Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Pursuit of “Casual” and the Discovery of a Dead End

I have a very love/hate relationship with constructed magic. I have twice bought-in to standard thinking it would be fun (kamigawa/ravnica and zendikar/scars), and twice been soundly disappointed at the return on my investment. My main beef with constructed is how the vast majority of the cardpool is simply unplayable. A handful of decks emerge as the competitive options, and you play those or you lose. This is anathema to someone who gets most of their joy in magic from building decks and looking for creative ways to use marginal cards.

I’ve largely resolved this issue by playing limited formats, including developing a limited variant called “league” which is like constructed with a very limited cardpool. While I’ve turned my back on constructed for the most part, I’ve kept trying to make EDH work since its the “casual” constructed format. This blog has largely been about articulating what my idea of casual is, but as time goes on I think its becoming clear that there is no such thing as casual magic.

Casual means some variant of “fun” and “not competitive”, but any way you slice it the definition is in the eye of the beholder. In my earliest EDH days I wanted to ban loxodon warhammer, then maze of ith, and even pulse of the fields. As time went on my distastes changed, but the principal stayed the same - there are a lot of things I don’t like seeing in a “casual” game that your average player probably has no issue with. As of this moment, I can think of at least 13 things I don’t want to see in my “casual” EDH games:

1. No mass land destruction
2. No mana screw (winter orb, targeting signets, vorinclex)
3. No tuck spells on generals
4. No infinite / game-ending combos
5. No nuisance “counting” cards (lord of extinction, chaos moon, multani, etc)
6. No repeatable graveyard abuse (mimeoplasm, karador, genesis)
7. No mass tokens
8. No (or maybe minimal) tutors
9. No eldrazi (annihilator is basically mass LD)
10. No stupid-in-multiplayer cards (mind’s eye)
11. No nuisance “random” cards (grip of chaos, confusion in the ranks)
12. No 1-shot generals
13. No abusive/chronic triggers (rhystic study, genesis)

And that’s not counting individual cards I loathe like mindslaver or merieke ri berit.

With no less than 13 extra rules required, its clear that turning EDH into a format that I could truly enjoy is just not possible. Even if I could define everything I’d take out of the game, who in their right mind would want to make decks for such a stripped down, arbitrary format? Which doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with EDH, it just means “casual” doesn’t really mean anything and it certainly doesn’t address my issues with constructed formats. So I’ll probably hang up my EDH decks for a while and focus on limited/league play, at least until I feel the masochistic call of standard or the familiar itch of EDH again.

Monday, December 12, 2011


Versatility is an excellent quality of a card in any format, but especially in multiplayer EDH. Cards like beast within and profane command are great in EDH because they’re almost always the right card for the situation. Magic has a long list of cards that let you do one of several things, dating back to shapeshifter - but its probably best represented by the various charms in the game.

I believe charms were first printed in visions, but have seen several iterations throughought magic. They range from relatively weak monocolour options like funeral charm to more powerful three-colour options like bant charm. An aside - I once played a cromat deck with every 3 coloured charm in the game and every split card from dissension, made for some very complicated sunforger decisions!

The recent pack of 3-colour charms from alara block all have some EDH application, but there are obviously a very limited number of decks you can put them in. If you happen to be playing a certain shard, you probably already look at the cards specific to that shard as part of your deck-building. It’s more interesting to look at the generally less-powerful mono-colour charms, as they can find homes in a huge number of EDH decks.

For this post I’d like to focus on an underrated charm that probably should see more play in EDH:

Dawn charm gives you three reactive options, all of which are quite strong in multiplayer EDH.

I’ve found myself slipping more and more fog effects into my decks, snapping up a copy of darkness and developing quite the friendship with constant mists. Preventing all damage is an underrated ability in general but especially in EDH where its one of the few options to survive an insurrection or entwined savage beating.

Regenerate is less exciting as most EDH removal either sacrifices, exiles, or explicitly says “cannot be regenerated” (wrath of god, decree of pain). It can function as a kill spell when creatures would otherwise trade, and once in a while turn a wrath into a fail if regenerating is an option (inferno).

Counter a spell that targets you ranges from meh to awesome. Blocking a cruel ultimatum is certainly nice, but mainly this works because holding 2 mana up means you can fog, regenerate, or counter - where holding up mana for a negate has a much more limited application.

Macaroni or Cheese

I certainly wouldn’t put dawn charm in every deck, but it is a nice complement to sunforger and better than holy day if you’re looking for a fog effect outside of green. It is fantastic if it fogs an insurrection, good if it saves your dude from a kill spell, and once in a while clutch when it blocks a cruel ultimatum

Monday, December 5, 2011

New Kids on the Block

When Wizards of the Coast decided to officially endorse EDH as the “Commander format” it understandably released new product to generate some profits from the endorsement. The five commander precons gave new players a very solid starting block for the format, including some old staples like sol ring, while introducing a whack of new cards designed specifically for multiplayer EDH.

Personally, I dislike the join forces cards and the other pure multiplayer cards like death by dragons. I like my cards to have subtler multiplayer applications (liliana’s spectre, syphon soul). Regardless, the introduction of 15 new legendary creatures was far more important to the format than the other commander-specific creations. This was a huge bump in playable generals for the various enemy colour pairs and especially enemy colour shards, but was it all good for the format?

By my estimation of the 15 new generals Wizards introduced, half were good and half were bad, with 3 being very well designed and 4 being terrible for EDH games everywhere. 

The Very Good

1. Tariel, Reckoner of Souls
While too much random is incredibly annoying (grip of chaos, confusion in the ranks), a little bit can be a lot of fun. Capricious efreet is a card I often want to play, but just ends up cut because there are better removal options available. I find Tariel is in the sweet spot of a “little bit” of random. He’s a fun card because the randomness isn’t a nuisance, in fact it keeps the usual nuisance of monitoring graveyards (teneb, mimeoplasm) under control since you usually can’t guarantee what you’ll get with his ability. He also leaves the deck up to the builder, as there is nothing he needs to work. Just run a little removal you should be playing anyways, and voila - business.

2. Skullbriar, the Walking Grave
I like cheap generals and I’ve always liked whirling dervish. The drawback for dervish (and slith for that matter) is that it takes too long for the +1+1 counters to matter in a 40 life format. By the time your little horseman gets to 5/5 it ends up getting outclassed or swept off the battlefield. Skullbriar solves this problem by retaining his counters, which also means he scales well when re-cast from the command zone. Haste is also a fantastic general ability, and actually pretty rare for both black and green creatures. I really like this guy as a black/green general.

3. Ruhan of the Fomorii
Another example of the “little bit of random” being fun. A 7/7 stays relevant through an EDH game, and is actually in the sweet spot of 3-shotting someone with general damage like the original elder dragons. Obviously that’s offset by not picking your target, so all around a pretty fair general - also a lot of fun to say “its not my fault!” whenever you whack someone for 7. 

The Okay

1. Basandra, Battle Seraph
Basandra is neat because her two abilities work reasonably well on their own, but can also be built around in your deck. On the downside the no-casting-during-combat abilitiy is probably more annoying than it is fun, while on the upside who doesn’t love nettling imp? She suffers because I’ve found red/white as a colour combination is quite boring no matter what you do, but I have no problem with the card per-se.

2. Damia, Sage of Stone
I feel like there are probably degenerate combos possible with Damia, but I like to instead think of her as an incentive to play lots of cheap crap spells and dump your hand over and over again. At 7 mana he’s a rough cast and will rarely survive the round to net you cards but if she does you’ve got the business. To the extent she’s used to play large quantities of cheap cards, I like it. To the extent she’s used to fuel degenerate combos, I hate it.

3. Nin, the Pain Artist
This is some interesting design space if nothing else. I don’t see anything degenerate or overpowered, just a strange combination of damage and card draw that always makes you question if the payoff is worth the drawback. Definitely more interesting than Tibor and Lumia as a r/u general, and less degenerate than #1 Niv-Mizzet. 

4. Zedruu, the Greathearted
Again, interesting design space for players. He’s an alternative to pheldagriff for group-hug players, and an interesting political card for those wanting to dabble more heavily in that area of multiplayer. I think most would agree he’s an overcosted card with an overcosted/marginal ability, but still has a niche in EDH. 

The Bad

1. Karador, Ghost Chieftan
We’re lucky this guy isn’t blue, because with any decent self-mill he’d be unbearably annoying. Even in his colours he offers a tremendous amount of synergy and the potential for degenerate recursion cycles. He’s not in the awful category because his graveyard shenanigans are restricted to the owners graveyard, but he’s not good either because free cards from the yard just enables too many stupid possibilities (hi eternal witness).

2. Kaalia of the Vast
Kaalia’s problem is that she is just too damn boring. Your deck design options go down the toilet as you just end up playing the usual cast of EDH-proven dragons, demons, and angels, with an uninspired mix of mana artifacts, removal spells, and maybe some evasion equipment. What makes EDH tribal decks neat is that they usually have to be creative to be viable in multiplayer; Kaalia’s tribe is basically the best EDH creatures there are, so there’s no creativity or further synergy required. 

3. Animar, Soul of Elements
Like Kaalia, Animar suffers from my-deck-built-itself syndrome. Add lots of creatures including fatties that benefit from cost reduction and stir. Like Kaalia, Animar asks you to overextend; unlike Kaalia, Animar becomes exponentially worse each time you have to re-cast him. Since his power lies in you having played a lot of spells, he is pretty weak on the 2nd and 3rd re-casts as he hits the table as a 1/1. Animar is the double whammy of being a boring and bad general (although to give him his due he can take a massive dump on black/white decks if they don’t resolve a wrath).

4. Edric, Spymaster of Trest
Edric looks interesting, but falls into a group-hug trap of mass card draw. The problem with everyone drawing oodles of cards is that means everyone has virtually unlimited threats and answers, so none of them end up mattering. People running out of threats or answers is generally what defines a game of magic - all players having limitless resources means someone needs to combo out or have a truly un-answerable win condition to bring the game to a close. I don’t like 3 hour marathon games so I don’t like this sort of environment. I even play an edric deck (extreme aggro to offset the stalemate possibility) and I’d rather the card was never printed.

The Absolutely Terrible

1. The Mimeoplasm
The ultimate nuisance general. I do not like this card at all, and hate playing against it. Where Tariel is on the good side of graveyard shenanigans, mimeoplasm is miles away on the bad. Blue gives it access to cheap mill/looter effects like windfall so that when it comes out its almost always a 10/10 or bigger with some ETB effect or a combination of haste/shroud/flying/trample that make it a nightmare to deal with. Its nice that it exiles fatties from graveyards so others can’t do shenanigans, but that doesn’t come close to offsetting this card’s “answer-me-or-die” impact on the game. 

2. Vish Kal, Blood Arbiter
Vish Kal is a card that just has way too much going for it. Both abilities costing no mana is absurd, as is having both flying and lifelink paired with a massive self-pump ability. He basically gives all of your creatures “fling for free” while making it very unlikely you will lose to normal combat damage due to massive lifegain. You can easily 2-shot someone with general damage by saccing a creature or two to pump him. But the ultimate coup-de-grace is that he is immune to tuck spells and theft, a power previously reserved for atogatog. His only drawbacks are being in a fairly lousy colour pair and costing 7 mana to get started, which are nothing compared to his benefits. Compare this guy to ghost council of orzhova and you can see how easy it is for wizards to go too far with their new legendary commander creatures.

3. Riku of the Two Reflections
I really wanted to like Riku. He was a big reason I bought the mirror mastery precon, but he’s just not fun. You either get away with your doubling and run away with the game, or riku gets wiped away immediately everytime and you struggle to do anything meaningful. The doubling creature effect is also a nuisance as you end up with all kinds of tokens on the board and having to remember what they are. He’s close to the answer-me-or-die general type, although it is somewhat reliant on what’s in your hand. Definitely unfun to play against, and a bit too powerful to really enjoy piloting.

4. Ghave, Guru of Spores
Ghave himself isn’t really that bad, it’s more the deck he needs you to make. To be at all effective he needs you to play cards that make tokens, and token decks are almost as annoying as graveyard-abuse decks. A field full of dice and face down cards that are bears, saprolings, soldiers, myrs, and god-knows-what-else is just plain annoying to look at. At least he doesn’t include red, which would enable threaten+sac combos, and his skills cost mana unlike vish kal’s. Ultimately it doesn’t matter because mass tokens alone is enough of a nuisance to give him 2 thumbs down.

Macaroni or Cheese?
Wizards split these guys 50/50 between mac and cheese, which isn’t bad considering how it could have gone. Sadly it looks like this might be the best they could do, as their next gogo gadget commander looks to leave mimeoplasm and vish kal in the dust for retardedness:

Double cascade, 7/5 haste giving all creatures (that you’ll likely cascade into) haste? hurr durr... this will be the #1 legitimizer of people playing and tutoring for their spell crumples. Also note there is nothing legendary about this card except that by being legendary it will fetch a far higher price. The bar just went a lot lower for wizards.