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.......


  1. Good article - very insightful. I like it.

    Sam Black sounds like the kind of person I would hate playing EDH with, though. He seems to be missing the point of EDH, which is "Fun", bringing with him that ultra-competative, win-at-any-cost attitude; while that serves him well in the tournament scene, around the kitchen table it makes for a miserable experience to other players.

    Then again, he's probably playing EDH with other cutthroat players, which is fine by me, if everyone is on the same level. It's just that I don't understand why players like this even TRY to play EDH. Really seems to defeat the purpose, if you ask me.

  2. @DarkThaumaturge: It's probably the "Everyone is doing it, why not me?" aspect. I have a mix of player types in my playgroup that you can turn up with anything and be welcome. I'm actually playing this deck with a couple of changes right now (I don't have a Natural Order, Tabernacle or Workshop) and, with each player you add in Multiplayer, its power level drops. In our 3-Man games last week it was pretty silly.

    We played a couple of 4-man games yesterday and it was actually fine. Once my opponents got on board with the idea that Eldrazi were likely to happen, they just dealt with it. Lignify on an early Ulamog, Bribery, killing Primeval Titan on sight. It was actually lots of fun playing into the hate because everyone was on board with the plan and how to defeat that plan.

  3. If you take the time to read the original article Sam Black explains his feelings on the "brokenness" of the deck, and only recommends playing it in competitive play groups. He acknowledges pretty early on that it's not a casual or fun deck and that may be against the spirit of EDH.

  4. I happen to like this edh or well combo edhs in general :p currently I have an edh with maelstrom wanderer where I put food chain in for giggles not realising that food chain + wanderer = play every spell from your deck. I mean who knows when he first built the deck it might have just been for fun and then BAM ccccombo

  5. Hi Devin,

    That's always possible though I'm fairly sure he did mention that he went in saying "I want to break the hell out of this" much like Sean McKeown did with the various version of decks built around Ad Nauseum. Having played Sam's version quite a bit, I came to the conclusion that it's an all "in deck" with no second mode. Occasionally you can get a chance to refill but you really want to crush the majority of the table ASAP with the deck or you'll get dog-piled.

    Excellent catch on Food Chain + Wanderer, btw.