Breaking the Invitational
I was delighted and honored to be asked to design a deck for the Magic Invitational. For those of you who don't yet know, the Auction of Champions segment of the 2006 Magic Invitational is going to be Classic Vanguard. Seventeen diverse writers and deck builders were asked to build a deck for the auction.
My initial reaction was panic. I knew almost nothing about Vanguard and I knew even less about the online formats. Vanguard is a Magic format that is identical to regular Magic in every respect, except that you begin the game with an “avatar” based upon famous characters found in the game. These avatars adjust your starting life total and hand size, and give you a nifty ability that you can use during the course of the game.
Here is a site that shows all of the avatars for Magic Online and describes the format in greater detail.
We were asked to select an Avatar that we would like to build a deck around. I read through the Avatars listed in that site and I didn't see anything in particular that struck me. It is clear that some of the Avatars seem more useful than others.
After a few searches, I could find little to nothing about Classic Vanguard. I came across maybe one or two threads in the Wizards forums about the format, but they were not particularly enlightening. Some poster commented that the top three decks were Affinity, Boros Deck Wins, and Friggorid.
Nothing is banned in Classic Vanguard. That means you get Affinity with four Skullclamps in all its majestic and horrible glory. That seemed strong to me. At least, until I discovered that Mirage was legal.
Classic Vanguard is an oddity. The format consists of Extended plus Mirage and a handful of promo cards. As soon as I realized what Mirage meant for design possibilities, my excitement grew.
Do you know what's in Mirage? A card called “Lion's Eye Diamond.” Lion's Eye Diamond is probably my favorite Magic card ever printed. Randy Buehler noted a deck I had a hand in that required the card to be restricted (along with Burning Wish) here.
Not only does Mirage have Lion's Eye Diamond, but it also has Dark Ritual. Two busted accelerants were added via Mirage to what would otherwise appear to be an already broken format, and this led me to drastically re-evaluate what I felt the design possibilities were.
My initial inclination was to try and build a Madness deck around Lion's Eye Diamond. However, as soon as I realized that Dark Ritual was legal, I began to think of how to build a Storm deck. A quick analysis of the card pool yielded the following accelerants:
Burning Wish is legal in this format, and Burning Wish has amazing synergy with the Red acceleration as well as cards like Lion's Eye Diamond. I remembered that Mind's Desire, one of the most broken cards ever printed, was not only legal, but available in quadruplets. I no longer had to figure out what sort of deck I was going to build. A scan of the card pool answered that question for me. Tendrils Storm Combo it is!
But selecting an avatar…
I had to do more research. First, I had to figure out exactly how the auction was going to interact with the Avatar. Since I wanted to build Storm Combo, I needed an ability that would maximize my odds of comboing out as quickly as possible. The only card in the avatar list that increases your starting hand size by two cards is Eight-and-a-half Tails. I designed a deck for Vintage called “Meandeck Tendrils” that was designed to win on turn 1 66% of the time simply by playing ten spells in one turn and then casting Tendrils of Agony. I figured that although you lose the Moxen, you get a trade off of getting to play with at least four copies of at least four different cards that are restricted in Vintage. With a starting hand of ten (on the draw) and four Lion's Eye Diamond, I immediately decided that I should be trying to build a deck that can win on turn 1 consistently.
I drew up a rough list:
3 Tendrils of Agony
3 Mind's Desire
4 Dark Ritual
4 Cabal Ritual
4 Lion's Eye Diamond
4 Desperate Ritual
4 Seething Song
4 Chrome Mox
4 BURNING WISH
4 Spoils of the Vault
4 Night's Whisper
1 Mind's Desire
1 Tendrils of Agony
I asked Zvi Mowshowitz, who was organizing this whole thing, exactly how the Avatars would work. Would they apply before the bidding was to begin, after the bidding, or would the hand and life adjustments apply at all? The first response was that since the life and hand size would be controlled by the bidding process of the auction, the only relevant part of the avatars would be their abilities, not the hand or life adjustments. I was really disappointed. Some preliminary goldfishing had supported my suspicion that I could build a turn 1 or 2 combo deck with frightening consistency.
Instead, the bidding would start at around nine cards and thirty life, or eight cards and twenty-five life.
Then I noticed Elvish Champion. More questions followed. Would Elvish Champion have haste if you were on the play? If the life and hand size adjustments were not going to apply, then Elvish Champions nasty – 5 starting life would be completely irrelevant. If someone could bid my deck starting at 9/30 without the life loss and with a Llanowar Elf in play, then Spoils of the Vault is virtually risk free and I would get the additional hand size benefits anyway!
With that information in mind, I finalized my deck:
Elvish Champion Storm Combo, Classic Vanguard
3 Tendrils of Agony
3 Mind's Desire
4 Burning Wish
I analyzed past bidding to see where my deck my fall:
This was the first year they started the bidding at 8/25.
I made note of the fact that only two people bid to five cards in 2004 and in that year, the starting bid was 7/20.
So, each card trumps any life bid. So if the bidding starts at 8/25, then the bidding could go like this:
Player A: I'll deck Menendian's deck for 8/25
Player B: I'll bid 8/22
Player C: I'll bid 8/19
Player A: 8/15
Player B: 7/ 25
Player A: 7/22
I figured that if the bidding was going to start at 9/30, it would be reasonable to goldfish my deck at 8/25. With a starting life of thirty or twenty-five, ten Storm copies are simply not going to be enough to finish the job. Thus, I shifted emphasis from simply reaching ten Storm copies and playing Tendrils of Agony to abusing Mind's Desire. A lot of goldfishing revealed an extremely consistent deck with an eight card starting hand size and twenty-five life. I was able to goldfish most of the games on turn 1 and the rest on turn 2.
Elvish Champion was a Mox! I could drop Chromatic Sphere off him with a no land hand and win on turn 2. That made the deck a lot more consistent.
Building land for a deck with an eight to ten card hand is a little different from usual Magic. The normal math doesn't apply.
I could tap the Swamp, tap my Elf. BG floating. Play Dark Ritual. BBBG floating. Play Cabal Ritual. BBBBB floating. Then I could play Lion's Eye Diamond. Storm count is 3. Then I could play Diabolic Intent sacrificing the Elf and respond by breaking the Lion's Eye Diamond for UUU. My mana is BBBUUU – just enough to play Mind's Desire for at least 5 and probably a bit more.
Maximizing Lion's Eye Diamond is about including as many cards as possible that use LED like a Black Lotus. Diabolic Intent, Spoils of the Vault, and Burning Wish all fit that role.
So, I settled on the decklist above. Then Zvi pulled the rug out from under me. He announced that the Avatars would be adjusting the hand and life totals. I had to go back and re-evaluate which avatar I wanted to use, since Eight-and-a-half Tails would give you plus-two hand size, and Elvish Champion, despite being a Mox, would give you minus-five life, making Spoils of the Vault much worse.
I started working on both lists simultaneously, and I discovered that the two cards were only very slightly better than the Mox effect and the power of Diabolic Intent. In order to resolve this problem, I was going to have to do some more card searches and look for other deck building materials.
One of the things I discovered was that the Eight-and-a-half Tails list really had weak Mind's Desires, but the Champion list couldn't get enough of that card. This really has to do with the fact that Diabolic Intent is in the deck. This makes it much easier to use the maindeck Desires. I had to split the lists and here is the final list of each avatar:
The problem with this list is that I goldfished it quite a bit and a number of Mind's Desires for seven stalled out. You'll notice the Pentad Prism. With Channel of the Suns and the Elvish Champion, this card finally is strong enough.
This list wins on turn 2 every single time I goldfish it, even with nine cards.
It's not perfect, but I simply ran out of time to work on it. I had a number of things arise in my personal life that prevented me from really putting the finishing touches on this deck.
The problem is that there are simply too many possibilities.
The Elvish Champion deck opens up a ton of possibilities with Channel the Suns. My friend Kevin Cron suggested using Wild Cantor, plenty of Eggs, Lion's Eye Diamonds, and lands like Crystal Vein and Dig and then really abuse Second Sunrise. That is a distinct possibility. Another option, of course, is running Mystical Tutor in some capacity. Ideas Unbound also caught my eye.
I even explored Dragonstorm. This deck generates so much Red mana, that Dragonstorm is actually easy to cast. The problem isn't casting Dragonstorm, ironically. The problem is that you have to clog your deck with four Kokusho, the Evening Star and one Rorix Bladewing. Drawing them in your ten-card opening hand is a massive annoyance, not to mention that you risk removing some with Spoils of the Vault.
However, I decided that I was comfortable with the last Eight-and-a-half Tails list because every single goldfish was winning on turn 2, and I hope that's good enough. This deck will not like to be disrupted. It's possible I could have pushed a design toward turn 1, but it would take a great deal of effort beyond what I have already put in. I had already perfected one list when they pulled the rug out from under me. I figure that a consistent turn 2 combo deck is probably good enough to amuse some players and give someone a solid 2-1 win at the Invitational. To make the deck a turn 1 combo deck, you probably have to focus the deck on relying on some card like Infernal Contract in the maindeck, but I'm not sure.
I'll go through five goldfishes for you:
This hand isn't that good, but I'd keep it anyway.
Play Crystal Vein and Egg
Draw Inner Fire. Sick
I will sac the Vein and activate the Egg, drawing Spoils of the Vault and adding BR to my mana pool. I'm not quite sure the optimal way to do this, but I don't think it matters:
I play the second Crystal Vein and bust it. BR2 floating.
I play Seething Song. Storm Count 1. BRRRRR floating
Now I play Inner Fire for 7. Storm Count 2. BRRRRRRRR
Now I Seething Song twice more. Storm Count 4. One Black and 12 Red Floating. I could Dragonstorm right here, heh.
I play Dark Ritual. BBB and 12 Red. Storm Count 5.
I play Cabal Ritual. Six Black and 12 Red. Storm Count 6
Burning Wish for Tendrils of Agony. Six Black and 10 Red. Storm Count is 7.
Play Tendrils for 16 life. 4 Black and 8 Red. Storm count is 8.
Now I just Spoils of the Vault for another Tendrils, and play it for the win.
In that game I did a total of 36 damage on turn 2.
Here is another sketchy hand. I'd keep it anyway:
I'd play Dig, and then Chromatic Sphere.
I draw another Plunge.
I'd just tap the Dig for colorless and break the Sphere for Black and see what I draw. I drew another Dig. Ok, now we should be able to go off easily.
Play the second Dig. Black Floating.
Spoils for Dark Ritual. It was the 14th card down. Tap and sac the second dig to play Dark Ritual. BBB floating. Storm Count 2. It's really unfortunate that we can't use our Inner Fire here. It would be totally busted.
Play Shadowblood Egg and Break it drawing Inner Fire. Ugh! Storm Count is 3. BR floating.
Play both Lion's Eye Diamonds. Storm count is 5.
Play Burning Wish and respond by sacrificing both Lion's Eye Diamonds for Blue and Black. UUUBBB floating, and Storm count is 6.
Fetch out Mind's Desire for the sideboard and Desire for 7 revealing:
Lion's Eye Diamond,
Spoils of the Vault,
Lion's Eye Diamond,
Remember, my starting life was 22 and I lost 13 life to the first Spoils. My only chance here is that I can spoils for a Tendrils or Burning Wish and see it in the next 9 cards. My library is 25 cards with two Wishes and two Tendrils in it, so the odds are the same for either card. I just name Tendrils is exactly the ninth card down. Burning Wish was the 5th card down. I got a little lucky, but my Desire was pretty terrible.
Arguably, I should have mulliganed that hand or tried to play it out a bit differently. Looking back on it, I maybe could have Wished for Infernal Contract leaving BBB floating and 4 cards in hand, but that seems a lot weaker than Desire for 7.
Spoils of the Vault.
This hand looks fine.
Crystal Vein, Egg.
Draw Spoils of the Vault
Play the second Crystal Vein. Sac both Veins and sac the Egg drawing Lion's Eye Diamond with BR2 floating.
Play Inner Fire for 8. Storm count is 2.
Play Egg. 7 Red floating. Break the Egg drawing another Chrome Sphere. Storm count is 3. 6 Red and 1 Black floating.
Play a Chromatic Sphere and break it, drawing another Spoils of the Vault. 4 Red and 2 Black floating.
Play another Chromatic Sphere and use another Red to break it for Black, drawing another Lion's Eye Diamond. Mana: 2 Red and 3 Black. Storm: 5.
My hand is: Chrome Mox, 2 Lion's Eye Diamonds, 3 Spoils of the Vault, Burning Wish, and Desperate Ritual and I have threshold.
I'm not going to screw around anymore. I'm just going to win. I play the Desperate Ritual. 3 Red and 3 Black. I play the Chrome Mox and imprint a Spoils, and tap it. 3 Red and 4 Black. Storm count is 7.
I play both Lion's Eye Diamonds. Storm count is 9
I play Burning Wish for Tendrils and play it for 22. 1 Black floating.
I Spoils for Tendrils and break the LEDs for BBBRRR. Tendrils is the 2nd card down. I play the Tendrils for 26.
I did a total of 48 damage this turn.
Lion's Eye Diamond.
This hand is probably not keepable. I throw it back for a hand of nine:
This hand is business light and land heavy. But I'll keep it anyway.
Crystal Vein, Shadowblood Egg.
Draw Spoils of the Vault.
Break Crystal Vein and break the Egg drawing Seething Song.
Play Dark Ritual and then Inner Fire for 7. Storm Count is 2.
Play Chromatic Sphere and break it for Black drawing Lion's Eye Diamond. 5 Red floating and 1 Black. Storm Count: 3
Play Dig and break it for Black. 5 Red and 2 Black. Play Seething Song. 7 Red and 2 Black. Storm Count 4 and I now have Threshold.
Play Cabal Ritual. 6 Red and 6 Black. Storm Count: 5
Play Chrome Mox without imprinting. Storm Count: 6.
Play Lion's Eye Diamond. Storm: 7.
Play Spoils of the Vault naming Burning Wish and respond by sacrificing Lion's Eye Diamond for Blue. 6 Red, 6 Black, and 3 Blue. Storm: 8
Burning Wish is the 5th card down. I take 4 damage.
Play Burning Wish for Mind's Desire for 10.
The Desire sees a Tendrils and a bunch of other spells. I win with over 50 damage this turn.
Lion's Eye Diamond,
Tendrils of Agony.
I debate whether to keep it, and decide to do so.
Turn 1 Dig.
Draw Plunge into Darkness. Thank goodness.
Sacrifice the Dig for Black. Play Dark Ritual. Play Cabal Ritual.
BBBB floating. Storm: 2
Play Chrome Mox, imprinting Desperate Ritual. Tap the Chrome Mox and play Seething Song. BBRRRRR. Storm Count: 4.
Play Plunge into Darkness for as much life as I have. Let's just say I have 18, to pretend that the bidding mattered. I plunge for 17. BRRRR floating. Storm is 5. There were two Burning Wishes in those 17 cards. I take one. I play the second Seething Song BRRRRRR. Storm: 6
I play Cabal Ritual, one card short of Threshold. BBBRRRRR. I play the Lion's Eye Diamond. Storm count is 8.
I play Tendrils for 18 damage. BRRR. Storm count is 9.
I Burning Wish and respond by breaking the Lion's Eye Diamond for Black. I play another Tendrils, this time for 22 damage. I did 40 damage this turn.
Well, there it is. I can't imagine that any other deck in the format is faster than this, unless it is something along the lines I've set out in this article.
For those of you who are going to try and play some Classic Vanguard but won't be able to play in the Invitational, I hope you give my decks a spin and tune them up for yourself. I think you'll find that they are a lot of fun.