måndag 17 december 2018

The Expanding Universe

25 years ago today, the Magic universe expanded beyond Dominia's shores of imagination. Few noticed back then, and even fewer would fathom the impact it would have. It was a set that grew old faster than any other. In Sweden it was the stuff of legends even among the first of us to walk the paths of heresy and legerdemain. These were the budding days of wizardry. 

A gentleman mostly known as Paddan, now a pillar of the Stockholm community, was one of those first mages to gather in the outskirts of Gothenburg almost a quarter of a century ago. Today it is my great pleasure to hand over the proverbial soap box to him. This is Paddan's tribute to the 25th anniversary of an expanding universe. Enjoy! /Mg out

If you were into fantasy, cyberpunk or horror in the early '90s in Sweden, you were pretty much guaranteed to also have an interest in role-playing. Growing up in Mölndal (Gothenburg) the games were readily available in both toy stores and specialized outlets such as Tradition, but me and my best friend didn't know anyone our age that was really interested in playing. My only guess is that it must have been via the gaming store were I was buying Mithril Miniatures, but we somehow managed to get an address to a role-playing club located at Ringön: Storyteller's Inn. Hopefully we would find someone there that was willing to take on two young and eager adventurers.

Setting things into perspective, the industrial area Ringön is not the first place a parent would pick to send their teenager for engaging in some obscure activity they don't quite understand in the first place, but being 15 at the time we were also old enough to enjoy some freedom. Having secured the ride, we would finally be able to freely roam i strange realms, fighting hideous beasts, and perhaps even get a glimpse of something beyond.

Much to our surprise, not many people at Storyteller's Inn appeared to be that interested in role-playing upon our arrival. Instead, everyone was fiddling around with some kind of card game, and it seemed to us that other activities had taken a back seat for the time being. Our kind hosts were nevertheless more than happy to show us the game, and it didn't take many minutes for us to realise that we definitely needed some of those spell cards as well! It wasn't just the person collecting Plague Rats that was crazy about the game, although I later learned that he was a Malkavian.

Memory is a fickle thing, and even though the Plague Rats guy is a common old school trope nowadays, it's one of the things that I am sure of. I also know that my first Magic purchase was two Unlimited starter decks together with a few packs of Antiquities, provided by the friendly people at Spel & Sånt. Some members of the staff were also frequenting Storyteller's Inn and Spel & Sånt quickly became our favorite store, later providing me with both Legends and The Dark booster packs which I pre-ordered in very modest quantities. The CCG craze* wasn't quite omnipresent yet, and buying a few packs for flavour was enough for a casual player like me.
Dawn of the black hearts in Mölndal.

As time progressed, I nevertheless got more and more immersed and ended up with a more or less complete set of Revised in addition to the older cards, Lich being a favourite. Being a black wizard at heart, I had a somewhat competitive deck by kitchen table standards, with Hypnotic Specters, Sengir Vampires, Hymns to Tourach and Terrors, together with some duals for Counterspells and Lightning Bolts. There was also room for a few Mishra's Factories and I eventually managed to get my hands on a single copy of Juzám Djinn, so the pile was not completely unlike my deck of choice in old school nowadays.
4C Mono Black. Greed sans Greed.
But the post 93/94 cards never gave the same kind of tingle. Many cards felt subpar and there was a subtle shift in artwork–or not so subtle in the case of Ice Age's Counterspell. By the time Mirage hit the shelves, my interest in Magic had vaned and I soon got rid of most of my collection. But I was still knee-deep in CCG:s; Deckmaster's Jyhad/VTES (which I still feel is underrated outside it's core community), Atlas Games' On the Edge, ICE's Middle Earth, Decipher's Star Wars and Chaosium's Mythos. A day in Gothenburg in the mid '90s was booster packs en masse, browsing occult books at Dolores Comics, a single cup of coffee for hours at Java, and perhaps finding some new music at Satisfaction or CD-specialisten. Then likely back for another booster pack or two.
Top 3 artists in old school.
Although the original set is of course outstanding, the first two printings were never really that special to me, and still aren't. Not that my collection was in any way notable, but the cards had in principle been available during Unlimited. Besides, Alpha was a flawed set anyway, both missing a few cards and having way too messed up corners for them to be playable together with later printings. The mystery of Legends was on a different level. The sheer size of the expansion made it hard to get a firm grip on all of the cards and some of the enigma remains even today. It is also a black wizard's dream and the whole set is oozing with flavour. The Jovial Evil staring at me from behind the counter at TV-spelsbörsen still haunts me today.

There is however one grin that beats them all, and it's owner is eyeing you from the most fabled expansion. Juzám Djinn is arguably not only the most iconic summoning in Magic, the awe any card from Arabian Nights ignited during the very early days was unparalleled. There was rumor that two boxes of Arabian Nights had arrived at a small store somewhere in the northern part of Sweden, but I will continue to regard that as an urban legend until I meet someone that actually bought a booster. Basically, the only widely available information in the beginning was a list of card titles and a few images from Duelist and Scrye magazines.
Duelist #1 was not available in Sweden as far as I know, but #3 was invaluable for checking the rarity of Jyhad. Good times with Drew Tucker.
My first actual encounter with Arabian Nights cards was via a shark circling the tables at the gaming club Sverok. Seeing the small dark mana symbols for colourless in person made it even more clear that these cards belonged to a different era. They felt old school already in 1994. The shark promptly picked up on my feverish eyes and racing heart, and it didn't take long until I was the proud owner of a Bird Maiden and a Hassan Ogress. All I had to give up was a Carrion Ants from Legends along with an uncommon or two.

I was certainly not alone in my desire for Arabian Nights, and examining early price lists is quite telling. Ali from Cairo, City in a Bottle, Diamond Valley, Guardian Beast, Jihad and Ring of Ma'rûf were just as valuable as a USD 10 unlimited Black Lotus in an April 1994 price list in the rec.games.deckmaster Usenet group. One month later, in a post aggregating the data from over 18000 price listings, the mean price of Jihad (USD 15) even surpasses that of a Black Lotus (USD 13), with Guardian Beast (USD 11) coming in at fourth place just behind Gauntlet of Might (USD 12). Another Arabian Nights chase card at the time, Ali from Cairo (USD 9), beats all of the moxen except Pearl (USD 10).†

I'm an average player at best (and an embarrassing player at worst as evident on the n00bcon 55 stream), but I pretty much always enjoy playing just for the sake of it, regardless of outcome. Magic is most of all a relaxing activity for me and there are enough nuts for me to crack elsewhere in life. Having had the luxury of building a more or less ultimate version of my old kitchen table deck, I have been longing to create something that I could only have dreamt of in 1994. My Project M of sorts.

Basing a new deck on pure nostalgia is a somewhat challenging task when the deck you're already playing is striking that very nerv. I wanted the deck to feel like it would have been unthinkable 25 years ago, as well as having it cater to my vanity by being different to most 93/94 decks out there. It turned out that I had to at least abandon the unthinkable. After all, playing an Arabian Nights only deck is sort of how things were originally meant to be.

"Try holding this instant for an attacking weenie horde and watch them go bye-bye. Sandstorm's even better than a quick Pestilence since it's a surprise move and won't hurt your own creatures. In a tournament deck, consider it for your sideboard."
    - InQuest #1, p 57
For being a set with 78 cards in total, deck construction with Arabian Nights is not as hopeless as one might imagine, largely due to the relative abundance of highly efficient creatures (and given that one allows non-Arabian lands). My original idea was to go with a green/blue or green/black build, utilizing the excellent one-drops Ghazban Ogre and Nafs Asp topped off with Erhnam Djinns. Green also has Sandstorm. However, the deck sketches never felt quite right and it wasn't until I switched to black and blue that things really came together. This was my deck and what I would have opted for in 1994.
Bottled Up!
The above deck is the Bottled Up version I played at Ivory Cup 3, still missing a few cards in the sideboard. In essence, it's a creature heavy deck that tries to hit as hard and fast as possible and works fairly well given the imposed restrictions. Flying Men, Serendib Efreet and Juzám Djinn certainly need no introduction, but an important feature of all the blue creatures in a deck short on removal is flying. The worst creature is Hasran Ogress and I could see it getting replaced by the more defensive Giant Tortoise, as Coumbajj Witches would unfortunately terrorize both men and devils. One could also imagine an alternative, more controlling build where a play set of Cuombajj Witches is introduced at the expense of one toughness creatures. The most fun creature is definitely Sorceress Queen, I had forgotten how annoyed my opponents used to be with her presence!

Diamond Valley is the deck's luxury item, included mainly due to it being one of the most sought after cards during the early days. It's nevertheless not without merit since the deck can be quite life taxing. I believe the presence of a king, a flying carpet and sandals need no motivation in One Thousand and One Nights, so the main sideboard cards of note are Stone-Throwing Devils against Savannah Lions and Sorceress Queen for increased fun. Finally, Dandân would have been a better choice than Fishliver Oil but I didn't have them at the time.

While I had been kicking around the idea of my all Arabian Nights deck for a while, I must credit Mg for unknowingly pushing me to acquire the final cards. As some of you might remember, I had the fortune of receiving an Easter egg with an Arabian Nights booster at n00bcon this year. Having opened all the other early expansions, cracking an Arabian Nights booster pack almost 25 years down the road is a pretty insane experience, and I must admit that I didn't quite realize the extent of the madness until i checked the price of a pack afterwards. I can only say that I am humbled by the remarkable generosity Magnus is showing the community. Here's for another 25 years!




* Ten years after the release of Magic, the CCG craze had given rise to more than 130 different collectible card games, as listed in the second edition of the Scrye Collectible Card Game Checklist & Price Guide (688 pages in total). One can not help but feel sorry for Garfield:
"If the market becomes flooded with trading card games of various and sundry quality as a result of Magic, I'll be disappointed"
- Richard Garfield, Duelist #1, p 13

† Top 20 mean prices for Magic cards in the May 1994 Comprehensive Magic Card Price List at rec.games.deckmaster:

Jihad, USD 14.93
Black Lotus, USD 13.24
Gauntlet of Might, USD 11.63
Guardian Beast, USD 11.47
Time Twister, USD 10.00
Forcefield, USD 9.98
Word of Command, USD 9.98
Mox Pearl, USD 9.68
Ancestral Recall, USD 9.22
Force of Nature, USD 9.17
Ali From Cairo, USD 8.97
Mox Ruby, USD 8.57
Two-Headed Giant of Foriys, USD 8.53
Mox Sapphire, USD 8.40
Shivan Dragon, USD 8.26
Vesuvan Doppelganger, USD 8.02
Mox Jet, USD 8.00
Time Walk, USD 7.66
Cyclopean Tomb, USD 7.58
Library of Alexandria, USD 7.19
Bonus: Mox Emerald, USD 6.61 (31st place)


I went through a bunch of old magazines when writing the above, trying to gather some statistics concerning early Arabian Nights prices. In the end, data was too sparse and/or scattershot to really yield anything interesting, but I'm leaving a bit of it here in case someone finds it amusing.

Scrye was the first magazine to feature a price guide and issue #1 released in June 1994 gives a USD 250 median price for a complete Arabian Nights set, the most valuable spell being the USD 15 Eye for an Eye with no other card reaching double digits. The rise of the median value of Library of Alexandria from USD 5 to USD 7 in Scrye issue #3 is however not completely representative for prices about four months later:

"Card Price Hyper-Inflation …
The Arabian box price is disturbing … It has been my experience that you can make a full set of Arabian Nights by opening one box, however, at USD 1500 a box, this would be a very expensive set. The price of a full set of Arabian Nights is lagging significantly behind the box cost. A month ago a full set of Arabian Nights could be purchased for USD 200. Today it would sell for around USD 475."
- Scrye issue #3, p 17

The magazine itself now lists a USD 390 median price for a complete set. When the InQuest Premier Issue (#0, the second magazine to feature a price guide) hit the streets about six months later in April 1995, the mean value of a set was listed as USD 740.

The first magazine in Sweden to feature a price guide was Centurion with its inaugural issue in July 1995. Gentleman Svante Landgraf kindly provided me with some scans from his magazine collection. Below is a plot of prices for a few notable Arabian Nights cards as listed in early issues of Scrye, InQuest, and Centurion. The main notable feature is that cards appear to be considerably more expensive in Sweden in July 1995. With the exception of Juzám Djinn and Library of Alexandria, prices have nevertheless dropped a few months later. In December 1995, Ali From Cairo and Guardian Beast are no longer running the show.
Prices for a few notable Arabian Nights cards in early issues of Scrye (median prices), InQuest (mean prices), and Centurion (mean prices). The Centurion prices have been converted to US dollars using the monthly mean historical conversion rates for USD in SEK.

fredag 14 december 2018

Verduran Machine Head

Wednesdays have become the go-to meetups for the foogies in Oslo. Somewhere between a handful to a dozen spellslingers are wont to gather at the local pub Gaasa ("The Goose"), occasionally substituted by a brewhouse a few steps removed from the city center. But this week it was Gaasa, and I was itching to sling some cards again. Dadgic style.
Local Magic dads Audun, Thomas and Hardy shuffling it up.
I'd been dabbling with the idea of Enchantress Ponza for a year or so. Enchantress was actually the original plan for the deck that warped into Mycosis Fungusaur at the Horrible Horse gathering last year. Never got the chance to sleeve up the Verduran ladies though, neither before nor after. They've been staring at me from the binder for quite some time now.
And what a lovely stare.
Whenever I start to build a deck these days, I begin by looking in the binder to see what is on the bench. And once a deck is assembled - if I really enjoy it - I'd be hard pressed to move cards from away from it. Most cards in Project M, Adventure Island, MonoGreen and Red Atog are off limits. I start to care about these decks and the cards in them; dissecting them for parts to please some new flame somehow makes me feel uneasy. I guess those kind of ticks is how you end up with eight Sol Rings and nineteen Mishra's Factories without having any that you feel comfortable trading away. These fellas have homes now, and I'd be damned if I were to evict them without proper form. So if I am to move cards from an existing deck, even for play testing, I would need to have a good reason. "Black Lotus would be good in this deck" is not a good reason. "I'll temporarily move these Sylvan Libraries from Adventure Island instead of spending $500 to buy copy 7-10 of the card" is solid enough though. If I can't reasonably play the new deck without the card, and I can restore the original deck in five minutes, I'm mostly game. It is a weird kind of "Proxy-10" approach to building, where the "proxies" are cards that are earmarked for other decks.
I would have to make one proper proxy for the evening still, as it appears I only own three Blights. An old house rule for playing Tribelander with team SquattelHaups stated that we could proxy any card as long as we were somewhat inclined to eventually get the real version, and the card we used as a proxy was more expensive than the card we proxied.
This means that power is off the table here. If the deck would be really fun, I guess I could add some spoilers later if I for some reason wanted to get an extra edge at a tournament setting, but for now it's budget brewing.

Let's start with a playset of Juzam Djinns.
Yay! Budget!
So Juzam may not be the most obvious inclusion in Enchantress. That's because everyone keeps building Enchantress wrong. Juzam should be the default wincon in every deck. I guess one could play something like Su-Chi or Sengir or perhaps even something more relevant for the Enchantress plan. I could also freeze my Christmas gifts in salt water and throw socks at people on the bus. But it would all be strange actions far removed from common sense and etiquette.

There was a discussion on what the name "Machine Head" meant on the last episode of All Tings Considered. (The episode is something of a masterwork in hilarity btw, given that you enjoy 85 minutes long ironic inside jokes. Bryan and Svante raised the bar with this one.) I must agree that Machine Head - alongside "Machine Gun" and probably "Artifact Toolbox" - is a deck name that hardly paints a clear picture for me either. But to quote myself in April 2013: "I don't really remember when or how, but many years ago I read about a deck that was noted to have "playsets of both Juzam and Birds" ("birds" not "bop", as in the mid 90's people hadn't invented abbreviations yet; wog was still referred to as wrath and no one called wheel of fortune "wof" or something like that). As I recall, the deck was called Machine Head, a name that now implies a red-black deck, but back then created images of Terminator Juzam in my head."

So my - very loose - definition of Machine Head is a deck with green and black that play ramp permanents into Juzam. I think I've only used the name on this blog before in combination with mana denial strategies; i.e. "Machine Head Ponza". I'd probably place the archetype somewhere in between The Rock and Train Wreck in my mind. I realize that this may not make sense on a consensus scale. But right here, four Birds and four Juzams means Machine Head, and Machine Head sounds rad.
Machine Head it is.
Then we need some mana denial. We're building Ponza after all. I was dabbling a lot with Kudzu first, but never really got it to work. So the denial suite turned out as 4 Blight, 3 Evil Prescence, and two Icy Manipulator for gravy. In addition to Juzam, I wanted some more wincons, and Underworld Dreams seemed like gas with Enchantress. The only issue was the mana cost. To mitigate the heavy color requirements from both green and black, I decided to only run colored lands, even cutting Strip Mine from the list. That may be a bad idea in general, and in a Ponza in particular.
I marked one of my Forests with an "S" to represent that that card could have been a Strip Mine. And yes, both times I drew it I would rather have had it be a Strip Mine ;)
Sylvan Library turned out awesome every time I goldfished the deck, so I upped the number to four. With a playset Sylvan, some hard requirements on colored mana, and no ramp in form of power, I also sleeved up three Untamed Wilds. It turned out to be a pretty great card in this context.

This is what I ended up with:
Verduran Ponza, v1.0
There are very few one-ofs, but other than lacking the miser topdecks, the deck plays really fun. Drawing a bunch of cards and playing Juzam is beautiful in its own right. I was ready for opponents.
But first, via the local pinball arcade to register a runner-up highscore at Medival Madness. 63 million on a rusty machine. Starting the evening feeling pretty fly as 90s fanboys go.
I started my first game against Kenneth by playing turn one Sol Ring into turn two Juzam. It was a quick affair, but clearly attributed more to fluke and the supremacy of Juzam than a testament to the enchantments. We kept rolling.
Gaming hard.
Value town.
I played against a few different deck, most of them on the lower tier of the spectrum. And damn. The deck loses hard to Underworld Dreams. It also struggles with burn and lightning. I even lost a game as a result of Demonic Torment on Juzam Djinn; that was a new one. It may take some time before this one reaches the "wins as much as it loses" mark.

The main issue is that we don't have any removal. The deck is brilliant against the goldfish (as most piles are wont to be), but the mana denial plan isn't strong enough to keep the opponent off threats, it only slows them down. And once they do land a wincon, we can't really take care of it. So I guess either stocking up on more denial, perhaps even take a plunge towards a Nether Void, or add white for removal. With white we also get access to gas like Moat and Spirit Link. Moat may combo badly with Juzam though.
Audun at one point punched me out with some combination of Evil Eye of Orms-by-Gore and Artifact Possession on my Icy Manipulator. That dude can really take you to the shores of imagination.
So I guess it is back to the drawing board for a while. I really believe there is more to the Enchantress though, and I'm in no mood to give it up yet. It is after all supremely satisfying to draw three cards of an Evil Presence.

lördag 8 december 2018

Found an old report.

These are magical days. We celebrate life and toast in unbreakable glasses. Though in dancing there is barely time for writing, and I must to fall back to old stories this time.

There are lots of tales we never wrote and lots of stones we never turned. Team Kaffebryggers's latest summer tournaments in Växjö, Team KanelFireball's post-Christmas tournaments in Varberg, or perhaps the journey of Team Lisch in Lidköping? I recently unearthed some pictures from their Drowned gathering in March 2017.
Communities are growing and stories are lurking. Luckily for me, I found one that was already written.

Before there was a Flippin' Orbs podcast, before the online deck archetype library, and before the page wak-wak.se was up and running, a jovial Stockholmer in a colorful suit named Gordon Anderson still roamed the corners of the format. The man was named Gordon that is, not the suit.
 Flippin' the Orb, preschool style.

This was in fact not that long ago, we're talking 2017. Trump was the US president and Thor: Ragnarok was a movie. But in some ways it feels like a lot of water has passed under the bridges since then. In early 2017, we for example had no YouTube channels nor podcasts discussing the format. I guess we quickly get used to having lots of information, and it is hard to think back on what it was like just two years ago, when content was far more scarce. But go back two more years to early 2015, and the concept of larger gatherings in the US is a somewhat fresh idea, EC rules are starting to properly find their footing after the first Eternal Weekend, and the Italian scene is growing with up to 30 players at their largest gatherings. Two years before that, in 2013, the first few players at the US West Coast just started reaching out about the format, the scene in Canada was still new, and I first played the game outside Sweden (in Norway and Germany). Two years before that Oldschool was mostly unknown outside the borders of Sweden, and this blog was started. Two years before that we started hosting n00bcon at the Rotary Pub in Gothenburg. And yet two years before that, Kalle and I played our first duel with "oldschool decks".

So 2017 is not that long ago in the grand scheme of this format. That is meant as an excuse of sorts. I'm trying to convey that this short tournament report I found is not outdated, per say, just a little late to the presses. Before Wak-Wak was a thing, Gordon sent over this report for me to publish. And I somehow lost it. I am uncertain if he remembers writing it himself anymore. But I'm not one to look a gift horse in the mouth, and as family takes a good chunk of my potential writing time right now, this seems like the perfect opportunity to bring closure to the n00bcon Training Day. Enjoy :)


n00bcon Training Day, by Gordon Anderson

I don’t think anybody has missed that n00bcon 9 this year will have as many as a hundred players(!). It will be THE 93/94 event of the year and it will be more important than ever to show up with a fun deck that you are comfortable with. Otherwise seven 60 minute rounds of swiss will be more than grueling, as Mg calls it on the n00bcon site. Therefore, we decided to arrange one last tournament two weeks before the big shindig, so people could try out their decks one more time. We called it n00bcon Training Day.

Me and my co-conspirator Paddan first decided to play the tournament at the usual pub where we arrange our monthly game nights. But when last month's game night ended up attracting 14 players we decided we needed to rent a place. Said and done, and a few hundred Swedish kronor poorer we had a place where we could fit at least 20 players.

Two weeks later and it was time for the tournament. Me and Paddan met up in the morning to get the key, set up all the tables and then going for a beer run to the nearest Systembolag (the only place that is allowed to sell alcohol in Sweden). We came back with 80+ beers, wrote a beer menu and got everything else ready for an amazing tournament was starting at 2pm and could go on for the whole day and night. We also planned for some nice side events to play after the main tournament was finished. The first two players showed up around 1pm and the first beers left the fridge. Two more players came shortly thereafter but they were both driving so they didn’t want any beer. Soon, three more players joined us. Three players who also didn’t drink that day. And lastly 35 minutes late (a tournament needs to be late doesn’t it) the last brave contestant showed up to make us an even ten combatants. He lives almost 200 km away so yes; he was driving as well. This is where we realized we may have bought a little too much beer. But hey, you can’t have too much beer at home!
My two starting hands against Yann; it didn't end well for him.
We decided to play four rounds of swiss and a top4. The meta for the day was quite unusual with two Power Monolith decks, two UG Berserk Aggro decks, Ponza, WUG Aggro, Arabian Aggro, Mono Blue Artifact Control, Machine Head and a BR Midrange deck with a splash for blue power and a couple of Serendibs.
Kird Ape in play and 3 bolts was a little too much for me to handle.
Because of the small size of the tournament we decided that draws, intentional or not, wouldn’t give any points at all, not even in the first rounds. After four rounds we had our top4 with Andreas Cermak on almost the same deck he took down Arvikafestivalen with, Andreas Rosén on Power Monolith, Max Weltz also on Power Monolith, and lastly the Ponza deck piloted by Johan Råberg managed to go 3-1 and get a spot in the top.
Ponza doing Ponza stuff and then slamming down a Nether Void. Paddan doesn’t seem that happy about it.
Johan was paired against Cermak which was his only loss in the swiss, and he was not happy about it. That may have been because their last match lasted about 10-15 minutes. Sadly for Johan, this time was no different and 15 minutes later he was out and Cermak advanced to the finals. The second semi-final was a little more interesting with a mirror match between the two very similar Power Monolith decks. But after some advanced spell slinging and a lot of mana being generated Andreas Rosén was able to knock out Max from contention.

At last it was time for the final round of magic, one slow and controlling combo deck versus a blistering fast aggro deck with disenchants to make life a little harder for the combo player.
Is that a Basalt Monolith on the table?
In the first game Rosén - or as we call him in Swedish: The Rose - made Cermak draw 80 cards with a Braingeyser and no, he didn’t have that many in his library so it was on to game two. In game two the small aggressive creatures won before The Rose could combo of and it was time for the final game of the evening. In this game it looked quite ok for The Rose but then his Wheel of Fortune gave all its fortunes to Cermak who got a completely bonkers hand that easily gave him his second tournament win in a row.
Arabian Aggro.
Hope you enjoyed the read and now you have some info on what decks a big part of the Stockholm crew have been testing for n00bcon. Because of the ten players that played this tournament, a whooping eight will be in Gothenburg to defend the World Champion title currently held by fellow Stockholmer Martin Berlin.


Hehe, defend it they didn't ;)

If you need some more Oldschool fix, go check out the Bootlegger's Christmas OS95 report at Music City Oldschool, or perhaps read some old MtG magazines with Svante Landgraf. And head over to Urborg Buffet to check out their new Swiss 93/94 blog!

lördag 1 december 2018

Understanding Ulgrotha

Some years ago I wrote an April's Fools post about legalizing Homelands. It was in a sense a comment on the contemporary discussions about legalizing Fallen Empires; hopefully getting in a few laughs and some tomfoolery in the process. It was of course never the intention to actually legalize the set, the focus was rather to flaunt the premise. Enter irony. Not Alanis Morissette "rain on your wedding day" irony, but proper text book irony.

In celebration of the the fifth annual Arvika Festival next February, KungMarkus decided to legalize Homelands for his tournament. He's not opening the doors for dilly-dally like Revised nor Fallen Empires though; only Homelands will be added to the traditional "Swedish legal" sets. And he mentioned that he found inspiration in that old April's Fool post. So by ridiculing the fiction of having Homelands legal it somehow became fact. Irony. Now here we are, and I for one have gotten properly excited to brew in this space. So let's travel to Ulgrotha - for real this time - and take a peek at what the expansion has to offer.
Considering the era in which they came, the spells of Homelands are actually not that horrible. Though the high end cards are probably the worst of any set. And I remember how it was both overprinted and the only new expansion to be released in the full year between Ice Age in June 1995 and Alliances in June 1996. Heh, come to think of it, the drought in exciting cards during that period was probably the reason a majority of the players at my school took a pause from the game. Yeah, it was a bad set, and the mediocrity of Homelands almost killed Magic. But is it, on average, worse than e.g. The Dark?

While the true high end of The Dark - Fellwar Stone, Blood Moon and Maze of Ith - would make most comparisons skew in that sets favor, I believe Homelands have a larger total number of cards that could possibly see play. In a small enough card pool, any addition is bound to have some effect on the meta, and 93/94 is about as small as a constructed card pool gets.
Merchant Scroll
Let's start from the top. Unlike any cards from The Dark or Legends, Merchant Scroll has the rare distinction of being restricted in Vintage. Markus opted to keep the Scroll restricted for the upcoming Festival tournament as well. As a cheap tutor it gives consistency to broken cards and also offer a surprising amount of flexibility. Though I suspect that it will search for Ancestral Recall about 65% of the time, Mana Drain about 30% of the time, and only the last 5% it will find something like Psionic Blast, Hurkyl's Recall, Boomerang or Blue Elemental Blast. It is clearly less flexible than Demonic Tutor, but considering how often the Tutor searches for Ancestral Recall, Merchant Scroll is sure to see a lot of play at the top tables.

While Merchant Scroll mostly serve to reinforce existing strategies, Homelands also bring some heavy hitters that beg for build-arounds.
Primal Order
Primal Order is my personal favorite card of Homelands, and was the original "chase card" of the set. MonoGreen strategies are traditionally not the sharpest blade in 93/94, but the Order gives us some proper incentive to go green. As distressing cards go, this is comparable to Underworld Dreams in punishing people for trying to grow resources. The jury is still out on the best Primal Order deck, but I wouldn't be surprised to see people try out green midrange or even new builds of Enchantress with the card. I have a home planned for my playset at the very least.
Ah, the epic Baron Sengir. So close to playable. The original playtest version of the card was a 5/5 flier for 3BBB that removed all the counters from vampires it regenerated, and rather than getting +2/+2 for killing a creature it got +1/+1 for killing an opponent. Having a slightly improved regeneration ability and a smoother way to get counters doesn't really offset the two additional mana to summon though. Seriously cool dude, but I can't see him shine outside something like a monoblack All Hallow's Eve deck. I will however offer an high five to anyone who tries. You could clearly play him just because he's rad. And he does combo nicely with Nettling Imp I guess.

There are zero creatures in the original 93/94 cardpool that survive both Lightning Bolt and Swords to Plowshares. Homelands bring two to the mix with Autumn Willow and Ihsan's Shade. Autumn Willow was the first creature printed with shroud / hexproof. As such, she also laughs in the face of The Abyss. One of the first times I played against The Deck at a convention in 1996 Autumn Willow was in fact one of the finishers of choice. She also became a mainstay in ErhnamGeddon decks, to the point that many players in the area started referring to them as "WillowGeddon" decks.
The most black of knights.
Ihsan's Shade is well above the curve as 6-drop threats went in 1994. Its power level is not far below the gold standard we find in Shivan Dragon and Mahamothi Djinn. Trading flying for being invincible to Elemental Blasts and Swords doesn't seem like that bad a deal.

There's a lot to unpack with Homelands's midrange threats. E.g. Eron the Relentless (a five-mana 5/2 haste creature that regenerates for RRR) is a properly potent summon. And the original shattergang brothers - Joven and Chandler - may be far less horrible than we expected in 1995. Even commons like Hungry Mist (6/2 for 2GG, pay GG each upkeep or sac it) could be something to look into. It is not like it's an easy card to steal with Control Magic unless the opponent is heavily invested in green, and having a big beater that survives City in a Bottle could have implications.
Probably not this one though. Unless you build a sweet control deck with Mystic Decree and Wall of Kelp and have Marjhan as roadblock/finisher. Hm. Might actually be onto something durdly here.
Cards on the table. I started writing this post, or at least taking the pictures, a couple of weeks ago. My plan was to finish up a handful posts before a new player entered the family so I would be able to breeze through the updates here while my mind was elsewhere. It worked pretty well, but now I don't really remember what my plan was for these pictures. So I'll have to do some winging here, with a mind all over the place.
More cards.
Removal then, it seems. Serrated Arrows was a contender for "best card in the set" while Homelands was a part of Standard (Type 2). Though much of that had to do with the prevalence of pump knights in ye olde Necro decks. Without a bunch of 2/1s running around defining the battlefield, the Arrows get less ubiquitous. But they still kill a bunch of things in one hit; birds, elves, lions, flying men, pixies, archers, goblins, caretakers, archaeologists and the odd pegasus to mention a few. And they do mess up combat math and bring Angels and Efreets into bolt range. So while not being the powerhouse they were in 1995, I can certainly see the arrows fit into Transmute Artifact decks if nothing else.

An-Zerrin Ruins is at worst "Destroy target tapped creature", and at best some solid card advantage in red. Whenever you say "Efreet" with the ruins you are entitled to a happy dance. Broken Visage is a little harder. If you get to resolve it and trade 2-for-1 it is certainly great, but I think I'd rather have Terror in most cases. I still place it well within the realms of playables; unlike Homelands worst "removal spell" (and contender for worst card in the set):
This is a painfully terrible card. Among my stranger Magic losses was a Reject Rare Draft around five years ago when I, for real, lost a winning game as my opponent topdecked Mammoth Harness to bring my Cockatrice to the ground. I guess every card will have their moments, though I suspect them to be few and far between for the harness. This is a reserved list rare by the way, though one I predict will dodge any buy-outs.
A side note as Homelands removal goes: many of these cards fly straight in the face of modern design and color pie concerns. I picture Mark Rosewater shaking his fist somewhere.
Like this one. Green is supposed to only handle flying creatures, Roots somehow does the exact opposite. A sick combo with Mammoth Harness though.
It feels a little distasteful to highlight Mammoth Harness and Roots too deeply when we are trying to look at the bright side of Ulgrotha. So let's check out a few other random nuggets instead.
Random nuggets.
Hey, Wall of Kelp! That's the most expensive card in the set these days! It is like $6 for a NM copy at CardKingdom. Not too shabby. In most decks that want tokens, I'd probably play Sengir Autocrat instead, but maybe someone will be able to break the wall. (Hint: It may be durdly and involve Marjhan and Mystic Decree).
Something, something, Ashnod's Altar.
Headstone is surprisingly playable, wrecking Regrowths, Recalls and a litter of reanimation spells, all while drawing you a card. Just being able to cycle it is not that bad a deal either. And Joven's Ferrets could most certainly find a home in the green 1-drop deck we've seen the Russians play at n00bcon a few times. Random fact: Kyle Namvar - who along with Scott Hungerford designed and developed Homelands - had a pet ferret. Initially the set had several ferret designs to commemorate this, though only Joven's survived to see print.
These may have been Spectral Ferrets in an alternate timeline. Pretty nice stats on this one btw.
Memory Lapse should also be able to find a home in combo or tempo decks. 1U is far easier to find than UU in most decks. And there are certainly scenarios when a well-placed Lapse will be equivalent to a Time Walk.

I could go on. I could mention Sea Sprite and its success in the early days of the Legacy format. Rant on about Jinx as a way mess with Factories, or how Roterothopter is a nice mana sink in red burn and help Atog fit in the 2-slot in Sligh. Homelands may have been far from a home run, but it was by no means a complete strike out either. I think WotC themselves said it best in their hilariously mid-90s commercial.

"As you'll discover, there's much more to this new world of Homelands. A world of intrigue and magic. Not to mention, surprises..."
 Enjoy this one, and best of brewing until the Festival in February. 

tisdag 20 november 2018

Decks and rants from Fishliver Oil Cup Lanterna (and Eternal Weekend)

During the last month, we not only witnessed the largest EC-rules tournament this side of the ocean in a lighthouse in Genoa, we also saw the biggest EC-tournament ever at the yearly Eternal Weekend in the New World.

Around these parts, EC-rules gatherings are few and far between. Across the Sea though, they are the most common way to play 93/94 by a good margin. For those unfamiliar or in need of a refresher course, these are the main changes from the "Baseline B&R" which we commonly cover here:

* Fallen Empires is a legal set
* Maze of Ith and Recall are restricted
* Strip Mine, Mishra's Workshop and Shahrazade are unrestricted
* Nalathni Dragon and the two first book promo cards (Arena and Sewers of Estark) are legal
Spoiler alert: Not meta defining.
EC rules also reinstates Mana Burn as a game rule, which may make cards like Su-Chi slightly more dangerous to play. Additional changes from the full on "Swedish rules" also include a different reprint policy btw, but for all nintendo purposes that's irrelevant. Or whatever the saying is.

So let's check out some top decks from the latest EC-tournaments! We'll start with the top8 decks from the Lanterna Tournament, which was the original intent of this post. After I had gotten those lists, I figured we might take a gander at the top8 from Eternal Weekend as well to see if we can learn something from the progenitors of the rule set. Off to the races!

Fishliver Oil Lanterna Top8

Daniele Brunazzo's Arabian Aggro. 1st Place.
Smooth criminal Daniel Brunazzo took down the Lanterna tournament with his Arabian Aggro / Erhnam Burn'Em deck. I think there's few things for me to say which Daniel himself didn't explain better in his own tournament report, so check it out if you haven't!
Martin Berlin's Workshop Aggro. 2nd place.
Martin Berlin took to the Workshops for the evening; a strategy I feel might be a little underestimated when looking at tournaments across the ocean. Even with a single Workshop, three out of four Artifact Aggro decks placed in the top16 of last n00bcon, giving them one of the highest win rates of the gathering. Some deep brewing went into this list btw, check out Berlin's interview on All Tings Considered for the full story.
Patric Hiness's BRU Handelman. 3-4th place.
Here we find Patric Hinnes sporting our first Fallen Empires card; the dreaded Hymn to Tourach. In 95/96, Robert Hahn wrote one of the most influential pieces of early Magic theory: "Schools of Magic". In it, Hahn discussed different strategies to win at Magic; these days perhaps the Weissman school (i.e. "The Deck") is the most well known of them. The Handelman school was a fast and aggressive one, seeking to control the opponent's hand through cards like Hymn to Tourach and Hypnotic Specter while sporting effective spot removal to back up its end game with djinns and efreets. To quote Chris Zaborowski over at AmazingMtg: "The Handelman School is actually closely related to the Weissman School; both were essentially card denial decks, but where the Weissman School looked to prolong the game, the Handelman School looked to end it. Hahn himself summarized the School as "I'm going to come kill you with this thing right here unless you do something about it," which in many ways is the spiritual precursor to David Price's "there are no wrong questions, only wrong answers" theory to designing and playing aggressive decks."
Philipp Steinish's Deadguy/Handelman. 3-4th place.
Philipp Steinish rounds out the Top4 with a slightly different take on the Handelman strategy. This one is in fact closer to the 1995 designs, sporting white for more flexible removal, and having a mana base that gets supremely annoyed by Blood Moon. These two decks are good examples of strategies that moves up a tier with the unrestriction of Strip Mine and -most importantly- the full set of Hymn to Tourach to hinder the opponent's ability to play out their midgame.
Miguel Angel Diaz Gonzalez's The Deck. 5-8th place.
Miguel took his The Deck to the Top16 of the Saturday main tournament, the day after using this similar version to reach the EC Top8. The changes between the two rule sets are fairly subtle at glance; cutting Transmute Artifact, Mirror Universe, Sylvan Library, Tropical Island and Underground Sea from the Italian version; adding three Strip Mine, Lightning Bolt and Timetwister for EC. I obviously like the approach of playing four Strip Mines in The Deck (yes, even when you have Moat to handle opposing Factories), and cutting a few of the cards with a little more specific mana cost (like Sylvan) in favor of a card like Lightning Bolt to handle weenies seems like a very good choice. Still a total number of zero Factories in his list, which is impressive.
Francesco Delphino UWR Burn. 5-8th place.
So this is what Francesco's deck looked like the day before he cut all the Power cards and went on to win the 115 players main event. Other than the obvious power gracing the list, the changes are not only subtle. Apart from cutting a Factory, and adding a couple of extra Strip Mines (as is custom), Francesco played Serendib Efreets this day, prompting him to not use City in a Bottle. This is probably closer to what some people in Scandinavia refer to as Fantasy Zoo.
Svante Landgraf's Spice Rack. 5-8th place.
Svante Landgraf is a familiar name round these parts. Aside from top8'ing most of tournaments he shows up at, he runs the End of turn, Draw a card blog and is a frequent guest on the All Tings Considered podcast. He's also my nemesis. Svante is the one guy in the top8 to ruin the statistic by not running a full grip of Strip Mines here, but instead takes full stock on the other playset we've seen have the biggest impact on this top8: Hymn to Tourach. Spice Rack is a very cool deck, unlike anything I saw myself back in the days. Disrupt the opponent's hand, play The Rack, finish with Sedge Troll (or Atog) if needed. Check out this episode of All Tings Considered for more info about the deck.
Joep Meddens UB Handelman. 5-8th place.
Joep Meddens keeps racking up his resume with a top8 finish at the Lanterna tournament the day before we saw him grace the main event top16 with Erhnam Midrange. I am actually not sure if we could call this one Handelman. It doesn't play Juzam, and has a solid mana base, so maybe this is more UB Hand&Land Denial or something. Maybe somewhere between Handelman and O'Brien schools for those interested in nitpicking. Or perhaps just something fully different, like Joep School. Nice to see a couple of more cards from Fallen Empires represented regardless, with both the Order and the Initiates of the Ebon Hand showing up as as four-ofs.

So that's the Lanterna tournament for you! Seventy or so players. 3.125 average Strip Mines per deck and 2.375 average Factories, for those keeping count. Four of the decks uses the full set Hymns available, one take the opportunity to sleeve up a playset Workshops, and one deck make use of additional cards from Fallen Empires in Order of the Ebon Hand and Initiates of that very same hand. Some different tech that is harder to pull of using the more common Italian rules ("Baseline B&R"), in particular Handelman strategies and Spice Rack. But the major impact seems to be stemming from Strip Mine and Hymn to Tourach. The book promos glare in their absence.

Eternal Weekend 2018 Top8

Now let's take a look at what the more experienced players from across the ocean used one week later at the 181 player Eternal Weekend tournament. (If you want to see the full span of deck lists from Eternal Weekend, check out this post at Eternal Central.)
Sebastian Rauskold's MonoBlack. 1st place.
Aah, good ol' monoblack. Solid, streamlined list without any fuss nor unnecessary fanciness. Just Ritual into Hippies, Hymn, land destruction, Knights, and Juzam and Vampires to top of the curve after opponent's plan is disrupted. Robust pile. One kinda interesting thing is that Underworld Dreams is one of the MVPs for monoblack over here, while it doesn't seem to be that important a card in EC rules. Also no Lotus, which is always fun to see in a gathering of this size. Congrats Sebastian!
Jamie Parke's Atog Burn. 2nd place.
Full-Power Atog Burn is a beautiful pile and has proven to be one of the highest tier decks in the format. Piloted by a master like Jamie, it is no surprise to see this around the top of the final standings. Though I've heard from reputable sources that Jamie actually only have 18% of the credit for this runner up place, with most of the honors (around 48%) going to Will Magrann. Still I guess we're not that far from entering the 2020s, so Jamie should soon be able to pick up his 4th Pro Tour Top8 and get some well deserved spotlight for that. And hopefully another sweet rap.
Blake Burkholder's Temple of Sped. 3rd place.
Now this is kinda funny. I just realized that the LauterDeck that won last n00bcon is extremely close in style to what we know as Temple of Sped from EC rules. Basically the differences is that the LauterDeck plays a couple of more counters (Power Sink), an extra Serra Angel, all five moxen, and doesn't use red (but still have Psionic Blast for burn). Temple of Sped have a couple of pump-knights and splash red for more burn (and add some extra Strip Mines of course, but probably every single deck in the format would do that given the opportunity. Maybe sans Fork Recursion). So that's cool. This deck seems immensely well positioned regardless of rule set.
Dustin Clark's Troll Disco. 4th place.
Dammit Dustin. I know that this is a Troll list, but this is a horrible way to arrange the cards. Even using Japanese Disks to make it harder to read. Yeah, I get the joke, but I don't have the energy to feed the Troll here by spending the evening trying to decipher the full extent of this ;)
Arturo Garcia's UB. 5th place.
This deck on the other hand has enough sweet choices that I won't barely mention the glare nor the random layout. Not more than once at least. Miser's Juzam, Mahamothi, Serendib Djinn and Royal Assassin for the spice. As this post is supposed to be somewhat analytical of the top tier meta, I should probably try and figure out if this goes in the Handelman pile or Disaster pile? Monoblack splashing blue for Power and sideboard Energy Flux is generally a Disaster, but this one take more stock in hand disruption followed by must-answer treaths which is a trademark of Handelman. Guess I'll just call this UB.
Stephen Menendian's UR Burn. 6th place.
Smenen is a writer, podcaster, master wizard and general connoisseur of most formats hearkening from the other side of the millennium. I assume his resume precedes him at this point. Stephen has been perfecting UR Burn in EC rules for some time; this is the 4th time we see him in the Eternal Weekend Top8 in as many tries. There are some pretty cool choices here if we are used to wearing the "Swedish legal" glasses. Playing three sideboard Control Magic seems fully reasonable in a meta with so many decks running Trolls, Atogs or mostly black spells (without access to Disenchant), and the maindeck Scepters are also a rare sight this side of the ocean. Can we assume one of the glared out cards is an Earthquake?
Eliot Davidoff's Troll Disco. 7th place.
Our own @BetaSedgeTroll, Eliot Davidoff, doesn't disappoint with his namesake card. Spell Blast is a rarely used gem, and Hurkyl's Recall is fun enough with the Disk that I'm surprised we don't see the interaction more often. This deck is almost completely multi-format legal in all commonly used versions of oldschool btw; just cut a single Strip Mine and you'll be able to travel the world with these 75 without changing a card. Great pile by a great pilot.
Mark Le Pine's Troll Disco. 8th place.
Mark Le Pine rounds of the top8 with a slightly different take on Troll Disco, incorporating the infamous Hymns. And how rad is it to cut the fourth Disk for a maindeck Sol'Kanar the Swamp King? To cool for school, that's how cool. In fact just about the same level of cool as rocking a 62 card deck in the 1999 World Championship all the way to the finals, before eventually succumbing to Kai Budde. Mark casually adds this marvelous finish to a resume that already holds three pro tour top8s.


For those interested in the stats, we see 3.625 Strip Mines and 4.0 Factories per deck here, so slightly more than in the Italian tournament. Eliot was the guy to go against the grain and only play two Strips in his 75 rather than the full playset. The Strip Mine / Mishra's Factory discussion is a passionate one. I'll leave the Strip Mine discussion be for now, but take I'll take a sidebar to share my current stance on Mishra's Factory.

Mishra's Factory is meta defining enough to warrant a restriction. Disregarding the results above and looking at tournaments using the baseline B&R, we e.g. see 57/64 possible Factories in the main Fishliver Oil Top16. It is just an obvious inclusion to the point it seems weird not to have the playset instead of other wincons. We might recognize the concept; Brainstorm is too good in Legacy, Workshop is too good in Vintage, Factory is too good in 93/94. One often overlooked problem with restricting Factory however, is that land destruction would get worse. Today a lot of decks (in a meta with restricted Strip Mine) play the occasional Sinkhole or Stone Rain to take care of problematic non-basics. With a restricted Factory, these cards would be less likely to see play. That, in turn, would make Library of Alexandria slightly better, which could lead to more games decided by an early Library. The correct choice then, from a pure play/interaction point of view, would probably be to restrict Factory and ban LoA (and Mind Twist while we're at it). But banning cards is not something we like to do. So maybe we should just let Factory keep its reign. Or restrict it for a year and see what happens. Articulated opinions on this are very welcome, as always.

Damn, this is turning out a long and ranty post. I apologize. Lots of changes in the air at home; my focus is clearly not aligned. Here's a pic of a super sweet Chaos Orb I got a month ago:
Ok, meta analysis. Uh... Ok, so the Fallen Empires cards we see in the top8 here are - apart from the three Hymn decks - the black and white pump knights. So there's a lot of space left to explore. I kinda like the space of having Fallen Empires plus restricted Hymn in an old school format btw, like the first EudoGames rules from the US west coast did. Maybe not for permanent "Swedish rules", but I wouldn't mind trying it out again; it was six years since I last played tournament with FE legal and Hymn restricted. There are a lot of interesting options in FE if we dig a little. In fact, let's dig just two steps down from the top8 to Bryan Manolakos's glorious red midrange deck for some sick Orgg tech:
Bryan Manolakos's Orgg.dec. 10th place.
This is cool.