Monday, October 24, 2011

Constant vigilance!

Vigilance is one of the strongest and probably most underrated abilities in EDH. Being able to attack and defend with the same creatures gets better and better with each additional opponent - making it good in star games and fantastic in free-for-all. I’d consider it generally underrated because the most playable vigilance creatures tend to have other, more noticeable abilities (stonehewer giant, twilight shepherd). If a creature just says “vigilance” its probably not great for EDH - although it’d be a nice 4th edition throwback to run yotian soldier in some kind of equipment or artifact deck.

In my early EDH days I actually ran a “vigilance” deck using Johan as my commander, capitalizing on cards like mossbridge troll and glare of subdual. As you can imagine a 6 mana serra’s blessing is not exactly the hotness and the deck was good for a laugh but not much else. I think Johan would be interesting if he was like a 1/7 defender with hexproof. As printed though he might as well have defender, dies to everything, and at 5/4 is a pretty lousy blocker.

Lately I’ve been musing over a true vigilance deck with something like Ith or Konda as a general. The problem is there are only about 20 EDH-worthy creatures that have vigilance, and while most are monowhite some of the best ones require red and green (godsire, megalanoth, bull ceradon). For the theme to be noticeable you’d have to expand the creature base to include crap like abbey griffin, and while it would be unexpected, it would also be crap, and a true macaroni card should be both unexpected and relevant.

While the vigilance deck isn’t quite there yet, I’m still thinking cards that grant vigilance are probably better than I give them credit for. The obvious one would be serra’s blessing, but there’s a much better option at half the cost and twice the power level that I’ve played in a few decks over the years:

I am pretty sure the printing of reconnaissance was a mistake. The reminder text on the card suggests wizards wanted you to have to choose between dealing damage and untapping your creature - not do both. But magic is a tricky, technical game with more phases and sub-phases than most players realize. “Combat” breaks down (roughly) like this:

1. Declare combat (no more sorceries until after combat, last chance to tap down possible attackers)
2. Declare attackers (“when X attacks” triggers go off)
3. Declare blockers (“when X blocks” triggers go off)
4. Damage resolves (does not use the stack, no responses allowed)
5. End of combat

You can cast spells and use abilities anywhere along the chain except step 4, but it’s the 5th step that matters for reconnaisance. At this point your creatures are still considered to be “attacking creatures” and thus still eligible to be untapped with reconnaisance. This will of course have no effect on damage dealt/received as that step already happened - effectively giving all of your creatures vigilance.

Although this step rarely matters, it was actually useful in scars of mirrodin limited with the card dispense justice. A player could block to kill off any small attackers, taking damage from a larger one, and then after damage (and death) cast dispense justice forcing the attacker to sac his big creature assuming it was the only “attacking creature” remaining. Not a frequent use of the card, but often a relevant one.

The end-step vigilance trick is of course an unintentional side-effect of reconnaisance. It still preforms its originally intended purpose of making you immune to combat tricks and able to swing with reckless abandon, removing anything in danger of dying from combat for the low, low cost of zero mana. On an enchantment that costs one mana, this is already a huge ability - the unintentional addition of serra’s blessing onto the card makes it bonkers.

Macaroni or Cheese

I like this card for how it enables a player to turn guys sideways with impunity, but I do not believe wizards ever intended the card to be able to do what it does. While it wasn’t banned or errata’d, its in the same club with jitte, mindsculptor, and rancor - even if it is by far the least offensive of the group.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Out of control

One of the nice things about EDH is that control decks don’t really work. A control strategy relies on locking the opponent out of the game by removing, stealing, or neutralizing everything they play with versatile or catch-all answers (e.g. counterspells), generating incremental card advantage, and then at some point playing a single threat and protecting it on the way to victory. With multiple opponents its just not feasible to lock down the board nor to protect a single threat to victory.

At the core of control’s weakness in EDH is the weakness of counterspells in multiplayer. They are, for the most part, a 1-for-1 tradeoff. In 1v1 this is fine since a single counter can often invalidate the opponent’s entire turn, helping the control player reach the late-game where they can play their one threat and simultaneously protect it. In multiplayer there are just too many spells coming from too many angles for counterspells to create a lockdown. You’ll probably get more “control” in multiplayer playing a vigilance creature than playing counterspells.  

While you can’t pile a bunch of counterspells into a control deck, they can still be valuable cards for their ability to answer “anything”. The most powerful EDH counterspell is probably draining whelk, but my personal favourite hearkens back to magic’s official climate change set:

Arcane denial is awesome because of its mana cost and the card draw. 1U counters usually have a drawback in terms of what they can counter (negate) or whether they can counter the spell at all (mana leak, unified will). Arcane Denial gets right down to business and stops any spell in its tracks, no questions asked, with the 1U cost making it a lot more friendly for 3 colour decks than a straight up counterspell.

Of course the more important feature of arcane denial is all the card drawing that takes place. First of all it replaces itself, so you never really lose anything by countering a spell. Secondly, you’re opponent gets to draw 2 cards which should go a long way towards avoiding any hate. I mean hey, you’re technically giving him card advantage - he should thank you!

The best way to play arcane denial is to save it for spells that are clearly and specifically going to hurt you: a wrath effect when you have a lot of guys, a sacrifice effect when you’re riding an indestructible to victory, an austere command when your board has 4 enchantments. In these scenarios giving 2 cards is a small price to pay for thwarting one of the few cards that can really hurt your board position. With its card draw you can also just play it whenever you feel its amusing to do so, but at least it offers some strategic depth if you’re willing to take advantage of it.

Macaroni or Cheese?

This card is one of the few “peacemaker” cards I really like.  Counterspells are great when they stop something like insurrection, but can be brutally annoying when played pre-emptively (I feel like that akroma is going to be attacking me, so I counter it now). Denial gives you all the benefits of stopping big cheese, while also taking the edge off of those pre-emptive counters for your opponents.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Some victories... are not really victories

If you’ve played any amount of multiplayer magic, you’ve probably noticed that its quite common for the player who seems to be the worst in the beginning end up winning in the end. I’m pretty sure the not-so-secret secret to multiplayer success is to do as little as possible for as long as possible, conserving resources and avoiding attention until you’re able to pounce on a table of exhausted and eliminated opponents.

Of course if everyone tries to do this the game goes nowhere, so I consider it a point of pride to always be “doing things” in EDH games. Unless I’m mana screwed, I’ll keep throwing down permanents and turning them sideways and wrath effects be damned. If I lose I’ll take stock of what I accomplished and be sure to point out when I did more damage than the rest of the table combined (which may be why I’m dead, but what can you do?).

While its bad enough for a slow start or cautious player to snooze their way to a win, I consider it much worse to see a player win off the back of the ultimate do-nothing-and-still-win card:

Insurrection is worse than a slow-roll-to-victory because there is so little that can be done to effectively stop it. None of the damage can be blocked, so the only real responses are counterspells, our friend homeward path, or fog effects - although saccing all your creatures to something like goblin bombardment in response can also help take the edge off (I don’t even like to think about what happens if the insurrection player himself has a sac outlet on the table). On top of all this, the easiest way to play around the card is... yes... play as few threats as possible: barf.  

The card gets even more unfair in star games, where the caster steals the creatures of 4 other players and then focuses the attack on 2. I find it hard to believe anyone ever really feels good about winning with this card (unless perhaps someone else was about to win with an even more degenerate strategy), and have thus removed it from all of my decks.

Macaroni or Cheese

Even when you topdeck it to win an otherwise unwinnable game, it just has a massive case of “who cares?”. There’s nothing cheeky or skillful about casting this, its as brainless and cheesy as multiplayer cards come.

Friday, October 14, 2011

One shot one kill

One of my favourite things about Sygg, River Cutthroat as a general is that he’s just so damn cheap to play. The average EDH general is probably 6 CMC, so I feel like I can basically play sygg twice for “free”. It’s also nice to always have a turn 2 play (that isn’t a signet) to feel like you’re running out of the gate. Sygg is a great turn 2 play because he doesn’t really draw hate from your opponents. He’s a slow card-draw engine that beats face for a whopping 1 damage (grafted wargear notwithstanding!).

However, its just one notch up the food chain to the 3-4 CMC generals where you start to see the monsters that do draw hate. Cards like Mereike and Brion come down early and can dominate the board with just a little bit of support from their decks. These cards will annoy the hell out of the table then come back to do it over and over again thanks to their cheap CMCs.

And while “steal your dudes” generals are among the lowest of the low, sometimes there’s not much practical difference between that and a four CMC general who comes down swinging a giant sword for 8+ damage while other people are still playing signets:

Rafiq may just be the best all-around general in EDH. He is effectively an 8/4 for 4 that is very hard to beat in combat and an absolute monster whem pumped up with other spells/auras/equipment. Beyond access to every cheesy tuck spell in the game, his colours provide protection to keep him alive, and mana ramp to easily return him to play when he dies. Where a cheap general like Sygg politely converts small amounts of damage into cards, Rafiq comes out and kills people in 3 hits (hell, 1 with might of oaks). You have to look to cards like Ruhan and Karona to see that kind of kill power in a general, and both of those have major drawbacks and worse colours.

And therein lies the problem with Rafiq; he’s just a little too badass for his own good. Once the table realizes they have to kill him or die, and that they’ll have to kill him over and over again, they’ll probably decide its easier to just kill the guy summoning Mr. Rafiq (e.g. you) instead. This can quickly create an unpleasant play environment where you have to focus your opponents down one at a time (vs the usual, more equitable practice of spreading the love around) to keep them from ganging up and taking you out.

Because of race-to-the-bottom scenarios like this I usually just avoid playing “deal with me or die” generals (red akroma, karrthus, omnath). However, I’m currently testing out Rafiq to see if its possible to play him in a less threatening way. In a clearly inferior use of the card I’m applying his doublestrike and exalted to things like augury adept and hydra omnivore, while playing some of the more entertaining bant cards like mistmeadow witch and cytoshape. The swing-for-8 option is still there if I need it, but it is to be used sparingly and as a last resort.

Macaroni or Cheese?
While I’m trying to use him in an interesting way, when push comes to shove Rafiq is a bastard plain and simple, completely deserving of the cheese stamp:

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Come at me Bro! A rant against 1v1 EDH

It drives me nuts to see people playing 1v1 EDH and running EDH tournaments. To me the format is only interesting because it is casual and multiplayer. If you reduce it to its other characteristics - command zone, colour identity, singletons, etc it just becomes another iteration of constructed formats like standard, modern, and legacy. The room for creativity evaporates and a huge number of cards go from being amusing to unplayable. I’ll play 1v1 sometimes to test out a deck idea (seeing it as a small step up from goldfishing) but my decks are all fundamentally multiplayer and most preform horribly in an actual 1v1 game.

The biggest problem with taking casual EDH and trying to play 1v1 is that it is practically impossible to play casually with just 2 players. The defining aspect of “casual” is playing cards you wouldn’t usually play if you were focused on winning the game. Without an audience or potential allies there’s no incentive to run these sub-optimal cards. There’s nobody to applaud you or take it easy on you for playing icatian town, and there’s no downside to playing douchery cards like elesh norn or grave pact. In the world of 1v1 choosing to play silly or cute cards and avoiding the cutthroat stuff just means you get to consistently concede by turn 8.

In multiplayer you can generally skimp on the removal cards and/or play more marginal/expensive ones. In 1v1 you do not have the luxury of either, as every problem is your problem. Opponent got progenitus out? Its up to you to draw that wrath. Debtor’s knell ticking away every turn? Hope you put enough disenchants in your deck. Efficient, versatile removal spells are critical in 1v1, ideally with tutors to find the right one for the current problem. While retribution and mirrorweave are flavourful and interesting multiplayer cards, 1v1 demands only the top-notch (predictable) removal like swords to plowshares and control magic. Besides making every deck look very similar regardless of general, this also further restricts the number of cards that are realistically playable in 1v1 EDH.

What sets multiplayer apart is that it cannot truly be competitive due to the politics involved. The player with the strongest deck will often become a shared target for the lesser players, and no deck really stands a chance 2v1 or 3v1. Trying to play competitively in multiplayer - i.e. focusing on the win - is actually counterproductive and usually infuriating. The only way to play effectively in multiplayer is to first and foremost play amusing cards and try to have some laughs, with winning as a peripheral objective. What sets EDH apart from say, standard multiplayer, is how its cardpool, deckbuilding restrictions, and increased life totals embrace and enable the use of obscure cards.

Ultimately there’s no real harm in people doing their 1v1 EDH and their EDH tournaments. It just irks me that players need to take the one real casual format and try to turn it into a competitive snore-a-thon.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

The Brood

As a 40 life singleton format, Commander is not a very friendly place for cheap, efficient beaters. The format was designed in part to provide a home for high mana cost, interesting but otherwise-unplayable cards. Magic history is littered with interesting cards (usually rares) that are just too expensive to play in constructed formats. EDH was developed in large part to give those cards a home.

With this in mind, anytime you play a creature that costs less than six mana in EDH it had better have a very interesting or powerful ability (swarm and theme decks notwithstanding) because odds are its power/toughness is going to be quickly outclassed. Indirik Stomphowler for example is a valuable card not because he’s a 4/4, but because he is a naturalize and a body that can be sacrificed, equipped, or used as a chump blocker. Once those 7CMC fatties start hitting the table his main value is going to be absorbing one attack - not dishing out damage.

One of the most interesting of these beaters-with-a-cool-ability came out of coldsnap:

The problem with the Saurian is a lot of the time he is literally a 4/4 for 4. While sometimes this is aggressive enough to deal some damage, usually within 2 turns he has been outclassed around the table and is relegated to chump-block or sac-fodder status. Unlike a stomphowler where you’ve already gotten value and don’t mind this - the Brood does his thing the longer he sits on the table, so you don’t really want to sac him.

Despite this drawback, its almost a classic magic scenario where you find yourself thinking “if only I topdeck brooding saurian I could turn the game around”. Between the black mage’s reanimation and the blue mage’s control magics people are almost always using the property of others in their quest for wizardly dominance. The thing is nobody actually plays brooding saurian, so you never actually get to see that miraculous topdeck turnaround.

Now I am focusing on the Saurian but to be fair there are two other cards in his class that deserve mentioning: Brand and Homeward Path. Brand is awesome as its instant speed and can cycle if you have no use for the ability. The downside is it only goes off once, and only affects you (well, that could be an upside for example if you just cast reins of power).

Homeward path is a recent addition to Commander that in my opinion is just a little too strong for its own good. I really feel like its a no-brainer to drop homeward path in most EDH decks since the drawbacks are virtually nil. As a land its a hell of a lot more resilient than a creature, tapping for mana is always useful, its instant speed like brand, and gets creatures which most of the time are what people are moving around the table anyways.  While it gets the job done, its a pretty bland way to do it. You will get a lot more props for rocking the Brood or Brand.

Macaroni or Cheese?

Brooding Saurian is a defining element of a good macaroni salad. Its something you probably shouldn’t play, but can be hilarious when you do.

Monday, October 3, 2011

It’s a Miracle!

In the early days of magic white was home to one of the first reanimation spells in resurrection. While dragging corpses back into battle would eventually become thoroughly black through cards like dread return, zombify, and vigor mortis, white gets the occasional resurrection throwback in cards like marshall's anthem.

And while its cool to run out an anthem or resurrection, its even cooler to play the white reanimator that outshines even the top notch black options:

What makes miraculous recovery so good is that it’s instant speed and permanent. Black does instant speed but usually with an exile at end of turn requirement (e.g. goryo’s vengeance), and its permanent reanimation is (I think) universally sorcery speed (e.g. vigor mortis).

There are two obvious advantages to instant speed - being able to “wait and see” if you need to play anything else before reanimating at end-of-turn, and being able to run out a surprise blocker. In a deck with a lot of enter-the-battlefield effects you also get instant speed access to those (hello instant-speed Ixidron!).

The +1+1 counter is probably irrelevant most of the time, but if you want to get really cute I'm sure you can find a whole battalion of guys who get more than just a pump out of that counter (phantom nishoba, twilight drover).

Macaroni or Cheese?

Reanimation is fairly routine in EDH - but white instant speed reanimation is anything but.