Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Preview Article #2--Home-Brew: Magic: The Gathering Deckbuilding with Ben Snyder

Ed. Note: You can expect various Magic: The Gathering articles to appear on the website as a part of our section on Gaming.  With the "release of the new set", Ben is going to be discussing a variety of "rogue deckbuilding options" and "high value plays" as well as a number of other things that we don't entirely understand.  Enjoy.

“It’s the return of the—aw wait”

Yeah, I went there.  It’s been a long time.  More than 5 years since my last SCG article; more than 5 years since you last read about a deck I designed on Magicthegathering.com.  (Am I still proud that an article of mine still shows up as the first result in seven different Google searches?  Yes...yes I am---try "team constructed magic" for example)  I haven’t taken a hiatus from Magic so much as I lumbered about in the degenerate world of corporate retail sales management.  I still play the game, never stopped, and I still read the articles, but I didn’t have time to do what I do best: designing decks. 

So for those of you who don’t know my history, why don’t we do the David Copperfield thing for a moment?  I started playing Magic in 1993 when my cousin brought home two starter decks and some boosters from his annual trip to Ohio.  That’s right, I’ve been playing longer than anyone who is reading this article (except for an extremely short list of people who probably aren’t reading this, I’m one of the few still actively playing who can claim to have played since the literal beginning of the game). 

My own personal success is limited to a few PTQ Top 8s and exactly one Day Two appearance at a Grand Prix (I also count GP: Daytona Beach as a virtual Day Two, since I ended up with an X-2 record and missed on tie breaks).  If that doesn’t inspire you to immediately net deck every list that follows, the more relevant portion of my Magic biography is that I’ve designed two Pro Tour Top 32 decks, two Grand Prix Top 8 decks, three decks that have placed in the Top 32 of a Grand Prix, a Nationals Top 8 and dozens of high-performing engines that were best when being played by someone who doesn’t have two left feet when it comes to the game (i.e., me).*

Innistrad, or Why Vampires Shouldn’t Sparkle

If you are looking for, or interested in, decks that already have a pedigree, I do have a few builds that might interest you, but for the most part, I’ve tried to limit my brewing to decks that are either below the radar, or so far below the radar that they cannot even be detected.

The first point I absolutely have to make is that whatever you are saying about Snapcaster Mage, you are not using enough hyperbole.  There is, and there should be, no doubt in anyone’s mind that this is one of the strongest cards ever printed.  I believe, vehemently, that had the card been printed in Alpha, it would cost $300 today.  As an experiment, take any random Vintage deck and insert 4 Snapcaster Mage.  Then try, really hard, to lose a game.  If you do, congratulations, you should probably not be playing Vintage.  For your mulligan, play Legacy with 4 Snapcaster Mage in any deck that can cast it (I love me some High Tide) and repeat. 

Those of you who see Tiago Chan as Mystic Snake 2.0, you are not only not on the right boat, you are floating several miles out in deep water and those aren’t dolphin fins you glimpse on the horizon.  Yes, sorceries are still sorceries, and you might not be “playing enough spells to matter” in this new version of Magic where Ernham Djinn would be a sad, shake-of-the-head 14th pick rare.  Even if that is true, you know how you can fix your problem?  Play more spells.  It’s worth it.

Another easy illustration is simply to ask yourself, do you feel bad about casting Path to Exile on a turn one creature?  Almost always yes, in rare circumstances no.  With Chan the Man, you do it and you get no bad feeling at all.  Not at all.  Snapcaster Mage is unrestricted Regrowth.  If you never played with unrestricted Regrowth I’m not surprised, but I’ll tell you, it was awesome.  Snapcaster Mage is unrestricted Regrowth who beats for 2.  If Chuck Norris was a Magic card, he would be only slightly worse than Snapcaster Mage.
It should not surprise you, then, that the following decks started with 4x Snapcaster Mage.  Not all of them include Snapcaster Mage, for those of you non-believers, but you haven’t played Constructed with Innistrad if you’ve ever wished the Snapcaster Mage in your hand was another card.

Heartless Summoning
3 Heartless Summoning
4 Treasure Mage
3 Grand Architect
1 Aether Adept
4 Myr Superion
3 Phyrexian Metamorph
4 Solemn Simulacrum
3 Spellskite
3 Wurmcoil Engine
3 Dismember
4 Despise
1 Mindslaver

36 Spells
4 Darkslick Shore
4 Drowned Catacomb
2 Buried Ruin
8 Island
6 Swamp

24 Land

There are probably other cute decks out there, but you have to be able to beat Pod and Tempered Steel to have game in the new Standard format and Perilous Myr just isn’t that exciting.  This deck is designed to push brutal threats early with Myr Superion arriving on turn 2 as a 4/5 Tarmogoyf clone followed by Wurmcoil Engine and Buried Ruin/Mindslaver shenanigans.

This is a good time to point out that your opponent is most likely not going to destroy your Heartless Summoning, and 3/4 Superions and 4/4 Wurmcoil Engines are not actually good creatures, even if they cost -2 and 2 mana respectively.  People who play with 4 Heartless Summoning have not actually played the deck (they are brewing using thought exercises, which is totally valid, but also leads to people hugely undervaluing Snapcaster Mage and assuming they want multiple Night of Soul’s Betrayal that only affects their guys).  

High Voltage Red is a real deck (I will discuss it later in this article) and Despise is important to kill their strongest starts.  Pod decks typically have 2 creatures, and a Venser in their hand when you Despise, giving you a great chance to simply overwhelm them with your better-than-you-think creatures and speed.

I started with Heartless Summoning because it screams Build-Around-Me like a stuffed teddy bear at a children’s retail shop, but please don’t think that I believe in the deck the same way that I believe in Michael Cera.

Snapcaster Control

4 Snapcaster Mage
3 Merfolk Looter
1 Grave Titan
1 Consecrated Sphinx
1 Frost Titan
3 Doom Blade
4 Despise
4 Mana Leak
2 Forbidden Alchemy
3 Dissipate
4 Ponder
3 Dismember
1 Black Sun’s Zenith

34 Spells

2 Inkmoth Nexus
4 Darkslick Shore
4 Drowned Catacomb
9 Island
7 Swamp

26 Land

Do you know that feeling you get when you untap with Merfolk Looter in M12 Limited?  What if you could have that feeling all of the time?  You can, when you play Constructed Magic.  Merfolk Looter is hugely unappreciated, largely because, again, I feel like most of the current generation never felt the power of him in the first place.    If you have two cards in hand and you untap with Looter in the post-rotation metagame, it is a feeling akin to getting a direct message from a verified celebrity account.

This deck gains most of its power from Snapcaster Mage.  As long as you survive until turn four, you will find it difficult to lose a game.  Part of the beauty of Snapcaster Mage is that it singlehandedly allows you to counter spells that you would never think to blow a counter on in a normal game of Magic, simple because it acts as 8-11 in this deck. 

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed playing this build because you have 11 counterspells, 11 removal spells, fantastic card filtering, and end-games that are extremely hard to play around.  Please note, if you are battling with this build or something similar, you do not want to play tap-out Magic.  You simply do not need to, and it is rare that you would want to.  Your opponent will not, and in most cases cannot win a long game, so allowing them to top-deck you into a losing situation is very counter-intuitive and will always be the wrong play.

High Voltage Red

4 Volt Charge
3 Tezzeret’s Gambit
4 Shrine of Burning Rage
3 Arc Trail
3 Brimstone Volley
3 Chandra’s Phoenix
1 Goblin Arsonist
4 Furnace Scamp
4 Stromkirk Noble
4 Stormblood Berserker
2 Hero of Oxid Ridge
2 Koth of the Hammer

37 Spells

23 Mountain

23 Land

Beautiful, simple deck.  There isn’t much to say here.  My version eschews extra Hero of Oxid Ridge or Koth of the Hammer in order to beat face.  The analogue to this deck is my version of Big Red from Champions-Mirrodin Standard that did not play Arc-Slogger in order to play Vulshok Sorcerer and main-deck Zozu the Punisher.  (There were other differences, but those were the main ones.  We did win Regionals that year with the deck).  I arrived at that particular crazy decision because Arc-Slogger seemed too slow to beat WW, and the Kuroda-Style Red that the “pros” were promoting was a full two turns too slow to do anything about my own Orchard-Alarm deck (which, obviously, my team tested more than any other team, we really assumed other people had that deck, but we were solely mistaken…)

One other thing to bring to your attention: make sure you are playing the Shrine right.  This is similar to “know your role,” but it is critical to sculpt your hand with this deck  Furnace Scamp + Brimstone Volley is the big damage combo, and if you are going to do that, then you should plan on Shrine being a Demonfire-analogue, but it isn’t always.  Ancient Grudge and its ilk are going to see major play (especially in the early weeks when Tempered Steel is running rampant) and you cannot expect to realistically charge a Shrine higher than 4.  If you can use it as Char, then you should.  In the last few weeks I have seen more players misusing Shrine than any other card in Standard. 

Lastly, about Grim Lavamancer: you are valuing him too high.  That is all.

Solar Flare

4 Snapcaster Mage
1 Jin-Gitaxis, Core Augur
2 Grave Titan
1 Wurmcoil Engine
3 Divine Reckoning
4 Liliana of the Veil
4 Mana Leak
4 Smallpox
1 Dissipate
2 Dismember
3 Unburial Rites
4 Forbidden Alchemy
1 Sphere of the Suns

34 Spells

4 Darkslick Shore
4 Drowned Catacomb
4 Glacial Fortress
4 Isolated Chapel
4 Seachrome Coast
2 Plains
4 Swamp
1 Island

26 Land

Ah, Solar Flare…what Re-animator would be if it wanted to play with really crappy cards.  Actually, you ignore this deck at your own peril, as a Turn 4 Jin-Gitaxias happens with disturbing regularity.  The problem I have with the deck is that it doesn’t generate enough of an advantage with Smallpox, but you almost always want to cast the ‘pox during the early turns.  It may be that something closer to what Flores envisioned is the right direction to go with this deck, but for now, I prefer my build merely because of, you guessed it, Snapcaster Mage.  You know what is better than flashing back Divine Reckoning with Liliana of the Veil in play?  Flashing it back for 6 instead of 7 and getting to keep your Snapcaster Mage on an otherwise empty board.

That’s it for this article.  Next time, I’ll explore a few more rogue builds (although I’ll admit, I thought these—Solar Flare as the exception--were pretty rogue until I scanned the rest of the Internet).

Post Script:  A Note on Sideboards

It is a very dirty secret (if you don’t believe me, try bringing this issue up with an OP member or someone who has actually studied the phenomenon) that the player who goes first wins considerably more often than the player who loses the die-roll.  (The best data suggests between 53% and 55% of the time; depending on the format, it can be as high as 59%)  It is not as bad as it used to be before the advent of the play, skip draw phase rule, but it is higher than most seem to want to believe.  By extension, the player who wins game one wins almost 67% of matches (again, this can vary dramatically by format, but a simple arithmetic experiment: if you have a 55% chance against a certain deck, and you win game one, what is the chance that you win the match?  Keeping in mind that the results are actually related—no gambler’s fallacy here).

To that end, sideboarded games are significant, but you really do not play as many sideboarded games as you think you do (or as people try to tell you that you do).  This is why I hugely prefer formats with quick, metagame defeating strategies.  Dredge is ridiculously fun for me, not because I can out-play my opponents, but because in many Legacy events, they forfeit game one and hope to beat you twice in a row (a negative expected value circumstance in all but the rarest cases). 

My favorite format of all time was the one during PTNO, when my favorite deck of all time debuted: Twiddle Desire.  I play-tested the utter crap out of the deck, and had it to the point that I had a 1 in 3 chance of going off on Turn 1 or 2.  Try and beat that without Force of Will.  Just try.  (Just for fun, I will still take on any deck with Twiddle Desire playing Gemstone Caverns and Force of Will—cards it didn’t have during the Pro Tour.  I’ve even won against someone playing proxied 31 Timetwister, 31 Black Lotus…) 

Long, boring aside cut short: Your sideboard must be tuned to the metagame you expected, and I cannot predict that.  When I playtest with people heading to big events, we have an idea of what to expect at the event, and we can adjust the deck that way.  Adrian Sullivan was actually the one who once taught me, by way of a main-deck Interdict during Hermit Druid, Cognivoath, Rock season all those years ago, that you can gain considerably more of an edge by building your maindeck right than by having the super-secret tech lodged in your sideboard.  (Think of it this way, if the card in your board is so good that it swings match-ups in such a dramatic way, why the hell isn’t it in your maindeck?  This is why Timely Reinforcement drives me nuts!  If your deck is “kold” to aggro, boarding in 3 or 4x Timely is not going to help you win game one…why not just win game one?  Argh!)

*Sorry if you don’t like footnotes, but I also designed what some considered one of the best decks in the history of the game (think Flores with Napster, except I didn’t have the benefit of having Finkel in my black book).  It did not lose a single game in season and a modified version never lost during GPTs for the Team Constructed Grand Prix in Madison, and to this day, I don’t believe I’ve ever come close to matching it.  I will include the list, but if you are “testing” my abilities, you need to understand that this deck has to be played to understand why it is so amazing (and also keep in mind that I am not good enough to play this deck, and most likely you aren’t either).  Chris Wolter, one of the greatest mages I ever had the pleasure of slinging with, along with several others in the Midwest scene circa 2004-07, said of the deck: “There never came a single time during a match where I didn’t feel like I could win.”

1 Godo, Bandit Warlord
4 Eternal Witness
4 Sakura-Tribe Elder
1 Meloku, the Clouded Mirror
2 Kodama of the North Tree
1 Arashi, the Sky Asunder
1 Kagemaro, First to Suffer
1 Goryo’s Vengeance
1 Viridian Shaman
2 Solemn Simulacrum
3 Sensei’s Divining Top
2 Umezawa’s Jitte
1 Tatsumasa, the Dragonfang
3 Kodama’s Reach
4 Gifts Ungiven
1 Revive
2 Plow Under
1 Rude Awakening
2 Chrome Mox

37 Spells

4 Tendo Ice Bridge
4 City of Brass
1 Forbidden Orchard
1 Swamp
1 Mountain
5 Island
7 Forest

23 Land

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