Friday, December 14, 2012

Grid Draft - Dec 03, 2012

This week we tried a format I read about in the MTG Salvation forums, called Grid Draft. Designed as an alternative to Winston Draft for 2 players, it's supposed to create more focused decks that tend less to tricolor midrange.

"Traditionally", Grid Draft is a format for two players, with the following drafting method:
1 - Randomize 18 packs of 9 cards.
2 - For round 1 to round 9:
2.1 - For each player P:
2.1.1 - Place the cards from a closed pack face up in a 3x3 grid.
2.1.2 - P drafts an entire row or column from the grid (3 cards).
2.1.3 - P's opponent drafts an entire row or column from what's remaining of the grid (2 or 3 cards).
2.1.4 - Discard the remaining cards in the grid.

We modified this method slightly to work with 3 players:
1 - Randomize 24 packs of 9 cards.
2 - For round 1 to round 8:
2.1 - For each player P:
2.1.1 - Place the cards from a closed pack face up in a 3x3 grid.
2.1.2 - That player drafts an entire row or column from the grid (3 cards).
2.1.3 - The player at P's right drafts an entire row or column from what's remaining of the grid (2 or 3 cards).
2.1.3 - The player at P's left drafts all the remaining cards (3 or 4 cards).

The decks that came out of that draft were very focused, despite the pools being much more colored that in regular drafts. I liked this small group draft variant much more than Winston or Winchester, especially considering it's a fast draft with fun decisions to make.

BR Aggro-Control (Kam) 3x0 WG Midrange (Max)
BR Aggro-Control (Kam) 1x2 UR Milling (Naka)
WG Midrange (Max) 0x3 UR Milling (Naka)

UR Milling

6 Mountain
6 Island
Shivan Reef
Mystifying Maze
Soldevi Excavations
Evolving Wilds

Mesmeric Orb
Curse of the Bloody Tome
Archive Trap

Force Spike
Psionic Blast
Burst Lightning
Flametongue Kavu
Brittle Effigy
Oblivion Stone

Man O'War
Sphere of the Suns
Dungeon Geists
Tuktuk the Explorer

Card Draw/Filtering
Thirst for Knowledge
Gitaxian Probe

Wild Ricochet

A deck completely focused on milling the opponent, which sacrifices control capacity to take games more quickly by running more win conditions.

I started out by drafting UB Aggro-Control, but it did not work out as black was very sought after. After toying with the idea of going to UR Aggro, one of the packs opened had a row of Curse of the Bloody Tome, Tuktuk the Explorer and Millstone. Archive Trap soon joined a pool that already had Wild Ricochet and Reverberate and I was set for playing a deck as close to combo as I had ever dared to.

The deck is mostly about tempo control and finding win conditions. Mesmeric Orb is beastly, Curse of the Bloody Tome is consisnteny and Millstone is... well, it's Millstone. The Archive Trap + Reverberate or Wild Ricochet combo took more than one game - milling 26 cards in limited is game over. I kind of regretted running 16 lands, as I had mana issues in some games, but the benefit I got for doing so is hard to evaluate.

BR Aggro-Control

9 Mountain
8 Swamp
Akoum Refuge

Bladetusk Boar
Goblin Wardriver
Dauthi Horror
Precursor Golem
Reassembling Skeletone

Creature Buffing
Flayer Husk
Dolmen Gate
Vulshok Armor
Sylvok Lifestaff
Dolmen Gate
Grafted Wargear

Hymn to Tourach

Fire Imp
Hammer of Bogardan
Arc Trail
Shrine of Burning Rage

Mox Diamond
Night's Whisper
Orcish Settlers

A BR Aggro deck a bit light on creatures, which makes it closer to Aggro-Control than plain Beatdown. There is a lot of creature buffing - 4 pieces of equipment - which increase the value of every creature tremendously, especially Dauthi Horror and Bladetusk Boar. The other half of the deck is built to keep the way clear and create card advantage. Shrine of Burning Rage turned out to be a good Aggro-Control enabler, acting as a fast pinger.

While the deck aims to win before the opponent fully develops, it's tuned to roll out slower than a typical BR Aggro, but much more consistently. The card advantage built in the 2-3 mana spells makes the deck keep pressure for a long, long time.

WG Midrange

8 Plains
8 Forest
Vitu-Ghazi, the City-Tree

Sakura-Tribe Elder
Explosive Vegetation
Solemn Simulacrum

Great Sable Stag
Obstinate Baloth
Archon of Justice
Serra Angel
Eternal Dragon
Phantom Nishoba
Protean Hydra

Creature Support
Lightning Graves
Armadillo Cloak
Scout's Warning
Fauna Shaman

Faith's Fetters
Oblivion Ring
Swords to Plowshares
Magus of the Disk
Leeching Bite
Story Circle
Goldmeadow Harrier

The classical WG Midrange deck, tending towards a control build rather than ramping. The deck has a great long-term plan, but is slow in the early game, which led to its 0-6 record against an Aggro-Control and a fast Milling deck.

A positive aspect is how broad the removal suite is. Faith's Fetters, Oblivion Ring and Magus of the Disk are very versatile, and there are several other more specialized cards which will solve about any situation. I feel the creature support was too heavy for a midrange deck that had no mana elves. Splitting those cards between acceleration and medium threats would have made it faster and less vulnerable to removal.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Emergent Archetypes Part 4 - Aggro-Control

Aggro-Control is probably the hardest archetype to draft, with lots of ways to go wrong about it, but also with a great high end potential. It requires specialized cards that are always in high demand and is difficult to play well. The recipe for an Aggro-Control is as follows:

- Two cups of clocks - efficient, preferably evasive small creatures like Dauthi Slayer and Flying Men.
- Plenty of cheap disruption - counterspells and discard are best, like Mana Leak, Hymn to Tourach and Force Spike
- A cup of tempo spells - bounce is the most obvious, Man O'War and Repulse
- Two pinches of card draw/filtering - costing as little as possible. Good examples are Standstill, Preordain and Night's Whisper
- Serve with Equipment and Auras - Bonesplitter and Rancor are the best, but any offensive one will serve

In a clean table, drop an evasive clock and start attacking. Protect it from removal with your disruption. Add creature buffing to make the clock tick faster. Stir vigorously with bounce to keep opponent's big creatures at bay. Cook with card drawing until you win.

UB Aggro-Control

Cube Decklist: UB Aggro-Control
Constructed Decklist: Faeries
Relative popularity in cube: Uncommon

UB is the most common combination for Aggro-Control. The reason is how well black supports this strategy, having access to cheap and offensive creatures with evasion and providing extra disruption with discard. Combining blue's flying and shadow creatures with black's fear and (also) shadow creatures, there should be enough clocks available to make the strategy work. Discard is the most important black component - cards like Stupor, Duress, Hymn to Tourach are invaluable to protect your creatures from the opponent's answers.

Blue is the base of Aggro-Control, and here it should focus on counterspells to complement discard and card drawing. Since this archetype has the most disruption, the pressure will be sustained for longer than other builds. This is where card drawing comes in handy. Black's creature removal plays a lesser role here, but it can be used effectively to force attacks through and keep troublesome creatures away.

UG Aggro-Control

Cube Decklist: UG Aggro-Control
Constructed Decklist: UG Madness
Relative popularity in cube: Rare

UG Aggro-Control draws extra creature power from green's beaters and auras. Since green has no evasion, it becomes less valuable in this archetype, and because blue does not have efficent non-evasive creatures, its creatures are less relevant. This build becomes, therefore, about green creatures and blue spells.

Blue bounce is great when the game's tempo is accelerated, which will be the case as you are attacking with medium creatures aggressively. Card drawing also plays a key role to sustain the offense, and works great with cheap creatures. Green requires cheap and medium creatures, in the 1-3 mana range. They will create very fast clocks quickly, and the biggest vulnerability in this kind of strategy should be circumvented with counters. Auras like Elephant Guide and Rancor help equipment in buffing those creatures, and their weaknesses to removal should, again, be patched with counterspells. The most important cards for UG Aggro-Control are, of course, counterspells.

UG Aggro-Control decks vary a lot, but these are the important components, that can appear in smaller or greater numbers in each deck. It's a flexible archetype, combining green's raw power and blue's trickery, very difficult to play against.

UR Aggro-Control

Cube Decklist: No register
Constructed Decklist: UR Fish
Relative popularity in cube: Rare

While UG Aggro-Control is built to force the opponent to make bad blocks, UR is built to prevent any blocking at all from happening. Although red lacks evasion, the ability is more valuable here than in any other Aggro-Control build, because of direct burn spells. Clearing the path, however, is also red's strength, so creatures that like to attack unblocked like Jackal Pup and Ninja of the Deep Hours can be used for great effect, combined with efficient creature killers, like Arc Lightning.

The disruption will be solely blue's counterspells, so out of all Aggro-Control archetypes, this one has the least capacity to keep momentum. This problem is balanced out by the reach that red provides. Direct burn spells such as Acidic Soil and Browbeat make the offense necessary only to lower the opponent's life total. These burn spells should be played along with their best friends: card drawing.

UR Aggro-Control is an inconsistent archetype, but has explosive draws and excels against beatdown decks that play a lot of burnable creatures. Due to topdecking burn, it's also never truly controllable, so very slow control decks struggle against it as well. It has issues with life gain however, and with midrange, which quickly outclasses its spells.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Emergent Archetypes Part 3 - Aggro

Aggro, or beatdown, is the family of decks that are extremely offensive, playing cheap cheatures and spells to close the game as fast as possible. It is essential to have 1 and 2 mana creatures for this archetype to work, and in general, burn, creature improvement and combat tricks help a lot this sort of deck.

A good read on aggro strategy is this article.

RG Aggro

Cube Decklist: RG Aggro
Constructed Decklist: RG Madness
Relative popularity in cube: Common

The most common color pair for beatdown, RG creates consistent and powerful Aggro decks with ease. Green's creatures are inherently efficient at all points of the mana curve, and provide the bulk of cheap and offensive 1 and 2-drops necessary for this strategy. Red's main role is to provide burn that removes early blockers and extends the deck's reach, which is important to kill opponents that managed to stabilize the red zone.

As a general rule, every single card in the deck should work towards winning as quickly as possible. Most cards should be creatures, creating a critical mass that overruns removal and blockers. Besides direct burn, lasting effects that create inevitability have a home here - see Sulfuric Vortex, Manabarbs and Zo-Zu the Punisher.

Creature improvement in the form of equipment and auras add a lot of lasting power to this kind of deck, as well as midrange creatures. Of course, a build without these slower elements will be faster and more lethal to opponents that have had a slow start, but will be also more vulnerable to defense, life gain and mass removal.

Rare Variation: RG Midrange

When RG Aggro gets too slow, that is, does not have enough low curve creatures, it becomes RG Midrange, running bigger creatures and relying more on winning an attrition wars than outrunning the opponent. More expensive burn will work better in this archetype, especially recurrent or X ones. Mass burn will make the aggro matchup easy, but generally, this build is weaker than RG Aggro against control, for not attacking control's biggest weakness - the speed.

R Aggro

Cube Decklist: Rb Aggro
Constructed Decklist: Deadguy Red
Relative popularity in cube: Uncommon

The traditional monored burn deck, or Sligh, also called Red Deck Wins and probably several other names. Fundamentally, this sort of deck goes all-in on the plan of pushing through damage as fast as possible. At the start of the game, it casts cheap creatures like Jackal Pup and starts reducing the opponent's life total to a number low enough to attack with direct burn.

It sounds a lot like RG's plan, but there is a subtle difference. RG usually wins with creatures, with the support from burn spells to clear the way and sometimes takes those last hit points. Monored uses its creatures to help get the opponent's life total within burn range, then throws burn at him. It is a plan that requires more commitment and fails more often, but besides being faster, it is harder to control completely. As long as the opponent doesn't grab the win with a finisher, you'll be topdecking burn.

Some cards reward Sligh for using its burn to control the board, like Genju of the Spires. That creates a dilemma for the player - should I use my burn against the opponent's creatures or hurl it at him? Playing this sort of deck may look easy, but contrary to that general belief, playing it optimally involves a lot of thought, planning and decisions based on probability and knowledge of your own deck.

Rare Variation: R Midrange

Similarly to RG Aggro, if R Aggro doesn't get enough cheap creatures, it'll become Midrange. In this case, there is a fundamental strategy change. Because there will be no creatures to push damage through at the start of the game, the opponent's life total will be out of burn range. The obvious plan in this situation is using that burn to control the board instead and then casting bigger creatures to take the opponent's life in bigger chunks. Annother change in the deck list is the possibility of using expensive burn spells, especially X spells.

Games involving R Midrange have a weird tempo, because the longer the game lasts, the less gas R Midrange will have, but the more dangerous its spells will be. Since like R Aggro it's hard to be completely controlled, it's an even worse problem to control decks that take too long to kill. This build hasn't shown up many times, so it's hard to tell its true potential, but it looks like a good option when red is wide open.

BG Aggro

Cube Decklist: BG Aggro
Constructed Decklist: BG Aggro Rock
Relative popularity in cube: Uncommon

Combining green's good cost-benefit and black's suicidal cheap creatures, BG Aggro offers a lot of raw power, fueled by black's strategical virtues - discard, removal, card advantage. This archetype usually get good results when drafted, but it's tricky to put together, and double costs tend to be a problem. Since it's an aggro deck, there is no room for dedicated mana fixing, so dual lands like Llanowar Wastes are invaluable to smooth draws.

The average BG Aggro deck will ideally curve 1 and 2-drops, use discard to disrupt the opponent's answers and creature removal to remove blockers, play some more cheap creatures to keep pressure, then replenish its forces with a card drawing spell - albeit not necessarily in that order. BG Aggro has more flexibility than other aggro archetypes, making it very close to an Aggro-Control deck, and the exact play pattern may vary depending on the card selection. This flexibility makes it good against control, but hurts its raw power, which leads to a bad midrange matchup.

BR Aggro

Cube Decklist: BR Aggro
Constructed Decklist: BR Zombies
Relative popularity in cube: Uncommon

Being the kings of efficient creature removal, black and red combine to create the aggro that most enjoys keeping the other side of the battlefield board clean and attacking without pesky blockers. With the way clear, the cheap creatures can quickly bring the opponent to 0 life. If he manages to stabilize, this deck can turn to direct damage mode and start throwing burn at the opponent and keep attacking with whatever evaders it has. Discard helps to disrupt the opponent's defenses, and black card drawing can be used to get extra gas. As mentioned in a previous post, card drawing plus burn is a powerful combination.

BR Aggro is great against other aggro decks and creature-based decks in general, and will trade two-for-one frequently, creating card advantage. Against control, its dedicated creature removal becomes dead and frequently even turns on the deck itself because of a Fire Imp or Flametongue Kavu. This matchup can be improved by prioritizing resilient offense such as Genju of the Spires and Lavaclaw Reaches, and prioritizing versatile burn that can be used on both players and creatures.

Rare Variation: BR Aggro-Control

A modified version of BR Aggro would be having less cheap creatures, which is a common problem in red and black, and in those free slots, include more discard and card drawing. This creates a disruptive and more resilient build that works better against control. Offensive discard like Blightning and Blazing Specter fits perfectly, as well as aggro-friendly card drawing like Night's Whisper and Browbeat.

G Aggro

Cube Decklist: G Aggro
Constructed Decklist: Stompy
Relative popularity in cube: Rare

Without access to shenanigans from other colors, a monogreen aggro deck has a very straightforward plan: play a lot of creatures, enchant/equip them, and turn them all sideways. Green has a lot of creatures that are fit to carry this plan, and the best auras and combat tricks, so it's well geared, but it is also an archetype that's hard to force, since any other playing sharing green aggro with you might make it infeasible.

The major advantage of this strategy is consistency. It adds the mana consistency that monocolored decks profit from to the wide range of good green creatures. The curve can't be too low - there simply won't be enough cheap and offensive green creatures to fill a whole deck - but it can (and must) be smooth so that the deck gains momentum quickly and steadily. Equipment and auras are essential to provide lasting power, and combat tricks prevent the deck from becoming too predictable.

G Aggro has a bad matchup against control, and suffers with pinpoint removal, especially the sort that doesn't care about toughness. The compensation is that it outclasses and outraces other aggro and aggro-control archetypes with its pumped up efficient creatures. To improve the control matchup there are only a handful of cards that help effectively. Some do so with tempo control, like Plow Under, others with sheer card advantage, like Hunter's Insight.