Some sets, there will be a gradual accumulation of goodness that will stoke the fire of anticipation to crack some packs and start playing. As the previews build up, I will find myself approaching a crescendo of speculation about what remains, and find myself hankering more and more to play.
With Rise of the Eldrazi all it took was one monster coming over the hill, and I knew that I wanted to be casting big spells and doing powerful powerful things at the prerelease that is now mere days away.
With Kozilek, though, came as many questions as answers. Could there really be a Limited format where casting spells as big as the Eldrazi would ever be a realistic plan? I certainly hoped it was true, and as we have gradually seen more and more cards from the set, it seems to be the case.
What this means for us the players is that Rise of the Eldrazi is going to be quite unlike prior Sealed Deck formats to play. The true gravity of this hit me fairly hard when I realised that it was time to write the Prerelease Primer article for a set that plays out with a different rhythm to that which precedes it.
My normal way of approaching all things Sealed Deck involves a crib sheet of a few simple rules that I try to stick to. Play 40 cards. This way, you will draw your good cards that little bit more often. Play roughly two colours, maybe a small amount of a third, focusing on playing removal spells, and creatures that can win the game by being some combination of hard to block and hard to kill. Play about 17 lands. Try to have a good mix of mana costs, more or less avoiding creatures that cost one, and anything that costs more than six that doesn't flat out win the game. I know that if I stick with this set of little rules, I should have a pretty reasonable deck with which to battle.
With every format, that set of rules gets tested and tweaked, based on the way that the set plays out. In Ravnica block, for example, there was ample colour fixing, and there were lots of opportunities to do very well by constructing a more elaborate mana base, allowing you to splash an extra colour or two (or three!). Zendikar Limited has been a format that has forced re-evaluation of a few of these rules. It is very fast indeed—there is plenty of opportunity to overwhelm slow starts with aggressive creatures—and with landfall, it is often just fine to play 18 or more land. In spite of the fact that creatures costing more than five might never get cast in some Zendikar Limited games, those extra lands are often like spells anyway, triggering your Windrider Eels, Cosi's Ravagers, and Calcite Snappers.
Now that we are leaving Zendikar and Worldwake behind to build Sealed Decks exclusively with Rise of the Eldrazi and its giant monsters, it seems clear that some of my own personal rules of Sealed Deck building will need to be re-evaluated. In the interests of making sure that I could work out how best to tackle the new format—and make sure that you can too at whichever Prerelease you head out to—I enlisted a little help.
Magic developer Erik Lauer was my go-to guy for advice on Rise. As it turns out, having a former pro player and now member of the team that makes Magic to answer my lengthy list of questions about the format is a great way to get up to speed fast. On top of this, Mark Rosewater weighed in with a few choice thoughts on how to go about building a deck that plays to the strengths of the most powerful monsters ever printed.
Before, when I was talking about my Sealed Deck rules, I actually left one off. It is one that often doesn't need spelling out, but it is in many respects the most important one of all.
Rule Zero: Have a Plan
With my normal deck building, the plan is more or less "play good creatures, kill my opponent's good creatures, attack a bunch, win, get pie." The pie is optional, but the rest is what I want to be doing with most Sealed Decks. Sometimes, I'll look at my card pool and know that one card (often a Dragon or other big flying creature) will be the way that I want to win a lot of games, but more often than not, things will be more freeform than that.
In Rise of the Eldrazi Sealed, having a plan is a big deal. There are some very large and very scary monsters in this format. If you work at it, you will be able to cast them, and once you have cast them, there is every chance that you will be able to end games fast with them. The same is true of what is happening on your opponent's side of the board.
When going into a format like this, fortune favours the well prepared.
From the moment I saw Kozilek, I knew in my heart of hearts that I wanted to be casting massive Eldrazi. Doing this would require more mana than I would normally plan to have access to in Sealed Deck. While casting the Eldrazi isn't the beginning and end of this format, this is definitely a format where having plenty of mana is rewarded in a big way. Virtually all of the creatures with level up that we have seen are pretty amazing late game cards, with the potential to break games wide open. Even without giant colourless annihilators, the late game is very much part of what you will see at the Prerelease.
Getting to the late game seems to have a bigger payoff than ever before, and there are some tools at our disposal to help us get there in one piece. While creatures with defender are not normally all that special in Limited, as they have trouble winning the game themselves, they do an excellent job of keeping you alive for long enough to deploy the sort of big creatures that don't need any fancy coloured mana symbols in their casting costs. Defenders should feature in many plans involving hitting the late game, and equally should mean that if you are looking to win the game fast, you should have a plan ready for when your creatures start running into walls.
While in many Sealed Deck formats 2/2 creatures could attack just fine, we can do better in Rise. If you want to win fast, then evasion might well be the key. Flyers remain good, as does removal. Don't forget that any creatures you might have with the keyword intimidate will not be blocked by Eldrazi, be they Eldrazi Spawn or legendary titan—Eldrazi may be colorless, but they aren't artifacts!
Having checked with Erik, it seems that there are some constants in Rise. The way that those Eldrazi come out is not typically down to playing more lands in your deck. Simply making the game run longer will get you to your lands, and a longer game also means that playing two colours with a splash will have a good shot at working out, as you have time to draw into that third colour of mana. Playing 17 lands should be fine in this format, perhaps 18 depending on exactly how your deck pans out.
There are ways of accelerating the late game, and strong incentives to do so. If you can utilise Eldrazi Spawn token generators well, then you could be the first player to get a hit in with a creature possessing the annihilator mechanic. This can create some hefty swings in the game state. Once your opponent is forced to sacrifice something to a big Eldrazi, he or she will have to choose between losing lands (making those late-game spells harder to get to) or potential blockers. While we've only seen a few Eldrazi Spawn generators, it seems a sensible idea to play them if you are looking to ramp up your mana.
The big area that I want to touch on for this primer, though, is about removal. With longer games, there will be more targets available over the course of the game for your removal spells. It's easy for me to tell you to play more cards that let you kill opposing creatures. The harder bit is telling you what you should be killing. In Zendikar, using removal at more or less the first opportunity was often fine. It allowed more aggressive racing, and given that games were generally short, the difference between the right time and the wrong time to cast a removal spell was never overwhelmingly large. With overwhelmingly large creatures, and longer games, careful use of removal will be very important.
Let us imagine that the architecture of a Rise of the Eldrazi Sealed Deck game is something like this:
Players cast creatures with level up and start levelling a bit, or play out defenders and/or token generators to gum up the board somewhat. The game may seem to stall out a little, as each player gets more lands onto the battlefield, and good attacks are less obvious. At some point, either the levelers will be big enough to get around the stall, or something very big and nasty will come out to play, and upset the applecart in its own special way.
If you have some removal spells in hand in this sort of game, then playing them at the first available opportunity seems a fearful waste. Why kill that Knight of Cliffhaven as soon as it enters the battlefield, when you could watch your opponent gradually nurture it to full strength and then kill it? The last thing you want to happen is to use your removal early on a defender that isn't really interrupting your main game plan, only to be without any way of dealing with a relentless Ulamog's Crusher.
Having a plan isn't just about planning what you are going to do in a game. It is about planning for what is likely to come from your opponent, both while building your deck and while playing your games.
With this, we come on to my preview card, which is, I'm happy to say, a nice little removal spell. It won't kill too many big scary Eldrazi, but it's still worth saving for just the right moment.
Staggershock is a clever burn spell that gets to do its thing twice thanks to the rebound mechanic. While the first 2 damage it deals to a creature or player can come at any time, and might well be a surprise, the next 2 will always come in your next upkeep, and will surprise nobody.
First, a little rules thing. You won't be able to kill any creature with a toughness of 4 using just this spell. There is no point late enough in another player's turn that you can sneak in Staggershock damage that it won't be back to full fitness by your next upkeep. You can't cast this before your upkeep. These things just don't work.
That's just fine, though. Things you definitely can do with Staggershock include the following:
Kill opponents who have foolishly left themselves on 2 life or less.
Kill a level up creature in response to its trying to reach its next set of abilities.
Kill one of the multitude of creatures blocking your big monster, to ensure that it survives a nasty looking fight, while killing off lots of blockers.
Then ... you get to burn something in your upkeep! If your opponent was foolish enough to have ended up on 4 life at the start of your Staggershock shenanigans, then killing him or her seems a fine way of doing things.
Holding back on even a fairly small piece of removal like Staggershock allows for much bigger gains than spending it cheaply early on. I like being able to use Staggershock to deal with one obvious threat, and then being able to mop up Eldrazi Spawn tokens with it too. Remember, those tokens could mean the beginning of the end if they are going to help an opponent summon something huge. If you know you can't deal with an Eldrazi, then some pre-emptive Spawn killing could easily be a good idea. (But watch out killing Spawn and other creatures that can be sacrificed with Staggershock the first time around—if the creature's not there when Staggershock tries to resolve, you won't get to rebound it.)
So with our format of big creatures and big plans, what is my big set of plans for the Prerelease? I'll be in London helping people build their decks and playing anyone who wants to try and win some swag by beating me. I'll be hanging out with players, judges, traders and artists. I'll be enjoying the good times that come my way, and not worrying too much if I don't open quite the rares I was hoping for (Kozilek, I'm looking at you).
On top of all this, these are the guidelines I'll be using to build and play my deck.
- Play 40 cards. I want to draw my massive monsters.
- Play two colours, perhaps with a third colour to splash.
- Play a deck that knows how long it wants the game to go on for, and is built accordingly.
- Be careful about playing too many early- / mid-game beaters. It looks like there is more potential for them to be outclassed in this format than most, with games running longer.
- Play whatever creatures with evasion I have in my colours, and whatever creature kill I can find.
- Play about 17 land, maybe 18 if I have a lot of expensive spells.
- Sit back on removal a bit. There will be time and targets to use it.
- I won't go crazy on the expensive spells, but there is a good chance that if I have a card that costs , I will try and find a way to play it.
If all goes well, then at the end of the day I'll have won more than I've lost, and I'll be ready to eat some pie. To be honest, with all the new cards to play with and all the people to see, Prereleases pretty much always go well.
Have fun at your local Prerelease! I know I will at mine.