That most dignified of keywords

In testing for the upcoming PTQ here in San Jose, I’ve been using this gal:
It’s awesome, by the way. It also reminded me of the same feeling I had when I was running this lady at the Superstars Standard $1K:
Specifically, exalted is a brilliant keyword. Why is that?
In his recent article Rethinking Investment Theory: Everything Has Haste, Zac Hill discussed the way in which Sorceries and Instants beat out the random beater, by dint of having an immediate effect – effectively, “they have haste.” Thus the title. I tend to agree with Zac’s concept that a straight-up, wait-a-turn investment in a creature is kind of disappointing. This is why I tend to prefer creatures that have comes-into-play effects or have some other potential immediate value (e.g. Eternal Witness and Sakura-Tribe Elder, respectively).
Exalted is, much of the time, an immediate ROI, regardless of what else is going on with the creature in question. In the case of Battlegrace Angel, the immediate value is twofold, as by buying into the 4/4 flyer for next turn, you also get +1/+1 and lifelink for whatever you had in play this turn. This was brilliant much of the time in Standard (and has me, tangentially, thinking about playing Battlegraces as finishers in Extended).
In the more subtle case of my testing with Noble Hierarch, I found that the presence of the exalted keyword changed all my late-game Hierarchs from terrible draws (cf Birds of Paradise) into value draws. Now instead of a mana developer that you no longer need, you have something that reads “G: Give a solitary attacker +1/+1.” Clearly you wouldn’t play that on its own, but it means you suddenly have a topdeck that can do all sorts of things – like, for example, winning a Tarmogoyf war.
Over on Five with Flores, Michael J referred to his old article The Breakdown of Theory, which discusses the three-phase model of a Magic game. The phases are, briefly:
Phase 1: Manascrew (aka mana development)
Phase 2: Interactive play
Phase 3: Noninteractive play
Cards that get you out of phase 1 traditionally suck when you draw them post-phase 1. The presence of the exalted keyword converts Hierarch from a phase-1-only card to a card that has some value in all phases of the game.
So that’s why I’m so high on exalted right now. All in one concise little package, it solves the dual problems of delayed ROI from a creature and of mana smoothing being a poor late-game topdeck. That’s impressive for one little keyword.

My Elspeth algorithm…

…looks something like this:
When I first saw Elspeth I was most excited by her first ability, which both upped her Loyalty and made guys. Because, hey, making lots of creatures is good! However, in practice, I’ve found that the correct use for Elspeth is outlined above.

A Planeswalker’s Guide to Alara

In his most recent Savor the Flavor column, Doug Beyer thanks a reader for their appreciation of A Planeswalker’s Guide to Alara, and urges us to buy a copy to support production of more books like this in the future.
My response to this was a big old “What?” followed by “Hey, awesome.” Here’s the cover:
This is basically an “art of” book for Alara, akin to “art of” books for movies. Here’s the product blerb:
You are a planeswalker, one of the most powerful mages in the multiverse. Countless planes of existence are yours to master. Now you have arrived on the fractured plane of Alara. Where do you begin?You begin with this lavishly illustrated guide that brings the Shards of Alara to life and gives MAGIC: THE GATHERING fans a look behind the scenes with concept art and insider information available nowhere else.The Planeswalker Guides will feature full-color illustrations drawn from early concept art and final card art to bring the worlds of MAGIC: THE GATHERING to life.
That’s from the Amazon product page
Wizards did an art of book for one of the Magic cycles years ago (my friend has a copy, but I’m currently blanking on the set in question), and after seeing the occasional excerpts from their style guides from time to time, I’ve really been wanting them to bring out new ones to go with each new set. This new book sounds like pretty much what I was looking for, and I’m glad to hear about it, although I’m a little surprised it wasn’t better publicized. I’m putting in my Amazon order now, and I’ll post a review as soon as I receive it and have a chance to look through it.
Good stuff.

Help a pudding out

While you’re kitting out your Shards of Alara purchases, you may want to stop by ebay seller deathtopudding. I do not know this person, but as of this post they have a feedback of 100% and a feedback rating of 99, and as they say in their listings:
“Recently, a mix up in the an order for Shards of Alara product has left my store with more product than it can afford (Long story involving a duplicate order form). As a result, I will be listing tons of Shards of Alara cards at firesale prices. However, I’m going to have to require payment within 48 hours. This is because I need the money to pay off the massive credit card debt this error left me with, and I want to avoid the ridiculous interest rates on late payments.”
The prices really are low for a decent subset of Alara cards, so it’s worth taking a look. You can pick up some of the Ultimatums, Vein Drinkers, Realm Razers, and other fun cards, all for genuinely cheap prices. Help a pudding, help yourself.

Buying Shards of Alara

Now that Shards of Alara is fully and officially spoiled (you can check it out the way I do by clicking here), it’s time to look at buying some cards. Ben Bleiweiss over at Star City Games runs a regular feature in his Insider Trading column called “The Financial Value of X” for each new set. This is premium (that is, paid) content, but if you have an SCG subscription, it’s one of the more valuable ways to countercheck your own thoughts on what might be worthwhile. Click here to read “The Financial Value of Shards of Alara”.
How I buy from a set
I have a standard procedure I now follow when each new Magic expansion comes out. First, I buy a full playset of commons and uncommons from the set (a playset is, conventionally, four of each card). This is by far the most affordable way to pick up these cards, and it saves me the hassle of trying to decide which commons and uncommons may be useful — this is especially important since cards in this rarity range can unexpectedly turn out to be really important to a build, and traders on-site at events like PTQs often don’t stock many or even any cards that aren’t rare. Second, I review the set and decide which of the rares I plan on buying separately. I pick up rares based on the formats in which I expect to play, as well as what I might play in those formats. For the moment, for example, there isn’t a block season or a lot of block events going on, so I haven’t given much thought to what the Shards block environment would be like. Standard is pretty wide open, so I’m likely to think about the full range of deck options there, even though I tend toward certain archetypes more than others. Over in Extended, I know I will be playing some Rock-like build, so I’m not even thinking about picking up cards from Shards that will work well with Affinity.
Whenever I talk about buying here, I am talking about Ebay, by the way. Ebay has consistently been the cheapest, most reliable source for playsets and singles since I returned to the game. I know some people are generally suspicious of Ebay, but I have had no bad experiences there. I imagine it helps to pay assiduous attention to the feedback people have received. The one “neutral” experience I had was a guy who lagged in sending cards out until I opened a Paypal complaint against him. That strikes me as a fine and low ratio of “problem to good experience”, given how often I used the service.
How I review a set
When I’m looking at some grouping of cards, whether it’s a new set, all the cards in Extended, the cards available in Lorwyn-Shadowmoor block, or something else, I go to Gatherer and sort the cards by cost. After some tinkering around, I found this was the most useful sort to go with, as it most directly serves the needs of figuring out “Which of these cards am I actually going to play, and how often?” Utility cards tend to live toward the low-cost end of things, whereas once you’re crawling up toward the top of the cost (the bottom of the Gatherer list), you’re looking at either the full-on casual-only Timmy cards, build-around-me cards or finishers that you use sparingly.
I look through the whole set to get a feel for what’s useful, then check out what Ben Bleiweiss has to say about it, then return to Gatherer review things a second time, noting which rares I want to buy, and how many copies of each.
Click through to the extended entry for my current buy list, with explanations.

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Bombs and Charms — more Shards of Alara previews, and they’re both solid

It’s felt a little bit like the recent spate of spoilers I’ve seen have been rife with Timmy cards. As most of my actual play is in tournaments, and I usually test out as a Johnny, that’s pretty much the one demographic chunk I usually don’t fit.
This week we have two great preview cards:
As BDM tells us in this week’s edition of The Week That Was, you probably want to see Vein Drinker in your sealed pool during the PTQ season for PT Kyoto. It’s a 4/4 flier for six mana that can pick off one smaller creature each turn — with “smaller” being a value that increases monotonically as the game progresses. If you stick the Drinker and they can’t get removal pretty quickly, you may well rule the board and then kill them in short order.
Is it constructible? Probably not.
Art’s awesome, though.
On the other hand, the Bant Charm, previewed in this article from new hall-of-famer Mike Turian, is definitely constructible. Destroy an artifact, remove a creature, or win a counterspell war. The mana looks awkward, but it’s going to be living in a Standard (and Extended) full of Vivids, hybrid duals, Reflecting Pools, painlands, and tribal duals.
Combined with treats like the Stoic Angel, the “Bant” color combination of blue-WHITE-green is seeming just darn cool. Consider that in addition to the block cards you’ve seen previewed so far, you get Wrath, Condemn, Oblivion Ring, Cryptic Command and more.
Nice previews, both.

Three-drops of Alara

During the coverage for Worlds 2007, Brian David-Marshall said of Doran, the Siege Tower that he’s “Phyrexian Negator, except his drawback is awkward mana.” Paying BGW for an effective 5/5 has turned out to be more than halfway decent, and Doran has been a consistent player in decks from both the recent Lorwyn-Shadowmoor Block Constructed PTQ season leading to PT Berlin 2008 and the preceding Extended PTQ season leading to PT Hollywood.
With that in mind, consider this lineup:
That certainly looks like three-fifths of a cycle, doesn’t it?
Each of these cards is pretty decent for its cost, and any of them with Green in the cost stand a good chance of hitting play by turn two courtesy of a Birds of Paradise. I’d say they’re all Constructed playable, although the final decision on that will, of course, have to wait on the whole set and the context of Tenth-Lorwyn-Alara Standard as a whole. At the moment, I’ll call out the War Monk as the least interesting of the set, as it’s not in a particularly aggressive color combination and thus, even with Lifelink, a 3/4 is pretty vanilla. The Thrinax will fit will in the new style of aggro deck championed during the first half of Lorwyn-Shadowmoor’s tenure, where aggro decks make their way around removal by just making more and more guys. In this case, a 3/3 that explodes into a bunch of little dudes makes for a multivalent threat that can potentially be too much for a control deck. Finally, the Thoctar looks like a clear choice for Extended Zoo builds, as a straight-up 5/4 for three mana is gigantic early pressure, especially when you get to bring that monster in as the top of your very, very low curve.
Also, the art and the flavor text on the Thoctar are excellent. That’s a world painted in four lines and a picture.

Shards of Alara previews: Sarkhan and Ajani

Doug Beyer heralds the start of official Shards of Alara previews with this article that sets up the flavor of the world, from the point of view of planeswalker Sarkhan Vol, whose art was previewed back when Wizards introduced Mythic Rares. Now we have the full stats:
First off, nice green-red flavor there (especially given Sarkhan’s backstory — go read the article for more on that).
Will this fit into tournament decks? Well, Sarkhan’s positive ability is potentially quite solid if you build around it. You can imagine Sarkhan enabling a rapid assault by a bunch of Goblins spawned from a Siege-Gang Commander, or just being slotted into an Alara-era remake of the tokens deck. His second ability is also potentially quite useful, especially as it can make Sarkhan a game-turning or game-ending topdeck. “Play Sarkhan. Steal your dude, kill you with it.” The last ability is, at a glance, pretty frightening, as it’s more or less a “win next turn” power. I’d be more worried about its impact but for the fact that so far, Planeswalkers haven’t really been winning most of the time through their ultimate powers (consider what happens when Chandra goes off, for example). That said, I did round out a few games at the last PTQ I attended by using Liliana’s ultimate, so it can happen, and it pretty much does ice a game in her case.
Once again, rather blind of whatever else is showing up in Shards, Sarkhan seems like a pretty reasonable Planeswalker who will find his way into some R/G big-mana style decks that rely on token generators, and he may also serve in pure tokens decks as well.
Now, although I’ve previewed the blue planeswalker from Shards, I haven’t really touched on the already-previewed Ajani from this set:
I can’t comment much on Ajani’s flavor here, except that he seems a little pissed off, and the “Vengeant” label suggests that things haven’t gone well for him lately. I imagine they’ll flesh that out in time.
On the gameplay side, your eyes were probably drawn immediately to his second ability, which amounts to “Pay two loyalty: Lightning Helix.” It’s a step up from Chandra’s power in that you gain life and can point 3 damage at your opponent, but it’s a step down because Chandra can come into play and really save you by burning down a big creature. Ajani, for example, can’t kill a Colossus.
But…he can keep it tapped down. Ajani’s first ability is interesting enough, and gives him some potential to keep the opponent stalled out long enough for you to stabilize. It also builds up, albeit quite slowly, to his ultimate ability. I’m completely unsure of how good a slow-moving, one-sided Armageddon will be. Although it’s not an “I win” on its own, it’s pretty solid if you have the right things in play at the time (maybe Chandra, eh?). With a four-turn clock from the turn you play Ajani, however, there’s a ton of time for your opponent to do something about the situation. So it’s nasty, but not nearly as immediate as a Garruk overrun or even a Sarkhan dragon blitz.
Doug Beyer tells us that there’s one more planeswalker left in this set. So far, we have blue, red-white, and red-green, so if we can guess at anything, it might be that the last one will be black or some combination of black and other. We’ll see.

Shards of Alara preview: Kiss of the Amesha

Yeah, I can’t read Japanese either. Anyone have one in Spanish?
Anyway, here it is in English:
Target player gains 7 life and draws two cards.
Will this see play? My experience with Primal Command during the last year and two PTQ seasons has shown that gaining 7 life can be a tremendous beating when you’re playing control against an aggro deck. That said, Primal Command’s other modes really made this into an even more effective strategy.
“Gain 7 life, make your next draw a land.”
“Gain 7 life, find a utility creature.”
In this case, the Kiss replaces itself and nets you another card in addition to the life gain.
“Gain 7 life, draw an extra card.”
Is that good enough for one more mana than the Primal Command? Mmm. Unsure. Edging towards “no.” We’ll have to see what the rest of the options in white-blue are like.
The art’s lovely, though. It really carries the sense of peace and blessing that goes with the feeling of the card. “Here, have some peace and wisdom.” Nice.