Tag: Magic (page 2 of 11)

The Art of Commander

Courtesy Wizards of the Coast

I have a lot of fun with Commander (EDH if you’ve been around a while). It seems to be my father’s preferred format for Magic, and my siblings always have decks with them. It’s been made clear to me that some of my decks have significant chinks in their armor. Both my Zedruu deck and my Jaya deck are very feast-or-famine, it seems, relying on combos that may or may not appear fast enough to respond to threats adequately in some situations. I’ve started to think more tactically about these decks. I want to build decks to have fun, but I also would like to not get completely blown out as often as I have been lately.

Enter Sun-Tzu. The philosophy in The Art of War emphasizes the flexibility, strength, and speed of a successful fighting force. I’ve looked at my current roster of Commander decks, and how their colors and theme and signature creature provide those three points. Sharuum (One mark of a great soldier is that he fight on his own terms or fights not at all.), Karthus (Move swift as the Wind and closely-formed as the Wood. Attack like the Fire and be still as the Mountain.), and Ghave (Let your plans be dark and impenetrable as night, and when you move, fall like a thunderbolt.) all seem to be winners so far. As much as I like Zedruu and Jaya, their decks often have me quickly devolving into “top-deck” mode, just hoping they yield the exact card I need to get myself out of whatever terrible situation I’ve found myself in. They are also comparatively slow (a shock considering Jaya is mono-red) and Jaya has little synergy with the rest of her deck. So where do we go from here?

I’ve been looking towards the recently completed Return to Ravnica block for ideas, and I have at least a couple potential decks I’ll be assembling and testing in the coming weeks.

Izzet Engine

Speed is the essence of war.

While Zedruu can facilitate a great deal of card draw, making it more likely to pull an answer to a problem I’m facing, it can be difficult to get a donation to an opponent that lasts long enough for Zedruu to bring in the rewards. I have many methods of drawing cards and benefitting from those draws, and a general who gives me a direct, relevant, and reliable benefits from drawing is my old friend, [mtg_card]Niv-Mizzet, the Firemind[/mtg_card]. I’ll have to dismantle both of the above decks to give Niv-Mizzet the tools he needs to blast my opponents, and there’s plenty of room for a variety of planeswalkers, time shenanigans, and even the synergy of Niv-Mizzet working with… um… Niv-Mizzet. [mtg_card]Niv-Mizzet, Dracogenius[/mtg_card], to be exact. I’ll probably be assembling this exciting and somewhat frightening lightning-powered engine of destruction this weekend.

Orzhov Alliance

Supreme excellence consists of breaking the enemy’s resistance without having to fight.

I’ve wanted to put together a vampire EDH deck for some time, now. The good thing about pairing the fiends with Orzhov’s Extort mechanic is that I do not need to engage in direct confrontations to get an edge over my opponents. I was initially torn as to who should take control of the alliance, as I have a soft spot for [mtg_card]Teysa, Envoy of Ghosts[/mtg_card]. However, after some consideration, it seems that [mtg_card]Obzedat, Ghost Council[/mtg_card] is slightly faster and has more synergy with the Extort within the deck and lifelink-equipped vampires. I’m looking forward to putting this deck together, as it’s been an idea I’ve had for quite some time.

This leaves me with another slot in a fat pack box for an EDH deck. Perhaps another mono-color deck? I’ll have to contemplate that.

The Greatheart Returns

Courtesy Wizards of the Coast, Art by Mark Zug

Way back when I said I’d be benching [mtg_card]Zedruu the Greathearted[/mtg_card] as a commander. My concern was that the relatively low speed of her deck would be a hinderance in the face of more competative, combo-heavy decks that accelerate towards turn 5 or 6 before creating some kind of infinite mana situation. However, a little investigation through Gatherer and other sources revealed something very interesting about Zedruu and how her abilities work.

Usually, when she gives control of a permanent I own to another player, that permanent leaves my field and goes to that player’s. For the most part, this means that a deck with Zedruu is looking to make other players miserable by bestowing hindering or useless cards. Not wanting to be “that guy” at the table, I wanted to find another way to use Zedruu, as her colors align with the chronomancy I’ve been wanting to use in EDH forever. That was when I discovered the wonderful truth about Auras.

Auras are enchantment spells that target other permanents. Each Aura has “Enchant ________” as part of its description. This is pretty basic Magic knowledge, but here’s the interesting part: changing the controller of the Aura does not change what it is enchanting. So if you have a creature with an enchantment like [mtg_card]Rancor[/mtg_card] on it, and you give control of the enchantment to someone else, the enchantment stays on your creature.

This isn’t to say that my new deck for Zedruu is nothing but auras. Knowing that I’m likely to encounter all sorts of decks, I put everything from counterspells to board wipes into the deck. While some staples of Zedruu are present, like [mtg_card]Steel Golem[/mtg_card] and, my personal favorite donation card, [mtg_card]Celestial Dawn[/mtg_card], my goal in rebuilding this deck was to strike a balance between all the elements I wanted: “Tron” scenarios pairing Auras with Zedruu or other powerful creatures, Chronomancy, and a bit of control through donations, counters, and other little spells that would, hopefully, not make me a threat to other players before it’s too late.

So far, this strategy has paid off very well. In most of the games I’ve played with this deck, one of my donation cards has come up in the early game, locking down an opponent at least temporarily, and allowing me to catch up on any acceleration I’ve missed. The nature of the deck also allows me to assume a pretty powerful political position. Without infinite combos or a frightening-by-nature general, and armed with counters and removal, I can negotiate with others at the table to determine who the largest threat is and help combat it while building my own position. This, to me, makes the game even more fun to play.

You can check out the deck in detail here, and leave your thoughts or suggestions in the comments!

FNM: Walking After Midnight

Courtesy Wizards of the Coast
Art by D. Alexander Gregory

The gates are open, and all ten guilds of Ravnica are available to players old and new in Magic: the Gathering’s Standard format. This is one of the problems with the format, actually: every few months, the available cards change radically. Some previously robust deck solutions get the wind taken out of their sails, while previously unrealized options come to light. But in this rotation, something I didn’t quite expect has happened. The field has opened up to allow some old favorites from a previous rotation to become viable.

Last block, a card was introduced that I absolutely adore. It’s not a planeswalker, a majorly powerful instant kill sorcery, or a creature with massive stats and fantastic keywords. No, my favorite card of the Innistrad block is the humble [mtg_card]Lingering Souls[/mtg_card]. It keeps emerging in my decks – Vengeance at Dawn back when Scars of Mirrodin was part of Standard, Spirit Squadron when that rotated out, a token deck in Modern – and there’s good reason for that. It only costs three mana to cast, and having two flying creatures on the field at turn three is a powerful field position even if they’re small. In addition, it has a flashback cost, meaning it can be cast again after its first use. And in an inversion of the usual setup of such spells, the flashback cost is lower than the regular cost. This means that in subsequent turns, the spell is even easier to cast, provided it’s not removed from your graveyard.

One thing I’ve discovered is that creatures cannot always be relied upon to secure a win. There are all sorts of ways to avoid dying to creature damage: big blockers, sweepers, gaining life, and so on. Some players find ways around this with direct damage, creatures resilient to being destroyed or capable of evading defenders, or some combination of spells to pull the rug out from under your opponent, such as in OMNIDOOR THRAGFIRE! and older decks that use dreaded “infinite combos”. Like many tools in a competitive game, such combos are the sort of thing that feel blatantly unfair when you’re on the recieving end of their shenanigans, but when you pull apart the mechanics, you can see the ingenuity involved and realize why some players may choose that route. Remember, neither I nor any other person has the right to tell other people how to play their games.

Standard now does feature one of these combinations. Gatecrash introduced us to the [mtg_card]Vizkopa Guildmage[/mtg_card]. Her second ability states that whenever you gain life, each opponent loses that much life. This is useful when you include the new Extort keyword, but the last block’s final expansion, Avacyn Restored, gave us the enchantment [mtg_card]Exquisite Blood[/mtg_card]. “Whenever an opponent loses life, you gain that much life.” With both cards in play, and the Guildmage’s ability active, all one has to do is gain one life, or deal one damage or steal one point for your opponent, and a positive feedback loop begins.

This combo is not foolproof. While it’s powered by an enchantment, which are very difficult to get rid of, the other major component is a creature. They’re vulnerable, and if she hits the battlefield too soon, every turn is another turn that could see her getting blasted. Thus the ideal situation is to summon her, activate her ability, and set off the loop all on the same turn. This requires mana. Thankfully, there are ways to generate all of that energy even without green. The new creature [mtg_card]Crypt Ghast[/mtg_card] causes more black to come our Swamps, while alluring but deadly planeswalker [mtg_card]Liliana of the Dark Realms[/mtg_card] gets more of those Swamps for us to use.

[mtg_deck title=”Walking After Midnight”]
// Creatures
4 Crypt Ghast
3 Vizkopa Guildmage

// Sorceries
4 Lingering Souls

// Instants
4 Tragic Slip
3 Beckon Apparition

// Planeswalkers
2 Liliana of the Dark Realms
2 Sorin, Lord of Innistrad

// Enchantments
4 Intangible Virtue
4 Blind Obedience
3 Oblivion Ring
2 Exquisite Blood

// Lands
4 Godless Shrine
4 Isolated Chapel
8 Swamp
7 Plains
2 Vault of the Archangel

// Sideboard
3 Sundering Growth
3 Ultimate Price
3 Nevermore
2 Rest in Peace
2 Chalice of Life
2 Midnight Haunting
[/mtg_deck]

The idea in Walking After Midnight is to have more than one win condition. One is our combo, and the other is an overwhelming force of tokens. The old, tried-and-true setup of Lingering Souls, [mtg_card]Intangible Virtue[/mtg_card], and [mtg_card]Sorin, Lord of Innistrad[/mtg_card] is the fuel for that potential army. To get either of these things going properly, we’ll need mana (as mentioned before) and time. We get time by using the final portion of the deck: control. We exert control over aggressive creatures with [mtg_card]Tragic Slip[/mtg_card] and [mtg_card]Blind Obedience[/mtg_card], eliminate creatures or other permanent threats with [mtg_card]Oblivion Ring[/mtg_card], and [mtg_card]Beckon Apparition[/mtg_card] removes potential targets for reanimation or flashback. And the deck also uses the aforementioned Extort mechanic to equalize when necessary as well as setting off the combo win condition. The sideboard deals with more specific threats, and packs a way to set off our combo if the opponent has a way to resist damage or loss of life.

It’s not perfect, but it’s resilient to sweeping spells, accelerates quickly, and if nothing else, should be fun to spring on people who don’t expect it.

How does the deck look to you? What would you change? How would you shut it down?

Gaming in 2013

SmallWorld with the 'rents

The new year is in full swing. I’m starting it off writing by carving out writing time on a daily basis (for the most part, more tomorrow on that). But once the writing is done, and with Fringe done and Sherlock‘s third season not yet underway, what sort of amusements fill my time once I tear myself away from the allure of social media and videos on the Internet?

Magic Type <2

With the introduction of Gatecrash, you might think that I’m eager to get involved with new decks for Magic: the Gathering‘s Standard format. And you wouldn’t be wrong. However, I have to admit the format is beginning to lose some of its luster. New sets to Magic come out every few months, and when they do, your current Standard decks either need an overhaul or get scrapped altogether. I like theorycrafting and deck-building as much as the next Planeswalker, but the recurring investment is starting to bother me. I’d much rather make small alterations to decks I already have than having to keep build new ones every quarter while sinking money into boxes of new cards.

To that end, I’m turning more towards Modern and Legacy formats of Magic. I’ll talk more about the decks I’ll be fielding next week, but suffice it to say the new expansion does factor into at least one of them…

Warhammer 40k

Oh, 40k. If ever a hobby was even more of a time and money sink than collectible card games, it would be you. Your little plastic men are much pricier, your rules are a great deal more complex, a fighting force takes a lot more to prepare than a deck, there’s painting involved…

…yet I can’t deny there’s appeal. The universe is steeped in baroque, melodramatic lore, the disparate forces guarantee there’s something that will appeal to players, and I’ve played it and other wargames enough to understand the appeal of plotting out a strategy to defeat the enemy, preparing the right mix of troops, seeing how the enemy responds, and the thrill of adaptation on the fly. I have a Dark Vengeance starter kit sitting near my writing desk, just waiting for me to make the time to start doing something with it.

Soon, my minions… soon.

Video Games

I played a bit of the original PlanetSide back in the day, so I figured since it has the same name and is free to play, PlanetSide 2 would be worth checking out. There are plenty of multiplayer shooters out there – Team Fortress 2, Blacklight: Retribution, Tribes: Ascend – but this is the first one where I’ve felt like part of a major military outfit instead of a being out for myself. To succeed in PlanetSide, teamwork is required, not unlike League of Legends. And rather than approaching the enemy with a couple friends, you do so as part of a group that could include 100 or more fellow players. This leads to some chaos, to be sure, but after joining up with an Outfit and getting on Mumble with them, it really provides a gaming experience I hadn’t realized I missed. It feels like a worthwhile investment.

On the single-player front, I have quite a few video games left to finish before I feel comfortable downloading new ones. I kickstarted Strike Suit Zero and definitely need to play more of that before I weigh in on it, I haven’t finished Assassin’s Creed: Revelations, and I have an itching desire to play through LA Noire and The Witcher 2, which probably means I should finish the first Witcher as well. At this rate, it might be a while before I finally play FarCry 3 or Dishonored, which is a shame, because I really want to play both of them! Not enough hours in the day, unfortunately.

Board Games

Here we have perhaps the rarest of specimens amongst the games I play. I live with someone who finds board games to be rather boring, and so my boxes containing SmallWorld, Ticket to Ride, Pandemic, Android: Netrunner, and Lords of Waterdeep go largely unopened. We do play Cards Against Humanity and Chez Geek from time to time, but I don’t think the others will ever really win her over.

But I will not be deterred! There are still board games I want to experience. I am a huge fan of space-themed 4X games, and Eclipse looks poised to scratch that particular itch. After Wil Wheaton’s Tabletop showed me how Alhambra works, I find myself intrigued by a game with such a pastoral theme that still has deep strategy and requires forethought and negotiation. I hear wonderful things about Battlestar Galactica, and the theme in and of itself is enough to encourage me to buy. And tying back into Warhammer is Chaos of the Old World, a game that will require me to scrape together three friends, no more and no less, who will probably get annoyed at me if I keep calling dibs on Tzeensch.

That’s a rundown on what I’ll likely be playing in the year ahead. What about you? What’s on your docket for gameplay and other amusements?

The Guilds of Gatecrash

Courtesy Wizards of the Coast
Art by Cliff Childs

The cards have been spoiled, the materials have been sent, and another Magic: the Gathering release event is upon us. The second set in the Return to Ravnica block, Gatecrash, hits the streets to open February, and with it comes a re-introduction of the five guilds not featured in the first set. While I maintain my allegiance to the Izzet League, I must admit some of the other guilds do hold appeal for me, and all of them warrant examination.

We’ll start with the Gruul Clans. A loose affiliation of rowdy and rather monstrous bands of warriors united under the massive cyclops Borborygmos, I think they would only be out-partied by the Rakdos. Gruul is all about big game-ending creatures, from dragons to hydras, and I feel it will pair very well with two of the guilds introduced in the previous set, Golgari and Selesnya. The new Gruul mechanic, Bloodrush, ensures that attacking creatures could always get bigger than the opponent expects. Yet, I don’t feel the Clans are for me. I like dragons and massive creatures as much as the next Planeswalker, but I also enjoy coming at my challenges from areas other than the “smash face” angle. Plus, with many saying Gruul is “the guild to beat” in Limited engagements, my inclination is to invest in another guild.

The Simic Combine feels like a cousin to the Izzet League. This may be due to many of their creatures being somewhat odd combinations, like Crocodile Frogs and Crab Sharks. But rather than Frankensteinian mad science at work, the Simic seek to bring the natural world into the cityscape of Ravnica in a way that may not be as harmonious as the Selesnya would like, but still ensures the preservation of non-constructed life. Simic creatures Evolve, growing stronger as larger ones enter the field. I can see how advantageous this could be. However, I don’t feel quite as drawn to the Combine as I am to some of the other guilds.

I’ve always been fascinated by decks that marry the colors of black and white. [mtg_card]Sorin, Lord of Innistrad[/mtg_card] remains one of my favorite Planeswalkers. While not what I would consider my primary colors, the dichotomy of white’s ability to defend and gain life and black’s tendency to erode and corrupt is intriguing. So it is with the Orzhov Syndicate. Part church and part organized crime family, the Orzhov often make you pay for what you want. Attack an Orzhov player and you may lose all of your creatures. Attempt to damage them directly and they’ll gain life in response. The new Extort system allows an Orzhov player to supplement the cost of a spell with additional mana that not only increases their own life, but reduces that of the opponent. I feel Orzhov may be one of the most underestimated guilds in all of Ravnica, and I’m curious if I can prove it.

Slightly more prevalent than my fascination with dichotomy is my love of stealth, counter-intelligence, and espionage. Games like Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Thief, and Metal Gear Solid always get my attention, as has House Dimir. Ravnica’s guild of spies and assassins relies on deception and misdirection, as well as nasty tactics like milling an opponent’s library, forcing discards, and making creatures impossible to block or even target with spells. And if a Dimir agent gets a hit in on you, it could cost more than life points; Ciphers attach to creatures like enchantments but cannot be removed without removing the creature themselves, repeating their effects every time the creature does damage. My attraction to the Dimir may help explain my trepidation towards the Gruul; I prefer subtle tactics to overt ones.

Last but never least, the Boros Legion returns in Gatecrash. While the Orzhov may represent the most insidious aspects of an organized spiritual movement, the Boros are more of the fire and brimstone types, or rather fire and sword. Lead by a literal archangel and commanding an army of dedicated soldiers, Boros has just as much aggression potential as the Gruul clans. It combines the direct damage of red with the defenses and life gain of white, and Battalion allows groups of creatures working together to surge forward in battle. On top of all of that, I feel they may work quite well with Izzet. After all, Boros are all about righteous fire, and what fire burns hotter than lightning conjured by magic?

All in all, Gatecrash looks to be an exciting and flavorful set. I think I will be playing Boros in at least one release event, and if I manage to pair up with someone for Two-Headed Giant, I may choose Orzhov or Dimir. I have Standard deck ideas that include all of those three guilds… more on that next week.

If you’re playing in the Gatecrash release events, what guild have you chosen and why? If you haven’t picked one yet, don’t worry – you can learn more about them here, or even take a quiz to place you in one. Good luck!

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