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By: Umii, Mike Patterson
Jan 23 2008 2:14pm
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(Vanguard is an online-only format of Magic, where each player has an "avatar" that grants special abilities.  Some of these abilities include giving your creatures haste, or the ability to play spells as land.  These avatars make the format different from vanilla magic, and enable unique plays and decks.  The partial list of avatars can be found here, and my archive here at covers various avatars.  A Standard with Vanguard Premiere Event starts every Saturday at 11 AM EST.)

Adjustments to Vanguard Avatars

As anyone who has graduated from college would know, real life has a way of interfering with Magic.  I have not been able to play Vanguard the past few weeks due to scheduling conflicts, but more importantly I have begun to get somewhat bored with Standard with Vanguard.  With the exception of a few Jhoira decks the past few weeks, the metagame has become stagnant.  Some combination of Heartwood Faeries, Ashling, Squee Storm, and Dakkon Pickles make the Top Eight every week, with a sprinkling of other known decks showing up as well.  Every deck I have tried to design to break into this metagame has been faced with two major problems.  Playing creature based decks is generally folly, since Ashling and Mirri decks will eat you alive.  However, if you want to play control decks, you are going to have downright awful matchups vs Heartwood or Dakkon Blue decks. To some degree I may be overthinking the situation, since a variety of decks make the Top Eight every week, but being unable to design a deck that has good matchups across the board is extremely frustrating.

It is for these reasons that I would advocate a few changes to avatars in the next avatar adjustment.  Wizards has in the past modified avatars if they found them too powerful or annoying, and I think it is time they do so again.  The Ashling and Mirri avatars have very narrow abilities that make it impossible for creature-based decks to be viable.  What is especially annoying about these avatars is that they do nothing well except punish creature decks.  Every deck in existence has bad matchups, but this normally happens due to how decks interact.  For example, when Pat Chapin lost to Uri Peleg at Worlds last year, it was because his Dragonstorm combo deck was vulnerable to discard and big creatures.  Chapin did not, however, lose because Peleg had a deck designed to beat Dragonstorm (he couldn't have since the deck didn't even exist until Worlds).  Simply put, the Ashling and Mirri avatars are poorly designed.  Their poor design is exacerbated by the fact that avatars never rotate out of the format, and avatars cannot be neutralized by cards like Pithing Needle or Disenchant.

Much the same can be said about the Heartwood avatar.  In my last article I outlined a Dakkon GRw deck specially designed to win the Heartwood Faeries matchup.  However, in testing, I found that despite maindecking twelve cards for the matchup, I could not win a significant majority of the time.  It is unsurprising that it is hard to beat tempo based aggro decks when they are at least two mana ahead of you every turn (them getting +1 mana, and you getting -1).  Like the Ashling and Mirri avatars, the Heartwood avatar has such a narrow focus - beat control decks - that it is un-fun to play against.

In the Wizards article above, they specifically mention that they wanted to nurture creature decks by nerfing Mirri and enhancing Gobling Warchief.  If they truly wish to do so, they will further nerf the Mirri and Ashling avatars to allow creature decks to thrive.  I would also advocate nerfing the Heartwood avatar to allow control decks to naturally emerge.

Linearity in Vanguard

If you're like me and read almost daily (and since you're reading, I'm guessing you do), you may be familiar with the idea of linearity in deck design.  Mark Rosewater was the first to write about linearity in card design, while Aaron Forsythe covered the idea from development's perspective, and Mike Flores has written about linearity in deck design many times.  The basic idea of "linearity" is that linear cards like to be played together ("along a line").  For example, Goldmeadow Stalwart is a linear card because it gets better as your deck includes more Kithkin.  In contrast, there are "modular" cards which have relatively constant value.  Grizzly Bears are modular creatures that are pretty much equally good in any deck you play them in (at least until Wizards prints the Muir block in 2017 featuring sentient Bears as an alternative to Elves).

The idea of linearity is especially important in Vanguard, because many Vanguard avatars push deck design in specific directions.  For example, the Oni of Wild Places avatar allows you to play around the drawbacks of your creatures, making junk rares all-stars.  The Frenetic Efreet avatar similarly makes Suspend cards fifty percent better.  Other popular linear avatars include Heartwood Storyteller, Mirri the Cursed, and Braids.

While a majority of Vanguard avatars push decks in linear directions, there are also a number of modular avatars.  The most prominent is Dakkon Blackblade, which allows you to play nakedly good cards in addition to narrow-minded cards with specific targets (e.g. Naturalize or Eyes of the Wisent).  The cards you play in a Dakkon deck do not necessarily need to have any synergy with each other for the deck to be succesful.  The modular nature of the Dakkon avatar may be why the new Spinerock Knoll Dragonstorm decks perform better with Squee, Goblin Nabob than with Dakkon.  The extra cards from Squee are more important than the few extra burn spells or Sulfurous Blasts Dakkon can provide.

Some avatars can be linear or modular depending on what cards are in the environment.  The Prodigal Sorcerer avatar potentially lets you filter cards into your graveyard.  If you are playing Dragonstorm or other combo decks, this ability lets you draw into key cards.  However, if you are playing Dredge, this ability may let you put a key Golgari Grave-Troll in your graveyard before your draw step.

Thinking in terms of linearity can give new perspective in considering deck matchups.  When a Dakkon deck faces a Heartwood Faeries deck, each individual card in the Dakkon deck may be better than the ones in the Faeries deck.  However, in testing Dakkon decks against Faeries, I found that the Faeries were just too explosive to contain, because all of the Faeries cards feed off each other to neutralize the individual power of the Dakkon cards.  Rather than simply saying the Faeries deck is better because it has synergy, you could say it is better because the Heartwood avatar enhances linear creatures decks, which the modular nature of the Dakkon avatar cannot overcome.

Having a Laugh

The opportunities for designing linear decks is one of my favorite parts of playing Vanguard, so this past weekend I decided to play my own version of a Jhoira deck.  The Jhoira avatar lets you discard spells to play random sorceries and instants, which pushes deck design towards graveyard and discard cards.  As I mentioned at the top of the article, Jhoira decks have been making Top Eight for the past few weeks, but I thought that I could come up with my own twist on the deck:

Our Lady Jhoira
a deck by Umii

Land (25):
4x Desert
4x River of Tears
4x Underground River
2x Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth
8x Swamp
3x Island

Early Game Cards:
4x Thoughtseize
3x Shriekmaw
4x Ancestral Vision

4x Haakon, Stromgald Scourge
4x Squee, Goblin Nabob
4x Nameless Inversion
4x Dark Withering

Good Spells:
4x Damnation
2x Aeon Chronicler
2x Tidings

renappel is the first person to make Top Eight recently with a Jhoira deck, playing a GB version I wrote about previously.  In his deck, he played black to disrupt the opponent and kill creatures, and used green cards to accelerate his mana and draw cards with Harmonize.  In looking at his deck, I did like his green cards, as creature mana bases are easy to disrupt (with Ashling or Mirri), and Harmonize was his only waying of drawing more cards.  I decided to drop green and add blue, which allowed me to include eight cards to reload my hand.  However, in dropping green, I slowed my deck down greatly, as I could no longer use Jhoira on turn two (and potentially have to wait until turn four against Heartwood).  To compensate for this, I included a number of early game plays to buy me time until Jhoira could do her thang.  Since the deck is only splashing blue, I also included Desert as early game protection against Faeries or other aggro decks.  Finally, I grafted in the Haakon + Nameless Inversion combo which will allow the deck to dominate most creature strategies.  My sideboard included Extirpate and Sudden Death to beat Dakkon Pickles decks, Trickbind for Dragonstorm, and Tendrils of Corruption to buy time versus mid-range aggro decks.

If you've never dabbled with the Jhoira avatar before, I can tell you it is a lot of fun to play with.  Obviously, the best thing you can do is to hit bomb spells like Amnesia or Time Stretch, but even if you don't a majority of the time the random sorcery or instant you cast is going to be useful.  There are a lot of Stone Rain variants in Magic, and it is amazing how effective a turn three Stone Rain can be, gaining you tempo, or killing an annoying man-land like Treetop Village.  A surprising number of cards have "Draw a card" tacked onto the bottom, which often lets you simply cycle cards for three mana.  I found that I completely whiffed (i.e. none of the random spells were useful) fairly infrequently, and generally did something useful when I used Jhoira.

There is also a certain art to deciding whether to use Jhoira's ability for sorceries on your turn, or for instants on their turn.  The sorceries are generally more powerful, but you may be able to reduce your risk of whiffing with an instant in certain situations.  For example, if your opponent has a creature in play, and you know he will play a spell, you may want to wait until he plays his spell so that you can hit either a creature kill spell or a counterspell.  The game state is obviously important as well.  If the board is clear, I tend to play sorceries to get ahead of my opponent.  If, however, I am ahead on the board, I may simply save my mana to counterspell whatever he plays.  If I am slightly behind, I may save the ability for an instant so that I can react to what my opponent does.  If am on the verge of losing and need to get lucky to win, of course I will look for a sorcery.  One thing that is generally easy to determine is what to discard.  Squee and Haakon both have "Discard Me" printed on them, but I often find myself discarding Damnation against creature light decks, or Dark Withering against black decks.

The Ball

With Jhoira on my arm, I entered last Saturday's Standard with Vanguard event.  Since people responded positively to my last tournament report, I'll provide some play by play.

Round one: _LordAndre_ with a Heartwood Merfolk.
His deck did not get explosive starts in either game, and my deck has a better long game.  My biggest decisions were during the mulligans, where I made sure my hand had early game cards like Nameless Inversion, Shriekmaw, and Desert.  One I stabilized the board, winning was academic.

Round two: vovilon79 with Dakkon UBR
When I saw his avatar, I assumed he was playing some sort of Pickles deck.  My opening eight was Ancestral Vision, Squee, and six lands.  Against my first round opponent, I would mulligan this hand, as I have no disruption, but against a Pickles deck, the long term card advantage of Squee will win me the game. Once I discovered he was playing an aggro deck, I modified my gameplan to keep his creatures at bay, and won fairly easily.  Sideboarding for game two, I considered siding in Extirpate, in case he had his own Extirpates; this would allow me to keep either Squee or Haakon in my graveyard.  I opted not to, and he did not have sideboard Extirpate, so the second game was fairly simple.

Round three: BEscared with GB Jhoira Reanimator
This matchup is the definition of a coin flip.  Or rather, fifty 800-sided die rolls.  I was not looking forward to this matchup because I did not particularly tune my deck for it, and there would be little chance to outplay my opponent (if I ever actually do that).  His deck has several advantages over mine in the mirror: Birds of Paradise means he can start activating Jhoira (is it more, or does that sound vaguely sexual?) a turn earlier thane me; his Rings of Brighthearth allow him to conserve cards, while at the same time giving him more Jhoira activations; and his Garruks give him mana, a win condition, and are hard for me kill.

Game 1: We develop our board, and then he plays Tooth and Nail fetching two Squees (weird plays like this are why I love Vanguard).  I play Bribery for Akroma, Angel of Wrath and begin to swing.  He plays Blatant Thievery to get her back, so I am forced to Damn her to the graveyard.  BEscared, however, gets Time Stretch buying him two turns.  On his first extra turn he Dread Returns Akroma, and I am at twelve life so I concede.  I sideboard in Extirpate, and Tendrils, siding out Shriekmaw, and one each of Squee, Haakon, and Nameless Inversion.

Game 2: The first few turns are relatively quiet as we prepare to unleash the random fury of the number generator.  He has a better start than me, getting Rings of Brighthearth and Mind Stone.  We both whiff repeatedly, and he runs out of cards.  He recovers quickly, however, sacrificing Mind Stone and copying its ability with the Rings.  We trade spells for a while, with him neutering a good chunk of my deck with Haunting Echoes, until I manage to resolve an Upheaval, sending his better developed board back to his hand, buying me time.  After the Upheaval, though, he races ahead due to Birds of Paradise.  As the game progresses, he gets out Garruk Wildspeaker and Treetop Village and has me on a two turn clock when his connection begins to flake out. Anticlimactically, I eventually win on time.  (I always feel conflicted when I win on time.  I usually only do it when I cannot win in any other way, but the competitor in me is never satisfied.  BEscared's deck, while not necessarily better than mine, should have beat mine, and I got lucky.)

Maintaining my streak of finishing in the money, I once again made Top Eight.  Looking back over my past few tournaments, I have to admit a majority of my wins came from simply beating poor decks, rather than having a particularly great deck myself.  Then again, winning all the matchups you should win, and winning half the coin-toss matchups is still a recipe for success. From talking to people I was able to piece together the Top Eight:

3x Jhoira (2xGB, 1xUB)
3x Dakkon Pickles (splashing black)
2x Heartwood Faeries (1x UB, 1x UG)

In the Top Eight, I was matched up against the UG Heartwood Faeries deck.  I had not thoroughly tested this matchup, but I hoped my Deserts and point removal would carry the day for me.
Game 1: I had an opener of Ancestral Vision, Desert, Squee, and Nameless Inversion, a keeper.  He got a slow start with mana creatures, and started to beat down with Treetop Village.  I began using Jhoira's ability to cast instants, and manage to pick off the Village.  He then played Spectral Force which I needed to quickly find an answer for.  Luckily, Jhoira kissed a Shriekmaw in my graveyard with the Breath of Life, killing the Spectral Force and stabilizing the board.  Once I assembled the Haakon + Nameless Inversion combo, he conceded.  During sideboarding, I sided out my expensive card draw, as I would never be able to play them.  I sided in three Sudden Death and one Shriekmaw.

Game 2: I kept a hand with Shriekmaw, Thoughtseize and Desert, and he started the game slowly.  However, I did not draw a fourth land which made it literally impossible for me to play spells due to his avatar.  He finished the game quickly with Spectral Force.

Game 3: I mulliganed into a hand with a bunch of land, Squee, and Shriekmaw, knowing I could not be mana screwed.  He developed his board with Scion of Oona and Spellstutter Sprite.  When I played Shriekmaw to kill his Scion, he had a second, countering my spell, and giving him seven power of creatures. I still had a chance with Damnation, but he made it irrelevant by playing two Thorn of Amethyst, making each of my spells cost an extra three mana.  I lost shortly thereafter.  There was not much I can do against his draw.  These games do serve as illustrations, though, of unfun and non-interactive the Heartwood Avatar is.  I feel more than ever that the Heartwood Storyteller avatar needs to be modified.

In any case, I am always amazed by how much the metagame can shift in a few weeks.  It was less than a month ago that Squee Storm was dominating the Top Eight, then Faeries rose to prominence before being succeeded by Ashling, and now Jhoira.  During this evolution, one or two Dakkon Pickles decks have made Top Eight every week.  With the impending arrival of V3, there will probably be only a few more Vanguard tournaments before an extended downtime.  Despite my dislike of a few avatars, the format can still be great fun, especially if you play a deck like Jhoira.  If the Top Eight is really indicative of what decks people are playing now, I have some ideas for new decks that would be viable.  Maybe you can come up with some of your own.

Bonus Deck

Since before the Ravnica rotation, I have been playing around with a casual combo deck using the Braids Avatar:

Thrumming Rats
a deck by Umii

4x New Benalia
21x Swamp

20x Relentless Rats

Other Spells:
4x Thrumming Stone
3x Akroma's Memorial
4x Diabolic Tutor
4x Thoughtseize

4x Bogardan Hellkite
3x Akroma, Angel of Wrath
4x Cloudthresher
4x Thorn of Amethyst

In case it isn't obvious, the combo is to get Thrumming Stone in play, and then play a Relentless Rats to search up as many Rats as you like.  The Braids avatar speeds this combo up tremendously by letting you play Thrumming Stone for only three mana, at instant speed, and cannot be countered.  The Thoughtseizes serve to clear away any Damnations or other troublesome cards, and the Diabolic Tutors serve as copies five through eight of Thrumming Stone.

While this deck design is extremely simple, I think it is fairly resilient.  If you have Thrumming Stone in hand, the combo cannot be disrupted by the counterspells Heartwood Faeries or MonoU Dakkon decks play.  Furthermore, if your opponent manages to survive the first swarm of rats by Wrath of God or other trickery, the combo can go off again as soon as you play another rat.  The combo can win on turn five, which should be fast enough to beat Ashling, Faeries, and Dakkon decks.  Against Dragonstom, this deck will probably lose game one, but will be able to play eight copies of Thorn of Amethyst after sideboarding.  I am not sure this deck is right for a competitive tournament, but for casual play, I thoroughly endorse it.


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