Thursday, 22 December 2011

Rules changes conundrum

Players other than the controller of a trigger are under no obligation to point out that a trigger has been missed, though they may do so if they wish.

Is it me or do the rules changes for triggers spell trouble for all levels of Magic play, not just the higher RELs? The recent update to the Infraction Procedure Guide allows for a different proceedure for missed triggers and defines exactly what optional and non-optional triggers are.

Why would I, casual Commander player, get my panties in a knot about this? These changes will be enforced from 01/01/12 and only in higher REL events. We avid followers of the Commander format know from long experience with the Commander RC that any statement from an official source, even with a pretty large caveat like "in your own group, you don't need to do it like this", will be taken as a de facto blanket change. After all, outside of the target events, there's no form of official enforcement to rule one way or another on any cases that come up. Whereas before, when there was one rule, it's either printed "may" on the card and thus skipped if forgotten, or it's printed "Do X", thus it's obligatory and it's everyone's responsbility to point it out.

What's annoying in addition is being required to re-learn new complex rules in an era when Wizards are purportedly looking to make the game easier to access. We can cite the recent move by Wizards to move away from "may" triggers as they are deemed to confusing as a clear and relevant example. This change is effectively a complete U-turn on that policy making a huge swath of previously obligatory triggers effectively optional if a player or both players aren't vigilant enough. Worse still, they have set down criteria as to which triggers are optional and which are not. You'll see why I say "worse" a little later.

I don't know about your playgroup, I can only comment on mine. We have a very casual playgroup but with time restraints. Our ongoing policy (now that Marc is gone!) is that "Go!" actually means "I've finished my turn and there's no take-backs." The triggered ability on a permanent that doesn't say "may" means that it will happen, even if it's initially missed by everybody and we need to rewind. This may seem a little strict for a very casual group but it's one of the best learning tools we can implement. No-one is afraid to dish out advice, detailed explainations are available before and after the fact and we're pretty honest as to what we consider douchy plays and, for the most part, we avoid inflicting them on our group. Outside of that, it's your responsability to know your deck and to pay attention. You snooze, you lose!

Where it gets sticky is when a player decides that the new policy applies to our group. It's in the IPG after all. Who cares that Wizards say it's only for high REL events? Johnny had to play with these rules at the PTQ, the Grand Prix, States and the National Qualifier, why should it be any different here? Why do we blindly stick to the Commander rules & banned list if we're going to pick and mix other policies?

To be honest, I think we'll manage to sort it out for our group though I'm not so sure that some of the more "competitive" commander groups will weather the changes so well. After all, who actually says, when they attack with Phage: "The ability triggers and you're dead"? No, they don't, they just attack and assume you're dead. I can see the scene already when Phage hits and the attacking player just plays a 2nd-Main-Phase land without announcing the resolution of the Phage's death trigger and is literally flummoxed when the player hit by Phage has the temerity to untap and draw as normal. Let's face it, everyone knows someone who, if they thought they could successfully argue their way out of leaving a game, they'd do it. Groups where the spirit of the rules is championed over rules lawyering should be able to resolve this without too much antagonism; other groups have just found an entirely new level of wrangling and there will be additional tension.

Here's an annotated version of the definition of what now constitutes an optional ability with additional commentary on the "exceptions" (i.e.: those that seem optional but are not) courtesy of Jason Wong's excellent article over on

An optional ability does one or more of the following things, and nothing else:
  • Gains you life or causes an opponent to lose life. (Soul Warden)
  • Puts cards from your library, graveyard, or exile zones into your hand or onto the battlefield. This includes drawing cards. (Elvish Visionary)
  • Causes opponents to put objects from their hand or the battlefield into the library, graveyard or exile. (Ravenous Rats)
  • Puts a permanent into play under your control or gives you control of a permanent. (Sower of Temptation)
  • Puts +x/+x counters, or counters linked to a beneficial effect, on a permanent you control. (Shrine of Burning Rage)
  • Gives +x/+x or a beneficial ability to a target creature you control. (Chasm Drake)
  • Exiles, damages, destroys, taps, or gives -x/-x to an opponent’s target permanent. If the ability could target your own permanents, it is not optional unless that ability could target an opponent. (Kor Hookmaster is optional, Acidic Slime is not optional, Inferno Titan is optional)
  • Gives you additional turns or phases. (Lighthouse Chronologist)
  • Counters a spell or conditionally counters a spell, but only when cast by an opponent. (Chancellor of the Annex)

Abilities that trigger at the same point in each player’s turn and do something to “that player” (e.g. Howling Mine) are never optional.

Here are some abilities that you may think are optional, but are not:
  • Frost Titan’s first ability – In the list of allowable actions for optional abilities, there is an entry that says “… conditionally counters a spell, but only when cast by an opponent.” Frost Titan’s ability does this when your opponent casts Doom Blade, but not when your opponent activates Royal Assassin. Since it is not optional sometimes, it is never optional.
  • Dark Confidant – The ability puts a card into your hand, but it also does something else. Since it doesn’t fit into exactly into the options listed, it is not optional.
  • Crypt Cobra – This follows the philosophy of optional abilities, but it is not covered in the list of acceptable actions.
  • Morkrut Banshee – Like Acidic Slime, it can target permanents you control as well, while not being able to target your opponent.
  • Manic Vandal when only your opponent controls artifacts – The “optionalness” of an ability is not influenced by the game state. In a vacuum, Manic Vandal could target an artifact you control. Even though you don’t control any artifacts, the ability is not optional.

Particularly confusing are the differences between effects like Inferno Titan and Acidic Slime/Manic Vandal. Why would damage be optional but destruction not be optional? Both are encompassed by the same definition but a difference is being made in the application of the definition. In the same definition, Manic Vandal is not optional because theoretically you could control artifacts even if you don't just right now. The issue I have with this is that all three cards are worded to say that it happens, not that you may choose. This was my "worse still": Complex game just got more complex.

How about the +X/+X rule with something that gives multiple creatures +1/+1 counters like Mayael's Aria? If you put counters on some of your creatures but not all you've obviously not missed the trigger. Does that allow you to go back and complete the process for a creature you may have forgotten?

Jason Wong went on to talk about how not to deck yourself with Jin-Gitaxias by "forgetting" as drawing cards from triggered abilities is now optional, irregardless of whether your opponent points it out. You're no longer required to draw 7 at the end of your turn with the Praetor and his "Draw 7" now technically reads "You may draw 7".

The other side of the coin is that, if for some reason you forgot to draw your 7 cards, you don't get to rewind now. How many Commander playgroups are going to want to continue to implement the old ruling (which, I suppose, is still the current ruling seeing as Commander isn't concerned by the REL changes) when you can choose to implement the new ruling and have the Jin-Gitaxias player skip drawing those cards?

I can say with some honesty: Not many.

As a good man once said about Jin-Gitaxias, he's a Knut!!

At least, I think that's what he said.

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

The Best Blue Creature in Commander?

Ok, here's a bold claim.

We've a couple of players that have been rocking a Time Spiral Rare over the last few months and it has iced games multiple times when it has hit the field.

While it's not exactly Primeval Titan level good, it's a great foil for the titan and any other non-vanilla creature, which is to say, pretty much the entire format. It's not Draining Whelk, it's not Deep-Sea Kraken nor, surprisingly enough, is it Teferi, Mage of Zhalfir. My current top dog for best blue creatures in Commander is:

No direct damage to ping off that annoying creature that's just ruining your day? Ixidron

Some general just running away with the game thanks to their activated abilities? Ixidron

Lord of Extinction going to kill you next turn? Ixidron.

The "problem" of leaving a pile of faceless 2/2's sitting around should be mitigated somewhat by your own upturned dudes fending off similiar sized attackers allowing you to be the biggest dog on the block for a turn or two. And that's what a blue deck wants after all, isn't it? A few extra turns of not being milled, targetted or beaten down by the format's diverse set of creature abilities.

Oh and something else, death triggers don't trigger if something dies as a 2/2 morph. Suck it Reveillark!

Essentially the only ways players can get out of the Ixidron "lock" are:
1. Have their creatures die in some manner and bring them back.
2. Blink their creatures in some manner
3. Morph their creatures (Maindeck Break Open ftw!)

God forbid you managed to stick one onto a Mimic Vat. Everyone would be overpaying for vanilla 2/2s all over the place.

Friday, 16 December 2011

Artifacts in Balthor

Someone in my playgroup recently mentioned to me that I have a couple of funky artifacts in my Balthor deck and that, frankly, they both sucked.

He was only half right.

My Balthor deck gets added to and subtracted from pretty often so any given section is never nailed down. I get to make hard choices (If I add a Lake of the Dead, how many basic Swamps should I be running for it to be a hit every time?) and easy choices (Is Soulless One still worth it?*)

One of the places where I do the most tinkering is the artifact section. As my deck is a top-down, flavour-driven Zombie deck (rather than a "best of Black" with some zombies thrown in) I get to make choices based on whether a Door of Destinies should really be present in a Zombie scene. Since posting my last defined list back in January** I've completely overhauled the Artifacts section.

Things like Sensei's Divining Top are, flavourfully, very easy cuts to make because Zombies just aren't known for their divining or the ability to spin a top for that matter. Gameplay-wise this is a huge cut that, along with Vampiric Tutor, as effected my deck's ability to be consistent. Following on theme, that's an acceptable thing to happen though: zombies aren't always a full-on hoard from turn 2 or 3. It also forces me to play the deck differently as I'm not always going to the same outs. If this means that I'm losing more than usual, that's fine too.

Of the original list, only 3 cards have survived the cuts up to now: Lightning Greaves, Expedition Map & Skullclamp. All the boosts, exile abilities and recurring tricks have been cut and boosts have been taken care of by the full compliment of 4 lords available to Mono-B.

In their place, I have added in a couple of artifacts to help load the graveyards. A couple allow me to live the dream of a huge turn 3-4 zombie army but the statistical changes of that are ridiculously low. Here's the combo:

If you play a Mesmeric Orb and follow up with a Basalt Monolith, you can mill your entire deck just by tapping and untapping the Monolith. If you're lucky enough to have a Songs of the Damned or a Crypt of Agadeem (and the mana to use it, of course) you have enough mana to loop your Balthor to raise the Zombie Army you've always dreamed of. Of course, later in the game this is still a valid play allowing for the need to work around graveyard hates as that would seriously crimp your style.

In the meantime Mesmeric Orb is a huge pain in the rear for a lot of decks, not everyone wants to mill for 4-6 every turn.

The other artifacts I've added are Sol Ring, Charmed Pendant (an extremely dubious mana accellerant), Oblivion Stone/Nev's Disk (some necessary protection), and a Memory Jar. The Jar allows for some silly end of turn armies that you wouldn't otherwise be able to accellerate into.

Despite these additions, even more space is needed for the Grimoire of the Dead so I'll have to go back into the tank for that.

Space must be found

So, to sum up: Yes, Charmed Pendant sucks.


* Sadly, no. He's the muscle who's become just too vanilla. We now have cheaper and better options. Goodbye, Soulless One, you are now "Friendless One".

** Coat of Arms, Door of Destinies, Brittle Effigy, Expedition Map, Sensei's Divining Top, Nim Death-Mantle, Skullclamp, Lightning Greaves

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Goodbye, Daddy M.

This week a player left our playgroup. 

Our principal magic playgroup is at our place of work during our lunch-hour. That's pretty neat if you can accept the various constraints, such as the strict time limit and that you could be playing your direct superior any given afternoon. While the nature of the company and commander, our favoured format allow for a certain measure of familiarity, you can't just call your boss a douchbag when he pulls out a questionable play. Luckily, despite him being one of the 3 bosses who partake in our group, this was never the case with Marc anyway.

When he was called on to give his going-away speech, he covered the professional side pretty comprehensively but he skimped a bit on the gaming side so I’ve decided to list some of the Magic things that we’ll miss about Marc now that he’s gone.

Marc is a 40+ year old Timmy. There’s something really great about a guy who just loves his Timmy moments and really couldn’t give a damn what you think. It’s all about the full-on “Leerooooooooooyyy Jenkins!” and, now that he’s gone, we’re slowly realizing that he was pretty much the only full-on Timmy we had.

The profile of Timmy caring more about the EPIC wins rather than the quantity of wins was especially true for Marc and he notched up as many war stories for his epic blowouts as for being epically blown out himself because he waited just one turn too long. He just wanted to go big all the time.

One of the things that isn’t mentioned all that much about Timmys is their love for the red zone. For Marc, there was only one way to win: laying down the beats. So much so that the attack phase was renamed the “Yaaaarrrggghhhhhh” phase in his honor. Picture this jovial, middle-aged man up off his seat, turning his creatures, tokens, playmat and sandwiches sideways while shouting “Yaaaarrrggghhhhhh!!” often accompanied by diverse charging noises and other random battle sound effects while the rest of the company looks up from their lunch platter in bemusement. A full throated bellowing of The Flight of the Valkyeries a la Apocalypse Now was for those exceptional moments of face-smashery. That was Marc every day.

Of course, these epic calls to war wouldn’t be half as memorable if there weren’t equally copious examples of “yyyaaaaaarrrrgggghhhh…….oooooooohhhhHHHHHSSSHHIITTOHSHITOHSHITOHSHIT” mixed right in there too. The attack was the “moment”, the pinnacle of all his hard work. It just that the execution didn’t always match the vision. 

Still, on those occasions when when Rhys & Seedborn Muse both survive a full, mana-rich turn around the table to be boosted by Garruk & Overrun once it come back to Marc, there’s not a huge number of possible results: You either have the Fog (and he generally had it but no-one else did!) or there’s a lot of dead or critically wounded planeswalkers!

Of course, timing was never really one of Marc’s strong suits. Picture the scene: the turn passes to Marc. He draws his card and goes deep into the tank calculating his potential damage. He realizes that he has just enough to deal lethal with cards in hand if the opponent does block but he’s got to finish the job because he’s wide open for the counter-strike.

He thinks some more.

Finally he leans forward and gives us his patented “Yaaaarrrggghhhhhh!!” as he moves into his attack phase. The unlucky defending player(s) go into the tank and calculate damage and blockers and realize that, unless something funky happens, they will survive the turn and kill Marc when the turn comes round to them.
So much better like this.

“No blockers,” they announce.

“No blockers? Then….. [and here he’d pause, draw himself up majestically and shout]… OVERRUN!!”

Now, if this had happened once, maybe twice, it wouldn’t be interesting but it actually happened so often that it got to the point where we could tell if he had the Overrun and could stop him (or not, depending on our life totals) before he got into his attack phase. He even managed to accomplish this magnificent, speed-changing feat twice during the same game! Some humorous cad decided to print out a HD proxy of the card with “Sorcery” replaced by “Instant” and slide it into his deck just to mess with his head a bit and he was presented with a play set of these errata versions upon leaving the company. 

So, what do you get when you give a Timmy a Grand Arbiter Augustin IV and tell him to make a deck? 

A full on Stax prison lock? Noooooo! Counterspells? Sure, a couple. Leviathans? Of course! But a rapid Rhino beatdown was probably not what you expected. We gave Marc a GAAIV and he gave us this:

Turn 1: Land, Sol Ring, Pearl Medallion
Turn 2: Land, GAAIV
Turn 3: Land, Mirror Sigil Sergeant, go.

When your opponent starts with a second turn Grand Arbiter, you know you’re in for a rough ride. Add everyone’s early game mana development torpor to a prison effect and garnish with a self-replicating rhinoceros across the table from you and it all spells >ouch<.  Fastest table kill ever and he achieved it with just one creature.

What about putting Celestial Mantle on a Battlegrace Angel before equipping on a Lightning Greaves and sending it into battle? I think we stopped counting at 3000+ life. There are games when you really need your Wrath of God to resolve and games where you really need to kill someone with your general. We didn’t get there with either solution and Marc stayed above 3000 from there on. He eventually ended up taking it out of his deck after repeated 2-for-1s but that never took anything away from that one occasion when it got there in a big way. From then on any significantly high life total has been regarded with distain and a “Pffff! Well, it’s not 3000+, is it?” by the entire group.

It wasn’t all good times though; Marc could be frustrating to play with and against. His turns would often take the following form:

“Ok, em,  go!
No, wait! Land, go!
No, wait! Attack you for 15!
Eh…… NOW go!” 

When it happens once in a blue moon, you can let this kind of thing slide but when it’s every other turn, it gets to be frustrating very, very quickly. Towards the end, if it seemed like it was one of those days, the table would gently nudge him along with innocent suggestions like “How may lands do you have there, Marc?” or “Gee, that’s a lot of creatures you’ve got there!!” during his pre-combat main-phases. Those touched by the Beatdown Gods have their minds on higher matters and such minutia as phases and being aware of what's happening can often be beneath them. 

Picture Marc as some sort of Beatdown Buddah (but with a lot less inner peace) and you’re half-way to knowing him already. 

With such great and ponderous thoughts of beatdown also comes the ability to realise belatedly what's actually going on and lead to last minute changes of mind. Being the beatdown is a complicated business. Do this first or do that first? Attack him over here or attack him over there? The number of takebacks our playgroup allows is actually pretty low with the exception of Marc who was constantly stuck on “actually, no, I think I’ll do that instead” mode.

This, unfortunately, extended to stuff that uses the stack, which, in Magic, is quite a lot of stuff. Those dreaded words “In response….” engendered a flight instinct in Marc that Norin the Wary would have been proud of. The usual response to another player’s “In response….” was always “In that case, no, I think I’ll do that instead.” If you worked it enough, I’m sure you could achieve a state of perpetual take-backs even when holding only a hand full of land.

That is until he got fed up and just pounded your face into the ground with 475 trampling damage from the pick’n’mix of creatures he had summoned. I suppose the moral to that story is not to bait the bear, the bear has claws.

And we’ll miss you around the table, old bear!