Living By BREAD Alone: The Strategies I Used To Win The Odyssey Prerelease Without A Spoiler
This is a tournament report with a message; two messages, actually. First, I have a message about Limited strategy (that's draft and sealed deck, not a crack on my skills, smart aleck), and that message is BREAD (more on this in a minute). Second, I have a message about conventional wisdom: It isn't always right, much to my relief.
So what's this talk about BREAD? Well, those of us who read and write about Magic strategy love to discuss rules of thumb for our game. There's the rule of card advantage (or, as it is humorously becoming known,"Trish"), the rule of mana curve, the rule of redundancy, and so on. These are all excellent strategy points - and if you don't already know about them, then you would do well to enrich yourself a bit. There are also many rules for drafting and for building sealed decks. I like Alongi's Wheel for Invasion Block sealed deck (which got a little messy with the introduction of Apocalypse), and the ideas of proactive and reactive drafting (do you"force" your colors, or do you take what comes to you?). There are lots of these rules floating around on the web.
I've been playing Limited for a few years now, and I've decided that my acquired wisdom, from experience and from reading articles, can be condensed into the acronym BREAD. Yes, we Magic players love acronyms, too: LIFO (Last In, First Out), DEBT (the rules on Protection), ROFLMAO (see John Rizzo's recent article if you don't know this one). BREAD is my own acronym for draft and sealed deck strategy. It tells you, in order, the most important things to go after when constructing your sealed deck or drafting your cards. There are always different degrees of these elements, and you have to consider these degrees when picking your cards. Nevertheless, the rule of BREAD is, at least for me, ironclad. Let me break it down for you.
I originally left this letter off my own mental list, but decided that READ just isn't a silly enough acronym. Seriously, though, Bombs will always have a huge impact on your draft or sealed deck if you see them. A Bomb, of course, is a card that is ridiculously powerful in Limited (though not necessarily in Constructed) and that you either just have to play or, in the case of a draft, just can't let your opponent have. Some Bomb cards include the Dragon Legends from Invasion, Rout, Flametongue Kavu, Illuminate, Questing Phelddagrif, Void, and so on. This list is skewed toward Invasion Block Bombs, but there are others in older sets, and there always will be. Some Bombs also fall into other categories, while others do not. You just don't pass a Bomb (unless you're taking another Bomb – it does happen). I must also admit that, in real life, some cards that aren't very good in Limited can be Bombs because you won't pass them in a casual draft. By this, I mean money cards. If you open a Meddling Mage or an Apocalypse dual land, you probably won't pass it in a non-sanctioned, keep-your-deck draft (like the drafts I play in weekly). In these drafts, it's worth giving up a good pick for your deck if it nets you a five-dollar card. In sanctioned play, of course, this"rare drafting" is highly frowned upon, but might still happen. Always look for Bombs first, and if you can play them in your deck, do so.
This was my original"first principle" of Limited strategy, along with most other writers. Removal means a way of getting rid of an opponent's permanents, most critically his or her creatures. The best removal is versatile, reasonably costed, and (if you're lucky) reusable or massive. Obvious Invasion block examples include Terminate, Vindicate, Agonizing Demise, Magma Burst, and Jilt. Slightly less obvious examples are Recoil, Repulse, Exclude (and other counterspells), Shackles, and the like. Sometimes Removal is more virtual or subtle, as in the case of Benalish Trapper, Collective Restraint, and Powerstone Minefield. Sometimes creatures can also be Removal - as with Flametongue Kavu, Stalking Assassin, or Slingshot Goblin. You get the idea.
There are lots of different brands of Removal. Massive Removal is great, with cards like Rout, Pernicious Deed, and Breath of Darigaaz. You will notice that there isn't much decent green Removal, which is a big reason that green typically isn't the most popular draft color. You just have to be able to deal with your opponent's creatures. As always, consider quality – Strafe is usually better than Singe, and a fast Terminate is better than a slow Plague Spores. A subcategory here is Removal of other kinds of permanents and resources, such as Dismantling Blow or Hypnotic Cloud, but these are not nearly as important as creature removal, and really come under the letter A in BREAD. Read on, grasshopper.
Evasion means some ability that lets a creature deal damage to your opponent without worrying about being blocked. The classic Evasion ability is flying, of course, but we have also seen shadow and fear (can't be blocked except by artifact and black creatures). There is also straight-up unblockability, as well as alternate means of dealing damage to the person across the table, as with Razorfin Hunter's ability. If your opponent can't easily deal with your creatures by blocking them, there's a better chance that they will get to reduce that opponent's life total. In Limited, that's usually the only way to win. Play those flyers and other Evaders whenever you can.
This is the catch-all category. Here is where you find your plain vanilla creatures (which are important – creatures are king, after all), as well as useful spells like Fact or Fiction and Probe. Creatures with beef, enchantments with power, sorceries and instants that help you to victory are all Assistants. Some people draft (and play) Assistants too highly or too often. Big creatures are nice, but if your opponent has Removal in spades, they just don't matter. There are always exceptions depending upon your draft situation. Sometimes you need more creatures, and you don't have the luxury of choosing Evaders. Just remember, take Bombs, Removal, and Evasion before you start looking for other cards that you'll need.
Sometimes you just have to play bad cards. These are the Dregs. You hope that it doesn't happen, but sometimes you're just a card or two away from a two-color sealed deck… If only you'd be willing to play that Root Greevil or Minotaur Tactician. It happens, and you're never proud of yourself when it does, but the Dregs will occasionally see the light of day. This should never happen in draft, unless you're somehow building a mono-color deck (which would be a neat trick in the most recent block). The message here is simple: Don't play the Dregs if there is any other option.
There you have it: Michael Iachini's BREAD theory. Bombs, Removal, Evasion, Assistants, and Dregs. I'm quite serious about sticking to it, and I've had loads of success with it. BREAD really does apply to both booster draft and sealed deck, though I admit I've never played Rochester draft. I'll bet that there's a fair amount of BREAD drafting going on in those Pro Tour top eights, though – the fundamentals are sound across all Limited formats. Bombs are obvious, but newer and older players alike sometimes fail to put the right premium on Removal and Evasion, in that order. In Constructed, you'll hear beatdown players rightly tell you that there are no wrong threats, only wrong answers. In Limited, I strongly believe that having answers in the form of Removal is even more important than having loads of threats. The threats you do have should actually threaten your opponent, and Evasion is the best way to do it. Play the Assistants you need, and avoid the Dregs if at all possible. And that's BREAD in a nutshell. (Love those food metaphors!)
Now for the tournament report, and the second message. My girlfriend, Barbara, graciously agreed to go to the Odyssey prerelease tournament in Orlando with me. This is a pretty big deal, since we live in Tallahassee, Florida, about four and a half hours north of Orlando (technically Kissimmee, but it's all the same to me). I promised, in exchange, not to look at any spoilers or any other information about Odyssey before the tournament. This was to make it more fun for both of us and to give me something of a handicap, since I play a lot more often than Barbara does. This was my own idea – I wanted to have that"new game" excitement that you get when you see Magic cards for the first time. We drove to a friend's house in Inverness, a little over an hour north of Orlando, to stay the night before the tournament. Since the tournament itself was to be run in a series of 64-player flights that would be starting throughout the day, we didn't kill ourselves getting there at the earliest hour. We took our time, had a good night's sleep, and got into a flight that started around 11:30. The site for the tournament was an enormous warehouse type area in a shopping mall, of all places. I must say that this was the best site for a Magic tournament I have ever seen. There was plenty of room for several simultaneous flights, as well as side events, trading, and casual games, with tables left over to eat on or just sit at. Players had elbowroom between one another, the announcements were loud and clear, and everything ran on a very professional schedule. The fact that there's a shopping mall attached is perfect for getting grub from the food court or having something else to do if you scrub out and are tired of playing Magic. The tournament organizers did an outstanding job, and if there is ever another tournament at that site, I will try to attend.
On to the tournament. Opening my cards was, of course, really cool for me. I had already heard about Flashback and Threshold before I cut myself off from Odyssey news, so I knew there would be some graveyard action going on. Little did I know how much! I won't give you a card-by-card analysis, but I'll tell you a little about my card pool and my application of BREAD theory to it.
After separating my cards by color and registering them all on my deck sheet (during which time I gawked and squinted at all of them to get a feeling for what was going on), I started looking for Bombs. I had one: Overrun. Whew! I had no idea they were going to reprint that old favorite! Of course, I had no idea they were getting into Squirrels either (and I'm the guy who has the"Deranged Hermits of the World" collection!). That makes sense. Overrun is one of those Bombs you have to look at and say,"Will this actually fit in my deck?" A triple-colored mana cost is pretty tough to pull off, but I took a good look and said I'd come back to it.
Next came Removal. I looked at black first, and saw no Agonizing Demises or Annihilates. What I did see looked weak at first, but looked better as I checked out my other cards. I had two Ghastly Demises and two Afflicts. I also had two Painbringers and a Zombie Assassin. The Assassin looked to be way over-costed, but the Painbringers looked good to me – versatile and reusable, if not particularly cheap to cast. That's some good Removal. As for Evasion in black, I had a Dusk Imp and a Fledgling Imp, both of which looked like solid creatures.
Next, I looked to red for more Removal. I found one card that was definitely worth playing in Firebolt, and two that were marginal in Blazing Salvo and Acceptable Losses. My opinion of the Salvo improved each time I played it, but I'm still not sure how Acceptable the Losses are. I also had a Scorching Missile, but that's an Assistant. Nothing too strong here, but it's all splashable if I need it.
Then I looked to blue, which historically has good Evasion. I did have two Cephalid Scouts and an Aven Windreader - but only the Windreader was truly worthwhile, and he required double blue. A pair of Syncopates was tempting, but not worth delving into blue for. White was similar, with two flyers that were nothing special, and no Removal or Bombs.
That left me looking, much to my surprise, at green. I seldom play green in Limited, but I had to give it a look. I had zero Removal or Evasion in green, but I had Assistants like crazy. I went right up the mana curve with Chatter of the Squirrel, Wild Mongrel, Krosan Avenger (hey – Trample is a form of Evasion!), two Nantuko Disciples (wow, do I love this guy), two Springing Tigers – and, oh yes, that little Bomb called Overrun. These were some quality creatures with some nice tricks to boot. I was to play a black and green deck.
I didn't have quite enough quality black and green to fill out my deck, but I didn't want to go for the Dregs. Instead, I splashed my three best red Removal spells and put in two decent artifacts – Steamclaw (which I could see would be wonderful in this format) and Shadowblood Egg. I liked the Egg, since it gave me red mana in a pinch (I was only running four Mountains) and it replaced itself while bringing me closer to Threshold. I'm glad I played it. The Steamclaw was also excellent in some matches. I played forty-one cards and seventeen of them were land, including both the green and the black filter lands. I was happy with my deck, but I had no idea what other decks would look like.
Round 1: I don't remember my opponent's name. Actually, I'm ashamed to say I don't remember the details of this match at all. You see, I went into this tournament for kicks. I didn't even read the spoiler or look for any information at all about Odyssey, for crying out loud! I certainly wasn't planning to write a tournament report. The upshot: I kept my life total with dice instead of my tournament-standard pen and paper, and so I don't even have a record of how close these games were, let alone any details. I do remember that my opponent was a very nice guy, and that his deck seemed well built in general, but used all five colors. I don't think this match was very close, and I do know that I won in two straight games.
Round 2: Michael. Yes, that's my opponent's name as well as my own. This guy was extremely nice, and I do remember some details of our match quite vividly. He played an early Cephalid Scout (1/1 flyer), which I answered with a Dusk Imp (2/1 flyer), one of the few times I saw that little guy all day. He held back, and I attacked, bluffing a Muscle Burst (which I didn't have in my deck, but I had seen it in the first round). He let the Imp through for the next several turns, which pleased me greatly. Meanwhile, I played my Wild Mongrel (2/2 with the ability to get +1/+1 by discarding a card) and a Springing Tiger (3/3 that's 5/5 with Threshold). I was feeling pretty good – and then my opponent introduced me to Gorilla Titan – a 4/4 trampler for 5 mana that's an 8/8 if his controller has an empty graveyard. The good news is that my opponent had a couple of cards in his graveyard. The bad news is that he still had a 4/4 trampler. Wow, is that guy good! So, still bluffing my Muscle Burst, I attacked with everything – the Tiger, Mongrel, and Imp. He called my bluff, blocking the Imp with his flyer and the Tiger with his Titan. The latter block looked smart, considering I only had one card in my graveyard, so the Tiger was nowhere near a 5/5. That is, unless I'm crazy enough to tap and sacrifice both of my tap lands for mana and discard ALL FOUR of the cards in my hand to my unblocked Mongrel – which I was. Just to recap here: I just sacrificed two of my five lands and discarded my entire hand. Are we all together now? My opponent did have four cards in hand still, and while his deck showed no black or red, I had no idea what other removal might be lurking on his next turn. This is called gambling, or putting all of your eggs in one basket. Fortunately for me, it paid off. The attack put my opponent down to seven life, with only land on the board and four cards in hand. I had around twenty life and no cards, but the 5/5 Tiger and the 2/2 Mongrel were online. My opponent found a chump blocker or two, but eventually my creatures carried me the rest of the way.
In game two, I had no green mana for a very long time. On my third turn, I tried to use the black filter land to get green mana to cast my Krosan Avenger – but Michael Syncopated the attempt. Ouch. My opponent, meanwhile, found himself with a 5/6 creature, thanks to a Seton's Desire on his Rabid Elephant. When I finally did find a Forest, I was at five life and had to chump block, in three successive turns, with two Nantuko Disciples and a Springing Tiger. Yuck. Finally, on my own turn, with no more blockers in sight, I started by hitting Michael's Elephant with a Blazing Salvo (now a 5/6 with three damage). Then I played an Afflict (a 4/5 with three damage), and followed with a Firebolt. This would give the Elephant lethal damage – if Michael hadn't played Muscle Burst! Fortunately for me, the Salvo and Afflict raised my total cards in the graveyard to six, which meant the Ghastly Demise with which I responded to the Burst was enough to kill the Elephant. Whew! Removal, Removal, Removal! Who says you need to go for card advantage? The Elephant was Michael's only creature, but since he decided to draw nothing but land for the rest of the game while I drew a few attackers, I managed to win at five life. Lucky for me he never got to his Wayward Angel!
Round 3: John. John was a fairly serious player with a good deck, and another pleasant opponent. I drew a ton of removal in the first game, but I wasn't quite able to finish him off for a long time. This was the first time in the tournament that I almost wished I had read the spoiler, as I walked right into a Second Thoughts. He's playing white – white doesn't have removal, right? Oops. Near the end of the game, he was at two life with a 3/3 Elephant token and a Beloved Chaplain (1/1 Pro: Creatures). I had a Nantuko Disciple, a Springing Tiger (with Threshold), and a Zombie Cannibal. It was here that I for some reason attacked all out. He let my Cannibal through, putting himself at one life, and killed off my disciple. Whoops. I had to sit there for three more turns while he summoned a damage preventer to go with his other two creatures. Sigh. It was then that I drew my third green mana (using the black filter land for one) to cast the Overrun I had been holding and came over for twelve trample damage. He could only absorb eight.
In game two, John mulliganed to six as I pondered my one-land hand. Then he mulliganed to five. I took a six-card Paris, and was happy I did. While I was stuck on two mana for a turn, John stalled on three mana with only two of his colors for even longer – he couldn't draw a Plains. My mana finally started coming, and by the time John drew white mana, it was too late. I hated to win by color screw, but it's a part of the game, I suppose.
Round 4: Eric. At least I think his name was Eric. Eric was also a friendly opponent, and another serious player. His was a blue/green deck that boasted mighty squirrels to go with his Nut Collector (an unpleasant surprise for me) and Nantuko Mentor (a very unpleasant surprise). For those two or three of you who haven't memorized the spoiler yet, the Nut Collector is a new Deranged Hermit variant who pops out Squirrels in your upkeep and gives them all +2/+2 if you have Threshold. The Mentor can give a creature +X/+X until end of turn, where X is the creature's power, by tapping and paying three mana. Luckily for me, I had removal ready in the first game for both of those surprises, along with any others that might come along, and I won that game without too much trouble.
In the second game, the removal ran out. I could not find a way to deal with Eric's Squirrel token that he had made into a Prodigal Sorcerer with Psionic Gift. Boo! I did have a few creatures that got through for a fair amount of damage, though I had to Blazing Salvo my own Springing Tiger when Eric taught me that Control Magic had been reprinted in the form of Persuasion. Another boo! Eventually, I had him at ten life while I was at six. I attacked with a pair of 2/2 creatures to knock him to six. I then tapped all six of my lands to play my sideboarded Caustic Tar, which gives one of my lands the ability to take three of Eric's life each time I tap it. He was at six life, but I was tapped out for the turn. He pinged me to five at the end of my turn. Eric then untapped and played Nut Collector, which he had just drawn. He then attacked with his Escape Artist and his Squirrel token with the Psionic Gift. I was puzzled by the attack with the Squirrel – after all, he could ping me for the one damage, right? Of course, this Squirrel was now 3/3 because of the Collector. Sigh. Thus, I was at one life. On my turn, I drained him with my land (three life for him) and attacked with my 2/2s again, but the Nut Collector could still block one, leaving him with one life. In Eric's upkeep phase, the pinging Squirrel finished me off for my first game loss of the day. On to game three!
The third game started somewhat slowly for me, as I built up a small army on the board, including a Painbringer that became active for the first time all day. Eric played Mr. Berserk, the Nantuko Mentor, and I removed my one card from the graveyard and tapped the Painbringer to kill it; naturally, Eric pumped the Mentor with his Nantuko Disciple. Of course, this left the Disciple tapped. We're both still at twenty life, or perhaps I was slightly below. On my turn, I dropped the Bomb on Eric: Overrun. Then, with the Overrun in my graveyard, I gave the Mentor a Ghastly Demise and attacked all out. Eric blocked and killed my Zombie Cannibal (which was all he could manage, as my other creatures were too big), but still took fourteen damage to go down to six life. I attacked the next turn with my flying Fledgling Imp, pumped by a Disciple, to put Eric at two, and he counterattacked. My next Imp attack was blocked by a poor Cephalid Scout, after Eric used him to dig for an answer, but he found none. The next Imp attack wrapped up the victory.
4-0 in matches. 8-1 in games. This was incredible! I had never done so well in a sanctioned tournament with so many participants! Since the flight was over after four rounds, I milled about while waiting for the announcement of rankings and prizes. I found Michael, my second round opponent, who had come back to win his last two matches and end up 3-1. When the rankings were announced, it turns out that I had the best tiebreakers among the 4-0 players, and so I finished in first place! I very happily collected my twelve prize packs, and Barbara and I headed north.
So what is the second message I mentioned so long ago? Conventional wisdom isn't always right. Conventional wisdom has it that, in order to do well at a prerelease, you have to know the set. StarCity has published articles that point this out, as have other web sites. What fool would go into a tournament having no idea what cards he might see? Well, this fool, for one! How did I do so well? Simple.
I lived the Odyssey prerelease by BREAD alone.
Fezzik on IRC
Comments, both positive and negative, are always welcome! Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org