Every color in the rainbow

In his most recent column at SCG, Bennie Smith lamented the state of Standard, specifically the fact that Windbrisk Heights has had such a significant presence across all our top eights of late. While he holds out hope that Swans Combo will even this out, the conversation in the forums turned, in part, to the idea that the mana is just too good right now. With Vivids, filters, and Pools, it’s trivial to play all manner of apparently discordant mana costs together, with the only real fear being taking an Anathemancer to the face more than once in the same game. Some commenters are looking forward to the days when the mana gets worse, and we won’t have Cryptic Command and Cloudthresher living in the same deck, alongside Volcanic Fallout and Esper Charm.
That’s their problem with contemporary five-color control. It’s not my problem with it, though. Mine is fundamentally one of aesthetics.
I like four- or five-color decks. I played Sunburst Gifts variants in the most recent Extended season, and I like watching Domain Zoo decks bleed their way into the correct mana base.
I prefer both of these experiences to contemporary five-color control. Why is that?
When you play a modern five-color control deck, you take a one-turn action penalty (all those Vivids) and then play out a radiant mush of lands bejeweled with dice or coins, sitting next to filter lands, sitting next to Reflecting Pools. In contrast, if you examine one of my Extended Gifts decks, the experience is much more organic to the theming of the game. I need black and green mana, so I cracked a fetchland and search my library for a Swamp-Forest that can give me those colors. The next time I crack for a land, or search one up when I sacrifice my Tribe-Elder, I can end up with an actual basic land – maybe an Island this time around.
There are a lot of features that go toward having flavorful versus mushy lands in these two examples. Consider the Overgrown Tomb I alluded to above.
1) It’s a Swamp-Forest. This lets the land interact in a game-mechanically intuitive fashion with the rest of Magic, but it also just imprints the idea that this is providing a crossover service between some set of colors that don’t normally come from the same place.
2) It makes two colors. This also gives it a distinct identity, even in the absence of the typing described above. A Llanowar Wastes feels very different from a Yavimaya Coast, even though they are mechanically quite similar and both lack the typing of their shockland brethren.
3) It has a distinct name. I think this makes a huge difference, as you will look at your five-color mana base and see a host of very distinct names, emphasizing the idea that you’re pulling together a diverse set of resources in your deck.
So, what’s our flavorless counterpoint here?
1) Vivids are not typed at all. A Vivid Crag is not even a Mountain. It looks like a Mountain, but it isn’t one, and that makes us sad.
2) Vivids make any color. We know that if you’ve built and played your five-color control deck properly, you will rarely deplete the counters from your Vivids. They’re just little repositories for “any color” and they will be for most of the game. Contrast with Tendo Ice Bridge, which very much provides a tension of “use this or no?” for a multiland, which in turn is its own form of mechanical feel. I’ve heard that R&D is retrospectively not happy with choosing to have two rather than one counter per Vivid, and perhaps this is an error that is reflected in flavor here.
3) Vivid X. Each Vivid land is a Vivid land. This emphasizes their relative fungibility. Any one Vivid is as good as any other Vivid most of the time, and they’re all called basically the same thing.
Given that lack of typing, variation in ability, and variation in name, it’s no surprise that contemporary five-color control decks are so aesthetically uninspiring despite the interesting cards and game play elements they contain. Combine this with the lack of a need to search for them, instead replacing that with a one-turn tempo penalty, and our current five-color control manabase style is just bland.
As I loath a complaint given without a suggestion, here’s my aesthetic ideal for the five-color control experience:
1) Lands are distinct, in terms of names, typing, and functionality.
2) Each land only covers part of my mana needs
3) I search some of the lands I need out of my library
4) I’ll have Basic Lands in play during a normal game
That’s my aesthetic ideal. I hope the M10 and Zendikar lands will push things in that direction.

Iron Lady (an Alara Reborn Standard deck)

Although my mind has mainly been on things like work and such this week, I’ve also been checking in with all sorts of Magic coverage and considering what I might play well down the road in late June, at our next area PTQ. I’ve bounced between black-green and black-white-green aggro builds, as well as a sort of black-white-green hate-and-aggro deck, a similarly color-combined infinite combo build, and all the other sorts of somewhat midrangey goodness I tend to find myself drawn to. As I found myself continually circling around the same set of ideas, I decided to set myself the task of, instead, focusing on another area of deckbuilding.
Today, I’ve settled on the Grixis color band (blue-black-red), with the immediate thought being some form of control deck centered on my favorite planeswalker, Liliana Vess. Conveniently, iTunes offered up an appropriate song title as the deck’s name.
Click through to the extended for a deck list and some commentary.

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When is a 4-3 really a 3-3?

Yesterday I attended the first PTQ of the current season at Superstars Game Center. I had a good time as always. We have a good crowd here in Northern California, both judges and players alike, and I think that makes for a great playing environment.
We had a smaller tournament than typical this time, with 122 players. I don’t think that we should generalize from that to the health of the Magic scene, however, since this was a graduation weekend – specifically, the San Jose State University graduation was the same day as the PTQ, a mere three blocks away from us. Combine that with Memorial Day weekend, and it’s understandable that we had a reduced turnout.
The upshot of that number was seven rounds rather than our usual eight.
Thanks go out to our excellent judging staff, this time consisting of Riki (head judge), Eric, NIck, Neil, and Alex.
I went 4-3 this time, and I think this highlights that I am currently very much a 50-50 player. Although I bring some potential trouble to my record by insisting on playing decks of my own design, I can also point directly to some notable play errors that could potentially have led to me winning games, and thus matches. I mention this because I enjoy improving my play, and because I continue to hear players telling each other “bad beat” stories that can be distilled correctly into “the game proceeded as expected, and I lost.” It’s okay to generate this kind of narrative if it makes you feel better, since this is a recreational activity, but if you actually also want to improve as a player, you will have to be honest with yourself and acknowledge those things which can be legitimately influenced by your actions.
Click through to the extended entry for the final deck list I brought on the day, as well as my round-by-round tournament report, and an explanation for why a 4-3 is actually a 3-3.

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Sugar Water (an Alara Reborn Standard deck)

Following my experience with G/W Angel of Love at Regionals, I came away with the feeling that (1) I make play errors (hey, that’s not news) and (2) the deck was not adequately positioned to take down tokens builds or just end the game generally. These are two sides of the same coin, really.
Since Regionals, I’ve figured out that G/W alone does not support the big-giant-threat (BGT!) archetype I’m going for here, although I do think the archetype is nearly and yet not quite viable in G/W alone. As a first pass, I moved into the full Naya colors, which gave me access to Thoctar and the younger, pissed off Ajani. This deck was nice, but really moved the deck much more firmly into the midrange, rather than letting it express its BGT aggro nature.
So, as much as I was trying to avoid making a Doran deck, I decided to venture into splashing black from Maelstrom Pulse (to help deal with those tokens are restrict the B/W long game), using Murmuring Bosks as just another comes-into-play-tapped tri-land. From there, I relented and added in the Siege Tower.
And it turns out that version of the deck is working reasonably well.
Once again, the deck name comes from a random song title.
Click through to the extended entry for deck list and comments.

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Regionals 2009: Fifty-fifty

The Northern California Regionals was small this year, with 141 participants. It seemed to be running pretty smoothly, with no major complaints and our usual highly competent work from our excellent judges. My own performance was utterly middle of the road, with a drop after I hit 3-3 (and decided I wanted to go off and take care of some other stuff I could be doing, rather than cook and see if I could make two more wins in the remaining rounds).
I’ll discuss our metagame, my deck choice, and cover the round-by-round in the extended entry.

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Regionals Angel (an Alara Reborn Standard deck)

Following some successful testing before last week and a paucity of time to spend on any other designs over the course of the week, I decided to go with Angel of Love, the G/W big beats deck I posted earlier. The sideboard at the time was fairly ad hoc, and it turns out that after some reflection, a few of the main deck cards were poor choices as well. Thus, I’ve updated the build for Regionals tomorrow.
Click through to the extended entry for the revised deck list that I’ll be packing at Regionals tomorrow, as well as some explanation about the changes.

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Angel of Love (an Alara Reborn Standard deck)

As part of the continuing countdown to Regionals, I continue to bounce a bunch of deck ideas around. This one has firmed up enough that I’m willing to post it. Once again, the deck name comes from a random song, albeit one with a vaguely appropriate name this time around.
This is a W/G midrange deck that I explicitly modeled off of Katsuhiro Mori’s take on the Ghazi-Glare deck from Worlds 2005. The environment and purpose of the deck is different enough that this isn’t ‘templating’ as such, but I did pick up some valuable ideas from the Ghazi-Glare deck. For example, Farhaven Elves are in many ways functional replacements for the Wood Elves in the Ghazhi-Glare build.
After some testing against the major archetypes, I like this enough to publish the list. Click through to the extended entry for deck list and commentary.

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Gatherer update

I’m a regular user of Gatherer, Wizards’ comprehensive Magic card database. I really appreciated the update to the new version, with its enhanced search capabilities. My one request was to be able to set the output formatting during the query phase, rather than having to rearrange the output after each query.
Now, they’ve enabled that. In the Advanced Search mode that I nearly always use, you can now set both the output format and the sorting order. I’m a happy camper.
Click here to give Gatherer a try.
If you really do want to be a solid deck designer, you need to be very familiar with Gatherer, because there are times when you’ll know the role you need a card to fill, but won’t be able to recall a specific card from the one to several thousand cards that may be legal in the format you’re addressing. So once again, give it a shot.

Baltic Sea (Alara Reborn Standard deck)

I’ve decided, barring a compelling interest in doing otherwise, that I’m naming my decks after random songs kicked up from my music collection. Thus, this post’s offering is named Baltic Sea. It’s a B/R/G ramp deck that attempts to burn its way through aggro decks and finish the game with some combination of beasts, Cloudthreshers, and Lavalanches.
Click through to the extended entry for more.

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What’s your mana THAC0?

At least, the article’s tables remind me of those old THAC0 charts.
Over at ManaNation.com, Dan Eckstein kicks out another useful edition of Magic: the Classroom, this time exploring the probabilities involved in drawing the cards you need given a certain number of copies in your deck, with a special emphasis on making sure you have the mana you need.
If you keep getting mana screwed, go read.