The presumptive face of post-Time Spiral Standard

This weekend is Grand Prix Rimini 2008, the last major event of the Lorwyn-Shadowmoor Block Constructed season. I’ve already mentioned what I’d be playing if I were there. However, in a part of today’s coverage, Dave Sutcliffe — sometimes to be heard on Rich Hagon’s podcasts — addresses the question, “Why should I care about the decks being played in the last major event of Block season?”
The beginning and end of his few paragraphs covers the central point:
One of the most striking things about this Block Constructed season has been how closely it has mirrored the goings on in the Standard format. Of course there will always be some crossover between the two formats but it has rarely (if ever) been more marked.
Now, if you

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.

Last call in Rimini, and a goal for next season

The last major event in the Lorwyn-Shadowmoor block constructed season is coming up next weekend with Grand Prix Rimini 2008.
Rimini is on Italy’s eastern coast, southeast of Bologna and east of Firenze. I was in Firenze earlier this year — quite nice. Good churches, good food. If I were magically transported to the GP next week I’d bring my final worked Romper Room variant, as described at the end of this post.
Following Rimini, we step into the qualifier season for Kyoto, which will be Alara sealed (the full PTQ season for 2009 can be found here). This brings me to my goal for the coming PTQ season:
Figure it out sooner.
This was my second full PTQ season where I attended the majority of events I could reach, and the first where I’ve really had full access to the cards I’d need. One thing I realized, going along through this season, is that it took me a while to realize what was fundamentally important for succeeding in the format. Obviously, PTQ seasons are scheduled such that the metagame is a moving target as you go along (with new sets coming into the format), but that only adds pressure to be able to quickly figure out what’s going to matter for allowing a win.
In my case, I realized soon after starting the last PTQ of the Lorwyn-Shadowmoor season that I really should have just bit the bullet, accepted that Vivids were a good idea, and had four Firespouts in addition to my Hallowed Burials. Basically, I need to be less in love with a concept (in this case “not having lands come into play tapped”) and more willing to be flexible in what I push into my final build.
How will this apply for Alara sealed? Well, I recall from my single outing for the Kuala Lumpur PTQ season that I decided to go two colors, despite seeing triple Avian Changeling in the deck and thinking “It would be good to have flyers…” In the upcoming Alara season, I think it’ll be similar — trying to teach myself to make the best choices, considering not just what’s in my pool but also what one can expect to see in everyone else’s pools.
I’m looking forward to all the upcoming qualifiers for the 2009 season. Alara Sealed, then Extended, then Standard, along with Standard Regionals. That’s a lot of fun queued up for 2009.

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.

Shards of Alara preview: Stoic Angel

Let’s have that in English:
Creature – Angel
Flying, vigilance
Players can’t untap more than one creature during their untap step.
Even the most hardened soldiers pause for inspection in her presence.
This looks like a neat little control card. If there’s some solid green mana fixing in Shards, I could easily see running a control deck across those colors. In Standard, of course, you just throw a bunch of hybrids, tribal duals, and vivids at a wall of Reflecting Pools and see what sticks.
The control elements here are pretty good, too. The untapping restriction misses your own Stoic Angels, so you can have one other creature attacking. At the same time, you’re going to force your opponent to think carefully about how they commit their creatures, and if they try to go for the slow burn by attacking with one at a time, you can one-for-one them with your control spells while still smacking them with the Stoic.
It’s also nice to see control pushed toward green-blue-white, as it’s been spending the last couple years in blue-black.
Finally, I really like the art on this one. Although I don’t know the basis for angels in the Alara setting, the Stoic Angel reads well as a creature in her collection of colors, and the art in general is pretty nice (the art I’ve seen on the other angels is pretty cool, too).

States and Champs are back

Earlier this year, Wizards announced the cancellation of States (in the US) and Champs (in Canada), saying that the tournaments were not achieving the goals they were meant to achieve. While literally any change of any kind will garner some outcry, I think this one especially bothered people because there’s a cadre of folks who enjoy getting together at these big tournaments. I’m in that group – I don’t do FNMs (I mean, Friday night is a terrible, terrible time for a tournament for me, just to start with), so I’m either playing with my small group of friends, or going to large events such as PTQs, Regionals, and States.
In this announcement Wizards confirms a rumor I heard a week or two ago — States and Champs are coming back. This year, they’ll be on November 8, about a month after Shards of Alara releases.*
This makes me happy, and I hope I can make it to Regionals this year.
*And wow, that release is only about a month from now. Goodbye, Time Spiral!

It’s not Shahrazad slow, but it’s slow

This week’s latest developments has rolled around, and as I suspected, it was banned in Extended for being slooooow.
The constant activating of Divining Top bogs games down, which ultimately leads to an increase in the number of matches that go to time and beyond, which in turn leads to tournaments running much longer than they have historically.
I don’t think I get any points for guessing the reason.

Shards of Alara planeswalker preview – Tezzeret

Apparently, this preview card from Shards of Alara just appeared in Scrye:
Tezzeret’s abilities support a notion I’ve read somewhere (maybe over on SCG?) that Shards will have some sort of artifact emphasis. How useful it will be, of course, depends entirely on how useful the artifacts are. Untapping two artifacts minimally means extra mana later on in the game. The tutoring effect is potentially useful, if you have a toolbox of really, really handy artifacts. His ultimate ability doesn’t excite me, unless they do something silly like reprint artifact lands in this set.
In isolation, I’m not super-excited about Tezzeret. Lily’s still my favorite.
I’ll look forward to seeing just how cool T-dizzle here is in the full context of the set.

In search of the Death Cloud

Since returning to Magic in the last couple years, I’ve really appreciated the opportunity to go through the past event coverage archives that Wizards maintains. I’m fascinated by the decisions players made about optimal decks in the different constructed formats, be it the control-oriented nature of Pro Tour Yokohama or the way Gruul and Zoo decks blew through the field at Honolulu.
The deck breakdown coverage for Pro Tour Kobe 2004 addresses the quirky field that was Mirrodin block constructed in the days of Mirrodin, Darksteel, no Fifth Dawn, and no bannings within Block. Naturally, it was a field rife with Affinity and Green-Red, Red, or Green anti-Affinity decks, but it also had a few standouts, including Gabriel Nassif’s second-place finisher TwelvePost, which did shockingly (at the time) well. Fascinating, right?
I was especially interested in this quote from the breakdown:
Death Cloud – 12
Poor Death Cloud. Such a big effect. So slow. Ben Stark’s Affinity deck killed a Death Cloud deck on turn four despite being hit by Barter in Blood. On paper the deck looks very powerful, but it just doesn’t seem to have the tools to survive the mid-game. Some players have tried augmenting it with some cheap red removal, but it might not be enough.

This led me to wonder…what was a Death Cloud deck from that format like?
We’ll go over to the extended for the answer.

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