e are just scant days away from the release of Magic 2011, the latest Magic core set in the game's illustrious history, and one that I am anticipating pretty hotly. As a writer, I normally try to avoid using the same word a lot within a few sentences or paragraphs, but I should warn you right now, I will be using the word "Prerelease" a lot in what follows—not least because it is the word buzzing round and round in my head as Saturday draws ever nearer.
Before we get to walk into our local store and buy packs, the Prerelease Event is a special opportunity to get a first go at playing with the new cards. A chance to relive the feeling of scarcely suppressed glee that comes with opening a booster and being confronted by cards that you have never seen before. In a Prerelease Sealed Deck event, you get six packs with which to craft a 40 card deck, and then over the course of a few rounds of play, you have the opportunity to win swag that includes still more packs of the new set.
I can think of few more civilised ways to spend a Saturday than surrounded by friends, playing the game I love, in the way that I did when I first started—booster pack fresh and knowing little about the particulars of the cards apart from the fact that I don't know them all, and I kind of want to.
Of all the Prerelease Events of the year, the one relating to a new core set is the absolute best for players who perhaps haven't played quite so much, and want to get a feel for what it is like to go to an event. All Prereleases have Sealed Deck. Most tend to let players Booster Draft as well. Some even have artists, team events, card traders, and local top players to battle for packs. What the core set Prerelease has though, which some other sets don't, is added accessibility to the basics of Magic.
The Magic core sets are designed to have cards with clean designs, that aren't heavy on keywords or complicated rules interactions. These are the sets that are perfect for beginners, but that increasingly tend to work well for players of all levels to have a good game. Rules baggage being put to one side means that while the cards are new, they should not be hard to take in and start playing with, making Sealed Deck play, with unfamiliar cards, less daunting than it can be with other sets.
For me, the time that a core set comes out is time to start looking at the fundamentals in my game. Within Magic, as with a lot of games or sports, there are some basics that if you do them right will reward you, and if you do them wrong, then fancy play won't necessarily help. Core sets aren't quite as distracting with new mechanics, meaning that getting to the nitty-gritty of playing well is a little easier.
So what sort of fundamentals are we talking about when it comes to building a good sealed deck from your six boosters? There are some points that are always worth bearing in mind—that will stand you in good stead regardless of your experience level.
In Limited games, normally it is creatures that win games, by attacking for damage. This one fact shapes a lot of the decisions to make in building a deck. For starters, it means that one of the first things to think about when you are building your deck is what ways you have to deal with creatures. Having your own to block with is good, but even better are spells that let you in some way neutralise creatures. Lightning Bolt and Doom Blade are examples of exactly the sort of card that I'd be very happy to be running in my deck. Even better, powerful spells like Destructive Force that can kill a lot of creatures at once are almost always going to be cards that I will play.
If I've said that creatures win games, then I definitely want to be running plenty of them myself. In a 40 card deck, I'm quite happy having 17 lands, 17 or so creatures, and then just 6 or so good spells, which ideally will either kill creatures or other types of permanent (for example pesky enchantments or artifacts like the Leylines or Crystal Ball).
One of the cool things about core sets is that colours tend to end up having very clear roles that are good examples of what those colours do in general in Magic. Looking at each is a good way of starting to build up a plan for whatever sort of sealed deck you might build.
Black, in general, is big on killing creatures, doing naughty things with graveyards and then making sacrifices one way or another to get what it wants. This manifests itself as good quality removal (always a good start), and then cards that might have some scary costs associated with them, but that are quite powerful. Demon of Death's Gate is a good example of a creature that is tricky to play for its alternate cost, but if you do, your opponent could be in a world of trouble. Part of the trick with black is working out how much of a cost you are willing to pay for power. Nantuko Shade doesn't look like it comes with too hefty a cost, but that is where black is sneaky. A lot of its cards are traditionally quite hungry on black mana, making playing lots of colours a little harder.
Blue is a tricksy colour, with bounce, card drawing and counterspells. While blue's creatures aren't necessarily big hitters, they can have some big effects on the game. If you use Æther Adept to bounce that Demon of Death's Gate after your opponent has paid life and creatures to cast it, you have every right to feel rather pleased with yourself. Blue's flying creatures are a good way to end games by making blocking difficult, and flying is definitely an ability that is worth valuing when making deck building decisions. Card drawing in general tends to just make decks better, as it means that it is that much easier to dig to the right card for the right situation. If you have one card in your deck that you really want to cast, blue will help you do it by helping you draw both it, and the lands to cast it. counterspells in blue decks are an interesting proposition. Mana Leak being back means that blue mages will be fearfully good at stopping spells if they want to. A counterspell or two is often a good shot in Sealed Deck, as many decks will have one big card that is hard to deal with if it ever hits play. Counterspells can really save your bacon in that regard.
White in M11 looks to be organised and ready to enter the fray in the combat step. It has many cheap creatures that can get involved in the red zone, but that also do relevant things in other ways for the game. War Priest of Thune is fine as a 2/2, but if he gets to off an enchantment too then he is really working for you. Like blue, white has a good contingent of flyers, like Assault Griffin, which makes it attractive as a colour. While it is lighter on the card drawing / counterspell elements, it still has a way to get ahead in games though, in the form of some nice combat tricks, such as the card I'm previewing today.
Combat tricks are instants that change the face of attacking and blocking, typically either by removing a creature, or by making creatures bigger or smaller, so that the way the combat step will end isn't necessarily as obvious. Inspired Charge can do a few different things at different stages of the game. Early on it might mean that you can keep your creatures alive when opponents try to kill them either with damage spells or in combat. As the game progresses, it might allow for a big attack that means opponents lose some good creatures without you losing yours, as their blocks turn sour in the face of larger creatures. In the late game it might just end things by making your whole team big enough that you can swarm around any blockers and deal enough damage with that extra power to end things. I am a big fan of combat tricks in Sealed Deck and Booster Draft, as they make decisions about blocking much harder, and allow for even little creatures to have their day.
If white thrives on small creatures and tricks, then green is looking to go large. This is the colour where the biggest creatures come from, and where pump spells might be sorcery speed, like Overwhelming Stampede—using sheer power and size instead of craftiness to win games. In the past, green has occasionally got a bad rap in core sets for being a little too simple with its 'big monsters' approach. In M11, its creatures are actually really clever in their own way. Some creatures feel like two cards in one because your opponent is probably going to need two cards to deal with them. Cards like Obstinate Baloth feel like a good creature with a good spell attached. Mitotic Slime is the 4/4 for five that never really goes away, while Fauna Shaman is the creature that fetches the best cards in your deck.
Finally we have red. A little bit chaotic, red is another colour that is big on killing creatures, but it does so with damage rather than any options that other colours might go for. This means that sometimes a deck with a lot of red in it might have to think hard about how it is going to deal with the bigger creatures a green deck can spit out, but its raw aggression and damage-dealing capabilities through cards like Chandra's Outrage and Inferno Titan make it attractive in general.
Once we look at all the colours, some combinations start to become attractive. Black and red form a pretty formidable team in killing off creatures, while red and white might well be able to be aggressive in the early game combat phase. Blue is a colour that is perennially popular with many players, and it is easy to see why—it has some of the most obvious ways to draw into your good cards, along with counterspells that can stop most things if played at the right time. Green is a solid partner with great creatures, but it is typically light on creature removal, meaning that a pairing like green-white is a little risky.
When you are building a deck at the Prerelease, stop and take a look at the colours and costs that you intend to use. One fundamental in Magic is that having the mana you need each turn is always going to be important. I would recommend trying to stick to a couple of colours at the Prerelease, perhaps including one or two cards of a third colour. Those good cards might be spread out, but if you spread your land base too thin, you can't cast anything, so use a little bit of discipline. Likewise a good mix of costs is important. One cost creatures often don't do a great deal in the long game, and sometimes the really expensive spells will rest stuck in your hand if you haven't drawn enough lands.
Once you've picked your colours, think about how the cards you have from them might interact. This can give you a good idea of how aggressive (or not) you can afford to be with the way you play, and may also change your decisions on taking a mulligan. If I know my deck has lots of great removal spells, I will likely be more inclined to use it early. If, on the other hand, I know that I am weak to flyers and only have a small amount of ways of killing them, I might hold back that one Lightning Bolt against the blue deck, as insurance.
Happily for us all, Prereleases are fun events, where there is plenty of room to screw up, learn from your screw up, and get better. Often more experienced players will help out newer players building their decks, which can be adjusted between games and matches. At the event I play at in London, there are deck doctors there to help (me!), and frequently you see experienced players even helping out in game decisions while playing with friends who are newer to the game in the big Two-Headed Giant event.
Whether you've been to every Prerelease since Ice Age, or are thinking about checking out your first, I wish you a great weekend. I'll be in London, slinging spells all day—if you're there come say hi and maybe we can play.
For more Magic 2011 information and a list of Prerelease Event locations click here or to check out all the Magic 2011 cards previewed so far click here!