here's no time like Prerelease time. Whether you've been following previews religiously or just headed out to see the new set cold, there's nothing else quite like seeing the new cards up close and personal for the first time. Of course, you can get that moment whenever you first open the set; the neat thing about the Prerelease is that you get to do that with other people who are in the same boat.
Unlike some magicthegathering.com authors (such as Limited Information author Steve Sadin, who's also covering the Prerelease today), I'm a Wizards of the Coast employee. As I mentioned last time, this means that I can't actually compete in the Prerelease. Big frowns.
But there's a silver lining—or two of them. You see, all employees get to play in the employee Prerelease a few days before the outside Prerelease. And members of R&D—including the web team, of which I'm part—are encouraged to play in the Champion Challenge at the Prerelease (colloquially known as gunslinging), taking on all comers and handing out packs to those who vanquish us.
Before I slung spells at the big Seattle Prerelease, I got to crack open my first Shards / Conflux Sealed pool at the employee Prerelease a few days earlier.
I actually managed to build two decks out of my pool, with only eight or nine cards shared between them. The first one I looked at was an aggressive, Bant-flavored deck with Empyrial Archangel and Angel's Herald for the finish, but the one I ended up playing was a Jund-based five-color deck. I liked Fusion Elemental, but more than anything it was the domain rewards, such as Wandering Goblins and Manaforce Mace, that pulled me in that direction. And hey, I had a lot of basic landcycling (2 Sylvan Bounty and 1 Absorb Vis), which made playing five-color really easy. And that was without Exploding Borders, Armillary Sphere, or Shard Convergence, my three favorite domain-enablers in the set.
Alas, neither of my decks proved all that exciting, and most of the great moments I witnessed happened either near me or to me.
For instance: Magic Rules Manager Mark Gottlieb assembled five perfect colors of mana to slam down a beefy 8/8 Fusion Elemental ... followed by a foil Fusion Elemental.
He topped it off with Sharuum the Hegemon, retrieving an Executioner's Capsule to kill a second creature. He also had a surprisingly huge threat from Conflux: Wandering Goblins. Most domain cards cap at 5, so it's easy to think of this Goblin as a 5/3. But look again—if you missed the fact that you can play the ability multiple times in a turn, you're not the only one. Gottlieb's Wandering Goblins, late in a very long game, was potentially a 15/3. Yeah, I lost that one.
My other games weren't quite as brutal, but I didn't get to "live the dream." So while I did have a good time and everything, I was hankering for another shot at glory. Fortunately, I only had to wait until Saturday!
Greedy? I Might Be
The big day rolled around, and I headed down to the Seattle Center. I carpooled with a non-employee friend who wanted to make it to one of the early Sealed flights, so I was there before most of the other Wizards folks and had time to wander around the hall watching everybody pound each other into oblivion with the new cards.
It wasn't too long, however, before I was excitedly ripping open three boosters each of Shards of Alara and Conflux.
This pool had an even better exalted package than my first one, but in the end, I simply could not resist the pull of a five-color big-mana deck featuring both Inkwell Leviathan and the mighty Progenitus:
As soon as I saw them, there was no way those two ridiculous fatties were hitting the sidelines. When either of them hits play, it's virtually impossible to answer—Progenitus especially. Inkwell Leviathan could conceivably be gang-blocked and killed if the opponent doesn't have Islands. But since Progenitus can't be damaged, enchanted, equipped, blocked, or targeted by anything that falls under the heading of "everything"—which is, well, everything—the options from across the table in Sealed Deck are limited to Martial Coup with an X of 5+, a pants-down Fleshbag Marauder, a Progenitus of your own, or just winning faster. Oh, or dying. That's a pretty popular one.
The problem, of course, is getting these behemoths to hit the table in the first place, which I managed with surprising regularity.
Here's the deck:
Conflux Prerelease Sealed Deck
Besides the ridiculous monsters, my favorite card in here might actually be Skyward Eye Prophets, Coiling Oracle's bigger, repeatier, less slithery brother. It never seemed to top my opponent's list of removal targets, but it was my deck's only way to actually get more than one card a turn, and it helped me accelerate to crazy bomb mana surprisingly quickly. Definitely one to keep an eye on for further study, if you'll pardon the expression.
I tried a build for a few games that swapped out white as a major color in favor of black to cram in some very good cards such as Necrogenesis and Agony Warp, but that left me without enough early game defense. Plus, the adjustments to the mana base somehow broke whatever pact I'd made with the Dark Gods of Mana, who only abandoned me once all day otherwise.
The Big Reveal
My first game was against Robert, an amiable fellow who led off with Court Homunculus followed by Bone Saw. A 3/2 attacking on turn two—not bad.
Robert kept the pressure on, but I gummed things up with Skyward Eye Prophets and double Spore Burst, for a total of nine Saprolings. The wee fungoids mostly hung about and got in the way, which they're exceedingly good at. I had a timely Drag Down for Robert's Sharding Sphinx, so I was able to chip away at his life total with Aven Trailblazer.
After a few turns of this, things were looking pretty good ... until Robert played Telemin Performance.
"That ... could be good for you," I said, thinking of the two enormous fatties that I'd made sure to include specifically because they were almost impossible to deal with.
I flipped over Obelisk of Esper, followed immediately by ... Inkwell Leviathan! The 7/11 slammed onto the table—and in my first game no less, even if it was on the wrong side.
Astonishingly, I actually managed to win that game. Robert couldn't quite muster enough blockers over the next two turns to keep my Saproling swarm at bay, and they closed the deal with a little help from my air force before my own Inkwell Leviathan could finish me off. If that had been Progenitus, though .... well, good thing it wasn't Progenitus.
Meanwhile, I glanced over to see a fellow gunslinger running a turn-five, all-Shards special I couldn't resist snapping a photo of.
Not pictured: the look on his opponent's face right before Bull Cerodon stepped on it.
It was in my second game, against Martin, that I suffered my first, last, and only mana problems of the day. It wasn't the sort of problem you might expect. I got my Rhox War Monk down on turn three and everything, and I managed to stabilize even after his Fusion Elemental dropped me to 7 before I killed it. I had all five colors by turn five, no problem.
No, the problem came in the very, very late game, when I had run out of steam with ten basic lands in play and Inkwell Leviathan and Progenitus in hand ... and couldn't play either of them. Forest, Forest, Forest, Plains, Plains, Swamp, Swamp, Mountain, Mountain ... Island.
Painful? Oh yes. But if I'd had Mana Cylix, or Kaleidostone, or Seaside Citadel, or Obelisk of Esper, or Bant Panorama, or one more basic landcycler, I would've been set. With as many cards as I'd seen, it was a crazy fluke ... but that was scant comfort as Martin finished me off.
Were my titans ever going to see play on my side of the table?
I Ink Well .... I Ink Very Well
As it turned out, Inkwell Leviathan hit play multiple times, and nearly always won the game for me. With Sphinx Summoner to search it out, it was easy to make sure I had the Leviathan whenever I had the mana to play it. Those two make a pretty good tag team—that's another one to keep in mind for later deck-building. They are also, not coincidentally, both going straight into my Sharuum the Hegemon deck for Elder Dragon Highlander (along with Magister Sphinx, as soon as I get one).
In one game, I played a Fusion Elemental off of perfect mana on turn five, only to see my opponent, Jeff, hit it with Wretched Banquet, of all things. When you're the only creature in play, it doesn't matter how big you are—you're still the smallest creature in play.
Meanwhile, I got the chance to chat with all these Prerelease-goers and hear exciting tales from the floor. One player showed Mark Gottlieb and me a draft deck with three copies of Gwafa Hazid, Profiteer, pointing out that the bribery counters don't go away if Gwafa dies. So while they do turn off once Gwafa is out of the picture, they turn right back on again when you play a second one. Not bad!
Elsewhere on the multiple-copies-of-awesome-things front, I talked to one player whose Two-Headed Giant team had faced someone playing not one but two copies of Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker. Can you imagine the look on your opponent's face when your first Bolas finally hits the graveyard, only to be immediately replaced by a fresh one? Ha!
I even got a little multiplayer in when Ryan and Brady convinced fellow gunslinger Jay Schneider and myself to take them on in Two-Headed Giant. Ryan's mana didn't come together, and Brady's few creatures fell to Jay's spot removal. That left me free to end the game in a tearing hurry with another turn-five Fusion Elemental backed up by the full ten-pack of Saprolings from two Spore Bursts. Jay said he was pretty sure that I would have won even if I'd been facing all three of them.
Protection from Losing
By far my best game was against Kevin, who chatted animatedly as he made his way down the table of Wizards gunslingers. I asked Kevin what his favorite new card was, and he thought for a second and said, "Conflux."
When asked why, he elaborated: "If that's my favorite card, it gets me my favorites two through six!"
Kevin threatened to make the game very short when he threw down a turn-six Flameblast Dragon, but I had Fiery Fall to put a stop to that. The board clogged up, some creatures traded, and the life totals dropped, with a Naya Battlemage shutting down my offense and forcing me to play a "naked" Tar Fiend just to get another body on the board.
Then Kevin played an end-of-turn Naya Charm to get back the Flameblast Dragon. Uh-oh. He played the Dragon again on his turn and passed back. Kevin was at 6, while I was still at a healthy 16 with a 2/5 Aven Trailblazer to absorb some damage, but I wasn't fooled—at the Shards employee Prerelease, I lost to Flameblast Dragon when I was leading 20 to 5. These things happen. As I saw it, I had exactly one turn to do something about it before things got ugly and on fire.
I looked at my hand. I counted my mana. At last, the time was right.
"Progenitus!" I cried, as the 10/10 hit play like a hydrogen bomb.
Kevin stammered. He stared. He slumped. He gaped.
"Go ahead," I said.
Kevin drew his card, muttered numbers to himself, did a lot of math, then grinned.
"So close!" he said, and dropped his own mythic rare onto the table: Hellkite Overlord.
I gasped and did the math—with exactly eight mana, there was no way for him to win it that turn, and Progenitus had him dead on my next attack. We laughed about it for a good solid minute. What a great giant monster match! How do you lose with Flameblast Dragon and Hellkite Overlord in play in a Sealed Deck match? Progenitus, that's how!
It was a fantastic moment, and we got to share it with the crowd that had gathered around us when Progenitus hit play. As he moved on to the next gunslinger, Kevin summed it up perfectly:
"That," he said, smiling, "is why we play Magic."
Amen, brother. Amen.
How about you? If you made it to the Prerelease, hop onto the forums or shoot me an email and tell me about your most memorable plays from the weekend—the biggest, the funniest, the weirdest, the almost-got-theres, all of it.
And if you didn't make it to the Prerelease—or, for that matter, if you did—don't forget, your next chance to play with Conflux is this coming weekend at Launch Parties worldwide. I'd encourage you to check it out, especially if you've never been.