There's a lot to talk about in the Magic world right now. The new Standard format is coming into its own with US Nationals a mere week away and M12 is about to make the jump to Magic Online where it will be the draft format du jour (not to mention will serve as the Limited format for the aforementioned Nationals and several upcoming Grand Prix). On top of that there's that whole Hall of Fame voting thing going on right now which I feel compelled to touch on for some reason.
As far as Standard is concerned we've seen the format move dramatically away from the metagame that pundits predicted in the wake of M12 and the bannings. Sure Valakut and Splinter Twin are posting decent numbers and Mono Red put up a Top 4 finish in the hands of Charles Wong last weekend in Seattle along with quite a few Top 8s at French Nationals but none of them are the big story in Standard right now.
Today's big story is that you can't keep a good Hawk down. It would have been easy to treat Tim Pskowski's victory at SCG Open: Cincinnati as a fluke but with Nick Spagnolo and Edgar Flores following it up with an absolutely dominating performance at SCG Open: Seattle it's clear that this new incarnation of Caw-Blade is for real. The duo faced off in the finals of the Standard Open having taken a single match loss between them all weekend. Nick's 2-1 victory in the championship match marked the only time he lost a single game in the entire tournament. Now that's a dominating performance!
If that weren't enough Caw-Blade took several top spots at French Nationals including the crown. Two championships in one weekend for the deck that supposedly lost its best cards on July 1st—now that's something. Was Squadron Hawk really The Bird behind The Man the whole time?
The other big deck that doesn't seem to be going away is Tempered Steel. A lot of people dismissed the Block Constructed port as a deck that would die down once people decided to commit to beating it but that doesn't seem to be the case just yet. This week saw Alex Bertoncini make Top 4 at the Standard Open in Seattle and two of the Top 4 finishers at Australian Nationals made it that far on the back of Memnite and friends. It makes me wonder—was Tempered Steel just totally overlooked during the reign of Caw-Blade? Stoneforge Mystic into Batterskull could certainly put the brakes on the robot army but it's hard to imagine that would have proven to be too much for Dispatch and Dismember to take care of.
Much like in Block Tempered Steel demands a lot from anyone who wants to beat it. It's not as simple as playing some Pyroclasms and calling it a day. You'll be sitting there with Pyroclasm in your hand and you'll face an opening of Origin Spellbomb into Glint Hawk Idol into Tempered Steel plus double Memnite and you'll be wondering what the hell just happened to you. Even stocking up on Creeping Corrosions won't always get the job done. A Tempered Steel and two Inkmoth Nexus later and you'll feel really silly staring at the second Shatterstorm effect in your hand.
Tempered Steel preys upon control decks that rely on having the right answer at the right time. Sure cards like Ratchet Bomb and Black Sun's Zenith and Consume the Meek are all good against Tempered Steel but a Ratchet Bomb is awful when you draw it turn three against anything but an army of Memnites; Black Sun's Zenith can't keep up with Steel Overseer and Steel itself; and you can easily die before you get a chance to cast Consume the Meek. Not to mention all bets are off if your Tempered Steel opponent gets tricky and decides to play something like a Hero of Bladehold against you!
Perhaps the biggest advantage Tempered Steel has over control decks is its ability to play an incredibly tight mana base. This was a particularly big deal in Block Constructed where the lack of color fixing or deck manipulation forced control decks to play abnormally high land counts while the monocolor Tempered Steel could play 22 lands including four incredibly deadly Inkmoth Nexus. While control decks have better mana Preordain and Tectonic Edge in Standard they still have to play upwards of 24-25 land while Tempered Steel can get away with 20 and Mox Opals (and rarely have to play a fourth land making Tectonic Edge largely dead as a solution to Nexus). That's a huge advantage in any game that comes down to a topdecking war of attrition which is more likely than it seems given how easily Tempered Steel can Dispatch any finisher a control deck can throw at it.
The combination of Caw Blade and Tempered Steel makes me feel like control really isn't where I want to be right now. I've tested a lot with Tezzeret and I'm a big fan of the deck in a field full of Splinter Twin and Valakut but that's just not what the world seems to be looking like nowadays. I feel like I want to play something aggressive because I don't want to play that topdecking attrition game with Tempered Steel after I Creeping Corrosion them. I just want to attack them and make them die.
I haven't come to any conclusions yet but I've been looking very closely at the G/W deck that got second at Japanese Nationals as a place to start. Most people have dismissed it offhand as looking quirky and weird but you don't do that well in a tournament as competitive as Japanese Nationals without doing something right. Now if only I had more than a week until Nationals to figure out just what that something was…
The other format at Nationals has thankfully come a bit easier for me. I've had a chance to do a total of three M12 drafts and I managed to make the finals of all of them. I can't claim to be an expert on the format by any means but I feel like I've picked up a few tidbits of wisdom I can pass along to you.
The format is fast. No faster than that. M11 was fast but in a lot of ways this feels closer to Zendikar than M11. There's no landfall to make attacking almost strictly better than blocking but there is bloodthirst which drives the curve of every deck downward to either support it or defend against it.
Bloodthirst is a funny mechanic because it requires you to evaluate every potential attack and block very differently. Your Azure Mage sure may be awesome but can you afford to take a hit and let your opponent play a Gorehorn Minotaur or Vampire Outcasts with bloodthirst? M12 encourages any sort of defensively oriented deck to play lots of early creatures just to block and trade and sometimes just to chump! It's kind of funny that the “n00b” play of chumping at 20 can sometimes be right so you can keep your opponent's bloodthirst creatures turned off while you develop your board over the next few turns.
Because of this cards that enable bloodthirst on an otherwise stalemated board have dramatically higher value than they would have in other formats. Scepter of Empires (aka Telim'Tor's Darts) would be a pretty terrible card in Scars (or even Zendikar) but it's an excellent way to turn on Stormblood Berserker and friends. It's not just playable—I think it's actively quite good. Similarly Goblin Fireslinger and Tormented Soul are both key cards for bloodthirst decks and I'd be happy to play quite a few of each of them. Goblin Arsonist is dramatically better than it was its first time around since now not only can it trade with a two-toughness creature but it can also brute force bloodthirst by suiciding into an opponent's blockers (and that's to say nothing of its ability to pick off white's tapper in this set who conveniently has a toughness of one rather than two).
In the three drafts that I've done I was mono-white Griffin Rider aggro splashing Frost Breath typical core set U/W fliers and R/B Bloodthirst. I have no idea how to draft an effective green deck in this format since red and black both have more efficient creatures than you do if they're getting damage through and you don't even have the best combat trick anymore. I suppose Garruk's Companion is one of the best ways to enable bloodthirst since there's very little that can completely block a three-power trampler until much higher up the curve but I haven't had a chance to try that yet. Hopefully the time to experiment won't be in my first draft pod at Nationals.
Standard musings…check. M12 draft thoughts…check. That leaves us with…Hall of Fame discussion.
This is my first year voting as a sitting member of the Magic Hall of Fame. That makes all of the Hall of Fame discussion a little different this time around and not only because I'm wondering what my fate will be in all of it. Perhaps it's misplaced but I feel an even greater sense of responsibility to ensure that those who are deserving of the Hall of Fame have the chance to join me in it. I have had my opportunity to be honored by the community and want to make sure they get their turn.
Similarly I feel somewhat protective of that honor and don't want to see it bestowed upon anyone who would somehow tarnish it. Maybe that's selfish and I want the Hall of Fame to mean more because it's somehow a reflection upon me but I'm concerned about a lot of the discussion I hear about various ways to game the system.
I see the Hall of Fame as a way to honor players who have excelled upon and contributed to the Magic Pro Tour. I have no illusions that it's a list of the best players to ever play the game necessarily and simply being great at Magic should not be grounds enough for induction. Neil Reeves for instance is one of the absolute best players to ever play the game but his results simply don't compare to those of other players on the ballot. Raw skill counts for something to be sure but raw skill without results isn't enough. We want to enshrine Michael Jordan not Len Bias.
I also take very strongly into account the contributions a player makes to the Magic community at large. It would be rather disingenuous of me not to particularly given that I was personally elected to the Hall based as much or more on my presence in that community as on my results. At the time of the vote last year my PT resume included three Top 8s with a win generally considered the bare minimum to even be in the Hall of Fame conversation. I credit the rest to my winning smile.
I draw a hard line against cheaters. I think it's important that those we honor in the Hall of Fame are those who got there honestly. While some have said that ship has sailed based on some of the players already inducted into the Hall I feel we do ourselves a disservice if we don't act on our best judgment in the present regardless of what may have happened in the past.
That said this is my ballot for the Magic Hall of Fame Class of 2011
Shuhei Nakamura –
Shuhei has racked up an incredibly impressive 400+ Pro Tour points in his ten years playing on the Pro Tour including a Player of the Year title. For those keeping score at home that means Shuhei has averaged the Pro Tour Points required to hit Level 7 in the Pro Player's Club every year since he started playing. That's a simply outrageous level of success. Shuhei is the Jon Kai or Nassif of this year's ballot. If you don't vote for him you shouldn't be allowed to vote again.
Anton Jonsson –
If Anton were American he would be in the Hall of Fame already. It's an unfortunate thing to say but it's true. Non-American players have to have absolutely outrageous statistics like Kai or Nassif or Shuhei or have an active voting campaign for them like Raphael Levy or Bram Snepvangers or they are generally overlooked. Anton has a remarkable five Top 8 finishes all of them during Magic's modern era and was regarded as one of the most dominant drafters in the world during his time. There was something of a groundswell started for him last year by Ted Knutson but it was too little too late. A week after the voting ended Anton finished second in GP Gothenburg. If that tournament had been a bit better timed (like GP Sendai was for me!) I have a feeling Anton would be in the Hall of Fame already. And he should be.
Steve OMS –
Speaking of people who should be in the Hall of Fame already. Steve has been overlooked year after year as more and more of the voters are unfamiliar with Magic's earlier generations. If there is a flaw in Magic's Hall of Fame voting system this is it. Far too many of the voters aren't sufficiently educated on the players they're actually voting about and their tendency is to vote for players with whom they are more familiar meaning players from recent times. Steve was an absolute juggernaut in his day with PT finishes of 1st 2nd and 3rd along with multiple Grand Prix wins back when there were far fewer Grand Prix available. He was one of the game's original road warriors traveling to GP Rio when it was held concurrently with the Invitational and was simply one of the most feared players in Magic for years. As someone who grew up playing Magic in the northeast and went the Neutral Ground/Grey Matter tournaments in New York Steve was someone I never wanted to run into in those events or any other. He's someone I'd love to run into tournaments nowadays though and I hope he makes it into the Hall of Fame because he's deserved it for years.
William “Huey” Jensen –
Huey is another person who has been on the ballot for a while and hasn't gotten the attention he deserves. His stats are impressive on their own—four Top 8s including a win along with two GP titles and a Masters win—but besides that Huey was simply an incredible Magic player. As far as raw Magic talent goes Huey's name gets mentioned in such rarified air with those of Finkel Budde and Maher. He really was that good. He was possibly the best Team Rochester drafter in the world; indeed it was his team The Brockafellers (along with Brock Parker and Matt Linde but Huey was the mastermind behind it) that finally ended the reign of Kai's Phoenix Foundation. Being the best in the world at the format generally accepted to be the most skill testing format in the world generally means you're at least pretty good and Huey was more than pretty good. He was one of the best.
My final vote goes to Patrick Chapin. Patrick is someone who gives more of himself to Magic than just about anyone out there. His results have been off and on throughout his career but that's to be expected when you played back in the early days of the Pro Tour and you're still playing today. His Top 8 at PT Paris showed that he can still do more than write about the game but it's really his writing and community contributions that solidify my vote for him. I know that I've thought about writing a book about Magic and I also know how long I've been thinking about doing that and never getting around to it. Patrick actually did it and by the sounds of it he has another book on the way. While some may question the value of things like Magic Hip-Hop albums to our collective culture no one can question that Patrick's devotion to experimenting with such things has made him a huge force in that culture today.
One player who I wish I had a spot to vote for is Justin Gary. Justin is someone who had the misfortune of living in the shadow of his fellow YMG teammates while quietly posting excellent finishes himself that weren't quite as impressive as those of Rob Dave and Darwin. He has three Top 8s including a win and played on two US National Teams one time as National Champion and the other resulting in a Worlds team championship. He also had one of the best median finishes of any player in Pro Tour history finishing in the Top 32 over a third of his attempts. I voted for Justin the past few years and I would vote for him again if I had a sixth vote. I encourage anyone who has not completed their ballots to look at Justin's stats and consider him strongly.
Similarly I wish I could vote for Chris Pikula. Chris was one of the original storytellers on the Pro Tour one of the people who created Magic culture. Sadly I think his chances of induction are only diminishing as time goes on but I think it's a minor tragedy that he likely will never make it into the Hall of Fame.
Okay that's it for this week. Thanks to the readers who pointed out that the PTQ wasn't at the Radisson LAX last Saturday because it saved several of us from awkwardly showing up to an empty hall. That said I will be there this Saturday looking to draft and brew up a sweet aggro deck to take down Caw Blade and Tempered Steel so look for me there if you're going!
Until next time