Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Threat Assessment?

The Most Critical Skill in Multiplayer is Threat Assessment
(The Ferret)

There are skills that you need to either have innate or need to develop quite quickly in order to appreciate multiplayer Magic. Things like good cards and bad cards come quite quickly, either alone or through some helpful advice. How to build a multiplayer deck is another that comes up quite often but none of those are anywhere near as important as the Critical Skill posited by multiplayer genius, The Ferret: Threat Assessment. I won't be able to go into the depth that the Ferret could in his articles (click the links for some happy hours reading up on multiplayer!) but I can share a coulpe of ideas on this topic with you. Here we go:

1.) Random targetting

Why is this even on a list of ideas to do with threat assessment? It seems to have very little to do with threat assessment. Well, it's probably one of the biggest red-flags you can get that someone doesn't know how to evaluate threats correctly. Oftentimes it will be "Who do I attack?" rather than "Who's going get to my Curse of the Cabal?" While there can be a thrill of having a loose cannon, or a permanent Grip of Chaos, at your table, more often than not it's going to be hideously annoying to see someone who could solve the current game-state problem fail utterly by simply choosing incorrect targets, fail to put pressure on someone who needs to be pressured or simply fail to do anything at all. There's always a best play, a risky play with potential to be swingy and a long list of sub-optimal plays. Incorrect threat assessment generally means that you either make a sub-optimal play or are forced to make a risky play. Failure to make the correct play this turn may force you to make a risky or incorrect call next turn when you are forced to choose between plays. Had you nipped the threat in the bud the previous turn, you'd be in a much better place coming into this turn. If someone at your table is randomly choosing who to attack or target, it means they are unable to correctly assess who, if anyone, should be the subject of their attention and force the rest of the table to scramble.

2.) Reading the current game state

Who's about to make a move? Who needs to be stopped this turn? Who is slowly building up a dangerous board position? Who can stop player X or Y and will they? What is the board telling me? What resources are available to that player: Hand, Graveyard, Mana, Creatures, etc.?

All of this is fine during the current turn however one of the key elements to threat assessment is that it's fluid, always changing. Failure to re-asses the game state each turn is as much an error as initially reading the game-state incorrectly. The threat on turns 1-5 will not necessarily be the same as the threat on turns 5-10 and most assuredly not the same as the threat from turn 10 onwards. Each turn shifts the balance of the game towards and away from different players and those assessors who get stuck on one player as the biggest threat may find that some else has snuck up behind them.

3.) Potential, Fear or Underestimation

A lot goes into the construction of an EDH deck and it always helps to know what strategy someone is playing. Part of the threat assessment is asking "What can player X do in the next turn?" The Sam Black Azusa deck we saw last week loves an early Primeval Titan because it allows for an early Eldrazi legend. The potential formed by a turn 2 or 3 Titan is hugely explosive and the game must revolve around killing it before it gets the 2-mana lands and Eye of Ugin into play.
Poison is another strategy that hasn't been explored much in EDH yet and the format will be sorely tested. A player attacks you with a 4/4 in the early game and has access to BG or GG. Any of your creatures would die in combat to it so you're probably just going to take the 4 damage, especially in the early game, right? And if your Nath of the Gilt Leaf opponent shows Tainted Strike and Berserk (as happened in our game at lunch today) you're already out of the game unless you have removal or a counterspell. You can never rule out the possibility that a deck previously dedicated to playing lots of little Elves won't suddenly put a Grafted Exoskeleton onto his Vulturous Zombie and kill you.

On the other side of the coin is the fear of big plays. You've seen a deck make the big play again and again, of course you're going to do what you can to stop it but is stopping it now to the exclusion of the rest of the table the correct threat assessment for this turn? Most likely not. A player puts a Darksteel Forge onto an otherwise unimpressive table, you'd be disinclined to waste a counterspell on it. Unfortunatly, the following turn Cloud Key meets Etherium Sculptor meets another host of discounted artifacts and suddenly the Counterspell you held in hand when you let the Forge through is insufficient to stem the tide and your Nevinyrral's Disk isn't cleaning up the table like is should.

You can't account for everything. In EDH the format allows for too many possibilities however good sense can usually dictate that certain plays are traps and you should be careful.

4.) Emotion: Revenge, Logic and Predjuice

Emotion is an extremely powerful motivator. It's also excellent at helping us hide things from ourselves we don't want to accept or helping us overlook things that we should be seeing but can't because we're intent on another target. We aren't Spock. We aren't exclusively logical beings. We ceed to our emotions and act upon those impulses. However, if we're looking for the best play and attempting a correct threat assessment we need to take a step back and distance ourselves from Tit-for-Tat retaliation or prejudice be it against a player, a deck or a game action. How many times have you heard the following:

"You attacked me so I'm attacking you back!"
"You're playing Islands. 'Nuff said!"
"You always win, Sheldon, I'm taking you out!" [Yeah right! Get with it Armada Games guys!]

This is all incorrect threat assessment. Ok, you may luck out that it's the right play but, if it's for the wrong reasons, it will be the wrong play more often than not. You don't need to be Spock, but you do need to rise above these impulses and kill the right person before you can give in and indulge in some smashy-smashy.

5.) What to do?

Right, you or one of your group suffers from poor Threat Assessment, what can you do? Start with a checklist, list out the things that need to be considered and run down through them quickly. It's not fool-proof but it should help you check-down without missing anythign major (accepting that you can't know your opponent's cards in hand. Here's one I found on the EDH boards and changed up to suit my group:

1. Your general
2. Your opponent's generals
3. What deck-style are they & cards you've seen them play before
4. Cards in hand
5. Life totals/general damage accumulated
6. Contents of graveyards
7. Current board positions

You should be able to fly through the first three during mulliganing & while the early game is happening so that, when things start moving, you already have certain facts fixed in your head and you can concentrate on numbers 4-7 as they develop throughout the game never forgetting to drop back to #1 and start the check regularly. That shoud help avoid any "Duh!" moments as your opponent plays his forgotten Rafiq of the Many to make his dangerous dude lethal.

That's about it for my brief overview of Threat Assessment. Have a read of the articles linked above and I highly recommend that you read through these on the same topic, again all by the Ferret:

Attacking the Right Guy
How to Speak Deckese
Why Are You Attacking Me?

And when you've done all that, maybe it'll be time to talk about the Second Most Fundamental Skill In Multiplayer!

Thursday, 21 October 2010

U/w Banefire - Ideas for the new Extended

Lorwyn, extended Grandaddy

In accordance with the Wizards policy change back before PT Amsterdam, as of the Scars of Mirrodin the extended format will rotate to include only 4 years of sets. Whatever your thoughts on the merits of this change are, one thing is sure: there are a LOT less cards in extended. Pro Tour Amsterdam brought us the welcome news that White Weenie decks can actually win high profile events and confirmed what we suspected about Doran being a complete house. That format included everything from Time Spiral Block onwards. Our new format, with the rotation in of Scars of Mirrodin block and rotation out of TSP block changes a few things. Here are the legal sets as of today:

•Lorwyn •Morningtide •Shadowmoor •Eventide
•Shards of Alara •Conflux •Alara Reborn
•Magic 2010
•Zendikar •Worldwake •Rise of the Eldrazi
•Magic 2011
•Scars of Mirrodin

Bye bye baby!
 Now, whenever a block rotates out of a format, there's always a huge cry about what we're losing from that block that will change everything. The two finalists, Brad Nelson & Paul Rietzl, were playing Doran and WW respectively. Of those two decks, the total list of cards from TSP block that will not be present in the "newer" extended are:

4 Tarmagoyf
2 Slaughter Pact
2 Mana Tithe
4 Flagstones of Trokair

Kai Budde (WW), Brian Kibler (Doran), Thomas Ma (Jund) are similiarly unaffected though Ma loses Grove of the Burnwillows and Marijn Lybaert 's deck only loses 4x Lord of Atlantis. In fact, the only two decks in the top 8 that curse the rotation were Guillaume Wafo-Tapa & Michael Jacob's Mystical Teachings control decks that lose a slew of silver bullets as well as the namesake Teachings. Have a look at the list of top decks and you'd be hard-pressed to find many that lost more than 3 cards outside of obvious losers like Teachings. Sure, everyone's going to feel the pinch of Tarmogoyf rotating out and Guillaume will be sad not to be able to play Teachings in extended (again) next season, but, while there's a new rotation, there's more a feeling of adjustment than having new gaping holes in the metagame. I suspect that the Lorwyn/Shadowmoor rotation will be felt a lot more keenly but that's a problem for next year.

Never imagined you'd be trading for these, eh?

What's probably most important is what didn't rotate out due to Shadowmoor sticking around another season and that's Pili-Pala. I know, you're stunned too that it didn't get the insta-ban that Sword of the Meek and Dark Depths did when the format rotated coming into Amsterdam. I mean, if Dark Depths is a turn 2 or 3, 20/20 flying, indestructible Legend, who cares about infinite mana on turn 3, right?

What the hell am I talking about!! Scars of Mirrodin has given us a card that allows us, with the help of Pili-Pala, to have infinite mana of any colour or mix of colours on turn 3 in the new extended. I'm sure that, if you tried extra hard, you could get it on turn 2, but I suspect that the hoops you'd need to jump through and the subsequent instability of your deck basically precludes any version of this deck from aggressively seeking to combo out on turn 2. And it's all down to Pili-Pala. Here's a tip for next year's extended season: Kill Pili-Pala on sight, it's a fragile 1/1 after all.

What's the SOM card that allows such potential degenerecy in new Extended? Grand Architect.

Feeling Blue
Grand Architect is a "blue creature" lord, a boosting ability that only exists for the colour blue (rather than for a blue based creature-type like Merfolk) on 4 other cards, the four hybrid "Liege" cards that contain blue. It has an activated ability that grants "blue" to lord something non-blue for the cost of 1 blue mana. However, it's the final ability that captures our attention:
Tap an untapped blue creature you control: Add 2 to your mana pool. Spend this mana only to cast artifact spells or activate abilities of artifacts
Grand Architect gives us Workshop mana. This ability is an activated ability which taps a blue creature as a cost, it doesn't require the blue creature to be able to tap itself so it will work on a creature that's summoning sick. The ability to turn a non-blue creature blue essentially allows you to "turn on" any creature or, in other terms, turn {U} into {2}. As the Grand Architect himself is a blue creature, you can pay {1UU} and get {2} back immediatly

This is very important in the case of Pili-Pala as it would otherwise be unable to tap for {2}. The {Q} ability is essentially the {Tap} ability in reverse and the usual rules apply with regards to summoning sickness. The first turn it's in play, it's essentially just a 1/1 or, at best, a "{U->2}" target for the Grand Architect. Once it's no longer summoning sick and has become blue through the Grand Architect's ability, it can tap for {2} and use it's {Q} ability to untap itsself for a mana of the colour of your choice. Now you have your infinite mana combo: once the Pili-Pala is untapped, you can repeat the process infinite times or until you are disrupted.

From this, 2 questions arise:
1.) How can I get this into play quickly enough to be relevant?
2.) What do I do with all that mana?

1.) How can I get this into play quickly enough to be relevant? We need to have relevant blue creatures and artifacts: we're looking to use one to play the other. Something like Cursecatcher is worth a look at 1cc for both accelleration with the Architect and protection for your Pili-Pala / Architect combo. Something that's both an artifact and blue is Etherium Sculptor. He obviously interacts well with Grand Architect, both creating mana from the ability and being castable off mana generated from the ability. In addition, he allows for some quite stupid plays by reducing the cost of your artifacts by one, essentially reading: "Tap: Add 3. Spend this only on artifact spells." This, in turn, fuels larger Everflowing Chalices and any potential high-end artifact finishers you choose to run. Here's a rough sketch of what this deck could look like: 

4 Mox Opal

4 Everflowing Chalice
4 Springleaf Drum

4 Cursecatcher
4 Pili-Pala
4 Etherium Sculptor
4 Trinket Mage
4 Grand Architect

Other: (6)
X Wurmcoil Engine
Y Inkwell Leviathan
Z Things to get with Trinket Mage apart from Opal/Chalice/Drum

22 Islands

Now, that's just a 2 minute sketch-up using the possiblity of a turn 3 Inkwell Leviathan or Wurmcoil Engine as your goal. Looking at the turn breakdown, it could run something like:

Hand #1
Turn 1: Island, Springleaf Drum
Turn 2: Island, Etherium Sculptor, Pili-Pala
Turn 3: Island, Grand Architect, get U from the Sculptor off the Drum, turn on the Pili-Pala and gain infinite mana.

Or equally:

Hand #2
Turn 1: Island, Cursecatcher

Turn 2: Island, Etherium Sculptor, Springleaf Drum/Chalice at 0, Mox Opal, Pili-Pala*
Turn 3: Island, Grand Architect**

*Obviously not a perfect play and it's a very specific hand, though the Cursecatcher essentially wins you a turn to smooth out the draw or forces your opponent to spend a spell to kill your Sculptor or the Cursecatcher itself.
** The obvious downside of your turn two in Hand #2 is that your hand is now empty if you are on the play or contains only a single card on the draw. It's possible that you can run your turn 3 here without the Island and still go infinite giving you a potential maximum of 2 cards in hand on the draw. Hand #1 allows for 2 remaining cards in your hand on the play and 3 cards on the draw.

Both hands give the potential for your endgame play of Inkwell Leviathan or Wurmcoil Engine on turn 3 should you have one in hand.

2.) What do I do with all that mana? I mean, are we really going to just settle for Leviathans and Wurmcoils when we can produce infinite mana? There are a lot of X spells remaining in the format and two in particular are very exciting for us:

If the remaining card in hand when we go infinite is Mind Spring, we can draw our deck (counting carefully of course!), find our copy of Banefire (or Comet Storm) and deal infinite damage. Don't forget that the Pili-Pala produces mana of any colour so you can choose to add some R in your infinite mana. This seems like a strategy much less likely to get disrupted and we can cheat down on finisher spells by replacing them with Mind Springs to work some redundancy or protection into our decklist. Let's face it, someone is going to kill our Pili-Palas, Etherium Sculptors and Grand Architects at some point and we're going to want them back. It seems logical to include cards that can recycle artifacts and creatures with low power from our graveyards back into our hand or into play. I'm thinking mainly about Reveillark and Sanctum Gargoyle here.

A nice interaction between these two is that Reveillark can recur the Gargoyle. It's entirely possible that your opponent will run disruption for your early plays yet be unable to handle Reveillark bringing back Gargoyle and another creature, e.g.: an Architect, and have a third artifact (a Pili-Pala, Drum, Mox or Sculptor) come back to your hand. The focus of the deck when adding both red, for Banefire, and white, for Reveillark and Sanctum Gargoyle, must be stability & potential all throughout the game while keeping the ability to just go infinite on turn 3 intact. Another potential all-star blue creature that also interacts with artifacts is Riddlesmith. I'm still cooking the numbers with him but he's a sop to the almost complete absence of any card drawing and his potential to mix in nicely with both Reveillark's and Sanctum Gargoyle's abilities. Here's what I'm looking at:

1 Mountain
2 Plains
8 Islands
4 Scalding Tarn
3 Arid Mesa
2 Seachrome Coast
2 Glacial Fortress

3 Mox Opal
3 Springleaf Drum
3 Everflowing Chalice

Arifact Creatures:
4 Pili-Pala
4 Etherium Sculptor
2 Sanctum Gargoyle

3 Cursecatcher
2 Riddlesmith
3 Trinket Mage
4 Grand Architect
3 Reveillark

3 Mind Spring
1 Banefire

The sideboard remains open to transform into a more aggressive strategy with Master of Etherium and Lodestone Golem while still being flexible enough to add some silver bullets for Trinket Mage to find. I'm thinking of Pithing Needle, Brittle Effigy, Chimeric Mass or similiar.

Feel free to totally rip this list and test it yourself. I'd be interested in hearing what changes and ideas you can come up with before serious testing starts.

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

This is not a combo.

Dear Antoine,

This is not a combo. It's what's known as a "Bombo", i.e.: It's a combo that "bombs out". Bombing out is generally not good. It can be read as "Fail". It's not that either card is bad seperately, but one does not find eth other in a deck where you really want one to find the other.

This is not a bad play like Marc's "Overrun as an instant" (which is becoming quite funny to be honest) or Arnaud's Aether Vial, it's just something that doesn't go well together. Like Pineapple and Pizza. What you need are anchovies. Lots of anchovies. Or roblochon cheese. That would be full of win. Again, probably not in your Mayael deck as the sleeves would get sticky and the cards would get manky, but for Pizza it's fine.

Roblochon cheese reminds me of smelly cheese. Smelly cheese reminds me of "whiffing". Whiffing is what I was doing whenever I activated Mayael. I presume it's the same for you when you play the deck. Activating your Mayael creates a bad smell, even when I get to spin it like a roulette wheel before looking at the top 5 cards.


I promise to lend you lots of cards for your deck.


Monday, 18 October 2010

Another take on Azusa - Sam Black's 60 land Azusa

Sam Black's take on Azusa, Lost but Seeking.

I have spent a lot of time fiddling with my own version of Azusa and am pretty happy with it as a whole. It's a deck that can be stupidly good or can succumb to average draws but still have hope of pulling a game out of nowhere with a big turn. I'm a big believer in the idea that you can take some risks and have them pay off for you because you're using cards that, though they seem symetrical, you're gaining a lot more benefit from than their symmetry would suggest. Obvious examples of this are Horn of Greed and Aluren where opponents can potentially get a good amount of value out of their effects but nothing like what you can with your increased land drops and potential to spiral into combos with Cloudstone Curio. I spoke a little bit before about how I felt that Horn of Greed was not the deal it seemed to be if you're not in the process of comboing off. The basis of the arguament is that, in a 4-man game, your opponents have a cumulative total of 3 land drops whereas you have 1 normal drop plus extensions with Azusa, Exploration and other cards. Once you have Horn of Greed in play the cumulative benefit to your opponents is equal to your personal benefit only if you have the capability for 2 extra land drops already in play for yourself. Requiring you to have 1-2 extra permanents in play just to break even against your opponents counted together seems to be a bad deal to me. This is obviously offset against the fact that you have an ever increasing land count in comparisong to any individual opponent. Outside of situations where you're actively trying to abuse the card, you're more likely to be giving opponents as a group a bigger leg up that you're giving yourself. I accept that not every card drawn by opponents will be aimed at you but it can encourage a faster game tempo than you may prefer and generate threats that need to be dealt with as well as solutions that, while they may not target you specifically, impact you through splash damage/destruction. It's important to remember stuff like this with symetrical cards rather than just bunging them in recklessly. That all said, my version of Azusa fully intends to abuse these symetrical cards with help from Cloudstone Curio so I'm reconciling myself with the unfortunate necessity of occasionally helping my opponents in the quest for unbalanced interactions.

I'm always on the lookout for cards I can bring into my build of Azusa as well as lists that other players bring to the boards and events. Sam Black, in his article Black Magic - My Take on EDH over on Star City Games mentioned that a lot of people were very interested in his build of Azusa, Lost but Seeking whenever he brought it out at events and, after repeated requests, he decided to bring the deck to us. It looks great, even if there's no Cloudstone Curio! :op Here's the list:

Lands: 60
1 Ancient Tomb
1 Blasted Landscape
1 Boseiju, Who Shelters All
1 Desert
1 Deserted Temple
1 Dryad Arbor
1 Dust Bowl
1 Eldrazi Temple
1 Eye of Ugin
1 Gaea's Cradle
1 Ghost Quarter
1 High Market
1 Khalni Garden
1 Mikokoro, Center of the Sea
1 Miren, the Moaning Well
1 Mishra's Factory
1 Mishra's Workshop
1 Misty Rainforest
1 Mosswort Bridge
1 Mouth of Ronom
1 Mystifying Maze
1 Petrified Field
1 Scrying Sheets
1 Slippery Karst
25 Snow-Covered Forest
1 Strip Mine
1 Tectonic Edge
1 Temple of the False God
1 The Tabernacle at Pendrell Vale
1 Tranquil Thicket
1 Treetop Village
1 Verdant Catacombs
1 Wasteland
1 Windswept Heath
1 Wooded Foothills
1 Yavimaya Hollow

Acceleration: 8
1 Exploration
1 Gaea's Touch
1 Grim Monolith
1 Mana Crypt 
1 Mana Reflection
1 Mana Vault
1 Mox Diamond
1 Sol Ring

Card Draw: 11
1 Crucible of Worlds
1 Font of Mythos
1 Harmonize
1 Horn of Greed
1 Howling Mine
1 Mind's Eye
1 Rites of Flourishing
1 Seer's Sundial
1 Sylvan Library
1 Temple Bell
1 Well of Knowledge

Search: 3
1 Crop Rotation
1 Expedition Map
1 Sylvan Scrying

Spells: 6
1 All Is Dust
1 Genesis Wave
1 Natural Order
1 Regrowth
1 Rude Awakening
1 Tooth and Nail
Creatures: 11
1 Terastodon
1 Duplicant
1 Eternal Witness
1 Oracle of Mul Daya
1 Artisan of Kozilek
1 Primeval Titan
1 Emrakul, the Aeons Torn
1 Ulamog, the Infinite Gyre
1 Avenger of Zendikar
1 Lotus Cobra
1 Kozilek, Butcher of Truth
1 Rofellos, Llanowar Emissary

General: 1
1 Azusa, Lost but Seeking

Yikes! 60 Lands! That's a lot of all-land hands. At any given point in the game you have a distinctly better-than-average chance that the next card you'll be drawing will be a land. Whereas my own version was very forest-type-land-centric with a land count much closer to the usual and a lot of ways to find those forests and get them into play, Sam has gone the route of just having a lot of land and as much drawing as he can shake a stick at. 10 cards dedicated to drawing cards and a Crucible of Worlds that acts as an extension of having multiple lands in hand. If you have Horn of Greed in play, it's effictively free card draw without spending a card from your hand to fuel it.

Then we get straight into cards that are rigidly symetrical and there's a lot of these, not just the afforementioned Horn of Greed: Font of Mythos, Howling Mine, Rites of Flourishing, Temple Bell and Well of Knowledge are all either directly beneficial to your opponents or allow your opponents to choose to get them, none have the benefit of being abusable with the possible excpetion of Well of Knowledge. One card not included in this section, though it should have been, is Mikokoro, Center of the Sea, yet another card that gives everyone a free card with no scope for any real abuse on your part. Seriously that's a lot of card drawing that you are paying for that benefits your opponents. I'm going to quote Sam here:

The idea behind this deck is to play as many lands as possible every turn, which means that the deck has to have an extremely high density of lands and has to draw as many cards as possible. For green, that means relying heavily on artifacts that make both players draw more cards, but that's not a problem because you can use extra cards so much better than other players, since you can play extra lands, and use all that extra mana to cast more spells.

The cards that search for lands often find Mikokoro, Center of the Sea, which makes the deck function as if it had several more Howling Mines, which are extremely important. Without one, the deck generally just plays a bunch of lands and then sits there.
So here we are at the first major divergence of strategy between Sam and myself when it comes to Azusa. I'm of the opinion that when it's slow for Azusa, the last thing you want to be giving your opponents is fuel to destroy you with. Don't forget our typical 4-man game where you're generating a 1:3 disadvantage every time you activate or play one of these types of effects. Sam is doing his very best to dig himself out of any hole he may find himself in, smooth over the early game and set up his preferred endgame. Surely these "solutions" are creating a self-perpetuating need to get to his endgame faster and faster as you accellerate your opponents individually at the same speed as yourself and collectively 3 times faster?
I mulligan almost any hand that doesn't have card draw, although something like Mana Crypt into Primeval Titan counts as card draw (and is among the best possible hands, since I'll play a Primeval Titan on turn 2 and find Eye of Ugin or Mikokoro with those two cards and four lands). Most hands have some way to get going.
I can totally sympathise with this from playing Azusa myself. Other decks have things they can do early in the game apart from finding more lands. In Azusa, you can regularly find yourself drawing into land search or into more land. Now that we have Primeval Titan to help smooth things out a bit we can pull back on the search effects somewhat and as the lands you're searching for are developping your strategy, you're getting a very powerful tutor ability for relatively little investment.

I want to look a little into the other type of mana mentioned here which Sam has grouped into Accelleration. Exploration, Gaea's Touch and Rites of Flourishing will all give you an extra land drop in addition to Azusa's own ability. A little less general-centric are the artifact mana sources: Grim Monolith, Mana Crypt, Mana Reflection, Mana Vault, Mox Diamond and Sol Ring. These exist with the sole function of doing things multiple turns earlier than you would normally be able to do them and it's pretty irrelevant that it's mostly colourless as most coloured spells and abilities have colourless both in their costs and activations. Crazily, there are also 3 lands that have very specific mana applications that you just wouldn't expect to find in a deck like Azusa because they don't provide mana (or their full value) for the vast majority of your spells: Eldrazi Temple, Eye of Ugin and Mishra's Workshop. While I could allow the first two given the predicted endgame, Mishra's Workshop just seems like a crazy addition! Well "seemed" really, because the more you think about it the more you realise that Horn of Greed is nice on turn 3, but it's much, much better for you on turn 2 or 1. Likewise Seer's Sundial and pretty much every single artifact that you can cast or activate benefits from coiming into play 2 turns earlier than it would if the Workshop was a basic Forest instead. Yeah, it's crazy, but, with 60 lands, you have the freedom to put in the potential for some plays that, while rife with the potential to do nothing some of the time, allow you to subsequently make extremely powerful plays. [I'd like to thank Star Trek for the grammar structure precedent in that last sentence! -Ed.]
Now we know that Sam likes to draw cards (and to hell with the downside!), he likes to take risks to fuel potentially broken plays and he plays Eye of Ugin, it doesn't take a genius to figure out what his end game is going to be.

The deck almost always wins with Eldrazi, specifically Emrakul. Avenger of Zendikar can win, but most of the time it's just the best mana ramp (working with Gaea's Cradle), and you still win by using Eye of Ugin to find Emrakul. In multiplayer games, the deck tries to take infinite turns by sacrificing Emrakul to High Market and finding it again with Eye of Ugin and casting it all in the same turn.
Form your own opinion of Sam's preferred end-game, but it's certainly powerful. Not everyone will love it but Sam has been feeding them multiple cards and additional lands drops all game so if they are not prepared there's not a huge amount they can complain about. Up until I read Sam's article I had refrained from adding the Eldrazi to my own Azusa deck because it would have been a cop out on my part. It's not a deck made to abuse the Eldrazi (though I make no apologies for the rest!) and it would have simply been a case of "I can make lots of mana, I'll include expensive creatures." Sam has taken the decision to build an Azusa deck specifically to accellerate into and repeatedly cast the Eldrazi. Despite this being the chosen path, Sam fully accepts he's playing a broken strategy (you should go and have a read of the rest of his article for his thoughts on the format and the other decks he suggests.)

One of his final thoughts on the deck itself before he moves on is the strength of a couple of cards. Again to quote:
I think this deck makes strong cases for banning Emrakul, the Aeons Torn and Mana Crypt, as well as either Strip Mine or Crucible of Worlds, and if I wanted to make the deck more casual, I'd cut those cards, and Terastodon would probably have to go in two-player games.  
That's a pretty bold claim though I believe its veracity is upheld or disproven based on the players wielding the cards, especially in the case of Strip Mine or Crucible of Worlds. Then again, if you're going to make a deck to make the most of Emrakul, the Aeons Torn, of course it's going to be an extremely strong strategy, the question remains whether Emrakul isn't just a really strong strategy all by herself, irregardless of whether you're building around her. As an extension to that, is Emrakul just randomly too good of a strategy to allow run lose in the format at all? You could argue that removing Emrakul will just see her replaced by other finishers. You could say that removing the Mana Vault/Crypt from the format delays the inevitable enough to allow some interactivity though any hand with 5-6 lands and Primeval Titan would be sufficient to goldfish a turn 5 hardcast Emrakul without the mana stones. Leave the mana stones and Emrakul in the format gives you only Primeval Titan or Azusa herself as potential targts for banning if you want to slow the deck down, though that in itself solves nothing as you could potentially make the same start with a mono-artifact deck or a number of red or green "Mana Flare" type decks. And we're only talking about hardcasting here, not cheating high-end threats into play through other means.

A quick return to the deck and, Sam, there's got to be room for Cloudstone Curio.

Funnily enough, there's been a fair amount of talk about Sam's article and quite a few copy-cat decks springing up as a result. The MTG: France fed on the MTG community forums has just posted a 50-land version with Greater Good, Memory Jar and a few other additions but it remains a spin on Sams' own deck. Maybe Azusa has finally inherited the mantle of Mono-Green combo general from Rofellos, Llanowar Emissary.......

Saturday, 2 October 2010

Contagion: Proliferate for the win?

Once the Tezzeret and Elspeth duel decks came out and we got to see Kemba's Skyguard (yay?) and Contagion Clasp, we had a little idea what Scars was holding in stores for us. We'd see decent limited fliers in white, which is hardly a surprise, and a little artifact that helps kill weenies. Oh, and "pro - lif - er - ate" whatever the heck that does!?!  What does it do?

So, if you have, like, a Blastoderm with a Fading counter on it, you get to put another one on and have him live a bit longer, right? That's cool, I guess. Let me put it differently that just "cool, I guess": Proliferate has the potential to be stupidly good. Table dominating good.
You choose any number of permanents and/or players with counters on them, then give each another counter of a kind already there.

The Engine and Clasp are removal for annoying Weenies right off the bat with the CIP -1/-1 abilities. R/D also worded it so that it would work with the Phyrexian "add a -1/-1 counter" cards and the Infect keyword which also encompases the return of poison. However, rather than naming just these specific things, the Proliferate keyword allows you to choose any number of permanents/players in play and add another type of counter that is already on that permanent/player. So if you have a Steel Overseer in play, you tap the Overseer, add +1/+1 counters to all your artifact creatures and add an additional one with Proliferate. If your opponent has +1/+1 counters on his creatures, you're not obliged to add an additional counter to their creatures, just your own. If one of your opponent's creatures has a -1/-1 counter (from the Clasp for example) you can add to that and ignore the others that may have +1/+1 or charge counters. Pretty neat, huh?

That's not all! Let's say you decided to sleeve up a WW deck sporting Adjani Goldmane. Adjani gives your creatures a +1/+1 counter but removes a loyalty counter when you do so. Luckily the Clasp will also replace the loyalty counter on Adjani. Your play for the turn is essentially Pay 4: boost your team by +2/+2 and Adjani is still on the same loyalty as before. That's ok, right?

If it works on Adjani, it works on every Planeswalker. Let me say that back again just because it's a little bit mad: Your Planeswalkers "-" abilities all cost 1 less to use, "0" abilities actually gain you a loyalty counter and their "+" abilities are supercharged. Chandra Nalaar can go ultimate the turn after she hits play. Elspeth I can go ultimate in 3 turns and survive in 3 turns instead of 5 or 6. Nicol Bolas can go ultimate in 1 turn! And this is with only a single permanent proliferate effect in play, the likes of Contagion Clasp or Throne of Geth. Contagion Engine proliferates and then proliferates again. Inexorable Tide proliferates whenever you play a spell. Thrummingbird does it each time it deals combat damage to a player and Throne of Geth does it for no mana cost but requires you to sacrifice an artifact. The instant, cantripping Steady Progress gives you the 6th instance of Proliferate (or 7th if you count the second instance on Contagion Engine)
Now, even if it was just -1/-1, +1/+1, poison and Planeswalker loyalty counters, these effects would still see play, but it's not just that. It's more, a lot more.

Anything with Fading, Vanishing or Cumulative Upkeep, Charge Counters, Modular, Sunburst, Slith, Quests, Ascensions, Allies, Armageddon Clock, Scream, Flood, Arrow, Gold, Ki, Blood, Fuse, Soot, Clockwork, Level-up and hundreds of other cards that all say "Put a counter" on this, that, him or her. Your fading and vanishing creatures and artifacts will fade and vanish more slowly. With a critical mass of the abilities or some combo with Inexorable Tide in play means that you can even increase past the number of counters that had originally been intended for that permanent. And don't get me started on charge counters

Did you know that there's 56 cards which have or interact with charge counters. Some highlights include Æther Vial, Chalice of the Void, Chimeric Mass, Coalition Relic, Coretapper (who will allow you to move a charge counter onto an empty Everflowing Chalice from another permanent and proliferate to add a second counter and replace the original from where you took it), Darksteel Reactor, Door of Destinies, Engineered Explosives, Everflowing Chalice, Lightning Reaver, Lux Cannon, Pentad Prism, Ratchet Bomb, Riptide Replicator, Sigil of Distinction, Sun Droplet, Tendo Ice Bridge and a little known and under-used equipment called Umezawa's Jitte.

Even better with proliferate, if that was even possible.

And that's just the "Charge counter" section. There's 533 Gatherer results to rules text with "With a counter" as in "Enters the battlefield with a ~suchandsuch~ counter in it" and an additional 138 results with "add a counter" as in "Tap: add a counter" or "If ~this~ was kicked, it comes onto the battlefield with X additional +1/+1 counters on it". Ok, some of these results include counterspells but not that many. Whenever you could put a counter on something or lots of things and having two or more would be better instead, Proliferate will shine.