Friday, February 25, 2011

FFL mono-green infect magical mystery tour

I’ve been obsessing over the possibilities of infect ever since I read Bennie Smith’s article that references a big Future Future League mystery. Excerpt follows.
I'd been trying to figure out how to solve that dilemma recently when I read something in Tom LaPille's column “Big Sets and Standard”:
"Earlier in this article, I mentioned infect as a strategy that hasn't popped in Constructed yet. There's a green card from Zendikar block that we've found is the key to our infect decks, and I haven't seen anyone out in the real world play a single copy of this particular card in an infect deck yet. (It's not a creature pumping effect.) Don't fret, though — it took us a long time to find it too. In fact, it took us until "Action" was the most recent set in our playtest Standard environment. Our mono-green infect deck that includes the card in question has traveled to several events now with an impressive winning record.
I found this paragraph a tantalizing nugget to toss out there — a puzzling challenge, really. When I first heard about the infect mechanic I thought it was pretty cool, and when I heard the vast majority of Magic pundits dismissing it as too weak right now to be taken seriously in Constructed, it set off opportunity alarm bells in my head…
Bennie goes on to discuss his tries with B/G, mono-green, mono-black, and the lack of ability to “cross the finish line” for both pump-based and his own more resilient builds. Reading Tom’s quote, I had the same reaction Bennie did. What a great challenge!

I brought it up with Elliot, who’d also seen the article but hadn’t dwelled on it long. He’d built a G/u infect deck that was undoubtedly clunky. He’d been using Gigantiform, which was awesome in certain circumstances but I was being adamant about not depending on “pump effect” spells, which in my opinion includes any cards like Gigantiform that, while not technically pump, have the same application: make your dude bigger to get more damage through.

The next step was doing a Gatherer search to look through each green card from Zendikar block - all 104 of them. After compiling a list of interesting possibilities for non-pump super-secret infect-breaking spells, I compared it with Bennie’s. Canopy Cover was on both our lists and Elliot said that was pretty well-known so it seemed too obvious, like Gigantiform. Joraga Treespeaker was only on my list, as Bennie’s list seemed to assume the green spell in question was not a creature. Tom’s quote doesn’t actually rule out creatures, though one might assume since it’s an infect deck that it would, naturally, run poison creatures. The chance that it could be some kind of wacky approach to poison, like a Grafted Exoskeleton deck running fatty green tramplers powered by Ancient Stirrings (a card on both Bennie’s and my list), should be recognized, however unlikely. But for the time being, I put this thought at the back of the queue, promising to revisit it if my tries at the infect creature-based mono-green deck bombed out.

Then I started working on making the deck bomb out.

One of the major problems with death-by-poison is that generally, you absolutely have to make “physical contact” with the opponent in order to take advantage of the double strike effect of infect (the workaround to this is Livewire Lash, which is discussed in a later installment, or proliferate - which, while powerful, seems to encourage an even clunkier end product), and the best poison guys are a little more expensive, a little less powerful than the best regular guys. I felt like consistently getting the guys through was key to having a successful poison deck, to get to “crossing the finish line” as Bennie said.

I decided that I thought the secret card was Irresistible Prey. In the games I’d played against Elliot’s deck, the big problem was that he really couldn’t get his guys through to do me any damage. I always had blockers. Irresistible Prey seemed more subtle than Gigantiform and like something that others might overlook. To complete the Lure/Provoke theme, I decided to run Prized Unicorn.

Yes, Prized Unicorn.

“It’s Gideon Jura on a creature,” I told Elliot, which made it sound less embarrassing.

3 Putrefax
3 Fauna Shaman
3 Corpse Cur
4 Necropede
4 Ichorclaw Myr
4 Rot Wolf
2 Prized Unicorn
3 Quest for Renewal
2 Infiltration Lens
2 Irresistible Prey
2 Vines of Vastwood
4 Primal Bellow
24 Forest

We ran it against B/R Vampires and got killed the first game. The second game I misplayed my turn 3, dropping a Necropede looking to block instead of just swinging in to race with my Ichorclaw Myr. So we ran it back, and I hit with the myr and poisoned the vamps dead on turn 4 with a Primal Bellow and two Vines of Vastwood (so much for not depending on pump spells FTW). Then the baby woke up, and testing of this version was over.

The results were kind of inconclusive since it was just two games and only against one deck. But I got enough feedback to see that not only was this build undependable, it could be really slow and was vulnerable to removal. Vines of Vastwood was great in mono-green, a cheap and effective poison pump. I never got to use Irresistible Prey and the Unicorn was so late to drop I was dead before she did her little trick. Of course, I only have 2 of each of those in the deck because that’s all we had in the basement, so maybe I would try it again with 4 each and some major tweaks.

On the other hand, the deck showed so many shortcomings that I’m tempted to just skip ahead to a B/G discard-control poison strategy, a U/G control evasion-poison strategy, a white Tempered Steel/artifact creature poison strategy… or that wacky, mono-green Grafted Trampling Beasties poison strategy.

This is great – it’s Friday, and I’ve got the whole weekend to develop two or three more infect “bombs”.

Till next time, may Magic be your sword.
(and may Elliot succeed in getting me a playset of every unicorn ever printed)

Thursday, February 17, 2011

how MJ met Magic

My boyfriend and I had been "going out" for almost a year before I knew about his Magic stash, his dirty litte secret.  During our initial dating phase I think he'd alluded to it, but it was vague and whitewashed: "My friends and I played card games sometimes."

It was December 2008 and Portland was enjoying a rare snowstorm.  "Storm" here means any amount of snow on the ground and a lot of hype by the local media.  In this case, the amount of snow was several inches and the city basically shut down.  As ridiculous as this behavior probably sounds to anyone from the midwest, when it comes to snow I'm always grateful for Portland's classic overreaction.  I was born during a snowstorm, I love snow, we never get it.  It brings rural quiet to the city and turns any dingy old yard into a beautiful vista.  Pothole-ridden streets become sledways.  It's mandatory stillness, a reset button.  I cherish snow days.

Near to twilight we were deciding what to do for the evening.  Futurama, Firefly, Rescue Me episodes?  A little jaunt to Green Dragon?  Everything seemed a little tired and redundant.  I was starting to feel resigned to finding entertainment in a few more home-made Manhattans and crashing early, when somehow we got on the topic of embarrassing nerd-outs we did as kids and also video/computer games we wished we had around.

So my boyfriend talked about his favorite author (Neal Stephenson), days as a pubescent Anarchist, and something really nutty called Steam Punk...while I was extolling the virtues of Diablo II and how it got me through part of my depressing first marriage, and sat there sipping Blanton's and telling him I wanted a Super NES now with Link to the Past and Mega Man X.

I'm sure the Dragonlance fixation entered the discussion.  Which probably led me to talk about D&D, how I'd never played it, but always seemed to have known of it...How my dad would take me into Excalibur Games at the old version of Lloyd Center mall and I'd buy D&D action figures just to have <----cool monster dolls.  How I'd buy D20s just to have sparklies!

(note: all women are Jeremies when it comes to pretty things, no matter what they say to the contrary)

After having enough bourbon, and hearing enough of my reminiscing about how surprisingly pleasant all those past geeky, fantasy-laden moments were, he goes:

"Ahem.  I told you I used to play Magic, right?"
"You mean like...Magic cards (what a faux pas, I didn't know it at the time! lol)...?  Like Magic the Gathering?"
"Oh, my god!" I replied with eyes wide. (he looked at me like he wasn't sure if this was a good or bad exclamation, and I can't honestly say I know which it was, either)
"Well, I still have all the cards," he said, seriously and with trepidation, kind of like I imagine Venser would sound if he said anything at that ----> moment.
"You do?  Here?!  Where?" I said, truly flabbergasted; I'd never seen any cards around.
"In the basement."

In the basement.  Like a dungeon.  It was all so dramatic and wonderful.  I smiled.

"Go get them," I said.
"Really?"  He smiled back.

I will skip over a play-by-play of me learning the basics of Magic.  The mana discussion was okay.  The mechanics lesson was aggravating.  My general grasp of it was quick, my application, awkward (my play still is).  When he first walked up the dungeon stairs with his five or six huge white card boxes, I was speechless.  In no time those boxes were opened and all the neatly organized, lovely cards were being plucked out and squinted at by me and my boyfriend was fielding a barrage of questions and enduring a litany of opinionated, feminine exclamations.

"Tap?  What's - oh right, you told me that already.  Damn it.  Well, I like this one."
"Who's Volrath?  The graveyard is where the dead cards go, right?  I really like this."
"Who's Urza?"
"The Kor are anorexic."
"A UNICORN...!!!"

You get the idea.  My boyfriend helped me build a red/white flyers deck, including: Earthquake, Skyknight Legionnaire, Abbey Gargoyles.  He told me about synergy and mana curve and a bunch of other stuff.

It was more fun than anything I'd done in years.  It was like I opened a fantasy novel (how about Time of the Twins, just for favorites sake) and jumped in.  There were dragons, and elves, and UNICORNS...!!!, and scary-looking zombies and vampire royalty and all of these amazing creatures and characters were alive and doing things, in my hand, in my head, on the battlefield.

My boyfriend played an old Reanimator deck he already had built.  Abbey Gargoyles came out victorious.

(note: you are entering a long tangent on horses)

The best metaphor I can come up with for the feeling that I had that night is this: Once when I was 12 or so my mom took my brother and I horseback riding at a local ranch.  They always asked what rider level you were, and we always said "Intermediate" (even though we were barely Beginner) because the Beginner horses were dead-heads, nearly ready for the glue factory, and at least the Intermediate horses would move!  I was stuck in the city, so there wasn't much choice for riding, at least to my parents' knowledge (they are not horse people).  So here we were at this awful little ranch with these poor horses that had to live up to an overzealous city brat's expectations that she'd gotten from books.  In my mind, every horse was going to be my Black Stallion, and these poor geldings just wanted to stand by the water trough and sun their old bones.

Well, we got ole "Sticker", much to our dismay, even though we marked "Intermediate" on the damn paper.  The better horses must have been on lunch.  So here I was, sitting on Sticker, and behind me was my mom and baby brother sitting on some other dead-head pony.  It was a sunny, gorgeous day and the ranch property itself was pretty nice - some wooded hills, mini-valleys, and territorial views.  We moved out slow, plodding along the well-beaten trails (it was a free-ride ranch, as in you just went out on your own, without a guide).  There were white clouds in the sky and little birds in the pines and Sticker and I were having a pretty good time.

Toward the end of the ride, the horses would always get a bit more excited because going back to the barn meant getting fed.  This day was no exception and as we turned in the direction of the ranch office and barn, Sticker's and the pony's ears pricked up.  But this time, my mom turned to the right instead of the left, and we found ourselves on top of a rise with a grassy pasture unfolding below.  The incline was a little steeper than we were used to, and the open field (and the feed buckets) were calling.

Sticker and that pony took off running down that hill.  I had never been so scared or so alive.  I clutched that chestnut mane and tried to balance in the way that heroes did in books.  I was Alec Ramsey, I was a knight, I was on the back of a pegasus.  Sticker was moving like wind; a wild young stallion; a unicorn.  For thirty-two sun-kissed and reckless seconds, we were free.

That is what I felt like the first night I played Magic.

This is what I still feel like when we play Magic.  The boyfriend is now my husband.

It's good to have a sparkly that sets you free when you need it.  My advice is to find one, and keep it.