Good freaking grief.
You know, when I was approached for this Battle Royale thing, Craig made it sound like it was just going to be li'l ole me smashing Chris Romeo's exquisitely-moustached face in. I'd be slinging the casual cards with an appropriately competitive casual player, but, hey, let's not kid ourselves. This is me and Chris here. He's renowned for taking good decks and making them bad, all with the side effect of making them no longer cost three internets apiece. Me, I don't think I even have renown.
Now, I find I have to play Feldman. I am writing this well before the match itself — it's three days away — but there's no way I'm going to be facing down Goodman.
And if I do face Goodman, well... it's not really Goodman.
Anyway. So here I have to sit and tap my chin. When it's Ben versus Richard, well, they're probably doing fine. When it's me versus Chris... again, fine.
Now, Ben was a good man. Prior to the crash, generally speaking, Ben was a nice guy — shame about the Honolulu incident. Now, of course, we have his archives to read, which are pretty awesome, but ultimately, posthumous writing can only carry someone so far. I mean, it only took a hundred years for Lovecraft to start looking creaky around the edges. And are you saying Goodman is one-hundredth as good a writer as Lovecraft?
I mean, c'mon, lookit the guy.
Hobbitesque features and a deep, abiding paranoia regarding the potential security of one's Lucky Charms aside, he's just got a mittful of PT points, a position in one of the best Magic Online clans ever, barns, wimminfolk, an amusing tapdance repertoire, and is about ten times the deckbuilder I am.
And that's all.
I mean, pshaw. Please.
The Battle Royale is a budget exercise. To me, that says there are two reasons you're here. First and foremost, you're poor, and you want to have ideas for building new, fun, and partially competitive decks without forking out the Big Bucks. In the day of Ravnica, this is remarkably relevant — the cheap decks and the expensive decks often have price gaps as much as 120-200 dollars between them, and all for the want of eight land cards. It's even worse on Magic Online, where Breeding Pools outstrip other lands for price, just because, well, damnit, everyone's playing them.
The second reason that springs to my mind is that you're a sicko who likes watching people struggle. You jerk.
When I first got this assignment suggested to me, I thought it was going to be neat. I had composed elaborate slabs in my mind of What To Do with it, and I found myself rapidly approaching a few moral tenets. The list I had in my mind, when I was playing Chris Romeo was, as follows.
1. Thou Shalt Not Metagame Thy Opponent. This is as much for my sake as it is for theirs. I mean, I know Chris plays aggro. Chris likes beatdown. He plays it well. While he's been trying to make Mono-Black Control work for roughly a year now, he's still first and foremost a Player Who Turns Stuff Sideways... or so I think. If I'm wrong, if I metagame against Chris Romeo and he out-metagames me by metagaming against me and against himself, then I will be pantsed in public. Turns out, that's what Chris tried to do.
So I found my first rule was on the mark. Damn the torpedoes. Full steam ahead. Finding the Best Deck versus Goodman or Feldman (damnit, their names do not combine well) is not as valuable a process as just making the best deck I can on the cheap.
2. Thou Shalt Keep Thy Price As Low As Possible. This is a budget exercise. Going up to 25 bucks is cool and all, but I have a friend who has child support to pay, school fees, a crappy job and a bad sleep pattern. He can't afford to blow twenty-five bucks on something that he mightn't even like, since Magic is about fun to him, not Breaking The Game.
Going up to twenty-five tix... that's cool. Indeed, I can live with that kind of price. But if I don't need that much, hell if I'm using that much. One of the best ways to handle this limitation is to find the best possible card you can afford, and build around it — like Firemane Angel in Richard's first deck. I was actually lured into that with one of my early experiments, but I opted against it. Why? Because spending twelve bucks on a four-of that makes the deck kinda sucks.
Ideally, I'm gonna make a deck that, with some small changes, can be made really cheaply. Sure, there can be a star-spangled update with all the shiny lands if you want, and seriously, if you have fun with it, kick ass. But if I can spend as much as I would on a Big Mac meal, make a copy of this deck, and hand it over to this friend of mine and say, “Here, take it for a spin and tell me if you enjoy it,” that will be totally kickass.
3. Avoid Looking Like An Idiot. This was going to be the biggest one. In order to try and follow it, I won't elaborate on what possible options for looking stupid lay before me. They were bountiful and manifold, and I am already violating Rule 3.
Now, I'm not playing against Chris Romeo any more. I'm keeping the rules, though. And I'll elaborate on why, later. Though it relates to casual players, and doesn't make me look very good. Hrm. Maybe I should throw out the rules anyway... No! I'll be strong!
The Forgotten Guild
Wizards did a remarkably good job with the Dimir. The flavour department especially — the Dimir have that unnatural, unfeeling, psychotic air to them. They see people as objects, and when these objects don't work... they “fix” them. They're not cruel — that would indicate that in some way they care about what you feel. That wouldn't be clinical enough.
Twisted Justice is an odd example, though. I mean, if I have a card that kills something, then I learn from the process of killing it, the immediate connotation in my mind — especially by a guild championed by a brain surgeon - is of an instance of involuntary surgery. The random effect of the kill could even be used to represent a Jack-The-Ripper style murderer who takes targets of opportunity.
Though I imagine said killer doesn't feel very impressive most of the time, since he's dragging Saprolings into quiet corners and knifing them up.
But the flavor department did such a good job with the Dimir that it seems people have forgotten the damn thing existed. Everyone flirted with the Dimir Mill deck when Ravnica first came out, and as quickly as it happened, the deck faded out of existence. I can understand that — the deck, after all, sucks, and was designed to be a limited strategy first and foremost. In all my time playing since the card was published, I've lost to Glimpse the Unthinkable once — and that was in a Kaplan-esque three-colour monster that wedded the Glimpse to Vulturous Zombie.
That, incidentally, is a fine example of Winning More — eschewed in tournaments, but Good Clean Fun in casual.
Combing the top tables through coverage and the like I was finding myself quietly surprised at the absence of “Dimir Decks.” There were decks that ran Blue, Black, and another color — the most common one being Green — but they were doing so for Golgari Cards, and, of course, Meloku and friends. Blue and Black were rubbing shoulders only when one was splashed into the other — like Flores Mono-Blue, where it was being used to power out Last Gasps to deal with Hokori, Back-Breaker.
This would have been nothing if I'd just been trundling along in the casual room. After all, the casual crowd are fickle at best, and we're all focusing on our New Toys. I've seen more Hellbent decks this fortnight than I've seen Orzhov decks, and even the Gruul decks are thinning out (at least on MTGO, casual players love fatties, and we love turning big guys sideways, after all).
Then, Hagen came back from France.
This doesn't seem connected, and I don't blame you for finding it odd. No, what happened is that my good friend Hagen came back from a seven-week holiday in Italy and France with his family. Now, ignoring for a moment that as he has enjoyed good food, awesome military history, and as he is an engineer, totally kick-ass bridges and basilicas for us to feel anything but burning envy at seeing him again, Hagen had needs to borrow our Internet connection. He had a new laptop, you see (as well as everything else! The bastard!), and he needed to install Magic Online on it.
So, six hours later, with Magic online done trickling down the pike, I let him raid my collection for cards of which I already had four. This is a practice I recommend to many — my friend Mournglash drafts primarily, and, as a generous soul, gives out commons when he's done with them. I hand them on to other friends, who, I hope, are equally generous with people less fortunate.
Hagen lost all his earlier decks, and as he created his deck, I asked him lazily what he was doing. He, being the resolute Boros player he is, told me something I should have already known — he's putting his Firemane Angels and Razia to good use. I, on a whim check my color pie and realise the natural enemy of the Boros Legion is the Dimir.
I put no thought into this deck's preliminary design. I grabbed a bunch of cheap cards and stuffed them into a deck. The only thought that was with me was that creature removal came up trumps compared to counterspells. Why? Because people hate playing against counterspells. This overall meant the game plan would be about using Black to control creatures, Blue to handle spells, and a healthy amount of ankle-grabbing would ensue if I found an opponent going sans creature.
After mauling Hagen seven ways from Sunday, I figured I should probably get to working on this Battle Royale decklist. I batted around a few decks with a friend or two — some good, some bad, and if Mob Hit hadn't been basically a Firemane Control Deck without Searing Meditation, I'd have gone with that. Other suggestions were good, too — I made an entirely rare-free Ire of Kaminari deck, the orphan of Kamigawa Block Constructed, which was generally quite good in game 1 against a lot of stuff. The thing is, Ire sucks — and hard — in games 2 and 3 because, well, what are you going to bring in? Your opponent's bringing discard, life gain, threats for removal, because they know you have zippo blockers, or, heaven help you, counterspells, which do all kind of nasty things to your unmentionables. It was suggested as a good option that simply didn't “look like me” — given that I'd never voiced any kind of opinion in favour of burn decks. The thing is, that falls under Rule 1, and bores me to tears. Ire of Kaminari is a generalised, unfocused combo deck, and not a very good one.
So what to do, what to do? I could try netdecking a bit!
Battle Royale For Dummies, or Why Ben Bleiweiss Is Right About Everything, All The Time, Ever, Please Put Down The Bat Sir.
One thing I noticed was that it was remarkably easy to do this with your brain off. Let us consider Magnivore (which is, I hear, Still Awesome). The deck is, in its general design, pretty damn swish. Simple, effective — it's not the blunt instrument that is Gruul, nosiree. Gruul wants to overwhelm you with threats. Magnivore just wants to make playing the game so damn hard that you concede in disgust so they don't have to worry about drawing their win conditions.
I'm not going to give you Mike's list here. If you can find it some other way on the site (like, by reading a very fun article that features Mike losing a lot), then by all means do so, but I'll just do a cut down summary here of it by rarity, excluding the lands. That strips the decklist down to:
7 Rares all pricing at 2-3 each. Rather than pad my numbers, I'll speak presuming one does not get a good deal on any of them. 21 tickets.
10 Uncommons. Presuming we pay “full price” for them (some are good and go for more, some are bad and go for less), this gives us 5 tickets.
So Vore, sans the Pricey Lands, goes for 26 tickets. That's pretty reasonable! Only one ticket shy of Battle Royal legality. Now, let's do a quick MTGO price check and add in the lands.
Ben Bleiweiss is right. While the dual lands rock out and deserve their little gold label, and I have no illusions about Wizards making a marketing decision based on this opinion, I do feel that right now, Standard has a huge barrier for competitive entry, even online. Seventy dollars for a manabase! And that's only two colors!
(It's an extra cruel prank that Hellbent has counter-synergy with the only commonly available Red/Black dual land. I've seen so many people who could crush me with Hellbent Men, if they just draw something they can play... and they lay their bounceland glumly.
(This is why, budget Hellbenters, you want to pack Rix Maadi, while I'm making a point within a point within an article.))
This presumes, of course, that the competitive entryway to Standard is “too high.” I dread a few years from now, with Extended being defined by Fetchlands and Duals, with Ravnica no longer routinely available. Expect those lands to go way up. Here's raising a glass to the idea of Great Uncommon Lands, toasted with a cynical observation that It's Never Going To Happen.
Well, It's Good In The Casual Room
After all this arsing around, I figured I needed to blow off some steam from all the intense thinking, price checking, and generally insulting everyone in /auction. So I pulled out the deck I smashed Hagen with and ran around in the casual room. I found some good news there.
First and foremost, people do not begrudge counterspells when they're so thin on the ground. I had a few, mainly to protect my light threat base, and a moderate suite of creature removal. To fill out the deck, I started to use some of my favourite cards — cantrips. At one point, the deck packed Telling Time, Sleight of Hand, Peer through Depths, and Shadow of Doubt. I eventually trimmed this back — when all you're sifting for is more card sifting, you realise there's something wrong with your deck.
(On the subject of Beatdown Being Brainless, I had someone — damned if I can remember his name at this point — chat with me on MTGO about the colors, and he asked what effect I liked the most in Blue. No contest, it was drawing cards. I'm routinely looking at my library compared to my opponent's in MTGO games, keeping track of how many — or how few — cards ahead of my opponent I am. When it was Standard legal, I respected the Goblin Bidding players, a lot — because their decks don't do that. They had to play fair with the draws god gave them. Drawing seventeen more cards, some of which read “destroy the world,” is easy mode.)
The next few changes were simple — I found myself struggling against control decks that lacked creatures. Obviously, creature removal and lifegain that predicates on targets aren't going to be great draws against a burn deck. That's why you play a burn deck. The sideboard then became relevant to that — adding more win conditions, and more countermagic, along with disruption.
The Clutch of the Undercity engine was something I had played with in B/W before, using Dimir House Guard. In this case the original spell was far less embarrassing, so I expected I'd be casting them more often. Now, for those who need everything explained, or those who really want to explain everything (i.e. me), Clutches can fake being a Hideous Laughter, Moroii, or Nightmare Void — but, as I would often forget with House Guards, they can also - gasp! - be Clutches, which is a pretty decent spell.
I've learned the painful way that Clutching a bounceland on turn 3 when your opponent plays it, while a sick kind of fun, is not a winning strategy. This deck has no way to press an advantage like that, unless it gets a fantastic draw that includes a turn 4 Moroii and another Clutch to keep kicking your opponent while they're down. That kind of situation is rare game 1, with only three Moroii. So just save the Clutches.
The Sideboard is an attempt to shift into a more aggressive strategy versus a “real” control deck. Effects that wipe the board truly clean — like Final Judgment — and countermagic to trump my win conditions can be a strategy that beats this deck. So I bring in some more threats, and disruption to keep an opponent off-balance.
The more I look at the deck, the more I wonder if there's any point explaining it. It is, after all, a by a pedestrian Blue/Black control deck, made with cheap cards. It won't overpower anything except some aggro assaults on the basis of its cards.
And now, the price. The maindeck has two rares — the Skeletal Vampires, for which I paid 1.5 tickets each. I'll say 2 tickets each, because I don't want to presume. Then the uncommons. You can get all the uncommons in this main deck at a rate of eight cards per ticket, and that's if you're being lazy. However, the pricing schema is to be generous — so, with the seventeen uncommons, that gives us 8.5 tickets. We'll say nine, so we don't wind up mucking up our math. That gives us a total cost of thirteen tickets for the maindeck. The sideboard, adds 8.5, if we round again, bringing it up to a theoretical total of twenty-two tickets.
So, I didn't stay too clear from the “total budget” at all, did I? Well, that's presuming I was paying an exorbitant rate for the cards. Instead of the nine I claim to pay for the uncommons, the actual value is closer to 4.5. Meaning that, in theory, you can buy this deck for under ten bucks.
While the deck is cheap and a fair bit of fun to play, I'm still not optimistic about my chances. I have, in fact, a reason for why I'm going to lose, and it's already lined up. You see, when Chris started this, he mentioned that he couldn't lose. Any actual victory was more than expected, and a loss would be de rigeur. Nobody expected him to beat Feldman.
I however, have a reason why I — and probably every other casual gamer who wants to sit at the big dog's table — am going to lose this match, guaranteed.
Tune in next time.