Explorations #29 - Welcome to 1997
Magic's Big Change
Just to get it out of the way right off the bat, my number one concern about these changes is what it means for Magic Online. Let's just say that the MTGO development team hasn't proven to be the most agile group around, so hopefully this is something they've already been working on for a while!
The name changes are fine (battlefield is kinda lame, cast is kinda cool, exiled is ok), lifelink and deathtouch are positive changes, I love the mulligan change (although more for paper than MTGO), and I was a bit upset at the removal of mana burn... but getting rid of combat damage on the stack seems absolutely terrible to me. It seems so terrrible that I've already pretty much forgotten all of the other changes.
The first thing that I really don't understand is the idea of removing combat damage on the stack and replacing it with the whole 'ordering blockers' business. I mean this is basically creating some weird pseudo-stack for attacking/blocking, rather than using the same stack mechanic used everywhere else throughout the game.
The stance at Wizards is that these chances are to help casual players make the leap into competitive play. Well if casual players are making the leap to competitive play, one thing they will need to learn inside and out is the stack! The stack is the whole game! Once you understand the basics of the stack, applying it to combat damage seems trivial to me. If I worked at Wizards, I'd be PUSHING the stack rather than finding alternatives to it.
My initial gut reaction is that this whole rework offers less strategic depth while simultaneously making the game more complicated. This is the worst type of change! Also just to throw it out there - if a casual player is making the leap to competitive play, then grasping the combat damage stack is the least of their problems =)
Strategy aside, this ordering mechanic seems to ruin a lot of the flavor aspect of group blocking. I always thought of it as a bunch of small dudes ganging up to beat down the big monster. Now it's some dorks lined up one by one to be chopped down by the big monster until he runs out of steam and the last little guy nudges him over or something. I can't even begin to fathom how banding works now. Anybody know?
My girlfriend is as casual of a player as you will find and has no difficulty with this rule - even asking me "... but doesn't that take lots of strategy away from combat?" when I told her about the change. It really seems like it does.
Maybe I'm wrong about this? Who knows, only time will tell, I haven't even played with any of the new rules yet. I certainly don't think that this change is "the end of Magic" or anything, but I just really hope that it really is good for the super-casual player (or someone?)... because it certainly seems to suck for me.
Here are a list of cards some people like that get obviously worse with these changes:
You can no longer get in a hit with one of these guys and then sacrifice them for a cool effect. Bummer.
Casting Giant Growth opens you up for a bunch more 2-for-1s than it used to.
Let's say I attack with a 3/3 and you block with a 3/3. In the past I would stack damage and then used Giant Growth on my creature. If you have something like Terror or Lightning Bolt, then at least I'm still taking your creature down with mine.
Under the new rules I would need to cast Giant Growth during the declare blockers phase. You would be able to respond to this with Terror or Lightning Bolt, which means my creature would hit the graveyard before doing any damage at all. I go down a creature and a spell for just your one spell.
In this situation there's no way to guarantee your opponent's creature dies while still making a run at using Giant Growth to save your own.
Can't trade stacked lethal damage and then save your guy.
These last two examples don't come up a lot in serious constructed, but variations sure do in competitive limited. These examples do come up a lot in casual constructed however, casual players seem to love tricks like this.
You cannot wish back cards that have been exiled. It used to be a staple of competitive play to remove cards with Psychatog and then Cunning Wish them back into your hand. Tricks like this are no longer possible.
Here's a list of some cards that get better:
I'm not sure if this card is good or not, but it's definitely fun for casual. I picked up a playset.
Of course this one isn't available online, but there are rumors that this one will be around in MED3. The best (or second best) counterspell ever printed just got better.
So no real surprise here - some cards got better, some cards got worse. We won't know exactly which cards advance/retreat in power level until we get a chance to play with the new rules for a while. The final thing I want to touch on is the new Ball Lightning:
I don't think the new "at end of turn" templating is less confusing than the old one, and it's significantly wordier. Looking at that Ball Lightning makes me cringe... not only is the art kinda lame, but it just sucks to see such a simple and elegant card turned into an absolute wall of text. There are more words on that card than Shahrazad! Isn't this one just so much more badass?
Of course you should imagine it with a text box of "Trample, haste. At end of turn, sacrifice Ball Lightning."
Like I said above, I'm not going crazy over any of this. It seems to be a change for the worse from my point of view, but what do I know? I haven't even had a chance to play with it yet. Maybe I'll love the changes. I guess I'll just wait and see.
In the spirit of resisting change, I'm going to turn the clock way back for this article. =)
The Olden Days
While watching the Pro Tour on Sunday night (congrats Mitamura!), I spent a decent amount of time browsing through the archives of the old Magic Dojo website. For those of you who don't know, the Magic Dojo was the original Magic strategy website - way back before the average person had any idea about www or dot com.
I have fond memories of staying after middle school to use the school's fast internet connection and download as much material as possible. Tournament reports were my absolute favorite. Magic tournaments were like the wild west back then. Nobody had much of an idea what they were doing, and this lead to some really entertaining tournament reports. Nowadays in tournaments, even the biggest donkey is almost always packing a decent netdeck. This wasn't the case back in 1997, and I loved reading the hero's desription of each deck they encountered during their run through the tournament. To this day I still read just about every tournament report I can get my hands on, especially for the more wide open formats.
Anyway, to get back on topic: I spend a decent chunk of Sunday evening browsing through old posts on the dojo. I read some old tournament reports, some early strategy articles, and then spent some time browsing through the decks to beat archive (which spans a couple of years centered around 1997). While sifting through various deck to beat, I thought to myself, "Man I'd love to give this deck another spin". So that's exactly what I'm going to do.
My plan is to take a deck from way back, run them through a few test games, and then try out some updates from the last ten years or so of Magic. This sounds like a lot of fun to me, and will probably be something that I do every once in a while moving forward. Hopefully this will be nostalgic for longtime players, while giving newer players an idea of how things used to be.
Let's get started!
Sandsipoise is a deck made popular by Magic hall of famer and former Wizards employee Randy Buehler. While Randy is probably best known for either his take on mono blue, CMU combo decks, or the PT-winning Lauerpotence deck - a wacky Mirage block combo deck called Sandipoise was responsible for first getting Randy onto the Pro Tour.
This deck aimed to exploit the synergy between Sands of Time, Equipoise, and the much maligned phasing mechanic.
Here's how the combo works:
Phasing is sort of a confusing mechanic. At the beginning of your untap step, all of your permanents in play with phasing phase out, and all of your phased out permanents phase in. Phased out permanents are basically removed from the game. So a permanent with phasing is essentially around for half of your turns.
Sands of Time causes players to skip their untap step. This means that nothing phases in or out via the 'beginning of untap step' phasing rule. It also does some weird stuff with tapping and untapping, but this is not crucial to the combo.
Equipoise is sort of a long-term Balance that phases permanents instead of destroying them. With Sands of Time in play denying players and untap step, the permanents that are phased out by Equipoise remain phased out forever - stuck in some sort of bizarre limbo.
So let's say you've played out Equipoise and then cast Sands of Time. The deck you're running is creatureless, so all of your opponents creatures will phase out. If you Dark Ritual out Desolation, then you can get rid of all your lands, which in turn gets rid of all your opponent's lands. This creates a soft lock that many decks do not have a way to get out of. How does the deck win from this position? Usually Miser's Cage, which will slowly eat away at your opponent's life total for many turns.
Here's the closest approximation I can find of the Mirage block deck that Randy Buehler used to qualify for his first Pro Tour:
This isn't a Classic legal deck, Vampiric Tutor is currently restricted. Instead of trying out this exact list, I'm going to be using a Standard Sandsipoise deck (instead of Mirage block) from around the same era. This list is mono-white, although there were many different color combinations running around at the time:
This is a pretty expensive deck, but I think I'll be able to make a decent budget deck out of it eventually, so I'm not going to worry about it. Sandsipoise was decent at locking out the Mirage block constructed field, so I'm interested to see how well it does in modern day.
I'm a huge fan of SmokeStax decks in Legacy, but the namesake artifact isn't available on Magic Online yet - so maybe this deck will help satisfy my mono white soft-lock deck craze! Time to test this one out.
Game 1 vs R/G Aggro
I start off well with turn one Ghost Town, Mox Diamond, Marble Diamond. My opponent plays Taiga and Llanowar Elves. On turn two I draw (phew) and cast Equipoise. He says "wtf?" and casts Burning-Tree Shaman. I use Enlightened Tutor into Sands of Time. My lovely opponent says "this is stupid" with a bunch of mixed in (blanked-out) profanity. We draw for a while until I get Misers' Cage and play it. He scoops and then starts (filter) swearing at me.
Analysis: Well this is pretty much the ideal way for this one to go down. On turn three I had my opponent basically completely locked out of lands and creatures. He ended up Lightning Bolting me somewhere down the line, but I guess that's all he could really do with just one mana. Cool soft lock.
Afterward my opponent made some pretty derogatory comments about me and my deck, so I just said: "Hey man, welcome to 1997". I don't think he liked that very much.
Just one game in I'm ready to make a small change, nothing huge.
Out: 2 Gemstone Mine
In: 2 Horizon Canopy
Gemstone Mines are ok in this deck, but I think that Horizon Canopy is a lot better. Gemstone Mine is only used to produce white mana in this deck, the five color capability is not used. The main reason it's used instead of a Plains or something is that it has the ability to blow itself up in order to keep your opponent down on zero lands under Sandsipoise.
The downside of Horizon Canopy is that it does damage to us whenever we use it for white mana, but on the upside we get a land that can not only blow itself up on command instead of after three uses - but also provide some awesome utility (draw a card) with the sacrifice effect. This deck doesn't need a ton of mana to get going (three plus four), and the ability to Mindstone away some lands while searching for combo pieces seems awesome to me.
One of the cool plays with this deck is to Enlightened Tutor for a card you need, fire off a Mind Stone to draw it, and then play it right then and there. Horizon Canopy gives you another few ways to pull off this type of play. Depending on how testing goes, I may try to find room for a full playset of the Canopy.
I was also considering maybe running Wasteland here. If you want to take this deck to a PE then you probably should, but I'm not going to run it in this deck.
Game 2 vs Green Beatdown
I start off with turn one of Crystal Vein, Mox Diamond, and Howling Mine. My opponent plays Llanowar Elves, (Copper Mir), Journey of Discovery, and then Creeping Mold on my Howling Mine. I get out another Mox Diamond alongside Ruins of Trokair and then Spirit Mirror.
By now my opponent has accerated into the dangerous Ravenous Baloth, but my Spirit Mirror token can block that day long. I chump block for a couple of turns and then draw into Equipoise, which I cast. He comes back with the ridiculous Living Hive, but I pop Mind Stone into Sands of Time and lock my opponent down with zero lands and zero creatures. I start attacking with my 2/2 Spirit Mirror Token and he concedes.
Analysis: Another decent run in this game. Landing an early Howling Mine makes the combo a lot easier to get together, but not when your opponent has Creeping Mold. Artifact removal in general is VERY powerful against this deck, something to watch out for.
Game 3 vs White Weenie
My opponent plays Savannah Lions, Soltari Priest, Opal Guardian, and then Umezawa's Jitte equipping the Priest. I wasn't particularly worried about the Opal Guardian, since my deck has exactly zero creatures - but Umezawa's Jitte is always a problem. Thankfully I have Wrath of God to take the pressure off, and then the Sandsipoise combo to lock my opponent out.
We play draw-go for a while and then eventually I play Misers' Cage we sit here for a whole ton of turns until my opponent finally dies.
Analysis: These win conditions are miserable, and if my opponent actually wants to play it out then it just takes forever. Time to look for a cooler win condition.
Ok so the kill conditions in this deck are just terrible. This isn't really much of a surprise, since we're working under some serious restrictions in order to support the Sandsipoise lock. The main bummer is that we can't really use any conventional creatures for this function, since that means we need to let our opponent have a creature. Maybe this is ok, but allowing someone one of something is usually a lot worse than allowing them zero of something!
Here's a break rundown of some potential win conditions:
Used in the original list, gives us a way to kill our opponent over ten turns or so.
Kills our opponent over twenty turns or so. Costs less mana than Misers' Cage.
This is my favorite win condition from the original deck. Creates 2/2 creatures that we can dispose on command. Not only is this a win condition, but it's also a way to generate one not-so-chump blocker per turn if you're trying to get the combo together.
Doubles as a sick Changeling killer also!
Artifacts that are able to turn into creatures are a really interesting alternate win condition, especially when we can guarantee that our opponents don't have any creatures to block with.
Animated artifacts are very safe to use, since under Sandsipoise our opponent will need either instant speed creature removal that costs zero OR sorcery/instant speed artifact removal that costs one to take him out. For this reason, indestructibility isn't super important on this guy - although it is still useful.
Better than Darksteel Brute? Cheaper to animate and doubles as artifact mana - seems like a perfect fit for our deck!
This card would be amazing if we had any sort of Arcane thing going on... maybe that's an idea for a future deck?
Similar to Guardian Idol, except this one is more expensive, produces white mana, costs more to animate, and doesn't come into play tapped. The flying and first strike doesn't really make a huge difference, since our opponents will likely have zero creatures. I think Guardian Idol is probably better.
If you want to solve the scenario of Sandsipoise taking forever to finish off an opponent, then this seems like pretty much the ideal scenario for Phyrexian Totem. Not only does he end the game quickly, but his gigantic drawback is basically irrelevant when your opponent is suck at zero mana.
The problem, of course, is that Phyrexian Totem requires black mana. Maybe this isn't a huge deal? Mox Diamond and Undiscovered Paradise give us eight black sources. If we had kept in the Gemstone Mines, then we'd have ten. Lotus Petal provides four more, but that's only a one-time-use thing. If we run more than one copy of the Phyrexian Totem, then one can fuel the other.
Maybe this is enough? Seems like a cool idea - let's test it out.
Out: 2 Misers' Cage
In: 2 Phyrexian Totem
I need to play some test games to see if the availability of black mana is an issue. If it is, then I guess I could swap out a Marble Diamond for Orzhov Signet or something. We'll see how it goes.
I also really want to get rid of the two copies of Gerrard's Wisdom. Those do not really seem like a card that we need in this deck. If we want lifegain, then there are probably better options. Maybe I could just pay one for Ivory Tower instead of four for this thing. But I don't know if we even want lifegain.
I'm going to start off by replacing the two copes if Gerrard's Wisdom with Ghostly Prison. This card comes down on turn two consistently with this deck, and can really stall an early attack.
Out: 2 Gerrard's Wisdom
In: 2 Ghostly Prison
Alright, time to test out these changes.
Game 4 vs Green Draw a Card
I get turn one Horizon Canopy, Mox Diamond, and Marble Diamond - my opponent gets Silhana Ledgewalker and then a morph. I cast Phyrexian Totem, Spirit Mirror, and Lotus Petal... and draw triple Sands of Time with zero copies of Equipoise to be found. My opponent unmorphs his (Hystodon), puts (Keen Sense on his Ledgewalker), and just beats me down. Shape of the Wiitigo makes an appearence. It is not pretty!
Analysis: Sometimes you just don't draw enough of the combo. Life is not good when that happens. Wrath of God or Ghostly Prison would have helped a lot.
Game 5 vs Mono White
I start off with Ruins of Trokair, Crystal Vein, and Marble Diamond. He plays (Forbidden Watchtower) and then Stalking Stones. I pop off double Mind Stone digging for cards, and find Enlightened Tutor to grab Sands of Time - which was the missing piece of the combo.
Analysis: Didn't get to try out the new win condition, everything else went well though.
Game 6 vs GUB Something
My opponent plays Mire Boa, and I get double Mind Stone into double Ghostly Prison. He cycles Twisted Abomination and then lays down Sun Droplet followed by Obelisk of Alara. I get Spirit Mirror into play and then get the Sandsipoise lock. I attack with the 2/2 a few times and my opponent concedes.
Analysis: Pretty straightforward game here. I had Wrath of God in hand, but didn't want to blow it to take out a single Mire Boa. That little 2/1 ended up doing like ten damage to me over the course of this game.
Game 7 vs White Creatures
My opponent plays out double Soul Warden into Spectral Procession. I get Crystal Vein, Mox Diamond, Howling Mine, Lotus Petal, and Phyrexian Totem. I cast Ghostly Prison and then Equipoise and Sands of Time. I attack with Phyrexian Totem until it's game over.
Analysis: I finally got to use my new win condition, and it was a lot less painful than trying to win with 2/2s! After the game my opponent said, "wow - awesome deck!" and we chatted for a while after the game about how it works. I think that most people dislike playing against a deck like this, so I'm going to go out on top after a game where someone seemed to really enjoy it!
All in all I think this deck did exactly what it was supposed to do. It runs a cool and quirky soft lock, and is defintiely very casually competitive. If this is your kind of deck, then check it out! Oh, but what if you're on a budget...
Now one of the major bummers about this Sandsipoise deck is that it is not very budget. In fact, it's very very expensive. This one isn't packed with expensive power spells, but rather with lots of expensive utility cards like Mox Diamond and Enlightened Tutor. I guess this is a deck for long time players with extensive collections that don't have anything better to do with their Mox Diamonds and are pissed that they can't play Smokestax online? Hopefully it was sort of a cool learning experience for everyone else, since the barrier to entry on this one is pretty high.
But I think there's a decent budget deck in there somewhere! How about something like this?
This one gets rid of some of the expensive white cards (Enlightened Tutor, Wrath of God) and adds in blue for the ability to draw and filter. I'm running Irrigation Ditch, Ancient Spring, and Svyelunite Temple in order to get rid of some of the expensive lands and support the blue cards. If you want to cut the cost a little bit more you could try out Abandoned Outpost and Seafloor Debris. If you want to cut out a little more, you could run Chromatic Sphere/Star instead of Lotus Petal.
Next time I'll be following through with the mini-contest I mentioned last week and playing casual deck doctor. I have to say I've been pretty overwhelmed with the quality of the entries, and to be honest I think I could write a decent article about just about any of them. If you have an entry then please sent it to firstname.lastname@example.org. I still have a few days before I'll pick one to go with for sure. Thanks for reading!