A Conflux of Formats

Posted in The Week That Was on February 13, 2009

By Brian David-Marshall

Brian David-Marshall is a New York–based game designer who has been involved with Magic since 1994, when he started organizing tournaments and ran a Manhattan game store. Since then, he has been a judge, a player, and one of the longest-tenured columnists on DailyMTG.com, as he enters his second decade writing for the site. He is also the Pro Tour Historian and one of the commentators for the Pro Tour.

At the time this column goes to "press" Conflux will have been officially on the shelves for a full week. Launch Parties took place all over the world and if you are anything like me you were struggling to keep your focus on the game at hand as you began extrapolating what kind of roles the cards in your 40-card decks could play in your 60-card decks—and even your 100-card decks, as we shall soon see.

The first high-profile opportunity for players to show off their Conflux-flavored constructions will happen next Saturday in Richmond, VA when Star City Games kicks off their 2009 tournament season with the first of ten $5K Standard Opens. Extended will get a jolt of Conflux immediately. You will see the results on the Top 8 decks page when Pro Tour–Honolulu qualifier results begin to roll in from this weekend. Despite all the Constructed deck activity it will still be a fresh, relatively unexplored set when the Tournament Center set is erected in Kyoto to examine the latest Standard Deck techs and chart picks for highly anticipated Draft Viewers.

Thus far I have not had a chance to play much with the set in a traditional drafts setting. I have played in a handful of Sealed Deck events—and I will include the reveal of my build from last week's card pool below this paragraph—participated in a bunch of Launch Party drafts that used a single pack of Shards and two packs of Conflux, and taken part in the Conflux Beta on Magic Online, which is a draft format unlike any draft you have tried before.

Here is the deck I ended up building from my second card pool in Los Angeles at the Prerelease:

Conflux Prerelease Sealed Deck Pool #2

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Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker

I would like to say that I did not play with Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker strictly because I was reluctant to splash a double black card, but that was only a part of it. I knew I would be shuffling the deck for a couple of dozen games and I wanted to keep the shiny new planeswalker shiny and new. I have honestly never seen anything that quite matches people's reaction to this card. There was an audible gasp as I opened the pack and some pretty ridiculous trade offers were made. Kudos to Aaron Forsythe and everyone on the R&D side for creating so much excitement about a card that costs eight mana—I don't think that anything similar has happened since Nicol Bolas.

This deck fared pretty well for me but not nearly as well as the first deck I wrote about last week. Once again I lost in the finals of my flight, this time to Sun Mesa's own Glenn Goddard, who had a tandem of Battlegrace Angel and Empyrial Archangel that I could not find a way around. If I had it to do over again the new build of the deck would certainly have been pedal-to-the-metal five-color with Blood Tyrant, Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker, and even Fusion Elemental all finding room in the deck.

This past weekend I played in a couple of Launch Party drafts that utilized two packs of Conflux—so your tournament mileage may vary—and I went in knowing I wanted to try an aggressive Esper deck that highly prioritized Call to Heel in the first pack and Parasitic Strix and Sedraxis Alchemist in the next two. The plan worked out well for me—with a little help from some on-color rares in my opening packs—on Friday night with a split in the finals piloting the following deck.

Launch Party Draft

Download Arena Decklist

Traumatic Visions

This deck was terrific for me and I did not lose a game where I opened on Court Homunculus, Vedalken Outlander, Sedraxis Alchemist on my first three turns. Of course, opening Sharding Sphinx and Martial Coup in my first and third packs played no small role in the deck's performance. My middle pack yielded a foil Child of Alara, which I passed to a grateful person on my right to pick up Traumatic Visions. The blue basic landcycler is easily one of my favorite cards in the whole set and I am eager to see if it makes the leap to Constructed play over the next few weeks. Said Jon Finkel of the card's abilities to smooth out the greediest of mana bases and to counter mid- to late-game spells: "Those are the only two things I ever want to be doing."

Drafting ACC is definitely going to be different than AAC but at least they are in the same ball park. I recently signed up for the Conflux Beta on Magic Online and was shocked when my opening pack in the first draft I did had something like half a dozen rares and cards dating back to Invasion block. Apparently the draft packs featured a mix of Conflux rares and uncommons, cards from every other set on Magic Online, and mana fixing.

Every time I have drafted with Conflux and tried any other strategy I have regretted not being in Esper. When I looked at my first pack on the Beta I took Arcane Sanctum over a buffet of rares and never looked back. I have to say it paid off with the most fun draft deck I have ever put together. Basically the whole deck revolved around synergies with a pair of Puppet Conjurers and broken Conflux artifact rares.

Beta Draft

Download Arena Decklist

The deck had the Shards of Alara combo staple of Puppet Conjurer and Etherium Astrolabe that lets you draw an extra card every turn; the less popular Filigree Sages combo that nets you extra tokens (and also lets you use your Scepter more than once a turn for the low, low price of seven mana); a surprisingly potent Sadistic Hypnotist that worked well in tandem with disposable critters; and the utterly broken pairing with Braids, Cabal Minion—one of my all-time favorite cards—that was able to lock one opponent out of the game on the play on turn four.

Sadistic Hypnotist
Braids, Cabal Minion

Once again, rares help. I cannot imagine getting this murderer's row of Esper rares in a traditional draft format. In one game Master Transmuter plopped down Magister Sphinx on turn five. In another I played Sphinx Summoner for Sharuum the Hegemon, sacrificed the Summoner, a token, and Sadistic Hypnotist to Mind Twist away my opponent's entire hand, and then Sharuum the Hegemoned back the Summoner fetching a Tower Gargoyle. The deck was way too much fun and I did not drop a game in the draft with it.

Master Transmuter
Magister Sphinx

Conflux's Legacy

Playing with all these off kilter formats got me to thinking about the impact that Conflux might have on some Constructed formats that are not Block, Standard, or Extended. I spent some time at the Launch Party talking with a recent addition to the New York Magic community, Drew Levin. Drew was at New York Comic Con—the site of the Launch Party I attended—to play in the Legacy event. The event promised extended-art foil Mutavaults to the Top 8 competitors and a foil set of Mirrodin for the winner.

The turnout for the event was a little disappointing (only 10 players signed up...I feel bad for the two guys who didn't get Mutavaults). Drew ended up the victor and was also kind enough to spend some time with me talking about Legacy, why he plays the format, and what impact Conflux may have on the format. But first, the Top 4 deck lists from that event.

Drew Levin's It's The Fear

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Anthony Conta's Triton's Minions

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Anthony Loman's Goblins

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Jim Sharkay's Mono-Blue Control

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BDM: What is it that attracts you to Legacy?

Drew: Legacy is a format where the card pool allows for an incredible amount of innovation, where a historical perspective is rewarded, and where new decks can (and do) pop up a lot. In one way, you can play anything you want in this format. The tier two decks are all strong enough to win a tournament, and so anyone with a willingness to learn the format and its interactions can bring their pet deck to a tournament and place highly.

In another way, it is archetypal enough to attract those who live and die by their testing gauntlets. There will very likely be a Standstill deck, a Stifle + Wasteland + Daze tempo deck, a Counterbalance / Sensei's Divining Top deck, a Storm combo deck, a Loam deck, a variety of tribal aggro decks, and so on.

In that way, people can bring skills that they learned from past Extended formats (Goblinsing someone is not so very different, AND you get to play with Aether Vial) while learning to play around commonly played cards such as Daze. The skills carry over, too. The skills someone learned playing Threshold circa 2004, back when Portent-Predict was a cantrip engine in most versions of Thresh, can be applied to current Thresh, where manipulating the top of your deck and setting up correct Ponder stacks is even more important now that Counterbalance exists. In short, the format is rewarding and complex, and maintains a level of depth to which no other format can lay claim.

BDM: How much preparation did you put in for the tournament this past weekend?

Drew: A decent amount, I suppose. I've been playing the deck in various incarnations for upwards of six months, and it has changed maybe seven card slots in that time. This tournament was itself more of a test for Grand Prix–Chicago, so I didn't prepare for this tournament insomuch as this tournament was very fortuitously scheduled so as to provide a way of seeing if my deck was a reasonable choice for an unknown metagame.

BDM: What deck did you play and why?

Drew: I played a deck called "It's the Fear." The defining features of the deck are that it plays four colors, a larger mana base than most decks with two recursion lands, Counterbalance and Sensei's Divining Top, and Intuition. It has a strong game against many blue decks, a reasonable game against aggressive decks, and a salvageable game against combo decks. It's really that it has the ability to play whatever cards you want to play, and Intuition often ties it all together in a manageable fashion. This ability lets the deck compete with almost any other deck in any given situation. The deck takes a lot of time to learn, but is incredibly rewarding to play.

BDM: What cards from Conflux—if any—will have an immediate impact on Legacy?

Drew: The new cards from Conflux will not drastically change the way Legacy looks. Grand Prix–Chicago will not be another episode of Flash Hulk, barring the unbanning of something ridiculous. That said, there are a few cards that will see some play, and may revitalize old archetypes:

Path to Exile: I can see aggro decks like Red-White Goblins playing this card over Swords to Plowshares, since giving Threshold or Dreadstill 6 or 12 life is not great, whereas giving them a Rampant Growth is tolerable. I don't think that many decks will play it, since most decks don't want more than four Swords to Plowshares, but it could see sideboard play.

Path to Exile
Knight of the Reliquary

Knight of the Reliquary might get put into some weird Green-White Terrageddon deck, but that's about it. Putting it into traditional Loam builds would mean stretching the mana base to accommodate white where they generally want to be red-green-black, splashing black for Confidant and one-mana discard spells, with the occasional Burning Wish target thrown in. I think the idea is cool, and he does something that other creatures have never done before, but he's Just Another 3 in Loam decks that gets sent out to farm in most circumstances.

Progenitus will see play in an Elf Survival deck with Natural Order. I fully expect people to show up with green people and Tinker out an untargetable Darksteel Colossus. There are answers, sure, but you have to have the answer and the mana to cast said answer, and even then, the other guy still has lands and spells and cards in hand and he's still going to try to kill you. It's definitely an interesting design option, and one that may well force some adaptation in peoples' sideboards.

BDM: What is your favorite card from the new set?

Drew: I like Armillary Sphere in the two lower-powered formats (Limited and Block), Path to Exile in the rotational Constructed formats, and Progenitus in Legacy. Sphere is a ridiculous card in Limited, and I think will define what it is to be a control deck in Block. Also, it has incredible art and it will be the first card I will buy a foil set of just to look at the art. Path is undeniably good, and will see play in all sorts of decks in several formats. Progenitus is a cool card that goes smash smash I win. He's so ridiculous, there's a support group on Facebook for people who have been killed by him.

Armillary Sphere

A Pauper's View of Conflux

The flip side of the gaudy excess of Legacy and its hundred-dollar lands has to be Online Pauper—a format that only allows construction of decks with cards that have been printed at common on Magic Online with a small banned list. Alex Ullman is one of the leading writers on the format, covering it regularly at PureMTGO.com. Alex recently participated in a 132-person Pauper Premier Event on Magic Online and finished in the Top 32. The Top 8 lists from the event were featured in last week's Decks of the Week and can be found here.

I chatted with Alex about this format that has been very interesting to me of late and which commons might find there way into Pauper's pockets.

BDM: How long have you been playing Pauper?

Alex: I've been playing Pauper for four years this March. My first Player Run Event (what the Pauper community used to do before sanctioning) was on April 1st, 2005.

BDM: What attracted you to the format?

Alex: I had been playing MTGO for a couple of years, and had been away from the tournament scene—my college did not have a strong competitive Magic community. I was on a budget and had read an old article about this format. I scoured the archives on magicthegathering.com and found out about PDC (pauper deck challenge). I did my research and went into the room. It was a chance for me to play competitive Magic on a college student's budget. The fact that I won my first tournament didn't hurt either.

The list from that tournament:

Alex Ullman's First Pauper Deck

Download Arena Decklist

BDM: How do you feel about the recent attention that Magic Online has paid to the format?

Alex: I love the attention. Mike Gills and the Wizards team did a fantastic job listening to the existing Pauper community and let us (the community) give input that mattered. The increase in participation has really led to a well-defined (if broad) metagame. During the Player Run Events, you were likely to face a mix of great decks, some decks that were almost good enough, and then some decks that were pretty bad. The sanctioned events have made it much easier to predict what you will face in a given event, and have made sideboarding significantly easier.

BDM: Tell me about the PE you recently played in.

Alex: It was the first Pauper Premier Event ever, held on Super Bowl Sunday in the U.S. and the Sunday of the Conflux Prerelease. In addition, it started at noon Eastern or 9 a.m. West coast. In other words, people were a little upset that the slot was on such an undesirable day, but an amazing 132 people showed up.

BDM: What deck did you play and why did you choose it?

Raven's Crime

Alex: I played a black-green aggro home brew. It has a lot of great synergies between Wild Mongrel, Raven's Crime, Shambling Shell, Werebear, and Grim Harvest. I played it because I like going rogue and playing aggro and disruption. I also liked its matchup against my predicted field of Mono-Black and Mono-Blue control. I was a little off, as Green-White Slivers was a much bigger chunk of the meta than I had expected, but my deck does not have a bad matchup against that deck (although I did lose to a Slivers, a MUC, and a MBC with blue, but I blame mulligans!).

Against MBC (and Mostly Black) you have Raven's Crime to strip their late game bombs and enough graveyard recursion to negate their removal. Against MUC, you have discard and cheap threats and again, recurring threats in the form of Shambling Shell. Against Slivers, well, you have to side into your removal and Golgari Brownscale package, but again, it's hard for them to beat you with anything but a perfect draw.

BDM: As a first hand observer of the format, what did you think of the Top 8 decks in the event?

Alex: I think it is a great representation of Pauper at the onset of the sanctioning. You see a healthy dose of board control in the two MBC and one Mostly Black control list, a strong Teachings list, a nice rogue list with the Blue-Black Madness deck, a persistent PDC competitor in the Orzhov Blink deck, and of course, Slivers. It didn't hurt that the two finalists are both PDC veterans (congrats guys!).

BDM: What Conflux commons will have the biggest impact on the Pauper format?

Lapse of Certainty

Alex: Court Homunculus – Any one-drop that swings for 2 is enticing. The fact that he combos well with Leonin Squire and Bone Saw (also from this set) really goes a long way.
Darklit Gargoyle – Again, another great aggressive card that fits well in any sort of white-black beatdown strategy.
Ember Weaver – 3/3s with first strike always matter, as three tends to be the average toughness of most beatdown creatures.
Lapse of Certainty – Gives white decks access to an incredible tempo tool
Rupture Spire – This has potential in some multicolor deck lists, but I'm not sure those decks can afford the tempo hit early.
Wild Leotau – Fat is fat, and fat is good. Cheap fat is better.

BDM: Are there any that will make new archetypes viable?

Alex: The two white beaters (along with Bone Saw) allow for the rebirth of white-blue Trinket Mage / cogs aggro. With the addition of better lands, the deck might now be able to incorporate black for the Gargoyle and Executioner's Capsule. Either way, it will be one of the first decks I test with Conflux cards.

BDM: What is your favorite card in the set for Pauper?

Alex: Personally, I love Traumatic Visions. I love cards that do multiple things and I'm a big fan of deck thinning. The ability to get a land early or say No late just really interests me.

BDM: What card do you most wish was common that is not?

Alex: I could be coy and say Tarmogoyf, but for Online Pauper, probably Hymn to Tourach. Since Pauper uses the online rarities, Hymn was released as an uncommon in Masters Edition, and so is illegal in online Pauper.

An Elder Dragon Speaks

Sharuum the Hegemon

It is hard to look at Conflux and not think about Elder Dragon Highlander. EDH, if you're not familiar, is a popular format among the judging community that features 100-card decks with no more than one of anything other than basic lands and a legendary general that dictates the colors of the cards in your deck. For example if you built a deck around Sharuum the Hegemon you could only use cards in your deck that were some permutation of blue, black, and white. You can find the much more detailed version of the rules here.

One of the earliest advocates for the format is Level 5 Judge Sheldon Menery, who column readers may recall as the star of Support Your Local Sheriff. Sheldon shared some thoughts on his pet format with me in between arguing about which Quentin Tarantino movie is better; Pulp Fiction or Jackie Brown. (I argued the latter by the way.)

BDM: How often do you play EDH?

Sheldon: As often as possible. It's all I play anymore.

BDM: What is it that attracts you to the format?

Sheldon: The big splashiness of the things that tend to happen, and the social interaction. EDH has brought the judge community closer together.

BDM: How much time do you spend fine-tuning your decks and building new ones?

Sheldon: Whenever a new set comes out, I'll look through the list and see what cards need to go in existing decks (my Phelddagrif deck smiled at Conflux).

BDM: What deck are you currently playing and why?

Sheldon: Phelddagrif because it's the original EDH deck. Garza Zol, Plague Queen because of its beatdown savageness. Darigaaz, the Igniter because of the game. Merieke Ri Berit because I put it together with almost no deep thought and got it right the first time.

Darigaaz, the Igniter

BDM: There are clear rewards attached to winning with so many other formats. What does winning a game of EDH yield?

Sheldon: Although there have been competitive EDH formats developing, at its heart, EDH is a casual format. Winning isn't necessarily being the last man standing. Winning is having a good time, and we have a good time when crazy things occur.

BDM: What cards from Conflux—if any—will have an immediate impact on EDH?

Sheldon: Too many to list. Really. The gang was thinking of us during development. EDH players will find many treasures here.

BDM: What is your favorite card from the new set?

Sheldon: Blood Tyrant. I'm just sad it's not Legendary! It's definitely going into my Garza Zol, Plague Queen deck.

Blood Tyrant
Garza Zol, Plague Queen

BDM: Where will you be popping up next?

Sheldon: Next week, I'll be in San Francisco at the American Association of School Administrators convention, manning the Wizards Play Network booth. WPN is dedicated to finding and supporting play of games (specifically D&D and Magic) in non-traditional environments. We hope to get school administrators on board with the idea that gaming is really good for the kids, both socially and educationally. I'll be doing a few of these kind of events throughout the year. I'm skipping Kyoto, but you'll see me at the PTs for the rest of the year.

Firestarter: And the Award for Best New Conflux Card Goes To ....

There will be a big Standard tournament in Richmond next weekend. What card from Conflux do you think will have the biggest impact on that tournament? Head to the forums and share your opinions.

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