Entries from July 2013 ↓

Weekend Update



  1. The Moral Victory of 16 Thumbs and 7 Toughness
  2. The Destiny of 4 Kalonian Hydras
  3. The Next Level of The Next Level

So I was gone at the Star City Games Invitational in Somerset, NJ Friday through Sunday, and basically missed a whole bunch of stuff. Some of it is important; other stuff, simply awesome. Hence, this after-the-weekend Weekend Update.

Top8Magic on ManaDeprived Update

First of all, thank all of you cats who went over and liked our first podcast on ManaDeprived, “Save or Delete”.

In case you didn’t know, we posted another podcast last Friday.

Let me ask you a question: DO YOU WANT US TO DO THESE EVERY WEEK?

Is that like asking if the world needs more TAUNTING JON BECKER?

Answer in the comments below but I assume the answer(s) is / are em effin’ yes. If so, I need y’all to click over to ManaDeprived and Like the bejeezus out of this. Our first podcast over there got 10x the usual likes of a ManaDeprived podcast, but “The Moral Victory of 16 Thumbs and 7 Toughness” has to date garnered a pathetic 3 Likes. I don’t know what kind of Up North operation KYT has at ManaDeprived but I assume his servers are made out of maple tree twigs and run on a hydraulic system of syrup and snow. Go click over to ManaDeprived and break that thing! Come on BDM fans! Let’s go!

And / or…

Listen here:

Download and listen later…

But most definite, DEFINITELY, subscribe on iTunes:

Kalonian Hydra Update

In case you were wondering what happened to those four Kalonian Hydras I picked up [but did not play] for the Invitational, they found a fine home in the Zvi Mowshowitz-designed G/W Elves deck piloted by our good friend William “Baby Huey” Jensen:

William Jensen with YT’s four Hydras!

G/W Elves

4 Garruk, Caller of Beasts
4 Kalonian Hydra
4 Elvish Mystic
2 Loxodon Smiter
4 Wolfir Silverheart
4 Craterhoof Behemoth
4 Avacyn’s Pilgrim
4 Gavony Township
4 Arbor Elf
4 Sunpetal Grove
4 Elvish Archdruid
4 Elvish Visionary
4 Temple Garden
10 Forest

4 Strangleroot Geist
2 Ranger’s Guile
3 Garruk Relentless
3 Tree of Redemption
3 Acidic Slime

Huey Made Top 8 of last week’s Standard Open with U/R/W Control but did poorly in the Invitational. He switched it up to the G/W deck for the Somerset Standard Open and crushed his way all the way to second place. I have thought about playing against this deck with a variety of strategies and I think it is both counterintuitive and tough from the control side. At first glance this is the classic deck you crush with Ratchet Bombs and Supreme Verdicts but I don’t think it is ultimately that cut-and-dried. You can’t screw up. You can’t give them operating mana for too long. You certainly can’t let them level up repeatedly with Garruk, Caller of Beasts. I played a Quicken + Planar Cleansing deck in the Invitational and Open specifically to crush Jund decks that had been accumulating Planeswalker-based battlefield advantages but I don’t think that works against Garruk-six. The last thing you want to do is to tap for Planar Cleansing, clearing their board… But leaving them with seven cards in hand (most of which are sweet threats).

I actually think that you want both lots of sweep but need Need NEED permission to fight Garruk, Caller of Beasts here. I would consider siding in Negate just to fight that six. The creatures are not particularly resilient exclusive of dealing massive damage in one big attack. You really need to keep them off their combination of acceleration and card advantage or you are going to eat a Craterhoof, I fear.

Anyway, great weekend for Huey, who made back-to-back Standard and Legacy Open Top 8s.


Are you living under a rock or something?

Biggest of the big that happened this past weekend was the release of Patrick Chapin’s new book NEXT LEVEL DECKBUILDING on Star City Games. Patrick is one of my best friends and as a writer, an inspiration. He was one of the driving forces that got me off my butt to do THE OFFICIAL MISER’S GUIDE and I wish him all the luck with NEXT LEVEL DECKBUILDING.

NEXT LEVEL DECKBUILDING is huge — some 472 pages — but I haven’t been able to put it down all day. It’s beautifully laid out by the ebook elves at Star City Games; the content is one-of-a-kind and often quite hilarious (more on that later in the week). I haven’t read it all yet but I am absolutely loving much of what I have so far. Don’t go out and immediately buy NEXT LEVEL DECKBUILDING before you buy THE OFFICIAL MISER’S GUIDE or anything silly like that; but if you are in the market for awesome Magic books… This one is pretty awesome. I’m going to be recommending this for years I think. Again, more deets later.

Okay friends!

Lots of stuff to do!

Action Items!



Superficial Saturdays #4 – GREEN ARROW #40 by Marcos Martin

I have always had a short list of artists whose work I just go and buy almost unconditionally. My floppies collections past are littered with old issues of CLAN DESTINE, RUNE, and random Euro comix as testaments to an auto-buy devotion to Travis Charest, Alan Davis, Carlos Pacheco, or Barry Windsor-Smith from back in the 1990s. Today no artist rates higher on my personal scale than Marcos Martin.

You can probably see why:

Comic: GREEN ARROW #40
Artist: Marcos Martin

Martin is an absolute master of sequential storytelling but his covers are pretty striking as well (as I am sure you can see).

In such a simple character image he hits so many notes here. Leather. Light. I feel like I can em effin’ swim in the ink pools of Black Canary’s one piece. And check out the hips on dear Dinah! Hips don’t lie BTW. I am just in love with this cover picture. Probably doesn’t hurt that — thanks to Gail Simone on BIRDS OF PREY — Black Canary is one of my favorite characters.

BDM says that one mark of a good cover is how much story it can imply in that single image. I think — and this is guided a bit by the caption on the right, natch — Martin does a spectacular job. Black Canary has a frowny-face. She is snapping an arrow. Her beau’s name is Green Arrow. Might they be breaking up in this ish?

The cover kind of screams that you should want to find out.


Paying the Naya Price: The SWOT of Kalonian Hydra

So… This actually happened yesterday:

Eep! Can this possibly be right?

I guess when you need a card you need a card; and when supply is low (but hype is not) you can’t really control your price; and honestly, what’s the point of having a little store credit if you aren’t going to spend it? Exactly.

Flores Fact:
I bought my Baneslayer Angels the week after Naya Lightsaber at $55.

You’re welcome, Luis Scott-Vargas!

(Baneslayer Angel currently lists from $12-$15 on Star City, but went as low as $5 at some point).

I guess this is as good an excuse as any to talk about hot new M14 Mythic Rare, Kalonian Hydra.

Kalonian Hydra


Strengths are positive attributes that are internal or intrinsic.

Interestingly (at least for a card with this level of hype), Kalonian Hydra is non-exceptional on its own, by itself, when you tap out for it. However if you can untap successfully with this creature in play, it can hammer pretty hard. Eight damage for five mana is generally speaking a big game for a creature. To be very fair it has built-in trample (an evasion ability). One limiting factor of other big — especially five-drop — creatures competing for a limited number of slots is a lack of evasion. The last thing you want is to bounce your huge guy off of an Augur of Bolas that just found a Supreme Verdict. Kalonian Hydra is nigh-guaranteed to get in for some damage due to that trample.

Weaknesses are negative attributes that are internal or intrinsic.

Kalonian Hydra has the core weakness of a five drop: It costs five mana. Five mana is one more mana than the Mowshowitz threshold for a card that needs to be able to win the game by itself. It very clearly does not win the game unconditionally immediately (at least not without some hasty help).

Opportunities are positive attributes that are external / outsite your immediate control.

Kalonian Hydra is almost the quintessence of a big creature that plays well with others. It is awesome with little guys that can power it out (Avacyn’s Pilgrim, Elvish Mystic, et al); especially if they are all best buddies with Gavony Township. Exava, Rakdos Blood Witch has few follow-up playmates with greater synergy and upside. Silverblade Paladin and Ajani, Caller of the Pride make Kalonian Hydra shine (you know, provided you can untap with it on the battlefield).

Threats are negative attributes that are external / outsite your immediate control.

Just dies to Doom Blade.

You know what just got reprinted? Doom Blade.

Post Script:

I more-or-less buy cards I need for whatever tournament I am about to play in, which generally includes a bunch of small purchases (note the play sets of Quicken and Planar Cleansing in the above screen cap); but I’ve made two bigger current-card purchases in the last few months that may or may not have been linked to immediate tournament needs. To be fair, I eventually played with my Reckoners; also to be fair, I made back in tournament winnings more than 100% of my Voice of Resurgence outlay the day I made the purchase. Regardless, just thought I’d throw out the current states of my personal Paying the Naya Price:

  • Boros Reckoner: $5-$10; current price on Star City Games: $15
  • Voice of Resurgence: $25; current price: $50

Smile-and-a-wink! 😉

Just sayin’.



New Top8Magic Podcast on ManaDeprived.com!

Click the above to jump to the podcast on ManaDeprived.com

Top 8 Magic #340 – Save or Delete


Superficial Saturdays #3 – THE ULTIMATES #4 by Bryan Hitch

I am scratching my head on this one.

This digital image does nothing to convey the power, energy, excitement, and lighting of Thor’s lightning:


Artist: Bryan Hitch

You’ll have to accept my apologies, I guess.

But I can dial you back to 2002; it was a wondrous time in comics. BDM was getting THE CRAPTACULAR B-SIDES rolling at Marvel so we talked comics at least as much as we talked about Magic: The Gathering on a daily basis. THE ULTIMATES — Marvel’s big bet uniting the artist of the first arc of THE AUTHORITY with the writer of the controversial second arc of the same — was something special… It was the first time I could remember as a serious comics fan when the best book was also simultaneously the best selling book. Covers like ULTIMATES #4 were just inspiring and engaging and perfect for pulling you into a Marvel universe a half-tick off, where Thor was a revolutionary, Iron-Man was a drunken egotist, and Captain America was kindhearted Republican (and Hulk was an asshole).

[I assume] Paul Mounts’s [Paul Mounts being the credited interior colorist] colors jump off the cover and scream Scream SCREAM “pick this the hell up!” It’s you can almost hear the pitter-patter of those innumerable raindrops pummeling their god of storms; deep black gutters on either side, frame broken by the electrically-crackling / nail-driving weapon of mass destruction, boxing in and highlighting those sparkling arcs by their bottomless negative space; one lick of Thor’s hair flipped northward like some defiant Charlie’s Angel head-toss.

I mean you can look at the screen cap and appreciate — I assume — the skill of Hitch’s pencil.

But it just doesn’t “pop” like it should, like it does, like I remember it did in real life.

You’ll just have to trust me. Good, good stuff.


DVD Extras: “How About Astards-Bay?”

Today was the last ever episode of Top Decks. I’d ask for a moment of silence for the most popular column in the history of the Magic Internet, but instead I will moan and wail about censorship.

The bastards.


This is how “Ten by Ten by Four” opened on the digital presses:


This is how nature* intended:

As I said last week, this will be the final edition of Top Decks. If we had gone two more weeks, it would have been nine years. Nine! Years! The bastards. Can I say “bastards”? It’s my last Top Decks. I’m saying “bastards” at least three times.

/ mic drop

I was actually a bit surprised editor Mike McArtor wouldn’t let me get away with “bastards”; just thought I’d throw this out there that Act 3/3 of “Ten by Ten by Four” was my Magic Pro Tour Hall of Fame ballot; on that topic my good friend and former Lead Developer Brian Schneider used the quote “100% ballplayer. 0% bullshit[,]” in his write-up of Dave Price in Year One. Don’t believe me? Go check and ctrl+”bullshit”

100% ballplayer. 0% bullshit.

bschneid gets a “bullshit” and I don’t get a three “bastard”[s]? Come on! This was my swan song!

Mike gave me an option of softer curse words; I initially selected “astards-bay” but that didn’t pass muster either. Peruse at your pleasure:


Good journey, Top Decks.


* “nature” = your hero, michaelj

Brought to you by, well, me:

What’s Wrong With… Seraph of the Sword?

I decided to invent a new blog category called “What’s Wrong With…” (WWW) which will examine cards that are almost there but for one (or so) fatal flaw(s). I mean it isn’t so hard to identify a card like Kalonian Hydra and be like “Yo, Kalonian Hydra is a big giant monster — RAH!” or Young Pyromancer and be like “Yo, I have a feeling mages might be summoning a Young Pyromancer in beatdown decks, burn decks, and even blue decks” but what is more interesting are the cards that you really want to play… But won’t.

You know the cards?

Feudkiller’s Verdict and so on? I was at one point sure Feudkiller’s Verdict was going to be the bee’s knees. It was more like Andrew Bynum Greg Oden’s knees.

The reason I think this kind of exploration can be interesting is that from a critical thinking standpoint it can force us to think about a little bit of a different universe, a tweak here, a pull there, to try to figure out what would have to be different for a card to see lots of (or any) play.

Today’s victim is Seraph of the Sword.

I had actually been meaning to write about Seraph of the Sword since my first perusal of M14 for last week’s Flores Friday (which ended up being about the aforementioned Kalonian Hydra and Young Pyromancer, primarily).

But it turns out that Seraph of the Sword was also yesterday’s Card of the Day at ye olde Mother Ship DailyMTG.com.

At first I was pretty excited about Seraph of the Sword. I mean It looked like the 3W cousin of Dawn Elemental.

Seraph of the Sword and Dawn Elemental

Dawn Elemental was a pretty exciting Onslaught Block card… The best Phantom Monster there ever was. For Limited a 2/2 flyer for white is pretty standard for 3W (four mana) but Dawn Elemental gave us a 3/3 with a hell of an ability for four mana. Now of course WWWW is quite a few mana symbols off of 3W, but on the other hand the trade-off was substantial. Dawn Elemental would brook no Silver Knight. It would gobble up any and all Elvish Warriors. Sorry, Goblin Piledriver (or almost any other Goblin). Y’all dead.

Of course it took a particular kind of deck to play with Dawn Elemental due to the prohibitive number of white mana symbols in the upper-right corner. So it was primarily played in MWC. That said, it didn’t take long for such a Mono-White Control deck to make a splash on the second-biggest stage:


Derek Starleaf and his Dawn Elementals fought their way into one of the most stacked Top 8s in Grand Prix history. You couldn’t swing a drunken Tyrion Lannister in that Top 8 without hitting US National Champion Eugene Harvey; or notable Pros Morgan Douglass or Alex Shvartsman; or four-time Pro Tour Top 8 competitor (and Pro Tour Champion) (and THE PRICE IS RIGHT superstar) Mark Herberholz; or Hall of Famer / Dark Confidant / Superman Bob Maher; or beloved former Number One Apprentice Joshua P. Ravitz.


Starleaf didn’t win that Grand Prix, but he did a great job showcasing the angles on and impact of Dawn Elemental. Despite playing four main-deck copies of Temple of the False God, Starleaf put his faith in the WWWW Dawn Elemental, which was an undersized-but-effective carrier of Dragon Scales. Dawn Elemental might not have triggered the re-buy on Dragon Scales, but it wasn’t inviting a one-for-two either, being so hard to kill with damage.

So… Seraph of the Sword is Dawn Elemental 2K13, right? Right? Sadly, no.


What’s Wrong with Seraph of the Sword?

One Word.




As you can probably guess, as soon as I read that one word (which, by the way, took a couple of reads) I realized that Seraph of the Sword is close to unplayable in Standard, at least main deck. This is going to eat a Searing Spear, Mizzium Mortars, or Warleader’s Helix too often to justify the mana. Remember: Per Mowshowitz, four mana is the threshold where a card has to be able to win the game for you by itself… And Seraph of the Sword, on average… I don’t think it is going to get there.

That said, I think there might be some angle on this card, perhaps out of the sideboard. If you are playing against a deck — probably a creature deck — that doesn’t play damage based removal (or any removal, even better), Seraph of the Sword can be a heck of a stop sign that also gives you a way to win. Unlikely, but probably not impossible.

Oh, go buy some OMGs!



Superficial Saturdays #2 – CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS #7 by George Perez

It’s one of the most iconic images in the history of comics.

Featuring arguably the most iconic icon in the canon of superheroes.

In the midst of not only one of the most groundbreaking and talked about storylines ever to shake a universe to its foundations…

… but cradling a blonde in a miniskirt!

Artist: George Perez

… Is not quite unique in its composition.

You probably guessed that I jumped ahead and picked a ton of potential covers for future editions Superficial Saturdays, and CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS #7, with its teary-eyed Superman clutching the body of his fallen opposite number, seemed like a perfect choice. Super famous, produced by the pencil of Perez — one of the genre’s all-time greats; it has everything you could ever want in a cover (including Batman, Wonder Woman, Blue Beetle, Elongated Man, Nightwing, and dozens of other heroes in the background)…


[make your own determination]

When I Tweeted about Superficial Saturdays the first time around last week, various of my friends and followers went crazy on social media looking up possible contributions. My podcast partner Brian David-Marshall tagged one as maybe the all-time most ripped off. From five years before CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS, I give you John Byrne’s cover from THE DARK PHOENIX SAGA:

Comic: UNCANNY X-MEN #136
Artists: John Byrne and Terry Austin

In the summer of 1980, Cyclops — also crying underneat the ruby quartz visor — was clutching the body of his fallen lady love Jean Grey nearly a half-decade before Kal-El and his Kara Zor-El. I <3 and super respect George Perez as one of the all-time greats, but it's kind of hard to miss the resemblance. One of the things that I have loved so far about this new feature / process is rediscovering the amazing work of a younger John Byrne. When I first started collecting comics seriously in the late 1980s, AVENGERS WEST COAST was one of only two comic books I bought every month (at the onset); a book that was both written and drawn by Byrne. I fell in love with SHE-HULK with Byrne breaking the fourth wall. Byrne in the 1980s was easily one of the best two or three artists in the entire industry, and his Marvel stuff wasn't even Byrne at his best. More Superficial Saturdays recommendations in the comments please Please PLEASE!


How Far We’ve Come (2/2): Slithery Stalker and Lifebane Zombie

Last week I was perusing the M14 Card Image Gallery over at the Mother Ship and happened upon this spicy three drop:

Lifebane Zombie
Lifebane Zombie

What did you think when you first saw Lifebane Zombie? Pretty good hoser card? Playable main deck! (if barely) The power-to-casting cost isn’t too far off; the built-in evasion packes a little extra value into Lifebane Zombie as a combat creature, at least against non-black; and when you are up against green and / or white it is actually a potential murderer. Is that what you thought?


I thought about my man Slithery Stalker:

Slithery Stalker

Slithery Stalker saw relatively little play outside of Odyssey Block Constructed, but it was a main deck 187 in the Block Pirates! deck. Pirates! wanted any potential self-contained card advantage that could be packed into a body, and Slithery Stalker fit the bill, especially given the popularity of U/G (and to a lesser extent G/W) creature decks in the format.

So… Why bring it up? How does shiny new Lifebane Zombie remind us of that rusty old 1/1?

Slithery Stalker featured prominently in my second Star City column, Realizing How Bad You Are, which was at that point maybe the most controversial strategy column ever:

I was playing in the last qualifier (not counting the Last Chance Qualifier) for last year’s PT Houston. The format was Odyssey Block Constructed, and, not surprisingly, I was running a U/G Threshold developed with Brian David-Marshall. I didn’t like having to play in this PTQ at all because I was technically qualified on rating, except that there was a reporting mistake on the K value of a tournament I had won earlier in the summer, meaning that I needed some small number of points in order to make the ratings qualification cutoff. But I wanted to be qualified, so there I was gaming in the PTQ.

U/G was not actually my first choice. I really liked the mono-black Pirates! deck, but due to horrible things on Day Two of the Pro Tour, Stalking Tiger, Hidden Gibbons somehow dropped from their first place position to a nowhere land of non-qualification, meaning that Paul Jordan, the owner of my planned Pirates! deck, would be making Top 8 with it himself, and I was stuck with my previous week’s weapon of choice.

So with Pirates! on my mind, there I was, three rounds deep.

My third round opponent won the Game One roll and played first. On his turn, he played Swamp.

On my first turn, I played Island (I had Mental Note in hand), and passed the turn back.

My opponent followed up with another Swamp, and played Mesmeric Fiend. With the following hand, I chose to let the Fiend resolve:

Mental Note

I could have played Mental Note in response, but I didn’t think that would be a particularly good play. My opponent may have taken the Mental Note rather than one of the potentially more relevant cards, or I could have randomly put a more juicy card into my hand (say, Phantom Centaur), that I would rather not have hiding under my opponent’s Fiend.

To my thinking, Swamp, Swamp, Mesmeric Fiend could represent for the opponent one of three known deck archetypes: a B/u Braids/tempo deck, the mono-Black Pirates! deck, or a hybridized mono-Black control/Pirates! blend. The obvious choice would be for the opponent to take Werebear (my best enabler), and the other possible choice would be to take Breakthrough (card advantage, and synergistic with Aquamoeba, Werebear, and Wild Mongrel all).

So you can imagine my surprise when the opponent instead chose Aquamoeba.

Why would he do that? I even had another Aquamoeba!

I decided that he wanted me to play Werebear. The only reason he would want me to play Werebear, potentially a 4/4 attacker in short order given the Blue cards in my hand, as well as a powerful mana accelerator, would be because he had an answer in his hand that could tackle Werebear, but would not be good against Aquamoeba.

That smelled like Slithery Stalker to me.

So on my second turn (after a Mental Note at the end of his turn, of course), I decided to say”Screw you, opponent,” and play Forest, Aquamoeba.

My opponent untapped, tapped three lands, and…

Sent my Forest to the graveyard with Rancid Earth.

I untapped, played an Island (putting me back to two lands) and sent Aquamoeba for three. Luckily for me, somewhere between my Mental Note and the ensuing draws, I had plucked Basking Rootwalla and Wonder. Obviously I used Wonder for the Aquamoeba pump.

Down to seventeen.

On his turn, my opponent decided to respond to my aggression by counterstriking with his Mesmeric Fiend. The Basking Rootwalla jumped out of my hand and met his Mesmeric Fiend. I would have preferred to pump and save it, but alas, that was impossible with UU open. Nevertheless, I was able to recover my Aquamoeba.

Unfortunately for me, the opponent followed up his attack with one of the worst possible cards for me at this point: Braids, Cabal Minion.

I untapped and lost one of my Islands. I ripped a land, but unfortunately it was yet another Island, rather than the Forest that would have allowed me to play Werebear. With Wonder in the ‘yard, I sent Aquamoeba for another three and played the other Aquamoeba, leaving me with two Islands and two Aquamoebas in play.

Got him to fourteen.

My opponent did something, but it didn’t involve killing an Aquamoeba or an Island, so on my turn, I lost an Island, and then tossed two cards from my hand to put my opponent to 8.

On my sixth turn, I had a really tough decision. I was down to just an Island and my Aquamoebas. I could either lose an Aquamoeba and send the other with Wonder, or I could lose my Island. If I didn’t draw land (specifically Island), I would end up losing Wonder potential next turn even if I saved the Island this turn, and if I kept both Aquamoebas, my opponent would have to block with Braids or take six, meaning that I could win the game the next turn any number of different ways.

So I made a hard choice and lost the Island. Of course I didn’t draw a land.

I send the Aquamoebas. Both had cards pitched to them. One put my opponent to five, and the other traded yet another card to get rid of Braids. If I had been able to save it, I would, but out of cards, I was at least able to get that dangerous permanent off the board.

As it happens, my opponent didn’t draw anything to block an Aquamoeba or any of the zillions of ways he must have had in his deck to kill a creature in time, and my little Blue Beast did him in, winning me the game with no cards in hand and no non-Aquamoeba cards in play.

He revealed his top card, which was, of course, Chainer’s Edict.

That was some good Magic. I won the game with no cards in hand and no non-Aquamoeba permanents in play, while my opponent had both cards in hand and lots of lands. In fact, if I had played any less precisely, sacrificed a man instead of an Island, been less all-in with my attacking, I would almost certainly have ended up on the wrong end of that Chainer’s Edict. I played so fast and hard that I denied my opponent the opportunity to draw his out. This was probably the best game of Magic I had ever played.

I liked this game so much that I immediately told my friends the Pro Tour Champions.

“And to think, you used to be good at telling stories.” – Bob Maher

I of course didn’t understand why Bob was shaking his head. This was the best game I had ever played! I had my back against the wall the entire time. I had no cards in hand and only an Aquamoeba when my opponent lost. I never broke out of Braids lock, but I never gave up, either.

Dave Price pointed out something very obvious (which was why Bob was so disappointed). Even assuming my opponent had the Slithery Stalker (which he didn’t), and it was right to hold the Werebear on the second turn (which it wasn’t), I should have played the first Aquamoeba with double Island.

Imagine how different that game would have been if I had just held the Forest. I would not have lost it on the third turn to his Rancid Earth. When I played the Basking Rootwalla to get back my second Aquamoeba, I would have been able to pump it rather than just trading with the Mesmeric Fiend. Turns later (especially given the fact that he didn’t have the Slithery Stalker) I would have been able to play a sizable Werebear, rather than just tossing it to Aquamoeba for an ephemeral two damage.

It might be reasonable to say that I played really good Magic from turn 3 forward, that I played out of one or more mistakes made in the first turns, but the fact of the matter is that I was a little lucky, just lucky enough, and at the right moments, to counteract all the horrible luck I had that game. This wasn’t the beautiful game of Magic that I thought it was, and the fact that I thought that I played so well punctuates the idea that players who win tend not to see their own mistakes, however horrible.

The next time your lucksack opponent top-decks the one crappy card that he needs to in order to win the game on the last turn, you know, the turn that you were about to win, deserved to win, but ultimately didn’t, damn that lucky lucksack top-decker, think for a moment. You might have made a crucial error in the first couple of turns of the game whereby your opponent was gifted with the two life that postponed the end of the game by a turn or more. You may have given him the opportunity to stabilize the board, make a crucial chump-block, or top-deck the card that beat you when the opponent should never have had the chance.

Just the idea of Slithery Stalker was enough to send me into a tailspin of playing-the-wrong-land followed by narrowly considered, arguably perfect, execution (given a sub-optimal start). Lifebane Zombie is approximately three times as powerful as Slithery Stalker… It has three times the power; its evasion is effective something like four times as often (non-black versus black); it’s anti-Selesnya card advantage, though hitting the hand and not the battlefield, doesn’t come undone when it dies.

Then again, if I had [incorrectly] guessed Lifebane Zombie, I would have just played the Werebear and avoided much of that situation’s stress.

Nevertheless, pretty substantial creep without actually hitting the level of a Perish for three mana.

But even further than the power creep on three drop anti-Selesnya creatures is the strategic leap players have made. Like I said, Realizing How Bad You Are was pretty controversial in 2003. Jon had been talking about there being only one right play in smaller circles, but it was not a commonly held tenet by the majority of the Magic universe yet. Today, most players understand the difference between optimal play and everything else; only by striving to make the best plays can we give ourselves the best chances for victory. In 2003 players were more broad minded about plays in a philosophical sense, aligning themselves more with what seemed to feel right at the time without considering the structure of repeated actions and the production of predictable results over time.

Count yourself lucky that you know better.


How Far We’ve Come (1/2): Teremko Griffin and Guerilla Tactics

This post is inspired by the Guerilla Tactics I found digging around my parents’ basement last week; you may have read about this expedition here.

Among other things, Guerilla Tactics.

And in case you were wondering, I sadly found only four regular Gaea’s Cradles upon returning to New York 🙁

Guerrilla Tactics returned to the playable conversation when Patrick Sullivan publicly bought a playset from Star City Games prior to Grand Prix Denver. He got to showcase them against the many Liliana of the Veil decks in matches like his successful feature against Former #1 Apprentice (and GP Denver Top 8 competitor) Joshua P. Ravitz.

This tale of Guerilla Tactics is a story, a lesson really, from my first Pro Tour. You may have read here, here, or elsewhere that I won an Ice Age/Alliances PTQ with a B/R Necropotence deck. In college in Philadelphia I had a great group of friends with whom I played as many as fifty hours of Magic with per week. We played draft, Standard, PTQ formats, and ground dozens of matches of Arena League. We played local Philadelphia tournaments together (though I was the only serious-serious one) and adventured to reasonably close PTQs within ~2 states, usually via public transportation. The most talented player in our group as Albert Tran (the only player other than myself to win multiple Blue Envelopes when we were in college) but unlike most of the rest of us, altran was wasting his college years on a string of cute Asian girls so was very off and on in terms of how seriously he took Magic at any given time. Ergo the effective best player in the group was, unfortunately, YT.

Being the best player in your community is mostly terrible. You play for more hours than most people have jobs, and consistently win no matter how badly you execute. If your only goal is to be king of the kitchen table this can make you the local Alpha Nerd; if you actually want to become a World Class Magic player you have little opportunity to tear up bad habits and build up myelin. When I was competing hard with The ‘Pile o’ Bitches the next year — my first standout deck design and when I first got serious about writing tournament reports — we were concurrently grinding Mirage/Visions Constructed in the store Arena League. The best deck at the Mirage/Visions Pro Tour was the proto-Storm Combo deck Prosperous Bloom; I was dominating our local league with my Teremko Griffin deck:

Like you, my 1997 opponents didn’t understand how Banding works.

Not only was a turn three combo deck available, Nekrataal was probably the most played creature… and, again, I won the Arena season with 2/2 Banding Weapon of Choice 🙁

Nevertheless, I was lucky enough to have contacts in a wider world. Worth Wollpert came down to Philadelphia from Penn State to test for the Pro Tour with me; Worth was training up to become a member of Team Deadguy after impressing Chris Pikula et al in the East Coast cash tournament series of that era with his “Demonic Consultation for Channel” gambles to set up the lethal Fireball.

I am sure that to Chris — who, among his immeasurable contributions to the game even then was a Top 8 coverage commentator and one of the faces on ESPN — I was at best a barnacle wannabe hanger-on at the time, but luckily Worth took care of me like his annoying kid brother. We came up from the same store in Ohio, and helped each other Q early on. As such, I got to play essentially the same Necropotence deck as Chris (Top 4) and Worth (Top 16) at Pro Tour V (139th if memory serves).

Our conception of sideboarding strategy was not then what it is now. Of the three of us, Chris was the only one to have Anarchy for Circle of Protection: Black, Circle of Protection: Red, or Karma (Matt Place destroyed me with the Place/Weissman U/W Control deck); Worth and I played a single Final Fortune; and of the three of us, only I had Demonic Consultation (tested with Erik Lauer the night before).

What sucks when you hit your second-turn Hymn to Tourach?

Guerilla Tactics!

So I am up in the Necropotence mirror in maybe my first ever match as a Pro; my opponent hits a fast Hypnotic Specter. I look at my hand gleefully… My sided-in Guerilla Tactics!

Cool things were dangerous even then.

Now I can make a pretty clean play on my turn: Just play my land and Guerilla Tactics the Hypnotic Specter, right?

However by drawing my sideboard card in the proscribed spot (against my opponent’s discard mechanism) I found myself in a serious The Danger of Cool Things moment. Do you see it? You probably don’t, thank God.

I am probably one of the top 100 players in the world at this point and this is what is going through my head:

If I let him hit me with that Hypnotic Specter, I might [randomly] discard it and hit the Specter for 4.

Can you even imagine fathoming this in 2013?

This was the first few turns of the game; There wasn’t even a positive likelihood he was going to randomly hit the Guerilla Tactics! Still, I passed.

Worse: I didn’t even make a turn two play! I mean it would be one thing if I stuck a Black Knight or something and lucked into the Tactics while tapped, right? Nope.

It wasn’t over. Maybe he was going to draw Hymn to Tourach or Stupor me prior to attacks. Maybe I would get to discard Guerilla Tactics and punish him as a freebie! Now that would be both cool and validating! Nope.

It still wasn’t over! I could have thrown banana peels at his Specter* prior to damage and saved myself two points. Still… Still nope.

This is what happened:

He attacks.

I discard [not Guerilla Tactics] — literally throw a card into the garbage can and give up two points.

He does something and / or passes.

I Guerilla Tactics the Hypnotic Specter.

Can you even imagine fathoming this in 2013?

So whenever I see a Guerilla Tactics; this is what I think about. Cool things; a game poorly played… And my first Pro Tour 🙂

But I can also see, in a world with a resurgent Guerilla Tactics, how far we’ve come. I think about myself, then such a strong player [relatively speaking]… with such a poor systematic understanding of the game; versus the baseline level that competitive players are all at today. The glory of this story is that few (if any) of you would have made the same kind of fumble, or even seen it as a possibility. Let’s list just a few of the reasons why:

  • Classical v. Romantic approaches to common situations… Perfection versus subjective or personal criteria in evaluating a play.
  • Appropriate pricing – How much does this effect cost? How much does this cost me? What is scarce here? Life / mana / cards / what? What do I actually need in this game?
  • Tight play – What play will give me the best result, on average, if I do it each and every time?
  • Philosophy of Fire – Would I ever give up a free Shock (let alone a Shock and a card) after 1999?
  • Removal on your own turn / when your opponent’s mana is tapped – Because the last thing you want is to eat a Giant Growth

To sum it all up, the idea of springing a Guerilla Tactics on the attacking Hypnotic Specter was exciting. I was excited, emotionally, by drawing the card I wanted to see against my opponent’s aggressive discard deck. I saw the possibilities in the card, perhaps remembered being spanked by its anti-discard ability to smack for four in my own testing. Perhaps that excitement confused me for a moment… Did I really want to hit the Specter, or did I just want to hit the opponent, punish him for his arrogance, his devotion to The Skull? Likely I had this combination of excitement, the exhilaration of playing on my first Pro Tour, and the stress of playing against my opponent’s best hand all at once. Certainly I didn’t have the modern ideas of focus yet; nor had Jon delivered either of his two famous edicts (nor did he have the reputation yet, that anyone would listen).

A Hypnotic Specter is just a 2/2. We only need two damage to deal with it. If we don’t deal with it, it is going to generate a ton of card advantage for the opponent while whittling away at our life points. This is really super bad for us! There is a reason that first turn Hypnotic Specter is the scariest play in the format!

How did I forget that, myself?

It can be tough comparing Magic in 2013, with all the things you already know, and the vast canon of Patrick Chapin, Zvi Mowshowitz, and Frank Karsten that has come before to draw upon… And try to imagine a world almost 20 years ago, when USENET was the pinnacle of the strategic universe, perhaps THE DUELIST, which came out once per month. Succeeding back then was easier in the sense that the “haves” had a lot more than the “have-nots”… But in another sense, getting to be a “have” took a heck of a lot more work.


* Sorry, wrong kind of “gorilla” [guerilla]. Very pun-ny.