Affinity For Turning Lands Into Islands

First, the bad news: There was only ONE Island in the entire top 8 of Worlds this weekend. It was in a Bant deck piloted by Manuel Bucher, who was eliminated in the quarterfinals.

Now, the good news: I’d heard about this tech a couple of weeks ago, but it’s becoming more and more widespread. This weekend at Worlds, Gerry Thompson did a video deck tech about a Standard build he designed, which he dubbed “Spread ‘Em” after its primary strategy:

     

See, the thing about Jund (and many other popular Standard decks right now) is a not-quite-reliable manabase. This deck attacks that weakness, and seems to be having some success. As I write this, I’m watching live video of the team finals of Worlds. The Standard portion is a URW deck (not at all unlike my own current build) facing off against a Jund deck. Spreading Seas has entirely shut down the red mana sources of the Jund deck, slowing things down enough for the control player to stick an Ajani Vengeant and a Sphinx of Jwar Isle to win the game.

     

In a format with few Islands, Spreading Seas is essentially a cantripping land destruction spell. I absolutely love this strategy, and no doubt I’ll be trying it sometime this week.

A Quick Shout-Out

I just wanted to write a quick shout-out to Trick Jarrett over at ManaNation.com. Each week, Trick collects his choices for the best Magic content on the web and puts it in his “This Week In Magic” list. Yesterday morning I was excited to discover that Affinity For Islands’ “Power vs Consistency” post from Monday made the list for the week. (!)

ManaNation.com

I highly recommend you check out ManaNation.com if you haven’t already. It’s a great resource for the latest Magic news (updated VERY frequently) and solid content. In addition, it is home to an excellent Magic video podcast hosted by Trick. And any of you that have been using MTGURL.com to share your decklists have Trick to thank! For those of you that don’t know, Trick created a website for users to share decklists—a site that he is consistently improving.

In Yo! MTG Taps! news, bigheadjoe and I will be recording a post-Worlds episode on Monday morning (you didn’t forget about Worlds, did you?), going over some of the interesting decks and stories from the weekend. It should be available on MTGCast.com sometime on Tuesday or Wednesday. We’ve also set up a Twitter account, @YoMTGTaps, so follow us there for updates.

MTG Worlds 2009

DOUBLE FEATURE! -> Yo! MTG Taps! Episodes 3 & 4 – Now available


Check it out over on MTGCast!

Episode 3 – Baneslayer In The Graveyard
Please excuse the sound quality. We were recording in the car and apparently there was a bad connection between my microphone and iPod. Luckily for you, this episode is a short one!

Episode 4 – Half-Court Football On A Baseball Field
More Standard discussion! And Carnage Shall Follow…

Follow us on Twitter @YoMTGTaps or @AffinityForBlue.

Power vs Consistency

Magic the Gathering Links for this Week

As I posted a few days ago, the list I’ve been running lately is a UR control deck, which I adopted after reading an article by Kyle Sanchez. Previously I’d been running a URW control deck that was very similar but for the inclusion of white for cards such as Path to Exile and Ajani Vengeant. This particular list—based on Richard Feldman’s “Rembrandt”—required seven fetchlands (a dubious undertaking in such an aggressive metagame), and obviously the three-color manabase was not as consistent as a two-color would be. It’s this idea that brings me to today’s topic: Power vs Consistency. (Seasoned players will have to excuse me for a paragraph or two while I elaborate; scroll down a bit if you want to skip this part.)

As a general rule, cards with multiple colors in their mana costs tend to be more powerful than mono-colored cards with the same converted mana cost. See Thought Hemorrhage vs Cranial Extraction, or Lightning Helix vs Incinerate.

     

The manabase for a mono-colored deck is likely to be much more consistent than that of a two- or three-colored deck. How many times have you been playing a game where you drew plenty of lands, but not enough of the right color? It’s this trade-off that designers at Wizards have in mind when designing multicolor cards. They are willing to give you more “bang for your buck” if you are willing to take the risks implied with building a multicolored deck. This is also one of the reasons that players tend to like sets with a lot of multicolored cards: the cards are just more powerful.

Probably the main reason for the dominance of Five-Color Control decks over the Spring and Summer was the fact that—due to lands such as Reflecting Pool, Exotic Orchard, and the Vivid cycle—players were able to easily produce mana of any color they needed (prompting the use of cards like Cloudthresher, Cryptic Command, and Cruel Ultimatum together in the same deck). There was almost no trade-off, as manabases were so consistent that the usual drawback of a multicolor spell was simply nullified. (In fact, Wizards later stated that they’d made a mistake by printing these lands to be Standard-legal at the same time.)

     

For better or worse, the current Standard environment does not allow for such ridiculous manabases. Don’t get me wrong, there are some four- and five-color decks out there (see Mike Flores’ Black Baneslayer—which recently saw two berths in the top 8 of the StarCityGames Nashville $5K—and Yo! MTG Taps!’s own bigheadjoe has been having success with All-In Sphinx, a four-color control deck). It’s just that now, the trade-off is a bit more apparent. Often these types of decks can’t even play a spell before turn three or four, due to so many lands that enter the battlefield tapped. This gives the more aggressive strategies (such as Boros Bushwhacker) a chance to gain the upper hand before their opponent’s deck is even online.

Traditionally, I have been the type of player to choose consistency over power. Nothing bothers me more than the inability to cast my spells. This is pretty indicative of my general personality, as I’m not much of a risk-taker in my everyday life either. I’m a “slow-and-steady-wins-the-race” kinda guy, which is partly why I enjoy control decks: they slow the game down enough to where I am able to have the answers I need in order to win the game.

On Friday morning (when we were supposed to be podcasting), bigheadjoe and I played a handful of games. Honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever had such a run of inconsistency in my life. One way or another, I drew terrible hands in every game. Even when faced with threats for which answers were included in my deck, I never had that answer at the right time.

Just some of the carnage:

• An opener with 3x Double Negative and 1 land – a Terramorphic Expanse; a mulligan to six gave me 5 lands and a Chandra Nalaar.
• Being stuck on 5 lands with 3x Burst Lightning in my hand facing down a Baneslayer Angel. Only two of my lands were mountains.
• Two consecutive games with Junk Mana Ramp wherein I drew only Swamps, Plains, and Marsh Flats.

As you can imagine, it was extremely frustrating, especially after having promised myself that I wouldn’t scoop and would instead try to fight through any dire circumstances in which I found myself. Especially when playing the UR list, which was built with the intention of being a consistent deck.

So why, after all this inconsistency, am I actually considering a switch back to the URW version of the deck? Well, because of this:

     

WHAT A BEATING!!! I already can’t counter the damn thing, OR block it with a Sphinx, but with Oran-Rief, nothing short of a kicked Burst Lightning can even burn it away! (Even worse, the time I did manage to have a Burst Lightning for the 4/4 Stag, Joe had a Harm’s Way to prevent 2 of the damage and kill my Jace. Bad beats today, I’m tellin’ you!) [NOTE: I’ve since been informed that since I am the original source of the damage, it cannot be redirected to my Jace. See comments for more info.]

As you might realize, the newly popular Eldrazi Green deck runs this combo in multiples. Considering that two copies of Oran-Rief in play means that I can’t even clear the Stag with a Burst Lightning, and I’m in the unpleasant position of having no answer in my entire list, save Chandra Nalaar or a preemptive Goblin Ruinblaster for Oran-Rief. (And just to clarify, Joe wasn’t even running the Eldrazi Green list; his was just a GW beats deck he’d brewed up the other day, whose sole inclusion from Zendikar was Oran-Rief, the Vastwood.)

Path to Exile is the first answer that comes to mind for this, along with Ajani Vengeant to either keep the thing tapped or help kill it (or, of course, kill it outright if it wasn’t pumped with Oran-Rief). Then again, Harm’s Way can be a huge problem when relying on burn as your primary means of removal. Day of Judgment works too, of course, but I’m not sure it’s the correct answer for the rest of the format (it’s a bit slow, does little when facing a Sprouting Thrinax or Bloodghast, and on top of that it kills my Sphinxes).

This is an especially trying time for a control player. We’re getting hit from all sides, with cards like Blightning to destroy our hands, Bloodbraid Elf to exhaust our counters and removal, and Luminarch Ascension to exploit our long-game plans. It feels like there’s a control deck out there somewhere, it’s just a matter of finding it…

Jace Strategies

Recently there’s been a bit of discussion on Twitter between myself, @winsteadt, and @mtgsalivanth regarding the best strategy for playing Jace Beleren.

When he was first released in Lorwyn, initial reactions were mixed. The conflict between keeping Jace out of burn range with his +2 ability while also gaining some card advantage (and thus NOT giving your opponent a card) had players wondering what exactly the correct play should be.

Now, after two years in Standard, the question is still likely to get different answers.

While there are going to be cases where the opposite is true (namely when playing against a deck with few creatures and no burn), my usual strategy for playing Jace is to use his +2 ability immediately, putting him at 5 loyalty. This keeps him out of range of the most common burn spells and relatively safe from most creatures. If my opponent wants to commit an entire turn to attacking Jace, or wants to use two burn spells to take him out, then I’m fine with that. More often than not, though, putting Jace up to 5 loyalty allows me to get at least another card out of him, and even at 4 loyalty he’s not easily dealt with.

At this point, although this is dependent upon the state of the board and my opponent’s hand at the time, I’ll usually just draw cards off Jace until he’s at 1 loyalty. If I have another Jace to play, I’ll draw that last counter and play a new Jace; otherwise I might put him back up to 3 counters and give my opponent a second card. By this point, however, I’ll have drawn six cards from Jace to my opponent’s two! As you can tell, things can really get out of hand if Jace is left alone.

At his worst, with this strategy Jace breaks even, replacing himself and causing your opponent to either use their extra card to remove Jace or use their attack for the turn to get rid of him (essentially gaining you 5+ life). Anything beyond that is extra, which is what makes Jace such a strong card (and I feel he’s still underrated).

Jace Beleren

On Scooping.

Just a quick post on something that happened Tuesday evening.

Bigheadjoe, our friend Tim and I were doing some casual playtesting with various Standard decks. In this particular game, I was playing Flores’ Junk Mana Ramp deck vs Jund, and I kept a hand I probably shouldn’t have kept (I don’t recall the specifics, but it was average at best). I managed to dig myself out of my perceived hole and was set up for dropping a Baneslayer Angel on my next turn, with only a Baneslayer and a Maelstrom Pulse in hand. “The only card that would wreck me right now,” I thought, “is Blightning.”

Of course, Tim had the Blightning.

     

I scooped in frustration, even though I was still at something like 14 life. I perceived myself to be at a disadvantage from the get-go, and having thought I had overcome this “adversity” and stabilized, I let myself think that Tim’s Blightning meant more than it actually did.

Joe remarked, “You scoop too easily,” and I knew he was onto something.

I realize that I tend to think cards are more powerful than they really are. This applies to both my own cards and the cards of my opponent. I’m sure you’ve all been there: a deck that seems disgustingly good in theory turns out to be a bit underwhelming in actual gameplay. Someone resolves a Cruel Ultimatum against you and you automatically think the game is over. I’ve become so accustomed to this line of thinking, “_____ wrecks this deck, if it resolves I lose,” that I’ve put myself in a mindset where I will rarely even attempt to fight back. So much so, in fact, that in at least one case I projected this mindset onto my opponent!

To wit: Last week, Joe was testing his UW Polymorph-Ascension Control deck against my RWU Control. I had resolved an Ajani Vengeant, and Joe seemed to be struggling. Ajani had reached 7 counters, and on his turn Joe sarcastically said something along the lines of, “ooh, next turn is going to be fun.” During my turn, I activated Ajani’s ultimate ability, and Joe proceeded to scoop up his lands. His lands. I started discussing what was in my hand and what had happened earlier in the game, when I realized Joe was looking at me funny. He hadn’t conceded! He’d just scooped up his lands and put them in the graveyard when Ajani’s ability resolved! I felt like a complete moron. I just assumed that a one-sided Armageddon was enough to make anyone scoop, because I figured that’s what I would have done in that situation. (And it certainly looked like he was scooping, but then what did I expect it to look like?)

No, Joe didn’t win that game (he scooped maybe two turns later), but at least he gave it a shot. A resolved Blightning is far easier to overcome than Ajani Vengeant’s ultimate, and even though I might have eventually lost the game vs Tim’s Jund deck, had I not scooped immediately I at least would have given myself the chance to win, or to learn from the experience.

Giving up at the first sign of difficulty is a sure way to impede your growth as a player. This goes for everything, not just Magic. What would have happened if you’d given up learning to ride a bicycle after the first time you fell off? Fighting through adversity is what helps us develop our brains, so that next time we face a similar predicament, our minds know how to handle it—or at least we can entertain the possibility of success rather than assuming unavoidable defeat.

Swerve Is Not The Answer.

As I mentioned on Ep#2 of Yo! MTG Taps!, a lot of people have been talking about the efficacy of Swerve against a good portion of the metagame (specifically Jund, and even more specifically, Blightning). In many instances, players are favoring it over Negate.

Personally, I’m not impressed.

Over the last few weeks I’ve been working on a blue-based control build, pulling ideas from here and there in an attempt to end up with a solid deck that at least has a decent shot at winning against the current popular Standard decks (Jund, Vampires, Bushwhacker, and now the new “Dredge” deck and the Eldrazi Green deck that won the Nashville SCG $5K over the weekend).

While I started out with a RWU deck, my most recent build has cut white entirely (via the persuasive writing of one Kyle Sanchez). However, in all of these decks—and despite my own inclinations—I have continued to include Swerve in the maindeck.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been holding a Swerve as my opponent cast Ajani Vengeant, or Cruel Ultimatum. In one game, my buddy bigheadjoe resolved two Obelisks of Alara against me, while I sat there impotent with two copies of Swerve in hand. (This all after I had beat him down to 2 life with a Sphinx of Jwar Isle and had the win on the next turn. He resolves Obelisk #1, gains 5 life, and we go back and forth for a few turns as his Obelisk nullifies the 5 damage I’m doing with ol’ Jwar-Jwar. He resolves Obelisk #2 and two turns later I find the Burst Lightning I’d been digging for. Too little, too late.) In all of these cases, had Swerve instead been Negate, I would have had an answer.

I can, however, tell you how many times I’ve Swerved a Blightning: Once. (And I think I still lost that game.)

My assertion is that Swerve’s place in Standard is strictly as Negate #5-6+. Simply put, the card looks a lot more potent than it really is, and until you play with it you may not even realize how situational it is.

The available counterspells at the moment are so narrow that us counterslingers are forced to squeeze every single ounce of versatility from our spells. At first glance, Cancel seems to be the most versatile (as it can target any counterable spell), yet a good chunk of a spell’s potency is attached to its mana cost, and while creatures continue to become cheaper and/or more powerful, counterspells seem to be going in the opposite direction. At three mana, Cancel loses a lot of its power simply due to the fact that it cannot counter a turn two Putrid Leech (for example).

(And yes, I know I said I was going to play Cancel in Standard, but the closest I’ve come is to play Double Negative, which in most cases is Cancel, so I’m going to consider that statement fulfilled.)

     

Those of us that want to continue to play counterspells are going to have to commit to it. Max out on Essence Scatter and Negate, and then consider Swerve. (And since you’re obviously running red if you’re considering Swerve, you’ll want to think about Double Negative as well, for its added strength against cascade spells). You may also want to mull over Flashfreeze, at least for the sideboard. As bigheadjoe keeps saying, “name one spell in Jund that is monoblack.” Also, now that Eldrazi Green seems to be the new force in Standard, Flashfreeze gains even more utility.

For the curious, here’s my current list (based heavily on Sanchez’s Izzet Control):

CREATURES:
3 Sphinx of Jwar Isle

INSTANTS:
4 Burst Lightning
4 Double Negative
4 Essence Scatter
2 Lightning Bolt
4 Negate
2 Swerve

SORCERIES:
3 Earthquake
2 Mind Spring

PLANESWALKERS:
3 Chandra Nalaar
4 Jace Beleren

LANDS:
9 Island
4 Mountain
2 Gargoyle Castle
2 Magosi, the Waterveil
4 Scalding Tarn
4 Terramorphic Expanse

SIDEBOARD (in flux):
2 Pithing Needle
2 Relic of Progenitus
3 Flashfreeze
4 Goblin Ruinblaster
2 Magma Spray
2 Pyroclasm

A Misnomer?

I’m beginning to wonder whether I should have called this blog “Affinity for Sphinxes” judging by my recent posts.

Nevertheless, on Saturday morning my girlfriend and I paid a visit to The Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, where they had an exhibit called “Heroes: Mortals & Myths in Ancient Greece.” Around the exhibit were various bits of information about the different characters and creatures in Greek Mythology. Obviously, I couldn’t help but be drawn to this little blurb:

“Sphinx [sfingks] was a monster, usually represented as having the torso of a woman, the body of a lion, and the wings of an eagle. Seated on a rock outside of the city-state of Thebes, she posed a riddle to travelers, killing them when they answered incorrectly, as all did before the Greek hero Oedipus. When he answered her riddle correctly, the Sphinx killed herself.”

So often we see some sort of mythological creature on our cards, yet rarely do we give any thought to the mythology of that creature, and how the WotC creative team uses that mythology to guide them in adding flavor to our beloved game.

Maybe it’s a stretch, but you can almost apply the above to Sphinx of Jwar Isle. Once it hits the table, it “poses a riddle” to your opponent, and it’s difficult to find an answer for it. If you don’t find the correct answer, it will likely kill you. But if you answer it correctly (with, for example, Gatekeeper of Malakir or Fleshbag Marauder), it kills itself.

Just a thought!

By the way, you may have noticed the changes in the appearance of Affinity For Islands (and if you haven’t noticed, either I messed up somewhere or you might need your eyes examined). Let me know what you think!

Coming later this week: Yo! MTG Taps! #3 – More Standard Discussion!

All-In Sphinx

Check out this deck that bigheadjoe of Otherworldly Journey just sent me:

“All-In Sphinx”
CREATURES:
4x Sphinx of Jwar Isle

INSTANTS:
4x Lightning Bolt
4x Terminate
3x Celestial Purge
4x Esper Charm

SORCERIES:
3x Cruel Ultimatum

ENCHANTMENTS:
4x Oblivion Ring

ARTIFACTS:
2x Obelisk of Alara

PLANESWALKERS:
2x Ajani Vengeant
1x Elspeth, Knight-Errant
3x Jace Beleren

LANDS:
3x Scalding Tarn
1x Marsh Flats
2x Arid Mesa
4x Crumbling Necropolis
4x Arcane Sanctum
2x Exotic Orchard
4x Rupture Spire
2x Mountain
1x Swamp
1x Plains
3x Island

SIDEBOARD:
3x Meddling Mage
3x Thought Hemorrhage
3x Negate
2x Identity Crisis
3x Day of Judgment
1x Celestial Purge

He piloted this deck to a win at the local tournament earlier today. Note the whopping FOUR copies of Sphinx of Jwar Isle!

EDIT: You can read Joe’s tournament report here.

More Sphinx Love.

I wasn’t crazy. Here are a few quotes from around the web regarding Sphinx of Jwar Isle:

“The real creature I’m looking at including in this Bant brew is Sphinx of Jwar Isle. What is Jund supposed to do against him? He’s bigger than all their creatures, they have absolutely no way to remove him other than a Jund Charm when I’m blocking, and he gives my late game fetchlands a ton of value by enabling me to see the top card, as if it’s a land I can shuffle into a potential spell.

[On the matchup versus Jund:] Sphinx is the real bomb in here, and running it out turn 6 with no backup is the safest creature you can invest mana into in the Standard format. The longer he stays in play, the more foresight he provides, and he plays offense as well as being a stalwart on defense. I’d expect the number of these cards to rise dramatically to counteract Jund’s narrow answers to it.”Kyle Sanchez

“Sphinx of Jwar Isle has been in just about every non-aggressive deck list since Zendikar’s release, but the Jwar Jwar Movement has been steadily gaining followers in the past few weeks. Ebay, which is usually a leading indicator, supports the upwards price trends. Playsets are climbing from $4 closer to $6 or $8, so it’s not out of the question for the Sphinxes to end up being worth a few dollars each. Many vendors on the internet still have them at a dollar, which is too low. It’s even worth about 1.3 tickets on Magic Online, which roughly translates to $1.25. Grab a few playsets and you’ll double up without much work.”Kelly Reid

“If all of a sudden, everyone said, “Let’s boycott Baneslayer Angel and play Sphinx of Jwar Isle instead!” then that would definitely change the demand [for Baneslayer] (and given the amount of Jund around, that might not be the worst idea!) That could happen, but I wouldn’t count on it just yet. On a side note, you may want to pick up Sphinx of Jwar Isle just in case.”Jeremy Fuentes

LAST-MINUTE UPDATE: HA! Kelly Reid just posted this on Twitter about 10 minutes ago:
http://bit.ly/1KLcCG Got your Jwar Jwar Sphinxes yet?”

If you follow the link you’ll see this blurb:
“Interesting to note – Star City bumped up their price on Sphinx of Jwar Isle recently, to $4. Some other sites are starting to charge real money for Sphinx too. Most sites that had listed the rare under a dollar are already sold out, and eBay prices are starting to perk up too. Sphinx of Jwar Isle may not be the next Baneslayer, but it’s better than a junk rare. Pick yours up before you have to actually trade something valuable for them.”

EDIT: Another vote for Sphinx of Jwar Isle, this time from blogger Russell Tassicker of Gwafa’s Bazaar:
Sphinx of Jwar Isle: Buy. This guy is creeping into more and more netdecks from such well respected deckbuilders and writers as Patrick Chapin and Conley Woods. I expect the price to gradually rise, and if he is a hit at Worlds then the price will shoot up. Blue is also extremely weak at the moment but if Worldwake brings some goodies this guy will find a good deck to fit in.”

Take a look at Russell’s blog (link added to sidebar); if you’re interested in the trading/financial aspect of Magic, it’s another good source for information.