Archiv für den Monat: November 2015

How to Support Gray in Next Level Cubes

It seems my motivation to blog about Magic fluctuates more wildly than I anticipated… Well, these are interesting times for cubebuilders, so let’s roll while the momentum persists!

When I talk about „Gray“ as a Magic color, I refer to those early spoilers from Oath of the Gatewatch, which I believe will turn out to be real, and which I already analyzed here, coming to the conclusion that their new mana symbol stands without reasonable doubt for one colorless mana. I used to refer to that symbol as „<>“, because this is how it was written in the original MTGSalvation thread discussing it, but seeing as this is unwieldy (especially so in any editor with HTML tags), I will switch to the simpler „#“ for the time being. It seems possible, though, that the official shorthand for it will be „C“, since that letter has not too long ago been removed from official references to chaos mana, and obviously I would conform to that, but as of now, „#“ will do.

Just as preliminary is my choice of „Gray“ as a pseudo-color word for spells requiring colorless mana, which I will use in contrast to „Clear“ for colorless spells without that requirement – if I’m really unlucky, the „official“ terminology might actually end up the other way around… However, for the moment, „#“ and „Gray“ it is!

With Wastes as a new basic land, I have little doubt that gray cards will not be confined to Oath of the Gatewatch alone, although they will not necessarily show up in every future expansion, and maybe only in small quantities, like multicolor cards in many sets. This means I will likely want to use them in my Next Level Cubes as well, although this certainly depends on how they will be designed – with only two examples to go by so far, the jury is still out on them: Mirrorpool seems decent, albeit not escpecially a bread-and-butter example for this „new color“, while Kozilek, the Great Distortion is far beyond anything I want in my Limited Card Pool. There will probably be a decent number of usable commons and uncommons, though, and I find myself already planning how to integrate those gray spells into my cubes.

You see, this is actually not easy! I’m afraid it would even be outright impossible if Gray turned out to be a full-fledged color featuring #-intensive early drops in the vein of Leonin Skyhunter, but I do not see that happen in limited (a few rares of that kind might be an option for constructed, though) – there are both design space issues and gameplay issues making this unlikely. Instead, I mainly expect a relatively small number of midgame cards costing #, and an even smaller number of ## lategame cards at higher rarities. Gray will thus serve a role as a splash or at most tertiary color, and not enable six extra viable color pairs (Gray-Blue etc.) in draft, because the former is doable with some design effort, while the latter seems impossible to me.

And yet, even this presents me with sizeable issues, because of the differences between Two-Thirds-Drafts and normal draft. Remember, I created this special draft variant for four players after juggling a lot of numbers, since it is impossible to give those four drafters access to the same number of cards as in normal draft without making the majority of their picks irrelevant. If we consider a normal draft using 14-card boosters (assuming there is a basic land slot which does not contribute to players‘ decks), each drafter gets to see 3*(14+13+12+11+10+9+8+7) different cards – that’s 252. (With 15-card packs, it would be 276.) In Two-Thirds-Draft, even using my new standard of 13-card boosters instead of 12-card boosters, they only get to see 4*(13+12+11+10) different cards, for a total of 184! This is already a stark compromise, made possible by completely eliminating downright unplayables and not maindeckable sideboard cards. And note that even with that smaller number it’s only the two-thirds-mechanic which makes sure that all pick decisions are still relevant.

However, this also means that each player drafts only 36 cards, while in a normal draft he would get 42 or 45. This is usually not an issue because in a normal draft those extra cards will be of no consequence – unplayables, almost never used sideboard cards, redundant filler-level maindeck candidates, and hatepicks of minor relevance. The first two categories do not exist in Next Level Cubes, while the latter two hide among the undrafted cards.

All this changes, though, if drafters are suddenly required to draft a high amount of lands (or other mana cards)! We are not talking about the usual 2-5 picks invested in manafixing or utility lands which happen in most draft environments, we’re talking about 6-10 picks required to make running an additional (pseudo-)color possible! While you may still get what you need in only 36 picks, obviously your margin for errors is a LOT smaller, and you might easily end up with too little manafixing, too few spells, or an overall untuned deck.

I expect Gray to be supported in normal draft just like snow was in Coldsnap: A good number of basic lands inserted in the common slot to average out roughly 1 per booster (Wastes actually is denoted as common on the card itself) in addition to a couple of more interesting cards which just happen to also provide that kind of mana. This is, however, exactly what NOT works in Next Level Cubes! Or, to be more precise, it only works in very specialized Next Level Cubes explicitly designed to make it work. I once designed just this kind of cube with a snow theme, so I know what I’m talking about… That cube worked fine, but it really was a one-of-a-kind thing, and more an experiment than a blueprint for future cubes. Normally, I want more variance in my cubes for higher replay value, and including Gray in a cube should not mean that it has to be as dominant as snow was in that one. Also, I do not think anymore it’s a great idea to make players draft uninteresting cards like basic lands, and addiionally I do not like putting several copies of one card in a cube for aesthetic reasons. If you want to take that route, though, I suggest using eight copies of Wastes (together with a generous amount of basic-land-searchers, just as in my snow cube) overall, ideally as a one-per-booster in the third and fourth booster round. Together with a couple of more specialized #-producers, this should easily support two Gray drafters, and with a medium amount of struggling, three.

If I do not want players to draft basic lands, though, I only have one choice: I have to provide a certain number of Wastes to them for free! I already provide 15 copies each of Plains, Swamp, Forest, Island and Mountain to every player, and I can just add a couple of Wastes here (I hope there will be 4 different pictures…) After long deliberation, I have decided that three Wastes per player is the optimal number (and yes, fitting exactly 78 sleeved cards into a deckbox without issues was a minor consideration). That way, drafters still have to invest a few picks into mana cards (which is kinda the point of Gray, I feel), but not so many that the payoff is no longer worth the effort.

Three Wastes are just enough to support a Gray splash without fixing via a 8-7-3 or 9-6-3 mana distribution, but just one or two fixers will noticeably stabilize that mana base and probably allow for cutting a land. On the other hand, you usually do not even want more than three Wastes in your deck, seeing that you probably run a two-color-deck and have the option to pick up more attractive producers of # like utility lands and mana stones. Instead, you will probably be on the lookout for basic land searchers like Evolving Wilds, Traveler’s Amulet or Pilgrim’s Eye, which can either fetch your Wastes or your main colors.

With this setup, I actually do not need many new entries into my Limited Card Pool to support Gray. I already have enough basic land searchers (especially the Gleam of Resistance cycle does excellent work here) and a generous selection of mana stones and utility lands producing #. If Oath of the Gatewatch makes me want to include Gray in my Limited Card Pool, there are only a couple of additional cards I will need (assuming that there won’t be better options in that set itself):

For cubes which focus on certain color pairs, I will need an additional dualland cycle to complement Adarkar Wastes and co. – this will be the filter lands cycle (Mystic Gate etc.). I parted with those lands not too long ago, not because they did not play well, but because I did not see how I would need them in addition to all those other dualland cycles, and because they were kinda expensive. Well, bad luck: They did not get cheaper in the meantime, but their ability to produce colorless mana makes them valuable again to me!

Another cycle I already had considered for different reasons which would go extremely well with Cubes featuring Gray are the original bouncelands, like Karoo – they’re essentially „duallands“ here, but require commitment to a main color, which is good. They will go a long way towards enabling Gray splashes.

Lastly, I will probably acquire Grand Coliseum and Blasted Landscape again. The former suddenly plays consideraby different from City of Brass, while the latter is just what you want if you need to make sure you have a source of #, but are not really interested in drawing multiples of those.

There is a large number of other cards which suddenly may take up a new role in a cube thanks to the introduction of Gray, and it is a lot of fun to look through a card database and identify them, but these are the ones which work especially well with our new „sixth color“.

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Why „<>“ is the New Symbol for one Colorless Mana

Alright, it seems I’m not ready – yet – to entirely quit blogging about Magic, having put my hiatus on hiatus. I just cannot not talk about this, and I am deeply bewildered that it hasn’t been made a topic yet in what’s left of the German Magic internet community (meaning MagicBlogs & PlanetMTG). Obviously, people only bother to use their keyboards if asked to post a spam comment in order to participate in some kind of lottery for free…

I cannot imagine how this can not be on the mind of every moderately invested Magic player; and as it has been on MY mind continuously for several days now, I do what I must and write about it. I am, of course, talking about those Oath of the Gatewatch cards which have been spoiled very early, and specifically about the meaning of the new mana symbol they feature. The first two cards were originally tweeted by @Mtgfocus (before that tweet was taken down again), while the third has been posted directly to MTGSalvation, from whose spoiler page I have taken these pictures. There is overwhelming consensus that these cards are real (including a confirmation by some shadowy authority with an excellent track record, which MTGSalvation has access to), and there are actually good reasons to believe that this may be an officially orchestrated „leak“, but I will not go into that. I will instead explain, why – assuming the authenticity of these cards – the new mana symbol shown on them is extremely likely to mean exactly one colorless mana, and nothing else, which is a hotly (and poorly) discussed topic in the Magic internet community where such a thing still exists.

The new cards

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Why I am absolutely convinced: There is overwhelming evidence for simply equating „<>“with colorless mana, while at the same time no evidence at all that it is anything else. There are, additionally, good arguments against any theories of it carrying any different meaning, while the arguments against the simple hypothesis do not hold at all. In fact, ca. 95% of all people arguing against it simply do not understand the rules of Magic, another 4% entertain additional misconceptions about the gravity of consequences from this change with regard to card errata, and maybe 1% actually have something like a valid argument, but one which is easily trumped by the arguments supporting this hypothesis.

Rules Brush-up

First, let me clarify the rules: There are exactly six types of mana in Magic – white mana, black mana, green mana, blue mana, red mana and colorless mana. No matter how mana is produced in this game, it will always have exactly one of those types, although it may carry additional restrictions (like being usable only to cast creature spells, for example), or aspects (like being snow).

Mana costs, however, may reference not only these types of mana, but additional categories which are neither necessarily inclusive nor exclusive with those types. The most prominent of those is generic mana, which means „mana of an unspecified type“. Others are hybrid mana (mana of either one or another specified type), snow mana (mana generated from a source with the snow supertype), and phyrexian mana (mana which can instead be paid for with 2 life). These categories of mana have their own symbols.

As of now, one type of mana shares a symbol with a category of mana: (1) etc. is used to denote colorless mana when referencing produced mana, but to denote generic mana when referencing a mana cost. This confusing double use of a mana symbol (or rather, a set of symbols, since it can be used with any natural number, and even with placeholders for numbers like X or Y) has – so far – only been possible because generic mana is never produced, and colorless mana has – so far! – never been part of a mana cost.

These are the basics everyone weighing in on this discussion needs to understand, and if they do not, their opinion is worthless, disturbing noise. Thus, you can safely ignore any reasonings including made-up terms like „true colorless“, „strictly colorless“ or „dedicated colorless“; and most importantly, the whole argument that errata of old cards producing colorless mana to use the new symbol would in any way be a „functional change“! (Caveat: „Dedicated colorless“ makes sense when referring to cards requiring colorless mana to cast or activate abilities. There is no need for any further specification of „colorless mana“, though.)

Arguments not rooted in poor rules knowledge

After getting those 95% out of the way, let me now address the 4% who say that, even if if it is only a templating change, such an errata would not happen. These people actually do not have a real argument, since similar (and even more drastic) changes HAVE happened repeatedly during the last years, and even for worse reasons, clearly showing WotC’s willingness to mass-errata cards for future gain. Just remember things like „cast“, „activate“ and „battlefield“! With „<>“ becoming the symbol for colorless mana, there will be a few hundred cards getting a new template, which isn’t unprecedented or outrageous at all; and even more importantly, this errata will finally remove the unnecessary ambiguity of the set of symbols which right now has two different meanings in different contexts. Even if this change would not open up a ton of new design space by finally introducing colorless mana in costs, it would have been long overdue.

This brings us to the 1% actually having something like a valid point: Why make this change in the middle of a block? Isn’t it unnecessarily confusing to have two different templates for cards producing colorless mana in the same draft evironment? Well, yes, it may be a bit confusing, but it is done for good reasons. When is the best time to introduce something fundamentally new like an additional mana symbol? Obviously, when you introduce cards which make a fundamentally new use of it! While an introduction midblock isn’t especially elegant, these concerns pale compared to the desire to align such fundamental, connected changes. So, the only question left is if, just to avoid some temporary confusion, it would not have been a requirement to introduce both the new symbol and the new kind of mana cost in the first set of this block. Again, it seems pretty obvious to me that the desire to evolve the block mechanics for the second set in a flashy way to give that set a more interesting identity trumps these concerns. So, yes, one aspect of the timing of this change is an argument against it, but another aspect of this very timing is a much better argument for it, leaving this point maybe not completely refuted, but very weak.

Edit: Some people consider it a real argument that the new symbol would somehow be graphically associated with the eldrazi, pointing to its identity as „eldrazi mana“ or something. I thought this was just trolling, but just in case, I will refute it: 1) This is a very simple, graphically abstract symbol, just as befits a symbol for colorless mana. 2) It actually has no real semblance to the hedron symbol of Zendikar, having rounded instead of straight edges, being concave instead of convex, and showing symmetry with regard to four axes instead of just one. 3) The hedrons are not even of eldrazi origin – they are the things built by Nahiri to contain them, which would make them an exceptionally poor choice to base an eldrazi mana symbol upon.

The evidence of Kozilek

Now that I have explained why there are no good reasons to rule the hypothesis “ „<>“ is the symbol for one colorless mana“ out, let me elaborate how everything we know points towards it: First of all, the new Kozilek is unambiguously colorless because of flavor, but also because this is shown by the color of its frame (since it does not have devoid). So, whatever „<>“ stands for can not be colored mana at all (I think noone believes this anyway). The only question left is if this symbol possibly denotes colorless mana with an additional aspect. The most popular theory here is that „<>“  is a specific type of colorless mana which can either be paid for with „<>“ (obviously), or with two colorless mana. This is by far the least unlikely competing theory and shares fundamental aspects with all other dissenting ideas, so I will let it stand in for those here.

Edit: The theory that „<>“ means „can only be payed with „<>“ (but can be used as generic mana)“, while still being different from already existing colorless mana, is again considerably less likely, because this would effectively create a new color, making Kozilek not colorless. (Or it would create two different kinds of colorless mana, one of which shares a symbol with generic mana, which would be incredibly confusing and poor design.) It would also mean that this new mechanic is even more parasitic. This idea just shows how far out you need to go to deny the obvious, simple explanation.

However, this theory is exceptionally weak from the very start! Before Oath of the Gatewatch, we have not had colorless mana in costs at all – and now, instead of introducing those as the first step, we get an additional tweak on the thing that we did not even have before? (And yes, it would be „instead“, not additionally, because otherwise we would need yet another new symbol for „simple“ colorless mana introduced in the same set – I shouldn’t need to explain why this idea is completely absurd…) This is already immensely unlikely.

The evidence of the Wastes

But then, we also have that new basic land to look at. A BASIC land! We know that WotC have been extremely cautious with this fundamental kind of card after being burned by snow-covered lands. Now, assuming that they would use that concept on a card producing a both very specific and complicated type of mana (instead of a simple, fundamental colorless mana), which then would very likely be tied to the flavor of the eldrazi (or even just Kozilek), and thus to not only one block, but one set, is downright absurd. There is parasitic, and there is extremely parasitic, and WotC have been very conscious about implementing parasitic mechanics during the last years. Using up the uniqueness of introducing a new basic land for such a narrow concept is downright inconceivable. 1995 was a different era, but when WotC nowadays prints a new basic land, it is meant to be relevant forever!

Even more importantly, cards costing „<>“ would be downright unplayable in draft, since this format uses only one booster from the new set. (In sealed it would probably not be much better, either.) Everyone who doesn’t realize this just lacks enough experience as a limited player (or, better, as a cube builder). It will never be worth it to go for both the cards costing and those producing it. (And no, you will not be provided the new basic lands by your tournament organizer any more than you would in a Coldsnap draft. This is not only logistically impossible, it also defeats the very purpose of such a mechanic.) Of course, you could just default to paying double on this mana, but that would mean that this completely new type of mana, spectacularily introduced just for this one set, would not even matter! I really do not agree with all of WotC’s designs, but such an epic design fail is definitely beyond them.

Edit: It has been brought to my attention that this block will be drafted new set/new set/old set, other than former formats. This means that „unplayable“ becomes merely „playing badly“, which is still not something we should expect.

On the other hand, „<>“ just meaning one colorless mana plays great in draft. Notice all those eldrazi scion tokens? The Blighted lands? And especially (since we are looking at the new Kozilek) Kozilek’s Channeler? Oh, and you should also take note that Evolving Wilds can fetch this new basic land. The latter doesn’t make a difference to both theories directly, but it addresses another concern which has been voiced:

Why print a land which is clearly inferior to a gazillion existing lands? Well, DUH, it is not! Being basic is an extremely relevant advantage, both in limited and in constructed. Evolving Wilds, Fertile Thicket, Blighted Woodland and Natural Connection prove the former. In constructed, there are also many cards specifically looking for basic lands. Oh, and let us not forget the new dual land cycle which just happens to care for basic lands as well! Saying that such a land is useless is stupid even before considering its value for commander players running a colorless general (which might actually have been a major impetus to creating this land).

Okay, it breaks the rule „non-basic lands should not be clearly superior to basic lands if you disregard the quality basic“. Note, though, that this rule was driven by the desire not to make basic lands obsolete, and applied to the design of new non-basic lands to make sure those did not get too powerful! Applying it inversely to not print a new basic land which is needed for other reasons makes no sense. That rule was never meant to be an end unto itself. And this basic land was long overdue: There are six types of mana in Magic, five of which have been associated with a basic land producing it since the beginning of the game. With the introduction of colorless mana as a specific cost requirement, finally filling this gap became inevitable.

Summary

1) “ „<>“ equals 1 colorless mana“ is by far the simplest explanation.

2) Errata to old cards producing colorless mana is not just possible, it is needed, even without considering a new type of cost; because of the old template’s ambiguity, and the confusion it evidently causes all over the player base.

3) This is a fundamental, yet simple change to the game which opens up enormous future design space, while the alternative theory would imply a complicated, extremely parasitic and short-lived gimmick actually obstructing future design space.

4) A new basic land simply producing one colorless mana has been a gap to be filled anyway, but has also specific uses in both limited and constructed.

5) „<>“ as just colorless mana plays great in both limited and constructed, while the alternative sucks in limited, and only a bit less in constructed.

6) The timing of this change is easily explained by marketing concerns trumping temporary confusion concerns. (And I’m sure WotC will go out of their way to explain how things work prior to the Oath of the Gatewatch prerelease.)

If these cards are the real deal (which I am convinced of), „<>“ is now the symbol for one colorless mana. End of story.

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Commander 2015 Entries into my Limited Card Pool

Well, if I get asked directly to write about a specific topic, and it isn’t too much work, that is usually already enough to motivate me – in the end, I like to blog about Magic, making it a hard habit to break.

So, Commander 2015! I do not expect too much from this kind of product, which is targeted at an audience valuing very different things in this game than I, consists mainly of cards explicitly designed for multiplayer, and tends to go way overboard with regards to power level. However, there also is a certain degree of extra design freedom noticeable, allowing for cards which could not be printed in a regular set, and thus there might just be something fitting my needs.

This time, though, an unimpressive total of two cards made it into my Limited Card Pool:

Bloodspore Thrinax

While mainly designed to be used in token/sacrifice decks, I want to try this in environments with counter synergies. I thought long and hard if it might be too swingy, but I do not believe so. I think it is even quite weak in draft unless supporting strong synergies, which makes it a good buil-around pick.

Arjun, the Shifting Flame

I had trouble finding a fitting second Izzet rare (besides Prophetic Bolt) for years, and wasn’t entirely happy with my previous solution Dack’s Duplicate. This is much better. Its strange ability might look very strong from a casual deckbuilder’s perspective, but should be merely good and interesting in draft.

Now, this would be a really short entry if I stopped here, so I will additionally mention a few cards I at least thought about for a while:

Shielded by Faith

This card would work, but it does not lead to especially great gameplay, and I just see no need for it.

AEthersnatch

I almost replaced Desertion with this, since it is a cleaner design, but it lost out in the crunch because Desertion fits better in between Dismiss and Draining Whelk.

Daxos’s Torment

I would have loved to add an effect like this to my black enchanment synergies, but this is just way too powerful.

Deadly Tempest

This would have fitted my crunch as an alternative to Barter in Blood and Languish, but I realized I do not really need a black Wrath of God.

Mizzix’s Mastery

An interesting option among red instery synergy cards, but Black needed Sins of the Past more, which is also a cleaner version.

Great Oak Guardian

I tried to convince myself way too long that this weren’t overpowered, but rightly failed. It just does too many great things at once.

Unrelated, I will keep up my tradition of posting winning draft decks. After my latest post, there were three more, bringing my draft win ratio to 16/70 so far:

DimirBorosAbzan

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Pictures of Winning BFZ Draft Decks

Funny – I was already wondering if posting a bunch of pictures might not be a good compromise between writing a lot of stuff few people seem to be interested in, and not blogging at all. That seemingly almost noone who visits Magicblogs is interested in Battle for Zendikar drafts is pretty demotivating, since that is what’s been on my mind for the last few weeks and probably will be for a couple more. Such an annoying, frustrating, and yes fascinating environment!

And now it happened that Chris Pikula asked on Twitter for the very thing I had contemplated to publish: Pictures of winning Battle for Zendikar draft decks. Oh, it takes so little to provoke me into blogging about Magic

For context: These 13 decks are from a total of 58 drafts (4 decks I already posted in earlier entries, but I wanted to have them all in one place here). Of the drafts I didn’t win, I went 2-1 in all but 4 or so (the match history feature of MTGO isn’t entirely reliable because it breaks down after relogs). Make of that what you want, but be reminded that I am an excellent drafter and deck builder, albeit a lousy player; and my experiences with this format are that an outrageous percentage of games – won or lost – were non-games, which in my opinion contributes noticeably to equalizing win percentages.

So here we go:

AzoriusDimirRakdosIzzetBorosComvergeIslandforCascadeMischmaschNoInsightNoTwinCastOrzhovSimicUlamog
A few notes: The decks dubbed „NoInsight“ and „NoTwincast“ got their names because I never got to cast those cards. In „Islandforcascade“ I took the picture before I replaced the last Skyline Cascade with a third Island (because I realized it was important to find it with Fertile Thicket).

Four of those thirteen decks contain Green, which I consider a typical ratio (compare with the 3-0 decks from Pro Tour Battle for Zendikar). It is no doubt the weakest color, but it does support two drafters per table.

If anyone wants to talk about that format: That’s why I’m here. (Even if it is only me.)

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