måndag 24 september 2018

Flippin' Stars

Ah, dexterity cards. The mechanic to represent the primordial era of Magic unlike any other. These days, most oldschool players are in consensus on how to use Chaos Orb, and its 2012 format errata (with a small 2013 update to follow new oracle errata) have been adopted by a majority of the format variants (que exception for the Wizards' Tournament).

Chaos Orb is a staple in 93/94 if there ever was one. It joins a tiny handful cards - alongside alumni like Black Lotus, Sol Ring, Strip Mine and Library of Alexandria - where one of the only feasible reasons not to play it is that one doesn't have access to it. Pretty much any deck is stronger with a Chaos Orb in it, and many players also consider it a properly fun card to play.

Today is not about Chaos Orb though. Today we give the spotlight to its oft neglected little brother; Falling Star.
In the footsteps of giants.
Falling Star is the only dexterity card other than Chaos Orb outside the land of silver borders. For those not knee-deep in rarely played Legends rares, this is the rule text:

Flip Star onto the playing area from a height of at least one foot. Star must turn at least 360 degrees or it has no effect. When Falling Star lands, Falling Star does 3 damage to each creature that it touches. Any creatures damaged by Falling Star that are not destroyed become tapped.
"Why do you keep moving your Rukh Egg so close to my territory?"
The Oracle errata of Falling Star is fairly straightforward, mainly removing the "360 degrees" wording, specifying "lands on" rather than "touches", and updating the language to more modern terms (e.g. "does 3 damage" is replaced by "deals 3 damage"):

Flip Falling Star onto the playing area from a height of at least one foot. Falling Star deals 3 damage to each creature it lands on. Tap all creatures dealt damage by Falling Star. If Falling Star doesn't turn completely over at least once during the flip, it has no effect.

Now, my first though here was if anyone considered the different unit of height measure in the Italian market, but I can't seem to find any indication that Italian oracle errata force players onto "freedom units" rather than the metric system. So it appears that this is the only black bordered card that in fact have different functionality depending on language.
One foot is 30.48 cm, but it is translated to a more grokable 30 cm here. Which means that the Italian version is in fact slightly better than the English one. Small difference, sure, but still amusing on so many levels.
Another interesting thing with the oracle errata is that it refers to the flip taking place at "the playing area" which is not a space defined in the Magic comp rules. Playing area is not a zone (such as battlefield, hand, graveyard, stack, etc), but rather a physical space where the cards are. So could we flip the Star to deal damage to a Jackal Pup in the opponent's graveyard? Probably not, but a man can dream.

The "Swedish rules" - as well as a majority of the other oldschool rule sets - simply use the oracle wording for Falling Star. It may seem a little weird - in particular as we have special errata for Chaos Orb - but as Falling Star is fairly weak even in the hands of a skilled flipper and almost no one plays it, it hasn't created any problems yet. "If it ain't broke", and all that.
Oh you foolish, foolish man...
A couple of local rule variants have taken a stab at Falling Star errata however. Among the first people out were the Bazaar of Moxen rules a couple of years ago. Their errata is very similar to the Chaos Orb errata, but instead of getting a fair flip on one card, BoM gives you a fair flip on two separate cards with the Star:

Choose up to two different creatures.
For each chosen creature, flip Falling Star onto the battlefield from a height of at least one foot. If Falling Star turns over completely at least once during the flip, and touches the chosen creature, Falling Star deals 3 damages to this creature.
Tap each creature that has been dealt damage this way.
Something akin to this.
I can't speak for how well this errata has been recived by potential players using Falling Star during BoM events, but as far as I know no players outside the BoM group have adopted this wording. Some have expressed it as unintutive power level errata, considering that Chaos Orb has the exact same written wording but only flips on one card. But the most notable thing with the errata is of course that it goes away from oracle wording, having the flip taking place on the battlefield zone rather than the playing area space ;)

More recently, the Beasts of the Bay took a stab at Falling Star errata as well. Personally, I find this one pretty sweet:

Choose any number of non-token creatures on the battlefield, then arrange them in the playing area in any way except that none of them may overlap. Flip Falling Star onto the playing area from a height of at least one foot. Falling Star deals 3 damage to each chosen creature it lands on. Tap all creatures dealt damage by Falling Star. If Falling Star doesn't turn completely over at least once during the flip, it has no effect.
I have no idea why I have six Dragon Engines, but it made for a nice picture. So no regrets.
This avoids potentially messy board states while giving a solid edge to those with deep flipping skills. If we would adopt errata for Falling Star here, I suspect this would be very close to what I would vote for. The only nitpick I have here is that it has power level errata to be unable to deal damage to tokens. I get why we don't let Chaos Orb destroy tokens, as its text clearly refers to "cards" (rather than permanents), but as Falling Star only reference creatures (not "creature cards") on both written text and current oracle errata, I don't really see an argument to make it unable to kill a bunch of Sand Warriors or similar. I guess it could relate to that tokens don't have fixed sizes, but that should be easy enough to fix by letting card sized objects represent the tokens during the flip?
"To play around Falling Star, I will let this fire represent my Wasp token."
The background for this post was a message I got from Ryan Gresco last week btw. He was wondering about errata for playing Falling Star over Skype, and looked for a general solution. I've talked a little with DFB about this subject some time ago, and back then there were no clear consensus. But to answer the question, I would personally recommend the Beasts of the Bay errata for Skype (and I would also recommend the Beasts of the Bay to update their errata so Falling Star can hit tokens :P). Thanks for the post suggestion Ryan, it's always appreciated to get some inspiration on topics!


This week I also had the pleasure of being a guest on the All Tings Considered podcast. It was very enjoyable to get to chat with Bryan for his 30th episode. We covered a lot of topics in a marathon episode spanning over two hours with - at most - a small hint of structure, so a casual listener might get more than they would bargain for. But if you are interested in the budding days of the 93/94 format in the late 00's, The Deck tech from n00bcon 5, whether Coal Golem is in fact better than Celestial Prism, some truly strange deck ideas ("Tunnel for the win"), and way to much talk about cards with modern frames, you should check it out :) Oh, and also check out the Player's Ball Tournament report over at Music City Oldschool, sweet report from what seems like an awesome event.

tisdag 18 september 2018

Time is out of joint

On March 23rd 1994 Time Vault was banned from play in sanctioned Magic. It was the first card to be banned for power level reasons in any format. Of course back then there were only a single format, "Magic", so Time Vault was effectively removed from the card pool. It was all due to this particular interaction:
My French opponent anted a Time Vault at the start of the duel, but drew a second one to go off. Wizards' Tournament don't adhere to those new-fangled "restrictions".
Time Vault, Animate Artifact and Instill Energy. Make the Vault a creature with Animate Artifact, slap on an Instill Energy, and suddenly you have all the turns in the world. If you assembled these three cards in order and the opponent didn't have any removal, the gig was up.

Half a year after the initial release, a new three-card combo entered the card pool from the fringes of Arabian Nights and Antiquities:
Make Time Vault a creature with Poltergeist, untap with Saddlebags.
Antiquities was released only a few weeks before the Time Vault ban, so a speedy brewer might have had the chance to take that combo for a spin. But I guess that was mostly as a curiosity and didn't have much time to affect the local meta. Legends also brought a potential Time Vault combo a few months later, but at that point the Vault as we knew it had already left the card pool and its true power would stay away for well over a decade.
This one has some timing issues and won't go properly infinite unless you have two Time Vaults, but basically you play Song to make Time Vault untap as normal and then bounce Song with Time Elemental.
I've owned an unusually large number of Time Vaults over the years. Seven or so. And pretty much all of them have been in a condition close to pristine when comparing with other cards from that time. Being banned during a majority of the "sleeveless era" of Magic surely must have contributed. Fewer Time Vaults than Mahamothi Djinns were aggressively tapped on sidewalks in the mid 90s for sure.

Anyway. Flash forward to April 1996. Wizards of the Coast are actively issuing power level errata in this era, attempting to change cards so they correspond to "orginal intent". They issued the following statement regarding Time Vault:

Time Vault is reworded as follows to restore the card to its original intent:
"Does not untap as normal. If Time Vault is tapped and does not have a time counter, you may skip your turn to untap Time Vault and put a time counter on it. {tap}: Remove the time counter from Time Vault to take an additional turn immediately before the next normal turn."

This change removed all opportunities for combo shenanigans. Time Vault was unbanned and unrestricted in Vintage (and hence in Type 1.5, the predecessor to Legacy), and no one really cared.

Time Vault got some template updating in 1998, but the basic functionality was the same. Then in 2004 Time Vault got errata again. I think it was mostly seen as cleanup, but it removed one crucial safety valve that prevented potential combos:

Time Vault comes into play tapped.
Time Vault doesn't untap during your untap step.
Skip your next turn: Untap time vault and put a time counter on it.
{tap}, Remove all time counters from Time Vault: Take an extra turn after this one. Play this ability if only there's a time counter on Time Vault.

Yep. You no longer checked if Time Vault had a time counter on it before you tried to untap it. And you could untap it whenever you wanted as an activated ability.

At the time, we had no good way to abuse this potential loophole, but already the following year a card would be printed that made Time Vault a contender again.
Skipping 10,000 future turns doesn't really matter if we deal 10,000 damage to the opponent before they get to use them.
I loved this deck. I played a WR version of it to some solid results in the budding Legacy scene in Sweden. Also made a Stax Build with the combo - Time Bandits - ready for whenever the local store held proxy-10 Vintage tournaments. Josh Silvestri was one the first guys to recognize the combo btw, and Stephen Menendian was another early developer of the strategy.
My old Time Bandits deck. Lodestone Myr and Time Vault is another combo to deal all the damage. And skipping a few turns with a ticked up Smokestack and a Trinisphere in play is rarely a bad idea.
But dealing a bunch of damage was clearly not the intent of the card. Players had once again broken the Vault. So in March 2006 this errata happened:

Time Vault comes into play tapped.
Time Vault doesn't untap during your untap step.
At the beginning of your upkeep you may untap Time Vault. If you do put a time counter on it and you skip your next turn.
{tap} Remove all time counters from Time Vault: Take an extra turn after this one. Play this ability only if there's a time counter on Time Vault.

Yeah, that is fully useless. Both my Legacy and Vintage decks were suddenly unplayable. I did have two backup decks in Legacy though, one that would combo Brass Man with Quicksilver Dagger, and one that used Hunted Horror and the likes with Brand to steal back the tokens created for the opponent. But when it rains it pours, so WotC also issued errata for Brass Man stating that it could only untap once per upkeep, and changed the rules so that tokens were considered owned by the controller rather than the one who owned the effect that created them. So every deck I owned save for my super casual Thrull deck were made obsolete in the span of one month. Slightly heartbreaking.
I left for the US that spring, leaving my piles of cardboard back home. Running a bed & breakfast in San Francisco was an interesting change of pace. When I returned to Sweden in the late summer, I found that Time Vault had gotten errata once again:

Time Vault comes into play tapped.
If Time Vault would become untapped, instead choose one -- untap Time Vault and you skip your next turn or Time Vault remains tapped.
{tap}: Take an extra turn after this one.

OK. That we could work with. I rebuilt the old FlameVault deck and took this pile to a third place at the 2006 Legacy Nationals:
Mize Things. Written lists seems oddly strange these days.
I played that deck for a year or so, placed in the elimination rounds of the BSK Legacy next year again (with Rings of Brightheart replacing a couple of Transreliquats and some minor changes), and generally enjoyed life. Then 2008 happened:

Time Vault come into play tapped.
Time Vault doesn't untap during your untap step.
If you would begin your turn while Time Vault is tapped, you may skip that turn instead. If you do, untap Time Vault.

{tap}: Take an extra turn after this one.

Time Vault was more powerful than it been for well over a decade. That meant a ban in Legacy and a restriction in Vintage. So I finally sold my Vaults to build new decks, fondly looking back to the roller-coaster that was.

Eventually I traded for an Unlimited one to use in Vintage, and picked up one with black borders some time later. Though I've yet to sleeve up Time Vault combo in 93/94.
Berlin's TwiddleVault from Fishliver Oil Cup Ed. 0
Rather than "going infinite", this strategy attempts to "go enough" by using and recurring Twiddle to untap the Vault. Once the deck goes off it doesn't feel like much of a difference though. TwiddleVault has proved to be a pretty solid combo deck and an enjoyable part of the oldschool meta.

Hm. This post didn't really turn out as planned. It escalated to some sort of history of errata and combo decks with Time Vault. Here's what I planned to write about:
We have been so busy breaking Time Vault that we didn't look at the card by itself. Is Time Vault playable on it's own? When would we want to exchange one turn for another?

The turn is a fundamental structure in Magic, but something we rarely talk about in detail. A turn gives us opportunities, which we may or may not use.
Draw, go.
All turns aren't created equal. The only thing we can be mostly certain of is that we will use our draw step. Untap doesn't matter if we didn't tap anything important last turn. Upkeep isn't a big deal unless we have cards like Ivory Tower or Land Tax in play. Relentless Assault was one of the most sought-after cards in Visions at the time of the release, but if we don't have anything to attack with we might as well skip combat. That is why the (new school) card Lich's Mirror isn't an all-star even if it prevents us from dying, resets our life total, and draws us seven cards for a reasonable mana investment. After Lich's Mirror has been activated, we are forced back to operate with early game turns while our opponent keeps playing on late game turns.
More modern frames!
There is a scenario where Time Walk is mostly useless. If we spend a card and two mana to draw a card an untap two mana, we are not moving the game forward. Sure, we are not technically losing anything either, but we didn't do anything except loot away a Time Walk.

Slightly above that we have the "Explore Time Walk", were we also get to use our land drop. It is better, but usually not that good. The extra turn becomes a big deal first when we can use most parts of it, when untapping our permanents means something is coming and when the relentless assault of combat kills our opponent.

What Time Vault does, at face value, is that it skips a less impactful turn for a stronger one later on. A turn when a Howling Mine is in play is more valuable than one when it isn't. During a turn where we have no creatures, we will always skip our attack phase regardless. So skipping one of those turns may de facto only mean that we'll skip a draw step. We can then cash in that draw step later for another draw step, and additionally an extra combat and a more useful untap.
Even with combat mostly out of the picture, Time Vault shines in the control matchup. It is obviously nice to take an extra turn in the late game after a counter war when our opponent is tapped out, in particular if we have a Tome or two to make our turn better. And being able take the first turn after a midgame Timetwister is sweet. But cashing in a turn if the opponent taps out to use their own Tome in our end step is gravy. Now they don't have countermana up anymore. Or they wont use their Tome, which is probably even better for us in the long run.
This is all theory crafting, but one particular deck that I think could use Time Vault with "original intent" is Tax Edge. Tax Edge is mostly happy to skip an early turn, as we regardless want the opponent to make more early land drops than us. In mid- to lategame, getting an extra upkeep with a couple of Land Tax and Ivory Towers in play can then give the edge to win.
That pretty much covers what I had in mind. An ode to Time Vault, partly as a combo enabler, but also as a playable within its original intent. When a card have a history of brokenness in the way the Vault does, it is easy to forget how it plays in a vacuum and just look for interactions.

Time Vault has been high on the list of possible cards to unrestrict in the last few years. As the first card to be banned for power level reasons, it is by no means an obvious candidate to allow as a four-of. But it could be cool to test it out sometime down the line. Feel free to share your opinions on the subject.

måndag 10 september 2018

Fall Cleaning

I had a few different topics going for this week. For one, I recently played a new 93/94 cube at a local tournament in Oslo. Broke the three-cube winning streak by getting bested by the glorious Thomas Nilsen in the finals.
Dude got me with Power Monolith Combo and Earthquake. That's some solid limited tech.
I also met up with Hardy some weeks ago for a proper "Dadgic" showdown. That was a new experience.
New School in so many ways.
And just this Friday I had the pleasure to meet one-on-one with one of Oslo's newest slingers for tech, beer, and some monogreen shenanigans.
But, in the spirit of the season here, I figured it was time for me to do some fall cleaning on the blog. It has been a while, and there are a lot of strange things here if one would be inclined to look deep. But for those not having a weekend to sleuth around for tech among the 400 or so pages, I figured it could be nice to have some sort of index page. Sure, the Decks to Beat section contains around 350 decks, but those are by design decks that are a fairly solid tier, and fun stuff happen when we start looking at the lower tiers as well. Also, those decks mostly only have a single picture, and some history may around the cards could be interesting. So now we have a "proof of concept" page where we collect most of the blog posts focused on a particular deck, sorted by some sort of archetype. So check out the "Deck Techs" like in the left sidebar, and feel free give me any feedback on improvements.

Also updated the external links in the right sidebar btw, so give me a heads up if you have another page you think should be added.

söndag 2 september 2018

Mail days

Here's random fact: Norway has a tax revenue to GDP ratio of 54.8%. It is second only to East Timor (which surprised me), and is joined in that particular top5 by Denmark, Finland and Sweden (which didn't really surprise me). That is quite a lot of taxes. (But for anyone wondering about living in a socialstic hellscape, Norway also have the lowest Gini index in the world, the highest Human Development Index, and the third highest GDP per capita. So I personally wouldn't argue for lower taxes).

Anyways. After living here for the last six years, one subjective observation is that we Norsemen, as a generalized group, are pretty bad at saving money. So instead we kinda get some saved for us. I top out somewhere around 46% income tax most of the year, but each December I only pay half income tax to get the holiday spending well supported, and by the end of June we get the vacation money saved up from last year, pretty much tax free. And at that time, we also get the yearly tax returns. So that means that twice each year, the Norwegians get a substantially larger paycheck than usual. "Feriepenger".

This last June looked like the last time while living the life of a Dink. Double Income No Kids, that is. I could spend a fairly large sum on cards, perhaps as one of the last hurrahs before life would truly happen. I had my budget set up as it will look from the end of September, and I knew that the frivolous days would eventually have to come to an end. Not quite yet though. So now, in these last days of summer, let's look through some of the season's mail.
Cards! Glorious cards I've never owned!
So this first one might be cheating, as I did not in fact get the cards in the mail. I bought them from local slinger Audun, shortly after I managed to do one of the more my heroic recoveries in a game against him during an Oslo meetup. But hey, they are cards of the summer, so they'll count. Defensive, even political, cards those three. Nova Pentacle is the stone cold nuts btw. It may be something of a "hidden gem" among playables as it rarely sees action in ordinary 60-card constructed, but it is a highly reasonable first-pick in 93/94 draft as well as a staple in most of the oldschool highlander formats.

Next batch held these gems:
Watch out PowerMonolith, there's a new killer combo in town.
All these are part of a grander scheme. I rarely buy cards just for the sake of collecting. Political cards, walls, and weird synergy. You might know where this is going.
This dude has gone far too long without a proper army.
If you are unfamiliar with 93/94 EDH, it is gaining traction as one of the more popular variants of multiplayer oldschool these days. I am not sure exactly how the stories go, but it was the format of choice for the 2014 Pimpvitational in Sweden (with Tetsuo banned as commander), then got some more attention by Gina at the (now defunct) Nomad Gamer site, and I think the first "proper" play group were Dyan and his Dutch friends sometime around 2016. Dyan posted an article about the format here in early 2017, and DFB's recent article on 93/94 Brawl fleshed out the rules in a very thoughtful and interesting way (love the mono-colored commander rules!). The articles on Ready to Role are also really good if you want to check it out.

EDIT: I finished this post while away visiting in-laws for the weekend, and when I returned the evening after publishing it, I found another surprise waiting in the mail box! So I blatantly added this section in italics here, as it makes a good amount of sense to put it alongside the other EDH cards :)
An honest to god letter! I love this. But I must confess I've been truly horrible at replying myself in the last months. Looking at you in particular Charlie, you have not been forgotten.
The next level general! Tedin text alter to give him horsemanship!
This was a fantastic surprise from Eliot (aka @betasedgetroll). Might be that this guy will do the dirty work on the battlefield while the artist altered beaut graces the deck box or oversees from the sideline. I will most certainly play this one as though he had horsemanship btw, as it clearly makes sense that he has it. At least until someone punches me for doing so. Thanks man! <3

That mat under the artist altered Lord Magnus is new as well btw. Khalsa Brain released a new version (v5, for those keeping count) of their original spellground design this summer, and I was quick to pick it up. Harsh thing was that the shipping of the two mats (which had a release price tag around 60 USD) ended up at almost 100 USD when factoring in toll and service charges. Still worth it though ;) 
These are awesome mats.
In the vein of recently produced products, some proper "new school" things also populated the shopping list. Even though I spend the bulk of my Magic playing time on the previous side of the millennium, I must say I thoroughly enjoy a lot of the newer releases as well. In particular the casual sets, so I much look forward to cracking this in the not too distant future.
And once one gets used to old school price tags, getting a box of a new set actually appear highly reasonable ;)
The next one was a big one. As some readers may know, I've been working on building my Adventure Island deck from close to scratch over the last year or so. That meant I've been actively looking for Power again. This was one of those milestones. 
I am giddy to have it. And it is kinda humbling to try and build from scratch today. This one had a price tag of four times of what I played for my Alpha Timetwister five years ago, and about 15 times of what I sold my previous Unlimited TT for six years ago. I should always buy my cards a few years in the past I guess ;)

Not everything the mailman brings costs money though. I actually traded for a card for once. It is unusual for me to trade these days, as I very rarely get "spares", but I had a few extra Dark Rituals and a familiar guy were looking for Rituals and had an extra Bolt. So now I have fewer rituals and more bolts.
Even cheaper than trading is when a generous soul just send a gift :) This was a surprising pleasure courtesy of Francesc Montserrat and Gregory Protic; a couple of local organizers from Spain and Switzerland respectively.
Francesc and Greg recently created a set of tokens for 93/94, with art by Francesc and printed on proper stock that survives a few beer spills. The package contain representations of all the possible tokens that can be created by cards from ABU and the first four expansions; a few of which never had official tokens.
A strange clone.
A wasp that must be killed individually.
These counters are independent creatures, except they can't be enchanted.
Be careful with that egg.
Powerful combo with Argivian Archaeologist and Martyrs of Korlis.
Finally! Oh how I have longed for this token. Technically it only bands with other Wolves of the Hunt, but clearly close enough ;)
...And some more tokens I don't own the corresponding cards for. Two points to those who can name the cards that create them. Three points if you know their mana costs ;)
Back of the tokens.
These things are sweet. If you are looking for a set for yourself, I would recommend reaching out to Francesc at sindados(at)gmail(dot)com, or try to find him or Greg at Facebook. It's also a nice way to support some fellow players :)

The last letter was the biggest though, easily pushing the Power card to the curb. It was a thing I first heard about a year and a half ago. One of the unique pieces I hoped to eventually find and add to my Global Chaos Orb collection.

The Chaos Orb that belonged to the first ever Magic World champion in 1994. The Orb that was then actually chewed by his dog and not sold for another twenty years, maybe due to it having the poorest of conditions and, perhaps, some special nostalgic value. How does one even put a price on that? Maybe a "recklessly damaged card" by most eyes, but a proper gem in any Chaos Orb collection for anyone familiar with the story.
"A gift" is an unexpected price by any measure though. So much love to you Megu, I hope I am able to pass your generosity along to other players myself <3
So this was a summer of sweet stuff. And I can't thank the generous people in the community enough for the gifts you've sent. But I will try to carry your generosity with me, and keep that mindset alive whenever I find opportunities to give back something to other people in the community. The willingness to give something just for the sake of making the recipient happy is inspiring, and something that seems to become one of the core values in oldschool magic. It is such a pleasure to a part of a community like this.

I have a few more cards incoming in preparation for next year's Wizard's Tournament, but other than that I think it'll be a slow autumn and winter. Magic is a luxury product after all, and oldschool even more so. It has been a really good run this summer though, and it feels like I'm leaving on a high note of glorious mail days.