Opening For Business

Posted in From the Lab on August 19, 2010

By Noel deCordova

Hello all, and welcome back to the Lab. Today I will follow my fellow columnists in discussing what may be the most overlooked aspect of the game of Magic: The opening hand. Oh, sure, the actual cards in that hand are scrutinized, but many players, myself included, often casually toss off the general concept of the "opening hand". It's only in the forefront when you add the whopping eleven possible cards in the whole game that the opening hand can be manipulated by. And, as a Johnny, manipulation of little-known rules can be quite fun.

Before I get into these cards, I want to quickly cover a subject that can be quite dodgy among casual circles: The mulligan. Sure, sometimes the mulligan is just as easy as reshuffling, drawing six new cards, and saying go. Other times, however, it can be surprisingly different. For example, my hometown playgroup of three to five players has adopted the 'free mulligan' rule: Your first mulligan can be seven cards, not six.

Other environments I've seen have employed a variant of the 'free mulligan' rule, only allowing it if you had no lands in the opening hand. It also gets awkward when you are used to this rule and you enter a playgroup that isn't okay with it (I'm guilty of this mental mulligan mishap). Finally, I've encountered the totalitarian 'no mulligan rule', which quite simply disallows mulligans. I wasn't particularly a fan, but hey, variety is variety.

If you're interested in formats that hinge on mulligans, check out this great relic by ancient multiplayer enthusiast Anthony Alongi: Tripling Mulligans. I initially tried to create some sort of format (my confidence in format-shaping probably stems from my Multiplayer Week article), but this format sounds very interesting. Six years later, it benefits from the newly-created game-state 'emblem' and is benefited greatly by Leyline of the Meek (Yep).

Speaking of Leylines, lets hit the meat of this article.

    The Top Ten Opening Hand Cards

I'm pretty sure the last time I did a Top Ten list was during last year's Mana Fixing Week, in which I outlined my top ten favorite offbeat mana-fixers. This week, I entered the phrase "opening hand" into Gatherer and received ten results. Perfect! Let's kick-start my Top Ten Opening Hand Cards! (For the record, Serum Powder isn't on the list because although it also earns its symbol color before the game begins, it simply doesn't say "opening hand".)

10. Leyline of Lightning. I rarely like to outright dismiss cards (especially quirky red rares!), but even after thoroughly seeing this card in casual decks over the years, I have to conclude that it's quite underwhelming.

9. Leyline of Vitality. One of four new Leylines, the green representative is quite fun when landed from an opening hand. However, it seems a little weird when hard-casting this. Overall, the other Leylines impress me more.

8. Leyline of Lifeforce. It's not that I hate blue as a whole (because I don't). It's just that casual countermagic can get pretty icky after a while. Opening hand-ing the Lifeforce solves those problems. On the other hand, it's equally icky to combat specific cards (like countermagic [in a casual setting]) so this doesn't place highly.

7. Gemstone Caverns. Whoa, a non-Leyline! Yes, the legendary Time Spiral land and Magic Invitational creation is the only other card to mention opening hands. It's not a game-changer, but it's certainly a hoot to throw one in a deck and get lucky here and there.

6. Leyline of Sanctity. Back to the Leylines, with this strictly better version of Ivory Mask. Like its ancestor (and its goofy uncle Imperial Mask), this card disallows any harmful targeting towards you. Since you can self-target (with Rest for the Weary, for example), am I the only one who wishes it instead read, "You have troll-shroud?"

5. Leyline of Punishment. Yeah, this is more like it, red! As a color that dabbles in preventing life-gain and navigating damage prevention (Stigma Lasher, Everlasting Torment, Flames of the Blood Hand), this is an excellent card to have in your opening hand. This is probably further back on my list than someone else's, but this red Leyline really impresses me.

4. Leyline of the Meek. Straightforward or not, the fact remains: Leyline of the Meek is completely unique. No other card benefits creature tokens in such a way. This places highly because it promotes creative deck building (token-producers) and is pretty scary when landed from the opening hand (now you see what I meant in the introduction!)

3. Leyline of the Void. Probably the most famous Leyline on this list, Leyline of the Void is unique for being the only original Leyline to make it to Magic 2011. When the dredge strategy (and other graveyard strategies such as Flash + Protean Hulk) became huge in Legacy and Vintage, I remember the scarcity of Leyline of the Void leaping substantially. For good reason, though: It straight up forbids any graveyard shenanigans.

Here's a friendly question I'll pose for some reader feedback: Which piece of artwork do you prefer, the Guildpact version or the Magic 2011 version? I'll cast my vote for the new art.

2. Leyline of Singularity. It's a throw-down between the two blue Leylines for the top spot! The former number one Leyline falls to second place in this list, but it's still fun to completely break Hunted Phantasm, Hatching Plans, Clone, Shapesharer, and numerous other cards.

1. Leyline of Anticipation. Just in case I didn't gush enough during my preview article for this card, I'll be frank. I love this card. Giving everything in my hand flash before the game has begun is so cool to me. I created a Standard-based flash deck and a radical Topsy Turvy deck with my number one Leyline, so check those out if you want.

Looking at my list, I found it interesting that (obviously aside from Leyline of the Void) the remaining Leylines were split two to two, Guildpact to Magic 2011. The red and blue Guildpacts lost to their M11 counterparts, and vice versa for green and white.

Now, onto some good old deck building!

    Filling the Void

My number three, Leyline of the Void, has enjoyed a rather Spike-ish career up until now, and while it remains to be seen whether it will be a factor in competitive Standard play, I'd say it needs a couple swirls of Johnnyness. When it was first released, Chris Millar discussed a neat Standard (at the time) deck that broke Measure of Wickedness and Empty the Catacombs with the black Leyline. Using similar phrases, I booted up Gatherer and tried to build a similar Standard deck.

To my dismay, I could only find two cards in Standard that could break similar symmetry. Since both were quite powerful, I quickly turned my frown upside down. Necrotic Plague is a build-around rare in the first place (offering multiple deck-building avenues) and with the Void, it'll never get returned to harm your creatures. Essentially it will lose its last paragraph of text!

Terastodon, meanwhile, is the Elephant in the room that normally makes more Elephants. In the same room. That's a big freaking room. However, under the Void it, like Necrotic Plague, loses some key text. If you destroy those three lands under the Void, your opponent won't get those three Elephant tokens because the lands never went to the graveyard.

Now Terastodon is pretty big, so I went with a pseudo-reanimation strategy. Cunning Lethemancer offers a way to discard fatties into your graveyard anyway, and under the Void your opponent will be forced to exile his or her discarded cards. Rotting Rats works similarly.

The deck has synergy even without Leyline of the Void affecting everything. You can get Terastodon on the battlefield and give your opponent some Necrotic Plague fodder in the form of Elephant tokens. If they return the Plague onto your Terastodon, that's fine. Have it bite the dust, reattach the Plague, and then reanimate your 9/9 again! You'll destroy three more noncreature permanents! Of course, our opponent's Elephant tokens will soon get out of hand, but that's easy. Just clean house with Consume the Meek and swing with your 9/9!

The deck has some token producers (to accommodate classic Necrotic Plague strategies) and re-animators such as Rise from the Grave and Liliana Vess. Other fun fatties to reanimate include Mitotic Slime, which makes tokens that can cheat Consume the Meek, and Charnelhoard Wurm, a fun Jund Wurm that I apparently haven't used yet.

Verdant Void

Download Arena Decklist

    Leyline Tribal

What what, you ask? "Leyline tribal? Don't be ridiculous!"

To that last question I respond, "Why?" Being ridiculous is what makes me an uber-Johnny in the first place, and it's that trait that will allow me to attack for, let's say 20, on turn one.

Yeah, you heard me right. Whether it's familiar or not, the most nebulous deck archetype to improve monumentally with Magic 2011's release was "The Leyline Deck." Sure, it was a crazy, surreal idea when Guildpact came out, but now?

Now it's just plain ... viable. And terrifying.

To get a sense of what I mean, grok this email from none other than Kelly Digges, the best-known combination of Magic editor/designer/web guru/nice guy there is.

Ley the Beats

Download Arena Decklist

"Yes, that's four of every non-Singularity-related Leyline. The dream opening goes like this: Put down five Leylines before the game starts, drop Serra's Sanctum, tap it for five mana to cast Opalescence, and then your five 4/4 Leylines, which don't have summoning sickness—because they were already here when the game started, see?—attack for 20. On. Turn. One.

That's an unlikely set of cards, so you'll want to mulligan and/or Serum Powder until you have an opening hand that lets you kill your opponent within the first couple turns. The best scenario is at least four Leylines, Opalescence, and Serra's Sanctum (or Crop Rotation + Forest). Also acceptable is three Leylines, another Leyline or a Forest, Idyllic Tutor, and either Serra's Sanctum or Crop Rotation + Forest. That way you can throw down your Leylines, play Serra's Sanctum and tap it for three or four mana to go get Opalescence with Idyllic Tutor, then on your second turn drop your second land if needed, cast Opalescence, and swing."

If you wanted to further customize the deck (since it's so wacky I'm not even sure what the "optimum build" is) you couldn't go wrong with Sterling Grove (untargetable Leylines, plus searching capabilities) Replenish (recover against mass creature-kill) or even Afiya Grove (a 5/5 with Opalesence!).

Until next week!

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