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The fine line between winning and winning more.

What about Thousand-Year Elixir?

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The letter W!hat about Thousand-Year Elixir?" my emails read.

When I previewed Stonehewer Giant—certainly a potent card—a lot of folks contacted me to let me know I'd obviously missed Thousand-Year Elixir. But I hadn't missed it! I'd thought about using it with Stonehewer Giant, and dismissed it... So I'd like to talk about the reasons why Stonehewer Giant and Thousand-Year Elixir aren't as easy a fit as you might think, because doing so allows me to talk about two problems that casual deck designers frequently overlook.

At first glance, Thousand-Year Elixir sounds like a great card in a deck meant to abuse Stonehewer Giant. After all, it allows the Giant to use its ability right away (if you have seven mana open), and it allows double usage of that Equipment-tutoring ability in the same round. That's certainly not something you want to scoff at.

But there are two problems that come up right in the mix. And both of them involve thinking about what Thousand-Year Elixir and Stonehewer Giant want to do.

The secret to casual deckbuilding is that every card wants to do something, but no card can work on its own. You need other cards to back it up. (Well, except for Relentless Rats, but we won't talk about that.) Hence, what's important about a card is not the card itself, but the deck it fits in.

Every card has a deck that's an ideal fit for it. Oh, you can throw a card like Boggart Sprite-Chaser in a deck with no Faeries, but obviously the Sprite-Chasers want to be in a deck surrounded by Faeries. Likewise, every deck has some sort of deck that's a paradise for it, a place where every card works well with it to maximize what it can do.

In the case of Thousand-Year Elixir, it's easy to see what kind of deck it wants to be in: TYE wants a deck stuffed with creatures that tap for insane abilities. Ideally, every creature in the deck would do something incredibly nasty if you tapped it once and totally insane if you tapped it twice, allowing you to rule the world with doubled effects.

And for that, Stonehewer Giant isn't the greatest card, because it costs mana to use.

Oh, activating the Giant twice courtesy of an Elixir is certainly nice. But when you have to spend four mana a turn, you'll often have to choose between playing additional creatures to abuse with the Elixir and utilizing the Stonehewer... and that's assuming your Stonehewer lives! You'll be bogging yourself down by spending all that mana.

The deck the Elixir wants most is a deck with creature cards containing mana-free tap effects—certainly cards like Kamahl, Pit Fighter or Immaculate Magistrate come to mind as a casual way of creating havoc. Even reducing the cost of the effect by one, as in Imperious Prefect, makes it a lot more doable, since the difference between reserving two mana a turn and four mana a turn is significant, even in multiplayer.

"But Ferrett," you say. "Four mana is a small price to pay to pull all of that Equipment from your deck! Magic's a game of tradeoffs, and the effect you squeeze out of that Giant makes all of your creatures that much stronger!"

Again, the question of "What deck does this card thrive in?" comes to mind. And here, the difference between "what kind of deck Thousand-Year Elixir wants to live in" and "what kind of deck Stonehewer Giant wants to live in" comes to the fore.

See, Stonehewer Giant wants a deck with good Equipment that it can put onto the backs of creatures. In turn, Equipment is at its finest when it's on a dude sailing right into the attack phase. There are occasional "detach this Equipment" cards like Heartseeker and Blinding Powder, but most Equipment is designed to allow you to triumph in combat.

What good will all of those Equipment cards do—cards that are generally best placed on folks who want to fly into the Red Zone—when they're placed on hombres you want to hold back so you can tap them twice for an ability?

I'm not saying they can't work together, of course. This is Magic! You can do anything! But Thousand-Year Elixir wants cards with great tap abilities to recycle, and Stonehewer Giant wants sturdy men to throw themselves into the breach. You generally don't get a great attacker and a great guy-with-a-tap-ability on the same card... And you only can stuff so many creatures into a deck before you bump up against the sixty-card minimum (and, preferably, maximum).

A Stonehewer Giant deck desires either Giants to abuse the tribal theme, or creatures that get better when you put Equipment on them (calling the kitties from Mirrodin block!). Thousand-Year Elixir wants Goblin Sharpshooters and Royal Assassins. And that leads to our first lesson:

 The First Lesson  
Trying to serve two masters by using two cards that want different decks will generally result in a weaker deck overall, unless you specifically prepare for it.

Now, that's not necessarily a deal-breaker here. After all, when the first two Equipment cards you fetch are Shield of Kaldra and Tatsumasa, the Dragon's Fang, you can turn even a lowly 0/1 Sheep token into a formidable warrior. Plus, if you looked hard enough, you could probably find a bunch of reasonably costed combat men with solid tap abilities that require neither mana nor cards to activate.

But then we have to start looking at the other problem in a deck utilizing both Stonehewer Giant and Thousand-Year Elixir, and that's the question of space.

To abuse Stonehewer Giant, you need two things: a lot of good Equipment, and a lot of good creatures. So let's take this skeleton of a very bad example deck that tries to abuse Stonehewer Giant:

26 Plains
4 Thousand-Year Elixir
4 Stonehewer Giant

We're running twenty-six Plains because, well, our Giant is pretty darned important and he's five mana. We want to ensure that we'll always have the land to play him, and his buddies, as early as possible without getting mana-shorted. (In a real non-example deck, I'd probably split the difference and go to twenty-five, thinking about going red and adding Stinkdrinker Daredevil to reduce the cost, or put in Ravnica's bouncelands and Signets.... but the example math is easier here at twenty-six lands.)

The problem is that those four slots for Thousand-Year Elixir don't come cheap. Already before we start, we're up to thirty-four cards... And our Stonehewer Giant doesn't have any Equipment to (ab)use! Let us assume, at a minimum, that we want to devote eight slots to Equipment, chosen randomly:

4 Loxodon Warhammer
4 Various one-of Equipment cards (including at least one Shield of Kaldra to protect your Giant)

The problem is that eight Equipment cards aren't exactly a "lot" of Equipment cards. (Red Deck Wins routinely runs between twelve and fifteen burn cards, which I think is edging much closer to "a lot.") If we really want to abuse the power of Equipment, then we're already handicapping ourselves. If we manage to get the Elixir / Stonehewer combination off three or four times, we'll have fetched out nearly every Equipment card we own.

So let's go nuts with twelve Equipment cards. A lot of heavy axes for Stonehewer to hand out! A toolbox that can get any kind of Equipment upon command!

But look at the deck skeleton now. Can you see the issue?

26 Plains
4 Thousand-Year Elixir
4 Stonehewer Giant
4 Loxodon Warhammer
8 Totally awesome one-of Equipment cards

Yep, check that total. We're up to forty-six cards already. That leaves us with just fourteen slots for additional creatures. Running eighteen guys total isn't a problem in many decks—but in a deck that is designed to deliver "guys holding heavy stuff," running only eighteen guys is fairly risky. (Especially since, as the engine for our quasi-combo, we can assume that Stonehewer Giant will be the target of a lot of hatred—having a deck that collapses once he's gone is a very bad idea. Ideally, we'd have a deck that is insane with an active Stonehewer and still dangerous without.)

With so few dudes, you've radically upped your chance of getting the "all Equipment, no guys to put them on" hand. And even if you get a creature, with so few creatures it'll be difficult to lay down several guys at once – which is really when Stonehewer Giant shines. You want your opponents to be confused and wary about what you're going to put down on who, don't you? Giving them a single target makes it easier for them.

All right. As I said, that was a bad example deck. Let's say we reduce this to a more reasonable deck idea:

25 Plains
4 Thousand-Year Elixir
4 Stonehewer Giant
4 Loxodon Warhammer
6 Totally awesome one-of Equipment cards

The problem still persists. You really want a lot of men to plop large and ugly Equipment down onto. And even with this shaved-down deck, you'll have a maximum cap of twenty-one guys (including the much-targeted Stonehewer) to deal with.

There's a tight fit, too. You don't have any ability to clear the board with a Wrath—you've left no room in the deck! You have no enchantment removal. You have no targeted removal spells (unless you choose a clever Equipment card like Heartseeker that doubles as removal). You have no cards left for recursion, so once your Stonehewers and Loxies tumble into the graveyard you will never see them again.

Your deck is now entirely focused on playing its own game, without interacting with your opponent. That's not a bad thing for a pure combo deck... but for a deck that has to win through combat, that's a significant weakness.

That Thousand-Year Elixir is taking up a surprising number of slots. So let's look at the ideal situation for Thousand-Year Elixir:

Thousand-Year Elixir is the perfect card when:

Those are some pretty powerful turns, baby! Nothin' wrong with those.... Well, actually, there kinda is.

Because a lot of them aren't necessarily improved all that much by the Elixir.

Overload The first example is kind of lame. Frankly, if your opponents haven't killed a turn-five Stonehewer Giant before it goes active with a Thousand-Year Elixir in play, you've already either lucked out (because none of them had anything in hand) or your opponents really don't care (since they have something that will shield them in combat) or they're really, really ignorant as to what a double Stonehewer activation will do.

In that case, that doesn't have so much to do with the Elixir as it does to do with your luck. They didn't have the removal, or they were really silly to underestimate the power. All of that would have happened with or without the Elixir (I can't imagine someone so dim as to miss the implications of twice-a-turn Equipment fetching being sufficiently alerted by a once-a-turn Equipment fetching), so that's not particularly a sign of the Elixir's magnificent power.

But what about the second example—the one where you use and activate Stonehewer in the same turn? Well, that's all cool, but why wouldn't you want something like Lightning Greaves or the new Obsidian Battle-Axe, which you can also tutor up with Stonehewer if he's active, or use on other creatures to good effect?

Thousand-Year Elixir doesn't bring all that much to the table in either of those examples. In the first he's a powerful combo that only worked because your opponents either couldn't do anything or didn't care, and in the second he's serving a redundant function that other Equipment cards could do. And in a deck that relies on Equipment, that's not a good thing.

The third example? That's straight-up potent, no question. The times you'll be able to whip out a TYE-and-Stonehewer combo on an unsuspecting table are awesome. That's a powerful turn.

One nagging question, though: Where are you getting these other creatures on that turn nine to put Equipment onto? Your deck contains only 33% creatures. Realistically speaking, you'll be lucky to have two or three guys out by then, since chances are good someone else will have either popped them or attacked you so heavily you'd be forced into ugly blocks. You are not a creature-light deck, to be sure, but you sure aren't creature-heavy. And when you have a deck that relies on creatures carrying Equipment....

Chances aren't good that this situation will occur a lot. It will happen from time to time, natch... But that's Magic for you. Almost every situation will occur.

Ah, but the fourth! The fourth situation—when you have an active Stonehewer Giant out! You can now use it twice! Isn't that powerful?

Sure is. I won't argue that point. But let's ask another, more relevant question: How many times are you going to win by activating the Stonehewer Giant twice when you wouldn't have won by activating him just once?

That's the real question. If you have a Stonehewer Giant out and he's live, chances are pretty good you already have a significant advantage over your opponents. Using him twice will almost certainly be better than once, but that single activation is plenty powerful. Most of the time—let's say 60% of the time—a judicious usage of a single 1 ManaWhite Mana and Tap will get you what you need to make your armies powerful enough, assuming you get the right Equipment at the right time.

A significant percentage of the time, using the Giant twice a turn will be overkill, possibly even verging into "overcommitting"... and to get that sometimes-advantage, you burn up four slots in your deck to cram the Elixir in, taking slots away from cards that could be used for bigger men and/or more reactive cards.

Honestly? Thousand-Year Elixir turns some turns into devastating routs. But those were turns you were generally ahead anyway. In other words, it helps you win quicker once you're in the lead, but it does almost nothing when you're behind or setting up that win. And that brings us to lesson #2:

 The Second Lesson  
You rarely want a "win more" card in your deck.

That's the trap of a "win more" card. It looks so good. You envision those times when it'll pound nails into their coffin. But the problem is that "win more" cards will only cement a lead you currently have. They amplify already powerful cards and/or combos, but they do practically zilch by themselves.

Furthermore, "win more" cards can actually weaken your deck. By taking up a slot that could have been used to help you get into the lead—like, say, Equipment or creatures in our Stonehewer example above—you actually reduce the number of times you get to that amazing win victory point.

Whenever you think, "Wow, Card A will push Card B's power into the stratosphere!", ask yourself what happens if you never draw Card B. What happens when you're just sitting there with Card A out, waiting like a man for a late bus, hoping that Card B arrives?

Every card in your deck should pull its own weight. A little dependency is fine—obviously, Equipment doesn't do anything without a dude to rest upon. But you can minimize the times it's dead weight by stuffing twenty-four creatures into your deck, making it pretty likely that you'll draw something that combines well with your Equipment in the near future.

(Heck, having ten slots devoted to Equipment [as we do in the skeleton deck above] is, frankly, a risky proposition—but you want to be able to pull out the perfect weapon on command with Stonehewer Giant, so we'll take a little gamble. In the real world, I'd probably lower it and go with seven to nine Equipment cards, each a singleton for maximum toolboxage.)

If your card only does something when it's combined with four to eight cards stranded somewhere in your deck, then maybe you wanna think again.

Survival_of_the_Fittest Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that Thousand-Year Elixir's a bad card in itself. And there may even be a good "Giants with activated abilities" deck out there that genuinely has a usage for it. Heck, maybe with the right set of tappy guys, there's a lurking Elixir-and-Hewer deck that would smash my table flat.

What I am saying that it's not an automatic fit. You have the issues of space, and you have two cards that want to do separate things.

And that brings me to the closer: When thinking about whether you should add a card to a deck, you should think carefully about how that card interacts with all the other cards. On the surface, two cards may look like they'll go great together, but scratch a little and you'll see that sometimes, they're very much at cross-odds.

Utilizing two cards at cross-odds isn't an impossible task, natch; it just requires a little more tweaking to pull off properly. Be aware of that, and build your decks accordingly.

Addendum Completely Unrelated to the Matter at Hand

One of my best Christmas gifts this year was a video camera, with which I can now create my own YouTube videos. And one of my year-end goals is to create a Serious Fun video or two for all of y'all to enjoy.

The question is, what would you like to see from a video? I could just film a couple of our games, but there are a few problems with that—the least of which is that keeping track of five people with one camera probably wouldn't work out so well. So I've got some concepts floating around, but it would really help me if you—yes, you—would either email me or sound off in the forums as to what you think would make for an awesome Magic video about multiplayer strategy and/or concepts and/or fun.

Let me know, guys! I am your willing slave.

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