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Spike Potpourri

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The letter A!fter three weeks focusing on Lorwyn previews, I wanted to try something different for Swimming with Sharks. We're going to jump around a couple of different topics... a little Lorwyn review, a little Magic Online, a little Nazi-fighting super soldier frozen in a block of ice for a couple of decades (then blown up by The Week That Was), a little strat, a little more. I hope you enjoy it!

First Up: 1518 Words on Elemental Incarnations

If I got tested again, I am guessing that I would come out as either Johnny-Spike or pure Spike because my strategic focus is pretty much exclusively dedicated Constructed tournament preparation, specifically rogue deck design. However, somewhere along the line, I traded in my Carnophages and Dauthi Horrors for gigantic creatures (who plans to hardcast Akroma, Angel of Wrath?) and never really looked back. Why try to win with a first turn Slith Firealker setting up a Shrapnel Blast when you can slow the game down with Culling Scales and tap for Arc-Slogger?

Just like you, I suspect that Gaddock Teeg will probably be the best card in Lorwyn for Standard Constructed. He's fast. He gives control players pause and makes everyone think a moment about what cards should make up their weapons of choice. That said, he's not the most exciting, at least not to me. I am looking forward to finding homes for the Elemental Incarnation cycle of Purity, Guile, Dread, Hostility, and Vigor. As the kind of person who plays a full set of Melokus, Keigas, and possibly Kodamas (despite the fact that they are legend rule-bound one and all) I am not the least bit frightened of a 3 ManaBlue ManaBlue ManaBlue Mana mana cost, not if I get a busily busty 6/6.

When you play cards like these, you have to approach the game with a certain mindset that might be different from the typically speedy Spike go-for-the-throat. The way that I look at five- and six-drops, in blue decks especially, is as a different kind of card advantage. Basically you want to trade for the first several turns—Rune Snag one-for-ones, a little bounce here twisted into a Time Walk or what have you—until you can tap out for your Keiga, the Tide StarGuile. This is your Tidings. In fact, it is your counter-Tidings. Back in Kamigawa Block, one of the best possible things that could happen was that a blue opponent would tap for a card like Azami, Lady of Scrolls that promised some long term advantage but didn't actually affect the board; you could fight over her with permission, but it didn't matter if she resolved. That she got played set up a mana situation where you could stick Kodama of the North Tree; it didn't matter how many cards the opponent drew. Protect your fatty and you won! Okay, back to Tidings. These cards are Tidings (more like Concentrate, actually) against fast decks because they represent three of the opponent's cards, interactively. You tap; he probably had tempo pre-fatty. Either he swings or he doesn't. He probably swings. Very likely you block and get to eat his best guy. Now he has to burn another card or even two cards to get rid of your fatty. The presumption is that if you can untap with such a creature in play you will be able to protect it and probably race, maybe even follow up with another five- or six-drop. After you've bled several cards, you play your backup fatty and he doesn't have enough gas to take care of that one. Light to medium permission holding off whatever he was going to do ensures the win thanks to your now two- or three-turn clock.

This is the philosophy we used to prepare both for the last couple of New York State Championships as well as Pro Tour Honolulu.

So anyway, the Elemental Incarnations:

Purity

We might as well start out with the best one (from a control perspective). What ends up happening when you play tap-out Magic with a fatty against a Boros deck (whatever the analogue... whatever you want to call it) is that he might be making a suicide run in the hopes of sneaking in some damage and potentially burning you out. Purity prevents ever losing to that kind of a strategy. In fact, this Elemental Incarnation may represent the rare case where you don't block. After all, you would just be making his burn cards good (they can point at your 6/6). Otherwise, burn cards don't work on you any more! In fact, you gain life if he foolishly points burn at the wrong planeswalker.

Purity is one of the best if not the best control Elemental Incarnations in play but getting into play is a challenge in that it is White. White lost a lot of control market share with Planar Chaos, due to Damnation, and now that Gaddock Teeg is a legitimate threat, I would guess that is only going to get worse. After all, white's Strafe can't kill Teeg, whereas Shriekmaw is one of the best creatures in the set.

Guile

Probably the actual best Elemental Incarnation for control just because it's actually blue, Guile would probably be pretty good if it were just plain old vanilla. The simplest way to evaluate this card is to look at its mana cost, power, and toughness. Guile is a 6/6 for six with only a minor drawback (more on that later) for six mana. Blue doesn't get creatures of this pure size often! The abilities are just gravy.

Almost all of the Elemental Incarnations are good with permission. They can generate card advantage utilizing permission the same way that the creatures themselves do. That is, the opponent has to invest in more than one spell in removing it... You can take the first one or two, and counter the proposed nail in the coffin, saving your creature and generating card advantage. Guile is particularly good here especially with Pact of Negation (Yes, I know I tapped out... Thanks for the removal card).

All in all, I would gladly tap out for this card.

Dread

I'm not sure what to do with this one; it might actually be better in control-on-control, specifically a board controlling Rock-ish deck against a "real" control deck. The only reason I say this is that a few years ago we were trying to figure out how to beat Morphlings and Palinchrons with Napster and Jon Becker suggested No Mercy ("At least they'll be dead"). I think that Purity and Guile are long on tap-out potential but as a tournament Spike I don't see Dread as a first stringer, not in the same set that gives us the more flexible Shriekmaw, despite the fact that Dread is definitely in Gleancrawler range as far as a Constructed black fatty.

Hostility

This creature compares pretty reasonably to celebrated phat fat fatty Rorix Bladewing. Everyone loves a Rorix and recognizes its ability to close out a game... Hostility is also a six power creature on 3 ManaRed ManaRed ManaRed Mana that can attack the turn it hits play. The difference is that Rorix has legendary status as its drawback, whereas Hostility can't be reanimated.

On that note, now is probably a reasonable time to talk about the recurring Elemental Incarnation drawback / advantage split-feature "When Hostility [or whoever] is put into a graveyard from anywhere, shuffle it into its owner's library." This bars these creatures from serious consideration in a cheater deck, viz. Reanimator. On balance, it is a nice feature for control decks (the family of decks with which we opened the section). The automatic library recursion feature of the Elemental Incarnations helps control deck designers to truncate their finisher slots... Even without devoting an additional 4-8 openings in a deck to kill cards, the Elemental Incarnations help protect their masters from losing exhaustion wars; for example, an opposing control deck will not be able to beat an Elemental Incarnation control deck simply by countering all of its endgame threats.

A 6/6 haste creature for six is a pretty good deal as far as these kinds of creatures go, but Hostility has another ability. Here's a little advice to those soon to embark on Standard tournament play: Don't let your opponent untap with this in play! Substandard burn like Shock suddenly transforms into 6 points of damage potential, at least. Forget about big burn spells or even efficient cheap plays like Incinerate. I can't recall a more creative look at direct damage, well, ever from the R&D design perspective... nor one as deadly, provided you untap with Hostility online. This card will be the source of dramatic turns and bad beat stories for the next two years.

Vigor

Vigor, to me, seems like the least interesting of the Elemental Incarnations for Constructed tournament play. All of the others seem like cards that you can use to flip the momentum on a fast Kithkin draw provided you haven't already lost; powerful abilities abound. Vigor, though, requires you to have additional creatures in order to do anything interesting. Certainly you will win more fights, but for the most part, decks capable of paying Green ManaGreen ManaGreen Mana with creatures in play boast creatures that are fairly damage resistant, just because they are green. There is no denying that Vigor's ability can be impressive in the right spots... But my guess at present is that the games Vigor will actually be dominating will be largely Limited. Perhaps this card will find a home in mid-range sideboards as a weapon to win creature-on-creature attrition wars.

A Little Online Extended

As you probably know, last week marked the end of Frank Karsten's popular Wednesday column Online Tech. Rather than trying to replace the Fanatic's inimitable work (and there's a reason Frank picked up that nickname two years in a row) the powers that be have asked Swimming with Sharks to take on some of Frank's tournament Spike MTGO analysis.

Well, here goes:

Deck name Popularity Percentage Change Since Last Time
CounterTopGoyf ■■■■■ ■■■■■ ■■■■■ ■■■■ (19%) +2%
Goblins ■■■■■ ■■■■■ ■■■■ (14%) +8%
Gifts Rock ■■■■■ ■■■■■ ■■ (12%) +11%
Enduring deal ■■■■■ ■■■■■ ■ (11%) +5%
Aggro Rock ■■■■■ ■■■■■ (10%) NEW
TEPS ■■■■■ ■■ (7%) -3%
Dredge ■■■■■ ■ (6%) -3%
RDW / Tarmogoyf ■■■■■ ■ (6%) -3%
Boros / Tarmogoyf ■■■■■ (5%) +1%
Miracle Grow ■■■■ (4%) +2%
Assault / Loam ■■ (2%) -8%
Aggro Flow ■■ (2%) -1%
Gaea's Might Get There ■■ (2%) NEW

Special thanks to Josh Clark, Frank's former Adept (now tasked to Swimming with Sharks) for helping to get me up to speed.

This is my first stab at Frank's methodology, here applied to online Extended.

Frank did things differently with his "popularity percentages" than I have been doing for the past couple of years with my PTQ Top 8 blue-or-white boxes; he attributed different popularity levels to different decks based on how highly they finished in the MTGO Premiere Event Top 8s, with "rewarding" a deck that actually won a PE with more than twice the popularity of one that, say, only finished Top 8.

I picked Extended to look at because it is the upcoming Pro Tour format, essentially the same format as the one being played on MTGO on a daily basis (the main difference being that it is very hard to get your hands on a digital Orim's Chant). What do we see?

CounterTopTog has been renamed CounterTopGoyf, Psychatog being largely replaced by the now ubiquitous Tarmogoyf, and is actually more popular than ever. This deck, in first place by popularity last week, is now in even firster place.

Goblins, a big mover in Frank's last column, has jumped to almost the top of the metagame. While a less nakedly powerful theme deck than Affinity or Dredge, Goblins is interesting in that its accepted foil (Engineered Plague) is simply less popular than Ancient Grudge, Kataki, War's Wage, and Leyline of the Void—and the card that really kills it dead (Tsabo's Decree) has not been seen since Kenji Tsumura's Top 8 during Antoine Ruel's Pro Tour–LA. Moreover, it usually takes two copies of Engineered Plague to completely shut down the Goblins, whereas Dredge can't win with a single Leyline of the Void in play, and a lone Kataki, War's Wage has even the most seasoned tournament players praying for a Blinkmoth Nexus. With Mogg Fanatics and Goblin Sledders to poke at and irk Bridge from Below without actually devoting room to Dredge demolition, Goblins seems to have a deceptive amount going for it... Could the little Red men be the Cinderella story of Pro Tour–Valencia?

Arguably the biggest positive motion (unless you count spontaneous generation of new positions, like Aggro Rock or Gaea's Might Get There) comes from Gifts Rock, onetime second-most-popular deck in the Extended metagame, once again jockeying for a top spot. I don't know how great this deck is in practice... But Gifts Rock is just stacked bottom-to-top with literally everyone's favorite cards (well, mine anyway)... Genesis, Gifts Ungiven, Pernicious Deed, Loxodon Hierarch, and Ravenous Baloth? Possibly the most refreshing part of cracking open a cool one, hanging back, and soaking in a little PE-as-a-spectator sport was seeing Meloku the Clouded Mirror on both sides of a key Top 8 match. Reigning U.S. National Champion Luis Scott-Vargas went a long way in improving this deck's position with a PE win last week.

Fairly interesting from my perspective was the modest popularity of Dredge in recent PE Top 8s. According to hushed rumors in the back alleys of the projected big show metagame, this deck threatens to be the bogeyman of Pro Tour–Valencia with its turn two and turn three kills... But it hasn't really been showing big numbers on MTGO. Are potential Dredge players just too scared of a long line of Leylines? Is theat fear warranted? Will it instead just cover Day Two in a blanket of Zombie tokens? These questions and more will be answered soon.

The Pro Tour is less than two weeks off! I can't wait to see what new decks show up to define, shape, and ruin (bwahahahaha) the PTQ season-to-be.

Super Duper Pro Tour Historian

Captain America: Red, White & BlueWednesday is comics day in the United States; that's the day that comics specialty stores—the kinds of stores where I (and I would guess many of you) first saw Magic cards—get their weekly shipments of funny books. Last Wednesday I was in the store and was prompted to call my good friend Brian David-Marshall. I did so very loudly, in such a way that my fellow fan boys could not help but notice.

YT: Have you got any royalty checks from Marvel recently?

BDM: What are you talking about?

YT: Your Captain America story "Relics" just got reprinted! I am holding the trade paperback collection right now!

BDM: No way! That is a great story! Who edited it? Who else is in the collection?

YT: Alex Ross, Paul Dini, Bruce Timm, Mark Waid, Frank Quitely, Evan...

BDM: Wow.

YT: Yeah, you're in great company... But it's always weird when Dini and Timm are both in an anthology, but not together * [Dini is with Ross if I recall... I'm guessing their story is awesome].

BDM: Yeah, it's like they both went to the prom, but not with each other. Awkward.

YT: I am totally plugging this in my next column!

I said I would, and I'm a man of my word. If you want to see what Brian is writing when he's not writing The Week That Was here on magicthegathering.com, check out Captain America: Red, White & Blue.

Bonus Strategy Section

Last week I inserted a tactical appendix at the end of my preview article on the almighty Shriekmaw. People seemed to like this and asked that I do something similar every week. I don't know if I will be able to fulfill that request forever, but for this week at least, here you go (strategy this time rather than tactics and mindset):

This is just something that I was doing more when I was winning a lot last summer and leading into last year's Champs, almost a full year ago... And something that I haven't really been doing well since. It takes a fair amount of concentration, but I think that it will help you win more long games.

Anyone can win when they get "the draw" and run over their opponents, especially the ones who are stuck on lands or otherwise stumble. It takes a little more skill to take advantage of an opponent who has overextended or walked into your trick. What is difficult is winning games that stall out, where neither you nor your opponent have hit the ground exactly the way you've wanted to... These duels often become huge messes where neither player knows what he should be doing; consequently, when you are one of these bunglers, you will find yourself giving up games you should probably be winning.

How to solve?

Even when you don't know exactly what to do, pick a direction. A very bright philosopher / geometry major (and I mean major) once said that when you're stuck in the woods, it's better to pick a direction and start walking even when you don't know which way you're going than it is to stand around complaining about being lost... At least you're not stuck in the middle of the woods any more **. In Magic, I think of this as envisioning what the board should look like a turn or two before I win. While you aren't going to have every detail down to the last token encompassed in your imaginings, you should know how you're going to win, what the opponent doesn't have online in your utopian scenario, and for burn and combo decks, how many lands you have in play and how many cards you need to get to 20.

Once you have that figured out, all you have to do is work towards that imaginary board state. Easy!

Use your removal to get rid of the barriers to your path to victory. Be careful of falling into traps or losing sight of how you plan to win (often this will require giving up clear opportunities for tempo or card advantage). Get your machinery in play, and protect it as best you can. You don't have to be blue!

For instance last summer when we were working on KarstenBot BabyKiller, the most common Standard scenario was a stalled board against Solar Flare where both players had permanents and cards in hand. From the KBBK standpoint, this game was going to end via hellbent Demonfire. That was the plan. It was usually a bit off, but that was the plan; you had to draw into Demonfire (or you could leave it on top), you had to have no hand, and you had to have enough lands to win. However if you let the Solar Flare deck do what it wanted to do, you could find yourself raced by Angels, legendary Dragon Spirits, Illusion tokens, what have you. You couldn't let them draw cards willy nilly. You had to distract them, get them to tap their relatively tight mana on something else and confuse the issue by presenting credible if nonessential threats. Their deck was in the abstract more powerful than KBBK, so you couldn't let them sculpt the board to their tailored end game.

The best way to control the shape of the future board state was to make the game about your x/3s, specifically Ohran Viper and Stalking Yeti. Stalking Yeti would kill every Court Hussar and get in for 3 at a time. Ohran Viper was just scary. They didn't want to leave him unchecked. He was reasonably fast and got money whether or not he was blocked. You made the game about the Viper in the other guy's mind when in fact the Viper was just a convenient distraction that you used to accumulate sufficient mana to go hellbent.

Combo decks forcing their kills on entrenched control boards works the same way. What combo deck, failing to win on the fourth turn, imagines an end game where the blue mage out-lands him three-to-one? These decks have to attack the control player as best they can with nonessentials, and tie up its mana to prevent card drawing so that they don't slip too far behind on mana, in the hopes of having overwhelming mana later in the game. A classic ruse was Natural Balance in Cadaverous Bloom decks. "Natural Balance?" one player would ask, no Squandered Resources in play. The control player would be on the spot immediately. What is going on here? Is this a trick? What advantage is he getting? Oh, about three Thermokarsts.

When in doubt, bluff, stall, and give the opponent the opportunity to screw up. Much of the time you will have an idea of how you have to win, but your deck won't cooperate. The cards won't be there. I sometimes find myself playing out lands that should be good bluff material, signaling that whatever end game the opponent has will be good; this is tantamount to concession. Sometimes concession is right! Sometimes you want to save time or just headaches. More often you actually have to win. If you are playing your last cards in frustration, you are just telling the opponent that he's won. Granted, if you aren't drawing the cards you need, you are probably going to lose anyway. However, by keeping a cool head, not playing out worthless cards, and holding back resources to bluff, you can at least give your opponent pause and opportunities to make mistakes, or buy time to draw the cards you do need. Ultimately, this works best if you know what cards you need to win and can visualize exactly how you want the end game to appear, a clear goal to approach.


* Paul Dini and Bruce Timm were the, um, daddy and daddy of the groundbreaking Batman: the Animated Series and collaborated on the Eisner Award-winning graphic novel Batman: Mad Love.

** More or less.

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