My Monday-colleague here on DailyMTG.com, Mark Rosewater, likes to talk about design. Surprise, surprise—Mark is the lead designer for our favorite game, and passionate about not just Magic design, but how things come together, aesthetically and otherwise, in general. Not limiting himself to Magic design, or even game design, Mark has written as far afield as designs at Apple, a consumer-facing company that just makes stuff that they think is cool. Some of those heretofore un-heard-of incarnations of cool have been the iPod, the iPhone, the iPad .... innovators that have spawned endless imitators. Apple have become dictators of hip as much as purveyors of personal computers in recent years—some kind of electronic Blair Waldorf—and in many ways (thank Granny Goodness for some of them) have reimagined, then remade, the world in their own, increasingly gorgeous image. You know, like Blair Waldorf.
You know what Steve Jobs's big innovation was to the personal computer on the way back up?
It wasn't on the inside (though in more recent years Apple has done crazy awesome stuff from that end; the Air that I am writing this article on has a "disk drive" without a spinning disk ... the only one I've heard of that more-or-less can't crash). It was on the outside. You know what he did with those mid-1990s iMacs?
He made them blue.
That was it. Plus-blue. Fifteen or so generations before the gorgeous, barely there, aluminum cases you see today, Steve made 'em blue. First step to ... everything else.
Earlier today I was helping an old boss (and friend) out, setting up some marketing campaigns with his team while he is on vacation. He is on a skiing trip (must be nice), and I ruthlessly set up shop at the CEO's desk. His right hand snapped a picture of me working on my 2011 Air, having shoved aside his 2008 MacBook Pro. I snidely—Apple zombie-ly—commented on the Facebook that I had the younger, slimmer, model.
And isn't that what we are looking for from our technology, Magic or otherwise?
Make it blue.
The younger, slimmer, model.
The elite deck designers at the StarCityGames.com Open Series have done just that (yet again) with their Standard innovations, making it blue, and giving us a slim new model.
So today, we are just going to focus on two decks, but like an upcoming, rumored only, new generation iPhone release or camera-carrying iPad, they are packing boundless new tech.
- Part I: Make It Blue
How about this blue deck?
Ali Aintrazi has made a reality of the deck that many of us have thought of making, but few of us (and certainly not YT, not yet anyway) have been brave enough to actually play.
Ali's deck is a powerhouse. It uses Grand Architect and specifically chosen creatures to generate a powerful mana engine. But remember, that mana can only be used to produce and use artifacts. Hence, we have the only contending Standard deck to run multiple Mindslavers among other such jumbo mortgage-scale artifact threats.
The deck also has a proliferate subtheme. I'm sure a lot more of you have experienced this, but there is really nothing like proliferating up your Everflowing Chalice (often using the Chalice itself) to make roughly DI colorless. Especially against control in a long game, you simply have too much mana for them to compete with.
The two engines make for sometimes strange bedfellows, though there is crossover to their craziness. To wit, Thrummingbird is both a cheap blue fish for Grand Architect's get rich quick mana-making schemes, and a proliferation evangelist. I don't have much firsthand experience with this (despite being able to appreciate the frothy suds of a fellow brewer), but I have to admit that 4 Thrummingbird, 2 Jace, the Mind Sculptor looks a bit odd to YT.
What also bears a mention is Ali's Treasure Mage package. He has a blunt-force Treasure Mage threesome that can get Wurmcoil Engines, a solo Steel Hellkite, Contagion Engine, or one of a couple of Mindslavers. What is really spicy are a pair of fatties in the sideboard: the seldom-seen Platinum Emperion (good luck dealing 8 to that, Red Deck) and the one-shot robot itself, Blightsteel Colossus!
Ali taught us two things with his quarterfinal match, both of them extremely valuable; one good, one less so, but with a lot of long-term up side.
The first one was a validation for every rogue deck designer, basically ever. In the first game, Ali was basically dead. He had a freshly cast Steel Hellkite, but precious little likelihood of ever being able to use it. Alex Bertoncini, Star City's reigning Player of the Year and their Open Series's most decorated player, was attacking into him with an Inferno Titan. Bertoncini was in commanding position and casually tossed a Lightning Bolt at Ali's Steel Hellkite prior to splitting the Titan's "Arc Lightning" trigger 2-1. Ali looked over at his Grand Architect and added blue.
The Steel Hellkite was a 5/5 no more! Ali took the Titan hit, but his Hellkite lived! Aintrazi flew over Bertoncini's defenders on the next attack, winning an unexpected blowout.
What was so cool about this? Sure, the mighty Alex Bertoncini made an on-table error, but it was the kind of error that rogue deck designers love to see. Most players just aren't used to playing against Grand Architect and Steel Hellkite. These are playable cards that, at least up until Ali Aintrazi "made it blue," didn't see a lot of play. It in fact reminds me of one of my own favorite moments on the Pro Tour, when Japanese superstar Jin Okamoto had to read Steve Sadin's Tibor and Lumia. Win or lose, we were ecstatic, and Steve and I were high-fiving each other when Jin had to ask for another edition (I think it was an Italian Tibor and Lumia or something). Go ahead, mouseover and look at it. I know you don't know what it is, either. :)
So, a reminder for "everyone else" (we burglars, cutpurses, and assassins-in-training already know this one): Read the card! When you are playing against the goofy ones, the deadliest mistake might be right there on the table.
Despite Ali's Top 8 berth, history (recent history in this case) tells us that Alex made the finals with his blue-red-green deck. What happened in the third?
I don't mean to harp on either player, because they were playing at umpteen o'clock, after crushing through Grand Prix–like conditions for ten-plus hours, but just as Alex made an on-table misclick in the first, Ali probably lost the match on a subtle error. When he already had six mana available, Ali got greedy and played a Preordain, for an Island. He was "rewarded" with his Island and then played either Contagion Engine or Wurmcoil Engine, some kind of Engine that costs six mana. He already had the lead, but with his Engine, Ali took a commanding one.
However, Alex ran good, came back, and eventually won the game while Ali plucked lands / irrelevancies despite his earlier big lead.
The error, I think, was on the Preordain here.
I mention it not just because Ali had a super cool deck that I wish had done a little better (like Bertoncini needs any more Star City hardware), but because I think it was a mistake that more than half of the people reading this article would have made. Of all the common errors that a large number of players make, I think the only one that you get more likely to make as you get a little better at Magic is around maximizing mana consumption. I cost myself Nationals qualifications in consecutive years making these kinds of mistakes. All things held equal, tapping seven is better than six, but in this case, all things weren't equal. Ali didn't need a seventh land. His Engine or Engine was coming down that turn either way. The subtler issue is around the play of Preordain; he used it with the goal of getting a land and was paid off with that land. The problem is that a late game Preordain should not be digging for lands, not when you already have six! Nick Spagnolo has said that if you play a Preordain late, you should usually just win the game. As a spectator, I remember cringing and thinking "That could have been a spell!" when he laid down Island #7.
Again, I don't mean to harp on screw-ups, not when both players ended up so accomplished in the Washington, DC Top 8. But even Who's the Beatdown? starts with a common error, and I think more than one person has benefitted from what came out of that one.
- Part II: The Younger, Slimmer Model
Caw-Blade, that breakout deck from Pro Tour Paris, took four of the Top 8 slots in the DC Open Series event; each of the players (including onetime Number One Apprentice Joshua Ravitz—woot!) did a little something different with the deck—a Sun Titan here, a main-deck Sword of Body and Mind there, maybe an extra Divine Offering—but the archetype got its most memorable makeover in the hands of one of the world's most respected deck developers.
In addition to adding Lightning Bolt to the main, Gerry's sideboard added four teeny-tiny 0/1s and a slimming one-mana accouterment.
The Cunning Sparkmage + Basilisk Collar combination gives the deck amazing new functionality. Heck, just Cunning Sparkmage by itself will tear up all the Squadron Hawks in the room, but adding Basilisk Collar will trump the mighty Sword of Feast and Famine.
In addition we have the return of Inferno Titan + Basilisk Collar, also known as BLEAGH. Left unchecked, this two-card combo will kill anything short of a Kor Firewalker, and rack up tons of life points in the meantime.
I would guess that these changes become permanent. Squadron Hawk has become one of the go-to threats in the format, and Cunning Sparkmage—which is notoriously difficult to remove in a "mirror" if you don't see it coming—makes the old Squadron look pretty bald. Throw in Basilisk Collar (something shiny and new for Stoneforge Mystic to assemble, in White-Blue at least) and you have a very difficult set of cards for a fellow White-Blue opponent to race or otherwise deal with. Even just Gideon Jura + Basilisk Collar seems pretty unbeatable for some decks.
Still no sign of a Valakut presence post-Mirrodin Besieged ... but two blue-red-green decks in the Top 8 this week! I guess, like those mid-1990s iMacs, green-red, too, has been made blue.