Tinkerers’ Questions For Champions

Posted in Serious Fun on August 24, 2004

By Anthony Alongi

What should multiplayer enthusiasts look for in the upcoming set?

With Champions of Kamigawa previews starting next week, I'd like to do something a bit unusual this week. Every time a new set comes out, there's a lot of chatter regarding what will be good in a new Standard environment, and what will be a first pick common in limited, and so forth. It's all good stuff.

But casual players have less information to go on. That's not all bad, since casual play depends a great deal on individual opinions (rather than a general consensus based on trial and error, which underlies the logic of so much tournament analysis). If you as a casual player like Multani, Maro-Sorcerer, then that's terrific. If you prefer Molimo, well then that's terrific too! Should we stop there?

Maybe yes, maybe no. But today, I'm going to answer "maybe no." I'm going to suggest, for at least one expansion, we casual players – and multiplayer enthusiasts in particular – all take a deep breath and think hard about what we hope to see. What logic will help us sift through the new set for gems of group play?

Put another way, if we're all mad scientists and Wizards of the Coast has plopped us down on a tropical island full of interesting species and a cool genetics lab – what are we tinkering with first?

While I've done criteria for card judgments in the past – I have six "animal elements" I often use when looking at new cards – I'm not using those elements this week. That's because I'll be suggesting criteria not just for looking at the set card-by-card, but groups of cards – entire mechanics at a time, or pushing together cards that "feel" the same.

By doing some good thinking before the set comes out, I hope to help you all early enough so that your deck design, adjustment, and play can improve. You'll be able to snap the pieces of Champions into a frame.

And I'll do it without spoiling a darn bit of information about the set! That's because I don't have any valid information to share – all I know for sure about Champions is the set of three cards I'll preview starting next week, and I gotta save something for those columns!

I'll start with four questions. If readers find these questions useful, I'll use one or more of them during the preview week articles. If readers have other analytic tools they want to share, I'll scan the message boards for thoughtful dialogue.

Tinkering #1: Create New Species

Tinker, art by Mike Raabe

The first question to ask when looking over the set is one of discovery. Are there new species we feel we can create? New territory few (if any) have explored yet? Put into Magic deck design language: what aspects of the new set require me to build an entirely new deck?

In Invasion block, this question was answered by a rebirth of multi-colored cards (among other things). The dynamic was explored in radically new ways, such as split cards. In Mirrodin block, this question was answered in the heavy emphasis on artifacts, and attention paid to detail such as "cogs and gears" to help a kinder, gentler generation of combo decks.

So how will Kamigawa block answer this question of "newness"? Maybe there's a similar aspect of Magic getting revamped emphasis. Or maybe it's something completely different – your guess is as good as mine. We're all aware of the distinctly different look and feel Kamigawa will have – is the "new species" more a matter of flavor and artwork? If so, you may think of designing decks that reinforce that flavor. If you're a flavor-deck fanatic, this could be a wonderful turn for you.

Most people naturally ask this question, so I'll move on.

Tinkering #2: Mutate Existing Species

Casual players build and maintain decks in a very different way from tournament players. Standard tournament players, for example, generally don't use decks that are more than two years old. By definition, they usually can't, because the card sets keep changing! There's a gauntlet of four to ten decks they maintain for testing their ideas and tweaking their favorite deck. Every four months, there's some rotation.

For limited tournament players, the rotation is even faster: every match is a new deck!

Multiplayer enthusiasts operate differently. My deck box, for example, holds 20 decks. Some of those decks are less than three months old. Some are over five years old. Some are resurrections of decks I'd taken apart years ago. Some haven't seen updates since Odyssey block, because they still work fine.

The first question above dealt with those aspects that require entirely new decks. But don't forget those decks you already enjoy! The question here is: what mechanics does the new set give me that fit into my old decks?

Maybe there will be a set of five cards that'll do wonders with your amazing phasing deck. (I'm picking phasing because it's safe: Wizards has promised never to bring it back.) Maybe there's a new creature type that works better with your existing Steely Resolve and Shared Triumph creation than the elves you've got in there. Maybe the whole set is non-basic lands, and your Ruination – Groundskeeper deck just got a stratospheric boost.

It doesn't matter what the specifics are. The point here is to get you looking for those interesting trends in Champions – those sets of two to five cards – that you can surgically slip into a deck you already have, because they work better (or in more interesting ways) than the cards you currently have in there.

I do something every year or so that may help some of you – whether you're dealing with Champions cards or not. Each time a brand new block comes out, I take my three favorite decks and I lay them all out on the table (by casting cost and separating creatures from non-creatures – but you don't have to be this neurotic). Then I pick through each card in each deck and ask myself, "who's not carrying their own weight?"

"Private Anavolver – what have you done for me lately?"

"SIR. May I remind the Captain, SIR, that I carried this unit through a tough seven-player chaos which saw both a Pernicious Deed and a Hurricane, SIR!"

"Very well, Private. Sergeant Terminate, I doubt I have to document your usefulness, but indulge me."

"SIR YES SIR. I'm up to 37 kills over 20 games, SIR."

"Out-STANDING. Corporal Reborn Hero – you look pathetic. What's your story?"

"Well, Sir, once I chump-blocked a Hill Giant, and – "


Be heartless. Even good cards may have entered your deck with excellent intentions, been good for a certain period of time, but since lost their usefulness. (See more on "metagame" below.)

Set a goal – create eight open slots on each of your three best decks. Cull the weakest candidates. Rip out the single-card loners who never seem to show up on time, or which always sit useless in your hand. Then fill those empty slots with the best Champions has to offer.

If you're anything like me, you'll lose your nerve and only be able to make four slots available in each deck. That's good enough – at least you tried.

Tinkering #3: Compete With Other Mutations

Slobad, Goblin Tinkerer

In a given group, you get to know each other pretty well. (Some of the players in our group can tell what deck someone is playing from the first land, even if the deck is only a few weeks old. It keeps us changing up pretty regularly!) You learn what sorts of player person A is, whether they like control or aggression or combo, whether they prefer black or green, whether they tend to pack lots of instants or prefer powerful sorceries, etc.

Once you've asked the two questions above, you've got a pretty good sense of what you'll be doing with the new set – what 1-4 new decks you might create, and what you'll probably adjust in your current arsenal.

So what's stopping you from looking into the future and guessing: what will my friends do with this set?

Some Magic players are familiar with the term "metagame", where you try to outguess your opponents before you even take your first turn. What deck will she play as an Emperor? What does he always use in a five-player chaos when he's been losing all night? When everyone's playing enchantments in my group, why am I not packing Tempest of Light in my mono-white deck?

The "metagame" for Mirrodin block would have been packing Viashino Heretic into every red deck you own as soon as you heard it was going to have an artifact theme.

Here, the "metagame" is happening even as you design decks with your first few Champions cards. You know the blue mage is going to go wild with [my editor would censor this card name, if I even knew what to suggest here]! So why don't you put that into your deck design calculations – maybe it's something specific to that card, or maybe it's just a matter of putting in some fatties with islandwalk!

And as I've suggested earlier, you have to go beyond single cards. Presumably, there will be creatures in the set. If so, are there cycles of creatures that do something, say, every time someone draws a card? Okay then, what about your best friend's Underworld Dreams – Phyrexian Tyranny deck? Is that getting better or worse? Act accordingly.

In nature, those creatures that adapt most quickly to the changing environment win the Darwinian race. Your decks are their own species – they must adapt not just to what you saw last month, but what you will see next month.

Depending on how radical the environmental change is, perhaps even your foresight won't help. Which brings us to the last question.

Tinkering #4: Eradicating Obsolete Species

Fatal Mutation, art by Erica Gassalasca-Jape

Let's create another (safely unlikely) scenario. If Champions of Kamigawa is an entirely green set whose central philosophy is improving on Viridian Shaman, Molder Slug, and Glissa Sunseeker, you can imagine what would to happen to at least half of the decks your group plays today, right? They would become obsolete instantly. New "super-Glissa" decks would just crush the slow learners without even thinking about it.

While I doubt we'll face anything that extreme in a couple of months, I do plan on searching through my box of 20 decks, filtering out those two or three who look least likely to cope with the new mechanics, and gutting them. This will be healthy for at least three reasons:

  1. I'll decrease my chances of getting my butt kicked with obsolete ideas.
  2. I'll decrease my chances of boring my friends to death with old, tired decks.
  3. I'll increase my chances of freeing up good "staple" cards like Terminate or Naturalize to use in the new decks I was going to build anyway (see tinkering #1 and #2, above). After all, I don't keep more than eight copies of even the best commons. It's an intentional quirk of my collection, to force creative destruction.

The trick here is the filtering. Which two or three decks will be least likely to cope with the new environment? You shouldn't be too pessimistic, or undersell your own deck retooling skills. And you shouldn't forget the deck altogether, even if you do dismantle it. Sure, Invasion decks took a bit of a hit when Odyssey block came out with very little support for gold cards – but I'll bet there were a lot of white-green decks that got trashed without their owners looking too hard at Mystic Enforcer. Invasion block decks with Mystic Enforcer got really good at a lot of kitchen tables when Torment came out…

Keep your eyes open and revisit your collection regularly. The best ideas you have for a deck using Champions cards may come as you're pulling apart what looks like an old, useless deck – and as you're putting a card away, you suddenly see a single card from Mirage that's been sitting in your box for ages and would work great with new mechanic X!

Ah, good ol' mechanic X. I can hardly wait!

Bonus Ultra-Tinkering Section: Creating New Islands For Your Newly-Tinkered Species

One question I know I'll be asking soon after the set's release has less to do with new decks, and more to do with new formats.

I'll be curious to know whether there's a whole new format out there waiting to be discovered. Can we do something with this intriguing artwork? Is there a tweak to tribal formats worth making? Is there a compelling reason to create a format based on dozens of three-card decks, all sitting in the middle of the table?

I'll also be looking at what this set does for Emperor draft, which is still hot in our group. Expect a few thoughts on strategy as Champions rolls out over September and October! And maybe there's a variant of Emperor draft or sealed that a string of new cards really helps out.

So let's all keep our eyes open – and our minds tinkering. See you on the other side of the multiplayer metagame!

Anthony cannot provide deck help. He is mentally stranded on a remote isle, tinkering with his preview cards.

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