Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Draft Format Season Lengths

There are things you don't notice in Magic until you've been playing regularly for a while. One is the length of a given draft format season (i.e. How long have we been drafting this set?). Sometimes you just get tired of drafting a given format for various reasons. Maybe you're not doing very well. Maybe you just don't like the set that much. Maybe it's just not a set that rewards tons of drafting.

Looking at the release dates of the last 10 major sets (I'm excluding special sets like Modern Masters), here's an infographic showing the lengths of each live draft season:


























I came back to the game and started drafting heavily right at the beginning of Innistrad, so I didn't realize how long we drafted it. It was an awesome set to draft and I was still learning, so fatigue didn't really set in.

But you'll notice that seasons for the last set in the year, usually the first set of a block, are the longest, by nearly a month in most cases. This has a few ramifications.

One, at least at my local game store, it means that the number of drafters wanes as the season wears on. Some people draft to get cards for Standards, and midway through the season they've either drafted, bought, or traded all the cards they need. Some people just get tired of the format. Innistrad and Theros are very rich draft sets, and I haven't gotten tired of Theros yet, but we've got nearly two more months of it. I think by the end of the year I will have gotten my fill.

Another by-product of the length of a season, at least for me, is how it affects my win percentage. I'm usually pretty early out of the gates. I listen to the LR set reviews before pre-releases if I can, and practice on sealed generators and/or draft simulators. I have a great win percentage at pre-releases and early in the format. But then something happens. Everybody else figures the format out. Halfway through the season, even the more inexperienced drafters have pretty solid card evaluation and know what the higher-tier decks are. A better player starts to lose equity, since one of the only areas they can gain an edge is during play.

I'm experiencing this right now. I'm on a horrible downswing in live play, getting completely blanked (zero wins) the last two weekly drafts at my local game store. It seems to be a perfect storm of drafts gone awry (weak packs, inconsistent signals, etc.), the weaker players getting stronger, and just some good old variance.

Last week, I lost all three of my matches 2-1, each deciding game super close. We also do within-pod pairings, meaning that we tend to get more pair-downs (2-0's playing against 1-1's), especially when people drop early.

My win percentage for Theros had been up around 80%, but it's now fallen to around 74%. Still good, but not killing it. In between those two horrible weeks at my LGS, I top-16'd a Pro Tour Qualifier in Austin, TX, getting 11th out of 154 players, and just barely getting knocked out of the top 8. So I know I'm still playing strong. But as the format slogs on, the weaker players have much more room to grow, and that's exactly what they're doing. Just means I have to try to improve proportionally, and try to eliminate even more of the inevitable mistakes in draft and play.

I also wonder if this season length is a happenstance, or whether Wizards does this intentionally for some reason. For drafting, and probably constructed, the game would probably feel fresher if they shortened the release cycles for the year-end sets. Or, they could try something akin to what they do on MTGO, reprint a flashback set to ease the fatigue.

It's kind of a shame. I think I'm going to get sick of Theros, but I think it's been a very fun draft format, so I don't want to run it into the ground. Long draft seasons should also be an opportunity to experiment with twists on formats (like back drafting), but those are likely to be even less popular than standard drafts. 

Ah well...buckle in for two more months of Theros, folks.

Magic Online Accepting Beta Testers

Magic Online is currently accepting applications for beta testers. I've been in the closed beta for over a year and a half now and it's pretty awesome. You get to play MtG for free (sort of). The cost is being vigilant in reporting bugs in the beta, but you're actually helping make MTGO better, so that should give you a warm and fuzzy feeling anyway.

Apply here.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Draft Format Attributes

A while back on Limited Resources they had on Brian David-Marshall, who talked about whether or not a given draft format was a prince or pauper format. This designation refers to the distribution of power among the cards in the format. A prince format is one in which the power level of the rarer cards is very high, so the format is very bomb-driven. So, a pauper format is one where the power distribution of the cards is flatter (the bombs are not as impactful, though commons and uncommons on average are).

I've been drafting heavily for over two years now, and thought a lot about various formats and some other attributes that define them. These categorizations might be able to help you adjust to a particular format, but in some cases they are simply qualitative measures that may make you favor a particular format over another. 

Deep/Shallow

This designation is somewhat similar to prince/pauper, since it deals with the distribution of power level of cards in the set, but the depth of a particular format has to do less with the difference in power level between the bombs and the commons and more to do with how quickly the power level declines among the commons.

A deep format is one in which card quality remains relatively high even towards the end of packs, meaning there are probably still playable cards among the last three picks. A shallow format, however, sees a dramatic falloff in card quality soon after the best cards are taken, so that typically in the last half of a pack, finding desirable cards is very difficult.

An example of a deep format is Innistrad. In the same block, Avacyn Restored was a shallow format. I would often end an Innistrad draft with 27 or more playables, and the difficult decision was which cards to cut. AVR was the opposite, and I'd be scrambling for playables by the end of the draft. During deckbuilding I'd have to decide which cards were the best of the worst to include. Both situations require useful skills. They both involve maximizing the value of your pool, but shallow formats are more unforgiving, especially in the latter part of drafting if you're not mindful about what your deck needs and you panic and make bad decisions like moving into another color to strain your mana base.

Slow/Fast

Of course, some of these designations aren't mutually exclusive. When we talk about the speed of the format, we could be washing out information by just talking about the average speed. A given format may support decks at both ends of the spectrum, in which case talking about the average speed (e.g. on average most games end on turn 7.2) is not very useful.

The current format as of this writing, Theros, is a good example. It's not all that useful to talk about whether the format is fast or slow. What is useful to know is that the format supports some very fast decks, and so your grindy, powerful deck needs to be equipped to deal with them or you could be losing a lot of matchup-dependent games. For example, in one of my first Theros drafts, I had a very powerful blue-black deck, with four Grey Merchants. I knew the power of the card, even early in the format, and I expected to be able to come from behind against even the most aggressive starts. In round one, I faced a red heroic deck that turn 1'd an Akroan Crusader, then used two heroic triggers on turn 2, and was swinging for 10 on turn 3. I had no defenses in place and got completely run over.

In subsequent Theros drafts, when drafting a slower, more controlling deck, I began to prioritize early blockers in my colors, especially the two cheap deathtouch creatures, Baleful Eidolon and Sedge Scorpion. Cheap defenders like Returned Phalanx were also very important to fend off the super-aggressive decks and buying time to play very powerful cards like Grey Merchant.

In the last format, M14, the lower overall power of creatures meant that you were unlikely to be facing enormous pressure early, and people started to figure out that the expensive card-advantage spells like Opportunity were much better because of it. The most aggressive deck was probably slivers, but that was a very difficult archetype to draft, since the slivers were good on their own and it was difficult to draft a critical mass of them. So unlike Theros, making sure you had answers to very early aggression wasn't quite as important.

Balanced/Unbalanced

The MtG design team usually does a decent job of balancing the card quality among the colors, but it's a difficult thing to get just right and sometimes the format just isn't balanced. Avacyn Restored is a good example, with blue, green, and red being far better than white or black. Black was also in the unfortunate position of getting a rather weak mechanic (the so-called "loner" mechanic), in lieu of any soulbond, which was a very strong mechanic. Even though black had the best removal on average, and a few standout cards, it was usually avoided. This led to a sub-strategy where a careful drafter might be able to exploit black's undesirability and soak up all the black cards, making a reasonably powerful deck. Some players swore by this strategy, but I rarely saw it in action in practice. A lot of the better black cards, like Homicidal Seclusion and Killing Glare, were easily splashable, so strong drafts often cut them, making the lone black deck at the table significantly worse.

If there is a quality disparity, and you can identify it early, you might have a significant advantage over fellow drafters. As a format wears on, though, that advantage is going to diminish. There might be cycling strategies where, as in Avacyn, you can prioritize the weaker color in an effort to get a strong pool with the best cards in the worst color, but again, I have usually not found this to be a good strategy.

Constrained/Free

Some formats lead you down certain paths, and punish you from deviating from them. I call these formats "constrained". The more constrained, the fewer archetypes the format supports. The most obvious example are the recent Return to Ravnica formats. The first two sets basically forced the drafter into one of the five guilds. If you were drafting RTR and decided to draft a non-guild color combination (such as UG), your deck was probably going to be worse than most guild decks, which were rewarded with powerful aligned gold cards and high synergy between the aligned colors. Same with the following set, Gatecrash. 

Another constrained recent set was Modern Masters, which sported very rigidly-defined archetypes (Giants, Faeries, Affinity, Rebels, etc.). Deviating from one of the main archetypes usually led to sub-par pools, since the cards in those archetypes were highly synergistic.

A good example of a free format was M13, in which the colors were very evenly balanced and a strong deck could be built out of nearly every two-color combination. The result is a format that generally rewards repeat play. I found myself getting bored more quickly with the RTR drafts because there were basically five decks you could build, and you usually either got a very strong representative of that archetype, or you were getting cut and got a very bad deck in your guild.

Conclusion

One thing I didn't discuss was the average power level of the format (e.g. Cubes often have extremely high average power levels). Classifications based on relatively power level (e.g. between the rares and commons as in prince/pauper, among the commons as in deep/shallow, or between colors as in balanced/unbalanced) is more useful. 

I personally prefer deeper, balanced, freer formats, though I did enjoy drafting the RTR formats and Modern Masters. Avacyn Restored was probably my least favorite format over the last two years, since it was a very princely format (cards like Bonfire and Entreat were basically unbeatable), very shallow, and unbalanced.

The current format, Theros, is quite good, though. The average card quality is high, and it supports many different archetypes, of varying speeds. Grey Merchant should totally be an uncommon, though.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Theros: The Power of Four

So I've drafted Theros four times now. The last three drafts I've been lucky enough to have multiples of powerful cards, specifically four of each.

Draft #2: Four Grey Merchants.

This was still early enough in the format where people hadn't realized how nuts this card is. Now pretty much everyone knows. I could have had five, but I took Celestial Archon instead. Seemed good at the time, but in hindsight I think a 5th Merchant would have been better. This deck went 4-1, losing the first round to a ballistic heroic start both games. If I had any time at all to set up, this deck basically could not lose. I learned to value the 1/1 deathtouch in black and also Returned Phalanx, early blockers that buy me time to get into midgame, where I basically cannot lose. Sadly, this was probably the best deck I'll ever draft in the format, and it got me 6th place and 3 packs.


Draft #3: Four Deathbellow Raiders.

I also had two Kragma Warcallers and 10 minotaurs total. That's a lot of beef. The deck smashed pretty hard and went undefeated.


Draft #4: Four Horizon Chimeras.

If you're the only UG drafter at the table, life is good. This card combined with lots of card draw makes life very difficult for your opponent. This deck went undefeated as well.


The Merchants and Raiders are common, but the Chimeras are uncommon. It's much more difficult to score multiples of uncommons, though if they're multicolor and that combination is open, it's much easier. I could see getting four Kragma Warcallers, since minotaurs seem to be a bit underdrafted. Battlewise Hoplite is another possibility.

My dream draft tonight is Wx heroic with four of these guys. But I've been pretty lucky so far and that's pretty unlikely to happen.

The format is better than I thought it would be. It can be swingy, but not nearly as bad as AVR. The removal is pretty bad, but cheap deathtouch and bounce keep things reasonably balanced.


Friday, July 5, 2013

Chandra, the Underwhelming

So here's the new Chandra:


Yawn. Conley Woods has an article today where he assesses her and actually thinks she's pretty good. I don't see it. The most recent planeswalker printed is Ral Zarek, who is also four mana and gives you a Lightning Bolt for -3. That's nice value. Ping player and creature for 1? No thank you. And the zero ability means you're not playing anything on curve. If you untap with her, her value goes up substantially, but the turn she comes into play she is very weak.

I know some people were hoping for a 3-mana Chandra, and also a playable one. Here would be my initial cut (click to enlarge):


Her loyalty equals her casting cost, which is a good sign. Her plus ability is aggressive, as red should be. It synergizes with aggressive cards like Hellrider and gives you a dude as a possible sac outlet or excellent trade target. If you can somehow copy it via populate or another mechanic, you've got a blocker to protect her, but for the most part it's a balanced, standalone ability that works with red's flavor.

Her minus two is a solid, if unexciting, shock. If Zarek gets a bolt, surely Chandra should at least get a Shock. Like Liliana of the Veil's -2, it's potential immediate protection, but puts her at a very vulnerable 1. Seems like a decent tradeoff.

If this Chandra's flavor is spawning elementals, and if her +1 makes little guys, why not have her ultimate scorch everything and make Ball Lightnings out of the results? This last one should probably be tuned. Maybe it shouldn't do 6 to each player. Probably the elementals should be exiled at end of turn. But you get the idea. This is the kind of ability both playwise and flavorwise that I want to see on a Planeswalker. You probably win the game, and it's hyperaggressive, but a single Profit/Loss or Electrickery will wipe all your new dudes, so it's not necessarily and insta-win.

Unfortunately we're stuck with the clunky new Chandra. I don't think she's very good, except in Limited, which is what I most play. I could be wrong, but I don't think she'll see play in Standard. 

Sunday, June 2, 2013

DGM/GTC/RTR Strategies and an Update

So I've been trying to grind out 15 qualifier points to play in the Magic Online Championship Series in the middle of June. I'm behind the curve, with only 7 QPs and less than two weeks to go, which is a bit depressing. Yesterday I played 3 events and went 2-1, 2-1, 1-1, which isn't horrible, but doesn't get you there.

I'm really struggling in the 8-4's, and I don't know if it's a learning experience or it's just killing my confidence. I'm noticing some particular patterns:

1) The competition is noticeably more difficult. I almost never run into people playing horrible cards or making clear mistakes.

2) Drafting fixing is a lot more difficult. I think the more skilled players are prioritizing gates much more highly. I've also run into more 5-color goodstuff decks, so this is either becoming a more popular archetype, or it was from the beginning and I just never got on board. Here's a video of Travis Woo drafting/playing this archetype (albeit in Swiss).

3) Pack 3s are going awful for me in general. Here's a recent article by Melissa DeTora where she's advocating focusing on picking/cutting a GTC guild in the first pack to insure good passes pack 2, and sort of picking up the stragglers in RTR, where are there is a higher ratio of good mono-color cards. That certainly sounds sensible, but it doesn't seem to be panning out very well.

The last couple of drafts I've tried to draft as aggressive a deck I can, picking very fast cards like Spike Jester and Viashino Firstblade in pack 1. This seemed like a reasonable plan, since I'm cutting two GTC guilds (Orzhov and Boros), so I should get a pretty solid stream of one or the other, allowing me to move in heavily. Then, depending on my concentration in pack 2, pick up solid mono-color cards (e.g. Gore House Chainwalker, Splatter Thug, Undead Reveler) and possibly Rakdos in the first half of pack 3, though I should only really need 3-4 more playables at that point.

Well, it just hasn't worked out very well. I get a sparse sampling of on-color cards in pack 3. Fixing is nearly non-existent so the last draft I ended up with zero gates and a near even mix of colors, which is awful for an aggressive deck. The best two drops are often two colors, and without fixing, you're much less likely to play them on turn two. I have also not been opening on-color bombs in draft. You don't necessarily need them, but they sure make life easier.

So I've been able to blitz past my opponents in early rounds with this strategy, but when I run into a solid midrange or 5-color control deck, I get them to 6-8 life, then they stabilize, and I can't finish them. I've had games where I'm just drawing to an Explosive Impact or Cinder Elemental because my attacks are completely shut down.

To adapt, I probably need to draft less high-variance aggressive decks to ones with a more balanced middle to late game and higher power. I should probably prioritize fixing higher than I do. As an exercise, I should probably attempt to draft a 4-5 color deck. I never seem to do well with multicolor decks. It seems to me that because you have to dedicate so many slots to non-land fixing, your average card quality needs to be a lot higher to make up for it. That means that you need to draft a lot of very high-end, expensive cards. If that doesn't happen, it seems as if you're just screwed.

Anyway, I'm still tearing it up in live play with my general approach, but getting mauled in 8-4's. Maybe that means I'm learning. Or maybe I'm just sucking. If I don't get 4-5 QPs this week, I'm not going to make it to the MOCS qualifier, so we'll see.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Expected Value and Magic Online Drafts

I've been playing quite a bit more Magic online, and if you're playing a lot, the more you're losing per event is a lot more impactful on your pocketbook. I had read a few sources online regarding expected value (EV) and various MTGO event formats, as well as what they've said on the subject on Limited Resources. The general consensus seemed to be that 8-4s were the way to go, but I really wanted to see for myself, so I coded up some simulations in Java and let 'em rip.

I was also curious about the EV for Phantom Sealed events, so I included that in the simulations. Let's look at the first graph, which doesn't take into consideration the cost of playing an event or the resale value of cards:

I start at 50%, because if you're not winning at least that much, you're gonna have a bad time anyway. As you can see, 8-4 is indeed the most profitable payout structure, no matter what your win percentage. It has a steeper curve than the others, which means that it also scales better as you improve (smaller improvements in your skill lead to proportionally bigger earnings).

The much-maligned 4-3-2-2 isn't really that much worse than Swiss below about a 70% win percentage, and after that it is actually better than Swiss. But obviously, no matter what your win percentage, if you care about maximizing your earnings, you should be playing 8-4s. 

Phantom Sealed looks the worst here, but we're not considering the cost of playing the event, which is a pretty big factor. Let's look at the data when we take cost into consideration:


Here the payout is adjusted to tickets, and I've also made some assumptions that may or may not be valid. First of all, for the three draft formats, the cost is 14 tickets (assuming each pack is worth 4 tickets and the entry fee is an additional 2 tickets). I'm also assuming a pretty generous resale value of 5 tickets for the drafted cards (or about 1.67 tickets per pack). Your tendency to money rare draft will affect this estimate, but it seemed like a reasonable baseline for comparison.

I think the data gets a lot more interesting when we adjust for cost and resale value. The first thing I noticed is that 4-3-2-2 and Swiss are both unprofitable until you reach around 73-74% win rate, which is quite high. So you have to be playing at near the highest levels in order to just break even in those structures, although again, below that, the difference between them is not that large.

The next thing to notice is that you only need about a 60% win rate in order to be profitable at both 8-4 and Phantom Sealed (which cost 4 tickets, but don't let you keep any cards for resale). Assuming you were able to resell your packs at or near face value from Phantom Sealed, you could "go infinite" with a 60% or better win rate. Same with 8-4s, though since the payout is proportionally larger, it would be quite a bit easier to go infinite in 8-4s. Again, this is assuming a card resale value of 5 tickets per event, which may be right on, or may be much too high. 

I would love to see some actual stats for various players regarding win percentages with fairly large sample sizes. There are some obvious reasons why some top players may or may not want to share this information. If any of you out there keep records, by all means share if you don't mind. From the records I've kept, here are some of my stats:

Live play at my local game store:

88 events played
Match win percentage: 67.37% 

Some of that is a result of intentional draws either into or in finals, so it should actually be a little higher. My win percentage by set/format is as follows:

ISD/ISD/ISD
0.648

DKA/ISD/ISD
0.705

AVR/AVR/AVR
0.623

M13/M13/M13
0.752

RTR/RTR/RTR
0.631

GTC/GTC/GTC
0.700

For records I kept drafting last year online, most of which were Swiss events, my average win percentage was 64.20%. This year, so far it's 64.58%, mostly playing 8-4s. So I seem to do a little worse online than in person. Part of that may be issues with the MTGO interface, slightly tougher competition online, or other variables. 

For a little more context, Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa at one point had a 65% match win percentage at Pro Tour Events, and this was considered outrageously good, considering the level of competition. Another article notes that the all time winning percentages of pros in the Hall of Fame, starting with the highest all time are:

Jon Finkel, 63.39 %
Kai Budde, 62.86%
Olivier Ruel, 61.97%
Zvi Moshowitz, 58.58%
Tsuyoshi Fujita, 58.53%
Antoine Ruel, 57.72%

Again, this is a pro-level environment. We'd expect these players to have significantly higher win percentages in softer environments (though how much more...who really knows?). My intuition is that maintaining any win percentage above 75%, even for top players, is very difficult. Though again, I'd love to see some actual data.

One more note, since I'm interested in making a run for the Magic Online Championship this season (which runs from the middle of each month to the next). You need 15 qualifier points (QPs) to qualify for the prelims, and 35 to go straight into the main event. According to my rollout simulations, with a 65% win percentage, the distribution of event outcomes is as follows:

Events: 1,000,000
3-0: 273,396
2-1: 147,883
1-1: 228,048
0-1: 350,673

Some interesting things to note: Even with a respectable win percentage, you'll still need to play over 50 events, on average, to get to 15 QPs. You'd have to play about 130 events to get 35 QPs. Luckily, if you're playing at this win percentage, you're profitable. Still, that's a bit of a grind (you'd need to be playing about 2 events per day on average).

Another thing to note is that you will have more 1st-round losses than any other kind of outcome, so you shouldn't get too bummed when you are 1-and-out. This will happen the most often. If you didn't know this was a statistical certainty, you might get discouraged that you were going 0-1 more than 3-0, but even with a respectable win percentage, this is the norm. Along those same lines, this means you will not win any packs in well over half your drafts (58%). But that's okay. You'll have short term variance that may eat into your bankroll, but if you are a reasonably good player, you'll regain those losses if you keep at it.

Unfortunately, you're not going to buy a summer home with your winnings, but you will actually eke out a small profit while playing a game that you presumably really like. Seems like a decent deal to me.

If you have any questions/criticisms of my methodology, please let me know in the comments. Also, if you have any data to share, go for it.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Dragon's Maze Prerelease Weekend Recap

I happily continued my pattern of success at prereleases, which is nice, but not nearly as impressive as performing well at big tournaments with much more at stake. Still, it's always nice to start the draft season with a pocket full of booster packs to let you pack into drafts throughout the season.

I played four events, and here are the recaps:

Event 1:
And Books II
Lafayette, LA
12:00pm

Guild: Rakdos
Allied Guild: Dimir

My worst nightmare. I had the most success in RTR with Rakdos, so it was my go-to guild. Why? It's aggression level is nearly unmatched. My hope was an uber-aggressive ally like Boros or Gruul. What did I get? Guys who like to hide in the shadows. What was my Dimir rare? Whispering Madness. Ugh.

I had exactly one playable rare in this pool...Pyrewild Shaman. And he is very, very good. But when you are often facing down mythics, he doesn't really stack up. Still, the deck had a solid, aggressive curve and good removal, so I thought I might do okay. You don't need bombs to win, right?

First match I faced regular Limited player Joey, playing Naya. He had 3 Zhur-Taa Druids. I hated him already. Game 1 started out with him on the play, dropping a Druid turn 2 and a Rubblebelt Raiders turn 3. Nice. I had mana for Augur Spree, but didn't draw it until the turn after he had attacked with the Raiders, putting them out of reach of my removal. Game over. He crushed me Game 2 as well.


So...not a good start.

But now in the losers bracket, I faced three opponents in a row who were not seasoned grinders. The first two were Esper decks, both relatively weak. I 2-0'd both matches. Round 4 was against a BWR deck that was powerful, but again, my opponent made several play mistakes and I took the match.

At this point I was 3-1. The tourney was 5 rounds, and I was able to simply intentional tie into the top 8. Most wanted to call it an early day, so we chopped the prize pool for 10 packs each. Not bad.

I then wandered over to the other local game store in town to see if they might be firing any more events. Hey, they were.

Event 2:
Anime and Games Central
Lafayette, LA
5:30pm

Guild: Azorius
Allied Guild: Simic

They said they only had two packs left: a Rakdos and an Azorius. I'm not the biggest Azorious fan, but it's fine, so I took it. Paired with Simic, I was fine with Bant, and wanted to live the dream of pairing an Ascended Lawmage with an Unflinching Courage. Alas, I didn't open a Courage, though I did open 2 Ascended Lawmage. Again, no bombs, just solid evasive flyers and a good curve. I 3-0'd and we chopped top 4 for 7 packs.

Event 3:
Rocket's Hideout
Baton Rouge, LA
12:00pm

Guild: Gruul
Allied Guild: Rakdos

Now this was my dream. Jund! I went to Baton Rouge with Lyall, mostly because I wanted to play 2-headed giant and the format wasn't offered in Lafayette. But we decided to play the noon sealed as well. Why not, right?

I got my dream color combination, but again, no bomby creatures. I did have a bomb in Gaze of Granite, though. I'd generally rather have a crazy creature like Exava or Savageborn Hydra, but oh well.

Match 1 was pretty sweet. I was up against Naya. Game 1 was a blowout with me curving out with Gorehouse Chainwalker into double Rakdos Drake. I had very good spot removal to back up my efficient, aggressive creatures. So far, so good. Game 2 was more interesting. My opponent is on the play and resolves a turn 3 Boros Reckoner. I have a Stab Wound in hand, so I untap and stab the minotaur. A 1/1 Reckoner is substantially less scary, but still a problem since I can't really attack on the ground anymore. I'm hoping to bleed him out and finish him with evasive creatures. Well, then he puts Unflinching Courage on his Reckoner, rebooting it into a 3/3 lifelinker with potential first strike. I had two ground dudes (maybe the black Gatekeeper and a Swine?), and he had two other 3-drops plus a Boros Keyrune in play. The board state was pretty clogged, though I had Gaze of Granite in hand. Problem was, I only had five lands. Luckily I peeled the sixth land, cast GoG for x=3 and wiped all five of his non-land permanents. GoG did work for me all day, but that was by far the best job it ever did. I won the match.

Match 2, I faced down a 4-color deck with 2 Unflinching Courage. We went 3 games but he got it...on the back of Unflinching Courage.

Match 3 I played against a pretty good Esper deck. Honestly I'm pretty sure my deck was better, and I'd seen my opponent punt to Lyall in round 1, missing a sure lethal attack. So I felt pretty good. Well, this was one of those matches decided entirely by mana issues. Game 1 I kept a 5-land hand with a 3-drop creature and a removal spell (Fatal Fumes, I think), and 5 of the next 6 draws were lands...hard to win a game like that. Game 2 I won. Game 3 I kept a 2-land hand with a Chainwalker. Missed my third and fourth land drops, never made it past 4 lands, and promptly died.

It's possible I should be mulliganing more aggressively. That's a part of my game that could probably improve. Both those hands were marginal keeps, but not outlandish.

Anyway, at 1-2 I only had one more match to play. My opponent in round 4 was not very experienced, so I 2-0'd pretty easily. Players with a 2-2 record got a single pack. Meh.

Onto the last event!


Event 4:
Rocket's Hideout
Baton Rouge, LA
5:00pm

Guild #1: Izzet
Allied Guild #1: Simic

Guild #2: Izzet
Allied Guild #2: Gruul

Sweet...two RUG decks! At first I built a straight aggro RUG deck, but then decided that the blue wasn't buying a whole lot in terms of power, and that a RG deck would be more efficient without losing much power. It was a straightforward deck with a solid curve and almost no removal. It did have 2 Zhur-Taa Druids, though, which was cool. Gruul Ragebeast was the curve-topping bomb. I also have a lot more respect for Armed/Dangerous.


Lyall, on the other hand, but together a sweet Grixis control build with scads of removal. I believe the deck had 5 premium split cards (3 Far/Away and 2 Turn/Burn?). He also had 2 Mirko Vosks!


Round 1 we played against two former state champs. The match was very tight. Half of their team was stuck on 3 lands the whole match, but every spell he played was relevant: Arrest on my Madcap Skilled bear, a timely Rootborn Defenses, a Sundering Growth that populated a bird token for a game-saving block, and an Unflinching Courage on his partner's own Gruul Ragebeast to build them back up to a safe life total. Lyall resolved both Mirko Vosks back-to-back after the first was removed, but only got in one hit. A second might have been the game. The game was extremely close, and it's possible we misplayed by being too aggressive, but if so, it wasn't a huge misplay. The key to the loss was that we both flooded mid-game and Lyall drew nearly none of his removal. Turn/Burn or Far/Away would likely have been game at nearly any point. Ah well.

Our first round opponents were running Crackling Perimeter and a jillion gates, which seemed like a really sweet idea, so Lyall revamped his deck to add in this combo. I also dropped the 17th land in favor of Electrickery.


Round 2 Lyall's deck was working as planned, and we were able to maintain the superior board presence throughout and steadily pound out lethal damage.

Round 3 we played a very nice father/son duo (both named Alex). Their decks weren't completely awful, though we did get Riot Control played against us (in rounds 2 and 3, actually). We took a fair amount of early damage, but were able to keep their worst threats in check and inevitably build up to a lethal alpha strike. Lyall had a Void Wielder in play and I had a Zhur-Taa Swine and another smaller creature. I cast Armed/Dangerous targeting the VW to give it Lure and making my pig a 6/5 double-strike. Upon attack, I bloodrushed it with a Rubblebelt Maaka, making it a 9/8 double-strike, which was lethal. Even if that hadn't done it, Lyall had Crackling Perimeter in play with something like 5 gates. Each hit from Perimeter does 2 to the team, so we had extra damage to spare.

Teams going 2-1 got 3 packs for each team member, so that was fine.

It's possible we could have made better play decisions in match 1...I don't know. The only other match I think my play was a factor was Event 3, Round 3, where I may not have mulliganed aggressively enough. On the whole I was happy with the way things turned out, though, and my play in general.

Event 1: 3-1-1 (top 8: 10 packs)
Event 2: 3-0-1 (top 4: 7 packs)
Event 3: 2-2 (1 pack)
Event 4: 2-1 (3 packs)

Total: 10-4-2 (21 packs)

I've come away from the last 4 prerelease events with 15-20 packs of the new set, which is always sweet for a rabid drafter. So I'm pretty happy. Still, I feel like to get to the next level I need to win or top-4 a competitive event.

There was a recurring theme throughout the prerelease, and it was Unflinching Courage. I either lost, or nearly lost to this card in almost every decisive match. I hope to actually have one of these in my card pool at some point in the format, because it's kind of nuts.


Next Sunday is the Win-a-Case sealed event at Rocket's. I'll be there, and hopefully I'll open a legitimate bomb or two and make a real run for the top. Either way I'll post the results here.





Monday, April 22, 2013

A Bittersweet Top 8

I played in a Gatecrash sealed Grand Prix Trial on Saturday.

My sealed pool was one of those with evenly-distributed cards among the colors, and not much in the way of bombs (Stolen Identity was my "bomb"). I ended up in Esper (UWB), mainly because of 2 Kingpin's Pets and 2 Orzhov Charms. I didn't think the deck was particularly strong, but it did have a good curve, and a little fixing.

We played 5 rounds of Swiss. All of the first four rounds I played against Borzhov (BRW). I won all four, admittedly getting a little lucky on my opponent's poor draws. I did play very tight Magic, though, not making any obvious mistakes that I can recall. I tied into the top 8 with my 5th-round opponent.

The top 8 did a Gatecrash draft. I don't think I drafted very well, though I think I did get a little unlucky. One issue was that each pick was timed. I'd never done a live draft where the picks were timed. Of course, on Magic Online, the picks are timed, but they cards are also laid out fully in front of you, so making picks faster is easier. You can immediately rule out certain cards and focus on just a few. In a live draft, you cannot lay out your cards. You must look at them one or a few at a time. This makes a timed live draft a bit more nerve-wracking. I'm used to fairly casual drafts where I have plenty of time to mull over my decisions. This was one of the first times I've felt rushed drafting.

Anyway, my first two picks were: 1) Grisly Spectacle, and 2) Dimir Charm. They were the best cards in those packs, and I thought I might be able to have a minor coup by moving in on Dimir (a generally underdrafted guild) and possibly being the only Dimir drafter at the table. Things were looking pretty good when I picked up a Call of the Nightwing pick 4, but then the cards started to dry up fairly quickly. I don't remember pack contents extremely well, but I do think that I probably should have been picking up strong Simic cards in pack one to stay reasonable open. I think I took mediocre Dimir cards instead. I was hoping for a nice suite of removal (Death's Approach and Devour Flesh at the very least, a Killing Glare and/or another Spectacle, best case). But the removal didn't come. In retrospect, I think I probably had one or more Orzhov drafters to my immediate right, because the black was downright horrible.

This is one of the poor design choices made by Wizards with respect to Dimir, I think. Most of the cards Dimir wants are also easily playable in Orzhov. Virtually every removal spell with black (except Dimir Charm, though Orzhov gets its own removal charm which is arguably better) is also playable in Orzhov. I guess Soul Ransom counts, but of course it's at rare. Dimir really needed something like Agony Warp, a UB spell much more difficult for Orzhov to pick up.

Now, I got a Simic Manipulator passed to me in pack 2, but that was the highlight. I ended up very light on removal and with zero Deathcult Rogues (which I was really counting on for offense and cipher).

I was the #1 seed, so I faced an opponent I'd beaten in Round 4. He was a nice guy, but made several play mistakes. He was playing Naya and had a lot of high-quality early drops (Truefire Paladin, Skarrg Guildmage, etc.). In game 1 I got my Simic Manipulator online, along with Call of the Nightwing, and the game was a complete blowout in my favor. Game 2 I got stuck on 4 lands, missing 3 land drops in a row with Dinrova Horror and two other 5-drops in hand. He curved out and I died. Game 3 was closer, but on a locked board he drew three creatures in a row to my three lands, and my board was outclassed. So I lost first round in the top 8, which left a bit of a bitter taste in my mouth. I had moved in on Dimir, which I thought was a strong move, but either I wasn't the only Dimir drafter, or more likely Orzhov was being heavily drafted in the pool as well, or the pool was just very Dimir light.

At one point I had one of those moments where I felt like a douche for rules-lawyering. My opponent had a Skarrg Guildmage in play. He played a mountain, then tapped three lands and pointed to the mountain he had just played. "Make it a 4/4," he said. A judge was watching. I sighed and said, "You know that mountain has summoning sickness, right?" He said, "Oh okay, then I'll just make my Plains a creature instead." He started to untap his mana, and the judge said, "No." My opponent was visibly upset. Had a judge not been there, I'm not sure what I would have done. I kind of felt like I'd already given the guy a break. In the Swiss portion, the same opponent had been on the play. He had looked at his hand, said "Keep." I said, "Mulligan." He then said, "Okay, we'll I'll mulligan too then." I knew that wasn't cool. He'd already shoved his cards back into his deck. I had let that one go. Not sure what a judge would have ruled, but I'm pretty sure he would have at least gotten a warning. Having let that go, I felt like I had to point out the issue with the activated land. I wouldn't have been surprised in the judge had said that his intent was to activate a non-summoning sick land and let it fly, but I thought it was the sort of thing that someone else would have held me to, and I wanted to be on a level playing field. But, despite this and other minor play mistakes (mostly involving not making attacks when I he had good ones), I lost.

Ah well. It was my first top 8 in a competitive rules environment. I've top-16'd two Grand Prix Qualifiers (including one online with over 400 participants), but this was my first competitive-level top-8. So, I'm generally pleased. I won't be really, really pleased until I win one, though.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Winning the First Dice Roll

Last night we barely scraped together 8 people for a live draft after my local game store crapped out by not having inventory (but that's a whole other post).

After first-picking a Sunhome Guildmage I was passed an Elusive Krasis. I really like Simic in this format (and I'm a bit fatigued on Boros) so I moved in on Simic. This was likely a mistake. There were 4 Simic drafters at the table (one was RUG, but still), one of which was two players to my right. Pack 2 was great for me, scoring a Simic Manipulator, but Pack 3 was miserable and the Boros signals in Pack 1 were quite strong.

Ah well. I went 1-2 in three rounds of Swiss, losing two very close mirror matches. I believe I had the better deck in both matches, and I think my play was very solid. Looking back, though, I realized that I'd lost the initial dice roll all three matches. How big a difference does that make?

I would love to see some hard data on this. Alternatively, I'm too lazy to try to gather it. Matthew Watkins has done some interesting draft format analyses. Maybe I'll shoot him and email and see if he's willing to look at this issue and comment.

I've been Googling for the past twenty minutes trying to find win percentages based on playing first vs. drawing first, in any MtG format. I can't find anything other than forum posts where people are just speculating. I know I saw an article in the past six months that discussed this in-depth, giving hard numbers. Now I can't even find information on when they changed the rule from "play-first-and-draw" to just "play-first", but I thought I remembered the match win percentage advantage to drawing and playing first being something like 58% vs. 42%. That is, under the old rules, when you both played first and drew first, you got an inherent advantage of 8% (this may not be exact, but I remember reading that the advantage was quite large). Under the current scheme, I thought the advantage shrunk to 52% to 48%. Again, if anyone has links to actual statistics on this, please let me know.

Now then, the lower the curve, the more aggressive the deck, and the faster the format...all these factors will skew that advantage even more. If Watkins is correct that GTC is even faster that RTR, than the advantage gained from playing first with a fast, aggressive Simic, Gruul, or Boros guild should be substantially higher. My first-round opponent had two Experiment Ones in his deck. There aren't a lot of one-drops in the format, but Experiment Ones, Cloudfin Raptors, Boros Elite, and even Foundry Street Denizen can get in a few points of crucial damage that will win a close mirror.

Boros seems especially primed for huge tempo advantage due to playing first. Last week at my LGS, I lost last round to a player who sequenced like this:

Game 1 (on the play):
Turn 1: Boros Elite
Turn 2: Wojek Halberdiers
Turn 3: Frontline Medic

Game 3 (on the play):
Turn 1: Boros Elite
Turn 2: Daring Skyjek
Turn 3: Frontline Medic

These lines are nearly impossible to beat. You must have a cheap form of removal in the first three turns or you are simply dead. His deck also had two Firemane Avengers, but those weren't even a factor (as bonkers as that was). I didn't feel bad losing that match. I just shook my head at the brutal curve-out.

Anyway, I wouldn't be surprised to find that the play-first advantage in this format for Boros is around 60%. If there is any truth to the general analysis here, then that first dice roll becomes substantially more important, further increasing the variance in the game, which I think is a bit unfortunately. But it's also another variable to look at when analyzing post-play. There's nothing you can do about it, short of cheating on the dice roll, but it might help give some perspective on results if you played against super aggressive decks each round, losing the dice rolls.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

My latest draft was a Gatecrash Swiss:

http://www.twitch.tv/packratmtg/b/391528511

I ended up in black/red/white, my historically worst color combination (I've gone 1-3 in two live drafts with BRW). My colors were evenly distributed, and I had only one piece of fixing, a Prophetic Prism. But unlike some of my other BRW decks, I had some juicy bombs. Have a look, and if you have any comments about my picks or play, just leave them here.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

What Percentage of MtG Games are Decided Primarily by Mana Issues (Screw or Flood)?

I used the last of my DKA/INN packs to play a 4-3-2-2 this morning. It was another one of those horrible MtG experiences where we only had one actual game.

http://www.twitch.tv/packratmtg/b/390862956

My opponent mulled to 5 in game 1, dropped a Doomed Traveler, then scooped after he missed his second land drop (presumably out of frustration, though he was definitely not out of the game).

So given the freebee, we won a pretty evenly-matched game 2.

Game 3, my opener had 1 land. Unplayable. My mull to 6 had 1 land. Unplayable. It's at this point when I should be zen, but I friggin hate the game design. I mull to 5 to keep a crappy hand, but a better one that either of my first two.

It's really not a game at all. My opponent had mulled to 6, but on the draw that's far less impactful than playing a 5-card hand on the play. If you watch the video, you'll see that I get enough land to put down a Geist, but I lose any potential card advantage from Burning Oil due to his trick. I'm horribly behind on the board anyway. I drew 2 spells (Tragic Slip and Midnight Guard) and 6 lands the rest of the game. He invalidated my Slip with a Faith's Shield. So basically I was playing the entire third game crippled due to the mulligan, and flooded out anyway.

These types of matches are not fun. Not just because I lost, but because two of the games were not even played. They weren't games. They were non-games. I'm fine with game design that gives inferior players a chance to beat better players due to variance. But there are game designs that allow for that without having the experience be a complete waste of time. Poker is a good example of this. Even with horrible hole cards, I can still play the game in some meaningful way (e.g. bluffing). But MtG games that result from resource variance are simply unplayable, and thus un-fun.

My estimate for games decided by mana issues is about 20%. I initially estimated about 1 in 6, but I think it's slightly higher than that. And those experiences, while you should take them in stride, still leave a bad taste in my mouth, because I think they are not a necessary part of the game design.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Card Design Gone Horribly Wrong: Goblin Test Pilot




Goblin Test Pilot - 1UR
Creature - Goblin Wizard (Uncommon)
Flying
Tap: Goblin Test Pilot deals 2 damage to target creature or player chosen at random.

"All pilots and prototypes destroyed. Extensive collateral damage inflicted. Conclusion: flawless design."
-Manual of Melek
0/2


Since returning to Magic a couple of years ago, starting with M12, I've been consistently impressed with the generally solid, robust design of new sets. 

This guy makes me question the judgment of R&D, though. He's. Just. Awful.

He's an evasive creature with zero power. Okay.

He's a creature that deals damage that has the same probability of killing himself as hitting any other legal target.

From a paper game play perspective, he's just awful. Determining the outcome of his target is horribly clunky. Rarely is there an even number of targets, so we're going to have situations where there are 7 creatures on board and including the 2 players we're going to have to figure out how to resolve the target. Roll a 10d? This is going to eat up the clock, be confusing, and not particularly fun.

Aside from logistics, something that has a symmetric effect has the potential to be powerful if the situation is crafted well (see Balance). But this is no Balance. You have to buff his toughness to keep him from potentially killing himself, or give your team hexproof (Mizzium Skin away!).

Seriously, he's just garbage. He's clunky from a gameplay perspective. Random abilities can be fun. The new Ral Zarek's ultimate is a great example of this. But not this guy. He's utter, complete crap.

Return to Ravnica Phantom Sealed

http://www.twitch.tv/packratmtg/b/390327914

Spoiler alert: I still can't break the 3-0 curse, even with a pretty bonkers deck. Comments on my deck construction, play, and sideboarding are welcome. Though simply flooding out to lose is pretty depressing. One could argue I shouldn't be running 18 lands, but when you've got Armada Wurm and Collective Blessing at your top end, the additional lands increase the probability of hitting those as early as possible. Still, if you disagree, let me know.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Latest Draft: M13 on MTGO

I've started streaming on Twitch.tv. It's going okay, but there are still a few issues to work out. Here's my latest draft, an M13 Swiss where I go UR and end up playing three BW decks in a row (which was weird):

http://www.twitch.tv/packratmtg/b/389700661

I obviously have some issues with the sound, which is difficult to test. In the playback my mic volume is too low compared to my other system sounds. Also, I got dangerously close to time in the first two matches, so I need to get better at playing quickly while commenting. This was a deck where I had to make a lot of choices, and required a lot of clicking, but I shouldn't have gone to time.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Sealed Tournament: Lessons Learned

I was pretty depressed after the sealed tournament on Sunday, thus the late update. I went 3-2, coming in 9th and just missing the cut for the top 8 draft playoff.

What made the results particularly painful were:

1) I got pretty close to a dream Boros pool, including a Firemane Angel and Aurelia.
2) The first two rounds my draws were absolutely abysmal. I mulliganed to 5 in the third game of match 1, put up a fierce fight, but my opponent ripped four spells in a row in midgame to take it. I mulliganed to 4 in the third game of match 2, keeping a hand with 3 plains and Firemane Avenger. I actually won that game, due to misplay by my opponent, landing me at 1-1 in matches.
3) Round 3 was the only match my deck actually fired on all cylinders, curving out and crushing 2-0.
4) Round 4 was just horrible. I won the first game easily, but made key errors in games 2 and 3 that cost me the match. Had I won just one of those games I could have simply tied into the top 8. Very depressing.

So I won round 5 fairly easily, but really had no shot at top 8 since a first round loss absolutely borks your tiebreakers. Anyway, here are the mistakes I made and potentially lessons learned:

Game 2 of round 4: my opponent and I have been trading blows, and our life totals are both low. I'm at 7 and he's at 8. I have just attacked with a Warmind Infantry and an Ember Beast, putting him at his current life total. I play a Skinbrand Goblin, leaving 1 white mana open. He's got a Kingpin's Pet and an Ember Beast on board. He untaps, draws, and taps both his creatures for the attack.

Now, I have Beckon Apparition in hand, and am able to cast it. I also have a Holy Mantle in hand. He's got 4 mana open, including 2 red and 2 white. Now here's where I should have put more thought into my play. Why would he attack with both creatures, leaving himself open to a fatal backswing, unless he thought he could kill me this turn? He knows I can block the Ember Beast with the Skinbrand Goblin, which I would need to enable Battalion for a lethal swingback. So maybe he wants to just force me to chump with the Goblin so I don't have lethal on the swingback.

I cast the Beckon Apparition, making a 1/1 spirit token and blocking just the Ember Beast. My reasoning was that he didn't likely have the mana and spells to pump his Pet to lethal, and I needed the Goblin for lethal on the swingback. He proceeded to Bloodrush Scorchwalker onto his Pet for exact damage, taking Game 1. So was that a mistake? Should I have double-chumped? In hindsight, yes. Though I hadn't seen the Scorchwalker. I think this is actually very close, so I'm not particularly sure it was a mistake.

Game 3 involved me not playing out a third creature, leaving open Massive Raid to try to take out a Bloodrushed attacker. Instead, my opponent cast Martial Glory, saving his creature and doing exact lethal.

The match had a very coin-flip feel to it, but I still think I made the mistake of not developing my board, taking a slightly defensive stance in Game 3, which cost me the match. The Scorchwalker play had spooked me, and I was playing too wary in Game 3. Boros can pull amazing burst damage out of nowhere, as well as using Act of Treason to completely flip a board state. You can only play around so much, but hedging and playing more defensively in the mirror is just a bad idea. You have to swing for the fences and hope for the best. Unfortunately I hadn't played too many Boros mirrors coming into the event, so I've learned this lesson a bit too late.

Eliminating these minor lapses at crucial moments is the next step in improvement. I'm a solid, above-average player, but to consistently be in the top 10% of the field, I have to reduce my mistakes even further. Tonight is my local game store draft, and hopefully I'll nail that and regain some confidence after bubbling on Sunday.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Wednesday LGS Draft:

Last night I drafted Gatecrash at my local game store and bounced back a little from my recent slump. My first pick was a Wrecking Ogre, and after staying slightly open for either Boros or Gruul, it was pretty clear halfway through pack 1 that white was open, so I settled into Boros. I had a much better curve than my other recent Boros decks, though I still didn't have a single multicolor two-drop, which is sad. Early in the format I had a Boros deck with two Truefire Paladins and a Firemane Avenger. Ah, those were the days.

My decks have gotten progressively weaker since the beginning of the format, and as is often the case, it's difficult to tell whether this is largely due to variance, or other drafters are getting better, or I'm getting worse. Last night I had two relatively new guys to my immediate right (one hadn't drafted much; the other was drafting for the first time). Still, when you move in on Boros in pack 1, the hope is to get passed a guildmage or a paladin, but you should have a reasonably high probability of seeing one or more Wojek Halderdiers. I saw zero.

Though on the bright side I did pick up 2 Syndic of Tithes and 3 Skyknight Legionnaire. So I had a fine curve, with 16 creatures, a few combat tricks, and a few removal: a solid, but not super-exciting Boros deck.

The three rounds I won, I won 2-0, jumping out to fast starts and finishing with burst damage from the ogre or Boros Charm. In case it wasn't obvious, Legionnaires are awesome. I had enough evasive power to outrace just about any opponent. The single loss was a 2-1 match against Esper. I blew him out game 1, but was eaten alive game 2 by a Nightveil Specter suited up with Call of the Nightwing. My removal included a Mugging, a Massive Raid, and an Angelic Edict. Even if I had drawn the first two, they wouldn't have handled the Specter. My opponent was playing about half creatures and half removal, including 3 Devour Flesh, 2 Grisly Spectacle, 2 One Thousand Lashes, and a Killing Glare. I simply couldn't keep creatures on the board. The Specter actually stole a Plains, a Mountain, my Mugging, and a Skyknight Legionnaire. So yeah, I lost that game. Game 3 I sided out the Massive Raid and Holy Mantle, though I probably should have sided out all my tricks for my clunkier sideboard creatures. I kept a hand with a Skyjek and a Legionnaire, and only drew one more creature the entire game, an Assault Griffin. I had a situation where my opponent was at 14 life, with a Cloudfin Raptor with 1 counter and a Deathcult Rogue (both tapped) onboard, 2 cards in hand, and all his mana tapped. I had a Skyknight Legionnaire in play, and a Boros Charm, Aerial Maneuver, and Martial Glory in-hand. Attacking and using all my spells, I could get in 12 damage, putting him at 2. If he completely whiffed, I'd be able to attack to make him chump with the raptor next turn, then the Legionnaire would be lethal. I thought the probability of my pump spells being effective later was probably lower, since he had so much instant-speed removal, so I went all-in. In retrospect, I should have saved the Maneuver and put him to 4. That would have allowed me to potentially attack through a 2/3 Raptor or block and eat it on a subsequent turn, though that would have given him even more time. As it happened, he cast a Mindeye Drake the following turn, and that was that.

There are no good mono-red direct damage spells that target players in the format, which makes finishing your opponent off somewhat difficult. Everybody raves about Mugging being premium, but it is really just a shitty Shock. It's not instant-speed, which is huge, and even worse, it can't go to the face. Unless you rip a sweet rare that does direct damage, you're stuck pushing through lethal with creatures, and that can be a tall order sometimes.

Anyway, I again came out on the shitty side of equity. I was 3-1, but there were 3 other 3-1s ahead of me, nudging me out of the top 4 and into 5th place, where I only got a single pack for prize support. I believe 3rd and 4th both got 6 packs, so yes, that sucks balls. So I didn't rip any money cards, got the worse prize support possible for my record, but I did put in a solid performance. My match win percentage for Gatecrash is at 74.5%, which I think it just about as high as you can hope for, with a significant number of games being lost through mana issues. My highest win percentage for a format was M13, finishing the season with a 75.2%.

So hopefully I can get in a couple more practice Sealed events before Sunday and be positioned well for the tournament.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Another Day, Another Gatecrash Phantom Sealed

And another 2-1, which is fine.

I went RUG. Had lots of fixing for those colors, including a Prophetic Prism, a Breeding Pool, and 3 Gruul Guildgates. I had a good curve and a couple of bombs in Rubblebelt Raiders and Clan Defiance (which I was extremely careful when casting).


I had the good fortune of facing basically the nut Orzhov sealed pool. Game 1 I saw Alms Beast, One Thousand Lashes, 2 Devour Flesh, and multiple extort creatures. It was a close game, but I lost that one. I thought, "He's got a strong deck, but I can beat it." Game 2 I was ahead on the race and turn 5 he drops Obzedat, Ghost Council.


The instinct at that point is to just give up, but I fought through and actually won that game on the back of an Adaptive Snapjaw and Drakewing Krasis suited up with Hands of Binding. Game 3 I kept a hand with 2 Islands, a Forest, and 3 castable spells, including 2 creatures. I proceeded to draw 3 red creatures and no mountains. And Obzedat resolved again on turn 5, so that was pretty much game.

Match 2 I faced another, weaker Orzhov deck (couldn't really be any stronger than the first round one). I won 2-1, dropping the second game due to not having green mana the whole game.

Match 3 was against a pretty mediocre Boros deck. Clan Defiance is especially brutal against Boros if they go 2-drop into Skyknight Legionnaire, which my opponent did. I won the match 2-0 pretty handily.

In Sealed I'm finding it most useful to sort by creatures of each color first. Often that dictates the deck. I'm also finding it extremely difficult lately to get 14+ creatures in two colors, forcing me into three. At that point, fixing becomes a bigger issue. And even though I had 4 dual lands in my colors and a Prism, I still lost 2 games due to color issues. I'm just hoping that the Sunday Sealed tournament gives me enough strong playables in 2 colors...I wouldn't mind having my Round 1 opponent's pool from this event on Sunday. We'll see.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Revisiting M13 (and the Mental Side of Magic)

Yesterday my local store ran a small draft (9 people), and since their latest shipment of Gatecrash hadn't come in, we ended up drafting M13 Core Set. I was pretty excited. As I said before, it's one of my favorite formats. It's balanced, flexible, and very well-designed for draft.

So my first pack I open...Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker. I had never opened this guy throughout the regular M13 drafting season (he is mythic, after all). Of course I took him. And pack 1 the Bolas plan started looking pretty good. I picked up some nice red, black, and blue cards, including two Unsummons and a Murder. But I was also passed 2 Pacifisms, which were by far the best cards in the pack. By the end of Pack 1 I was still pretty open, but the beginning of Pack 2 gave me the following three picks: Oblivion Ring, Serra Angel, and a third Pacifism. I could have taken a Fog Bank over an O-ring, but that just seemed so bad. Ignoring the clear White signal in lieu of going for the janky Grixis deck seemed like a recipe for disaster, so I moved in on BW. I ended up with 5 exalted cards, 3 1-drop creatures, 6 2-drop creatures, 5 4-drop creatures, and zero 3-drop creatures. Pack 3 was a complete dud. It turns out the drafter to my immediate right was in GW, even though he had passed me 2 Pacifisms in Pack 1.

I don't think I made very poor decisions in the draft. Pacifism is about as premium as removal gets in draft, and two from the right in Pack 1 seemed like a relatively strong signal. I thought this would pay off in Pack 3, but the pack was obviously light in good white, and I was getting cut hard on good creatures, since the draft to my right was on the creature-heavy GW train. Just a couple of solid 3-drops (a couple of Attended Knights would have done the trick...the dream was a Vampire Nighthawk or 2). So I ended up with a deck with 14 creatures (with a pretty low power level), 7 removal (3 Pacifism, 1 O-ring, 1 Murder, and 2 Essence Drain), no bombs, and a couple of combat tricks. The removal was godly, but all only 1-for-1's.

Round 1 I just go overrun by RG aggro. Flames of the Firebrand is pretty devastating against BW because of the prevalence of 1-toughness creatures. Game 1 was competitive, but I lost. Game 2 my opponent curved out with 1-drop, 2-drop, 3-drop, 4-drop, and even though I had a near ideal opener with War Falcon, Knight of Glory, Oblivion Ring, and good land, I couldn't race that opening. I lost 0-2. Matches: 0-1.

Round 2 I barely won against a UB deck with multiple Talrand's Invocation. One game I used all 3 of my Pacifisms. The card advantage of getting 2 2/2 flyers is simply insane in Limited. It was a close match and I barely won. Matches: 1-1.

Round 3 I played against a mono-black deck running multiple Ravenous Rats and Mark of the Vampire. I would have loved a Mark or two for my own deck, since I picked up 2 Tormented Souls through Pack 2, but I only saw 2 in Pack 1 and never saw any again, which is pretty unusual. Again, a super-close match, but one where my enchantment removal really shined. Matches: 2-1.

The fourth and final round put me against a BR deck. Again, game 1 a turn 3 Flames of the Firebrand killed both my 1 and 2-drops, a Chronomaton and Knight of Glory. I opted to play out the Knight instead of leaving mana open to pump the Chronomaton. I opted for developing my board and being aggressive. I think not doing any damage in the early rounds and simply growing the Chronomaton could have led to the even worse outcome of him killing it with a black spell after I'd invested lots of mana into it. Maybe my line was bad, but I think I was positioned badly no matter what. We split the first 2 games, and game 3 was very close. We were both around 7 life, and I had 2 Griffin Protectors on-board. He had 3 creatures in play, including a 2/2 flyer. I played a Serra Angel, pumping my griffins, swung to put him near death, then passed turn. I was hoping the Angel would stabilize me, but in formats with Threaten effects, this is a dodgy proposal. He untapped, played Mark of Mutiny, and killed me with my own Angel. I drew pretty badly in this match overall. In one game he piled 3 enchantments onto a Bladetusk Boar for the win, and I didn't draw a single removal spell. Matches: 2-2.

Didn't place in the prize support. So it goes.

If I had it to do all over again I would have stayed on the Bolas train and tried to just build Grixis control. I think I read the signals well, even though they were wrong (heavy white players usually don't pass multiple Pacifisms). Ah well. It was kind of fun...not as fun as winning, of course, but it was nice to see M13 again.

On a last note, the latest Limited Resources is almost completely devoted to the mental side of Magic, dealing with variance and tilt. My friend and fellow Magic player Jack says he doesn't find these sorts of discussions all that useful, since he doesn't feel like he gets a lot of actionable advice out of them. I think the mental side is pretty important, and cultivating a strong mental approach to the game is difficult, but very useful. Even yesterday I tilted a bit in a game where I kept a 3-spell, 4-land hand and drew 5 lands in a row. It was a pretty casual draft environment, but I think it's a good idea to try to maintain good habits, and avoid tilt as much as possible. I got visibly upset, told my opponent I had all lands in-hand, and was very on edge. This does nothing but give my opponent advantage, so...it's bad.

A few weeks ago I played in a Gatecreash sealed event. I wasn't crazy about the deck I put together, Naya with some strong cards, but not a lot of synergy. Round 1 I played a fellow Lafayette player (the tourney was in Baton Rouge). We split the first two games, and game 3 was going very badly. My life total was low (like 5). I hadn't done any damage to my opponent, so he was still at 20 life. He had killed all my creatures except for one, a lonely Court Street Denizen. Meanwhile, my opponent had a Zhur-Taa Swine suited up with a Madcap Skills and a Riot Gear, making it an 9/6 that could only be blocked by two creatures. It was his only creature on-board. Now, I didn't have any creatures in-hand. I drew another land. Things had been going horribly all day. It was hot, noisy, and crowded in the store. I was hungry. And I was already feeling defeated, since I hadn't even touched my opponent all game and I was facing off my 2/2 against his 9/6. But I had a Boros Charm and an Act of Treason in-hand. I missed the winning play and passed the turn. The winning play was to steal his pig, give it double strike, and swing for exactly 20. He was tapped out. That would have won me the match. Because I was in a defeated, frustrated frame of mind, I missed my out. It's rare that you don't do any damage to your opponent all game and are able to kill them with one play, but it does happen, and you need to be looking for it. My problem was that I wasn't looking hard enough. I had already lost in my mind.

So I don't mind discussions of the mental side of Magic. I can always improve this aspect of my game, and constant reminders and input from others are a good way of doing that.

Our regular Gatecrash draft is Wednesday. I hope to pull out of my mini-slump then and get some confidence going into the Sealed next Sunday. I'll also likely try to do some more GTC Sealed practice on MTGO this week. I'll report any results here.

Friday, March 15, 2013

MTGO Misclick Rage

I'm in Round 2 of a Phantom GTC Sealed event on MTGO. I'm playing Boros, splashing green only for a Clan Defiance. My opponent, on the play, has gotten out a Daring Skyjek and a Kingpin's Pet. I untap with 4 mana, including R and G, and my Clan Defiance in hand. Time for a mini-blowout here, right?

I click the spell to cast it, select "Do X damage to creature with flying, do X damage to creature without flying, and do X damage to target player". I am prompted to select target creature with flying. I select the Kingpin's Pet. I am prompted to select target creature without flying. I select the Daring Skyjek. I am prompted to select target player. I select my opponent. I am prompted to pay RG. I pay RG and tap my other two lands for mana.

I click OK.

The spell goes to the graveyard and the play log says I just did zero damage to each target. Um. Honestly I don't know what the hell happened. I thought maybe I had been prompted to increment the amount of damage to each target and missed the increment. But I subsequently cast the spell the exact same way (only targeting just a single creature and player) and it worked exactly as expected.

The MTGO interface sucks. There's just no denying it. It's been a while since something this bad happens, but when it does, it makes you want to chuck your computer out the window. I understand there's a tradeoff between speed and error handling. A good option here would have been a warning dialog making sure I wanted to cast an X spell for zero before actually casting it (e.g. "Are you sure you want X to be zero?" Hell no, I don't.). Some might say that would slow the game down too much. Well, the moronic thing is that upon casting the spell for zero, then moving to the next phase, I was prompted with "You have mana left in your pool and you will lose it when going to the next phase. Are you sure?" If there's time for a mana prompt, there's time for a zero X spell prompt, which is arguably much more important since there's no mana burn anymore.

That game was firmly in hand, and I had won the first, so I would have gone up 2-0 in matches, ensuring prize support. Instead, I lost that game, and the next, then went 1-2 against another aggressive Naya deck in the last round and ended up 1-2 in matches. That interface issue cost me at least 1 pack, and possibly 3. So, that's awesome.

What there should be (and it would be trivial to implement) are different tiers of prompts for this kind of thing. The learning curve on MTGO is fairly steep. I made a lot of very costly mistakes early on just learning the interface, and many of them made me not want to play online for a while, if at all. The tragedy is that they've done a superb job handling the rules complexity of the game, but the interface still blows chunks. I am still mind-boggled at how they can do such a poor job at usability sometimes.

When this sort of thing happens, I don't feel the general fondness and enthusiasm for the game I usually feel. I feel disgusted. And that's not an emotion you want to elicit in your user base.

Not that it's that important now, but here was my pool and the deck I made. There as a possible Dimir or maybe UBG deck there, but the overall power level of the Boros was best, I think:


Update: I put in a reimbursement request on the chance that this was actually a bug and not a misclick, but asked for reimbursement in either case. WotC approved the request. Kudos.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Weekly Local Draft: Losing with Borzhov

You often learn more from failure than from success. At least, you hope you do. Last night was my first losing record in a live Gatecrash draft, going 1-3. Sometimes you can just blame variance, and I certainly had some of that going on, but it wasn't the whole story. Getting better at a game with inherent variance requires being able to determine the extent to which the results were based on luck or decisions. Last night I made some bad decisions (primarily in the draft portion), but they were also a function of some bad luck.

What the heck am I talking about? Well, my P1P1 was a Boros Reckoner, very much a bomb in Limited. Ideally I wanted to go Boros. If you pick a bomb pack 1 that sets you along a particular path, it can be difficult to jump ship, but sometimes you need to. The problem was that the draft to my immediate right was also Boros. The reason I didn't pick up on this fact until early pack 3 (and by then it was far too late to switch) was that our draft pool had an unusually high concentration of red cards, which were flowing quite nicely. I picked up multiple Muggings, Massive Raids, and 2 Cinder Elementals. The problem was that by pack 3 I was sorely lacking in creatures (I had 10), especially the key 2-drops Boros needs to be really aggressive. I had picked up 1 Wojek Halberdiers and 1 Skyknight Legionnaire in Pack 2, but that's all I ended up with by the end of the draft. And that didn't cut it. My curve was much higher than I wanted, and I was forced to splash black to get up to 16 creatures. Ideally I want around 18 creatures in my Boros decks, with a high number of 2 and 3-drops.

In a lot of ways, this draft was like the online one from the last post. Strong bigger bombs set me into particular colors and I had problems filling out the bottom of my curve. So, some potential lessons learned:

  • Prioritize cheaper creatures earlier in aggro decks, even to the exclusion of removal (especially mediocre removal).
  • Don't get wedded to a guild based on a first pick. I actually evenly drafted black, white, and red in pack 1, ready to move in on Orzhov if it happened, but unfortunately it was cut pretty hard pack 2.
  • Do a better job at reading signals. The flow of red made me think Boros was reasonably open, but it was a bit of a false signal, since no multicolor Boros cards were coming through. I wish I had a record of the pack contents, because I think I missed a very clear signal that Gruul was wide open. We had no Gruul drafters in our pod at the end of the draft, so there must have been some green signals I missed in pack 1. I know I wasn't passed a Gruul guildmage, or a Rampager, or even a Gruul Charm early because those would have been clear signals, so they must have been more subtle.
However, it's possible that Pack 1 was just weak on Gruul and the signal was not strong enough to catch. These are definitely points to be mindful of, though. Especially prioritizing creatures. I do best with aggro decks with high creature counts, so deviating from the conventional wisdom that removal is almost always better than a reasonably efficient but unexciting creature (like a bear) is probably a good idea.

Overall I think my play was solid. Match 1 was heartbreaking, as I won Game 1, then my opponent came back from a 35-point life differential (I was at 36, while he was at 1) to win the game. I then mulliganed into a very mediocre 5-card hand and failed to draw anything in game 3. 

Matches 2 and 3 were both to solid decks, but I saved a complete rout by winning my last match 2-1. Overall my deck was simply clunky and slow, far too much so to be an effective Boros deck. I pulled a couple of money cards (the Reckoner and a Godless Shrine), so the draft was paid for, but ideally I'd like to win. Perhaps this was mostly just variance catching up with me. I've done very well in Gatecrash so far. But I'm sure there were some things, especially in the draft portion, that I could have done better, so I'll keep those in mind going forward.