Good Game

Posted in Serious Fun on May 12, 2009

By Kelly Digges

Why do we play games?

I don't mean games of Magic. And I don't just mean "to have fun." Let me get a little Rosewater on you here:

We play games because we don't know what's going to happen.

That's a gross oversimplification—there are many different reasons to play games, as outlined by Mark Rosewater's three "psychographics" and numerous subcategories. But they all, in the end, come down to uncertainty. What will happen? Will you pull off your plan? Will you come out victorious? Will you have a great story to tell when you're done? A good game leaves these questions wide open.

Before I get back in the usual multiplayer swing of things next week, I have two stories from the Prerelease to share because they demonstrate this concept beautifully. As it happens, they were my first and last games of the day, and I couldn't have asked for a better way to bookend a great day of Magic.

    Two Good

As a Wizards employee, I got to head to the Prerelease to take on all comers as a "gunslinger." When I gunsling, I try to build decks that will be fun for all concerned—after all, I have to play with the deck all day, and playing against gunslingers is supposed to be a fun bonus for Prerelease attendees, not a beating. On the other hand, we give out a booster pack to anybody who beats us, so pride compels me to build a strong deck, too.

Fortunately, neither of those was going to be a problem. With an absolutely normal, random Sealed Deck pool of three Shards of Alara boosters and three Alara Reborn boosters, I managed to pull—randomly, again, I vow—not one but two foil rares, for eight rares in my deck total. Nice. Pool.

I ended up building two decks, just as I did at the employee Prerelease. In fact, I ended up building a Naya deck and an Esper deck, exactly as I did at the employee Prerelease. The decks themselves, however, were a little different this time, and I managed to use all eight of my rares between them.


Download Arena Decklist

I didn't use this deck for either of the games I wrote about—as at the employee Prerelease, Esper was definitely my secondary choice—but it's worth taking a look at. If you think 3 Deny Reality sounds sick, well, you wouldn't be surprised. It kind of is. Even with two Borderposts—in there partly to help charge up two Esper Stormblades—as iffy cascade pulls, Deny Reality was consistently great for me.

Note the silly but surprisingly potent Death Baron. I may not have Deathbringer Thoctar (still chuckling over that pairing), but I'm happy to make deathtouching Zombie killing machines out of Vedalken Ghoul, Sewn-Eye Drake, Undead Leotau, Kathari Remnant, and, um, Fatestitcher. OK, maybe not that last one as much.

Vedalken Ghoul is a funny card—more a psychology experiment than a legitimate threat. Some people tear off the bandage right away, taking the 4-life hit to get the little pest into the graveyard. Others will patiently take 1 life a turn, either confident they can kill it in short order ... or just not wanting to take 4 to the face all at once.

Anyway, the Esper deck was potent, but it wasn't a lot of fun. Its three rares are solid rather than crushing, and there isn't much going on besides flyers killing you. Ho hum.


Download Arena Decklist

Now we're talking! There's a tiny dollop of removal in Resounding Thunder, Magma Spray, and Deadshot Minotaur, but most of the deck is just creatures, things that make creatures bigger, and more creatures in case that first bunch didn't get the job done.

Let me direct special attention to a synergistic network of cards with the potential for something insane if I could pull it off.

First off, there's the life gain: Captured Sunlight, Mycoid Shepherd, and most especially the riBONKulous Behemoth Sledge ... plus one other I'll get to in a moment. Then there are the creature pumpers and self-pumping creatures: Glory of Warfare, Algae Gharial, and the awesome Retaliator Griffin, plus, again two others that I'll get to. These pumpers help both Mycoid Shepherd and Behemoth Sledge gain even more life (and those two cards go great together, with the Sledge letting something as small as Hissing Iguanar qualify for Mycoid Shepherd's life boost). Subtly, Retaliator Griffin is great in a life-gain deck, because your opponents will often have to do way more than 20 to kill you.

It's the last two cards that really cap it off, though.

There's just enough life gain to make Cradle of Vitality work, and it does very good work indeed—when one 5-plus-power creature dies with Mycoid Shepherd in play, Cradle of Vitality beefs up a new one to take its place. Behemoth Sledge and Cradle of Vitality form a feedback loop; a creature with lifelink can double its power every time it deals combat damage.

Then there's Mayael's Aria. I'll admit, I was equal parts skeptical and excited by the card. The possibilities are plain to see—written, as they are, right on the card. But Rules Manager Mark Gottlieb had run the card at the employee Prerelease and never once won with it, losing one game after gaining something like 90 life—and this with backup from Kresh the Bloodbraided and the mighty Lord of Extinction (foil, by the way—Gottlieb is even better at opening packs than I am). Either of those creatures should have been able to put him over the edge, but he never quite got there.

Could I do better? I had to find out.

    The Comeback Kid

My first game of the Prerelease was against Jesse, and initially it looked like it was going to be a short one. On my second turn, I played Steward of Valeron, and by the end of my third turn (after an attack with the Steward), the board looked like this:

Why yes, that is a foil Mycoid Shepherd, thanks for asking. And yes, I did say it was my third turn.

Fourth turn? Swing for 7, Mosstodon.

This is where I would usually say, "Yeah, I won that one."

Not this time. Not yet, anyway.

Mycoid Shepherd suffered a Crystallization. Mosstodon had a Sangrite Backlash. I gained my 5 life from the Shepherd for Mosstodon going to the graveyard and fell back on plan B.

I dropped a Cerodon Yearling into play, then cast Violent Outburst before combat, cascading into ... Jund Hackblade! As I said last week, this is a beautiful thing; the Hackblade comes in first, so it gets the Violent Outburst bonus. Jesse still didn't have any creatures and I still had my Steward, so I swung for a very ugly 10 damage.

Jesse was at 1. After losing some other big creature to Jesse's removal—Sigiled Behemoth, I think—I was at 30.

I passed the turn, figuring Jesse was finished. One Spore Burst later, I was sorely disappointed. I think there must have been more removal in here that I'm forgetting—my late-game pictures are all of Jesse's side of the table, I believe because my creatures died somehow. The upshot is that Jesse managed to stabilize at 1 life with a crew of Saprolings to protect his life total.

Then he played Mage Slayer.

No problem, right? He still just has Saprolings.

Then he played Talon Trooper.

The humble Bird Soldier took up the Mage Slayer and started pounding away at my 30 life total, 4 damage at a time.

And then ...

... there was a Spearbreaker Behemoth.

By this time, you'd think I would have drawn something to finish him off. Resounding Thunder, say. Or Jund Sojourners. Or Behemoth Sledge. Or Hissing Iguanar. No such luck. When an indestructible 5/5 picks up Mage Slayer and starts doing a Flameblast Dragon impression on your face, the answers in your deck are cold comfort.

I chump-blocked for a while, but Mage Slayer's damage output is just nutty. Surprisingly quickly, I succumbed.

I'd been ahead 30 to 1, and Jesse beat me. Let me tell you, he earned that booster pack.

I headed into the rest of my Prerelease with a notch in the loss column and a smile on my face—what a game! Win or lose, I was proud to be a part of it.

    Final Reckoning

Through the rest of the day, in over a dozen games and even one Two-Headed Giant match alongside my buddy Dave, I never got my big dumb Naya combo going. I mean, I gained some life, sure. But Mayael's Aria and Cradle of Vitality had hit the table once each and failed to do anything. Discouraging.

I sat down for what turned out to be my final match of the day against Dustin, also known, apparently, as "Orange." Dustin was a blast to play against, and what happened next couldn't have happened to a nicer guy.

At first it looked like I would be on the receiving end of any craziness when Dustin landed a turn-four Unscythe, Killer of Kings.

Fortunately, I had a busted Equipment of my own in the form of Behemoth Sledge, and the game quickly became a place for enormous creatures to hit each other with very large objects.

Dustin landed a Nulltread Gargantuan and suited it up with the Unscythe for an astonishingly large 8/9, but I had Rhox Brute, Behemoth Sledge, and Cradle of Vitality followed up by Captured Sunlight for an even bigger 10/10.

Ohhh yeah. That's awesome.

After that, things are a blur. Huge creatures crashed into each other, life was gained, Zombies were made.

Bit by bit, at long last, I assembled my grand coalition of ridiculous Naya cards.

First I got my Retaliator Griffin up above 10 power. Then Mayael's Aria gave me 10 life, and Cradle of Vitality shot the griffin up above 20. Now, by that time, Mayael's Aria is done for the turn, so I had to wait until my next upkeep to win with Mayael's Aria—and yes, I did wait a turn. It seemed sporting.

Dustin fought bravely, and fielded creatures that would have been ridiculously large anywhere else. But against my 24/24 flying trampling lifelinking Retaliator Griffin, they just weren't going to cut it. Not even this very, very beefy 14/14 first striking Goblin token, which he attacked me with on his final turn:

What a game! My only regret: I should have given Dustin a pack. Sure, he didn't beat me, but that was the best game I played all day. Dustin, if you're reading this—find me at the Magic 2010 Prerelease in August. I owe you one.

    Newly Minted

With the new cards out in the world now, they're starting to find places in my various decks. I have ten two-color decks made up of multicolor cards only, all of which got a huge shot in the arm from Alara Reborn. Mayael's Aria is my current love from the new set—it seems like it could be the basis of a whole new deck, alongside Cradle of Vitality, Behemoth Sledge, and older cards like Ageless Entity and Searing Meditation.

What about you? Any deck ideas tugging at your brain? Any pet cards emerging? Let me know!

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