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Rogue Report – An Origins Story

Got There!

I can’t stop messing with my flashy new toy long enough to write this article. I’m sitting in a hotel room, fresh off of a GPT win, and the winner’s high still persists. It helps that this particular GPT also gave an iPod Touch to the winner! I used to be super jealous of Kellen “the Magic weekend madman” Abel and his Zune that he won at a side event, but could that thing check the weather? I don’t think so! I don’t actually know, though, since who ever used a Zune anyway?

So here I am, sitting in a hotel room in Columbus, Ohio, home of the Origins gaming convention. I was trapped in a booth demoing a miniatures game* I’ve been working on, so I didn’t get to play a lot of Magic. Missing Saturday’s PTQ was a bad beat, but I managed to skirt out a half hour early and make the 6:00 GPT. It was there that I navigated my way through 20 other players to reach the iPod, splitting the finals and shipping the byes and packs to a local. Speaking of which, I was worried I’d be lonely all night when I didn’t see anybody I knew from the Magic world except for Cedric Phillips, busy making out with his Kithkin deck in another PTQ Top 8. Luckily there were some local Columbusites that were fun to hang out with, so I at least had somebody there I could brag about myself to.

My sealed pool was really good and featured such weird hits as double Bant Charm and triple Viscera Dragger. Yep, two packs of Shards of Alara means one of those zombies was foil! This was especially shady looking when I got the same pool I registered passed back to me after the pool swap. Why not? I built a five-color deck centered on Grixis that was being supported by some land cyclers and two Armillary Spheres. As I played the deck, it became apparent that I didn’t need the Bant Charms; I had enough removal already, and they were an awkward double splash. I should have played more two drops and a more consistent mana base instead. Luckily, my Extractor Demon, Rakka Mar, and Deathbringer Thoctar got me into the top eight at 3-1-1, and it was time to draft.

The draft could have gone worse, but I wasn’t extremely happy with how my deck turned out. I could be underestimating it, but I can’t stop kicking myself about my third pick. I first picked a Fleshbag Marauder, second picked a Topan Ascetic, and then saw a pack with Stoic Angel and Sprouting Thrinax. I out-thought myself when I saw and took the Angel. I knew the two guys to my right were friends, so I figured the guy two seats to my right would play nice and decided to ship Bant to his friend. Obviously, I thought, he didn’t pick up the signal, and I wanted to reap the rewards. Three problems: 1) I’m overrating Stoic Angel, 2) I’m way too willing to jump into five-color for no particular reason and should have just taken the card that shared colors with my other two picks, and 3) Sprouting Thrinax had synergy with the two cards I had already taken. I registered an aggressive Jund deck without a single two-power two-drop, hoping to Breath of Malfegor people out of the game.

I got matched up against a young kid who said his deck was the nuts, and I was hoping he wasn’t the Esper player that picked up a pick 10+ Glassdust Hulk. Turns out he had a lot of blue and white artifact creatures, but his fear of attacking would be his downfall. In game one I had a Might of Alara and Colossal Might draw, which is pretty unstoppable. In fact, throughout the whole tournament I felt like if I ever drew my Colossal Might, it would win the game right then and there. In the next game he made a large Arsenal Thresher on turn four, revealing double Ethercast Knight and Ethersworn Shieldmage. I had no answer to the 5/5, especially after he untapped with Mask of Riddles, but he chose to block and trade with one of my creatures (Topan Ascetic, I think it was), and I couldn’t complain. From that point he refused to equip his Mask of Riddles and attack me with a really exalted creature, instead leaving way too much mana open for his Ethersworn Shieldmage, and I was allowed to plink at his life total in one way or another. His deck was really good, but he was constantly playing not to lose by leaving back extra blockers in case I had “it.” If he just equipped the Mask of Riddles on turn four and started attacking me there’s no way I win this game. You’ve got to play to win!

I find myself talking about “playing to win” a lot because it is one of the most important things you can do. This concept was what got me locked into this Top 8 in the first place. It’s round four, I’m 2-1, and we’re in game three. My opponent has been hitting me with a Talon Trooper, resolved and activated a Skyward-Eye Prophets, and just cast an Esper Cormorants. I’m at 9 with a Viscera Dragger and Tidehollow Strix in play. I have eight mana in play, and my hand is Absorb Vis, Fatestitcher, Vithian Stinger, and a land. I don’t see a way I can beat his board by being defensive because of the card advantage that Skyward-eye Prophets is generating, and I can’t race his flyers, so I’ve got to go for his life total.

My opponent is at 14, and I have five power on the board with four points of burn in my hand. I attack and he declines to block, going to 9. I play my two creatures as distractions, hoping I’ll at least get to use Fatestitcher to tap a blocker, but I know he has an Oblivion Ring in his hand. If I play Absorb Vis here, there’s no way he’ll let me hit him next turn, so I probably can’t win that one. He attacks with everybody, so I grit my teeth and say no blockers, going to 1. He casts Oblivion Ring on my Fatestitcher, just as I feared, though at least he didn’t hit one of my creatures with power. I untap, attack with my five power of guys, he declines to block with Skyward-eye Prophets, and goes to 4, so I get to Absorb Vis him out.

Sometimes it’s as simple as seeing that you can’t win on the defense, so you attack with your creatures. In this case, my opponent still needed to make a mistake (there’s no reason he can’t block there,) but that’s how it has to happen. If I play not to lose and try to block his Esper Cormorants with my Tidehollow Strix, then he’ll just grind me down with more spells. Situations like this also emphasize the importance of body language and how you present yourself. I’m not saying that I Jedi mind-tricked this guy or anything, but I definitely tried to make my final attack with a lack of confidence. I’d like to think that I played as if I didn’t have the Absorb Vis, and was attacking as a dead man’s last ditch effort as he was about to be (depending on tiebreakers) knocked out of the tournament. After the match my opponent remarked “I didn’t put you on Absorb Vis,” so I’d like to think I did my job, though it’s just as likely that my opponent didn’t even think of the card.

Speaking of confidence, my favorite play of the weekend was in a Sealed event I did the day before. I keep a hand that has a turn two Rip-Clan Crasher and the mana to cast it, and I’m on the play, so I’m excited. I love when that guy gets to get in on turn two. Unfortunately, my opponent plays a Valiant Guard on turn one, lame! I wasn’t going to let a measly 0/3 keep me from my two damage! I play my land, put the 2/2 haste into play, and without hesitation swing with confidence, saying “attack you for two.” He says “I take two.” He took two! I say go, he untaps his land, looks at his 0/3, looks at his life total, and starts to piece together what just happened to him. People are so used to taking damage from Rip-clan Crasher that it comes naturally, sometimes it just takes a little extra confidence!

My semifinals opponent in the Top 8 had a pretty sick GW deck with a mass of good Alara Reborn two-drops. Luckily all his creatures were white, so Goblin Outlander kept attacking. When he spent one of his later turns playing a Sigil Captain instead of doing something relevant, I thought I had him no matter what. Instead he untapped and cast Martial Coup! for four. Phew! Personally, I think he had the time to wait for that extra land, and it looked like he had other spells he could cast in the meantime. Those four 3/3s were good, but until he found an answer to Goblin Outlander, he was toast. He’s at six, I attack with Goblin Outlander, and he goes to four. I Bolt of Intimidation (part of my white splash, along with Enlisted Wurm) something irrelevant, and attack him down to two. He plays Spearbreaker Behemoth, so I Demonic Dread it and attack for the final two. Goblin Outlander attacked nine times for the win! Welcome to the “I cast Martial Coup with Sigil Captain in play and lost” club, sorry buddy.

The one problem I saw with my opponent’s deck was that it really had no tricks. The whole game, we were in the situation where I had just enough creatures to block and live to his alpha strike, but just barely. If he had a pump spell, a bounce spell, a can’t block spell, a tap spell, anything, he just kills me. Instead he could only play more guys and hope, and when that’s your plan, you leave yourself open to getting blown out by an opposing trick, which is pretty much what happened.

He crushed me in game two. Creature, creature, creature, attack, Gleam of Resistance, crush.

I was worried for game three, especially when I mulligained to six. When they have Martial Coup you just have to hope they don’t draw it, and while I was aggressive, I couldn’t reliably race that spell. Luckily I ‘Louck’ sacked him and he mulligained down to four cards, while I had a hand full of removal and Topan Ascetic. When my opponent got to seven mana and didn’t cast Martial Coup as the last card in his hand, the game, and the iPod, was mine.

I returned to my hotel room victorious, only to find Gavin “Rollie Watson” Verhey** struggling through his Magic Online Championships. Turns out he didn’t get much sleep before having to make it back to the booth in the morning, but that’s the sacrifice you make when you play in a premier event.

Do Something!

I’ve been drafting a lot lately. After randomly finding my way into Nationals, I decided to use my time before the full M10 spoiler came out to improve my drafting. Luckily, this was a part of my game I worked on a lot for Pro Tour Honolulu, and I’ve continued to try to draft just about every day. One of my major strategies has been to draft a deck that does something, as opposed to a deck that does nothing. I haven’t quite been able to articulate what something is, but I can feel it when it’s there.

Something has to do with a little each of card advantage, velocity, interaction, synergy, a potential to outplay, tricks, card selection, using all your mana, etc., but I’m not sure how to exactly quantify it. I do know that I have a history of drafting decks that don’t do anything, and that’s when I tend to lose. I’ve also noticed when playing against better players (especially Seattle locals Ricky Boise and Brian Wong, the good drafters I play against most often) that their decks are doing way more than mine. Often times I don’t feel like their card quality was any better than mine, but they just did more than I did, just like in the Top 8 against my GW opponent. My cards weren’t any better than his, but his deck didn’t do anything.

The format that solidified this idea in my head was Cube. This format takes doing things to the extreme. My first few Cube Drafts, I got crushed because I would draft something like a GW deck full of creatures and a good curve, or a BW deck full of a bunch of Wrath of God effects. These decks aren’t inherently bad – the Cube is full of good cards, so the decks are full of good cards. The problem is that while I’m doing nothing, my opponents are doing very powerful somethings.

It always seem to be that I untap, upkeep, draw, play a single spell, its effect happens, maybe I attack, a creature might deal some damage, and my opponent’s life total might go down. A typical turn. Then my opponent untaps, upkeep something triggers, draw, play a spell, its effect happens, another effect triggers, this lets them attack for some extra damage, which sets up their next turn and makes my choices on the next turn harder. In Cubes full of power, my opponent’s turn might amount to Tinkering for Sharuum the Hegemon, sacrificing Solemn Simulacrum, which certainly qualifies as doing something. But even in Cubes full of good Limited cards, my opponent will cast a Shriekmaw and it will randomly be the nuts because there is a Seal of Removal on the table.

There is something to learn here about gaining extra advantage from your spells, usually through synergy. In a recent Odyssey Block Draft (my first), I got a third-pick Overrun. At first, I was worried because I was sliding into green-black, a combination of colors I have a very hard time doing something with, and I didn’t think Overrun did anything. Sure, it’s a good card, but I was worried about the way my deck would turn out. In Torment, I saw the card Acorn Harvest, and that’s when I realized how I can make Overrun, an already amazing card, do more. Acorn Harvest could now single-handedly win the game with an Overrun, and it already had good synergy with the discarding going on in the Block. An opponent of mine at the Pro Tour taught me this same lesson when he cast a Violent Outburst with Necrogenesis tokens on the table. Sure, Necrogenesis is amazing, but he was pushing it over the top.

What I’m saying isn’t revolutionary – it’s obvious that you want to draft synergies. That’s why I was so upset about taking the Stoic Angel over the Sprouting Thrinax in the GPT Draft. I should know better by now! For some reason this concept is still something I struggle with from time to time.

What I’m starting to realize is that drafting isn’t about just taking the good cards. Terror is a really good card, but it’s just a one-for-one. Whenever I have to Terror my opponent’s two drop with a slow hand I can’t help but think that my Terror should do so much more. So what happens when you have an Izzet Chronarch in your deck? (It was a draft with random packs, another format that’s taught me the importance of doing things.) Not only is it a great card, but suddenly every instant or sorcery in your deck, especially the efficient and powerful ones like Terror, become that much better. You put a Soul Manipulation in this thing, and it’s value could be higher than any card in your opponent’s deck.

WoW!

I’m also beginning to realize the value of mana, and the disadvantage of leaving it unused. Like many of the other lessons I’ve learned, this one came from another extreme format: the World of Warcraft TCG. (I could write a whole article about how much you improve as a Magic player by playing other games.) In the WoW TCG, which works very much like Magic, most of your lands come with a one-time activated ability that draws you a card or two. Resource efficiency is very important in this game, and building a good mana base in a WoW deck allows you to optimize your mana to the fullest. The first player to go a full turn without using their mana, if the game gets to that stage, is almost certainly the loser.

Coming back to Magic, I have a newfound appreciation for a card like Rakdos Guildmage. Yes, again, this card is very good. It turns any card in your hand into a mini [card]Last Gasp[/card], and that’s how I looked at the card for a long time. I knew you could make goblins, and I knew it was good, but I didn’t realize just how good the ability to spend mana was.

Whenever you spend mana, it’s presumed that you’re getting some benefit out of it. In the WoW TCG this effect is built in to your lands, so you almost always have a way to utilize your mana, so it’s normal. When I came back to Magic after a stint of WoW, I started to realized how valuable finding ways to use your mana can be. That’s why the guildmages of Ravnica block are as good as they are. I knew they were good, but now I understand why they were good.

Because of WoW’s lands, the game lacks one of Magic’s most frustrating aspects: mana flood. (Whether this is a good or bad thing is a whole other article. If I keep coming up with multiple ideas in one article, I’ll go infinite!) A lot of Magic players accept mana flood, take their occasional bad draws, and move on. Every once in a while, however, I would find myself winning the game where I drew ten lands to six spells. At first I just chalked it up to bad opponents, or that the six spells I drew were just that good. As important as it is to understand your losses, it’s just as important to understand your wins.

When I looked closer at these games, I noticed that when I was a little flooded I was still spending the majority of my mana each turn. Lately, it’s been with spells like Resounding Thunder that I spend the top end of my mana, giving me another way to appreciate the power of an already good card. I’ve found the value of a few high mana-cost effects in your deck to be huge, giving you a way to win even if you draw a few extra lands. Even creatures with unearth, while relatively cheap to activate, gives you a place to sink your extra mana for a few turns. Every time I hear somebody complain about mana flood as the reason for their loss, I wonder if they could have built their deck better, or if they just had a bunch of one to six casting cost one-shot spells.

It’s strange how playing Constructed WoW helped my Magic Limited game.

So, Where To?

This article is getting a bit long, and I’m still not sure where I’m taking this concept, the idea of drafting cards that do something. On one hand, it looks like the culmination of many different Limited theories like card advantage, mana efficiency, and synergy. On the other hand, I feel like there is more to it. We’ll see if I can’t come up with a way to focus this argument. In the meantime, hopefully it comes across as a few good pieces of Limited advice.

Suddenly, the M10 spoiler seems to have exploded, and you know the effect an exploding spoiler has on me. There’s a few juicy bits I can’t wait to explore, so Limited might have to take a back seat for a while. I’m excited for Nationals with this month of summer ahead of me open for testing, and I’m itching to go rogue.

Thanks for reading,

Jonathon Loucks
loucksj at gmail

*Arcane Legions, check it out.
**He may have been given a badge with the name “Rollie Watson” on it, so that was obviously his name for the weekend.

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