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From the Heart

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The letter T!his week's preview card might make you scratch your head a little. It's not that it's a wacky card—unlike the future-shifted craziness of Seht's Tiger or Spellweaver Volute, today's card has no new mechanics. In fact, it could have been printed in almost any set since Alpha.

But it does have a drawback.

Yessiree, what I'll be showing you shortly is a pure Johnny card—the kind of card with some strange effect that seems like a detriment at first. But Johnny? His whole job is to love the unloved. Johnny looks at some card that everyone else in the world is dismissing as jank, and Johnny starts to thinking:

"What other cards can I pair with this card to make its drawback work for me?"

'Cause that's what Johnny does.

See, brave Johnny looks at a one-star crap rare like Donate, which everyone else in the world has written off, and he thinks, "Well, what could I do with Donate?" And Johnny starts ta proddin' that ol' brainpain a'his, and sure enough soon he's riffing—he's thinking, "Wow, Illusions of Grandeur—another lousy card that everyone hates—gives me 20 life when it comes into play, and takes away 20 life when it leaves! What if I Donated it to my opponent, who would die when he couldn't pay the upkeep cost?"

Sure enough, shortly Johnny's stumbled upon Necropotence as a way to draw a ton of cards (and mind you, Necro was a much-maligned card back in the day), and he's fused it into a mean, lean killing machine that dominates the tournaments and takes not one but several bannings before Wizards finally beats it to death with a stick.

(Okay, in this case, Johnny was a she—that'd be Michelle Bush who designed that deck, which was called Trix and everyone hated it—but you get the picture.)

There is, sadly, one big drawback to this whole Johnny bit:

I'm not Johnny.

In fact, when I first looked at today's preview card, I went "Whuh? Why did they assign this one to me? Don't they know that crazy deckbuilding around strange limitations isn't my forte? Call Chris Millar or Jay Moldenhauer-Salazar or Ben Bleiweiss—they're the guys with a plan for nutty decks!"

Chris Millar
Jay Moldenhauer-Salazar
Ben Bleiweiss
The Ferrett

Truth is, my decks are average. I do win my share of multiplayer games—in fact, Tuesday night, against five men, I won two games out of four. My pal Ian actually said, and I quote, that "Ferrett's never the first man out," which was a kind (if completely untrue) compliment.

Yet on the occasions when I win, it's not because I'm a phenomenal deckbuilder. I win because I have some grasp of the fundamental multiplayer principles, and because I read a table passably well. My actual decks themselves tend to be mediocre, and even at my own kitchen table my friends Ian and Josh routinely outbuild me with casual creations. Their good decks stomp mine like a narc gets stomped at a Hell's Angel rally.

I'm multiplayer guy. Not Crazy Deckbuilder Guy. So I actually emailed Scott Johns and Kelly Digges, my editors, and asked them meekly:

"Are you sure this card was meant for me?"

Their reply floated back over the aether of the Intarweb pipes:

There are a legion of uses for this card in your format.

Look closer.

So I did. And now you can, too.

Click.

At first, I wondered what was going on here. Obviously, it's a card designed for multiplayer—whenever a card says "A player" and has a triggered effect, it's a safe bet that Wizards is trying to cater to the multiplayer crowd.

But the drawback. Wow.

I thought, perhaps, that Scott and company might be punishing me for my hubris. After all, Heartwood Storyteller is a modified Howling Mine on a stick—and I had just written a whole article about why Howling Mine wasn't good. But you know, they only give me the cards they're excited about, and they apparently thought this had some function to serve in group games.... So this must be my test. My Johnny test.

What is this card good for?

I took a whole week to think about it.

Cliffs Notes for "The Howling Mine Effect":

Howling Mine is not a good card in multiplayer, because there are two decks that Howling Mine gets put into. The first is a deck that needs the extra card-drawing to be any good, which means that your opponents will draw better cards because they don't have 4x Howling Mine to clog their hands (and they'll draw them first). The second is a deck that utilizes it as a combo piece, at which point your opponents will dogpile on you the moment you seem like a threat. Neither one is spectacular.
The first avenue I took was the obvious decking implication. After all, you're getting your opponents to draw tons of cards, and if you can come up with a deck that goes into some crazy infinite loop you can cause everyone to draw their whole deck in one shot. (You're safe, because you're not "an opponent" of yourself, no matter how poorly you play.)

I tried a few stabs at it, but it seemed fragile. Combos that rely on a creature staying in play are dangerous in a world with Lightning Bolts and Cackling Flames. Sure, you can go off in response to the spell, destroying everyone before that Flames resolves, but that uses up a lot of mana that you may not have available at the time.

Besides, if you have infinite mana, why not just go for the old tried-and-true opponent-destroyers like storm (Brain Freeze would work, and Dragonstorm never hurts if you can get your guys hasted) or Windfall or just direct damage to everyone?

It's difficult enough to fight through a combo in multiplayer. Harder still when you're packing your opponents' hands with power, and someone's likely to have the disruption to stop you. Not good. Even worse for this plan, the card draw from Heartwood Storyteller is "may", so most approaches along this line are going to run into trouble once opponents just stop agreeing to draw more cards.

I thought of ways to bolster it. Seedborn Muse and Dreamborn Muse had always been touted as a way of decking everyone in multiplayer when they were first printed... But sadly, it had never panned out because the whole "creature" aspect left it vulnerable to creature destruction, and the combo was so obvious that everyone saw it coming. Would Heartwood Storyteller add to that?

A couple of skeletal builds later, and I saw that it wouldn't. A shame.

I went to the other approach; was there a way of hurting them for drawing cards? Again, the obvious cards popped out: get out Underworld Dreams to bring the pain, and then get out the obvious implements of fiendish torture.

(Wait a minute – a statue of an owl is an implement of fiendish torture? How bad is that sculpture, anyway? Is it the marble equivalent of Vogon Poetry? And yet I digress.)

But alas, the ol' Vise strategy has what I call the "obvious strategy, weak defense" problem – the "I kill you for having many cards in your hand" strategy means that you have to have a lot of artifacts and cards that put up a Post-It Note on your forehead: "BY THE WAY, I AM GOING TO KILL YOU WITH THESE ARTIFACTS." And it's a weak defense because you to make this work you have to fill your deck with so many artifacts and enchantments that there's little left to prevent everyone else from smashing your face.

In other words, you announce to the table how you're going to win, and then don't have enough D to stop them from killing you if they decide they don't want to die that way. You usually alarm everyone, and then they squash you like a cockroach at an exterminator's convention. And again, even if things start working, your opponents can just choose to stop drawing more cards off the storyteller.

Heartwood Storyteller provides some defense, but as a 2/3 body it's not going to absorb any of the heavy hitters that get cast after turn five. Plus, it can't block fliers. It helps a little, but the torture deck's always needed more than "a little" help.

I thought of a ton of other cards, and none of them seemed to work. How could I snap Heartwood Storyteller in two?

I read the email again:

There are a legion of uses for this card in your format.

A legion. Legions. Was that a hint? Oh, yes it was.

Legions logo Legions, the all-creature set. Every spell was a dude. That was the hook. And what had I been complaining about relentlessly in this column ever since I got the gig?

"In three- to four-player games, the chances that someone is going to cast a spell that clears the board (like Wrath of God or Mutilate) at any time is—well, it's not slim, but it's something you can work around. It's a little more dangerous than a duel, but you can still win with a swarm of creatures alone. Goblins and Elves can take the day in a heartbeat!

"But when five players show up—assuming they know what they're doing, and your group doesn't ban global removal outright—then you're going to run into some landscape-rearranging spell every four or five turns on average.

"Each additional player that joins the game makes it that much harder to win with a straight creature rush. Creatures are really effective ways of winning, but only when they stay on the board long enough to pound someone's face. If you can only get two or three attacks with them before they shuffle off this mortal coil, well... Not so much."

Finally. Finally, I saw what they were trying to fix with this card. And I commend them for doing it.

The problem with large group games is that creature decks run out of gas toot sweet. I've seen Goblins decks that came out with a furious opener, doing twenty or thirty damage and effectively removing two creatures from the game... And then, left with one card in hand, they just flopped over and died.

They had no way of refilling. They had a furious rush, but then it was over.

Likewise, a column that I haven't written yet (but was planning to) was on the absolute facesmashery of Mono-Black Control decks in multiplayer. When one of them sits down at our table, it usually wins... Because it's hard to keep up your power against a steady stream of Mutilates and Barter in Bloods and Diabolic Edicts and oh, Drain Life to the head for fifteen so one opponent is dead and the others now have to do fifteen more damage.

The problem is that I have some happy Sliver decks that should be a force against these guys, but I run out of steam. I can reload once, twice, maybe three times in the face of massive critter-kill... But then I'm down to one card in hand and doing nothing while they bide their time.

Heartwood Storyteller is an attempt at a patch. It's Wizards' way of saying, "By the way, we're trying to help you guys with your big creature rushes." It's saying, "If Blue-White Control guy is going to survive with instants and sorceries and enchantments, this little baby will help you re-swarm him."

"The low-creature decks? The ones that try to kill everything, and then plop down a colossal win condition? They'll be handing you cards right and left... And they'll be giving cards to the other creature-based decks that want to team up with you to stomp this annoying control deck out of existence.

"Oh, sure, your opponents will also be drawing cards... But not nearly as many as you are, because you'll be pure. Creature pure. Meanwhile, your opponents with the spot removal will be caught between saving it for the big threats or picking off a measly 2/3 that just happens to be handing everyone cards and more dudes."

Now I see, my friends. The future is all too clear. I don't know how well this will work, but it's at least an attempt by R&D to make creature rushes a little more viable with several opponents out.

My vision is clear. My eyes are opened. Now I, too, have the Future Sight. And it looks good for my format.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have a Mono-Green Stompy deck that I want to try this out in. See how ya like me now, control decks!

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