The vitality comes to me slowly (life gain in the new Standard)

Apropos of some testing that I’ll likely discuss in next week’s In Development, I found myself back at Gatherer trying to suss out options for life gain in the now days-away Shards-Zendikar Standard.
The news is not so good.
Click through to the extended entry for a list of potentially viable life gain options in the new Standard, as well as the requisite discussion.

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Channel Fireball this week – Developing a Context

Head on over to to read my latest In Development column, Developing a Context. This week, the discussion focuses on giving form to an unplayed Standard environment, and putting together deck lists to face down the challenges of our imagined Standard.
I do recommend reading the whole article rather than just skimming for the deck lists, as the former will be rather more informative than the latter.
Also, on a wholly related side note, Ascension is so far proving to be a house in the G/W Walker build in testing. More on that next week.


A little while ago, Sam Black wrote an article about GenCon that focused to some extent on lessons he’d learned in other games that could be applied to Magic. This has inspired me to give some thought, from time to time, on lessons I’d picked up in various games that are portable across games generally.
Specifically, I’ve idly pondered what I might have picked up during my Mechwarrior gaming days that transitions well to Magic. I was pretty good at Mechwarrior, most of the time maintaining our highest local rating and “going infinite” in real life tournaments (something you could do back in the day by trading off extras of the premium tournament prizes in online trades for minis you needed). In no particular order, here are some lessons I picked up from Mechwarrior:

  • Research Matters – I improved significantly in Mechwarrior after I spent some time (1) reading ideas from players who were in the game when I came in, (2) looking at successful army builds, and (3) just spending time looking at unit stats. This was important in Mechwarrior in the “rote memory is helpful” manner, inasmuch as you wanted to know how each unit’s stats would progress over time. It was also helpful, however, in letting me know which options I had available, and exposing me to concepts that I wouldn’t have run into via directed search. This is, in fact, an idea I’m planning on touching in over at In Development in the future.
  • Technical Precision Matters – There’s an edge in many games in just knowing how the rules actually work. This isn’t so much a matter of rules lawyering as it is a matter of just knowing what your operating space is. This came up recently in a Magic tournament when I floated a random green mana before sacrificing a land with Knight of the Reliquary and then let that go while my opponent ran through the rest of his turn…until he wanted to go into combat, when I paused him, paid another five mana, and flashed out a Cloudthresher. He wasn’t sure I could do that — hadn’t he said he wanted to go to combat? Of course, the way the game works requires a double priority pass on an empty stack before we can shift into combat (as the judge we called confirmed). My opponent didn’t know this, and walked into something as a consequence.
  • Fast Play Matters – Mechwarrior, like Magic, was played in timed rounds. You benefit, of course, from being able to think and play the game quickly. However, this is more about making sure your opponent is playing quickly. I’ve been fortunate not to run into players who are clearly stalling, but at the same time, there are players who play as if they weren’t really aware that rounds are timed. We had one prime offender in the Mechwarrior circuit who clearly was not thinking about his upcoming turn at all during your turn. This was apparent the first time I played him, as he started each of his turns by adjusting the dials on his units (this is sort of like starting a Magic turn by making minor adjustments so that your land are all nicely parallel, then staring at your cards for a while, then finally untapping…). I adjusted to this in two ways. First, I made sure to urge him to play faster, and suggested that he take care of whatever minor adjustments he cared about on his turn. Second, I made sure to get an early, high-value kill, since I knew that I could only do so much about his play speed, and I wanted to end with a game win if he timed us out. In a Magic tournament, I’d just call a judge on him if he didn’t speed up, of course.

I’m sure there are more lessons that transferred out of Mechwarrior, just as there are more that have come out of other games I’ve played and other areas of my life. It’s a good exercise, and I’d be interested in hearing what lessons other people feel they’ve picked up in one game that transferred into another.

Zendikar, visually

The Zendikar sortable visual spoiler has gone up. Now’s the time to head over, ooh and aah at the pretty art, and make sure that the cards work the way they were rumored to.
Here’s how I’m looking at them, sorted by CMC.
I’m finding a lot of the cards really fun this time around, flavor-wise. “Trusty Machete” may well be my favorite equipment name ever.

Sorry, zombie Iona

In this week’s In Development, I’ve mentioned Iona as one card I have my eye on going into the new Shards-Zendikar Standard, as she has a tremendously powerful effect. As I discuss there, the most likely way to deploy Iona effectively in Standard is going to be via reanimation, but with about half the cards spoiled at the time I wrote the article, I wasn’t sure if that option was going to be available or not.
It’s looking rather like we won’t be reanimating any Ionas, unfortunately, as I just crosschecked the Zendikar orb of insight against the now much-more-robust Zendikar spoiler at MTGSalvation. The verdict? 21 instances of “graveyard” in each. This suggests no additional reanimation spells yet (we can hold out hope for Worldwake and the third set in this block).
That still leaves open the entirely real possibility of Iona as a full-on, nine-mana finisher of doom. There may also be other ways to cheat her into play. I’ll discuss my final verdict on Iona in next week’s In Development once we have the full spoiler in hand. Given her ability to simply declare a game over, I’m not willing to rule her out even without obvious ways to cheat her into play – at least, not without completing a solid preliminary understanding of the new play environment.
In the meantime, Tooth and Nail for Iona + Painter’s Servant is hilarious. Just saying.

Read me at

Have you been reading this blog for a while and enjoying my articles, especially those that emphasize building novel deck concepts and developing them over time?
Then you’ll enjoy In Development, my new column over at My focus on this column will be creative deck building and deck development in a competitive play environment – something longtime Gifts Ungiven readers will be familiar with.
…and if you haven’t been reading already, why not? We have new articles today from Gerry T, Josh Silvestri, and, naturally, me. Give it a look.
Also, never fear — I’ll still be posting here on all those topics that don’t fall within the scope of my column, along with putting up a pointer each week to the column, with a little insight into the column’s topic. This week I’m looking at Clarity of Purpose, and how we can tell whether a deck is worth building or a card is worth playing.

California PTQs for San Diego 2010

The California schedule for the upcoming PTQ San Diego season has filled out. Here are your dates and locations:
October 10, 2009 – Santa Clara (at the SC Convention Center, apparently)
October 24, 2009 – San Diego
November 7, 2009 – Costa Mesa
November 14, 2009 – Santa Clara
December 12, 2009 – Sacramento
December 19, 2009 – Costa Mesa
…and, of course, there will be LCQs ahead of the Pro Tour itself (which runs February 19-21, 2010).
You can check out the PTQ schedule yourself, including the new Magic Online qualifiers, by clicking here.

NECA picks up all the games I don’t play

NECA announced earlier this week that it has acquired most of the Wizkids properties from Topps, following in the wake of Wizkids folding last year or so.
Note that I said “most,” as NECA gets HeroClix, ActionClix (the Halo and Aliens branding), HorrorClix, SportsClix, MageKnight, and Pocketmodel Games…but not Mechwarrior, which is the only Wizkids game I played.
This is not tremendously surprising, as Jordan Weisman has kept a firm grip on the Battletech property ever since he realized that generating your own IP was superior to licensing it from someone else (I have some very old FASA catalogs featuring early Battletech products side-by-side with Star Trek, Doctor Who, He-Man, and Top Gun games). Battletech has clearly had tremendous legs as a property, continuing to spawn successful video games and numerous incarnations including board games, collectible card games, collectible miniature games, and Virtual World, which in turn helped spawn Game Empire, which gave us Magic hall of famer Alan Comer.
You can still get into the original Battletech board game here.
It does mean that we may see more Clix games, which may be good for Clix fans (assuming the resurrected product line is compatible with the old stuff). In the meantime, I’ll hold onto my Republic, Ghost Bear, Jade Falcon, Banson’s Raiders, and Nova Cat forces. They’re still cool little toys.

Will we be countering spells this year?

As a player who preferentially fights my way through Cryptic Commands and Riptide Lab engines rather than playing them myself, it’s with some measure of relief that I look forward to the pending rotation that will move the former out of Standard and the latter out of Extended. Focusing on Standard for the moment, I’m happy to watch pretty much the entire Faeries engine leave the format. Lingering on that thought a little longer, I started to wonder if there were enough decent counterspells to actually have players piloting countermagic-oriented control builds in the foreseeable future.
I have some deck-design-related ulterior motives at work here, of course.
To answer that question, I culled a list of available counterspells from Shards, M10, and the officially spoiled portion of Zendikar, and then considered the quality and efficacy of those counterspells. Click through to the extended entry for the list of cards and commentary. And, of course, spoilers.

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It just attacks and blocks

In The Magic Show episode about Pro Tour: Valencia, Evan went around asking people what the “best” creature was – motivated in great part by the recent appearance of Tarmogoyf. I liked Zac Hill’s answer to this question, vis-a-vis Tarmogoyf, as it distills out the fundamental reason I’m never excited about playing a Goyf – “It just attacks and blocks.”
Now, Zac was partially speaking from his self-avowed combat disability there, but I tend to agree that a dude, even a highly cost-effective one, remains, simply, a dude. A 5/6 or 6/7 for two mana is good, and great in Zoo-style aggro decks, but in most other contexts, I’d rather have creatures that do something beyond simply tearing things up in the red zone.
So what about this little dude?
The flavor on this card is great – scute bugs keep pouring out of the landscape in an ever-expanding mass. I also love the art (Zoltan and Gabor strike again!).
Clearly, the Mob gets out of hand incredibly quickly if you’re in the mid-to-late game. If there’s nothing facing off against it on the other side, it starts swinging as a 5/5 and then follows up as a 9/9. Oof.
That said, it still “just attacks and blocks.” As a finisher in control decks, it feels intuitively like a “best case” finisher – that is, a finisher that is amazing only when you’re doing okay already. This is, of course, another variation on “win more.” In contrast, the current control finishers can not only win games quickly, but dig you out of holes. Broodmate Dragon gives you two evasive bodies, and Baneslayer gives you evasion, lifelink, and first strike. The former can yield a blocker even after the opponent comes over the top with removal, or a finisher even if they have removal for half the pair. The latter pulls you out of danger very quickly and decisively, courtesy of lifelink. Scute Mob, in contrast, just swings big.
That, of course, is why we prepare to take down both finishers when we’re planning to oppose control decks running them, and this is why I’m dubious about Scute Mob. In my recent aggro build, I ran eight removal options to nail opposing Baneslayers, since a Baneslayer quickly yields an unwinnable gamestate for an aggro deck. The problem here is that everything that kills Baneslayer, well, it kills Scute Mob as well. So it’s a finisher that generates fewer options, but dies just as well to the preparations opponents are already making for just such an occasion.
The counter-argument would be that you can drop a Scute Mob with lots of mana open to defend it, unlike a Baneslayer or Broodmate. True, but any aggro deck that is prepared to kill a Baneslayer is prepared to kill it through countermagic anyway.
So…although I adore the concepting and art, I think the Mob may prove less than thrilling in constructed play.
As always, with only a third of cards available, your mileage may very significantly by the time the full set comes out.