In a Glass Case of Emotion

Posted in Serious Fun on May 8, 2012

By Adam Styborski

Stybs has played Magic the world over, writing and drafting as part of the event coverage team and slinging Commander everywhere his decks will fit.

Can I tell you a secret? If I do, will you promise to not let it go to your heads? Yeah? Good. Alright, here goes: you are all, collectively, very smart.

Awesome, right! But what do I mean? I mean that despite my best efforts and careful planning, there's usually an idea (or several) that I love presented to me after the fact. Between Twitter, email responses, and the forums, the unique and powerful insights that get chucked at me can actually make me feel pretty small. In hindsight, everything looks obvious.

Sylvan Scrying | Art by Scott M. Fischer

Aside from those of you who extrapolate my lack of omniscience as a failing as a writer, the excitement and passion for these alternative ideas you present often makes it easy for me to champion adopting them for myself. After all, what's the point of asking what you think if I'm only going to ignore it?

Of course, this wouldn't be very interesting if I just started listing a bunch of things we agree on. It'd also be disingenuous to imply that we never diverge in our thoughts. Today, we'll look at a few places where things are a little contentious.

I hope you brought your thinking caps and lemons.

The Answers to Life, the Universe, and Everything

I started listing some cards to use as examples here but I stopped at forty-two or so. The fact is that there are hundreds of cards in Magic dedicated to the express purpose of blowing something up. The venerable "answer" vanguard of Disenchant, Counterspell, Terror, Shatter, and Fog were all present in Limited Edition (Alpha). Derivatives of these core effects are present throughout the almost twenty years of the game, and will be featured in all sorts of complex and interesting situations during this weekend's Pro Tour Avacyn Restored. In fact, competitive Magic has made the idea of having the "correct" ones in your deck a very popular idea.

Plague Wind | Art by Alan Pollack

I know this because the most popular response I get is something along the lines of, "What about when your opponent does this?" The idea that every deck needs things to answer whatever the opponent presents is rooted in the underlying idea that the most efficient route to victory is to stop your opponents from achieving theirs.

Plague Wind
Martyr's Cause

While I'm not the biggest fan of getting all strategic on us, there's an adage that serves the purpose here. "The best defense is a good offense." It's mostly attributable to military and martial arts wisdom, at least according to my super-scientific Internet search, and it's the primary driver behind my decks. I say "focus on doing what you want" because that's usually my offense. Making tokens, casting fatties, milling cards—the angle of the attack isn't important inasmuch as it's persistently being pressed.

The temptation to sidestep into the world of all answers is strong. If your opponent loses every creature played, is unable to resolve most spells, or finds his or her avenues to tapping up some mana shorted, victory seems like a foregone thought.

But it's not. I've played plenty of games that turned out sour for the players who had a stream of endless answers suddenly dry up.

Generally, something that answers an opponent isn't something that contributes to your plan. When they happen to align, say with creatures like Frost Titan or Nekrataal, it's awesome! I agree, and actively use these types of multifaceted all-stars myself. But the existence of exceptions doesn't negate the core fault with playing "the answer deck"—you might be all wrong.

Martyr's Cause | Art by Jeff Laubenstein

Terror doesn't seem so hot when your buddy brings a black deck to bear. Shatter and friends frown when artifacts are eschewed for enchantments. A fast, aggressive deck usually shrugs when it loses a land or two after it's already cast some attackers. The struggle to bring "the right stuff" is a paramount concern in competitive Magic, and the general scope of how competitive Magic flows ensures that at any given time there are answers that work better than others.

The side tables and random players I most often play with don't follow such narrow roads. Every type of deck imaginable, with every type of card effect, seems commonplace. It's a trivial exercise for me to find somebody doing something obscenely off the radar. In fact, they're usually excited enough that they seek me out to show me just that!

While this isn't the case for everyone—a small group of friends feels much more like a competitive environment than a motley crew of thirty or more—I haven't regretted for a moment working hard to make my decks do their thing because it's impossible for me to stop everything.

Commander is the hallmark for the "stop everything" approach to decks. With ninety-nine cards to work with and every descendant of Demonic Tutor ever printed at hand, jamming the answers in everywhere feels good. Since it's no secret my favorite Magic activity is usually playing Commander, one would think I must follow the obvious road.

Does this deck seem overstocked with answers?

Adam's Ghave, Guru of Spores Deck

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Planeswalker (1)
1 Garruk Relentless
100 Cards

This deck is almost all offense, and even through two strong, answer-heavy decks, it was persistence that paid off the most. The idea that "slow and steady wins the race" is much more than a fable.

It's not devoid of things that affect opponents, but it's clearly focused on generating tokens then using them for all sorts of shenanigans. It's been decks like these (that you even helped put together) that have shown me the value of including, but not focusing, on answers.

Is your suite of answers getting in the way of what your deck wants to really do?

Hippocrates wasn't a Hypocrite

Overloading with answers is something I've been working against for some time. But to suppose that all answers are something to avoid is equally problematic. Sometimes it's easy to get caught up in jamming the awesome into a deck that we overlook some basics.

Hada Freeblade | Art by Cyril Van Der Haegen

And readers like you are just as guilty as I am. Let's look at a snafu from my side first. Last week, I shared an Ally deck I've kept for quite awhile.

Old Allies

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You can catch everything that I liked (and didn't) reading the recap there, but the net result of changing it will be this:

Allies Restored

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The secret of the first deck was that I completely ignored my opponents. Since the overhaul was significant you can see how deeply I felt a change was needed. Adding answers was the result of my desire to follow through.

Cloudshift | Art by Howard Lyon

Aura Shards isn't a modern tool but it's an obvious fit in a deck that can bounce a few creatures around. This wasn't the trick I really wanted to add. Cloudshift is what really provides the deck with a new tool. It's one of those sneaky cards I shared above: it's completely on theme for a deck packed with Allies, but it also answers the Doom Blades and similar "Kill that!" type spells. Ghostway was awesome when Day of Judgment would pop in, but it wasn't the right way to interfere with a Lightning Bolt.

Aura Shards

The core issue with my experiences with the old deck was just that: I didn't have ways to answer opponents. I was so excited to play Allies I forgot I might want to try to save them from time to time.

As promised, others fall victim to this too. Check out the before-and-after from last week's milling decks as well.

The Old Mill

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Monsters and Milling

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I plan to add Galvanic Alchemist to the deck, partly since it's a Horned Turtle but also to support getting attacks and blocks out of Nemesis of Reason. A few of you chimed back that Stern Mentor seemed to be a much better choice for a deck focused on milling than Galvanic Alchemist. Why not use that instead?

Galvanic Alchemist | Art by Svetlin Velinov

My milling deck wants to block.

It seems so simple, but through the games I've played with the deck, aggressive decks usually rolled right over it. I wanted to keep stopping the attack. Dimir Infiltrator and Drift of Phantasms can block fairly well, but they also find the cards that hit libraries hard. These guys get to play offense and defense, but they're also fairly unique at doing that.

Galvanic Alchemist
Nemesis of Reason

Galvanic Alchemist is just an answer. It just sits there to help block. It happens to provide some support for Nemesis of Reason, but the secret truth is that I wanted to block creatures more often. The Alchemist is one of the newest ways I can do that. While I agree (Wholeheartedly!) that Stern Mentor is pretty sweet, it doesn't do justice to stopping opposing forces even if it's the better fit for being paired with something like Drift of Phantasms.

Having a clear, distinct focus doesn't mean completely forgoing other considerations. But it does mean being honest enough to find the cards that do what you want and feel good in your deck.

Speaking of decks from last week, I asked everyone a question of choice between them.

Which deck should Adam bring with him to Grand Prix Anaheim?
Allies Restored 2029 52.2%
Monsters and Milling 1861 47.8%
Total 3890 100.0%

The difference between these two results is so small you can almost call it a tie. What this said to me quantitatively was the same thing the responses to the article did qualitatively: most of you seem to enjoy both decks. Since the vote was so narrow I've decided to accommodate everyone by taking both decks to Grand Prix Anaheim.

If you wanted to see one in action, and you can make it out to the show, you'll have your chance!


This week's poll is a little more general:


I'd like to put together a new Commander deck in time for the travel out West, and having your help putting it together is definitely in my plans. I hope you've been finding as many reasons to enjoy Avacyn Restored as I have! (And don't forget to see some very different ways to use the set during Pro Tour Avacyn Restored this weekend!)

Join us next week when we have to go deeper. See you then!

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