Thursday, September 29, 2011

Turning Legends into Myths

One of the cruelest things you can do in a game of EDH is deny someone access to their general. The option of putting your general in the command zone only triggers if he would go to the graveyard or exile zones - you don’t get a choice if it goes to your hand or library. This means all generals are vulnerable to “tuck-spells”, the gold standard of which is spin into myth:

I find spin has the fewest drawbacks or restrictions of the usual tuck spells, but you can basically consider hinder, spell crumple, condemn, oblation, hallowed burial, and bant charm in the same class. There are also tuck combos using cards like rishidan pawnshop (steal), excommunicate (shuffle), and teferi’s puzzle box (bounce). Ultimately its the effect that matters here, not so much the specific card.

I actually had one of my most memorable EDH moments playing rishidan pawnshop. I had finally drawn a threaten to get rid of an extremely annoying reaper king that just kept coming back and stomping the table. I pawnshop the reaper into the other players deck, to high fives around the table... only to see the reaper king player cast demonic tutor on his next turn... such sadness.

Anyways, back to spin into myth and pals: sending a general to the library is usually a move of utter douchery, as the vast majority of decks are designed to synergize with the general. Even for decks that don’t need their general, its a pretty big disadvantage to lose the option of casting a free spell from the command zone.

That being said, tuck spells give outs to some truly brutal commanders who will just decimate the table otherwise. While it always depends on the competitiveness of the decks and the situation, below is a list of generals that almost always deserve a tuck spell (e.g. people shouldnt be playing them in the first place if they’re following the golden rule):

1. Zur the Enchanter. Its not fun knowing if this player untaps you lose.

2. Jhoira of the Ghitu. Its not fun knowing if this player untaps you lose.

3. Reaper King. Its not fun knowing that anything worth playing will be vindicated.

4. Merike Ri Berit. Its not fun knowing that anything worth playing will just be stolen/killed.

5. Gaddock Teeg. Its not fun not playing cards.

6. Eight and a Half Tails. Its not fun facing a board of nonstop hexproof / indestructible / unblockable.

7. The Mimeoplasm. Its too hard to repeatedly clean the graveyards out to keep this card in check.

In the same vein there are cards like arcum daggson, captain sisay, and teneb the harvester that usually deserve to be tucked; but this is a good base list of shithead generals that legitimize (even require) playing tuck spells in your deck when you can.

Macaroni or Cheese?

Its the cheese you’re sometimes very glad to see played... cheese that deals with other cheese. Played improperly though, it can definitely be the worst of the worst.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Blue Wrath

Wrath of god is one of the coolest, oldest cards in magic. Harkening from a time when Wizard’s wasn’t afraid to put burning pentagrams in their card art and craw wurm was king of the jungle, wrath of god has come to define an entire genre of cards - “wraths”.

In multiplayer EDH wrath effects are usually more efficient than spot removal. Once in a while you’d rather have the surgical precision of removing a particular problem, but usually killing everything gets the job done just as well and puts your opponents down even more cards. With the proliferation of abilities like hexproof and shroud, the wrath is also just generally more reliable than targeted removal.

There is no shortage of sweepers in magic, as each block has offered its own variations on “blow everything up”. In EDH the best wraths either hit a lot of things (disk, o-stone) or deal with indestructible (sudden spoiling, hallowed burial), although a good old fashioned wrath of god is often all it takes to rebalance the board in your favour.

For the most part wraths are heavily concentrated in white and black, with an outside nod to red. Green and blue have a few sort-of-wraths (hurricane, inundate) but are still waiting for their “flock of sheep” or “rain of frogs” to compare with black’s sudden spoiling or white’s humility.

Or are they? Blue actually has a quirky wrath variant... perhaps you’ve seen it?

Ixidron is about as comical as it gets for wrath effects. This weird-looking elephant shrinks the fattest of fatties down to bite-sized pearled unicorns, and itself probably comes out as a 5/5 or better most of the time.

Not to overstate the value of ixidron as a fatty - the body will usually be irrelevant unless you can give him trample, and even then he’s going to shrink rapidly as people smash their 2/2s into one another. In fact Ixidron being a creature could be seen as a disadvantage since it allows other players to animate him out of your graveyard when you least want to see it.

Regardless, 5 mana for a wrath in a colour like blue is very reasonable, and the card itself is pretty amusing.

Macaroni or Cheese?

Ixidron reminds us all of what 4th edition was like, with scathe zombies lined up against grizzly bears. No question, this is a card best boiled, strained and served with spaghetti sauce:

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

To have a heart... or not

As a player who creates new decks for just about every EDH session, I like it when games go relatively quickly. If we can do a match in under an hour I’m happy, as it means I’ll get to try out more of my decks during the session. This is part of why I like to switch to star games when our group hits 5 or 6 players, and split into two tables if we’re 7 or more - FFA games of 5 or more are just too damn long, and I have too many decks I want to play.

One of my longest standing decks is a “game over” black-red build that’s had kaervek and malfegor as generals. Its packed with cards that damage each player or each opponent in order to end games as quickly as possible - win lose or draw.

The deck was initially a response to my first playgroup’s love-in with cards like loxodon warhammer and pulse of the fields. It was black and red to rain death and destruction on the life-gaining-extravaganza, and played a series of “F U lifegain” enchantments like forsaken wastes, sulfuric vortex, and everlasting torment.

While black and red are clearly the heavy metal colours of death and destruction, the combo precludes me from playing the most obvious general for the theme:

Hidetsugu has always been in the deck, and pretty hilarious when played with lightning greaves on the board (wait for it... wait for it.. boom everyone under 10 life in “one turn”!). The question is whether its worth the loss of black spells to have him in my command zone.

On the downside, he actually non-bos with a lot of the deck, since everytime you tap him you’ve effectively cut all damage dealt “so far” in half. So those early ankh of mishras and spellshocks become a lot less painful. Also, dropping black costs me some fun cards like repay in kind and plague of vermin (hilarious with earthquake in hand).

On the upside, he is the biggest, baddest damage dealer in multiplayer magic. Going monored gives access to the usual suspects for monored EDH - mountain-based-damage, red-mana-based damage, and mana-doubling. Although whether thats an upside or not is debatable since a lot of those cards are boring and predictable (extraplanar lens... ashling... yawn)

So the move to hidetsugu as the general is an experiment - hopefully he’ll be fun to use as a general, but if not I can always slink back to Kaervek.

Macaroni or Cheese?

Hidetsugu is tolerably cheesy. Taking out massive chunks of life by just tapping is pretty annoying, but he hits his controller along with the rest so its not exactly “unfair”. He probably heads into true-cheese when you can give him haste and/or get off two quick taps (e.g. thousand-year elixir)

Monday, September 26, 2011

Rats in a maze...

If anything could convince me that mass land destruction has a legitimate place in EDH, it would be a table full of these:

I absolutely despise this card. It turns interesting tables into defensive logjams, as attacking becomes an exercise in futility. What makes the maze so much worse than say island sanctuary or wall of denial, is that its a land. The usual cast of EDH sweepers hit all sorts of permanents but almost never lands. In fact, the few cards that do sweep lands (jokulhaups, obliterate, catastrophe) are banned from my playgroups. Banning mass LD is a fairly common house-rule for EDH, as games are long enough as it is, and topdeck wars are not exactly fun.

Unfortunately this means that Maze of Ith gets a free pass from the sweepers that would most effectively deal with it. Luckily there are some versatile answers out there for the discerning planeswalker. My own cast of anti-maze-tech features cards such as decimate, saltblast, icy manipulator and tsabo’s web. When adding these to your deck though remember the golden rule - try to win without making anyone else miserable. Don’t use (waste even) your limited LD options just to mana screw someone who’s already down on their luck. Have patience and remember why you had to put those LD spells in the deck in the first place.

While preparation is the hallmark of a great EDH mage, it doesn’t hurt to also question the manhood of your opponent anytime he chooses to play, steal, or copy a maze of ith. And when you do finally get rid of the maze, drive home the point by sending everything you can at him. Who cares if you lose as long as he doesn’t win! With the right blend of versatile answers, shameful insults and reckless but principled attacks, together we can drive the scourge that is maze of ith from EDH decks everywhere.

Macaroni or Cheese?

Between creating massive game-stalls and forcing people to play land destruction in every deck, even people who play it agree: there is a pungent stench of Limburger wafting out of this labyrinth.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Hating on the Grave

EDH is a necromancer’s playground. All those huge creatures just waiting to be milled, discarded, or board-wiped into a shallow grave.  

Beyond the usual fat, multiplayer EDH also makes a whole family of ‘goyfs and ‘vores much more powerful than they usually are, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s seen lord of extinctions that weren’t even worth counting (“lets just say if he hits you you die”). Flashback cards also get pretty good mileage with the longer games and higher mana counts, and most green decks will be packing genesis and eternal witness.

What is the discerning planeswalker to do?

Well, the gold standard, and a card that probably belongs in every non-reanimator deck in the format is relic of progenitus. 

Forget the first ability, just play it as a card that reads 2: foil the plans of everyone else (for now), draw a card.

But for those with more refined tastes, might I suggest one of my old-favourites from Alliances:

You could probably throw Time Spiral, Timetwister and Time Reversal in here too, although in those cases you won’t get the high-five factor of running a card from Alliances.

The beauty of diminishing returns is that it goes so much farther than mere graveyard hate. It rewards those who blew their hands with a complete disregard for card advantage, and punishes the misers who have been hoarding answers and threats waiting for the perfect moment. With this little gem in your hand you can actually play aggressively, dropping threats all over the place and blowing things up with wreckless abandon, and as your opponents wonder what the heck you are thinking you tap 4 mana and shout “SURPRISE!” - rarely does blue get to have this sort of fun!

Anyone who happens to be mana screwed or sitting on a bad hand will love you, and since graveyard hate is so hard to come by you might even get props for stopping that mimeoplasm from coming out next turn. Heck, you can even knock out lord of extinction and mortivore altogether!

Graveyard hate is usually marginal, inefficient, or boring. While the relic is always a good call it isn’t a particularly deep or interesting card. For a good time, call diminishing returns.

Macaroni or Cheese?

Like you even need to ask! This card is pure macaroni. Its unexpected, versatile, puts the kaibosh on all manner of nuisance cards, and gives everyone a fresh 7 to look at.

Friday, September 23, 2011

A Guilty Pleasure

There’s something psychologically infuriating about being beaten by your own monsters - kind of like being beaten to death with your own shoes. So as a rule, I’m not a fan of theft/reanimate strategies (looking at you merieke and mimeoplasm), although I can live with the occasional animate dead or control magic. With this in mind  its somewhat surprising that one of my EDH “gems” is actually a recursive theft card:

Here are ten reasons why helm of possession is awesome:

1. It turns macaroni into cheese - now you can play crappy cards and still win!
2. It’s cheap - 4 mana, 6 if you want to use it - not bad for colourless control magic.
3. It’s a sac outlet - prevent theft of your creatures.
4. It’s a combat trick - instant speed activated ability, which blocker would you like to use today?
5. It’s removal - borrow and sac opponent’s creature, or get that blocker out of the way.
6. It’s from tempest - which is almost as cool as homelands/alliances/fallen empires.
7. It’s a rattlesnake - by leaving 2 mana open, its a strong and visible deterrent to attackers.
8. It’s a use for useless tokens/dorks - topdeck birds of paradise? no problem!
9. It turns losses into profit - chump blocking? creature getting exiled? no problem!
10. It’s an unexpected ability for green and white decks (debt of loyalty notwithstanding).

Macaroni or Cheese?

There is no denying this card is cheesy; playing with other people’s cards is one of the hallmarks of velveeta. I think what makes this card more tolerable than the usual fare is the requirement to sac a creature. It gives the card depth that control magic and blatant thievery will never have, and feels a bit more like you’re “trading” than “stealing”.

I don’t put it in every deck, and I know it can make the table groan, but I figure I’ve built up enough karma that I’m entitled to one or two guilty pleasures ;)


Thursday, September 22, 2011

Lessons from Sygg

I consider Sygg, River Cutthroat to be my defining EDH deck. It’s certainly the one I’ve put the most effort into, and a general I have yet to see anyone else in my playgroups use. I am also proud to say I haven’t seen any decklists online that take the same approach as mine.

Which brings me to one of my “principals of deckbuilding”:

Be Creative.

One of the great things about EDH being a casual, multiplayer format is that you can run sub-optimal cards without feeling like you’re committing to failure. I like to minimize the number of obvious cards I put in my deck (insurrection, demonic tutor, duplicant) and try to squeeze in interesting stuff that doesn’t see as much play (aftershock, mirrorweave, adarkar valkyrie).

In the case of Sygg, an obvious use for him would be to run black and blue cards that ping opponents during their turns to increase your card draw. This could be an interesting deck using macaroni cards like psychic venom, errant minion, and seizures, and might also want some nuisance cards like underworld dreams, forgotten wastes, and polluted bonds. Personally, I wanted something more aggressive than enchantment-based-pinging.

I first took Sygg down the route of mono-black aggro, using him as a personal howling mine that might sometimes draw even more cards if my opponents hit each other. I kept the CMC of cards in the deck around 1-3 so that I could play those extra cards and not just end up discarding them. I focused on doing 3 damage on turn 3, hunting down all kinds of two drops that could deal 3 damage - Oona’s prowler, lurking nightstalker, blind creeper - and a couple of tech equipments like bonesplitter, empyrial plate, and grafted wargear. I supplemented this with all the best 2 and 3 CMC removal spells that black had to offer (chainer’s edict, terror, rend flesh, etc).

Which brings me to one of my “principals of play”:

Keep the game moving.

Multiplayer games can go stale very easily. The “strategic” play is almost always to not attack, since an attacker damages 1 player, while an untapped creature can block the attacks of many. Of course if everyone does this the game becomes an absolute snore-a-thon, so its important to build a deck that does things. Turn those dudes sideways, and kill the things that  prevent you from doing so.

The MBA version of Sygg was great at meeting this philosophy - the problem was its success was overwhelming in star formats and abysmal in free-for-all (the case for most EDH aggro decks). Since I play a pretty even mix of both I knew the deck needed some significant modifications if it was to stand the test of time.

I set about overhauling the deck while trying to stay true to the low-CMC approach and the general idea of playing things out while keeping a full hand. The key modifications that helped bridge the gap between star and FFA games were:

1. Unblockable. The biggest move for the deck was getting off the “3 damage by turn 3” kick and moving instead towards “cheap unblockable guys”. This ranges from inkfathom infiltrator to tough-to-block guys like ogre marauder and nihilith.

2. Counterspells. Not a lot of them and nothing expensive - just enough to get some mileage out of Syggs blue side and give the deck some outs to painful wrath and fog effects.

3. Equipment. Specifically living weapons. The addition of bonehoard, lashwrithe and batterskull has given me 3 reasonably cheap but large creatures that synergize with my unblockables and turn Sygg into a voltron general in the late game if needed.

4. Bounce. Another way to deal with cards that monoblack can’t usually handle - I used to run 3-4 bounce spells but these days I think I’m down to only using wash out.

These changes have turned the deck into a respectable threat in both free-for-all and star formats, and even viable in 1v1. The biggest weakness of the deck is other black decks - as they devalue creatures with fear and cards like terror.

Macaroni or Cheese?

I feel my Sygg deck is at least cheese-free, if not exactly rich in macaroni.

There’s something kind of funny about playing a 1/1 flyer on turn 1 in a 40-life format, and most people have never seen ghastlord of fugue or wake thrasher; but generally the cards in the deck are  not that lulzworthy.

I’d say the best thing about the deck is that it gets the job done without playing many nuisance cards. There are no steal-your-card cards (except 1 animate dead), limited countermagic, no recursion (except 1 nether traitor), no tutors, no combos, and no 1-turn-kill punches. The creatures can usually attack thanks to their evasion and hit hard thanks to equipment. Between that and the spot removal and counters the deck is always “in the game” and “doing things”, which makes it a blast to play.

An Introduction

This is a blog about magic:the gathering's commander format (more affectionately known as EDH).

Like most long-time magic players I’ve had ups and downs with the game. I started playing when I was 14 or 15 (~1996) – my parents randomly bought me a starter kit of 4th edition for Christmas (with the leather bag and blue “life beads” for those who remember). I remember the biggest blunder of learning the game from the rulebook was that I thought you had to pay the casting cost of your creature to untap it. The bombs in my early collection were cards like colossus of sardia, sengir vampire, and personal incarnation.

And like most players I’ve quit and returned to the game multiple times. I’ve played semi-regularly at the U of O Wizard’s Tower, Utopia Games, and Entertainment Ink over the years (although my first ever draft was Legions at Fandom II). My heyday was kamigawa and ravnica – for whatever reason I loved kamigawa block even though I hated anime and most things Japanese. I’ve played pretty steadily now since Zendikar block.

I found out about the EDH format sometime around Zendikar. I didn’t have much of a collection at the time, but the format certainly had its appeal. Decks couldn’t be too slick being 100 card singletons, I’d only really ever need to buy 1 of any card and they’d never rotate, and most importantly it was meant to be a casual format so with a decent playgroup we could have fun without breaking the bank.

My first general was Sapling of Colfenor. I’ve had a love for green/black decks since my earliest magic days…I had a copy of the first issue of Inquest magazine, and the feature deck was a green/black “bayou lightning” deck that featured mana-elves, dark rituals, hypnotic spectres, juggernauts, giant growths, force of nature, sengir vampire, and howl from beyond. I spent a lot of time creating that deck as a kid – I even got my hands on one bayou!

Anyways, I had a great playgroup to start out with and the format was a hit. At peak I had about 16 decks, and was ordering cards online every week to fuel my latest idea for a general. Eventually the guys in my playgroup moved on to other things, but I managed to get my fiancĂ©e into the format and start up a new group, and now I’ve got a blog to post my latest insights and musings on the format and its cards. Hopefully some others find it interesting too!

To kick things off I’d like to share what I consider to be the golden rule of EDH:

Try to win without making anyone else miserable.

A good EDH player will always have this in mind when building a deck and playing games. If you want to win at all costs play another format ;p