IntoTheAether Loves Counters

Posted in Feature on October 19, 2004

By Jay Moldenhauer-Salazar

Pardon me a moment whilst I channel Robert Jordan...

The Wheel of Magic Online turns, the Formats come and pass, leaving memories that become legend. Legend fades to myth, and even myth is long forgotten when the Format that gave it birth comes again. In one Format, called Sealed Leagues by some, a Format yet to come, a Format long past, a wind rose above the Trading Post. The wind was not the beginning. There are neither beginnings nor endings to the turning of the Wheel of Magic Online. But it was a beginning.

East the wind blew, past cold, broken turns of 1-1-1 Emperor, towards 2-2-all where players frolicked, breaking their way into a Format they had long since abandoned. East the wind blew for miles, finding Casual Play Constructed Games. First the wind tore into Prismatic, opening a door to nothingness and inviting all to create massively huge decks. East the wind continued to howl, blowing into the all-commons haven of PDC and swirling before moving on to the rocky lands of Tribal Wars. The wind touched human and vedalken faces there before lashing out to awaken spirits and stir both rats and snakes. Across the Casual Play terrain the wind blew, screaming into the unblemished Format of Singleton...

Sorry. It just comes on me like that sometimes. Welcome to a brief look at Singleton.

There Can Be Only One

Singleton, known as “Highlander” in paper Magic circles, has a pretty straightforward idea behind it:

  • Minimum of 60 cards.
  • Your deck can only contain a maximum of one copy of any card except basic land.

Pretty simple, right? Folks like Aaron Forsythe had been telling me how much they enjoyed Singleton, but for some reason I had never tried my hand at it. Now I have, and, I admit it: Singleton is fun. I've played dozens of games and enjoyed them all. Here are the three things I like most about Singleton, in no particular order:

  • Massive Variation

    Every now and again people will complain about my decklists as being too focused on “four-of” copies of their cards. Here's my response: Even in casual decks I personally want four copies of my most precious cards because I want to play those cards. I put them in my deck, after all, because they're fun or they advance my deck's strategy, and four copies gives me the statistically best chance to find my (for example) Chance Encounter that makes the deck tick. Moreover, four copies let me play a replacement if my Chance Encounter gets Naturalized. I understand the opposing argument, however. Other people think four-of decks are boring; They like the variation of their decks playing differently each time. In most formats I'm willing to concede that this is a casual player style issue; Neither approach is “better” in the Casual Room, they just lead to different decks and different game experiences.

    The nice thing about Singleton is that it forces variation into games. Singleton only allows me one copy of Chance Encounter, and after that I need to get creative. The good news is that it only allows my opponent one Naturalize, too. Sure there are tutors available like Diabolic Tutor, Trinket Mage, and Fabricate, but you only get one of these as well. The result is that two Singleton decks can play lots of games against one another and each game will have decidedly different twists and turns. Moreover, it's almost impossible to predict what you or your opponent will draw next, which adds some added excitement to games. As someone who usually makes tight, focused (admittedly wacky) decks, I appreciate Singleton for its emphasis on variety.

  • Guiltless Rares

    Arcbound Ravager
    In the Casual Room, more than a little taboo exists about bringing a deck stuffed full of rares. Some opponents concede prematurely. They complain and make snide remarks. They gloat if they beat you with a rare-less deck. If you've spent a lot of money on your casual deck, you run the risk of being ostracized.

    Let me be clear when I say that I think this culture is unnecessary. Countless casual “fun” decks rely on a lot of rares. Try making a Kaldra deck without rares, for example, or a Dragon deck. Take the Chance Encounter idea I had earlier, which almost certainly includes Krark's Thumb and Impulsive Maneuvers. One of Mark Gottlieb's craziest creations involves using Summoner's Egg with Phage the Untouchable and Confusion in the Ranks. Also, lots of casual decks can benefit from cards like Solemn Simulacrum. Nothing about “casual” in my mind denotes “budget.” If you want to play a rareless game, then advertise it as such instead of complaining to the guy who shows up with his all-foil Mycosynth Golem deck. If you advertise a rareless game and then the guy shows up with his Golem deck, that's when I think the grousing should begin.

    Sorry... I'm getting a little preachy there. Act however you want to act, of course. I apparently just bumped into a personal hot button of mine. Someday ask me about people showing up with tournament netdecks in the Casual Room, too, and watch me explode. For better or worse, the “Casual Room” is always going to be a place of endless debate about acceptable decks.

    Anyway, back on topic. It turns out that I've internalized some of the budget culture into my own deckbuilding. I don't usually use a lot of hard-to-get-rares in my casual decks because, honestly, I don't like grousing opponents (you wouldn't believe the guilt I felt, for instance, when I included Eternal Dragon in last week's Spirit deck even though it is, in fact, a Spirit). Singleton turns out to be the only format in which I happily plunk cards like Exalted Angel, Morphling, Skullclamp, and Wrath of God into my decks. I figure hey, I'm only using one, right? I'll probably never draw it anyway, so what's the harm?

    Apparently everyone else feels this way about Singleton too. No one has ever given me grief for my Arcbound Ravager. I have seen Wrath of God and Serra Avatar in a deck and I laughed at my opponent's luck for drawing both in succession. Skullclamp feels utterly beatable if I know only one is there to worry about. Singleton is arguably the only place in the Casual Room where people feel okay about unapologetically tapping into their full collections. And believe me: Full collections show up; The same deck packing Serra Avatar is also likely packing Tundra Wolves.

  • Deckbuilding Puzzle

    Finally, as a self-described Deckbuilding Enthusiast, I really enjoy the challenge presented by Singleton decks. It's fun for me to find cards with parallel functions like Fact or Fiction, Deep Analysis, Concentrate, and Inspiration to use in my deck. I like thinking about how to balance a mana curve not dictated by multiple copies of the same card. I really enjoy pondering how a Chance Encounter deck might actually work given access to only one copy of my key card. And, as with any new format, I appreciate working through which cards' values rise in Singleton (Scion of Darkness, Fierce Empath, and any Legendary card, for example) along with which cards' values sink (think Aether Burst, Myr Servitor, and Avarax).

    Speaking of which, I've personally found myself pursuing two distinctly different approaches to Singleton deckbuilding. I'll spend a bit of time walking through each with a sample deck that's straightforward and monocolored. More deckbuilding strategies might occur to me as I continue to play Singleton, and if so I'll be sure to let you know about them.

Strategy 1: The Archetype

One natural way to think about building a Singleton deck is translating an existing decktype or strategy to the Singleton format. Aaron did something like this with his Reanimator deck a while back. The trick here is twofold.

First, you have to identify which strategy you're pursuing. Is this a White Weenie deck? A Madness-Threshold deck? Affinity? Goblins? Pick a strategy, think through how decklists for that strategy have evolved over time, and then build your deck using these cards as a base. For my purposes, I decided to try a Monoblue Control deck to see if I could pull it off in Singleton.

Second, look for what Doug Beyer calls “analogues” in your card choices. My card-drawing example from earlier is a good one; What cards have roughly similar functions in your deck? Magic has taken a lot of basic ideas and duplicated them over time. If you're looking for land-destruction, you have Stone Rain, Molten Rain, Lay Waste, Earth Rift, Implode, Pain/Suffering, Rain of Rust, Ark of Blight, Dwarven Landslide, Shaleskin Plower, etc. etc. etc. Sure you can only use of one of each card, but together these combine into a pretty complete land-destruction core.

For my Monoblue Control example I looked at these analogues:

Counterspells: Counterspell, Mana Leak, Circular Logic, Complicate, Exclude, Discombobulate, Last Word, Rewind, Condescend, Syncopate.

Cheap Card-Drawing: Opt, Peek, Serum Visions, Obsessive Search.

Other Card-Drawing: Deep Analysis, Fact or Fiction, Inspiration, Concentrate, Standstill.

Creature Control: Vedalken Shackles, Persuasion, Bribery, Staff of Domination, Icy Manipulator.

Bounce: Chain of Vapor, Repulse, Rushing River.

Mana Acceleration: Silver Myr, Sky Diamond, Star Compass, Talisman of Progress, Solemn Simulacrum.

Man-Lands: Blinkmoth Nexus, Stalking Stones.

The result:

True Blue

Download Arena Decklist

Note that this deck isn't a lot of fun to play against. I got so caught up in the idea of translating Monoblue Control--a decktype I hadn't played in a long while--into Singleton that I forgot about the Fun Factor. The deck works pretty well, especially at making steam erupt from my opponent's ears. As a result, I put the deck down after less than ten games. This isn't a testament to this “archetype” strategy of Singleton deckbuilding. Next time maybe I'll try an archetype that's a little more innocuous like Merfolk.

Strategy 2: Embrace The One

A completely different strategy is to realize that Singleton is about variation in form and function. If you're only allowed one copy of each card, why not pick a very loose theme and go from there? It's no wonder that the best example of this approach comes from Mark Gottlieb, who took the idea of a 5-color Legacy Weapon deck and applied it to Singleton. Note that Mark's deck has a consistent approach of a) getting access to all five colors of mana, and b) using five colors to his advantage. It's just that what he does with his five colors--from Legacy Weapon to Atogatog to Tribal Flames to Draco to Cromat to Global Ruin--varies tremendously. It's easy to anticipate that five games with Mark's deck would all play themselves out in very different ways.

This approach really taps into the heart of Singleton, it seems to me. The trick is finding a loose theme or mechanic capable of supporting a sixty-card Singleton deck. The theme I picked was +1/+1 counters. What are all of the fun things I can do with +1/+1 counters these days, I asked myself. Here is how myself answered:

Plus One

Download Arena Decklist

What does this deck do? Well, for one thing it generates a heck of a lot of counters. After that it's a mixed bag. Sometimes I'll get an unstoppable Phantom Nantuko, or a huge flying Pentavite token, or Chlorophant-Forgotten Ancient duo, or neverending lifegain via Sun Droplet, or a fanatical Triskelion, or sometimes I'll even get a big bang out of Etched Oracle. The deck is clearly built around a counter-generating theme, though what I actually do with those counters varies quite a bit.

The idea with this sort of Singleton deck, then, is to look for mechanical themes over and above existing decktypes. What about a deck that fills up its hand for things like Gerrard's Wisdom, Empyrial Plate, Liar's Pendulum, and Promise of Power? How about running with the coin-flipping idea? What about a “sacrificial artifact” deck with the likes of Megatog and Roar of Reclamation? Let your mind wander free.

Next week I'll talk through my pet Singleton decks, going into a bit more detail about the creation of them, and highlight some of the decks I faced. In the meantime, look for me online (IntoTheAether, of course) and feel free to join me in a rousing round of Singleton.

For now, let's shift our sights to slightly more competitive landscapes...

Pssst... Want Some Online Extended Decklists?

October 9th saw one-hundred-sixty-eight players flock to the Extended Open tournament. Stephen and zahori, among others, provided excellent coverage of the event, which you can find here.

A general feeling about Online Extended is that, since it's not a paper-format with sanctioned events, it lacks a definable metagame with established decktypes. The Extended Open went a long way towards providing some tidbits on which to chew, so I thought it would be worthwhile to take a peek at the results. Thanks in advance to the long trail of folks who made sure this information found its way to me.

First, here's a quick breakdown of decktypes. As with any list like this, there is obviously a lot of detail missing on how, for example, Affinity builds differed (Aether Vial or no?) or what “Blue/Green/Red Control” really means. Still, it's interesting to see the wide diversity...

EXTENDED OPEN DECKTYPES:
Affinity - 32
“The Rock” - 18
Madness - 15
Red/Green Aggro - 9
Mono-Red Aggro - 7
Psychatog - 7
Goblin-Bidding - 6
Mono-Black Control (MBC) - 6
Blue/Black Control - 5
Blue/White Control - 5
Blue/Green/Red Control - 5
Reanimator - 4
Big Red - 3
Blue/Green Control - 3
Cunning Wake - 3
Mono-Green Aggro - 3
Rats! - 3
Black/White Control - 2
Charbelcher - 2
Clerics - 2
Green/White Aggro - 2
Green/White Control - 2
Green/White Slide - 2
Krark-Clan Ironworks - 2
Ponza - 2
Red/Green Land Destruction - 2
RUb Scepter - 2
Tooth and Nail - 2
White Weenie - 2
Battle of Wits - 1
Black/Red Braids - 1
Blue/Red Wizards - 1
Death Cloud - 1
Domain - 1
Mind's Desire - 1
Mono-Black Aggro - 1
Red/Black Goblins - 1
Slivers - 1
UBW Threshold - 1
UWR Trenches - 1

If you ask me, which I'll pretend you did since I'm the one writing the column, Online Extended looks like a highly varied and rich format. Affinity is clearly the most popular deck, but I think we all could have predicted that, eh?

Next up are the Top 8 decks, where you'll see that although Affinity is the most popular deck, the award for “best” deck is still very much up for grabs:

Shadow_Overlord

Download Arena Decklist

sMann

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Nirvana007

Download Arena Decklist

Eph

Download Arena Decklist

calmon

Download Arena Decklist

andy44

Download Arena Decklist

gharghot

Download Arena Decklist

Paendragoth

Download Arena Decklist

Clearly I'm not going to be able to cover all of Magic Online's big events like this, but expect a peek into tournaments from time to time to get a pulse of what's going on. If you played in the Extended Open and have reflections of your own on the format, I encourage you to post your thoughts on the Message Boards for others to see.

News From Beta Land?

When I first started with the Champions of Kamigawa beta test, I assumed I would become addicted to finding and squashing bugs and thus have lots of fun stories to share. In truth, however, I just haven't had the time I would have liked to beta test. There are a lot of people logging a lot of hours in Beta Land, but I'm not one of them. I finally managed to set aside three hours for a Champions Draft, and then had to drop from the Draft as I made it to the finals. Along the way I found not a single bug to squish. Sigh.

The good news is that it means my excitement for the Champions of Kamigawa release events is untarnished. I can't wait for October 25th! In fact, expect a lot of Champions hype next week as I get myself (and, hopefully, you) ready to rumble.

Until then, have fun with long decklists,

-j

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