First off, I want to thank everyone who has sent me an email, um, ever. I don't have the time to respond to very many of them, but I have read every single one of the hundreds of emails I've received about the column. I appreciate hearing your feedback about the column, but even more than that, I like hearing your stories, questions, and advice about playing casual Magic. Keep 'em coming—especially the questions, as I'm thinking of doing a mailbag column sometime soon.
A Dark and Foggy Night
On New Year's Eve, I got to play Magic with Jake from Omaha, who's a friend of a friend and, I'm told, an avid reader of the column. (Hi, Jake!) Jake's decks are stuffed with cards from Shards of Alara all the way back to Revised (at least), which was an interesting change for me. He builds decks mostly for two-player play, but that didn't stop us from shuffling up with his friend Eric and my friend Laura for some Free-For-All.
For the first game, I borrowed an Elf deck from Jake, who warned everyone that I would probably win. Jake used a White Weenie deck making excellent use of Knight of the Holy Nimbus, Laura brought her Black-White "Soul Stealers" deck, and Eric came to the table with an unholy concoction featuring very nearly every green Fog variant ever printed, along with Isochron Scepter and the "win condition" of Howling Mine.
I soon discovered that Jake wasn't kidding about this Elf deck, which featured all the best and silliest Elves that grace casual tables everywhere, along with, oh right, a full four-pack of Skullclamp. Hey, if your play group OKs it, go nuts! That's precisely what I did, with Priest of Titania and Quirion Ranger running the mana end of the deal and Wirewood Hivemaster providing tokens to 'Clamp for more cards.
Of course, that's not to say I was particularly good at directing the potent energies of this unfamiliar deck. Nor was I facing an easy table. Eric's endless Fog were a hindrance to my Plan A of attacking with a swarm of Elf tokens from Elvish Promenade, and his Howling Mine / Feldon's Cane victory plan looked grim for a deck that needs to draw lots and lots of cards to do its thing. Worse, Laura's deck was packing scary tech against mine: Orzhov Pontiff.
Before the Pontiff went off, I was playing the usual Turbo-Elf game, which looks more like I'm showing you my deck than in the middle of a game:
After Orzhov Pontiff hit play, it looked more like turn one:
And yes, that 230 is my life total. There were some Wellwisher involved...From left to right, my library and graveyard.
Unfortunately, by this point I'd drawn so many cards that there was no way I could rebuild my army and overwhelm Eric's impressive defenses before I was decked.
With one less person to fight through the stream of Fog, Tangle, Respite, Spore Frog, and Constant Mists, Laura and Jake fell as well, although it took a while. We realized too late that we all should have been attacking Eric every turn until he was dead, because there was no way any one or even any two of us could overwhelm him. The "every Fog ever" defense is quite potent if the other decks at the table plan to win by attacking.
Partway through that game, the power blew, so it was looking like we might have to play the rest of our games by candlelight (and the light was fading for that last photo). Fortunately, the power came back on before it got really dark (or really cold), but not before we were reduced to reading cards by the light of my iPhone's lightsaber app. Adventures!
Oh, I've got one other image worth showing from a game with Jake the previous night:
Yes, that's all four of his copies of The Rack in play at once. Predictably, this did not end well for me.
It's Not Easy...
Later in the break, I got to sit down with a different group for a game that turned out to be no less Elf-laden. Laura's friends Marcus and Coco, whom I'd just met, hauled out their decks, one of which they graciously let me borrow, and Laura and her brother Matt shuffled up as well. We had five people, but once again opted for Free-For-All rather than something like Star. Like Jake and Eric, Marcus and Coco build decks mostly with two-player games in mind; unlike Jake and Eric, they generally build for Standard, or close to it, so their decks looked more like what I'm used to.
I was running a Treefolk deck of Marcus's featuring Timber Protector, Doran, the Siege Tower, Thorntooth Witch, and my personal favorite Treefolk, Leaf-Crowned Elder. I have this thing for green cards that draw cards, see, and this other thing for mana acceleration. So playing cards for free off the top of my library is pretty much the best thing ever, especially when I don't need Island to do it.
Laura brought the Naya deck from our Shard Star game, with a few improvements. Matt played an Elves deck similar to the one I'd used at New Year's, this one featuring less of the Priest of Titania and Skullclamp and more of the Heritage Druid and Heedless One (along with fellow */* Elf counters Jagged-Scar Archers and Drove of Elves). Coco was played what turned out to be green-white Clerics backing up a Helix Pinnacle / Doubling Season win.
Marcus, meanwhile, pulled out a deck that he calls Green Lightning, which I had to write down to show you, mostly because it is a deck so thoroughly after my own heart.
It's a mono-green deck that's secretly blue-green, and the plan is turbo Fable of Wolf and Owl, facilitated by wall-to-wall cantrips and mana acceleration. Sign. Me. Up.
Careful readers will note that every single person at the table was playing green, which we realized when we all plunked down green-producing lands on turn one. The result was good, honest Magic of the "let me show you my deck" variety, because the total disruption package amongst all our decks turned out to consist of two Naya Charm, Thorntooth Witch, and a couple of Moonglove Extract. The question then became one of how busted each player's basic plan was.
For my deck, that meant turn-three Leaf-Crowned Elder, although the results were a little disappointing. An early Elvish Piper (Shaman!) let me play the at-end-of-turn game with the creatures I did draw (surprise Doran, the Siege Tower!), and a second Leaf-Crowned Elder was good fun, but after that, a string of four lands in a row was a dream-killer.
For Matt, this took the form of a swarm of Elves led by some very worrying */*s. His Heedless One was even bigger than the others, because it counts all Elves, and each of the rest of us had at least one. When Matt attacked Laura with it, a Snakeform cut it down to size, leading to a quick block from Drumhunter. Drove of Elves, despite the lack of trample, was an un-Snakeformable threat, and the Elf army grew with each passing turn.
For Coco, busted meant Helix Pinnacle and Doubling Season to race toward the win, with Battletide Alchemist and a squad of Clerics holding the fort. Once the second Doubling Season hit, we all realized we were in imminent trouble.
Coco played an Order of the Stars set to green that looked like a pretty impressive defense for a little while. Eventually, Matt was able to attack with his two huge */*s enough times in a row that Coco was forced to chump-block away her essential defensive force. With Battletide Alchemist dead, my Leaf-Crowned Elder and Matt's horde of Elves became serious threats again. Coco managed to nudge the Helix Pinnacle above 100, but not in time to win the game.
Laura, meanwhile, was busy dropping Bull Cerodon on people and activating Mayael the Anima. This is good fun, but it's not quite in the ballpark of 25/25 shroud Elves. Fortunately, Matt was busy forcing Coco to chump-block his giant monsters, so the rest of us got a reprieve.
Marcus had a slow start but eventually got his plan rolling, with multiple Fable of Wolf and Owl to make up for the fact that not one but two of them got blown up along the way. It was quite a sight to see, as he and Matt both vomited their decks onto the table and accumulated stacks of tokens. Marcus used two of his other decks in different color sleeves to keep Birds and Wolves straight.
Once he got down Ambush Commander to protect his key creatures from harm, Matt was pretty much unstoppable. I got some good Leaf-Crowned Elder hits (like Timber Protector and the always-satisfying Rootgrapple), but it didn't really matter. Laura, meanwhile, was digging for Naya Charm to tap Matt's team.
After two Elvish Promenade for the Elf team, Marcus's numerous tokens couldn't protect him from Matt's far more numerous tokens, and Matt sent enough 3/3 Elf Warriors (thanks, double Imperious Perfect!) at each of us to kill us all in one attack.That's not Matt's library - it's his pile of Elf Tokens.
This game was kind of funny, because this ridiculous stalemate and build-up could have been broken if anyone had a single creature with flying, or a Wrath effect of any kind. But we'd all picked fun, interactive, "let me show you my deck" decks, and the result was a giant, silly pile of cards and tokens. It was fun... but I still wished I'd had a Wrath of God or a Hideous Laughter.
In our second game, amusingly, we all shuffled up white, black, or both, with prominent removal suites in every deck and not a single Forest in sight. That's what you'd call a metagame, I guess.
After that, I played two-player against some of Marcus's decks for a while. His decks are a lot more tuned than mine, ranging in seriousness from a Swans of Bryn Argoll / Seismic Assault / Ajani Vengeant control deck to a mono-blue Krovikan Mist Illusion tribal deck. He smashed me pretty consistently, but he definitely gave me some deck ideas to try out!
Just Like Old Times
Through all of this, I was also doing a lot of Winston drafting, my two-player Draft format of choice (which I'll write about sometime if you're interested). When I traveled, I popped in at local game stores and picked up older sets to do a Mirrodin Block Winston, a straight Champions of Kamigawa Winston, a Time Spiral / Planar Chaos Winston, and several Winstons with Coldsnap, which plays very well in that format. Picking up a few random boosters of older sets was fun. It beefed up my collection and reminded me of some cool cards that I'd totally forgotten, and playing Limited with these old packs was a good way to pass awkward chunks of time. Highly recommended!
This holiday season, I got to play with groups other than my own, and the result was a ton of fun and plenty of discovery, but also some disparity in power levels and play styles. In particular, I was struck by the difference between Jake's and Eric's acceptance of any cards they had handy and Marcus's and Coco's adherence to Standard (plus a little in cases like the Illusion deck).
But even more striking was the fact that the decks weren't all that different in some ways. There was a silly Elf deck based on Elvish Promenade at both tables. There were quick aggro decks at both tables, and decks that sought to hole up and win by means other than damage. What I'm not sure about is how Marcus's and Coco's decks would have fared at the same table as Jake's and Eric's.
How often do you stray from your home playgroup and play casual with strangers? What sort of adjustments do you find are necessary? How much discussion goes into house rules and related issues beforehand? What sort of problems have you faced playing with other playgroups, and how do you overcome them? Let me know!