Friday, May 25, 2018

Dominaria, first impression

I like to explore different kind of formats and that also means playing with each new set that comes out because each set has its unique environment. Magic is an amazing game and where it shines is its design, especially in limited. Seeing how new sets are designed and how we can play with them is something that always mesmerized me and it is also something that made me return to Magic after several breaks. Some sets are better than others. This is partly subjective because there are mechanics or themes I do not like but others may like. Some sets can be though marked as the players' favorites or in general unpopular.

One of the popular sets is certainly Ravnica block limited. An unpopular and not well accepted set by many is Ixalan.

Nowadays, in the digital era where many people are on social media and interact with each other there we can see certain trends. There was a big hype around Ixalan, a set where Dinosaurs would meet Pirates, Vampires and Merfolk. I didn't really like the idea of Pirates and Dinosaurs but flavor is something I don't really need in order to enjoy a set. I patiently waited for the set to be printed so I could play some limited. My prerelease events went quite fine but when I started to drafting I started to see that there was something wrong (I wrote a bit about that in my Iconic Masters article (I translated only the relevant part)). I always ended up very upset when playing with the set and I wondered if it was just me. Later, I learned that others shared the same feelings.

When Rivals of Ixalan came it made things a little bit better but thanks to a very similar nature to Ixalan it was still very frustrating. Limited GP with this block was my worst Magic experience ever. I hoped that Dominaria would come soon and finally fix everything - give me hope to play Magic again. My expectations were very low since Ixalan block was practically unplayable for me and other formats weren't that good either. I considered taking a break and partly I took it. I hardly participated in any events and I even delved into Modern (Modern being my least favorite format in Magic). Then Dominaria spoiler season came and we got a new hype. Everyone became excited like never before.

Dominaria has a special place in Magic. It is where it all began which also seems to be the perfect place to return to to celebrate 25 years of Magic. Richard Garfield was also on the set design and I suppose we all wondered how that would show in the set. I hoped that this set would be well designed and would be a success but I also had my doubts because Battle for Zendikar was a failure.

During the spoiler season one is pretty much needed to follow a certain site or social media to get the information about new cards. I mostly use Twitter for that which also means that I get to see people's reactions. As for the individual cards at first I saw a very big discrepancy in power level of cards and I also noticed that one would need to be very proactive in the set. Those were things that made me feel uncomfortable, but without the whole picture I couldn't judge. Judging the power level of cards in vacuum is something that can give us the wrong picture.

One bad thing also happened - Chinese Release Notes were leaked. My Twitter feed was suddenly full of posts about that and I tried to ignore that. Later when we could read the Release Notes in an actual English language I also peeked inside and found out what cards would be printed. I learned about the mechanics and wondered what to think about it. As usual when something new is introduced I'm not much of a fan of them until I get to experience it (there were exceptions like Flashback, Delve etc.). One of the things that struck me as odd was Llanowar Elves. That is a card I didn't expect to appear in Standard. It's been quite a while since 2-mana mana dorks became the standard. So why suddenly did we get a reprint of Llanowar Elves? Llanowar Elves is one of the iconic cards of the past though and this is the perfect set to reprint it in.

While going through the release notes I also stumbled upon a card named Damping Sphere. It immediately caught my interest and I started wondering if it could change Vintage and Modern. I was able to write down my thoughts about the card because I was given the trust to spoil this card for PureMTGO. It was a great honor and I can't express how happy it made me (if you wish to read the article it's here).

Dominaria brings many new things but also something we haven't really seen in quite a long while.

Dominaria has a theme. The theme is 'legendary permanents'. This is the second set that has many Legendary creatures (previous could be found in Kamigawa) but not only that, there are really legendary permanents like the famous Weatherlight (Artifact - Vehicle) or On Serra's Wings (that's an Enchantment). What is also new is that these Legendary permanents are also at Uncommon rarity which means we can really build around them (see Historic).

For example, as any other set, Dominaria has new mechanics. We have Sagas which are new types of enchantment. "Each Saga tells the story of a key event from the past as it unfolds during each of your turns" is what the release notes have to say about Sagas and it is true. Each Saga has a very beautiful depiction of the said event. For players that remember the old times, there are elements that are familiar. We can even make them out and that brings nostalgia.

Another new mechanic is Legendary Sorceries. Honestly I was looking at those rather skeptically. I wasn't really sure if one could actually cast them in limited or even constructed. During my first sealed deck I saw how it worked in practice - my opponent had no problems casting Yawgmoth's Vile Offering even though his deck didn't really seem to be full of Legendary cards. Then I saw several people try UW Legendary aggro on Magic Online. Later I saw H0lydiva's screenshots of UW Legends in action.

The last mechanic is actually a term - Historic. There are cards that trigger when a Historic spell is played, return a Historic card from graveyard, or search for Historic cards, etc.

If you look at this set's Saga cards, legendary cards, and artifact cards, you'll see a broad swath of Dominaria's extensive and mysterious history. Some cards celebrate the plane's storied past by rewarding you for playing these historic cards. Historic is a game term that refers to a card that has the legendary supertype, the artifact card type, or the Saga enchantment type.

Not only this theme and mechanics make Dominaria unique or make it something that reminds us of the old times. If we look at the art we can see that there was a different art direction for this set. Even though I suppose that majority of the art was done digitally we can feel the sword and sorcery fantasy breathing at us. When I look at some of the art from Dominaria I think of older sets, when they didn't have either of the new frames. It's the simplistic and fairytale like art that I liked. We also see Knights, Angels and Wizards fighting in a medieval setting which is something that the game seemed to forget about for few years. There is art that makes reference to older cards which is also very cool and I'm glad Wizards decided to do this. Even Basic Lands are beautiful. I have the urge to buy the Art of Magic: The Gathering Dominaria now.

Slimefoot, the Stowaway by Alex Konstad

There is great flavor, great art, characters we know from the past, tribes that we know and like but that doesn't say much about how it feels like to play with the set. When I looked at the spoiler I had the impression that there are very strong cards for even Standard and especially for limited. The set also seemed to be very proactive and I wasn't sure if that was a good thing. I wondered how the set's design would work and when I first got the chance to play with it I jumped in a sealed league to see for myself.

This didn't look like a deck to me at all. I opened Karn though thinking that at least I got my entry back. I was surprised when this 'deck' started winning games!

I played 3 sealed decks on Magic Online. My first pool seemed very strange and I was a bit lost. So I decided to ignore all the possible synergies and put together Boros Aggro. To my surprise I crushed my opponent game 1. Then it was their turn to terribly stop me. They played some saprolings, fungi and later Muldrotha, the Gravetide. When I finally found a way how to deal with Muldrotha and the little but pumped Saprolings my opponent cast Yawgmoth's Vile Offering. Not only did that destroy my only hope of winning the game but it also returned Muldrotha into play. I conceded. In those three minutes I was given to sideboard I decided to put together a similar deck since I also opened Muldrotha. I didn't have cool cards like Yawgmoth's Vile Offering (I didn't really have many Legendary creatures) but the cards I had didn't seem bad. I just wasn't really sure if playing a 3 color deck would work, my opponent's deck was slow though so there was no reason not to try. After a very long grindy match during which we stared at each other I finally won thanks to my Legendary BUG creature. It was a really good game and I was looking forward to play another match as soon as possible. I was hooked. I clicked on the Play button and it found me an opponent. To my disappointment a hand that stared at me was Boros Aggro. Facepalm followed. I hoped my Boros deck wouldn't utterly die. To my surprise that didn't happen. I lost the match but it was close. I played against BG Saprolings this time. I learned one thing though. My deck could be grindy too. I had Squee, the Immortal and Keldon Raiders in more copies and those actually helped me stay in game for quite a while. My red spells with Kicker cost proved to be good too (in creating value). Later I died to big fat creatures but I learned that missing land drops, not being able to answer something immediately, or not being aggressive as much as I'd like weren't things that would immediately punish me. I was putting up a huge resistance and thanks to my red part of the deck and I almost won, I didn't run out os steam and utterly die as that would be the case of many aggro decks. I spent my three minutes putting together my Muldrotha deck again and easily won 2-0 after losing the first game. After this I finally changed my deck, saved it and finished the League with the BUG deck which in the end proved to be quite good - the format seemed to be slow, or we just decided to play slow and grindy decks?

Sometimes one wins just thanks to pure luck...

In the next sealed deck I played BG fatties with two "splashed" Grand Warlord Radhas and Siege-Gang Commander. I didn't have enough red cards to play GR so I played BG and tried my luck with a certain amount of Mountains, mana filter dorks and the only mana mixation I had - a ramp spell that proved to be a very good card. It worked! My opponents didn't appreciate my non-kicked 5/5 Dinosaur on turn three or kicked on turn 5! This deck was way better and I totally crushed everyone but a mirror match.

The last event didn't go well and I don't even remember what I was playing. I learned though that Flying is better than in other limited sets and that my deck was really bad. I dropped after two matches and I decided to close Magic Online and head to the paper prerelease to see how it would look like in reality since I could in theory arrive on time (I was 5 minutes late).

In the paper prerelease I ended up playing Boros Aggro again. The first two rounds I played against UB Control based on Sagas which seemed to worked pretty well against aggressive decks like mine. I knew that I'd have to be lucky to win those matchups. I felt like playing an old school Magic for a while. Nothing was lost for me though, I could win the games but it was clear it would be close. After I moved to the top tables I played only against weenie decks. My deck seemingly not doing anything cool but having good creatures that attack well was good enough to win games. Sometimes I learned that some of my creatures actually had a relevant ability. Pegasus Coursers were great, Knight of Grace was actually a good beater, especially when it got Double Strike and Flying thanks to Courser and Kwende, Pride of Femeref. My red cards controlled the board and were creating some value while my white cards tried to find a way how to deal damage.

I was honestly surprised that the top tables were full of white weenie and there I was with...white weenie!

I punted hard in my last match but I played very good games that day and was overall happy with how the set seemed to be. It was a really nice change from Ixalan/Rivals of Ixalan and I wondered how much biased initial opinion was because I was well aware that after Ixalan anything would seem to be a good set. I had to play few more events to finally settle on 'Dominaria is good and fun'. Dominaria lets us play with very powerful cards but it is a very well designed set where the powerful cards can be answered. The games are often grindy which allows for slower and more value-centered deck. Aggro has good creatures and can be little bit grindy too, tempo can work pretty well, and control is present too. Dominaria is a pretty good set so if by a chance you haven't played with it yet, do so! It's worth it. It's a really great experience on many levels.

Thanks for reading
S'Tsung (I'm stsung on MODO, you can follow me @stsungjp on Twitter)

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Vintage - Paradoxical Outcome

This post was written as a reaction to a debate under this article - Vintage Crash Course

PO decks can range from decks that want to win as fast as possible to those that are required to actually grind against blue decks for quite a while and then win. Because of that we can have many versions of a Paradoxical Outcome deck. First, Paradoxical Outcome is a draw engine. Similarly to decks that are/were powered by Gush, Thoughtcast, Thirst for Knowledge or also Gifts Ungiven. A PO deck can be anywhere on the spectrum of a deck archetype even though it will tend to be somewhere in the (all-in) combo part and combo-control part. Thus, the word 'better' should be used in context because neither card can be necessarily better than the other one (Timetwister may perform better in a Storm deck while it may not be better in a deck that resembles Grixis Thieves).

Note that the choice of drawing engine is not the only thing to consider when building a deck. Some decks fight wars on different kind of levels, some fight over cards, some mana, some counterspells. A deck whose primary resource is counterspells will be using them in a totally different way than another deck. When using PO we don't usually have counterspells as THE resource. We have a 'critical mass' deck that primarily needs mana and the cards over a certain period of a time and then when the mass is attained we can win. This is also something that can make seemingly similar decks function in a totally different way.

One needs to distinguish the plan and what the deck wants to do and depending on that configure the deck. This is something with what I struggled quite a lot when I was fooling around with PO. I had no idea what else apart from PO I want to actually play. I wanted to play pretty much everything and I had no idea what to cut. I settled on just some things - full Moxen, Black Lotus, Mana Crypt, Sol Ring, Gitaxian Probe, 2 Sensei's Divining Top, Voltaic Key, Time Vault, Hurkyl's Recall, Time Walk, Ancestral Recall, 4 Paradoxical Outcome, Tendrils of Agony, 4 Force of Will, 1 Repeal. The rest I had no idea how it would look like...but I started somewhere and it gave me a great insight in these kind of decks. There were way more variants than I expected.

Library of Alexandria - as Justin (see the SCG article linked above) already said in certain versions this card is good. In a deck that is not running 9 lands and trying to go odd on turn 1 this card can be good. I mean we saw a low of it in DPS and it was winning games.

Ancient Tomb - is a card I used to run in the 9 land decks, as well in a more Storm oriented deck in the sideboard when I didn't have access to Oath of Druids, Time Vault/Key or Tinker/Bot. The reason was that I really needed to cast Hurkyl's Recall or something else to deal with a Sphere or Null Rod and I needed that 1 mana more to get there. The thing was that Shops (mostly) is a deck that tries to keep the player taxed in a fairly given tempo, usually one mana away from where the deck can normally function and that Ancient Tomb breaks that. A deck that can just wait and play its lands and eventually play its Hurkyl's Recall doesn't need Ancient Tomb since it can just draw the lands and needs more card draw to get where it needs to be.

Dig Through Time, Treasure Cruise - are the very first cards I cut from my decks. It may have not been the best idea but I needed some room for other spells and I hardly got to be casting these. This way I was cutting control cards more and more which led into a deck that wasn't really looking for inevitability and started to be more of a combo-control. More on the combo side. There were still cards to cut and that is why I tried playing without Gush and Brainstorm and while some cards came back to my deck or were replaced by Thoughtcast or Thirst for Knowledge it gave me an idea when and why the cards are bad. The problem with Gush was that I didn't really needed the mana tempo effect of the card but rather the card drawing one. Having two Islands in play wasn't that easy and most of the time I was playing Gush for 5 mana. Casting Thirst for Knowledge or Thoughtcast would have been in many cases better (mostly because I wouldn't need to crack a fetchland) so I was switching from draw engine to another one until I settled on some seemingly random configuration.

  • Dig Through Time, Thirst for Knowledge, Library of Alexandria were in one pile.
  • Treasure Cruise, Gush in another.
  • Thoughtcast, Yawgmoth's Will was another one. It's also here were I put Timetwister.
From these piles I put together 2 different decks - combo with Thoughtcast/Seat of the Synod, very little land and way more mana acceleration (including Grim Monolith, Mox Opals), and Tezzerator deck that contained Tendrils of Agony but its primary win condition was actually Time Vault/Key and post board Oath of Druids/Griselbrand.

Treasure Cruise and Gush was featured in some of my decks but these performed very strangely and in the end found their way into Esper Storm featuring Monastery Mentor, Fragmentize, and Kambal, Consul of Allocation. The deck was more of a Mentor deck but it could chain some spells thanks to PO and play lethal Tendrils. I kept the Tendrils in because at the time many players were on a Mentor deck. Mentor was simply everywhere and the first person to resolve Mentor usually won. Tendrils in my deck gave me an edge and that is how I was winning these matchups most of the time. Tendrils of Agony in this case was filling similar role as Oath of Druids in my other deck.

This was one of the games I actually won thanks to Mentor but I seriously was afraid of Time Vault entering play on the other side of the table!

Funny story. I once entered one tournament with a Esper PO deck and in one game it came down to me casting Demonic Tutor expecting to find Yawgmoth's Will for the win. Until that point I always won way faster and usually through a singleton Mentor rather than Will. When my library showed up I realized I forgot to put the card in my deck. I played the deck for quite a while without that Will and didn't have the need for it most of the time because I wasn't running into a blue grindy decks. I usually faced decks I could kill fast or decks that I managed to stomp over thanks to running more permission than other decks (that was usually 2 Mana Drain and 2 Flusterstorm that I ran to protect my POs). At that time I had to reevaluate Yawgmoth's Will - the card is strong and wins games but in some games it won't help, if you are taxed or playing against something that doesn't need to get to late game. It felt very similar to Sylvan Library. There are aggressively built decks that do need to keep the pressure on and don't have the time to be casting Sylvan Libraries unless they are playing against a hard control deck where it actually comes pretty handy. Both cards can be a sideboard material and others shouldn't laugh at that suggestion. There is nothing wrong about it, it may be a meta game call. It doesn't change anything on the fact that Yawgmoth's Will is a busted card.

Just my two cents...hope you get what I had in mind. I think we should be asking the right questions and then we can also get some right answers and more discussion. I noticed a similar debate about Tutors in a different community (100 card singleton one) and that is the reason I wrote this - On Tutors (read only the part about Tutors). For some reason I have the impression that sometimes people in the Vintage community talk about different things even when they are talking seemingly about the same topic. While having different point of views is good we also need to understand them and their context because that is very important. We can't look at cards as if they were cast in a vacuum but we need the context be it a format, deck, a game state. If we can see from where everyone comes (and that often leads to different kind of decks built) we will be able to understand each other and also evaluate the deckbuilding based on that.

I was totally new to the concept of a PO deck and I had no idea where to start so my initial builds were kind of going in all directions and lacked focus, later on I found what each of the decks I put together should focus on and depending on what I preferred I started going in that direction. This gave me enough insight into why certain cards can be better or worse and one card can be better in one build and another one in another. See if you can see why someone decides to play Steel Overseers+Hangarback Walkers and someone decides to run Fleetwheel Cruisers and Chief of the Foundry you should be able to see why some players decides to play Esper Storm or Esper Combo-Control including Tendrils of Agony.

Thank you for reading, take it easy
S'Tsung (stsung on MODO, stsungjp on Twitter)