Saturday, 27 June 2015

MtG Math: Timberpack Wolf cycle

There are a lot of previews coming in fast and furious for Magic Origins, and I would like to devote  some time to the larger set (though I am not sure I will really get the chance to until the whole thing is spoiled). For now, though, I want to focus on a cycle of commons for limited which were spoiled in this week's Limited Information column, which can be found here:

I want to start with the blue entry in the cycle, Faerie Miscreant. A 1/1 flier for 1 just doesn't cut it as a playable card (at least in modern limited formats), so we need to look to the rest of the card to make up for this deficit. And each one past the first you cast - assuming you have one which survived - draws a card. Drawing a card is a good upside, but of course the first thing isn't getting you any value at all, so we need to spread that benefit out. Effectively, with 2, you've spent 2 cards and UU to get 2 1/1 fliers and 1 card back. So net, we've spent 1 card and gotten 2 1/1 fliers for UU. If we add in a 3rd, we've spent UUU and 3 cards for 3 1/1 fliers and 2 cards back. So we can see pretty quickly how this scales - we're always putting 1 card in, net. That's the cost in cards, 1 net card. In terms of tempo and board impact, we're spending N blue mana for N 1/1 fliers. That's a really bad deal at N = 1, a good deal at N=2 (I've seen a comparison to Raise the Alarm panning this; of course being an instant is nice there, but here we get fliers, and I think that's significantly more important), excellent at N=3 (Spectral Procession), and it starts to get bonkers with higher N.

(Technically, this is a little bit different from that, since netting 1 card in isn't the same as actually just casting one card - the two big differences are that you can do this on the installment plan, i.e. across multiple different turns, and that  drawing extra cards effectively makes your deck smaller - both of these are generally small plusses).

Okay, that's all well and good, but you actually need to draw that many copies of the card for it to be worth it. So here's where the math comes in: How many are we actually going to draw? I'm glad you asked. Here's a chart describing how many you would expect to have drawn in your top 15 cards - that's through turn 9 on the play, or turn 8 on the draw (or a bit sooner when you start talking about chaining lots, since they will be drawing for you). Given that you may have some card draw, this is, very roughly, how long you would expect an average limited game to last. Of course, that will depend on the speed of the format, and it actually looks to me like this is being a bit generous to this card, as you probably won't quite have this much time. Anyway, the chart:

The thing to realize is that it doesn't actually hurt you if you don't draw any. So it actually looks like 3 may well be the worst place to be. But realistically, I don't think you can even consider playing any of these things until you hit 4, and you don't really want to play them until you have 5. Of course, once you have more than 5, they actually start to be pretty good cards - and with this many, you have cantrips, which means you can start thinking about shaving a land.

Of course, this begs the question, how realistic is it for me to actually get that many? And you might think, nobody will want this card, my chances are actually pretty good. While the beginning of that premise isn't so bad, the problem once again comes with numbers. In any given draft (just forget about sealed, it's a pipe dream), there will be 24 packs opened. There are 101 commons in the set. If we ignore foils, there are 10 commons in every pack (if I understand how foils work right, then there will, in reality, be slightly less than this on average, but the difference will be small). So every pack has a 10/101 or 9.9% chance of having any particular common - in this case, our Faerie friend. It doesn't take much work to figure out that, on average, there are going to be a bit more than 2.3 opened per draft. Ok, but there's some variation, right? Yes. Assuming each pack has 10 distinct-but-otherwise-random commons, here's the likelihood of having every given number of a particular common opened in the draft:

So 2 is most likely, with 3 slightly more likely than 1. To have 5 or more? We're looking at just over 8%. And you actually have to get all of these cards, which is certainly not a given. So okay, it will be rare. But 8% is like 1 in 12 drafts, if you can get them all. Of course, you still don't want to spend high picks on these - you really want to wheel them. And you need them to be in-color. Realistically, going into a draft, you are just going to pass these around all the time, unless you happen to see several fairly early on. By the time you see 3 in pack 1, you actually have pretty reasonable chances to have enough get opened (even here, you're just under 50% to have at least 2 more opened, so you don't want to give anything significant up).

So to sum up for the card, look for lots of them, and you can take a chance. You want at least 5 to play any. But if you just treat it as totally unplayable, you're missing very little equity.

Okay, great. This card is part of a cycle, though, and this second chart will really help us figure out the value of the others.

Let's go to black next, with Undead Servant. Again, a 3/2 for 4 doesn't really cut it. So you need to have multiples of this thing. The subtle difference here is that you get a 2/2 for *each* card in the graveyard with this name, so the upside on getting lots is bigger. 1 is a 3/2, 2 is 2 3/2s and a 2/2 for 2 cards, 3 is 3 3/2s and 3 2/2s for 3 cards. The second is makes the card decent (and good enough to play), but it takes the third to make it really good. This is going to obey the same math as we saw above, and I think in this case, we can get away with a bit fewer, since we're closer to being a real card to start with, but it seems like we're still going to want at least 4 to play any, and that is still pretty unlikely. But if you notice a few early on and can wheel them all out of your first pack, you can set yourself up - it's something to watch out for.

The red one, Infectious Bloodlust, is perhaps both the most interesting and the most difficult to evaluate. Someone has remarked that Goblin War-paint wasn't particularly playable even in its archetype in MM2. That's true, but MM2 is a format with a very high power level, so I imagine the bar will be significantly lower in this set. And while this card does force you to attack, and give 1 less toughness, being able to search up another copy is pretty real upside. Ok, I don't think this card is going to be very good at all if you only get one copy. But you don't actually want to draw more copies really - you want them to be in your deck in order to get your value. Indeed, probably the optimal number of this card is 2-3, which is a very reasonable number to have opened. Of course, you do have to potentially worry about competition for them. And you probably don't want to grab your first in pack 3, or even late in pack 2. If you have an aggressive deck with lots of 2-drops, though, this seems quite playable at 2-3 copies.

The green one, Timberpack Wolf, is the reprint of the set. Now, I haven't played with the card before, so you all may have a better feel for it than me. But I think this card, like classic slivers, is going to be pretty prone to being overrated. Okay, it's a 2/2 for 2, so the downside is really not bad - Grizzly Bears are probably totally playable, if not exciting. But if you only have one in your deck, it's just not that exciting. If you have two, you're only 4.6% to have both on curve on the play, 5.8% on the draw. Once you get to three, you're up to 12.1% on the play, 14.9% on the draw, to have two of them by turn 3. And this is assuming that you haven't mulliganed and can cast them (and keep in mind that any hand with 2 of these in it is significantly more likely than normal to be short of lands). You're very unlikely to get more than 3, considering there probably won't be that many opened, and you're going to have to fight people for this more than the previous cards in the cycle, I would guess. Once you get to a board stall, multiple of these are better than Bears, certainly, but they're not tons better. The big thing is that they are more able to hold off a big creature. But they can't exactly attack through. And they're still quite a bit worse than Watchwolves, as killing one cascades into shrinking the rest - which is something you'll need to watch out for. All in all, the upside you're getting over bears is quite tiny until you start to get a lot - and I wouldn't anticipate that being super likely.

Finally, we have the white entry, Cleric of the Forward Order. I've actually been progressing through these from what I think is worst to best, in order (as well as being a WUBRG which is offset by one). And I do indeed think this is the best of the bunch. This is largely because it's the best card when it's all by its lonesome self. It is just a bear, but it gains a little life. 2 life really isn't nothing. And then it stacks, so the second gains 4, the third gains 6, etc. Okay, life-gain is often derided as not being worth very much, but it really does have a pretty significant impact in a lot of cases. Of course, board presence is quite a bit more important in most limited games. So why do I think this is better than the wolf? Well, mostly because this card is better when you aren't curving out with multiples perfectly - which is the vast majority of the time - and not that much worse when you are getting a lot. I mean, I would rather have 3 4/4s than 3 2/2s, for sure, but 12 life isn't nothing. Okay, if you are getting 3, you definitely take the wolves. If you are only having 2, you probably take the wolves, but it's slight. And with just 1, you clearly take the Cleric. The bigger point is, you are unlikely to have enough in your deck to get 2+ with good consistency, and very unlikely to get 3+. Cleric of the Forward Order is probably still only a mediocre card - a middle pick, though it could be better if the format is pretty aggressive, and you need 2 drops. The life gain is better there, too.

Friday, 26 June 2015

Let's Talk Tunnel

Tunnel is a card that I think is pretty poorly understood. I certainly know that my friend Adam is not a big fan of the card, and he has said that he feels confused by it often. So hopefully this little article will help to clear things up a bit. Let's dive right in, and look at the different modes Tunnel presents.

Tunnel as VP
The biggest thing to remember about Tunnel is that it provides 2 VP for 3 coins. In terms of coins, that's a more efficient rate than Duchy even, but of course cards tend to be more important than coins, and this is less efficient cards-wise. That hurts you both in that you have to use two buys on this rather than just one, and moreover because you will have to draw two junky cards every shuffle rather than one. Still, sometimes you just need points, and sometimes this is upping the total amount available to you.

I don't have any specific example games here, because it's just too ubiquitous and non-specific to really have - you get the idea though, it's just a green card like Estate or Duchy, just a bit between.

Tunnel as Defense
This is perhaps the biggest trap of all. Your opponent has discard attacks, and you think, aha, I can get tunnels, and then when they attack me, I will gain golds. The problem here is that gaining golds just isn't very good very often in this scenario. Essentially, what you are saying when you do this is, "If I gain enough Golds, my three card hands can beat you". Well, this is usually just a losing proposition. Of course, there are probably some exceptions, where there is just nothing to do, no way to draw, the game will be very long, and you can also leverage the victory part of the Tunnel. But these are going to be exceedingly rare, and for the most part, you would just rather be on the side of the attack, and in general, just having better stuff than a do-nothing green card. There is also, of course, no guarantee that any given hand gets attacked, so you have a pretty good chance of not getting your benefit - unless, of course, your opponent has built a consistent engine. In that case, though, you would almost always have been better served to build such an engine yourself! I will note that using Tunnel as a defense is probably more realistic in multiplayer, where you're much more likely to get attacked every turn - but I still wouldn't expect it to be good often.

I also don't have examples here, because I can't find any recent games of mine where anyone really did this. The word is more or less out now, at least at the high levels, but it wasn't always so, and you will still see quite a number of players falling for this idea.

The Headlong Rush for Gold-Flood
This one is ever-popular. The basic idea is to get Tunnels and enablers (discard outlets) en masse, to then acquire golds en masse, to then buy things. This strategy consistently gets way overrated. The first problem is that you need to get things to line up in the right order for this to work at all - and if you build it right, they usually will, but you're still hanging some non-trivial percentage for disaster. The next problem is that this is slow. First, you have to get Tunnels, which are cards that actively hurt your deck. The next shuffle, you get to start gaining gold, but you won't reap the benefits of that gold until the shuffle after that. So it takes a long time. Further compounding this, you actually need to get a lot of gold before you can do what you want. Typically, your enablers are going to leave you down a card. That means you'll need two gold and two copper in order to buy your province. It takes quite a lot of cards in order to get that set up reliably, even with sifting benefits. Keep in mind one alternative is always buy silver to buy gold, and that is going to be a lot easier on you to reach 8 coins in terms of needing golds. In order to alleviate this problem, you are going to need really exceptional enablers. The best by far are Storeroom and Embassy. They just let you see so many cards, and they provide additional economic benefits to lessen the burden of needing to get Gold Gold Copper Copper exactly. Even with these cards, the strategy is only a reasonably good baseline, not anything super amazing. Young Witch is another mention, but this is not because it's really a good enabler, but because the attack synergizes with the slog-like nature of the Gold Flood strategy to start with. With worse enablers, you should be quite leery indeed.

When you're building this deck, the emphasis should really be on the enablers far more than the Tunnels. The quick thing is that the enablers do something for your deck if they don't collide, whereas the Tunnels don't. They also accelerate your shuffles even when they 'miss', which is a big deal in this kind of deck. Furthermore, you just don't really need that many Tunnels. Getting a couple Golds per shuffle reliably and getting back round to them faster is simply a much bigger deal than potentially getting a higher number of golds per shuffle.

I have one example game here:
You'll see I focus on getting my Embassies up much moreso than the Tunnels, and it pays very good dividends (of course, I was also absurdly lucky here). My opponent actually also plays pretty well (perhaps his first Duchy should be another Embassy - in general this is true anyway - but it is hard to criticize as he is so far behind and clearly needs to get rather lucky to have a chance), and his draws are more reasonable as a baseline here.

Tunnel as Payload
This is something I don't see very often, but it's I think pretty significantly the best use of the card. The concept is pretty simple: you build up a big draw engine, then you use a Tunnel to gain Golds to use as the economic finish. The nice thing about this is that a lot of your enablers are cards you already want to grease the wheels of your engine, you can use a single Tunnel multiple times in a turn, and you can use all your buys going forward on engine pieces, without needing to waste any just making money. Also, because engines draw so much, the speed both at which you acquire golds and at which you are able to reap the benefits of them is quite high.

The key to playing this kind of deck is to get your engine up and running first, and add the Tunnel as a payload card. You also want to think about potentially limiting the activations of your tunnel - Gold is a card that is generally pretty good when it's free, but you don't always want more. It's important to keep your deck-size under control and your reliability up - and there's little point in making more money than you need. Furthermore, there are often going to be more opportunities on later turns.

Let's look at a couple of example games I played here:
Here, I get lots of enablers, because they will help get my engine firing anyway. I do take an early Tunnel and a couple of gold, as I need to get my economy up to get the Hunting Grounds I need. But I don't activate it every time, at least until I am getting into draw-my-deck territory. Because I have a high number of sifters, my deck is reliable, and when I get enough Hunting Grounds on-line, my deck explodes, closing out 6 Provinces over 2 turns.
This game is a similar story. One Tunnel soon (in this case, I got to trash Hovel, which had me pulling the trigger sooner than I normally would). Pick up a forge to start coalescing, and then go to town. Forging extra Golds into Hunting Grounds is a big deal here, and while I do go a bit overboard in getting a zillion golds at the end (probably not really the best play), it doesn't really matter, as the game is just ending.

Thursday, 25 June 2015

Assert Your Dominance When Winning

One (of many) important skills in Dominion, as in a lot of games, is being able to win the won game with as high a probability as possible. Little feels worse than letting a game you were way ahead in slip through the cracks. Giving advice on this is generally very difficult for Dominion, as every board is different, and every situation is different. There are, however, some general pieces of advice to give, and then some examples to demonstrate good lines of thinking.

Be alert for ways to end the game
This can mean grabbing 50% of the VP, setting up an unbreakable pin, emptying Colonies, or emptying Provinces. These are things to be aware of, of course, but in general people are pretty good about looking for them (though you do still need to be vigilant, as they are missed sometimes). The bigger thing, though, is looking at 3 pile endings. You want to know what piles are low, how many, and what ways there are of emptying them as fast as possible. Keep an eye for gainers, especially multi-gainers, like Stonemason and Procession. Also keep an eye on Curses, Ruins (especially with Death Cart), and Estates.

Generally be aware of how close the end of the game is
You need to know whether you're planning for a long game or a short game. Missing wins is a common mistake that people make, but probably even more common is people panicking and going for points too soon. "Piles feel low" can make people scared. You need to be concrete. How low are they really? Are they actually going to be emptied? If it isn't going to be in one turn, can your opponent realistically make the play to go after them over multiple turns, or will that hurt their deck too much? Sometimes the answer is, yes, they can go for it. But lots of times, they can't really. How much you want to play around having a bad turn or two is a function of how reliable your deck is and how far ahead you are.

Know your role, and leverage your advantages
Are you ahead because you have a very large points lead that is going to be hard to overcome? Or is it because your deck is much better? When the former is true, you want to make sure that your opponent can't build up enough of an advantage in deck to overcome that. Generally this means you want to try to make the game short, though sometimes you keep your deck at a quality where you can still win the long game. Still other times you'll seek to 'cut their legs out' by attacking the piles they'd need for a comeback, which inhibits their ability to build (though I should warn that this is quite rare). When it's the latter, you want to make sure that this advantage will have the time and space to be developed and played out for your advantage. So play for the long game, and make sure you don't lose short. Of course, the most common way to lose short is by letting the game end short - and so  you want to make the game go long, by not blitzing down the piles.

Ask yourself: How am I losing this game?
This is really the banner under which all the other things lie. Even the Penultimate Province Rule is just a piece of this line of thinking. This is the most difficult piece of advice to give with specificity. It varies very much from board to board, and from game to game. But when you're ahead, you need to know why you are ahead. What is it based on? And why is that important? You need to make sure that you try to make your advantages are important, and try to make sure that any advantages your opponents have are not. And look to mitigate the ability for a bad shuffle, or a perfect shuffle from your opponent, to knock you down. Sometimes that means building consistency. Sometimes it means just ending the game as fast as possible.

One final word of advice before I switch to examples: make sure that in your attempts to secure your position, you aren't losing so much time trying to be safe that you let the core of your advantage slip.

Now, on to examples!
In this game, if we look at the position after turn 25, I have a superior quality deck. The way I lose the game is... to let that deck deteriorate. It doesn't take very much to lose reliability. I need to start sending lots of junk over, and I need to up my economy so I can by colonies, but the biggest thing that can shoot me down is losing my consistency - and so my Soothsayer, despite accomplishing the first two goals, is actually quite a bad purchase. If I sanely buy a gold, work my way up in money, and just buy a curse at some moment, I would have had plenty of time to set myself up without my deck ever getting too big. The way I played, I still had reasonable chances, but I gave myself way more chances to lose than were necessary, and it bit me.
This is a pretty classic Golden Deck game. I get myself set up on turn 11 or so. My opponent still has a little cleaning up to do, though at the precise moment he has a little tiny lead. Throughout the rest of this game, I just pound the Platinum into submission. The point here is that this way, my opponent simply has no counterplay, and the longer the game goes, the more non-perfect draws he will have, and I can continue my advantage. I could definitely have run the colonies out sooner, but there was just no need, as this way I extended my lead maximally.
Here we just look at the last turn. I have a small lead, and I am aware that 2 piles are out (Duchy and Market Square). I am in a good position, but there are of course lots of ways to lose - opponent can spike a Province or hit a Duchy, for instance. So while piling the Estates is very likely to lead me to a win, knowing that I can end it when I draw the Gold off Altar-ing my Overgrown Estate pays off - Death Cart and the ruins pile is a typical thing to watch for.
Another instance of pile awareness - here I lunge for the last curses
Here, an awareness of my deck lets me know I can simply go for it to end it on turn 9(!) by... running the Provinces! Key was knowing that the last card was a silver so that I could draw it up and Forge a Province for the win.
Another example of knowing that I can get the Provinces out.
Here, my trashing lets me build a pretty clean deck advantage over my opponent, with a reliable engine. I am able to catch up in points as well, getting me to the spot where I lead in all sectors. Then I apply the 'how am I losing this game' thought process. And the way I lose is to have my engine get unreliable - there is only one buy anyway, so extra money does nothing. Solution? Remake Silvers into engine components. This makes me super reliable, and I can take the points lead at leisure, only moving forward when safe and/or necessary.
In this game, I get out to what I believed to be a big lead. However, my opponent was massing Governor pieces. Despite it being a Colony game, I asked myself how I was losing, and came up with my opponent emptying the Provinces. So I got 4 - my opponent doesn't have the capabilities to overcome me by catching up on Provinces himself, so after this play, I'm pretty comfortably in control.

Finally, a pair of Possession/Masquerade games. The key here is that, in both, the way to go is pretty clearly to get possessing your opponent set up, as the engines are good (this isn't always the case of course, but it is here). Given that, the way either player wins or loses is going to be... to stop your opponent from possessing you, at which point you can pretty much put the game away at leisure. Thus, when possessing them you make them pass... their possessions, first of all, then what lets them re-buy possession (usually potion), and only then their provinces. (Obviously, if the game is right about to end, you might have to make an exception).

In the first game, here, doing this efficiently nets me a quick resignation. But in the second, here, my opponent gives me many more cracks at the apple than necessary (which unfortunately for me, I miss on, but still, this is something to look at).

Wednesday, 10 June 2015

2015 June 9th Magic: Origins Spoilers

Yesterday, a whole bunch of cards were spoiled on the MtG Mothership Monday. Let's see how the catch my fancy.

I'm taking the cards in the order they're listed here, but of course that page will change, so if you want the originals, they're from here and here.

Avaricious Dragon
It's a mythic, so we're mostly looking at it from a Constructed point of view. First though, we'll take a quick look at the limited implications.
The card looks bomby, and a 4/4 flier for 4 is, well, a Dragon, and quite good. The rider, though, makes things a bit tricky. The main thing is that you probably don't really want to curve into this (assuming there's any reasonable amount of removal in the format), because if they can kill it after you discard your hand, you just got X-for-1d, where X is your whole hand. It's an excellent top-deck of course, and when it is the last play in your hand, you also have the potential to reap some good Card Advantage out of this as well. I think the card has to be good, and probably pretty good, but it's probably not a total bomb.

Okay, constructed implications. My first thought was that this is a playable Dragon, so those archetypes could want this. After a little thought, though that doesn't seem very realistic - you really want this to be your last play, and all the other Dragons are more expensive than this. Maybe you can still pull something off with some of the 5 CMC ones, but it just seems pretty risky. The exception, of course, is Thunderbreak Regent, and these two could definitely be buddies. Ultimately, the biggest home I see for this guy is as a potential curve-topper in a slightly bigger Red Aggro deck. I think Raph Levy was playing something along those lines, and with the possible exception of Thunderbreak, this card just seems better than the alternatives which are available. I expect it to see some play, but I wouldn't be surprised if it only hangs around the fringes and doesn't catch on. It's just pretty bad against removal a la Master of the Feast.

Akroan Jailer
This, like basically all the rest of the spoilers, is pretty clearly a card purely for limited, and I will treat it as such. The card looks bad. Probably not quite totally unplayable, but three mana is just so much in order to do what it does, so you will be pretty unhappy if you ever have to run this.

Grasp of the Hieromancer
This card might be playable - a lot will depend on how good the removal in the set is. If you can get this creature to survive, then the ability is worth it if you are attacking, as you can get a good chunk of damage through. The problem is, you get blown out per normal if this is killed, and this is really not worth it when used defensively.

Valor in Akros
This is the one other card which has me thinking constructed applications. I am thinking of this in a tokens deck, either RW tokens or Jeskai Tokens, where you can be getting some serious buffs to your team. Of course, the problem is, you need tokens in play as well as tokens coming in. Between Rabblemaster, Monastery Mentor, Brimaz, Hordeling Outburst, Raise the Alarm, Dragon Fodder, and Secure the Wastes, there might be enough, but... it's just quite a bit worse than Jeskai Ascendancy. If this cost 3, we could talk. As it is, this is probably a bit too restrictive, needing lots of tokens and costing a bit too much to be worth it. In limited, too, I'm a bit skeptical. You need to play this, and then play a creature every turn for it to be a Glorious Anthem, and even then it only works when attacking. If you can get flicker effects or tokens it could be quite good, but I doubt those would be supported themes given that they were white's theme in M15 and the interaction with morph, respectively. I suppose flickering might be ok.

Heavy Infantry
Color me unimpressed. The going rate would be a 3/5 here, and I am not really excited by a Siege Mastodon (though, hey, they're fine of course). 3/4 seems a decent bit worse than that, and for it you get to tap a guy. The problem is, this body is not efficiently costed, and the ability is purely a way to get damage in right now, and that's just not a big enough impact for me.

Sentinel of The Eternal Watch
This card is a bomb. The ability is the bad half (or more accurately, the not-completely-broken-but-still-good half) of Citadel Siege, and basically that is a removal spell on their best combat creature. On top of this, you get a 4/6 Vigilance, which is respectable on a 6-drop anyway. Both on the same card seems quite nice, and I assume the body will be hard enough to kill that you usually get your effect. This is basically good in every situation, and it seems this will be an A unless somehow the format is very fast such that 6 mana isn't realistic even for a board-stabilizing card.

Veteran's Sidearm
Leonin Scimitar wasn't exciting, and this should be even less so. Probably fringe playable, but you won't want to play it.

Separatist Voidmage
The new and worse Man-o-War. The card will surely be playable, and as much as Marsh Hulk will love it, I am anticipating that it will 'only' be a solid inclusion, and not a high pick. If tempo is a huge deal, it could be quite good though.

This card has me pretty excited. The last time we saw this effect was on Blinding Spray, which was not exciting but saw some play. This card only nerfs power half as much, but costing only 3 is a big game. Of course it can only be used defensively, which is a real drawback. I don't think huge blowouts on this card are going to happen very often, but getting a 2-for-1 seems doable, and worst case it cycles for 3, which isn't good, but isn't that bad. Card will be a lot better if there are other blue instants to hold up (particularly a draw spell of some sort).

Ringwarden Owl
Card looks solid, and probably one of the better blue commons, but not busted. 5 for a 3/3 flier is playable. 5 for a 4/4 flier is very good. And while I expect it will be closer to the former than the latter in practice, the threat is worth something too.

Malakir Cullblade
I don't expect this card to do a lot. If you can get into a grindy game where there are lots of trades happening, it can be good (but it only triggers off your opponent's critters, so it's no Scavenger Drake), but I imagine it will be a bit tough to make that happen. The big issue is, you need this down early, and then it's not impressive early. Later on you might bet it to be a 3/3 or a 4/4, but that's not so busted on later turns anyway. I suspect this will have its homes, but that those won't be every black deck.

Deadbridge Shaman
This card, on the other hand, seems quite good. A 3/1 for 3 is only slightly below rate, and such a way that you are probably getting a trade out of this body very often. That means you are going to get that discard trigger, which is a nice 2-for-1. I expect this to be one of the best black commons in the set.

Eyeblight Assassin
I'm not terribly impressed with this one. If there's lots of 1-toughness creatures floating around, it will obviously get a lot better. But if you have to try to use it to finish off a creature post-combat, what you've done is a lot of work to trade a slightly worse creature for a slightly better one, and gotten a sub-par creature out of it yourself. I am probably going to look to avoid playing this (again, unless 1-toughness creatures are common).

Rabid Bloodsucker
I guess this is playable? The drain is obviously only good in aggressive decks, which I guess is where you might play a 3/2 flier for 5 anyway, but that's just not very good stats baseline, in general.

Reave Soul
Defeat did not impress me much, but this card does. The jump from 2 to 3 power gets a LOT more creatures, and that means this should be a quite good removal spell - up there with Deadbridge Shaman in terms of good black commons.

Shambling Ghoul
The card is solid. Doubt I'm cutting often, but unless the format is particularly filled with Bears, probably not very excited about it either.

Infernal Scarring
Whether or not this card is good probably largely depends on the removal available. If it's Pacifism/Claustrophobia types, or if there's a lot of bounce, the card is likely pretty bad. But if it's more like Flesh to Dust and random-burn-spell, especially if that's sorcery speed, then this is probably... okay, not great, but fine. Overall probably mediocre.

Enthralling Victor
I have a feeling this card will be overrated. It's a 4 mana 3/2, which is decidedly below-curve. And the rider... well, if they held one guy back you might get several damage in, which is pretty nice, but being so restrictive is a knock, and if this isn't particularly well-timed (say, you're on a board stall), it's more or less doing 2 to their face - which isn't horrible, but not good enough to make this a good card. Still should be fine, but probably not a high pick.

Seismic Elemental
This card, on the other hand, looks quite good. Falter on a near-curve body is something I will definitely take. Great to end the game when the board is stalled out, or to push the last points of damage through, and the downside of Falter when you're behind is way mitigated by the 4/4 for 5. Just a very nice card.

Volcanic Rambler
The body is sized well enough that you can play this without being embarrassed, but you're going to prefer not to. You want your 6-drops to do more. The activated ability is nice in board stalls, but not great.

Subterranean Scout
This wants to be paired with Scroll Thief, or a Prowess guy (see below), but in general it looks pretty comparable to Goblin Shortcutter (probably this is a little worse), and that is a serviceable dude.

Hitchclaw Recluse
Filler. Horned-Turtle with upside hasn't been exciting for a while, so unless X/1 fliers are everywhere, I would expect this to be a 25th card that you may board in a good bit.

Conclave Naturalists
The body isn't good enough unless the ability is going to be one a fair bit. It's not completely terrible though, so you can probably run this with a reasonable amount of targets in the format. And when it does hit, the upside is very good.

Mantle of Webs
The problem with this card is that if you're buffing a guy defensively, things are probably still not looking good for you - and it gives them time to 2-for-1 you. Obviously the offensive applications of +1/+3 and reach are mediocre at best.

Joraga Invocation
Um, sticking Lure on an Overrun probably doesn't help it much over not having that clause? Still, Overrun effects can be powerful. Pretty hard for me to evaluate this at the moment, honestly.

Boggart Brute
Menace is interesting. In general, it's got to be worse than standard evasion like flying. But there are scenarios where it's better - can't be brickwalled by one thing, and possibly better in multiples, as you can swarm. Definitely wants to be in an aggressive deck. And this card seems quite good. 3/2 for 3 is just fine as is, and adding in the evasion seems really goood actually. They have to hold two things back, and even if one is big enough to eat this, you can still trade with the other. I expect this to be a high pick.

Jhessian Thief
Scroll Thief with Prowess? Sign me up. Scroll Thief was already a fine card. You probably really need both abilities to make this good though - Jeskai Student was pretty much filler, and Scroll Thief had its ups and downs but was rarely great. This card will be a lot better if you can make it evasive, but the Prowess helps it out a lot. The threat of activation is a big deal - probably they really need to block with a 2/2 on a bluff attack, but given that that is true, you should be able to 2-for-1 them with instants a lot of times. Still, it's a 1/3, so it's not going to be amazing (unless you can give it evasion).

Lightning Javelin
4 Mana for 3 damage at sorcery speed is pretty yawn. You will play it, but it's not exciting. The scry doesn't do much to change that.

Tuesday, 9 June 2015

Theory: Anti-Engine Slogs

So we've talked about engines, what their strengths and weaknesses are, how to build them, etc. The next couple of articles, I want to talk about my favorite ways to beat them. This time: by playing a slog.

One of the great strengths of engines in general is that they are going to win the long game, and they can twist things to try to make the game go long. They have inevitability. Playing a slog seeks to flip this on its head. Classically, the slog player is looking to get a matrix of victory points so large that the engine opponent won't be able to overcome it, potentially because it's over 50%, but often actually because the engine can't support having the number of green cards necessary while maintaining its draw-ability. Sometimes, though, the slog player can leverage pressure on piles to squeeze the engine player's options.

What You Need:

Generally you need some kind of VP pile that will work well for you (and less well for an engine). The best here is Duke, since that makes you need to get lots of Duchies, and it's worth a zillion points. Silk Road is also good, since you need other green cards to make it work, and engines often can't afford to get lots of those. Gardens is decent, but it's not as good as the others, since an Engine often ends up with LOTS of cards just from getting lots of components.

More importantly, what you really need is for your engine opponent to actually care about the bloat that will happen in their deck. This means you need them to not be able to get to all the points in too efficient a timespace. Things like strong trashing and megaturn ability are not your friends here. Against a megaturn, you need your own strategy to be very fast in order to get enough points before they can fire off their megaturn. Another thing to watch out for is their ability to go back over the top of you - if there's VP chips available, in most cases Vineyards or Colonies, and sometimes Fairgrounds, they will be able to have inevitability, and the onus flips back on you to be able to end it, which isn't really where you want to be.

A good point to look at is what form of +Buy is available. If it's something terminal and dead, like Woodcutter, that is going to be very favorable for the slog player, who can just get a few and not worry too much about getting other cards to support. If it's something like Market on the other hand, it's going to be a lot more helpful to the engine player - he can build pretty easily towards one or two very big turns, because he doesn't have to add tons of extra draw power and reliability to get his payload off the ground. Ultimately, this is what the engine player is trying to do - build build build and go for VP at a spurt.

Monday, 1 June 2015

Theory: Building Engines

Engines are great in lots of circumstances, as is well know, but how do you go about building them? Is it just a coincidence that the top players end up doing better in engine games than other players? (Hint: No, it isn't). A lot depends specifically on the exact configuration of cards available, but there are some things which are generally true that will hopefully be helpful.

Build Your Draw Up First
The first mistake that a lot of players make is to get too much payload too fast, without building their draw sufficiently. This is an easy trap to fall into - it looks good, since it helps your deck have better turns economically in the (extreme) short term. You get to buy more/better stuff right away. The problem is, it ends up actually being slower in the end. The reason goes back to how engine economies can explode once you get to drawing your deck. Once you get to that point, you can pick up all those 'missed' economic pluses over the course of only a couple turns. At the end of all that, it doesn't matter that more of your turns did 'worse things', because your final product is either 'there' faster, or with extra draw stability to boot, and at that point, it doesn't matter how you got there - the resulting deck is just better.

The Development Phase
At the beginning of the game, you're pretty far from drawing your deck - you have ten quite bad cards, you're only drawing five, and you need to add more cards in order to do anything. The top priority is almost always to thin down by getting rid of your (bad) starting cards. It's the quickest way to get you to drawing your deck, and it gives you good consistency. If you can't thin, it's usually a good idea to get some sifting cards - they will cycle you back to your key buys faster.

Beyond thinning, you'll want to get the minimum possible economy in order to get the components you need. How much this is depends on a lot of things - principally what you're looking to get and what your other things currently are - but a good rule of thumb is that you need very very little to hit $4 consistently, 1-2 silvers to hit $5 consistently, and 2-3 silvers to hit $6 consistently. Be on the lower end of this when you can - extra economy is typically extra dead cards which you'll have to fight through. If nothing else, every silver slows down the rate at which you see your trasher (or whatever other good card) one slot every other shuffle. This sounds like very little, but it adds up pretty quickly, especially in your deck that wants to shuffle every single turn, and especially with that effect compounding itself.

In terms of what order to buy components in, during this stage you want 0-1 more terminals than your villages can support - in other words, terminals before villages. The reasoning here is pretty simple: there's a good chance the terminals aren't colliding yet anyway, and their effects are more important than the villages'. There are lots of exceptions to this rule though - usually when your village has some significant effect such that it's a good bit better than a straight cantrip.

The Economy Phase
One you get to the point that you can draw your deck - even if you can't do it reliably yet - things start to change. You really can't ignore building the draw aspect of your engine, as you will be adding more payload cards and/or green cards that you need to draw, and you also need to increase your reliability. At the same time, you do need to start looking to getting your economy going.

At this phase, you're looking to add a mix of cards such that you're increasing your payload whilst simultaneously reinforcing your draw and adding reliability. It's at this stage that cards like Scheme really start hitting their potency in terms of reliability (I should note that there are other applications for the card).

Specifically in this situation, the script flips from the first phase, and you want villages before Smithies. Obviously, you want to keep enough draw to be able to scoop everything up. But when it comes to over-building, you're much better served in getting extra villages compared to superfluous draw. This is because the biggest chance for you dudding out is from finding insufficient villages to get going - it's worth noting that extra villages don't hurt your chances of finding a Smithy on time, but extra Smithies do hurt your chances of making it to that Village. Of course, this isn't true when your villages don't draw you cards.

Exceptions are so many and varied that I am definitely not going to go over all of them. But I will mention the two biggest ones here: in mirrors, when you are pinched for some particular resource, you want to put a bit of an extra priority on that resource, because winning the split can be a big deal. But the biggest exception of all comes with game-end considerations, where you need to maneuver pile depletion in your favour.