Wednesday, December 5, 2012

An Aggressive Player Plays Control

My favorite way to train for playing Magic is making up a mock deck and playing with it a lot. It helps Mike (who is often playtesting as well as training) and gives me invaluable information. For example, in a recent tournament, I was playing against a blue/red deck that absolutely fizzled. The player cast lots of Brainstorms and Ponders, but never really cast anything else. Now, I had played with a particular red/blue deck called Show and Tell (maybe you’ve heard of it) and, taking an educated guess, I sideboarded against Show and Tell and, lo and behold, game two he tried to resolve a Show and Tell. Playing other decks, and not just the ones I’ll be piloting, is a great exercise.
It also helps me understand the underlying structure of the game. Everyone knows the basic phases of Magic; Untap, Upkeep, Draw, Main Phase I, Combat Phase, Main Phase II, and End Step. But, there’s lots of little tiny steps embedded within those phases. For example, the Combat Phase is broken up into Subphases. There’s Declare Attackers, Declare Blockers, and then priority passes to the Attacker, who is then able to cast Instants or activate abilities, and then, if the Attacker does something, priority passes to the Defender, and back and forth it goes until someone doesn’t cast something. Then everything resolves in reverse, starting with the last spell cast, then, and finally, damage is resolved instantaneously and at the same time. Creatures die, Lifepoints are lost (and/or gained), and then we move to Main Phase II.
Without this deeper understanding of the game’s underlying mechanic, a player can be caught be surprise when his opponent flashes in Snapcaster, giving Flashback to his Swords to Plowshares, and then Exile his big, ole Tarmagoyf, and finally blocks his Deathright Shaman. Or why it’s generally good to cast permanents in Main Phase II, just in case he needs some mana for something that happen during Combat.
This is really tangential, but it sets the tone for the rest of the article, because, you see, for the past two or three months, I've only been piloting super aggressive decks. For tournaments I've been taking Goblins. Currently, I’m tweaking a BG or BUG Infect deck which wants to resolve a creature and then slam for lethal next turn. In other words, I've been steeping in aggression.
So, Mike comes over for dinner and we bust out our decks. He had had a rough time in the last tournament, losing to RUG Delver, so I thought I’d play that while he played his B/W Stoneforge/Miracle/whatever-he-calls-it-that-week. Turn One I played a land and Brainstormed. Mike laughed.
“Dude, that’s a bad Brainstorm.”
I had no idea what he was talking about. I set a land and then resolved a spell! How is that NOT a good thing?!
I drew and then pondered (no pun intended, seriously) what to keep and what put back for about ten seconds. Mike laughed again.
“Dude, you are so not a Control player! I would have known what to put back before I cast that Brainstorm.”
And that’s when it hit me. I was playing like an aggressive player.
The entire mentality behind playing an aggressive deck is “RESOLVE EVERYTHING!” I love playing Goblins and sitting there with one mana. I love it. I got my Goblin Lackey and my Aether Vial is ticked up to three. I am sitting pretty! I use Aether Vial to cast my Goblin Matron, get Goblin Warchief, then hit with the Lackey so I can play that Warchief and then resolve Goblin Piledriver since its only one red mana now! Perfect!
See, when playing an aggressive deck, you play the cards your dealt. You’re deck is your ally. You play what your deck gives you. Sometimes your deck is mean and just gives you land, but sometimes it’s your friend and gives you what you need right when you need it. It’s much more of a partnership, which is why aggressive decks need to be cheap mana decks. You can’t be sitting there with four mountains and three creatures in your opening hand that are all above three mana. That sounds good, of course. How could having three creatures and the mana to cast them not be good? Because you might not be playing anything for three whole turns! That’s a mediocre keep at best and a whole lot of nothing at worst. The best is one land and tons of one mana spells. Maybe the odd two or three mana spells, but those should be in the minority. Aggressive decks need to be, well, aggressive.
Control decks are another matter entirely. Just because you can resolve that Brainstorm on turn one, doesn’t mean you should. Brainstorms are powerful because you can shuffle away junk cards with a fetch land, or you can set up a Delver to flip on turn two, or reveal a Miracle card on your opponents turn, or go digging for that win-con. It takes a lot of forethought to play Control because, in many ways, your deck is, at best, your slave and, at worst, your most immediate opponent.
Control decks are incredibly contextual. For mono-red, a burn spell is a burn spell. In a Control deck, a Brainstorm is either your best card or a weight around your neck.
“Looking for Entreat the Angels, are we?” Your deck says, “Here are a land and two more Brainstorms!”
Then again, you’re deck might say, “Hey, man! Your opponent has a lot of creatures, huh? Here’s a Terminus! You can thank me when we win this thing, pal!”
It’s much less of a partnership and more of a wrestling match.
My point is this; your mentality is a great determiner of how you play.  If you pilot a Control deck like an Aggressive deck, you aren't playing to its strengths. If you play safely with an Aggressive deck, you’ll find yourself quickly outstripped by your opponent.
The best piece of advice I ever heard about playing an Aggressive deck was an off-handed comment by Mike, when I was deciding whether to try to resolve a Goblin Matron and risk it being countered. He said, in a flippant manner, “Might as well resolve it now.” Every time I stare down a possible counter, I always say to repeat that to myself. 
This is a piece of advice from an Aggressive player who plays Control.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Lifelink, Livewire, and Your Lifepoints

My wife plays Magic, bless her, and she has an unhealthy attachment to Lifelink.


If there’s an angel that is both pretty and has Lifelink, she’s all over it.

And, of course, not being a total newb at this game, I make fun of her for it. “Pff! Lifelink! Yeah… Good luck with that one,” I say as I pull out the deck I’ve been brewing and playtesting by myself for days. And then, when she wins because she has forty lifepoints and a ton of flying beaters, I think to myself, “What the crap?!”

So, to that end, in honor of my wife, I was thinking about Lifelink and whether or not I could make a Lifelink deck.

The jury is still out, but I have an idea or two.

Lifelink + Livewire Lash + Mutagenic Growth

So, Lifelink gives you life every time that creature does damage. The wording is very important because it says “that creature.” So, let’s say you have Seraph of Dawn, 2/4 flying angel with Lifelink. That means whenever Seraph deals damage, any damage, you gain two life. If you pump it with something like Mutagenic Growth, which gives +2/+2, she does four damage and you gain four life.

So, let’s say you equip Livewire Lash (all you advanced players out there see where I’m going?). Livewire is an equipment that gives +2/+0 and the ability “Whenever this creature becomes the target of a spell, this creature deals 2 damage to target creature or player,” which means, if someone tries to kill your card with Doom Blade, before Seraph dies, she does two points of damage to a creature or player.

So, let’s say we equip Livewire onto Seraph. Seraph then becomes a +4/+2 flying angel with Lifelink. Then, we attack! She’s going in for four points of flying damage and you’re about to get four lifepoints back, but wait! Before we start calculating damage, and after our opponent declares blockers, we pay two life and buff Seraph with Mutagenic Growth using its Phyrexian mana cost (which means we pay two life instead of using green mana.) Instantly, Serpah becomes a 6/4 angel and we get to deal two points of damage to our opponent and gain the two points we lost paying for Mutagenic Growth. So, now we calculate damage. Seraph now deals six points of damage and we get six points back. All in all, on that one attack, we’ve dealt a total of eight points and gained six!

However, there are a few problems. Livewire takes two mana to play and two to equip, mean that we’re really not going to be equipping anything until at least turn three. Assuming we get a cheap creature, like Sunspear Shikari (two mana, one white 2/2 Cat) we can assume the play will be: turn one; land, go. Turn two; land, resolve Sunspear, go. Turn three; resolve Livewire, go. Turn four; equip, attack, Mutagenic Growth, deal six damage, heal six lifepoints.

This is a bit slow.

You could use Serra Ascendant (one white 1/1 Human Monk which then becomes a 6/6 if you have more than 40 life), but you’re still stuck doing damage on turn three. All of your mana is going to be used creating this thing. All of your eggs are in one basket and that basket could get Doom Bladed!
This is definitely a thing to do when you’re messing around with your friends (or your wife, or husband, girlfriend, boyfriend, reluctant sister), but you’re not going to be taking it to any tournaments.

So, anyway, that’s one idea for creating a Lifelink deck.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Team Legacy: More Lessons Learned

The Team Tournament was an all-nighter starting from midnight and going until after 5:00. I loaded up on caffeine, onigiri, and sandwiches. I was ready. I had been working on plays, strategies, and all sorts of contingencies with the Burn deck. I looked up decks, played against Mike, and watched videos on YouTube involving Burn decks or decks that I would be up against. I was golden.

Then, I started my first match.

I had never seen Zoo. It never came up in any matchups I watched. Mike never said a word about. Zoo runs creatures which interact with your land. For example, Loam Lion gets +1/+2 if you control a Forest. Wild Nactal gets +1/+1 if you control a Mountain a +1/+1 if you control a Plain. Meaning, it gets +2/+2 if you control both.

It also runs Tarmogoyf. Tarmogoyf gets x/x+1 for every type of card in your graveyard. Which means that if you have a sorcery, an instant, and a creature in your graveyard, Tarmogoyf is a 3/4. On turn two. Add in Knight of the Reliquary, which lets you sacrifice a Forest or a Plain and then search for a land card and put it onto the battlefield untapped, adds another land type to your graveyard and gets +1/+1 for every land in your graveyard.


Anyway, it’s a beater deck. And he put me on a much faster clock than I had him on. He would play Tarmogoyf on turn two, hit me, two or three times, maybe resolve a Knight or something, and then use burn spells to finish me off. It was quick.

So, we started sideboarding. I thought, “Sweepers and Blood Moon!” The sweeper I sideboarded was Volcanic Fallout. It’s a three mana, two red, Instant that does two damage to everything; players and creatures. Probably not the best sweeper, but I’m new to sideboarding.

Anyway, we shuffle, cut, draw seven cards. I kept a normal Burn hand: a single mountain, Goblin Guide, and some burn spells. He says, “Keepu” (because, you know, he’s Japanese) and I said, “Keep,” (because, you know, I’m American) and I was about to play my first land when he held up his hand and said, “Sutopu (stop).” He reached into his hand, and played……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………. Leyline of Sanctity.

Yup. You read that right. Leyline of frakin’-Sanctity! I almost quit right then. I turned to Mike and said, “Remember what we talked about earlier? It happened.” I was toast.

However, I wanted to play.

Now, I couldn’t shoot burn spells to his head, so I decided to kill off his creatures and then hit him with my own. I hit him with double Goblin Guides, Keldon Marauders, and Hellspark.
I got him down to, get this, three lifepoints. That’s right… three lifepoints! With creatures and Volanic Fallout (since the damage is done to everything, without specifying a target, Leyline can’t prevent it). So, he’s within three points and I only draw burn spells and mountains. He resolves Tarmogoyf and Knight of the Reliquary, then burns me to death.

It took my five minutes after the game ended to realize that I had forgotten to flashback the Hellspark Elemental.

He had three lifepoints left and I had a 3/1 with haste and trample just waiting to come back into play and I forgot to play it!

Lesson learned: when playing Burn, remember what’s in your graveyard and use it.

Needless to say, I lost.

We took a break. I bought a playmat. Then we started again.

So, I sit down in front of my next opponent and we start playing. We keep our hands and then he starts. He draws, drops a Swamp, and plays Entomb.

Yup, that deck.

Then he searches for, and dumps into his graveyard……………………………………………………… Griselbrand.

Yeah, that card.

My turn. I play a Mountain, resolve a Goblin Guide, and get in for two. Next turn, he drops a second Swamp and he Exumes………………………………………………….. (is this annoying yet?) Griselbrand!

Now, I need to preface what I did. Before we started playing, the shop owner announced that the first player to have two creatures killed that match will get a brand spankin’ new Avacyn Restored fatpack. Now, back to the game. My Goblin Guide (2/2) is staring down a flying Griselbrand (7/7). What do I decide to do? Well, I wanted the fatpack, and I figured, in this case, a dead Goblin is better than a bored one, so I ran him into Griselbrand. Of course, I forgot about the Lifelink.

I forgot about the Lifelink!


I lost.

I tried sideboarding grave-hate. I put Surgical Extraction in. Basically, I pay two lifepoints and then name a card in my opponent’s graveyard. I then search his graveyard, library, and hand for copies of that card and then exile them all. Perfect! I wait until he tries to Exhume Griselbrand, I play Surgical Extraction, I exile all of his Griselbrands, and he wastes an Exhume!

Yeah, if I had mulliganed until I had it.

Lesson learned: if you need hate, mulligan until you have it.

I lost… again.

I hang out, watch some people play, and then we started game three.
There’s not a lot I can say about the next game. Have you ever heard The World? Nope? Me neither. Neither has anyone else. My opponent had brewed it himself. I can’t really say much, except that it was a blue green agro deck.

It hurt.

I lost.

And then lost again.

It’s 4:00am. I’m running low on energy. I’ve given up using what little Japanese I know and just started nodding whenever someone started talking to me.

Now, I would like to say that I had a fourth game. But, I really didn’t. Here’s why: mono-blue Hightide.
I really don’t know how this deck works. All I really remember was a lot of tapping and untapping of Islands, Sensei’s Diving Top, and Temporal Spiral. He played a single Japanese card and just stopped, holding it in front of me. I nudged Mike, asked him what it was, and all he did was shake his head and said, 

“It’s over. Scoop.”

I put in some blue hate and Pyrostatic Pillar, which is an enchantment that does 2 damage to a player every time they play a spell that has a converted mana cost of three or less. Now, Hightide uses a lot of one and two mana drops. So, I figured, that using Pyrostatic Pillar would lock them down, and then I’d use Pyroblast to destroy a blue permanent or cancel Hightide or Temporal Spiral. Of course, that would have worked, if I had mulliganed to it.

Lesson learned a second time.

However, I did actually win that one. He didn’t get all the pieces together right away.
We started game three and, the next thing I know, he started ramping up his mana and playing Sensei’s Diving Top a lot. His turn took five minutes. I was so bored I started watching Mike’s game.

I lost again.

So, that’s it. I lost every match and maybe won one or two games.

However, when all was said and done, I prefer losing because of my mistakes. I can change those. When I lose because I’m dumb, I can learn and get smarter. When I get bashed because I made a bad play, I learn to make the good plays.

When it comes to getting better, losing is always preferable to winning. You learn when you lose. You grow and get better. No one ever got better because they smashed their opponents every time. You only get better when you remember your mistakes and then learn from.

That was the most important lesson I learned.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Team Legacy: Lessons Learned

So, I went to my second Team Legacy tournament recently. Of course, everything was in Japanese; the players pretty much only speak Japanese, most play Japanese cards, and all of the announcements are in Japanese. The one upside to not speaking Japanese is that everyone thinks you’re six years-old, so they let you get away with things, like untapping a forgotten land after you’ve drawn, etc.
And this is one of the reasons why I like geeks and nerds; they’re nice. Seriously. Perhaps one in three or four are jerks, but on the whole, they’re patient with you because they actually want you to learn to play well. They want you to be good so that they can beat you. They figure, “If this guy learns to play, I’ll have someone else to play with!” It really works to their advantage to be nice.
Now, before we even got to the tournament, Mike and I were practicing. He was using different decks, putting me through my paces. We got on the topic of really bad match-ups with Burn decks. The first thing we talked about was Leyline of Sanctity: four mana, two white enchantment. If it’s in your opening hand, you can put that on the board for free. Soon as that resolves, you can’t be the target of spells or abilities that your opponent controls. That means, when you’re playing against a Burn deck, you can’t get hit by over half their deck, since they rely on spells that do direct damage. That means, when you’re playing with a Burn deck, you say, “Good game!” and scoop. However, as you will see in the next post, that may not always be the case.
The second thing we talked about was the Dredge deck. This deck revolves around two things, the card Bridge from Below and the mechanic Dredge. If a creature gets put into your graveyard, and Bridge to Below is there as well, you can put a 2/2 Zombie token onto the battlefield.
Here’s the crazy part.
The mechanic Dredge basically allows you to play a creature from your graveyard if you put a certain amount of cards from the top of your Library into the graveyard (for example, if the card says Dredge 2, you put two cards from your Library into your graveyard. Dredge 3 means three cards and so on.) Now, I want you to understand this. You have Bridge to Below in your graveyard and a card with Dredge 6. You put six cards from your Library into your graveyard and, oh look! Three of those cards are creatures! Yaaay! That’s three freaking 2/2 Zombie tokens! And, oh look! All three of those creatures have Dredge! More free Zombie tokens! Hooray!
Just sick.
So, that’s what we talked about.
So, we made it to the card shop. People were milling about, drafting the new Avacyn Restored set, trading, playing, and basically geeking it up. Magic cards were spread out across tables, empty packs littered the floor and, in the center of it all, singles and packs of the new set.
I’ve been trying to keep abreast of all of the new cards coming out and, I have to say, I’m rather unimpressed. There are a few cards I like. Being a Burn player, I like quick spells, so Vexing Demon is one of my favorite cards of the new set. It’s a red mana 4/4 creature with an interesting quirk. As it resolves, your opponent gets to decide whether or not it gets to stay on the board. If they say “no,” Vexing Demon does 4 damage to your opponent and then goes into the graveyard. If they say “yes,” it gets to stick and starts hitting for four damage on turn two! That means, you get to either play a turn one kicked Burst Lightning or having a 4/4 creature punching your opponent in the face before they can lay down anything that really can block it. Sure, it can get Doom Bladed, Vapor Snagged, or whatever, but the point is this thing is a beater’s beater.
Almost everything else about the set is super slow or just… strange. Take Avacyn, Angel of Hope. Avacyn is supposed to be the protagonist of this set. She’s been released from the Helavault and is pushing back the forces of darkness that have descended upon Innistrad.
So, you’d expect Avacyn to be sick! However, that’s not the case. She’s an eight mana, three white flying angel. That means you’re only going to be really playing this in mono-white decks. That also means you’re playing that on turn eight. This isn’t unheard of in Standard, but it’s useless in Legacy. Legacy has decks with turn one wins. Perhaps if they had included a Miracle cost (which means that if this is the first card you draw in a turn, you get to play it for a lot cheaper) it might be worth putting in a deck, but it’s cost practically guarantees it will see zero play in Legacy. Maybe EDH, but I don’t know that format at all.
So, as if its cost wasn’t bad enough, when it resolves, all of your creatures are indestructible. “Oh, my gosh!” You say. “My creatures won’t die! Awesome!” Yeah, you’re little 1/1 will bounce off a 2/2 and visa-versa. Good job.
Again, if Avacyn had a Miracle cost, I would say, “Cool!” But, seriously, all of your creatures have indestructible on turn eight. Turn eight. If your opponent is saving anything for turn eight, it’ll be a Vapor Snag (in Standard) or a Swords to Plowshares (in Legacy), in which case, your big ole’ creature has indestructible for about three seconds. Yay.
However, the flavor of the card makes sense. Avacyn breaks through the clouds, holds up her staff, and all of the forces of light are invincible! This is an example of a card that has great flavor, but is ultimately useless.
Griselbrand, on the other hand, is exactly the opposite. It’s a 7/7 flying demon… with lifelink. Lifelink! Why would a demon be healing anything?! “I am Griselbrand, the doom of all mankind! Join me and I will make the boo-boo all better!”
Sorry. No.
However, it has another ability. You pay seven life and draw seven cards. If you’re playing Reanimate, this card should be wrinkly from all the drool dripping off your chin. Here’s how it ideally goes: turn one, you lay a Swamp and then play Entomb, which allows you to search your Library for a creature card and put it into the graveyard.
You will be putting Griselbrand there.
Your opponent will do something cute, like playing a 1/1 or a 2/2, maybe a burn, or whatever. Turn two; you lay a another Swamp and you play either Reanimate for one or Exhume for two. Bam! Griselbrand on turn two! You pay seven life then draw seven cards. You have five cards in your hand. You put five into your graveyard, since you can’t have more than seven cards in your hand at the end of the turn. Therefore, you put all of the creatures from your hand into your graveyard, keeping any Reanimates or Exhumes. Next time it’s your turn, you attack, gaining back that seven life (plus any life from damage you did while blocking on their turn). And, then, you do it all over again.
Insane and crazy!
This is the perfect example of a creature with terrible flavor, but a great ability, especially for Reanimate decks.
So, the meta-game (meta-game being the list of decks that are played within an environment) in the card shop has both Dredge, Reanimate, and decks that can run Leyline of Sanctities. That is what I was up against and I will tell you the results in the next installment.