What's in the Box

Posted in Serious Fun on October 28, 2008

By Kelly Digges

Kelly Digges has had many roles at Wizards over the years, including creative text writer, R&D editor, website copyeditor, lead website editor, Serious Fun column author, and design/development team member on multiple sets.

A few weeks ago, I talked about leagues, and specifically mentioned a "box league" that myself and the rest of the Magic web team have been participating in. Each of us opened a box of Shards of Alara boosters — which is a ton of cards, let me tell you — and started trading, building decks, and playing matches.

After I had opened half of my Sealed pool, I was thinking about some kind of Naya concoction, hoping to capitalize on Ajani Vengeant, Realm Razer and two Bull Cerodon. I did have a few cards to tempt me to other shards — Violent Ultimatum, Sharuum the Hegemon, Kederekt Leviathan, and Battlegrace Angel, among others, but I really didn't think any of that was going to stick.

Then I opened Master of Etherium. And two Ethersworn Canonist. And two Scourglass. And Sphinx Sovereign. And Tezzeret the Seeker. Unable to argue with this parade of hits, I quickly built a blue-black-white Esper deck. I did squeeze Battlegrace Angel in, because it's awesome. As my only nonartifact permanent (besides Esperite and artifact ally Tezzeret the Seeker), though, it rudely kept dying to Scourglass and not pumping Master of Etherium, so I was looking for a chance to trade it away.

After a quick practice game against Scott Johns, I made some adjustments. I swapped out two Cloudheath Drake for two Tidehollow Strix, partly because it's way cheaper and blocks flyers better, and partly because I enjoy making hooting noises when people hold back their big flyers instead of attacking into my little bird with deathtouch. I also squeezed in four Obelisk of Esper. I'd left those out of the first version, but I quickly realized that with high-cost cards all around, Master of Etherium hungry for artifacts, and Tezzeret the Seeker able to fetch them out of my deck, untap them for extra mana, and even turn them into 5/5 bashers, Esper is the shard that has the most reason to love its Obelisks.

The deck I played in last week's "Attack Right" game was something like this:


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Unbeknownst to me, there were already at least two other people running Esper in our little league, having opened or traded for many of the same rares, and that meant I was going to have plenty of competition when it came to trading...

...until Monty Ashley decided to get out of the overcrowded mageocracy of Esper and make the move to Bant (it's nice this time of year). After a fevered round of bargaining, I traded him Stoic Angel, Battlegrace Angel, two Knight of the White Orchid, two Seaside Citadel, and an Excommunicate for a second Sharuum the Hegemon, the unbeatable Sharding Sphinx, Master of Etherium, and two Arcane Sanctum, leaving plenty of other goodies on the table (for later trading, I hope). I also traded Dave Guskin a Feral Hydra and a Spearbreaker Behemoth for Brilliant Ultimatum, which is a pet card of mine. My deck ended up looking something like this, at least for now:

Esper Reloaded

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With some trading under my belt, it was (finally) time to sit down and play. For my first match, I shuffled up against Magic web intern Bill Stark...

...who turned out to be playing an Esper control deck. That made this, shall we say, a pretty monotonous match-up. My memories of this match are mostly a vague blur of Sanctum Gargoyle returning each other in an endless parade of artifact silliness. I led off with a sad little trio: a Puppet Conjurer on beatdown duty, a Sanctum Gargoyle returning nothing just to get some damage in, and a Scourglass that could, at best, aspire to getting rid of an Oblivion Ring.

Who's the Beatdown?

Bill, for his part, erased all of this aggressive effort with a single Kiss of the Amesha, which was pretty awesome if you're not me. In the picture below, which is from the middle of the first game, let me direct your attention to the Kiss of the Amesha and Esper Charm in the graveyard, each of which had drawn him two cards, and the Courier's Capsule in play, which had already come back from two card-drawing trips to the graveyard thanks to Sanctum Gargoyle and Sharuum the Hegemon. The man likes drawing cards.

He can stop drawing cards any time he wants to. He just doesn't want to.

With all that card-drawing and life gain under his belt, he was free to take his time and slowly, methodically crush me. For the second game, I took out all of my cards that are lousy against artifacts, but it didn't matter. It took forever, but in the end, again, he just outdrew me and played for the (very) long game. I never even got to "legend out" his Sharuum the Hegemon, which would have been awesome. (Because of the way the timing works, I would actually be able to kill his Sharuum and use my own Sharuum's "comes into play" trigger to return itself to play.)

Eager to move on from the artifact-on-artifact match-up, I decided to scope out some other opponents. Greg Collins quickly volunteered—a little too quickly, perhaps.

In our first game, I played Ethersworn Canonist early on. I'm not quite sure what it is about this card, but every time I play it, it suddenly becomes public enemy number one. Ethersworn Canonist must die — and, indeed, did, immediately, to Agony Warp.

When I had enough mana, I played Sharuum the Hegemon, pulling Ethersworn Canonist back into play, where it quickly got Infest and died again. Immediately afterward, I drew my second Ethersworn Canonist and played it. Sorry, Greg!

In the end, though, it didn't matter all that much, because Greg fired off Cruel Ultimatum.

Cruel Ultimatum means never having to say you're sorry.

It didn't actually kill me, but it did take out my Ethersworn Canonist, strip me of my entire hand, and drop me low enough that Greg was able to finish the job. I was dead but still going through the motions — now that's cruel!

In another game, Greg led off with a turn-four Fire-Field Ogre... and a turn-five Fire-Field Ogre. Where's an Infest when you need one? (Answer: in the giant box of cards not in my deck.)

This was also the game where I discovered the power of Agony Warp to turn a bad block...

...into a good fight.

During one of our games, I drew Sphinx's Herald and the Sphinx Sovereign it's supposed to find. But I did eventually get the Sovereign into play, even having to pay full price for it, and triumphantly set it down next to the Herald.

Sphinx's Herald
Sphinx Sovereign

I, uh... I don't think that's how this "heralding" gig is supposed to work, but whatever.

Right before I won that game, Greg counted up his mana and showed me the play he was one mana short of making: Prince of Thralls, followed by hitting me with Soul's Fire for exactly enough to win.

Take a look at Greg's deck, which has the unearth thing down:


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After triumphing over Greg in our third game, I set my sights on fellow columnist Doug Beyer.

Doug alarmed me greatly when he played a turn-one Akrasan Squire. Sure, it's just a 1/1. For now. But getting attacked for 2 — or more, if he played another exalted creature — on turn two was no happy prospect for a deck as slow as mine.

Fortunately for me, he didn't have the lightning-fast draw to back up Akrasan Squire, but he did have a turn-three Rhox War Monk (which I Oblivion Ring), a slightly sad-looking Steward of Valeron on turn four, and the mighty Battlegrace Angel on turn five.

If I hadn't played that Oblivion Ring, Rhox War Monk would have attacked me that turn as a 5/6 with double lifelink (and yes, that means twice the life). As it was, I "just" had to deal with a 4/4 Steward of Valeron with regular old single lifelink. Exalted decks are crazy!

It took very little time for Doug to take my life total down to 10 and boost his well above 20 thanks to lifelink. The thing is, though, my life total stayed at 10… thanks to a small miracle named Sharding Sphinx.

Sharding Sphinx

It started small, anyway. His Battlegrace Angel was tapped, so I played Sharding Sphinx and slammed in there with Tower Gargoyle, getting one Thopter token for my trouble.

That Thopter's destiny was to jump under Battlegrace Angel on Doug's next attack, letting him make up just a little bit more than the 4 life my Tower Gargoyle had taken from him. This was going to take a while. But the awesome thing about Sharding Sphinx is that you don't need to leave anybody back to block — your attackers make more blockers, and every turn's potential blockers become the next turn's attackers.

Over the next few turns, he kept gaining life to keep up with my attacks, but Sharding Sphinx got completely out of hand. I didn't have Thopter tokens, so I just used upside-down tips and tokens, the upside of which was that I got to ogle that awesome hydra art from the ad for Conflux. I had to scrounge up lots of tip and token cards for this, as Sharding Sphinx pumped out more...

...and more...

...and more...

...little Thopters to gum up the skies. Doug couldn't come anywhere close to getting through, and my immense air force eventually overwhelmed his life gain.

The next game had a funny moment early on. Doug played Knight of the Skyward Eye and Steward of Valeron, stuck on two lands. I, typical for my deck, did absolutely nothing. When he swung in with both of them on turn four, still stuck on four lands, I decided I need to slow him down. Down came Agony Warp, to kill Steward of Valeron and "Fog" the Knight of the Skyward Eye.

Doug reached for his lands, and I said, "Oh no, you don't have — "

Yup. Sigil Blessing on Steward of Valeron. The Steward not only lived, but hit me for 5 instead of the desired 0. (Knight of the Skyward Eye, as a 2/2 getting -3/-0 and +1/+1, ended up as a 0/3.)

That's not the funny part, though — again, not if you're me, anyway. The funny part is that the next turn, Doug swung in with both of them, again. I played Agony Warp to kill Steward of Valeron and "Fog" the Knight of the Skyward Eye, again. And Doug played Sigil Blessing on the Steward, again, hitting me for 5 instead of the desired 0, again. Now at a precarious 8 life, I decided I was tired of these shenanigans, so I played Oblivion Ring... on both of them.

The Oblivion Ring, however, stranded a Scourglass in my hand, because it would destroy the Rings and let Doug get his creatures back. Doug found his mana and started rolling out more creatures, and I'd used up all my cards dealing with his first two. Yeah, I didn't win that one.

Take a look at Doug's excellent exalted-centric build:


Download Arena Decklist

I especially like Ranger of Eos here, which can search up two Akrasan Squire for a big boost in the late game, or go big and grab Feral Hydra. (And yes, that does work. X is zero except when you're actually playing the spell.)

After playing Doug, I squeezed in a few games with Scott Johns, Editor in Chief of magicthegathering.com.

In one game against Scott, he led off with a turn-two Dragon Fodder. On turn three, he played a Savage Lands (tapped, of course) and... another Dragon Fodder. Not a bad set-up on turn three.

Here, dragon dragon dragon...

My deck, being what it is, could pretty much only play out one creature at a time. As it turns out, that's a really, really, really bad plan against Scott's deck. Fleshbag Marauder?

Check. Bone Splinters?

Check. There was even a second Fleshbag Marauder, killing a second Sanctum Gargoyle.

By the time I could muster multiple creatures, pretty much all they could do was die horribly in decent blocks that nonetheless left me at 4 and Scott with six tokens left to swing with the following turn (three still-living Goblins and three Saprolings courtesy of Sprouting Thrinax).

Scott revealed his hand, showing Skullmulcher, Thunder-Thrash Elder, and Broodmate Dragon, proving that he could have easily thumped me even if I'd somehow dealt with the immediate situation.

"Sometimes," he said, grinning, "The fodder gets it done."

Check out his deck:


Download Arena Decklist

That, my friends, is a great example of a devour deck. Just enough fodder, just enough devour, and a generous helping of the creature-trashing goodies from Grixis to keep the turnover rate among your opponents' creatures high.

Now that we've traded a lot, the box league has gotten really fun. Some of us are tweaking and tuning a single deck, while others are swapping from deck to deck pretty regularly and still others are actually working on a second deck while keeping their first one together. I'm in the tweaking and tuning camp, but I'm starting to get tired of always being the slower deck at the table (well, almost always — thanks, Bill!). I've started looking harder at cards like Glaze Fiend that hit hard early, which might help me switch to a more aggressive Esper deck.

Some people like drawing lots of cards, holding up mana for counterspells, and generally staying in control of the game. Others prefer to go all-out and hit hard — at least that way something's always happening! I tend to like playing it a little cautious, but there's something really liberating about always knowing that the answer to the question "What should I do?" is "Attack!"

Rather than use Sanctum Gargoyles to recur capsules, I think I might like to try just attacking with Glaze Fiend and Master of Etherium until my opponent is out of life. What do you think? What would you rather do? Just curious!

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