, and nothing crazy happens, I can play Magic with these same pieces of cardboard forever. It's like a book you can read over and over, except way better. For this reason, I have been reluctant to buy digital copies of cards on MTGO. When the service goes away, the cards go away. Goodbye sweet, sweet Magic.

That doesn't mean that I have no digital cards. I'm one of the early adopters of the platform. And, the cards I bought all those many years ago are still right there, in my digital collection. But, I haven't spent nearly as much money or time on MTGO as I have on MTG. Plus, I do like my signed, foreign, altered, cards. There's not so much of that on MTGO.

The card economics between MTGO and MTG are worth some study. Since these are digital goods, there is no shipping cost to move them around. This means that sellers can provide cards for $0.03 each and still come out ahead. The bot system for selling cards is a little wacky, but it works. You can get just about any card you want, any time of day, sometimes for nothing.

That's right. Nothing.

Crystal Ball

There are several bots out there that give away cards as a promotion and a way to increase awareness for the cards they do sell. A good portion of my collection was acquired this way. You might be surprised how good the "free" cards actually are, especially for Commander. Just picked up a copy of Crystal Ball from a bot for free. I love me some Crystal Ball.

Intet, the DreamerVorosh, the Hunter

Most of the rares, especially the Legendary ones you would want as your Commander, are available for about $0.05 each. I just bought almost all of the three-color legendary dragons and a bunch of other eligible Commanders for less than $1, total. Plenty of deck-building potential for such a small amount of money. Plus, you can use the same card in more than one deck without having to fuss with desleeving and resleeving, sorting your cards to find that card you know for sure is in this box somewhere, and other time-consuming activities.

Command TowerTemple of the False God

Because I don't like the idea of spending real money on digital goods, it's helpful if I think of it as a subscription for $16 per month. It's what I was spending on gas anyway, so I'm in the same boat financially. And from what I've seen, I'm going to rapidly run out of cards I want to buy if I plunk down $16 per month. With a few notable exceptions, like standard-legal planeswalkers, almost every card I want is less than $1 and most are closer to $0.05. Cards like Command Tower and Temple of the False God really are $0.05 each.

It's like Christmas!

Other than a less-social interaction online, another downside to playing on MTGO is the games are considerably more tedious. If you want to be on the ball, making technical plays, you end up having to acknowledge and pass priority all the damn time. The good part of this is that you can't be rushed, can't miss triggers, and there is no calling for a judge to figure out the crazy interaction you just blundered into. The game doesn't let people roll over you. They can disconnect and leave you sitting there, but that's about it.

The few games I've tried in the past week have been solid. There were no pedal-to-the-metal combo decks. It was interactive and fun. When I played the Singleton format on there years ago (before Commander was a thing), it was all overpowered decks. Not fun. Maybe the people who moved onto Commander got that out of their systems. Or, maybe I just got lucky. Time will tell.

Telling Time

I'm pumped about the possibility of quickly and easily playing a huge range of decks online. Being able to rapidly build new decks and new ideas takes the guesswork out of finding cards in your collection, sorting them, shuffling, self-testing, and whatever other voodoo you do when you brew. It doesn't quite have that hands-on feel, but I find that shuffling a deck of real cards while I think is similarly satisfying.

It also not quite as gut-wrenching to go into a pod on MTGO with an untested deck. When I would do it in real life, it was a real letdown if the deck didn't perform. It often ended up being my one chance to play all week. Not drawing lands is not a good way to spend a couple of hours. This promotes stale deckbuilding since going with what you know means you have some comfort that it will work.

I'm not saying that I will never play in person at my FLGS. I'm saying that it's a long way to go for what's turned into an explosion of powerful decks all trying to grab $5 of store credit. I long ago tuned all my Commander decks to this environment and somewhere along the way moved far, far from what the format is really all about. I'm hoping to recapture some of that again online.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Commander Cube for Fast Deckbuilding

Sol RingTemple of the False God

Every format has staples. Commander is no different.

A couple weeks ago, I met a few new commander players and wanted to put a deck together that wasn't going to get me shunned until the end of time. Most of my decks are tuned to the cutthroat "tournament" scene at my FLGS. As I looked through my lists, I realized that none of that was going to be fun to bring to a new group of players.

What to do?

Intet, the Dreamer

First, I went back to my roots. The three-color dragon legends are almost always a good jumping off point to build a new deck. They are large and have cool abilities that lend themselves to themes and ideas. And building for three colors automatically adds some randomness and inconsistency that makes for a more varied (but not always more fun) game. I looked through my legends and decided to built for Intet, the Dreamer.

Okay, great. But I wanted to build this deck quickly and I wasn't going to get a chance to playtest. Now, what?

I thought about it for a while and further realized that my cube was a perfect source to build from. I decided to brew the entire deck from the cards in my existing cube. The cube was already sleeved, so that saved even more time.

No MercyAurification

My cube includes lots of cards that I like from the history of Magic. I collected those cards over all those years because I liked them in the first place. It's not surprising that they found a home in my cube. Plus, I played multiplayer singleton formats (like 75-card and 100-card "highlander") before it was a thing. Turns out the cards that are good in slower formats like that work great in Commander. And those cards can work great in cube if you build it around slower cards.

Some folks out there are finding great success with building a Commander Cube. That sounds awesome in every respect. I would go that direction, but I don't foresee having the hours it would take to draft in that format, additional time to build, and then time to actually play a few games of commander with the sweet, drafted decks.

But! We can approximate something like this by having a big cube of commander cards already sleeved up. Pulling cards from the cube lets us build lots of decks in short order. How do we select cards for the cube? It can't hurt to start with the staples. Here's why.

I'm going to agree with some of you out there that seeing the same cards every game is boring. But, consider this. Let's pick something like ramp as an example. In commander, your deck either needs to speed itself up or slow everyone else down. If you try to play it straight, you are going to end up squeezed by one of those two strategies.

Gilded LotusWinter Orb

If you go the route of speeding yourself up, you are "ramping." Almost every commander deck is going to do this to some degree, even if they are trying to slow everyone else down. Green is notable for ramping because it's something the color actually wants to do. For the most part, the other colors have to borrow from artifacts or special lands to ramp.

Okay, back to the staples of the format. If you are running green and you want to ramp, you should consider the Cultivate and Kodama's Reach one-two-punch.

CultivateKodama's Reach

Not only are these spells splashable, they ramp, color-fix, and give you card advantage. These spells are forgiving to cast, only requiring a single green mana. They curve nicely at three mana. They let you choose the (basic) lands you need to fix your colors. They ramp by putting one of those lands into play. And they give you two cards for one by putting the other (basic) land into your hand. It's a helluva deal.

I can hear it now, though. "That's boring! Everyone runs those spells. I'm tired of seeing the same spells in every deck. You suck! How did you get in here. Who are you?" Calm down, turbo. Suppose you didn't run those particular ramp spells, but you still wanted to ramp in green. Now what?

Far WanderingsJourney of Discovery

Fine, at three mana in green, you could run Far Wanderings and Journey of Discovery. Are they better? No, but if you don't want to run the staples, there's always going to be a next best spell.

That's the secret of Magic.

It's not about how powerful an individual spell is. It's about how much MORE powerful an individual spell is compared to every other spell that does something similar. Great cards are ones that make the players consider lots of different things to decide which spell is best in a given deck or situation. Variation around a central theme without any one spell being clearly better than another makes for good design.

Nature's LoreFarseek

At two mana in green, you could run Nature's Lore and Farseek. They come out sooner, but do less.

Skyshroud ClaimHunting Wilds

At four mana in green, you could run Skyshroud Claim and Hunting Wilds. They come out later, but do slightly more, especially if you are running true dual lands or shock lands.

Sakura-Tribe ElderWood Elves

With creatures in green, you could run Sakura-Tribe Elder and Wood Elves. Some builders prefer the ramp to come with bodies attached.

My point is that you can choose whatever green ramp spells strike your fancy to include in your commander cube, and therefore to include in your rapid deckbuilding pool. Whatever you decide to include is going to end up being your "best" card in that limited pool of cards. In the case of Cultivate and Kodama's reach, they are relatively easy to find, fairly inexpensive, and have a high degree of flexibility to fit in lots of different decks you might build. In other words, if you go that route your bases are covered.

So, if you're looking for a quick way to build lots of different commander decks to fit any occasion, start looking at the cards in your collection that work in lots of different situations and cube them up. Don't be afraid of using staples. Draft your next deck from the cube!

Friday, August 15, 2014

Spotlight: Vedalken Shackles

Vedalken Shackles is repeatable creature steal. Let that sink in.

Vedalken Shackles
Saddy McSadpants

Stealing creatures (and other permanents) has been a blue thing from way back. There are quite a few cards that will let you snag whatever tickles your fancy at the table. And unlike simply killing creatures, stealing creatures is a knife that cuts both ways. Your opponent is now down one creature, but you are up one creature.

Mind Control

For 5 mana, Mind Control gets the job done. But every slot in your deck must do a lot. I'm not a big fan of one-time spells in the Commander format. If it's going to happen once during the game, it better be big, big, big!

ConfiscateVolition Reins

For 6 mana, Confiscate will the job done on any permanent (not only creatures). If you are willing to commit more to blue, you can use Volition Reins to get the job done and even untap the permanent for your trouble.

Control MagicGilded Drake

Want to spend even less mana to get the job done? Reach way back to Control Magic to steal a creature for only 4 mana. At 2 mana, use Gilded Drake. Sure, it's a trade, but you set the terms. Oh, and if the Drake gets killed (or bounced!), you get to keep the creature. Isn't that nice?

Which brings me to Vedalken Shackles. Unlike these other options, the handcuffs are repeatable. If the creature you steal gets dead, as creatures tend to get in this format, your handcuffs are still around to grab the next best creature that shows up.

Oh, but it gets better.

Let's say you slap down the Shackles and leave two mana up instead of snagging a creature right away. If you are running blue, you probably have counterspells. Now, you can still counter something terrible if you need to, but you also have the option of waiting until just before your own turn to steal the best thing at the table before your next untap.

Options are good.

Another fun use for the Shackles is this. Wait until attackers are declared. Is a beating coming your way? Great! Now, activate your handcuffs and grab a blocker from someone else. Block with that dude's creature instead of your own. Thankyouverymuch. Oh, he's open now? I sure hope no one takes advantage of that.

The handcuffs are also a political tool. Has someone at the table created an unassailable wall of creatures? Grab one and let one of your other opponents attack you instead of that guy. When you block with his creature, it gets dead. Rinse and repeat. It's like horrible, repeatable creature killing.

You want more horrible, repeatable creature killing?

(Who wouldn't?)

Altar of DementiaAshnod's Altar

If you have a way to sacrifice creatures, the handcuffs get even better. For 2 mana, you can grab and sacrifice creatures away from your opponents for fun and profit, turn after turn after turn. This works even better if you can untap your Shackles several times per turn with cards like Tezzeret the Seeker, Voltaic Key, and others.

Tezzeret the SeekerVoltaic Key

But it's not all roses.

Unlike the one-shot cards listed above, the Shackles have a restriction on what you can grab. You are limited to grabbing creatures that have a power equal to the number of Islands you control. In a mono-blue deck, that's not a huge restriction really. In two-color and three-color decks, it's probably going to be severely limiting.

Prophet of KruphixSeedborn Muse

The good news is that lots of utility creatures have a relatively low power and a ripe for the taking. Prophet of Kruphix and Seedborn Muse both clock in at a power of 2. These creatures create so much swing that it's downright scary. Of course, in the case of Seedborn Muse, you'll have to re-steal it every turn, but everything untaps so you should have the mana to spare.

Vedalken Shackles isn't going to work in every deck. But, if you are running any sort of creature stealing, it's worth comparing it to what have in those slots right now. The handcuffs have interesting (and interactive) uses that keep the game interesting for everyone. And being able to use them more than once is golden.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Oops! All Demons: Griselbrand Gets a Promo

Griselbrand is still the tippity-top of cool Magic cards in my book. I mean, look at him! He's got crazy scoop-knife things for hands. That's commitment.


But, except for the few short weeks where I actually got to use him as the Commander of my demon-tribal deck, he's been sitting in my collection, starting back at me with those Hello Kitty eyes. It doesn't look like he'll be coming back to the format anytime soon.

Just because he's banned in the Commander format doesn't mean that the flying lifelinker isn't used in other formats. He is busted as hell, after all. If you're looking for things to reanimate, a guy that turns into a fistful of cards and keeps swinging isn't a bad way to go. Thanks to his awesomeness, he's getting a promo card. Check it out!

I do love me some promo cards. They just look so damn good in black.

I keep my demon tribal deck together, waiting for the day I get to sleeve this guy back up. The format has matured quite a bit over the past few years, with lots of new cards printed and new strategies tested. Maybe, just maybe, he'll sneak back in. You can keep up with the comings and goings of the deck here, Oops! All Demons.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Think Multiplication: Commander Decks That Go Big

If you get into the commander format from one of the other formats in Magic, it can be tricky to change the way that you evaluate cards for deckbuilding.

Xenagos, God of Revels

Instead of thinking about addition when you build your deck, think multiplication.

Card Advantage is a fundamental theory of Magic. If you've played competitive Magic for a while, you know all about card advantage. Here's the short version.

Imagine that at the beginning of a game, you get to draw your entire deck and you don't lose for not being able to not draw a card. Your opponent draws a regular hand. And go!

What happens?

Well, your deck becomes super-consistent, for one. You never miss a land drop. You always have the card you need, right when you need it. And, you can put together sick combos without too much trouble. Having access to all of the cards in your deck makes it nearly impossible for you to lose.

Silly right? Now, flip the situation around.

Imagine that at the beginning of a game, you draw a regular hand. But! Your opponent doesn't get to draw any cards, ever.

Now, what happens?

You are likely going to win this game, too. Your opponent will never make a land drop, never have an answer to your threats, and can never assemble a game-winning combo.

In other words, having access to more cards than your opponent means that you have more answers and more options, more consistency, and therefore a higher chance of winning.

So, in a normal game of Magic, how do you get card advantage?

Sign in Blood

There are lots of ways to think about card advantage, including "virtual" card advantage, but for simplicity's sake, consider this. When you cast a spell like Sign in Blood, you use one card (the spell) to get two cards back. You are +1 card. But you actually have 2 new cards since the spell you cast replaced itself.

It's like a minor version of what I described above. You are now ever-so-slightly closer to the situation where you have all the cards in your deck and therefore all of the options. Maybe it allows you to make a land drop you otherwise would have missed. Maybe it gives you the removal spell you needed, right when you needed it. Maybe it even gives you the game-winning combo piece.

This is called incremental card advantage and it's usually the only kind of card advantage you can get consistently. Many competitive decks are built around this concept (or around virtual card advantage).

The reason this works is easy to see. More cards = more options = more winning. In competitive, one-vs-one Magic, your opponent is not only trying to get the same incremental card advantage you are, they are trying to stop you from doing the same. So, it's a battle of little victories. A few cards here. A few cards there. These incremental advantages add up until a critical mass is reached and then boom: we have a winner!

What does this have to do with commander?

CultivateSolemn Simulacrum

Everything! You may be inclined to build a deck that "adds up" these incremental advantages. Popular cards in the format like Cultivate and Solemn Simulacrum do this. There's nothing wrong with it. It's the backbone of getting consistency out of an otherwise unwieldy pile of 100 cards. But at some point in the game, you want to stop adding and start multiplying.

Commander games are won and lost by the most overwhelming positions. In competitive, one-vs-one Magic, games are often won by the person that can force through that one extra attacker, that one extra point of damage, or that one extra counterspell. Commander isn't often like that. It's usually a cataclysmic explosion of card advantage that wins the game.

You don't get killed by one unblocked attacker, you get killed by 1000 trampling tokens. You don't lose to your opponent resolving Ancestral Recall, you lose to your opponent resolving Enter the Infinite. (Hey! That looks familiar.)

Ancestral RecallEnter the Infinite

That sort of thing happens a lot. If not that, it's the "get to 14 mana and take infinite turns with Beacon of Tomorrows and Planar Portal." Or, "Kick Rite of Replication on my Blightsteel Colossus with Warstorm Surge in play." Heck, I get killed by swarms of Pegasus tokens more than is healthy thanks to Stormherd. And don't get me started on Tooth and Nail.

Beacon of TomorrowsPlanar Portal

To put it another way, I can sit around all game long getting incremental advantage and still get blown out by a crashing death wave. You can't counter everything. You can't stop everyone. And by turn 10, everyone will be able to do something crazy, every turn.

Here's a fun combo:

Doubling Season + Almost ANY Planeswalker

Doubling SeasonRal Zarek

How about Planeswalker ultimates the turn they come into play? Seems good, right?

There's nothing incremental about that. It happens and suddenly where there was nothing, there are now game-breaking emblems. Lurking Predators is another card like this. Cast it and pass your turn. By the time it's back around to your attack step, it's clobberin' time.

The best part about this is that overwhelming card advantage is fun! It's more-or-less unique to the slower, multiplayer formats like commander. And, it's an epic way to end games that, if done right, actually make losing exciting.

Incidentally, this is what makes combo so "good" in the commander format. You have all kinds of time to put the combo together. And when it goes off, you are duplicating the situation where you get to do stuff and your opponents do not that I described earlier. Basically, you win because they can't do anything about it. This happens a lot too, but it's not as much fun.

Why does it feel better to lose to a massive army of elf tokens instead of Laboratory Maniac Doomsday combo? I don't know. It just does. At least you are getting attacked. There's some level of interaction. But, to each their own.

The point of all this is that card advantage matters in commander the way it does in other formats, but on a different level. Incremental card advantage, which is a staple of successful decks in other formats, only goes so far here. In this format, you really have to pour it on. You have the turns and mana to get there, so cards like the aforementioned Rite of Replication can swing the game so far into your favor that it's overwhelming. Insurrection often does the same. Genesis Wave is nuts.

Rite of ReplicationGenesis Wave

Here's an exercise: Go through your deck and identify if a card is there to give you incremental advantage or if it gives you mind-shattering, game-breaking, crippling advantage. If the second pile is looking weak, you aren't doing yourself any favors. And, you probably aren't making the game fun for everyone else either.