Thursday, 25 November 2010

Cool! It's a Generals: Remixed!

Those lovely guys over on Commandercast have put together a Generals Remixed contest.

Here's the skinny:

Have you ever looked at a Legendary Creature while looking for a general and thought, "Cool, but..."

° It has good flavour, but it's weaksauce rules-wise.
° It has amazing art but nothing else going for it.
° It has nice abilities, but it's incredibly boring flavour-wise.
° It has abilities that just aren't interesting enough.
° It matches the colour combination you want, but not anything else.
° It just seems to be lacking that... something.

Then this is the contest for you!

We want you to take a potential general and spice it up. Switch things around. Remix it, so to speak. The goal in this contest is to take an existing Legendary Creature card and modify it with the following goals:
° Retain the original things that feel good about the card, like it's flavour, colour combination or rules.
° Discard the things that aren't so awesome and replace them with something of your own design.
° Try to keep some semblance of the card's original function. As a guideline, it should still be recognizable as the original Legendary Creature, just... cooler.
° For the purposes of the contest, you only have to worry about the card as a general in EDH.
° Producing a visual aid like a card created with Magic Set Editor will be worth extra points because the visual representation appeals to us.

Hey, that's a pretty cool idea! There's loads of times I know I wished that Thada Adel had haste but there's possibly one guy out there who needs the help more than our little merfolk: WOTC's own Ken Nagle!

Don't let the blonde fool ya'!
 Oh, you thought I was joking?

A very little known fact is that the blast unleashed from the Golgothian Sylex didn't, in fact, kill Mishra and Gix. It only killed the Phyrexian Demon. In Mishra it awoke his planeswalking spark and he was flung into the blind eternities, lost for ages until, very recently, he gained control of his planeswalking abilities and emerged here, on our own Earth, in our time to hide among us. He disguised himself by colouring his hair blonde and submitted an entry into the Great Designer Search 1 and now Ken "Mishra" Nagle works hand in hand with Mark Rosewater in shaping the future of Magic: the Gathering. You want to know how the Phyrexians got to Mirrodin? Ken/Mishra. You want to know who has been developing the infection that will take over that plane? Mishra's puppet, MaRo. And he's a little too interested in EDH for my liking. Watch out people: We're next!!

Would the real Ken Nagle please stand up?
But not with a lame-ass card like this one.

Ok, I get that EDH wasn't at the top of the agenda when Mishra, Artificer Prodigy was designed. In a non-singleton format, he can be extremely powerful if you can work out his casting cost requirements. That said, we haven't exactly been inundated with PT level Mishra decks. To put it very simply, one of the most iconic figures in the history of Magic: the Gathering is a bit of a dud.

In EDH terms, his ability says: "Whenever you play an artifact spell, you may shuffle your library."


I play one of the most gifted artificers in the history of all the planes and get a 4/4 for 1UBR that occasionally allows me shuffle my library?

My flabber has been officially ghasted.

About the only thing going for him is that we have proof that Mishra's dress sense hasn't improved under his current guise as Ken Nagle. I mean, come ON! What is with the Frog-Logo overalls? And if that wasn't enough, he's rocking some X-Men geek in there too. Make up your mind, Ken/Mishra! Ridiculing a talented, planeswalking artificer with potential to be your future overlord for their dress sense is probably not a great idea, but fashion laws have been infringed and this baby needs a makeover! What are we starting with?

I'm thinking How are we going to remix our friend Mishra? A wardrobe change would be an excellent start. Something like this:

Ok, I can get behind a slightly classier version of Ken/Mishra.

What can we do about that horrific text?

Whenever you cast an artifact spell, you may search your graveyard, hand, and/or library for a card with the same name as that spell and put it onto the battlefield. If you search your library this way, shuffle it.
When you make an artifact, he gets a second one for free. To be honest, that is pretty cool. Unfortunatly the highlander nature of EDH means that you can look but you won't find a second copy of the artifact in question.

Version #1:

What about making a token copy of an artifact spell? It will have the same end result but without the searching part. An obvious drawback is the potential of seeing multiple tokens in play and getting them confused but we could avoid that with the following wording:
Whenever you cast an artifact spell, exile all artifact clone tokens you control. Then put into play an artifact clone token that is a copy of that spell.
That's a neat solution, keeping the functionallity of the original card but restricting it to one token at a time. I think that players could easily live with that as there's some very nasty artifacts running about out there. Getting an extra copy of just one may be all that's needed. It can also create some tension if you make it a required trigger. If you are happy with the artifact clone in play, you're not going to want to play another artifact.

Version #2:

If I wanted it to be a basic or "boring" fix of the original card, I'd stop there but I really want to push this further. There was a bit of a tiff that started the brother's war, something about a fight over the Mightstone and the Meekstone. How about we make him a coveter and copier?:

Whenever you cast an artifact spell, you may search target opponents graveyard, hand, and/or library for a card with the same name as that spell and put it onto the battlefield. If you searched a library this way, shuffle it.
Hey, hey, hey! Buy one, get one free.... from an opponent!! "Sol Ring, steal your Sol Ring?" Advantages: it can be extremely effective stripping ubiqious artifacts from opponents hand, graveyard or library. You get to riffle through their deck to see what they are up to and, as a bonus, your general is in colours that has access to 9 or 10 cards that can subsequently remove anything nasty from their deck. Disadvantages: If they don't have one of the artifacts you are playing or it's already in play, you're a sad puppy. It's a pretty disgusting ability with a potential downside. My personal big issue is that it's not a "fun" interaction. Players don't like when you steal things directly from their decks and search effects generally take a long time to resolve. I think this one is a runner for overpowered and annoying ability of the month. Let's not go there. What else can we do that's a step up from our basic "1 copy free"?

Version #3:

If you stayed away from the stealing part but wanted to play on his ability to create some intricate pieces of artifice, you could keep the basic printed ability but change just one little thing:

Whenever you cast an artifact spell, you may search your graveyard, hand, and/or library for an artifact card with the same converted mana cost as that spell and put it onto the battlefield. If you search your library this way, shuffle it.
Yikes!! Who's been smoking the carpet? So, let me get this right: I play a Sol Ring and I get to search my library for a Sensei's Divining Top to be put into play for free? For reals? And that Pithing Needle you took ages to get rid of is back from the dead too because I've just gone and played a Skullclamp. Hey, what am I saying? SDT is going to draw all the 1cc spells we could ever need once you bounce it back to the top of our library, re-draw it and cast it again for another go round. Can you say Black Friday Discount MADNESS!? And hey, guess what, we haven't even gotten out of the 1cc spells yet.

The power-lever readings of this one are through the roof. I had better stop before things get really silly....... Ooops! Too late!

Final choice!!

So, which one will we choose for our Mishra Remixed?:
° Annoying opponent annoyer stealy stealy Ken/Mishra? Mmmmmmmm.......
° Bah-rok-en!, combo enabling, deck thinning, future EDH Overlord Ken/Mishra? Mmmmmmmmm......
° Ken/Mishra (Kenshra?) who does kinda what he's supposed to do?

Tough choice!

No, seriously, despite the insane suggestions of a demeted and twisted mind, my real remix choice is the simple, elegant solution*. BEHOLD: Kenshra!!

I'm going to finish up here with a special thanks to Ken Nagle for being such a good sport and posing for our images. Cheers Ken!
*Though, I'd play the other two in a shot!

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Single card Strategies - Portcullis

In my recent Secret Tech II, I looked at Portcullis as a sleeper rare for EDH. I also presented it very briefly on the Commander Cast Podcast Episode that came out this week. This information was pretty much the same in both places, in brief:

1.) It sticks the number of creatures in play at 2 if there aren't already more than 2 in play.
2.) Creatures enter the battlefield, trigger their CotB effects and disappear under the Portcullis.
3.) When Portcullis leaves play, those creatures will once again CotB and their triggers will fire all over again.
           3.a.) It's a "leaves play" trigger on Portcullis, so bouncing, blinking, exiling or destroying it will work.
4.) It works for your opponent's creatures too.
5.) It hoses Tokens

There are a couple of good things and a couple of bad things in there that I'd like to look at in a little more detail to see how we can work around them.

First of all, you have to look at finding some way to control the entry and exit of Portcullis other than the turn it comes into play. One of the suggestions on the podcast was Master Transmuter and it bears looking at in some detail. What will happen if you return a "loaded" Portcullis to your hand with Master Transmuter and return it to play again?

First, returning the Portcullis will be part of the cost of the ability, so this is a realistic defensive measure if you are planning on running the two cards together. The Transmuter ability goes on the stack. The Portcullis "leaves play" ability goes on the stack after the Transmuter ability and will be resolved first.

All of the hidden creatures come into play and their abilities trigger and resolve. You may then put an artifact into play upon resolution of the Transmuter's ability. For the purposes of this excercise, we're going to return the Portcullis. The creatures that recently came into play will remain there but any further creatures will go the usual route and be hidden by the Portcullis.

That's the very basic up-and-down with Master Transmuter. What happens if you start playing with the trigger orders on creatures coming into play normally rather than creatures hidden by the Portcullis?

A.) A creature comes into play where there are already 2 more creatures in play.
B.) It triggers the Portcullis.
C.) The exile trigger from the Portcullis goes on the stack
D.) Activate the Transmuter, returning the Portcullis: the Transmuter ability goes on the stack.
E.) The Portcullis "leaves play" ability goes on the stack.
F.) Resolve the the Portcullis "leaves play" ability though there's nothing to return.
G.) Resolve the Transmuter ability and return the Portcullis to play.
H.) Resolve the exile trigger on the initial copy of the Portcullis. Exile creature. Cheer.

Now that we have this, we can play with variations on the theme. If we wanted to have creatures under a Portcullis come back into play and leave again right away, how would we do that? We're going to use a Voltaic Key to untap our Master Transmuter and then re-activate her ability, returning a second (unrelated) artifact to hand and the original Portcullis to play. It would look something like this (taken from the top):

1.) Pay U, tap Master Transmuter, Return Portcullis to your hand: Transmuter ability #1 goes on the stack.
2.) Portcullis "leaves play" trigger goes on the stack.
3.) Pay 1, tap Voltaic Key: Untap Master Transmuter.
4.) Pay U, Tap Master Transmuter, Return another artifact to your hand: Transmuter ability #2 goes on the stack.
5.) Transmuter ability #2 resolves, you put Portcullis into play.
6.) Original Portcullis "leaves play" trigger resolves, all creatures hidden under initial Portcullis come into play. The new Portcullis sees these creatures coming into play and, as the active player, you place the exile ability onto the stack. The controllers of these creature's CotB triggers put them onto the stack in clockwise play order.
7.) Resolve the creature's CotB triggers in counter clockwise order.
8.) Exile all newly returned creatures under Portcullis #2 if, including them, there are 2 or more creatures in play.
9.) Resolve the Transmuter ability #1 and put an artifact from your hand into play.

Wow! That's a lot going on right there! You can now "flash" in and out a whole host of creatures that you have hidden under a Portcullis as many times as your opponents will allow you to. Despite all that, there's a small hole in your plan in that you don't always control what the other players are going to do with their CotB abilities if they have any. What if there was something annoying that you just didn't want to see back in the game? You could Stifle the "return to play" trigger of that creature but you can also permanently remove all the creatures coming back in if you're willing to lose any of your own too. This will essentially involve adding the steps A.)-G.) into steps 1.)-8.). (Steps G.) and 8.) are essentially the same.)

Between Steps 6.)  and  8.), after the point where the copy #2 of Portcullis, introduced in Step 5.), triggers upon "seeing" all the creatures coming into play but before you resolve its exile trigger, you need to use a bounce spell or effect (more Master Transmuter activations if you can untap her again) to cause the Portcullis #2 to leave play. The "leaves play" trigger will go on the stack, then resolve, returning all creatures under the Portcullis  #2 to return to play except that there are no creatures under Portcullis #2: they are all still waiting for Portcullis #2 to exile them in Step 8.). What you've done here is slipped A.)-G.) in before you resolve Step 8.). Once you've done that you resolve Step 8.) and exile those creatures. Unfortunatly for them, their lifeline has now been cut and they will stay exiled. How sad. Cheering is not obligatory. Again, there is some price to pay in that any unfriendly CotB effects will fire once, but after that they are gone.

Not every creature will have a relevant CotB effect, some will just be annoying creatures. Either way, if you haven't set up to exile those creatures, when they come back under an opponent's control, unless you have a way to deal with them, it's probably not going to be good news for you. Let's face it, you're not going to be able to remove every creature every time with the method described in A.)-H.). What if I told you that, when these scary creatures came back into play, they'd all be working for you, irregardless of who owned them? Well, it's possible:

If you can find a way (and the hefty mana requirement) to do it, it's entirely possible that, once you have cast a Gather Specimens, you can give the Portcullis a quick spin, get some nifty CotB effects once or twice and end up with the whole army ready to do your bidding.

The other aspect to all this is having only two creatures in play at all times. You're playing blue at least so you have access to some decent control cards as well as man-lands. Having Vedalken Shackles and other Control Magic spells is a good start. Master Transmuter is obviously extremely preferable if you want to do shennanigans. Simply neutering an opponent's creature with Maze of Ith can be an effective route too as players don't really like killing one of their own creatures just to be able to play another one. Other creature-count options are March of the Machines (though this will preclude anyone, including you, from allowing artifacts to come into play) or Karn, Silver Golem and any of the artifacts that become creatures or man-lands like Mutavault and Mishra's Factory.

Just one last point: in the suggestions here, we haven't gone outside Blue. It's entirely possible to stay mono-coloured here as well as branching out into other colours. Go have fun, you crazy kids!

Friday, 12 November 2010

Secret Tech II

So a quick cut to the few rares I thought I'd spotlight featuring 2 cards that you need to build around and a third which is criminally underplayed. Let's start with the most common first.

Hallowed Burial:
"But everyone plays Hallowed Burial!" you say. Unfortunatly, they don't. Everyone should play Hallowed Burial, even before Wrath of God, but players don't do this because WoG is the traditional staple, players don't want to pay 5, players don't want their creatures "tucked" (placed on the bottom of their library) or be see as a player who tucks other player's creatures or players simply just don't realise how strong it is.

Do you remember when we spoke briefly of the importance of graveyard hate in EDH, well the reason is mostly because it's often too easy to bring creatures back from the dead to hand or directly into play. When you're choosing a card to wipe all creatures off the table, putting them into the graveyard is often just delaying things by a turn or two. "Buried" just isn't what it used to be, as Miracle Max said, there's a little dead, mostly dead and Dodo. The Graveyard nowadays is barely even some loose soil scuffed over creatures with the toe of your boot.

So, what are your options? There are very few "Exile all creatures" effects: Decree of Annihilation, False Prophet and Final Judgement being the only other blanket ones. Decree also exiles pretty much everything else and False Prophet can be tricky to control. Final Judgement is another underplayed card and would see more play if it dealt with generals better. The "move to the commander zone" rule allows any generals to be saved from a Final Judgement making it, well, not so final after all. When it's a general you need to nerf, Final Judgement doesn't cut the mustard.

What Hallowed Burial offers, in addition to dealing with all the Indestructibles the traditional WoG leaves behind, is putting pesky generals in the one place that's really very hard to get at with any regularity: Underneath a player's deck. If they don't have a tutor quickly, it's possible they won't get to play with their general at all for the remainder of the game. I hope their deck works well without it! It also neatly sidesteps all the shennanigans that the shallow grave[yard] provides. It's not the ultimate solution because shuffle effects can bring a general or difficult creature back, but in general [heh!], it's a harder lock on a tough general that any other wrath or exile effect.

I dreged this up as a potential solution for early game defense in my Thada Adel deck. While it can occasionally bite you, you should be able to control the number of creatures on the battlefield. What does it do? It sticks the number of creatures in play at 2. If you control both of those creatures, all the better.

There's a very simple reason why this is an excellent "build around me" card and that's in the first line: "Whenever any creature enters the battlefield....". It may seem a little obvious, but it's important that the creatures actually enter the battlefield as that triggers their CotB effect. Portcullis will then remove those creatures if there are already 2 (or more) creatures on the battlefield. When Portcullis eventually leaves play, those creatures will once again CotB and their triggers will fire all over again. You're essentially getting double duty.

Another important point is the "Leaves play" trigger of Portcullis: it's not a "goes to the graveyard" trigger, so anything that bounces, blinks, exiles or destroys it will work, essentially like an artifact Reveillark. If you can manage the multiple entries and exits of the Portcullis, it can get pretty crazy.

The only hole in your plan is that it works for your opponent's creatures and any 187 abilities of their creatures will also do double duty. You can't have it all! That said, I've seen some pretty crazy card advantage using Portcullis with Acidic Slime and Duplicant being just two of the CotB effects that you really want to see happen more than once.

For you, of course.

EDIT: I totally forgot to mention what I was looking for defense against when I included this in my Thada-Adel deck, which is relevant because it can completely shut down the strategy until the Portcullis is dealt with and that is Tokens. Unlike non-tokens, once a token is exiled with Portcullis, it will cease to exist and will not be re-created once the Portcullis leaves play. As long as you can keep the Portcullis in play and have 2 other creatures in play, no tokens will make it onto the battlefield and survive.

Cloudstone Curio:
Another artifact and another "build around me" card. What's the deal with the Curio? When Ravnica came out there was a minor buzz about the card but that was quickly swallowed up by how easy it was to play your ultra-efficient gold/hybrid cards, the speed of the format with Boros as the new posterboy and a relative lack of cards that you really wanted to use with the Curio in the format. Most cards in Ravnica did what they did when they were in play, rather than when they came into play. I honestly believe that Cloudstone Curio would have been an excellent rare in a different block but, sadly, it was pretty much chaff in Ravnica.

What does it do? When a permanent other than an artifact comes onto the battlefield under your control, you can return any other permanent of the same type to your hand. Firstly, why did they exclude artifacts? It was just too easy to play a couple of 0cc artifacts, gain free infinite storm and win. As cost reducers on other permanent types generally only reduce generic mana, not coloured mana, there's a good chance that free infinite storm would be harder to achieve. Land being the only other permanent with no mana cost though with a built-in 1-per-turn restriction, it was a pretty good fix excluding artifacts. There are still two legacy-legal "free" infinite storm combos however the individual pieces are underwhelming in a format that can't afford dead cards.*

What Cloudstone Curio provides you with is the ability to return a permanent to your hand, however, you're only likely to do that if you're set to gain from doing so. Let's start with something very basic:

You have a Nekrataal in play. You want to re-play the Nekrataal somehow. Your options are:
1.) Play Blue to bounce the Nekrataal back to your hand. You'll spend mana on the initial Nekrataal, a card and mana on the bounce spell and again, mana on the Nekrataal. You'll still only have a Nekrataal in play at the end of it all.
2.) Play White to blink the Nekrataal. This isn't strictly "re-playing" the Nekrataal, though you'll get the desired effect. You'll spend mana on the initial Nekrataal, a card and mana on the blink spell and again, mana on the Nekrataal. You'll still only have a Nekrataal in play at the end of it all.
3.) Play Cloudstone Curio and another creature. The first advantage is that you don't have to go outside black. The second advantage is that you pay 3 for the Curio and it stays in play, it's not a one-shot. In the case of blinking and bouncing above you're down a card to get the Nekrataal. Here, you will have a second creature in play when the Nekrataal is back in your hand so your board presence is not diminished and, when you re-play the Nekrataal, you can return the other creature to your hand to repeat the process again and again. You'll end up paying 3 and the cost of the two creatures over and over but you're slowly destroying their resources and you're using no additional cards. In the first two examples it was essentially a one time deal until you drew another bounce or blink spell.

Imagine now that the second creature in our little Cloudstone Curio loop is another 187 Nekrataal-like ability. Each creature kills something and sets you up to be able to do it again. Now substitute Nekrataal for Acidic Slime or Mulldrifter or Flametongue Kavu etc. and watch yourself develop CA and all without spending any more cards than the 2 creatures and the Curio in play.

That's the basic version utility, which is already pretty decent. Let me come at it a different way. One of the avenues to building a great deck is to break the basic rules of the game: Play 1 land per turn, draw one card per turn. If you can find a way to play multiple lands per turn consistantly, you can do bigger things earlier than your opponent and, ideally, win. If you can consistantly draw more cards per turn than your opponent, you provide yourself with a much higher quality card selection and, ideally, can overwhelm your opponent through sheer CA.

We've already seen how we can constantly draw more cards with something like Mulldrifter but, let's face it, 5 for Mulldrifter and 4 for Nekrataal is a lot of mana. What about if we did this with lands instead of creatures? You tap a basic land for mana, you play a basic land, the Curio triggers and you return the tapped basic land to your hand. You now have 1 mana in your pool, 1 land in your hand and an untapped basic land in play. From this point, once you have Cloudstone Curio in play and a land in hand, you will never miss a land drop for the remainder of the game. If you increase your land drops, you will increase your mana count so we can add something like Exploration or Azusa, Lost but Seeking which allows us to do this multiple times.
Now, let's change those basic lands out for a Gaea's Cradle and a Temple of the False Gods. Suddenly, you're not producing 1 mana you're getting 2 or GGGG or more with each loop.

Stick with me now because we're going to look at some rules: When a permanent leaves play and then returns to play, the game treats the permanent as a new object. If you had an effect that said "Target land can't tap for mana until the end of the game" and the target leaves and re-enters play later in the game, even if it's physically the same card, the game treats it as a new permanent and the original effect would no longer apply. Let's apply that to Azusa: I have Azusa in play. I play the additional lands that Azusa allows me to. I return Azusa to my hand somehow and play it again. I can now play two additional lands again. Let's break that down with Candy Bars:

- Land drops = Candy Bars
- You get one free Candy bar every turn
- When you have Azusa in play, she gives you two extra candy bars. You can choose to eat them or not (But don't forget to say which candy bar you're eating is the usual free one or the Asuza ones!) but if you don't eat them, they are lost.
- If Azusa leaves and re-enters play, you get two extra candy bars. You can choose to eat them or not.
- Repeat for every fresh instance of Azusa.

So, what this is telling us us that we're probably going to be eating a lot of candy bars but also that, if we can find a way to return Azusa to our hand cheaply with a Cloudstone Curio in play, we can re-play her again and again if we can generate enough mana from the extra land we're looping in and out. Gaea's Cradle should take care of the mana, even give us some extra but returning Azusa will require a Dryad Arbor or a Khalni Garden. The first is a creature and the second produces a creature and is a land so it can do double duty (2 permanents CotB, so the Curio will trigger twice).

What makes most of this academic is that it doesn't really do much unless you've got enough creatures in play to generate a lot of mana from the Gaea's Cradle. You'll probably only break even most of the time but it's patiently insufficient without other creatures or cards in play, though the Khalni Garden allows you to kick off by generating a little army of Plant Tokens netting you +1 mana each loop with the Cradle. Without either of the Cradle or the Garden you're not going far and we're already at 4-5 cards just to turn the wheels. What it does provide you with is the ability to add a card or two and create a snowball effect.

Imagine that, in addition to the above cards (in a colour that has issues tutoring for anything other than Lands & Creatures), you have a Horn of Greed in play. How many lands were we intending to play again? When you add in the simple expedient of drawing a card when you go through your loop, you suddenly have access to your entire deck. While you may have reservations playing a symetrical card like Horn of Greed because you really need to draw more cards than you have opponents for it to be worthwhile, this is one instance when you can see that it's worth it.

You can draw your entire deck, in mono green, without Staff of Dominantion, by the simple expedient of playing a land. Is it convoluted and stupidly difficult to achieve with any regularity? Yes, it is. Perfect for EDH and Cloudstone Curio allows this.

Ok, I can hear the groans from somwhere in the back there that this is a stupid combo and shouldn't be played in EDH etc. etc. but I believe it all comes down to intent. Would I like it to come off in a game? Sure! Does it? Rarely but, in the meantime, Cloudstone Curio is still garnering CA through bouncing a few 187 creatures, allowing me multiple instances of landfall and allowing me to draw an extra card or two a turn.

"Stupid Combo" would be pairing Cloudstone Curio with Aluren though never has flavour text been so apt when it comes to your playgroup's reaction to a card:

A Kidney and a Speeny indeed.

* The two free Legacy legal infinite storm combos with Cloudstone Curio are:
1.) Curio + 2x Kobolds, the 0cc red 0/1 creatures
2.) Curio + Tangleroot + 2x 1cc green creatures, probably Elves.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Technology Segment: SECRET TECH

I caught up with the new EDH Podcast "Commandercast" last week and Andy and Byron put a Secret Tech section together to espouse their favourite underplayed cards. It got me to thinking about my own favourite cards, underplayed or not.

Some were mentioned by the guys: Dreamscape Artist, Mystic Remora, Brooding Saurian and Spitting Image, but I have a few extra that I'd like to highlight here. Apologies in advance if any of these are everywhere in your playgroup.

I have none worth mentioning that you're not probably playing already. So far off to a bad start. It's not that there aren't good cards out there, just none that I can honestly say "This is not getting played enough!"

Uncommon is a different story however. I actually had to trim this list down to get my favourite 3 cards and what's on here is a combination of what's seemingly underplayed (and where it's seemingly underplayed) and the effect it has on a game.

Avarice Totem:
You've seen this played by that big-mana, blue-based, artifact deck but that's generally it. You may not have seen it in Big Green or Group Hug or that annoying Chaos deck that just wants to screw with everyone's heads.

It's a very simple idea: You give someone the Totem and they give you a non-land permanent. In and of itself, the Totem is a blank card but has the potential to become ANY card and that's where it's base power lies. Much like Clone can be anything from a Bird of Paradise to an Emrakul, the Aeons Torn, Avarice Totem can be any other targettable non-land permanent in play. It's a classic Rattlesnake card: anything that comes into play can be stolen. The classic play is having someone try to destroy or bounce it with a CotB effect only for you to steal the source in response. They get nothing and you get whatever they just played.

There's more to the Totem than meets the eye. First of all, it's a permanent swap, you don't give anything back unless it's taken back. Secondly, it's an activated ability that can be activated in turn by whoever it is given to so choosing your moment carefully as to when to pass it on is advised. Thirdly, it's an activated ability that doesn't require you to tap it to activate the ability which means that you can activate it as many times as you want. This can be just the once if you want the Totem to be out there for everyone in either a Chaos or Group Hug setting, it can be multiple times in a big mana deck like Green that likes to steal multiple permanents to clear a passage to charge through for a turn, just be sure to pass items that can't block.

It is possible to activate this ability in response to itself and generate some odd combinations. For example, if you control this card and another permanent, you can use this card's ability and target the permanent you control. You can then use this card's ability again and target a permanent your opponent controls. The second usage resolves first and you get your opponent's permanent in exchange for this one. The first usage then resolves and swaps your other permanent for the Totem so you get it back. The net effect is that you can swap any non-land permanent you have for any of theirs if you can activate this ability twice. Note that your opponent does get the chance to use the Totem in between the resolutions of your two usages if they have the mana. You see what I meant about being good in a chaos deck? This requires paying strict attention when you are resolving the stack but is otherwise just a chaotic blast.

Can it be abused? Obviously yes, but it can be used to create a lot of fun situations too. Don't forget some important details if you decide to play the Totem:
1.) you can bounce it back to your hand when you want to get it back and you don't lose the item you received in return;
2.) you can play Brooding Saurian to "yo-yo" it back to you at each end of turn turn allowing you to profit for a turn and start afresh without worrying too much about what your opponent does with it. This is particularly good with Seedborn Muse as you can steal things every turn, you always have mana open. As creatures without haste are required to pass an upkeep under a player's control to lose summoning sickness, if you steal something and they take it back right away, they will not be able to attack with it that turn. This set-up essentially becomes an expensive Maze of Ith blanking huge threats turn after turn. It also stops people attacking you if they have two creatures as you can just steal one to block the other.
3.) Sacrifice effects and rendering untargettable become golden abilities as you will steal someone's shiney Bomb and either sacrifice it for fun and profit (saccing is generally in the payment part of an effect so, by the time an opponent can respond, their permanent is already dead) or make it impossible for your opponent to steal it back by adding a Lightning Greaves or similiar.

Altogether too many tricks in a 1cc artifact.

Seedguide Ash:
My pet hate in EDH (and all Magic) is being without mana whether simply land count or a colour requirement. My current Rafiq deck, which leans towards mid-game control rather than early game explosiveness, is an excercise in always getting the right mana at the right time. Even this deck suffers if someone decides to destroy all lands or play an Obliterate effect. Adding Life from the Loam and Crucible of Worlds can still be insufficient as both require you to have the requsite land in hand to play them out afterwards in order to recover. One means of getting around this is the effect that Seedguide Ash provides, when he dies you get +3 Forests directly into play tapped.

Now the first thing to note is that, one the face of it, this is not a very splasy effect outside of what I have just explained or simply using him to accellerate your mana off a chump-block or a sacrifice effect like High Market. If you allow that the "splashy" will happen elsewhere, then including the workhorse cards in your decks is perfectly acceptable.

What about the vanilla test? He's a 4/4 for 5 with no direct effect on your hand or the board. That's a bit weak. Even with Rafiq, he'll only get a boost to 5/5. For 3GG, there's obviously better around. However, no-one is going to want to kill this guy, he's a useless dork, and killing him is your plan so players will be even more reluctant to waste a creature or a spell on killing him unless they absolutely have to. This may occasionally even deter players from attacking into him. In addition, if you have him on turn 4 and an opponent kills him, they waste a card or ability to do so while you jump instantly to 8 mana, potentially 9 once you untap. There's a LOT more you can do with 9 mana in EDH than with 5 and players realise that. You have a vanilla 4/4 for 3GG that people will do their best not to kill.

Wait, there's more! He gets Forests, but not basic Forests, so he can find dual lands. As he puts them into play tapped in any event, it's the perfect time to search out Ravnica Duals and just forego the annoying choice of taking 2. He finds Dryad Arbor too, if that's your thing. Playing Seedguide Ash probably won't garner any "WOW!" from your playgroup, but it may put you in a great position to take over the game when needed.

It's unlikely you haven't seen this card at some point but, if you haven't, you're in for a real treat!

One of the things we're always harping on about in Magic is Card Advantage (CA).

One of the things we're always harping on about in EDH is graveyard control.

One of the things you never expect is the Spanish Inquisition.

Stonecloaker is all three (ok, maybe not the Spanish Inquisition but definitely unexpected.) He's a creature. He attacks, flies, blocks and, because of Flash, you can play him any time you want. Your only requirements are 3 open mana and a creature in play: your general, a good utility creature, something with a great CotB effect or just any old dork (obviously better if it's not just a dork) You want to re-use their ability or save it from combat damage or a removal spell or ability so you throw down the Stonecloaker and return the other creature to your hand. Stonecloaker doesn't target the returned creature so you can bounce something Pro-white or untargettable. Your opponent has use card or ability X for no gain. You have an untouched 3/2 flier in play and the one he wanted to kill is safe in your hand. You have paid 2W for +1 CA. Actually, you've paid 2W for something more.

One of the most powerful resources in the game is your Graveyard. If your deck is set up to exploit it, your Graveyard can function as an extension of your hand. When you have a hand of 7 cards and a Graveyard of 14 cards, you have the potential for an accessible resource of 21 cards. In addition, cards that you take from a graveyard to use in play will eventually return to the graveyard making it an open door of reusable creatures & spells. This is precisely the reason why it's important to pack Graveyard hate against your opponents' Graveyards and Mr. Stonecloaker now has his hand up.

In addition to saving your poor creature, Stonecloaker exiles a card in a graveyard. This can be in your own in response to somone's reanimate effect, or in an opponent's for the same reason. As Stonecloaker has Flash, you can wait patiently until someone starts targetting their cards and remove them in response. Here we get back to our CA again. Your opponent is using a resource (a card or activated ability) to get something back and you're paying 2W to prevent that with no loss of physical resources on your part.

It gets even better. Imagine if you don't want to return a creature, or you have no creatures in play when you want to remove a card from a graveyard. Stonecloaker swoops in, exiles the offending card and then you return Stonecloaker to your hand. As he doesn't specify "another" creature, he's as good a candidate as any to bounce back up to your hand, ready to swoop again.

Like I said, no-one expects the Spanish Inquisition.

That's it for the uncommons. Check back soon for my 3 rares.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

The World Needs Bad Guys: The case for Emrakul, the Aeons Torn

Freddy.   Jason.   The freaky guy in the Hitcher.   Mike Long.

Bad Guys. You know it, they know it. We all love it.

Nightmare on Elm Street without Freddy scraping his claws through your abdomen? Bor-ing!

Friday the 13th without Jason silently coming on and on, again and again, implacable, unbeatable? Probably Freaky Friday tbh.

Speaking of "freaky", Rutger Hauer in The Hitcher? That's some scary biscuits right there!

A Pro-Tour without Mike Long? You know it's just not the same as back in the day. People LOVED Mike, or rather, people loved hating Mike. If you followed Mark Rosewater's writing over on daily a couple of years back, you may remember this pieces that justified his vote for Mike Long on the Hall of Fame ballot. Here's what he said about his vote for one of the most hated professional players in the history of the game (emphasis mine):
[M]y job was to make the Pro Tour interesting and exciting. I had to make all of you care about it. And in the history of the Pro Tour three players blew everyone else out of the water. Interest in them dwarfs all the other players combined. Those players were Jon Finkel, Kai Budde and Mike Long.... How did Mike fare at star building? He's the best I ever had. If I put him in a feature match or on camera, people showed up. In large numbers.

The best example I can give of this was the PT Los Angeles won by Trevor Blackwell. Mike got into the Top Eight after a controversy with Darwin Kastle in the last round of the Swiss. Now, normally the quarterfinals are low turnout as the event starts at 9:00 am, but in Los Angeles, the room was packed. It was, at the time, the best attendance we'd ever had for a quarterfinal match. Mike wins and advances to the semi finals. Even more people turn up out of the woodwork to watch. In the semi finals, Mike loses. The finals was the lowest turnout we'd ever had. Everyone came to see Mike lose. Once he did, they left..... I quickly learned the golden rule – “show Mike”. Everyone always loves to go on and on about how they hated him yet no one could resist watching him. You'd think people would shun him to make the point that they don't like what he was doing. Yet the opposite was true. Mike made people emotionally invest in the Pro Tour.

"Mike made people emotionally invest in the Pro Tour." That's a pretty big deal to get the average non-PT player to be anyway interested in the pro-tour outside of their friend's participation or the tech they were going to net-deck off the event. For a company like WotC, garnering interest in their flagship events among non-participants is crucial as this interest triggers a renewed interest in the game at local level, renewed competitiveness, an interest in top tier decks and strategy. Mike was one of those who caught everyone's interest.

Fap. Fap. Fap.
Now we here in flying purple hippo land may or may not give two hoots about the pro-tour, but emotional investment is something we know something about. EDH deckbuilding, play and metagaming is an affair of the heart for a lot of people, a fact constantly underlined by people's attention to detail, flavour, innovation, gameplay and the emotional enjoyment of playing a game of EDH that is a blast for everyone involved. In every EDH forum there are threads with variations on "Cool things that we did when playing this format". I think, of all the other formats I have encountered, only Cube Drating has a similiar thread but is no-where near as dynamic (the threads (and the format, I suppose (Oooh! Controversial!!))) This is where people come to share individual or group emotion and successes while playing EDH. Sure, you get the occasional fapper who just went off with EWit and Time Stretch, more interesting is the "Thrash for Treasure FTW" type plays and these are rightly celebrated.

A week or so ago, I posted the following in the Cool Plays thread over on the Official EDH boards:

Just wanted to post a quick congrats to my playgroup last night. We had 3x 4-man games in which we had 12 instances of Eldrazi legends in play (counting each casting as a new copy), most of them Emrakul and not one ever entered an attack step. There was a major amount of scrambling but nothing was annihilated in the entire game.

There's nothing like sitting back after all that and saying "Ok, we can do this! Those guys (and gal) aren't so bad!"

That's not particularly earth-shattering news but interesting none-the-less for those who are currently focused on hating Emrakul, the Aeons Torn out of EDH. The very first reply was this from Mesti:
Sounds absolutely horrid. Spending a whole night scrambling to not get blown out by the same 2-3 cards over and over doesn't fit my model of fun. I'm glad your group enjoyed it at least, but this kind of shenanigans is why I don't think the Eldrazi (primarily Emmy) belong in the format.

Really "absolutely horrid"? A run of 3x 4-man games, featuring 2 developing players, constantly and effectively dealing with EDH's Public Enemy #1 again and again is "absolutely horrid"? Sure, I get the concept that it must be a pain always having to deal with these Eldrazi again and again but to go so far as to put a downer on congratulating someone for getting the job done right again and again in the face of these colourless behemoths speaks of some pretty deep-seated hatred for Emrakul and Friends.

You know when a new set comes out and everyone jumps up and down about the new "must-have" rare or mythic to the point that pre-sales post the card up at around $50-$60? And then it either lives up to the hype or flops abysmally and is always graded against the initial hype generated about it, whether fair or not.

Not Emrakul.
 Something similiar is happening to Emrakul in EDH. Very soon after she was spoiled, Emmy started being labelled "unfun". This is possible, after all fun is subjective. However, since then, there's been an increasing groundswell of opposition to Emrakul, and to a much lesser extent her two brothers. This is getting to the point where, I believe, she's suffering from negative hyperbole: people just can't stop saying bad things about her. In layman's terms, she's got a bad rep and, once you're tarred with the brush, it's pretty hard to come out clean the other end. C'mon guys, she's hardly Infernal Spawn of Evil but she's treated as such.

We all know how difficult it is to reach a full consensus in a playgroup as to what constitutes "fun". Everyone has a different read. Some think Emrakul is just flat out unfun. Others are fine with Emrakul in a vacuum but have an issue with her in any sort of combo. Some even gasp! have nothing against her at all!

My view is this:

If you're paying 15 mana, you want to be getting an effect more than simple combat damage. Emrakul provides this. Other effects that cost 15 mana, like say Death Cloud for 12, can be much worse if they don't win the game right there as they can cause it to drag on indefinitely.

If you plan on playing fair, i.e.: only hardcast Emrakul after turn 10 with normal mana generation and you win off the back of casting her, well your opponents should have done something about your potential earlier and only have themselves to blame.

If you have an Emrakul in your deck and you'll see it once in a while and play it while accepting that you are likely to have it stolen from you at some point and are ok with that, then you're probably doing it right.

Don't try this at home, kids!

If you're planning on accellerating out a hard-cast Emrakul as your #1 plan, you're getting very close to crossing that mythical boundary a lot of EDH players out there have set. Linear, ultra-consistant decks intent on putting a grinding hurt on the entire table every single game are just not "fun". As EDH is about the "fun", you should probably revise this strategy.

If you're planning on constantly cheating Emrakul into play in any other way than getting her with Bribery off an opponent, you are firmly in the camp of not "fun" and should definitely revise your strategy. Quickly.

If you are planning to play, bounce and re-play Emrakul constantly in order to benefit from her "Take an extra turn" ability enough to kill everyone, just go home. Now.

Why should we be calling for a ban for a creature that embodies "The Line" in EDH? Emrakul is the perfect card to test where everyone stands on the "fun" issue in your playgroup. Just playing an Emrakul should be the first step in finding what everyone feels about her and cards of her power level. Stealing her from another player's deck will give you not only a good read on Emrakul but also on Bribery and most especially the take of the Emrakul owner as he watches his own Emrakul kill him. We had a situation where a steal effect garnered someone a bounce ability from Stormscape Battlemage. The Emrakul in his deck was pretty much ignored by the rest of the table until he found a way to combo off to infinite turns. What was most interesting was that the Emrakul player had no intention of going infinite and stated this but was told not to steal the ability to go infinite in future; his own deck didn't contain cards to allow him to go infinite on his own. That's a fair approach, don't you think?

"Get it? Bunnies, lettersz, -X/-X? Me neither."

Emrakul is also the stiffest test a lot of tables can face and setting yourself up to beat her multiple times is an excellent excercise in group metagaming and an excellent tool for up-and-coming players to find solutions and ways to find them. She's the boogey man (woman), but one that you can come to grips with if you are prepared.

For me, Emrakul, the Aeons Torn is not an annoyance in EDH but essential for the development of your local EDH Group. She can't just be tarred with the "DB" brush without getting some props for what positive things she engenders in your group.

The World needs bad guys and EDH needs Emrakul.

 Oh, and fluffy bunnies.