Thursday, 4 October 2012

PUNY HUMANS!! The first steps in building a Human deck

[Another oldie going out there. Obviously the numbers are off in this kind of article and this post, more than than others, is going to feel truncated.]

>opens Gatherer<
>types Human<

.......1369 results. Okaaaaay........

>clicks [back], selects "Legendary" filter<
>curses at Gatherer<
>clicks Advanced Search<
>selects "Legendary", "Creature", "Human", wonders why same search doesn't work from front page<

189 results. Hum.

Did anyone else know that "Human" is far and away the most represented creature type among Magic's Legendary community? Strange, in a game where everything is about the Sphinx, Dragon, Elf or Zombie of preference, that Human makes up for almost a full third of all Legends. A lot of that is down to the Portal legends and the early Legends who were overwhelmingly human (or became human after "Legend" became a type and each Legend needed an actual sub- or creature type).

With the upsurge of Humans and "human matters" cards in recent sets, I have a hankering to look at what the race can offer in terms of tribal support for an EDH deck. My first step to make a tribal deck would usually be to find a general and build from there. 

As I've mentioned before, I really like Tribal-deck Generals that care about their tribe. Boosting is good, tribe only abilities is even better. Zombies is a disappointment as there's not a single Zombie Legend that has a Zombie in its rules text: They just don't care. Balthor's reanimation ability is about the closest I can get thematically. Dragon Legends care: Scion, Karrthus and Bladewing all want lots of dragons in the game and you to be the (eventual) controller. Elves Legends care: there's 5 that help or create elves. What are those Human legends up to?

>clicks back, adds "human" to rules text<

Humans, unsurprisingly are selfish egotistical bastards: they don't give a damn about other humans. What am I going to do in my deck? I want a human who feels like a leader. Soldier feels a bit too much like "follower", there are no higher ranks in the subtype line and, surprisingly given that there is "Adviser", there's no "King" subtype. What about "Knight" or "Warrior"?

>clicks back, cuts "human" from rules text<
>adds "or" "Knight" "or" "warrior" to subtype<

Daakon Blackblade.....
Jor Kadeen..

Ok, there's some stuff I can work with in there. I have to be honest, when I finished this search, I saw the guy I want leading my army right off the bat, mostly by eliminating the cards I didn't want or didn't own. In a choice between Jor Kadeen's RW and the UWG knight, Rafiq wins out every time. My old Rafiq deck, made to weather the Annihilator storm with the release of Rise of the Eldrazi has been retired for a while. He could do with a good dusting off.


>Clicks back, adds "Human" into rules text and cuts "Legendary" & "Human" from type & subtype fields<
>after clicking search, facepalms, clicks back and adds "not" "red" and "not" "black" to colour filter

"Not" is always better in this search. If you just do "or" "UWG" you won't find any lands or artifacts that care about humans. Took me a while to figure that one out but it's the most efficient way to do this kind of search.

What I starting out doing is looking at "human matters" creatures in my colours. Only 23 creatures out of 1368 Humans actually mention the word "Human" in their text box and only 10 of those are in Bant.

That's not a lot.

Here is my second big choice that needs making: Is this a strict "Humans only" deck or can I add either relevant human related non-humans (like Grave Titan in Zombies) or totally unconnected good cards in my colours. Where possible I avoid the third option, I could just make a good-stuff deck if I wanted to. The first is extremely restrictive that stops you using some really relevant creatures just because of the type line. Take Angel of Glory's Rise from the up-coming Avacyn Restored [You guessed it: this is an old article!]: it's an angel that loves humans BUT it's an angel, not a human. How strict is that deck-building line? I think humans need a to believe in something greater than themselves to spur them on to greater feats of valour so thematically the Angel could easily get the nod.

When I don't have a particular theme for a deck outside of a particular tribe, finding an identity can be annoying at times. There's a couple of options with someone like Rafiq. One, the longest is slogging through the CMCs one by one (with 1369 Humans there's a lot to slog though so you're better off breaking it down into managable parts) until your've filled out each CMC with playables and start cutting from there:

>Click's back, removes "Human" from subtype line, adds "CMC =1"<
>Click's back, removes "CMC=1" from subtype line, adds "CMC =2"<
>Click's back, removes "CMC=2" from subtype line, adds "CMC =3"<

and so on.  

[And here is where I finished before that huge chunk of RL intervened. 

This post reflects one of the two major approaches I use when building decks: slogging through Gatherer for days in a more or less systematic manner until I see what I have to unearth from my boxes and binders. The more a deck sticks to a theme, the more I will build in this manner. Obviously I have a jumping off point, generally when cooking, "working" or driving; a moment of clarity where it becomes obvious that, in order for my life to be complete, I must build the ultimate Squirrel deck. Or whatever. Here it was humans and a deck that eventually never got built. Go figure.

The other deck building process that I regularly employ is a good stuff approach trawling through my binders because I want to use X Legend or Y card in a deck. Gatherer generally figures somewhere in the mix in order to find that obscure instance of a creature that has this specific triggered ability, that particular land that bounces back to your hand or something along those lines.

Feel free to share your personal deck-building tic, your tips for a more complete Gatherer experience or whatever cookie recipe you're brandishing at the moment.*]

*Shortbread base, caramel fudge layer, dark chocolate topping and, occasionally, I can be tricked into sprinkling mini-marshmallows on top while the chocolate is still liquid.

Animar - Soul of Elements: Just brainstorming silliness

[This is another of those old articles that never got finished. Now it is (kind of) and I'm putting it out there. Enjoy!]

When talking to a couple of players recently they subject came up about "broken" Generals and how exactly is broken defined in this context. Apart from the joker that suggested Haakon, opinions varied a bit:

One espoused Braids and Grand Arbiter Augustin IV who have board warping implications merely by being present.

Another championed the Arcum, Sharuum, Zur & Azusa types who allowed repeated incremental advantage.

Personally I plumped for Animar: If you consider the mana and additional costs of creatures to be the baseline in what's considered "fair", Animar, just by being in play, makes each successive creature spell more "unfair" by allowing you to pay less for that spell than you should. You're breaking one of the 3 base rules in the game: you pay less than cost price for your cards (the others base rules being draw one card per turn & play one land per turn). Animar also has the ancillary abilities allowing him to become infinitely large and two relevant protections to dodge some of the more common spot removal in the format.

There's not really that many modes to Animar; you have "stupidly broken" and "durdling about not specifically trying to achieve stupidly broken but getting part of the way there". I suppose, in an effort to avoid both of these modes, you could take out all those cards that make the general merely an enabler for stupid things and aim for merely "pay less for my dudes", however even this can be considered a form of "trying to achieve stupid". Creatures have a cost to play, though some are more fairly costed than others, and that cost is a supposedly fixed element. When you start reducing that cost, you're getting something for less than you should. Start reducing that cost on a creature that's already aggressively costed and you start getting a lot of value where none normally exists.

Generally the things that allow you to pay less for something only do that: Cloud Key, Etherium Sculptor etc. Animar gets very big and swings for damage while he's enabling cheaper stuff..

If, when building your deck, you can add in effects that allow you to break the remaining 2 base rules (and I assure you that Blue, Green Red, & Artifact have an abundance of ways in which to do this even with the restriction that the desired effects should be attached to a creature), suddenly you're achieving the trifecta of effects that break the core tenets of the game at very little extra cost than the investment you've already made in getting Animar into play. The only question you need to ask yourself at this point is how much you're willing to push these boundaries to break the game (and how detrimental that will be to your playgroup?)

So, I decided to build an Animar deck in one evening to illustrate my point of Animar's intrinsic brokenness to my group. Initially, I started with inspiration from Animar's rules text and planned on a 100% creature deck. While going through my folders to build the deck, I decided to place to one side all the non-creature cards I came across that I thought merited inclusion to see if I was willing to make that 100% creature call or not.

It became quickly clear that the choice wasn't simply a question of playing either "lots" of creatures or "all" creatures, it was also a question of power-level. I could build the all-creature deck but it wouldn't be the deck I promised to showcase to the doubting few. Aluren, Earthcraft and Cloudstone Curio are the sort of cards that change most decks, but here they turn it from a "just very good" deck to the aforementioned "stupid". When you are playing your under-costed threats, you're eventually going to run out of either mana or cards (or both). The first two of these three cards take care of the mana part, the third takes care of the problem of needing to draw cards by allowing you to re-use the same cards repeatedly for an effect. Working on the theory that you're only going to include creatures that advance some portion of your plan, and that all provide some sort of intrinsic value, re-using the same cards again and again for little or no cost just makes sense.

So the decision taken was to go full-on silly season and see where it led me.

My basic starting point to any deck-building exercise is 36 land, 5-6 mana rocks and some guys that go get lands (in Green or White). If this mix is off after playing the deck a few times I can change it but it's an excellent jumping off point. You may have to mix around some of the numbers if you are in colours that don't have a huge amount of card filtering or land search but the basics are the same. I find that with multiple colours this approach still works, though sometimes calls for a little more time getting the correct artifacts and searchers. Here's where I started with Animar (replace anything you don't own with basic lands):

Coloured Mana:
3 Duals
3 Ravnica Shock-lands
3 Ravnica Bounce-lands
3 On-colour Fetch-lands
3 M12 / Innistrad tap lands
1 Command Tower
1 Gaea's Cradle
15 Mixed basics depending on your build

Some specialist non-colour lands. Here I've only included 4 as I want as many lands as possible to produce coloured mana:
1 Temple of the False Gods
1 Alchemist's Refuge
1 Kessig Wolf Run
1 Homeward Path

To help out with the mana base I have 7 non-creature artifacts that search for or produce mana. My emphasis here was really on fixing multiple colours because of Animar's CC and the desire to get him down early hence the inclusion of the Signets, something I generally avoid:
1 Sol Ring
1 Armillary Sphere
3 Ravnica Signets
1 Darksteel Ingot
1 Vessel of Endless Rest [This would have been Chromatic Lantern had it been out when I initially started this article]

And rounding out the mana fixing section are 7 creatures that either tap for mana or search for lands. Generally in a deck like Animar I like to put the lands directly into play, even if they are tapped. Tender is initially an over-costed Llanowar Elf but becomes 3 turns of acceleration once Animar is in play:
1 Bloom Tender
1 Sakura Tribe Elder
1 Wood Elves
1 Sakura Triber Elder
1 Yavimaya Elder
1 Farhaven Elf
1 Solemn Simulacrum
1 Primeval Titan [This was pre-banning, you'll have to improvise here!]

If you add up all that you come to the total of 51 cards that either make or find mana, most of it coloured. When you have a tri-coloured deck that revolves around the general, you're dedicated to getting him out repeatedly which means you want to maximize your access to your colours. The other avenue of moxes & petals is a lot less attractive after the first couple of turns, this is going to be a deck here you really want to get a permanent mana presence rather than a flash shot. While powering Animar out turn 2 is great, having that land or signet available following a turn 3 Animar is more important than that extra turn.

That's all the basic stuff, here's where we start to get silly.

Animar, Soul of Elements
Cloudstone Curio

Take these effects with any 2 additional creature cards with a single coloured mana cost. If it costs 4 or more you get to play each creature effectively for free by casting for the single coloured mana using a basic land, untapping that same land with Earthcraft, bouncing the second creature with the Curio and repeating for as often as you want or as your opponents allow you to. Should the creatures cost 3 or less you can do the same at instant speed and create infinite mana with Earthcraft. We have to keep in perspective that this is Magical X-mas Land with a 6 card combo. This won't happen every game, especially if your meta is wise to your funny tricks. The avalanche nature of the deck with Animar's effect means that this combination is potentially much more possible than any other deck. Given enough counters on Animar the deck effectively goes off.

However, let's say you're missing one of the pieces:

No Aluren still allows you to go infinite for enters the battleground abilities with the other two in play though no Earthcraft means you may have to pay 1 mana each time you play a creature restricting you to the amount of mana available for creatures costing over 4 (but not for those under if you control Aluren). The big loss is potentially no Cloudstone Curio, meaning you have to include creatures or permanents that have some sort of bounce ability to create a couple of loop effects.

These areas are where we have to start looking for creatures that will fill holes in our strategy. One obvious addition is Equilibrium as it's essentially the paying version of Cloudstone Curio. While may may think it's fair to start paying for bounce effects especially when your general is giving you a price cut on your creatures, a few turns with an active Cloudstone Curio will quickly show how much of a pain it really is to have to actually tap mana to make your combo go off (unless you include a certain category of creatures, but I'll get to those in a minute). The real advantage of the Equilibrium is the ability to clear an opponent's board very cheaply. Imagine you are playing Man-o'-War with Animar (2 counters) in play. You can play the Man-o'-War for U, tap 1 additional for the Equilibrium and bounce an opponent's creature while targetting the Man-o'-War with its own ability to return it to your hand. Each repetition will gain you an additional counter on Animar and bounce an opposing creature. Add Earthcraft to taste.

You're probably surprised it took me so long to mention them, but the Urza's "free" creatures are a natural fit for this deck. Each provides a marker for Animar making subsequent versions not only cheaper but also a net gain in mana. A Cloud of Faeries will give you +1 (minimum, excluding lands that tap for 2 or more), Peregrine Drake will provide anywhere from 4 additional mana and Great Whale and Palinchron will just get ridiculous very quickly.

I've mentioned Wood Elves already however they are worth mentioning again as many overlook the Forest coming into play untapped. It's also a "Forest Card" not a basic Forest so any Curio loop with the Wood Elves and 2 markers on Animar is essentially free on eth Wood Elves side where the total number of repetitions = the number of forests in your deck, even without Earthcraft or Aluren.

After taking care of the basic mana and the potentially silly mana, you have to look at the cards that are going to advance your plan. This involves either helping you draw into your options or tutoring directly for them. In our colour combination we have 4 creature-based tutors that aren't concerned with a specific tribe:

Imperial Recruiter
Momir Vig, Simic Visionnary
Fierce Empath
Brutalizer Exarch

Each has it's own drawback and advantages. The recruiter can only search up smaller creatures however that allows it to create clone chains and boost your board dramatically while ratcheting up Animar. The $250 price tag is still a little steep for me right now so I'm going to leave it aside for today though, if you own him, use him. Momir Vig requires a second card to do anything but can tutor any creature and serves as a draw engine as a back-up. Fierce Empath is the reverse Imperial Recruiter, fetching your huge guys. Brutalizer Exarch can also fetch anything but is restricted by his initially hefty mana cost and the top of library clause. If you can loop him with anything, his second ability can clear the board of any pesky non-creature for a turn allowing you free reign.

That's an ability some players will particularly appreciate when used in conjunction with Whirlpool Warrior's activated ability. If there are non-creature permanents getting you down, bounce them to the top of your opponent's deck and Whirlpool them away. True they can potentially re-draw the same ones again however they need to get lucky to do that. I'm not going to mention that, when you loop the Exarch, you can potentially clean the board of every land permanent your opponents control and that subsequently Whirlpooling them away would probably not be well considered.

In addition to the Warrior, there's a couple of cards that don't give you direct card advantage but they will put you in position to see a lot more cards.

Whirlpool Warrior
Whirlpool Drake
Augury Owl
Sage Owl
Garruk's Horde

Your objective here is not burning through your deck by drawing cards but by selecting and changing your hand as much as possible. Eventually you'll get one of the aforementioned tutors or just draw into your end-game cards. Then, of course, we come to the cards that actually replace themselves or better:

Visionary Elf
Wall of Blossoms
Bloodbraid Elf
Sea Gate Oracle
Raven Familiar
Primordial Sage
Soul of the Harvest

These last two sections are the real meat of the deck and your goal is to use these cards to find the more broken enablers of Curio/Animar/ Equilibrium/Earthcraft and subsequently reuse these cards until you get to a winning position either with Animar or with the army you're slowly building. The small issue here is that these form only 1/8th of your deck and you really need to find them as they & the tutors form the oil for your deck's engine.

So we're going to look at our options to reuse them that we haven't already mentioned. The first option is the cards that want to recover your creatures from the graveyard or exiled in some way.

Loaming Shaman
Body Double
Eternal Witness
Artisan of Kozilek

The most extreme is Loaming Shaman which will put cards back into your deck, as will Riftsweeper, either from exile or the graveyard. Loaming Shaman's advantage is that he can be used offensively as well as defensively by clearing out stacked graveyards your opponents control. Body Double, EWit & Artisan will either use a dead creature, return one to your hand or bring it directly into play. One of the huge disadvantages of the deck is that you really don't have a huge amount of room for sacrifice engines meaning that your creatures are ripe for being stolen and there's not a huge amount you can do about it.

Venser, Shaper Savant
Phantsmal Image
Phyrexian Metamorph
Deadeye Navigator

I've included two bounce creatures and 3 additional clones as well as Avacyn Restored's latest advantage engine to round out the re-usable package. Venser's "counterspell" ability surprisingly is much less impressive than his ability to "flash" in, partly the reason why Alchemist's Refuge was included. Deadeye Navigator is potentially massive allowing you to blink himself and his Soulbonded mate for 1U. I presume you can see where the advantages in that lie in a deck like this, not least in allowing, for a certain mana investment, your creatures to be protected from spot removal.

Speaking of protection, your deck will need some additional points to plug some gaps, preferably attached to creatures. I've gone for a second counterspell, some creature exile and Voidmage Husher.

Lightning Greaves
Phrexian Duplicant
Mystic Snake
Voidmage Husher

The advantages to the Husher, along with his countering ability, is again the flash and his return to hand ability. In a previous incarnation of this deck, I looked at cards like Timid Drake, Arctic Merfolk and Shrieking Drake solely for the ability to constantly bounce themselves or something back to your hand. In the end they essentially did nothing by themselves and were replaced by slightly better creatures. The Husher is always a threat and you're generally happy to see it bounce back.

We're now down to the final 10 cards. What we're looking to do here is provide "game winning solutions" in these last cards even if you can conceivably win the game with dorks much earlier. In the deck I initially put together, I went with Anger as a haste giver however this will be replaced by the Planechase II legend, Maelstrom Wanderer that grants everyone haste along with the double cascade. If we're going to win through combat, why not include Champion of Lambholt? It won't take very long to bring him to the point that only the largest creatures will be able to block yours. This is defiantly a debatable slot, we'll have to look into how this one works out.

I also like the 1-2 hit that Kozilek & Ulamog provide. They are not artifacts so you can loop them both around a Cloudstone Curio and, given enough +1/+1 markers on Animar, you can do this for free, drawing cards and destroying permanents as you see fit. You can, in fact, draw your entire deck in this manner which brings us to a slightly wacky win condition: Laboratory Maniac. In conjunction with other looped draw effects and Ulamog, this is a potentially fun way (for you) to finish off a table. It matches nicely with the recently released Primal Surge and the fact that we have yet to include a single non-permanent card in the deck. I think 10 mana is very do-able in the deck given the deck space we have dedicated to generating it.

The final 4 slots are really open to you. If you drop the Lab Maniac / Primal Surge plan, you start to open up options for Comet Storm & Mind's Desire to finish the game. I'm not sure I'd be forgiven for not mentioning Avenger of Zendikar & Terastodon in a deck that includes green though these are so played out, it would be nice to try to work without them. I'd probably look at adding to the earlier part of the curve, concentrating on smaller boosts or more control with Words of Wind, another of those cards that, when you get the upper hand, you just ensure you keep it: evoked Mulldrifter, add 1 for the Words, tap the Mulldrifter for Earthcraft mana (or just use some of your "free creature + Equilibrium / Curio" infinite mana), bounce the Mulldrifter, draw 1, allow the evoke sacrifice to fizzle, repeat until you're the only player with permanents in play.

To conclude: Animar is not bros, as the currently in vogue meme is so fond of saying. He's a combo general, quite capable of being a complete ass-hat and ruining games. Of course, if you've read down this far without puking, you've probably realised that. You do need certain cards for the deck to run in this manner, some of which are expensive, I make no apologies for that. Feel free to include or omit as your personal ethics dictate, much like the Exarch / Whirlpool combo.

I've since brought this build in to play in our playgroup and knocked out a couple of 1v1s and four 4-player games. The 1v1s were against un-tuned decks and functioned really only to beat the kinks out (though I didn't actually make any changes as a result) so they didn't count for much. The exercise is more like goldfishing (though playing though a Pain Reflection made me pause in one of them). Of the 4-player games, they went pretty well, considering. Games 1 & 3 finished in or around turn 10-11 with advantage engines just powering out either a huge unblockable Animar (those protections again!) or a small army the wasn't dealt with immediately. Game 2 was over earlier with, going first, turn 4 Man-o'-War following Aluren onto the table.

If you're not into magical masturbation this is not the deck for you. You will spend turns in your corner bouncing stuff while your friends have fun laughing about football, girls & life in general but I realise that there are some sad people (like me) out there that just want to go out for the evening and sit there interacting with no-one else.

Have, (Don't play this deck!)

Blood Artist: Just a 0/1?

Innistrad: October 2011.

Drafting B/x decks was quite fun during Innistrad if you managed to get your hand on a couple of Falkenrath Nobles. A 2/2 for 4, even with flying, is interesting while not being anything spectacular. However, adding a little ping of Drain Life that triggers on creatures dying and suddenly there's a huge amount more math that needs to be done around combat. Every creature that died negated a portion of an opposing attack and hurried that player closer to their demise. Having two on board was just heaven as you were generally going to come out ahead on life in any creature kerfuffle than when you went in.

While not the out and out bomb some cards are in limited, it got killed somewhat higher up the priority list than other creatures because of the potential for huge life-swings in the creature-centric matches limited games generally are.

Above and beyond drafts and sealed events though, the card was just not interesting. For the same cost you had better fliers or the same power at a cheaper cost. Until the format swings round to mass creature generation, it will probably watch from the outside.

Avacyn Restored : May 2012

Fast forward to the release of Avacyn Restored and the very curious case of exactly the same effect on a much smaller creature with no evasion.

How desperate were WotC to get this effect into the stand-alone that they weren't willing to push off Falkenrath Noble but preferred to print exactly the same effect on what is essentially a much worse card in Blood Artist?

But is it a worse card? No evasion, no power and about the lowest toughness you can go without automatically dying, all for 2 colourless mana less. It's a cheaper rip-off of a limited card. Who is going to play this?

Actually the question is more likely "Who is going to kill this?" It's a 0/1 that falls over when another player sneezes. It dies to everything. Why waste a kill spell or effect when it will wither away at the slightest suggestion of a Wrath of God?

Well, as it turns out quite a few people, mainly because that Wrath of God will be a 20 point life swing in favour of the controller of the Blood Artist. The little dork no one wanted to kill has just taken out the lowest hanging fruit on your Wrath of God, made his controller more comfortable and will likely come back with Sun Titan in a couple of turns, something the Noble never did.

In a strange turn of events the student has become the master in our play group with the presence of quite a lot of token strategies. Stuff dies all the time and each one is a little ping here, another one there and so on until you wonder how that Ghave player could still be alive and why your neighbour is cloning 0/1 dorks like crazy.

Rite of Replication, kicked, targetting Blood Artist? Sure, I've seen it happen.

Blood Artist: Not just a 0/1.