"I left the venue to do a photo shoot for a MTV AIDS awareness campaign, and for a moment, as my fans were chasing the car down the cobblestone streets of the beautiful, old city, I felt like a unicorn. If only for a moment."
This month marks the 26th birthday of one of the world's most successful active pop singers, Kesha Rose Sebert. This makes her just a couple months younger than one of the world's most successful active Magic players, Conley Woods. During this time, Ke$ha has received sixteen awards for her music, including best new artist awards, "Most Animal Friendly Artist," and accolades for "Tik Tok," "Your Love is My Drug," "We R Who We R," and "Blow," among others. Her second major album dropped just a couple months ago, titled Warrior, an album she says is about magic.
It goes without saying that we could all learn a lot from Ke$ha, both on the Magic playmat and off. Wolf Run Bant appears to be falling to the wayside, with Esper squarely cementing itself as the control strategy of choice. While I am not convinced Ke$ha would want to play a control deck in this metagame, I'm certain she wouldn't say it's a bad choice. Playing control these days taps into a little Magic history. It is like playing a deck from an earlier era before everything was all creatures all the time, and as you know, Ke$ha has always had an affinity for times gone by.
"The Galapagos seemed like a place trapped in prehistoric time, and y'all know I love that $#*!." -Ke$ha
Here is what I'm going to recommend to Ke$ha if she calls me this week and asks me for an update to Esper Control:
Having more Restoration Angel helps with our weaknesses to planeswalkers, but honestly, they are still going to be as rough as Ke$ha's trademark "herself times ten" style of auto-tuned vocals and bravado.
Jace Five is still the best way to win against blue decks, but I wouldn't be surprised if in the near future we get to a place where it is totally reasonable to play a couple Jace Fours next to a couple Jace Fives. The only reason I avoid it here is because of wanting room for the Restoration Angels. Even now, I wouldn't be ashamed to trim one of them for a Jace, Architect of Thought.
The added card draw is highly desirable, of course, but it is also nice to have some diversity. Being able to drop a planeswalker a turn before they expect it or with one extra mana open has some surprise value. Additionally, in terms of raw card draw ability, I'd take the Architect of Thought over the Memory Adept most days of the week. We just need Jace Five because of the milling ability.
The diverse mix of spot removal has become industry standard, even if the exact mix varies from player to player. A couple people have asked me about Murder lately, and while I am not completely opposed, I lean away from it because of its second black mana symbol, not to mention having access to the underrated Tribute to Hunger.
Counterspells maindeck are not as good as they have been in recent weeks. I'd rather focus on winning game 1s against other blue decks with the milling cards and then switching into full on hate mode with more permission, more milling, and discard.
One element of the sideboard I am not as confident in is the Angel of Serenity plan. I just want to be able to transform into more proactive threats. Esper is a known enough quantity that everyone will have experience testing against you, while you can't possibly have tested against everything everyone might throw against you. Being able to switch it on 'em can be an invaluable tactic for control decks. We aren't exactly on the draw-go plan anyway, so having more tap-out threats is great. The key is identifying in each specific matchup if the game will still be undecided by the time you can play Angel of Serenity. The Augurs and Restoration Angels you will surely stockpile in your graveyard make the Angels a weird fifth and sixth Sphinx's Revelation that can also impact the board when needed.
The card I would most try to fit into the sideboard is probably the third Rest in Peace. Reanimator can be tough game 1, and Rest in Peace just has such a massive impact on the post-sideboard games since we have access to so many sweepers (plus Blind Obedience if they are on the Craterhoof plan).
"Europe has some pretty epic beards." -Ke$ha
This weekend, Grand Prix Utrecht in the Netherlands became the largest team tournament in Magic's history. Over 2000 players competed in the Gatecrash Team Limited event, adding evidence that it is not only America that is seeing such an incredible surge in the tournament community. Gatecrash, like every set of the past couple years, is the fastest selling set of all-time. However, if you just look at the past month, we are seeing an eyebrow raising uptick even for such a boom.
The largest team tournament of all-time, the largest Magic streaming viewership of all-time (Tom Martell winning Pro Tour Gatecrash), the largest non-WotC event of all-time (SCG Standard Open: Indianapolis last week), and the largest Magic tournament of all-time (GP Charlotte, which set the record by over 500 players!)—we are talking a lot of spikes.
If things keep growing at this pace, it won't be long until Hall of Famers like Jon Finkel and Bob Maher are passing Ke$ha on the all-time earnings list (no idea how much that is, but her net worth is estimated at $8.5 million dollars at this point). But it's not all about the millions. Like Ke$ha, who just loves the music, succeeding at Magic goes hand in hand with an undying love for the game.
Competing in big tournaments is definitely a lot of fun, but you know what else is fun?
You haven't played Iron Man Magic until you have played it against Jon Finkel! The last time I was at Gen Con, I ran into Bob Maher playing a three-way Commander game with David Williams and Matt Sperling. A laundry list of Magic greats, including Chris Pikula and Michael Flores, took part in a Cube Draft weekend just this past weekend. Luis Scott-Vargas is well known for his cube drafting, but he is also well known for his "eccentric" draft strategy, which actually verges into casual format territory at times (such as drafting every seven-drop he opens and playing them all).
Over the years, a lot of awesome casual formats have gotten invented. I remember back when we (Team CMU, Team Sped, a lot of the California and New York guys) would all draft in a fashion that is most similar to what people today call Cube Draft. That was hardly the only casual format we played, however. I don't really get a chance to discuss casual formats all that often, so while we are on the subject, here are a few that I have enjoyed over the years.
Ok, this one is kind of a gimme. While most readers are likely somewhat familiar with it, for completeness it is included. While I have played a lot of variations over the years, in general I think the best rules are:
1. Both players have their own deck. This deck is most often assembled from picking up leftover commons after someone's draft. It's generally best to shuffle all of the cards you'll be using together and then divide them between the two players. I don't have a ton of experience with three or more player games of Mental Magic, but my guess is that they'd be glacially slow.
2. You can play any card as any other card with the same cost. Once a card has been named, it cannot be named again by either player. Elvish Warrior could be played as a Strangleroot Geist or a Sundering Growth, but it could not be a Sylvan Library. Sundering Growth could be a Strangleroot Geist or a White Knight or a Vitu-Ghazi Guildmage. Vitu-Ghazi Guildmage could be a Selesyna Charm or a Watchwolf but not a Sundering Growth or a Strangleroot Geist. Orzhov Guildgate could be a Rishadan Port or Mishra's Factory. You can exile a blue card and pay one life to use a Lone Revenant as a Force of Will.
3. You can play any card facedown as a Utopia, which is a basic land that produces all five colors (but does not count as any of the five types).
4. Many players play that you cannot name a card as itself, but I have generally found that it is more fun to allow this. It is very rarely much strategic edge, and it helps players not as experienced in the format feel less helpless and lost.
5. I generally prefer graveyards being legal. Some players play that you cannot play cards out of graveyards (by saying a card has flashback or is Squee or whatever), but I have found the graveyard element to give the game some needed spice. That said, Dredge should absolutely be banned, and if it's not, the games will degenerate very quickly. I do think that a given playgroup might find the metagame to stagnate somewhat, and in such a case, banning graveyards can shake things up tremendously. It should be made clear before the match if graveyards are legal, which includes flashback, Squee, Eidolons, Deathspark, and so on.
6. When a card is referenced anywhere other than the stack, it has whatever properties it naturally has. For instance, a Duress can only take cards that are actually noncreature, nonland cards. If you Animate Dead something, it is whatever it naturally is.
8. Keep the game moving! A chess clock isn't for everyone, but if you and your opponent don't have a good understanding about the pace you want to play at, the game risks being boring for at least one of the players.
Mental Magic is a super interesting format that leads to a lot of craziness you normally never see in most games of Magic. There are a number of games of Mental Magic where the format's charm starts to erode, and it is not for everyone. But if you've never played or haven't played in years, I might give it a shot.
Identical Draft is a four-player Magic Draft variant where each of the four players is given three identical boosters (that they do not know the contents of). Ideally, the game is best played with five players so that a fifth player can actually construct the packs without the other players' knowledge. That said, the format still works fine with players being aware of the general card pool, though packs should be made without the drafters knowing which cards are in which packs.
Each player starts out with the same 45 (or 42) cards, and each of their three packs should be the exact same as the other players (so when making random packs facedown, make four at a time using the same cards). I recommend making every pack contain at least one card of each color and then having the rest of the pack random.
The draft itself goes exactly as you would guess. The players sit in a circle and pass left, right, left, drafting like a Booster Draft. Signaling is expressly forbidden, and anyone that leaks information is going to take the fun out of it.
After the draft, players can add as much basic land as they want and must play at least 40 cards. If you like Cube Draft, I would try this format out sometime, as it feels similar enough to be clearly in the same family but exotic and with a new texture compared to Cube Draft.
Four is the perfect number for an identical draft, as more makes decks have too many copies of the same card (making them less interesting) and fewer isn't as dynamic.
The cards that are drafted can be of any power level—the key is that they are fun. Putting synergies into the draft is fun, but if you go too far (for instance, including five Legacy Goblins cards, five Affinity cards, five White Weenie Cards, five Storm combo cards all in the same draft), it will be boring to draft.
I would generally also aim to make sure that all of the cards are playable whatever power level you choose, though they certainly don't all have to be the same power level as each other.
Here is a possible card pool off the top of my head:
Path to Exile
Ranger of Eos
Go For the Throat
Liliana of the Veil
Pillar of Flame
Birds of Paradise
Wall of Blossoms
Figure of Destiny
I wouldn't want to Identical Draft every day, but if you are in the market to mix it up a little, the format has always pleasantly surprised us. It is particularly good if all four players are on the same page about having some fun with it. The last thing you want is some tryhard mode guy getting mad that the guy on his right took the same card as him.
"Just because I'm sassy and have a mouth on me doesn't mean I'm coming from a negative place." -Ke$ha
Backdraft is one of the oldest casual Magic variants. Not to be negative, but it is also one that has historically had a lot of "this sounds like funs" turn into "eh, I guess I'll play a game."
The way Backdraft works is that you and everyone else involved opens up boosters like a normal Booster Draft. You could play triple Gatecrash if you like, but you could also open any combination of other boosters. Playing with eight works great, but honestly any number between four and sixteen are all fine.
The draft proceeds as normal with one little twist. You aren't drafting your deck; you are drafting the deck you will face. As such, you generally want to take the worst cards you can as well as make the mana requirements for the deck as difficult as possible. You aren't going to be able to help getting the occasional last pick Clan Defiance, but you can still do your best to make the draft as complete of a trainwreck as possible.
After drafting three packs, you do not build decks yet. Instead, you find your first round opponent and exchange pools with them. Now you each have ten minutes (or so) to build a deck of at least 40 cards, adding as much basic land as you like. After your best of three match (which can include sideboarding), you remove the lands, shuffle the card pools (so as to not help the next opponent), and move on to round 2.
It is fun getting a chance to build three different decks, but it is a weird experience playing against the same thing every round. This can be particularly frustrating if you got stuck with an Olivia and a Bloodline Keeper and just keep losing to them over and over.
I remember back in the early days of the Pro Tour, Skaff Elias would hand out packs for free for people to draft with late into the night after Day 2 of the PT. Of course, he did not limit things to sets in print, and we would occasionally be bombarded with exotic boosters going way back (which was only a few years given that these drafts took place in the nineties). We would play all sorts of casual formats, not the least of which was Backdraft. I can't say it's the most fun format I have ever played, but if you haven't experienced it yet, it is worth doing at least once.
"My band and I, we cover our bodies in hairspray and glitter. We use the hairspray to make sure the glitter sticks." -Ke$ha
Sam Black Mental Magic
Also known as 1-2-3 Mental Magic, this variant invented by Sam Black years ago is best played on long car trips to events since you don't really need cards or a table to play it and it is very slow going.
Both players start with no cards in their hand, and on their turn, they are allowed to wish any card into their hand they want save a few banned cards like Mindslaver and The Rack. Players are not allowed to put additional cards into their hand in any way (such as card draw, Tutoring, etc.) or to take extra turns. At the end of your turn, your hand is exiled, and cards remember what they were if they change zones.
On your first turn, you have one mana of any color. On your second turn, you have two mana of any color or colors, and so on. Your mana pool doesn't clear until the end of your turn.
This game is quite interesting and well suited to places where people don't have access to a table. While it can be fun, often it is more about being an interesting puzzle to solve. While the two players are competing, they are also in a way on the same team, trying to explore the format even deeper. This is a great format to allow helping in as long as people don't take too long. I don't want to spoil anyone as to where the format eventually leads (which sadly limits the replayability), but it does take a lot of games to master the game enough to take the fun out of it. I generally suggest as a rule of thumb that if a card has no counter play to it and ruins more than a couple games in a row, consider banning it for a while to breathe new life into the format.
Most people play with graveyards legal, but this is really up to personal preference. It adds strategic depth, but it can make for some bookkeeping.
"I want a pig. I want a pig on a leash. A baby pig on a leash." -Ke$ha
Five-Second Mental Magic
Five-Second Mental Magic is actually a radically different game from traditional Mental Magic. To play, two people who are sitting around at a GP or SCG Open waiting for a round to start pick up some draft leftovers. Playing off of one deck is fine, players do not get a starting hand, and you have unlimited mana all of the time. When it is your turn, you draw the top card and have five seconds to name what it is going to be (with the other person counting out loud but not being a distraction).
You CANNOT name a card as itself; it is common to not be able to think of a card, after which you must discard it. Here, graveyards are off limits, and if you ever get cards in your hand, you must name them all what you want them to be and play them within five seconds.
Once a card has been named, it cannot be named again not only for the rest of this game but for all future games in this session. If you are in tryhard mode, you can keep score by letting the winning player keep all of the cards from that game and at the end of the session see who got the most cards. Generally, the game is fun enough and fast enough that everyone forgets to keep score and just loses it laughing so much.
I highly recommend this format, as it may not have a huge amount of depth but is insanely fun and costs basically nothing in money, cards, set-up, or time commitment.
"I asked my fans to send me their teeth. I got so many that I made them into jewelry." -Ke$ha
Obviously, this is only scratching the surface of some of the casual formats out there, to say nothing of big guns like Commander or Grand Melee (where you have 20 to a 128 players all playing at once). What is your favorite casual format? Which formats are fun over and over, and which are interesting until you figure them out? Where is the right place to play them?
Some of the best casual Magic formats are all about having a time and place. Five-Second Mental Magic is great because it is the perfect format to play when you are in extra time after a round and don't know how much time you have to play but want something to do. Not every format is about picking up stacks of cards, either. What casual Constructed format is the best (aside from Commander)? Pauper is a popular one, but what else do people play?
It's been fun. See you next week!
"Ke$ha's new hit album Warrior is available now in record stores and iTunes."