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Magical Darwinism

February 10, 2012

Dear Reader,

You’re in for a special treat today.  An old friend of mine and I who’ve been in and out of contact over the past few years have recently rekindled our bromance (we rub beards) and have been playing Magic: The Gathering Online.  He’s got years on me, though, and when he suggested he write and article for my blog, I thought it was a fantastic idea.  Below you have the product of his ingenious but worm-riddled mind.  I hope you enjoy!

Magical Darwinism, Diamond Edition

My name is Rodney, and I’ve been playing Magic off and on since Revised.  This doesn’t mean that I’ve been good at it for any stage of my playing, it just means that I remember rage quitting a game because that stupid Gaea’s Liege kept turning all my lands to Forests.  I’ve come into this game three times, have left it twice, and am currently in my longest stint of continual playing/keeping up with the game that I’ve ever done.  While that may be interesting to me, I doubt that it is to you, so I will move into the two reasons that I’m writing this article.

When I came back into Magic for the third time, it was during Ravnica previews.  For those who perhaps weren’t playing Magic during this time, Ravnica is generally hailed as one of the all time best sets that Magic has ever had.  This was a great time to be coming back in, because dude.  Ravnica.  There are two things that I remember as being huge reasons I got back into this game.  The first reason was the first preview card I ever saw:  Watchwolf.  (Apologies to J. Sukenik92) The concept, the art, the stats…they blew what little hair I had at the time straight back.  If my linkage force is strong, there should be a link to the card somewhere around here…Watchwolf

Watchwolf

The second reason was an article series on dailymtg.com called Building on a Budget, as written by Jay Moldenhauer-Salazar.  His articles were, in my humble opinion, the pinnacle of Magic Writing on the intertron, and it was a sad day indeed when he chose to stop writing articles.  (On a side note, do you think it’s coincidence that Jay Moldenhauer-Salazar and Jace the Mind Sculptor have the same initials?   I don’t.)  I’ve not found anyone that has picked up his formula for writing articles and run successfully with it, and that saddens me.  I know that I have neither the deckbuilding chops nor the writing chops to write the articles that he could.  But.  I don’t see anyone else doing it, and I’ve very recently moved into playing on MTGO, so I have a newly minted chance to bring back a type of article that I’ve missed.  This article will be my attempting to replicate his formula.

From doing some rereading and analysis of Jay’s original article series, his basic formula (which strayed whenever he felt like there was a reason to stray) was as follows:

1)  Decklist

2)  Breakdown of decklist into various themes and how I think they work

3)  Play the deck with some real games.  Summarize, not turn by turn.

4)  Some general observations about how the games played, including feel or anything else that may be useful. What interactions are awesome?  What interactions are bad? What angles should be pushed?

5)  Put in 5 cards, take out 5 cards, and explain why for each one.

6)  New Decklist

7)  Back to step 3, following the guidelines listed below.

8)  Stop when the deck feels pretty good, or when tired of playing it.

This basic breakdown always gave the reader an idea into where in the process JMS was with his deckbuilding, as well as provided a young deckbuilder in myself a theoretical framework to start from in building my own decks.  Many concepts that are taken for granted by people who play Magic regularly were foreign to me at this time, and JMS always taught me something about the deckbuilding process.  While I don’t think that I’m going to be impressing anyone who plays on a competitive level with my mad deckbuilding skillz, I believe that I can build, tweak, and tune a decklist so that it’s, at a minimum, fun to play and doesn’t just die to every other deck out there.  Of course, since it was Building on a Budget, and I was on a pretty tight budget at that point, it helped in being able to look for different answers to deckbuilding questions, not just the most popular/expensive one.

The Guidelines:

1:  Start with a preconstructed deck and play it, unedited.

2:  Play it for a minimum of five games.

3:  Change no more than five cards at a time.

4:  Build a respectable deck that’s fun to play.

5:  Build an affordable deck.

My completely arbitrary numeric point will be 20 dollars.  I will spend 13 on the deck from the MTGO store, and then I will allow myself up to 7 dollars in tickets to tweak the deck.  Given how new I am to MTGO, this will also allow me to use my budget in a way that I think will be much more fun for me than just randomly surfing and buying new decks and cards.  Keep in mind that these are guidelines, not hard and fast rules.  Even JMS would break his rules from time to time in the interest of fun.

For my jumping in point, I’ve selected the Innistrad theme deck “Deathly Dominion.”  I do this for a couple of reasons.  I want a deck that has fairly obvious themes for the starter and I want a deck that I’ll enjoy playing.  Black/Green has always been a favorite of mine, so why not start with something right in my sweet spot.  Step 1 in the evolution is always to lay out the decklist and take note of themes, what the deck theoretically does well, what it theoretically needs help in, how the deck plays, and other issues of note for the deck.  So…here we go!

Deck List!  Deathly Dominion, Stock.

Lands

13Forest

11 Swamp

Creatures

1 Ambush Viper

1 Brain Weevil

2 Devouring Swarm

2 Disciple of Griselbrand

2 Festerhide Boar

2 Hollowhenge Scavenger

2 Lumberknot

1 Moldgraf Monstrosity

2 Morkrut Banshee

2 Reassembling Skeleton

1 Skirsdag High Priest

1 Somberwald Spider

1 Typhoid Rats

2 Warpath Ghoul

2WoodlandSleuth

 Artifacts

1 Demonmail Hauberk

 Enchantments

2 Dead Weight

 Instants

1 Altar’s Reap

1 Doom Blade

1 Naturalize

 Sorceries

2 Caravan Vigil

1 Make a Wish

1 Prey Upon

2 Rampant Growth

So, tapping my lip, I look upon these cards and I see a few themes.  The central theme of the piece seems to be the mechanic morbid.  At least, that’s what it says on the advertising.  I count twelve (12) cards with the morbid ability, which is used for various types of effects.  Morbid is an interesting and quite flavorful ability.  Anything with the keyword Morbid has an additional effect if it’s played on the same turn that a creature died.  The most common Morbid effect is to make the creature bigger.  Three creatures power up from something else dying seems a good way to both hit the theme and help the deck win.   Other morbid effects include a touch of life gain, a touch of recursion, a touch of token producing, and a touch of removal.  What I like about morbid as a mechanic, at least from the comfort of my extra large computer chair, is that it is a varied and versatile ability.  What do I want to use this extra life energy for?  I think I’ll (insert whatever effect).

The secondary theme to the deck is sacrifice.  Just like any good overlord, you choose when to let something else make the ultimate sacrifice in your deck.  Seven cards have the word “sacrifice” as part of a cost, meaning that it shouldn’t be terribly difficult to trigger Morbid at a time and place of your choosing.  (That, gentle Reader, is known as “Foreshadowing”) Of course, just sacrificing to sacrifice seems somewhat silly.  Extra cards, pumping an evasive threat, a touch more life gain…again with the varied abilities.  This concept ties in well from a flavor standpoint in that the deck plays like a dark overlord, sacrificing victims to power up other creatures, or to gain some type of advantage.  I think I’ll be mumbling “mwahahaha” an awful lot when I get this deck going.

Recursion (bringing back cards or other resources from the graveyard) is the tertiary theme that I see within the stock deck.  Woodland Sleuth, Make a Wish, Mr. Moldgraf Monstrosity, and Reassembling Skeleton all love to see things come back from the graveyard to where you can put them to good use.  I always prefer them to go back onto the battlefield, but free cards are free cards, and I’ll not pass up the chance to put them back into my hand.  At least, I won’t pass them up yet.

There are a couple of minor themes that I don’t feel like I have to spend much time on.  Green deck equals ramp (putting additional lands onto the battlefield), at least in a minor dose.  One thing that I have a habit of enjoying is a light splash (using a color that’s not primarily supported) in an otherwise two color deck, using the green ramp and selection to make it much easier for the splash to occur consistently.  Example time:  if I were to splash red into this deck, it would be just one or two cards that I feel are super powerful or needed in the deck, and I would use the ability of my green ramp to pull out the one or two mountains I would need to cast the spell.  The Rampant Growths in the deck let me select any land in my library, so I don’t have to worry about drawing the appropriate land at the appropriate time.  I can go get it if I need it.

Black kills creatures; green kills artifacts; and both colors can do it at instant speed.  Instant speed utility is always nice, and it plays into the major themes.  From my chair, I see a couple of cuts that I’d like to make already, but that’s not how this works!  First, I have to play some games to see how the deck runs!  Off to Just for Fun!

Game 1:  Green/black/blue/white Flare type deck.

My opponent has a pretty unique deck that I haven’t seen or heard about anywhere before.  His strategy is to play high impact creatures and to have a pseudo-combo finish with Parallel Lives and Spider Spawning.  Parallel Lives doubles the amount of tokens made when it’s out, and a lot of his deck had tokens involved, even the creatures that were already impactful.  Nice example of synergy.  He won the game (after around 12 turns of pretty fun, interactive magic) by playing a Wurmcoil Engine and reanimating a Sheoldred.  My puny 1/1’s were no match for the mighty masters of the universe that he was playing.  J

Game 2:  Blue-Green Proliferate/Infect

Long story short:  He gets an early couple of poison counters on me, then grinds out the win with a Contagion Clasp.  For the second game in a row, I prayed for the one x naturalize to come to me….it didn’t happen.  He had Necropedes and Glistener Elves.  I had Reassembling Skeleton, and a Lumberknot showed up to do some campaigning with the kids.  But for the second out of two games, I had issues getting out the second forest that I needed.  It would stand to reason that the reverse would be true, since I have more forests than swamps.  But nope!  Also of note here is that I have yet to even draw a way to sacrifice.  I’ve had a Banshee in hand both games and couldn’t activate the morbid to kill something.

Game 3:  Blue White weenie control?

I finally drew more than one forest in my open, good sign!  He leads on Plains, I play forest.  He says Alabaster Mage, I say Reassembling Skeleton (hereon known as Skeletor, the Younger Years Edition).  He drops an island, makes a phantasmal bear, and swings.  I block with Skeletor the Younger, then reply with Dead Weight on the Mage.  He swings with the bear, I EOT Skeletor back to the field, then drop both a Typhoid Rats and Disciple of Griselbrand.  He plays a Benalish Veteran, I come back with a Demonskin Hauberk, immediately equipping to my Typhoid Rats via Skeletor’s brave and noble sacrifice.  He brings out Gideon’s Lawkeeper, which threatens to ruin my ginormous rat strategy.  I Make a Wish, returning both Dead Weight and Skeletor to my hand, then make the Lawkeeper Dead Weight.  Budget cuts, you know.  I eventually win this game, after playing creatures and swinging.

One notable sequence was when he Mind Controlled my Warpath Ghoul, then I Naturalized to get it back.  I could have played it better by either sacrificing the Ghoul out from under the Mind Control, or by waiting for my opponent to untap before Naturalizing.  Of course, I figured out both plays 3 seconds after clicking ok.   Maybe this article will make me get better at this game.

Game 4:  Nothing to see here.

Run over promptly by a dude playing UW hexproof/I can’t target those creatues.  Geist, stalker, pike, war and peace.   12 points of power swinging on turn 4 means I die quick.  Nothing to see, move along.

Game 5:  Burning Vengance deck

Strangely, I didn’t feel like I was ever really out of this game until he stuck a Charmbreaker Devils.  Then, the recurring spells were a bit much for me.  He did get out the namesake of his deck, and I was a little frightened, but then I remembered that I had a Naturalize in my hand, and, well….got his enchantment closer to nature.  Skeletor’s ability to be a general annoyance was wonderful here, as there were several times that a 12/4 Charmbreaker was coming in, but since there was no trample to be found, Skeletor took a (He-)Manly punch for me instead.  Seemed like a fun deck, and not one that I think my deck auto loses to.  The world for an Altar’s Reap to turn on my Banshee’s….any thing for a sacrifice outlet.

Okay, so that was five games.  What I noticed was what was obvious, inconsistent deck is inconsistent.  Either I drew a high number of morbid cards, or I drew several ways to sacrifice creatures, but never the two and never at the same time.  Also, for a black deck, I certainly seemed to have a hard time removing problematic creatures that I could target.  Game 4…well…nothing to see, move along.  So, what types of changes do I want to make?  Well, that’s going to depend heavily on what themes I want to play up.  Morbid is a lot of fun, thematically awesome, and right in the colors.  It is, however, a sorcery speed ability.  Given how much of standard right now leans towards instant speed and high pressure aggro, I have reservations against pushing a theme that keeps me at sorcery speed.  But it is a huge reason that I picked up the deck in the first place, so morbid it is!  Besides, this first round of cuts is going to be aimed at consistency, not at theme.  Make deck play better!

+2 Altars Reap = $0.06

+2 Doom Blades = $0.06

+1 Ambush Viper= $0.03

-2 Warpath Ghoul

-1 Moldgraf Monstrosity

-1 Prey Upon

-1 D. Swarm

So, why did I do what I did?

OUT

-1 Prey Upon:  If I’m in green/black, I have much better options for kill spells.  If they can be targeted, Doom Blade and Go for the Throat do a much better job of killing it dead than Prey Upon, which is too reliant on other green things being around.  Not interested in playing a strictly inferior card.  Now, if I was going mono green ramp and big monsters…that would be different.

-1 Moldgraf Monstrosity:  Why would I get rid of the biggest creature?  The biggest source of creatures back onto the battlefield, not even to my hand?!?!?!  Well, the triple forest was a source of concern for me, given that five games have shown me an issue with getting out the appropriate mana.  Maybe the Altar Reaps will help with the card draw (and by maybe, I mean they should) and I’ll be able to bring him back in when I’m thinking about how I’ll actually win games.  But right now, there’s more of a need for me to be able to draw cards, activate morbid, and get to a point where the extra cards and recursion can do something for me.  Definitely something to keep in the back of the head.

-1 Devouring Swarm:  Three mana, two of which is colored, for an evasive threat that I can use to kill my plentiful creatues (sacrifice!) for a +1/+1.  I’d rather find other, better effects to get out of my sacrifice outlets than +1′s.

-2 Warpath Ghoul:  Fairly efficient, good beater, but boring and doesn’t fit into any theme that I wanted to have.  I hate that I’ve now murdered my my mana curve, but we’ll see if we can’t address that at some point.

IN

+2 Altars Reap:  Morbid does me no good if I can’t trigger it on a whim.  Altars Reap can be used in response to all kinds of nasty effects (burn, kills, bounce, whatever), provides gas for the massive bonfire (bic lighter) that is my deck, and lets me play a little more at instant speed.

+2 Doom Blade:  Kill spell kills creatures.  I like killing creatures.  And I follow this guy on Twitter, so seems like a good place to get him in.

+1 Ambush Viper:  Hexproof seems like it’s going to be an issue for me.  I don’t have any edict effects (yet) and until I hit the “late” game, my creatures tend to have one power, which doesn’t do me tons of good against Geist of St. Traft.  Green’s Doom Blade seems like an inclusion that I’ll be happy to use.  Also, the instant speed is again a huge plus in a deck that is built around a mechanic that stays sorcery speed.

Deck List, Version 1.1

Lands

13Forest

11 Swamp

Creatures

2 Ambust Viper

1 Brain Weevil

1 Devouring Swarm

2 Disciple of Griselbrand

2 Festerhide Boar

2 Hollowhenge Scavengers

2 Lumberknot

2 Morkrut Banshee

2 Reassembling Skeleton

1 Skirsdag High Priest

1 Somberwalk Spider

1 Typhoid Rats

2WoodlandSleuth

Artifacts

1 Demonmail Hauberk

Enchantments

2 Dead Weight

Instants

3 Altar’s Reap

3 Doom Blade

1 Naturalize

Sorceries

2 Caravan Vigil

1 Make a Wish

2 Rampant Growth

So, taking another look at my deck, I like the change, theoretically.  Speeding up my options, giving myself a little more card draw that fits the theme, more kill spells should all help me defend myself a little better.  However, my three slot on ye ol’ mana curve has only one Devouring Swarm holding it down.  I’m also not sure how I’ll actually get to the point that I start to win the game.  I’m thinking that it’s going to be either Hauberk equipped onto whatever or 4/4 Banshees and 4/5 Scavengers randomly beating down.  I haven’t drawn the High Priest in a position to use him yet, so I’ll let him go on a round of cuts.

I hope that this trip downDeckbuilding Lanehas been informative, entertaining, and interesting.  My main point of authoring these posts is to let me write and try to improve as a Magic player.  That I get to interact on a more regular with Stubborn and that I get to pay homage to one of the best Magic article series of all time are twin cherries on this sundae of awesome.  If you enjoyed this type of post and would like to see more like it, let Stubborn know!  I’ve certainly enjoyed writing it and, who knows?  Maybe I’ll see one or two of you on MTGO?

Thanks for reading!

Rodney

E-mail:  ThatGuyRodneyAThotmailDOTcom

Phone:  1-900-MIXALOT

P.S.  (Or: My God, Hasn’t This Gone On Long Enough?!)

My burning question is: how much detail goes into a good game recap?  Do people prefer the complete turn by turn breakdown or the key points?  I’ve tried a range of level of details in this article, to mine precisely that feedback.  Also, any other feedback (voice, tone, what you liked/didn’t like) is always welcome.  Please understand that constructive criticism is welcomed…the other type is not.  I know asking the internet to be gentle is spitting in the wind…but please.  Be gentle.  :)

Tellah

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. February 11, 2012 11:29 pm

    Cheers Rodney! Welcome to the darkness that is blogging..
    Ok so ya, a great post, but a TLDR might apply here =P Love the pacing of your prose, however.
    It’s always been interesting to me to see the evolution of MTG over the years. I got started myself back in 3/4th era, calling it quits just after Ice Age came out. Years later, found out a coworker was an avid player, and started going to comic shops for some FNM. Needless to say, back in my day, Serra Angel and Counterspell were my cornerstones for blue/white deny only to find out that mana costs had been ‘readjusted’ so that Serra wasn’t event attractive anymore, and CS was out of print. Heart trodden, a rebound came in the form of draft play.
    One of the main reasons I had the fallout with the game was the business model. Enter: draft play, and now you have a game outside of a game (setting up a deck without knowing what you will end up playing) combined with the gameplayer proper, all on a budget and no one else being able to muscle anyone else because of deeper pockets. I figured I would get around to making an MMORPG post examining how this might pan out in the virtual world, but given chance you happened to post a related concept on a blog I frequent. How capital!

    • Tellah permalink
      February 12, 2012 12:56 pm

      Thanks for reading, and for the comment! Stubborn and I weren’t sure how well received this type of post would be on a WOW-centric blog. Gamers are gamers was his point, and I’m happy to say that he was right.

      I remember having a Blue/White control deck, and it was AWESOME back in the day! I think that Wizards has done a great job of pushing creatures more and pushing spells less. That leads to decks having better options for their creatures and games being much more interactive than they were during the early days of radio.

      Draft is hit or miss for me, truthfully. It has a lot to do with the fact that I don’t buy much in the way of packs (tending to focus on buying value cards to fill certain roles in certain decks cuts into my packs) and when I do draft, well, I’m terrible at it. There’s a HUGE part of the MTG player base that does drafts exclusively and sells the cards for enough cash to buy more packs. Great game design leads to many ways to play the same game, and really, who would have thought that the game we picked up in the mid 90′s would be inspiring blog posts and conversations through forums 15 years later?

  2. Macnol permalink
    February 12, 2012 11:23 am

    I’m breaking my habit of silent reading to point out that I really enjoyed this post!

    While my knowledge of MtG is superficial at best, your text was easy to follow (and entertaining to boot); maybe enough to convince me to pick up the Steam game when a promotion comes up. :)

    If not as as regular feature on Sheep the Diamond, I urge you to at least consider creating yout own blog to continue this series. I’m pretty sure I could learn a lot more about the game following your exploration of different decks and how to improve them within the desired theme.

    • Tellah permalink
      February 12, 2012 1:00 pm

      Thanks for breaking away from the shadows of lurking to leave a comment!

      I’ve thought about starting my own blog, but then it would become what usually happens to me when I start creative things. I get blown away with work/other commitments and can’t get back to it for a while. So, if Stubborn is willing, we’ll keep it here for a while, to see if I can keep up with a regular writing schedule.

      Playing Duels is a great way to learn how to play Magic, and is really what it’s designed for. If you ever decide to jump into MTGO, be sure to let me know! I’ve already converted Stubborn into playing online….BWAHAHAHAHAHAH…I mean…I’d enjoy playing online with you as well, I’m sure.

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