How Now, Not-So-Brown Cow?

Posted in Serious Fun on March 1, 2005

By Anthony Alongi

Using artifacts in multiplayer

Did you know there are Magic players who don't even know artifacts used to have brown edges?

Yep, it's true. They're out there, and I've met them. They've only seen the grayish border on artifacts from the past year or so, because that's how long they've been playing. And their numbers will only swell. In a post-Mirrodin age, it is completely possible for a new player to explore hundreds of artifacts without using anything as old-fashioned as a Mirari, or a Legacy Weapon, or (to get really old!) a Cursed Scroll.

And to think that's only going back about halfway through artifacts' history!

My own first few experiences with artifacts were, shall we say, less than successful. The first artifacts I tried to use were Puppet Strings and Watchdog. (It didn't help that I had them in a deck with Mind Games; but at least I had the good sense to include Propaganda.) It worked great, until I actually tried to play someone else with it.

After similar hijinx with Coiled Tinviper, I was beginning to think that artifacts weren't worth the bother (except maybe for Metallic Sliver). And then I ran up against an opponent with Helm of Obedience. Winter Orb was also in that deck. It was a bit of an eye-opener.

Winter Orb
Helm of Obedience

Of course, part of the problem was not having that many rares. Before late 2003, the only way to play with good artifacts was to invest in rares (or the very extraordinary uncommon). And that meant artifacts were a bit of an unusual occurrence in many casual groups, because not all casual players collect as heavily as other segments of the Magic population.

After Mirrodin, uncommon and even common artifacts became very good. Isochron Scepter is the poster card for this phenomenon, but there are so many others we don't think of every day. Razor Golem, Myr Enforcer, Etched Oracle, Fireshrieker, and all those myrs are just the tip of the iceberg.

As I mentioned in an article about Magic Online recently, it's a rare game where I can't use a Hull Breach or Naturalize – and more often than not, it's an artifact I'm hitting. I'm beginning to rate artifact removal somewhere above optional nowadays. From my perspective, one of the most damaging trends to blue and black is the rise of artifacts – a permanent type these colors have far more trouble dealing with than, say, red or green. If black and blue are big in your group, consider lots of cheap and fast artifacts like Sun Droplet and Jinxed Choker.

(Special color-hosing tip: Black, in particular, has an awful time coping with stuff like Quicksilver Fountain. Not only does it struggle removing artifacts from the board; but it also needs multiple black mana for spells ranging from Consume Spirit to Grave Pact.)

So the landscape has changed for artifacts. And we play artifacts completely differently from the way we used to.

Or do we?

Four Toolboxes For Your Metal Toys

After years of playing both with and against artifact-based decks, I've seen four broad groups of decks that use artifacts. I don't believe they've changed much since Mirrodin – you just see certain types more frequently. I've compiled them below, as well as suggested countermeasures if you find any of them familiar.

First Artifact Approach: Rounding Out a Theme

Coat of Arms

The most typical use of artifacts (if there's any such thing as "typical use" in casual Magic) is to fill up a few slots in a deck with a broader purpose in mind. The most obvious example is putting Coat of Arms in a tribal deck. While the deck does not revolve around Coat of Arms, the Coat certainly has a place in the deck and helps the path to victory.

Another example might be Urza's Armor in a Pestilence deck, or Beast of Burden in a deck that generates tons of saproling tokens.

Countermeasures: While spot removal like Disenchant can certainly improve your chances against such a deck, the question here is not how to get rid of the artifact. The question here is how to stop the overall strategy – in the case of a creature type deck and Beast of Burden, mass creature removal; in the case of Pestilence, direct damage that forces the player into a hole with their own enchantment.

Second Artifact Approach: Building Around a Strong Card

One very rapidly growing method of including artifacts in a deck is to find a particularly strong artifact and attempt to use its sheer quality to power a deck over the top. The rest of the deck is, ultimately, irrelevant. What matters is that you get the Isochron Scepter, Smokestack, or Mirari out and keep it there. It's central to your victory path.

This method of deckbuilding is really not anything new; people do it all the time with cards of any given color. But doing it with artifacts has never been more possible.

Countermeasures: Here is where the well-placed Naturalize is devastating – and the poorly aimed removal is worse than ever. Taking out an early Sky Diamond or Myr Servitor may be funny at times, but it will cost you dearly if your gun is empty of bullets when the real horrors show up.

Third Artifact Approach: Shoring Up Weakness

Sun Droplet

Often, a player with a single-minded deck will find that it "always loses" to, say, direct damage. Or enchantment-heavy decks. Or weenies. It’s built right into the game that not every color is equipped to deal with every contingency, and splashing the right color is not always an option. In such cases, throwing in a key artifact – Masticore for creature control, Sun Droplet for early damage offset, or even something like Null Brooch to stop the worst sort of spell from resolving – can save your deck. And color-screw will never stop you from playing it.

There's some similarity between this approach and the previous approach, when the artifact is obviously keeping its controller afloat. After all, some control decks cannot work when the board is full of attacking creatures and the Ensnaring Bridge is not on the table. The difference here is that the artifact that shores up your weakness is generally not winning the game for you – it's an answer more often than it is a threat.

Countermeasures: Funnily, many times you don't care as much about the artifacts here as you might in the previous case. Unless, of course, you're playing the strategy that artifact is meant to hose. After all, when do you care more about a Masticore – when you're playing a creatureless deck with plenty of Terminates, or when you're playing with elves? If you're playing with elves, then it's important to see yourself as the "beatdown" relative to the guy who might plop down that Masticore. If you know he's packing Masticore, he's your first priority. Learn about beatdown/control strategy (see Michael Flores's numerous articles on the topic), and apply them here.

Fourth Artifact Approach: Manipulating the Sixth Color

What used to be the rarest of all uses of artifacts in decks, and is now one of the most common, is absolute dependence. In this sort of deck, there's nothing (or almost nothing) but artifacts in the deck.

In the old days, this meant some sort of crazy Antiquities-based creation with lots of stuff like Rocket Launcher. Nowadays, it can be all kinds of stuff – mainly-blue affinity decks; artifact-flinging decks with Bosh, Iron Golem; myr-ful sunburst decks; and goodness knows what else. With Urza's Tower and its companion lands enjoying recent reprint in the base set, artifact decks have pretty much become a color unto themselves – and if there's a mono-white or mono-green deck, then why not mono-brown (or I suppose now, mono-grey)?

Countermeasures: Having seen many of these decks recently, I wonder how viable strategies such as Shatterstorm or Meltdown still are. I know they were pretty good in some areas about six months ago. The Kamigawa block still has some pretty stellar artifacts (see: That Which Was Taken), and multiplayer groups may want to continue experimenting with mass removal. At the very least, white mages may want to look into a fun tool from Urza's Saga, Purify. I do believe that between Mirrodin's artifacts and the reemergence of enchantments through Kamigawa block, mass removal cards no longer have to focus on creatures.

Wrap-Up: Assessing Artifacts In Your Group

Once you can identify how your play group is using artifacts, you can come up with decks and strategies to counter them more effectively. Of course, there are other questions you'll have to learn to ask. Are the artifacts creature artifacts, or non-creature artifacts? Are the artifacts high converted mana cost, or low? Are they aggressive or controlling? Do they work to your advantage occasionally, or are they always "unfriendly"?

To newer players, these questions may seem like second nature. This is ironic, of course – they haven't known a world where artifacts were woven so firmly into the rest of the Magic environment. It's the older players who are going to have to relearn how to look at artifacts, how to interpret what they're seeing, and how to react.

Share what you see and learn on the message boards.

Anthony cannot provide deck help. He is busy looking for Shatterstorms in his own collection.

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