New Directions, Avatar Central and SsssnakeS!

Posted in Feature on March 31, 2005

By Bennie Smith

Bennie Smith began playing Magic in 1994 and started writing about it shortly after. A Virginia State Champion, he enjoys few things better than winning at tournaments with home brews. Bennie has a weekly column on He also recently published The Complete Commander. Follow him on Twitter, on Facebook, and the occasional Commander games on Magic Online under the handle "blairwitchgreen."

Thanks, everyone, for the kind words and show of support in my first week here! I have to admit to being a little bit worried how everyone would take me, especially after such a great run by Jay. But those of you who've taken the time to comment in the forums or send me an email, or messaged me online have really made me feel welcome!

The Aether Has Spoken!

I have to admit to being incredibly surprised by the poll results. In real life there's barely a whisper about Kamigawa Block Constructed; with the Extended PTQs winding down people are exploring the new Affinity-less Standard for Friday Night Magic tournaments and to prep for Regionals. For last week's column I assumed that would be the case online, but as I'm quickly learning, the Aether is an entirely different world! Here are the results from the poll:

Which format would you like to see covered more on Into the Aether?
Kamigawa Block Constructed 1252 22.5%
Online Standard 742 13.3%
Booster Draft 589 10.6%
Online Extended 536 9.6%
Multiplayer (“Battle Circle”) 420 7.5%
Emperor 334 6.0%
Casual: Rainbow Stairwell 302 5.4%
Casual: Tribal 283 5.1%
Sealed Deck 255 4.6%
Teams (2on2 or 3on3) 201 3.6%
2- or 3-Headed Giant 198 3.6%
Casual: Singleton 185 3.3%
Casual: Prismatic 160 2.9%
Rochester Draft 108 1.9%
Total 5565 100.0%

So why the big difference between what's getting flopped at your local card shop and the online environment? I suspect a lot of it is being driven by players who are qualified for Pro Tour Philadelphia and are playtesting. Add to the mix the availability of Champions and Betrayers singles and you've got high interest in the format, with a whopping 1/5 of those polling wanting to see Kamigawa block covered here! Well, I've heard you guys and I aim to please, so you can expect to see your weekly dose of “CHK Const” here leading up to the Pro Tour, starting today.

Another surprising result was how many of you are interested in reading about the more competitive formats; in the back of my mind I had it figured that most online players where most interested in casual formats. Perhaps it was because Jay was heading up this column for so long, and Jay is Mr. Casual. But if you total the poll results by “casual” and “constructed” formats, you get these totals:

"Competitive" 3683 66.2%
"Casual" 1882 33.8%

That's two-to-one in favor of the more competitive formats (for which I included Kamigawa Block Constructed, Standard, Extended, Sealed Deck, Teams, and Rochester).

This is not to say I'm going to be ignoring the “casual” formats—not at all! They seem to be way too much fun not to jump in and try. I've got an initial multiplayer deck I want to give a try, and will probably copy some of Jay's casual decks for my initial exploration into those formats. Stay tuned!

The Avatars

While Magic Online does a great job at capturing much of the play and flavor of real life Magic, there are certainly differences that make MTGO an entirely different experience. One of the cooler differences is the use of Avatars to represent you in the virtual world. These incarnations of various Magic card personalities enable you to set a certain style or persona as you browse around and play games, especially if you earn one or more of the rarer avatars. For instance, if you run across someone with a Platinum Angel avatar, you can pretty much bank on the fact that player was good enough to win a Mirrodin Release event winner (or at least was willing to trade heavily for it).

If you're relatively new to the game (or even if you've been playing awhile), you might not know when the various Avatars came out, or what you had to do to get them. In fact for some of you it's possible you've never even seen some of the rarest ones available. Today's your lucky day! Bookmark this page for easy reference to see all the Avatars that are currently available for players.

Serra Angel, Prodigal Sorcerer, Grinning Demon, Goblin Warchief, Erhnam Djinn

Comes with the MTGO client
When you sign up for MTGO, everyone gets an Avatar for each of the five colors of Magic. Serra and Erhnam are classic icons of the game that are easily recognizable. Serra sits at the table calmly, her wings rustling gently. Erhnie has to show off his djinni powers by zooming the cards in a little circle over the deck. I initially didn't realize the Wizard was the famous “Tim” since I would have expected the avatar to more resemble the funny little old guy from the original artwork. Avatar Tim is more buff and impressive-looking, with a glowing deck box he floats around. Grinning Demon seems to be amused by spinning his deck while pinned beneath a razor-sharp talon – I suppose in the Aether, you don't have to worry about marking up the back of your cards. Lastly, I have to admit to being a little disappointment that the Goblin wasn't actually Squee, Goblin Nabob like I originally thought. Instead we get Goblin Warchief, who patiently waits, drumming his fingers on the table waiting for battle to begin.


Phage the Untouchable
Legions Release Event (Participation), March 2003
Phage is as creepy as she should be. I'm not sure what exactly she's doing at the table as she waits for a game, but I think she's trying to touch the cards and they're running away from her? Would the avatar programmers be that cute with “the Untouchable?”


Karona, False God
Scourge Release Events (Participation), June 2003
Of course, if the programmers were really cute, Karona would be holding a lime to go with her adult beverage! Okay, so maybe Legal nixed that. So instead she's solemnly sitting there juicing her deck with bolts of energy while exhibiting incredibly good posture.


Two-Headed Giant of Foriys
Magic Online's 1st birthday party, June 2003
I feel kinda bad for the boiys from Foriys; the Aether can't even provide Giant-sized tables so he/they have to kneel down to play. Apparently both heads are jamming to some sort of tune only they can hear, with one hand keeping the beat while the other hand guards the precious deck so it doesn't get ripped off while they're not paying attention.


Elvish Champion
8th Edition Online Release (Participation), August 2003
The Elvish Champion is one of those guys who endlessly shuffle his deck waiting for his opponent to show up, and even then he's got to get in at least five more riffle shuffles before you beg to cut his deck. But don't get smart with him—check out the arms on that Elf!


Royal Assassin
8th Edition Crossover Event (Participant), August 2003
This is my favorite of the bunch. Showing his royal disdain with all commoners, the Assassin props his feat up, weary from boredom. While he awaits a worthy opponent (or one foolish enough to think so), he trims his nails with a razor sharp dagger. I really like the 8th edition artwork for this reprint, and the avatar captures the look perfectly.


Akroma, Angel of Wrath
Chuck's Virtual Party, October 2003
If you're relatively new to MTGO, you probably asked yourself (like I did) “Who's Chuck, and what party did he throw?” Chuck is of the Huebner lineage and happened to be President of Wizards of the Coast, and when Magic Online 2.0 was going through some growing pains in the summer of 2002, Chuck sent out a message to the Aether for everyone to hang in there, and when they worked through all the bugs, he'd have Wizards throw everyone a party. Flash forward a year or so later, Magic Online is running great, so Chuck's party is thrown, with everyone playing in a CVP event getting an awesome Akroma avatar! The Angel of Wrath looks very similar to Serra, but her wings flutter a little more, and she shuffles her deck. Akroma is obviously ready to rumble!


Bosh, Iron Golem
Mirrodin Release Event (Participation), November 2003
Bosh smash! Bosh ready to play! Bosh mad he has to kneel at puny table!! ARRGGGHH!!


Platinum Angel
Mirrodin Release Event (Winner), November 2003
What's interesting is that her gray coloring is a combination of white and black, and while she sits at the table she flutters her wings patiently like Serra Angel, but spins her deck around underneath her finger like Grinning Demon. Coincidence?


Viridian Zealot
Darksteel Release Events (Participation), March 2004
Welcome Back Premier Events (Participation), June 2004
Is this guy falling asleep?! How zealous can one be sprawled back in your seat and yawning?


Flametongue Kavu
Magic Online's 2nd birthday party, June 2004
If you sit down at this table, you better have a five or better toughness! The Notorious F.T.K. keeps your side of the table warm since the cold stone floors of the Aether can draw a chill if you're not careful. I love how Flametongue looks poised to leap over the table to bite your head off if you make a wrong move…


Arcbound Overseer
Welcome Back Premier Events (Winner), June 2004
This big robot kneels for nobody! He simply shoots out magnetic energy to pull the cards up to where he can play with them.


Raksha Golden Cub
Fifth Dawn Release Events (Participation), July 2004
Okay, Golden Cub is a serious Magic player—you can tell by the protective mat he uses to protect his cards. Either than or he's doing a Tarot reading while he waits for a game. Who knows, maybe he knows what you're playing before you even sit down?


Etched Oracle
Fifth Dawn Release Events (Winner), July 2004
I almost hate to admit this since who knows what it reveals about my psyche, but -- when the Etched Oracle is waiting for a game, what I see is a Rastafarian Predator doing the Chicken Dance while sitting down. Moving along...


Seshiro the Anointed
Champions of Kamigawa Release Events (Participation), October 2004
Talk about multi-tasking! An extra pair of arms sure comes in handy for more than just pumping up the troops and drawing cards. Read a book, hold some cards, play some cards and still have a hand left over as backup.


Eight-and-a-Half Tails
Champions of Kamigawa Release Events (Winner), October 2004
That is one wild looking fox! With multiple bushy tails giving an almost dragonfly-like appearance, and mystical powers levitating the cards and floating them, 8.5 looks like he's content whether somebody sits down to play or not!


Fallen Angel
2004 Holiday Events (Participation), November - December 2004
Say, who let little Miss Fallen grow back her wings? However it went down, she's now sporting an impressive set of bat wings to make her own breeze while she plays a little Three Card Monte there on the table. Care for a pre-game wager?


Higure, the Still Wind
Betrayers of Kamigawa Release Events (Participation), March 2005
Is Higure doing what I think he's doing? Flipping a Shuriken into his deck of cards? And yet when it comes time to play the cards are in fine shape... ah, the mysteries of the Ninja!


Ink-Eyes, Servant of Oni
Betrayers of Kamigawa (Winner), March 2005
Here's another overly serious player with the protective mat... but what are you going to say to a six-foot rat with red smoky eyes? “Uhh... wanna play?” Yep, that's what.


Behind the Curtain: Notes from MTGO's Developers

Fans of the Two-Headed Giant format may have been in for a rude awakening when squaring off against a card from Betrayers of Kamigawa: Heartless Hidetsugu!

: Heartless Hidetsugu deals to each player damage equal to half that player's life total, rounded down.

Pretty darn scary in regular games, the peculiarities of 2HG makes him downright abusive! Each player loses half their life total, and since each player is considered to share life totals, Hidetsugu deals damage to each player equal to half the team's life, killing any team that sits at an even life total.

Rachel Reynolds and the software development team received a bug complaining about this unexpected and inordinately powerful effect of the card in this format. The crew decided to ask John Carter for a ruling, and his take on it was quite interesting! He wanted to make it so that for each team, one person would take damage equal to half their life total rounded down, the next person would take damage equal to half that life total, and so on. In 2HG, the team life total would end up one quarter of its starting total; a team at 44 would go to 11 – these go to eleven!

After thinking about it more and discussing it with all of R&D, John changed the ruling to be that the team as a whole should take damage equal to half their shared life total rounded down, with the damage divided evenly among all players on the team. If the amount of damage is not evenly divisible, one person takes the extra damage to make the end result correct. And that's is the way the card currently works online.

From the Trenches: The Champions Block Constructed Online Metagame

Now, most all of the feedback I've received from the Aether has been incredibly supportive and generous, but in any crowd there's going to be some malcontents. I received this email shortly after my first column appeared:

From: (this is the actual email address as it appeared in my inbox, which may or may not have been automatically generated by the email form)

Dear Bennie Smith,
Regarding your article "Johnny Come Lately":
Your first article, and you bring up a decklist about the Tooth deck. BORING!!! Obviously you haven't played enough online, especially not in the casual decks rooms, as this deck is seen too much in different forms. Picture this:

Turn 1: urza land
turn 2: forest, sylvan
Turn 3: urza land some spell or land searcher
turn 4: urza land, staring down 2 colossus, BORING

You can see this about 3 times in an hour, playing an average of 6 games per hour, and some dorks even bring it to the multiplayer rooms.

I hate to admit it, but was right—Tooth & Nail decks are everywhere! Just about every other match I jumped in to review the play-by-play saw Sylvan Scrying, Reap and Sow, and turn four or five Darksteel Colossi. It really is the deck to beat in the wake of the March bannings, so I'm in a bit of a pickle—I despise playing the moment's Deck to Beat, but I also love Tooth and Nail—it's chock full of cards I absolutely die for: Sensei's Divining Top, Sakura-Tribe Elder, Eternal Witness, Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker!

But let's leave Standard behind for now; the Aether has spoken and the Aether wants coverage of Champions block constructed! So what's a novice Champions Block player to do about getting up to speed? SB64's CHK Metagame Playtesting Center thread on the message boards does a great job of throwing out just about every possibility and was a good place to start.

But I do have to say, “God bless Premier Events,” specifically the Invasion Block Sealed Deck qualifier tournaments. See, IPA is like the Alpha-Beta-Unlimited of MTGO, with the cards from the beginning of the online game hard to come by and expensive. The top 4 finishers in each qualifier gets invited to play in the IPA Sealed deck with free product to play and more product given away as prizes. So I figured that the hard-core online gamers would definitely muster out for these events and give me a good picture as to what's being played. Several days and many reviewed matches later, and I also got a good sampling of what seems to be doing well.

At the top of the food chain appears to be G/B/x decks, which looked like “goodstuff” decks to me, chock full of the crème of the block. Sensei's Divining Top for starters, offering up an opening bouquet of card selection. Green for Sakura-Tribe Elders and Kodama's Reach for mana fixing and acceleration, followed up with the incredibly difficult to handle Kodama of the North Tree. Black for creature removal, Kokusho, the Evening Star and main deck Cranial Extraction (and some versions ran Hana Kami to get back Extractions and creature removal). Cranial Extraction is so potent that I think most decks are going to need to diversify their threats if they want to survive an Extraction or two. The splash color of choice appeared to be blue for Meloku the Clouded Mirror, and who can argue with that? I also saw a white splash instead to take advantage of the format's only Wrath of God, Final Judgment. Unfortunately I was unable to procure a good decklist from the unusually tight-lipped bunch of serious players, but maybe one of you would be kind enough to slip me one to share in the coming weeks? Or at least to let me playtest with?

White weenie decks evidently were dominating the format early on and the G/B/x decks arose to fight them, but from what I've seen WW can still beat down like no other deck. Umezawa's Jitte is a very popular weapon in aggressive decks' arsenal and WW utilizes it well. Here's a stock list I ran across in the forums:

Bpayh's White Deck

Download Arena Decklist

Tallowisp is what really stands out here, giving the deck a creature-removal engine of sorts. I've seen some versions run a few Indomitable Wills too. In a format that seems to be relatively slow, White Weenie can just run you over.

I'll wrap things up with Snakes. Feeling very much like a slice of tribal pie straight outta Onslaught, Kamigawa's Snakes are chock full of synergy and powerful effects. I'd seen a few different versions that all looked clunky, but then I started watching one of the IPA tournaments and following the eventual winner's game replays and was genuinely impressed by his snake deck. Speaking to him later, he told me the deck beats WW pretty convincingly but struggles with G/B decks. He also didn't want to divulge his actual decklist (no surprise), but I'd watched enough games and taken enough notes that I'm fairly sure the maindeck was close to this:


Download Arena Decklist

The sideboard is my own concoction, brewed from my observations more so than playtesting. Hopefully I'll be able to fit in some more full matches in the coming week or two and can develop a tighter deck and sideboard to present to you. So far though I've been very happy with the maindeck configuration; it's been consistent, powerful, and many of my losses I can attribute to mistakes I made rather than the deck letting me down. As I get better with it I expect its performance to improve. Another online pro player mentioned Snakes as a good metagame deck since it would be easy to splash another color to better handle whatever it's weakness is, but we have to wait for the metagame to settle down before we can best do that. My initial thought is to splash black for Cranial Extraction.

Tips & Tricks

Ben Scarlato writes: Two tricks which I only just learned about recently are the F2 and F4 keys. F2 hits “okay” for you and F4 skips the rest of the turn unless to declare attackers, blockers, or if there's an effect to respond to. They are really useful if you're running low on time.

I was really happy to hear these suggestions from Ben, particularly in regards to the F4 key. As I mentioned last time, I've been having a little trouble setting the right mix of stops for the game. I don't want to miss any responding opportunities, but I also don't want to hold up the game so much clicking OK over and over again (especially if somebody else is messaging me while I'm playing, it can really slow things down). Frankly, there are many points in a match when you know you've got nothing else you can do in a turn, especially early in a game when you're tapping out to develop your board. F4 really helps move things along, while leaving your stops in place for later on when you need to carefully walk through each turn to puzzle out the win. Thanks, Ben! And thanks to all the rest of you who've written in to share your Tips & Tricks—I'll be getting around to yours soon!

Alright, that's it for Week 2. Hope you guys enjoyed it, and let me know what you think!

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