The Big, Bad Wolf

Posted in Serious Fun on June 8, 2010

Everyone has fears. Whether it's about things common and mundane, like spiders and clowns, or philosophically deep, like death or afterlife–fear is a common, shared experience between humans. Magic, being a varied and diverse universe of things unto itself, carries with it things that players fear. In no particular order are some things that I fear in Magic:

I could go on but I think I've shared enough to elaborate. While that list may seem a little random it's actually pretty easy to see that I'm not afraid of individual cards per se, but the concepts the cards present:

  • Repeating counters
  • Lock-down effects
  • Extremely lopsided changes in the state of the board
  • Difficult to answer cards

Of course, some of you will glance over that list and chuckle. You have no fear of fighting through a wall of counters, or getting out from under the heel of a Winter Orb. You've seen worse things imprinted onto Isochron Scepter. Perhaps you're a grizzled veteran sporting the scars, and therefore experience, of thousands of spell-slinging battles.

Conversely, there are those of you who may think I missed quite a few terrifyingly tantalizing additions: big token-making effects (Rite of Replication), powerful mana accelerants (Sol Ring), powerful lands (Strip Mine), or other things that make your deck shiver in the night.

    Nothing to Fear Except Fear Itself

So what am I getting after? Well, it's Aura Week here at and I want to talk about everyone's favorite enchantment card subtype: aura. But the other meaning of "aura" (a tangible feeling surrounding something) is also relevant to Magic. When someone refers to "counterspells" or "fatties" you understand what they mean not by literal knowledge but the implication, the aura, around the word. Counterspells bring to mind different blue spells that stop yours—they may perform and function differently (Arcane Denial vs. Negate vs. Essence Scatter) but the feeling of "Wait. Stop. No." is the same.

Revisiting the distilled concepts I fear now lets me restate things more specific to the feelings I get:

  • Powerlessness to engage the opponent
  • The game ending without really ending
  • Having to respond to "Deal with this or die."

I'm afraid of Winter Orb not because I don't run artifact removal (I do) or haven't played around it before (I have) but because I have an aversion to playing a game where I'm not doing much of anything. Certain cards have these auras about them that, consciously or unconsciously, keep me from using them. I avoid using them because the last thing I generally want is to be inflicting the same horror on someone who just wants to have fun.

While there's certainly a broad spectrum of what defines "fun" in Magic terms, digging into that topic will be an exploration for another day. However looking a little deeper at the auras that surround cards is the order for today, in more ways than one: Uril, the Miststalker is no joke of a dude.

Uril is one of what I would, with hesitant certainty, say is a "common" EDH general. He brings a unique blend of powerful effects to the table:

  • "Troll shroud"—shroud only for other players
  • Cheap meat—a fine-sized fatty for a very reasonable price
  • Easy pumps—any Aura does the trick

When your general comes with not just protection for itself but stacks with an easy-to-build-around theme of heavily peppering a deck with Auras it's a no brainer that we love him. So why am I so terrified of him?

Runes of the Deus is, perhaps, the best reason I point to but there are others. The Auras that often join our fine mist stalking friend are the same ones that make him a nearly unbeatable force in combat. Here's a pretty generic deck list for Uril:

Delp's Uril, the Miststalker

Download Arena Decklist

I wouldn't call it a tuned list—it's missing the Runes of the Deus and other cards so often accompanying EDH decks—but there is more than enough other awesome stuff to turn Uril into a player stomping machine. I've been taken down by a Voltron-esque Uril more times than I can remember. The vision of turn five Uril followed up by a turn six of way-too-many Auras is generally the same regardless of the individual player: build-around-me type cards have a way of working like that.

Is it rational or acceptable to see an aura of painful death around Uril? If you've played enough against him do you feel the same way I do? I don't know how to easily answer those questions as they are pretty subjective, but the concept of making sweeping assumptions on-sight of a particular card is something we can all relate to. Have you ever played against Teferi, Mage of Zhalfir? Requiring a heavy commitment to blue while providing a powerful control effect generally leads to Teferi decks, EDH or not, being loaded with counterspells and other blue control pieces. It's a theme that some players really enjoy.

At Grand Prix–DC I ran into a Teferi EDH pilot who had a different approach: use Teferi because he lets you play creatures like instants. Slowing opponents down was certainly a benefit but when your deck is full of creatures and but only two counterspells (in a 99 card deck, remember) you could hardly call it a pure "control" deck. However, your intent in building a deck doesn't necessarily drive the effect it yields in the eyes of others. His fellow players saw Teferi and felt the aura of powerful, locking control he could provide.

It didn't matter about being honest in describing the deck as having only two counterspells, or being geared around dumping creatures into play at more opportune moments, Teferi almost shouts "I'm in your game controlling your spells!" over the din of everything else going on. Is it fair to always assume what a particular card is going to do? Sure, as we have generally defined the way we use a lot of cards: Path to Exilecan ramp you into a basic land if you play it on your own dude but far more often we look at it as just another spell to remove an opponent's creature, mana ramping or not.

    Don't Fear the Reaper

So what do we do with these cards, the Teferis and Urils of the Magic world? While we can't change how they will be looked at in general we can, individually, begin to play them with our minds on the prize: having fun the way we want to.

Take a quick look back at the Uril EDH deck above. What are some of the cards that most stand out as the drivers that create an Uril of unbeatable proportions? Here are some of the biggest offenders:

  • Battle Mastery—double strike is double trouble
  • Eldrazi Conscription—almost assuredly instant death for someone else
  • Instill Energy—pseudo-vigilance and haste is pretty nice
  • Shield of the Oversoul—indestructible Uril makes matters worse
  • Kithkin Armor—basically reads as "Uril is unblockable."
  • Bear Umbra—powerful protection stacked with mana shenanigans when you attack
  • Rancor—trample that will never go away

I'm sure the list you create will vary by the way you see things and your own experiences (and would be populated by Runes of the Deus).

With some of the things that contribute more heavily to Uril's aura of doom what can we do to change it? We can start by making some swaps, not taking away from the theme of "Auras for Uril" but moving towards keeping the playing field from tilting sharply in one direction or another.

Battle Mastery is an apt name for this enchantment when looking at Uril. However, what about a different type of mastery of battle? Entangler is also a white Aura but exclusively a defensive one. With an Uril easily able to grow to the size and magnitude that makes the best fatties envious, being able to block anything that would come down the pike would defy expectations (and may even make people forget that Uril can attack—it's not Pacifism after all). And speaking of Auras that look good when playing some D, Spider Umbra would make a nice swap for Shield of the Oversoul or Bear Umbra. You still have an effect that helps keep Uril around but reach is definitely an ability geared best for blockers.

Instill Energy is a fairly unique effect in green and doesn't come with many alternatives. Instead, I would look at something like Predatory Urge to replace it with here as it provides a nice niche in both encouraging Uril to be more defensive and giving the option to unleash a world of hurt onto another creature. It's like a Master of the Wild Hunt with an entire pack of Wolf tokens at his disposal.

Even just "downgrading" to effects that are less similar than they appear can make a huge difference in how things feel. Rancor is a notoriously powerful Aura but I bet that you haven't seen its cousin Brilliant Halo. While losing trample is a distinct loss in terms of raw power, slapping Brilliant Halo onto Uril gets a boost bigger in other ways while using an Aura that will almost assuredly come back to your hand should Uril fall in battle.

The bigger the effect the harder the change may appear but that doesn't mean giving up the theme. Eldrazi Conscription is an Aura that provides a commanding battle presence. If you use it you want to attack—you just made a probably already biggish critter into an Eldrazi-sized champion of destruction. Of course, by applying it to Uril you make an obscenely powerful weapon that will most likely crush opponents in one shot. If hitting your opponents is your thing—which it probably is if you're into generals like Uril—try something a little less outright powerful but just as obviously clear in intent: Pollenbright Wings. Flying is a nice little evasive perk and gaining the Living Hive ability to mass produce some tokens upon hitting a player in combat can only mean one thing: Uril is going to come knocking. Each has the same thematic feel but lie at very different points of intensity.

I could go on but I've made my point abundantly clear: only you can prevent forest fires reexamine what your deck is looking to do and how it's going to go about doing that. It's not easy to swallow the aura of awesomeness cards have and work towards something a little less obviously dominating. It's easy to get wrapped up in "this is good, that is bad" ways and means of evaluating things in Magic: the Internet is chock full of "tips, tricks, and strategies" to systematically work at dismantling and crushing opponents. But let me tell you something, there is little fun in winning every game simply because you haven't thought about the fun your opposing players are after.

Not every game can be a two hour struggle of equal measures nicking and scratching at each other in a test of cardboard endurance. And not every game should be either. But the game where every player has contributed, executed parts of their game plan, stood on shaking and unstable-yet-fairly-balanced ground, and managed to surprise others at the timing or ingenuity of an action all sums up to the types of games we never forget. Quick, one-sided blowouts are more often the topic of "sick beats" than "amazing games" stories.

    It's the End of the World as We Know It

The idea of "playing bad" is predicated on the idea that there is a definite way to "play good" which is all-too-often defined as "how to win better, faster, stronger" by many in the Magic world. However when you're not looking at tournaments and the only prize you're after is fun games with deck-shuffling friends, "playing good" takes a decidedly different approach.

As part of my explanation of the rules tweaks for the EDH tournament at Grand Prix–DC I shared my Magic philosophy of "If you're not having fun you're doing it wrong." In the same ways that wacky cards and drawn out but engaging games are a huge plus for me, working towards that "best deck" and fighting for the win every game will be the draw for others. Whether you're playing against players who value "fun" in different context or your games aren't flowing in that way you enjoy them to, it's ultimately up to you to make the change and move towards the fun you seek.

And really, if you're not having fun you're doing it wrong. What do you think? How do you handle finding your flavor of fun? How do you balance the power potential against the options your friends bring?

Or, show me your Uril deck and tell me what you set out to do with our jolly red-green-white Beast—your deck will speak louder words than you. Join me next week when I get to wring my hands and cackle madly.

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