In spite of the recent changes in the prerelease structure, I made an effort to seek out a "big" prerelease this past weekend, heading out to Superstars' new location in downtown San Jose. I entered the building with a feeling of indifference, and left with a sensation that can only be described as jubilant.
I am loath to admit this, but for the first time I am excited about a PTQ season that isn't Extended.
Alara sealed looks like a skill-rewarding and awesome format.
Initially I was drawn to create a green fattie/ramp deck as I had opened two Druid of the Anima, some other mana men as well as the Anima herself. Going down such a path would require me to play cards like Yoked Plowbeast, which felt wrong considering the Scourglass and artifacts I had opened. Adding to Esper's allure were the on-color mana fixers and two flying 4/4 men who hopefully wouldn't turn to stone during the day.
I drew Scourglass twice and activated it only once (as a one-for-one). Sadly I did not live the Flores Scourglass dream. Consequently Steelclad Serpent was an underachiever. But the rest of my quality cards carried the day. I think the best way to describe Spearbreaker Behemoth would be "large and in charge."
As I sorted through my sealed pool, I realized that I had a small problem. There were white, blue, black, red, and green stacks of cards in front of me, a handful of lands and artifacts, and a stack of gold cards that would make American Express envious. I tried to sort these cards into several piles (similar to Shadowmoor sealed), but my attempts were thwarted by the fact that the cards were too colorful. I set aside the ones that were good.
The only solution was to play all of them.
Granted, I opened an inordinately high number of mana fixers, and on top of that, sealed PTQ players will be given one less booster pack to work with; however, playing four or five colors certainly seems reasonable in the format, which is slow even by sealed deck standards.
Here is a by-no-means-comprehensive list of things I learned about the format:
#0: There are about a million different ways to skin a cat
I went to time on deckbuilding, and like Emperor Palpatine I foresee dark times ahead. And by dark times, I mean spending a lot of time at sealed QTs trying to find the right build, getting my manabase calibrated properly, and making shrewd decisions. I know that deckbuilding in any sealed format is challenging, but Alara has a lot of quality two- and three-color commons, which make deckbuilding especially difficult.
My initial build included Guardians of Akrasa and Kathari Screecher (which was surprisingly underwhelming) over Tidehollow Strix and Magma Spray, and I can say with some degree of certainty that I was still a few cards away from an optimal build.
#1: Bounce spells > Devour
On a side note, I must say that Skullmulcher and Tar Fiend, which refer to the number of creatures "it devoured" make me smile. It doesn't seem like there are enough transitive verb keywords for development to do this with.
Bounce is pretty good against dragons too. I boarded in Call to Heel a fair amount of the time (although I'm still on the fence as far as starting it). Resounding Wave was amazing all day and getting to eight mana was hardly a problem either. In one match, I used Call to Heel on my opponent's Broodmate Dragon token, killed the Dragon with Grixis Charm, and won a tight race after he had returned the Dragon with Carrion Thrash by employing the services of Kederekt Leviathan and Spearbreaker Behemoth.
Which reminds me…
#2: OMG Kederekt Leviathan is the coolest card ever
Perhaps I have played a few too many Upheavals in my day, but the Leviathan is such a well-designed and awesome card that I just have to let you know how good he is. My favorite play during the prerelease involved sandbagging the Leviathan to deal with my opponent's Mycoloth and six 1/1 friends after having already bounced it once with Resounding Wave. I also used it to outrace a Flameblast Dragon and Predator Dragon from one opponent (his sealed pool was obviously a theme deck in disguise).
I think my favorite aspect of the card is that it changes the momentum of the game so much; my opponents had to deal with a 5/5 and redevelop their board while I got to attack and fortify
Going from a favorable board to a backpedaling stance must induce a terrible feeling.
Or a sinking one.
#3: Maindeck that Naturalize, it's less than terrible
If my deck is any indication, Naturalize will have plenty of targets for you to point your silly little green instant at. That said, Dispeller's Capsule seems pretty marginal as it costs twice as much to play as Naturalize and loses some surprise value - I'd still consider playing it though. Naturalize is probably a bit worse than Shatter in Mirrodin block, but everyone plays Obelisks and whatnot. I wouldn't play that Volcanic Submersion unless I had to, but blowing up your opponent's mana artifacts and multicolor lands can lead to free wins, a trick we learned with Wrecking Ball and other type cards in Ravnica. Which reminds me...
#4: This ain't yo daddy's Ravnica
I am reminded very much of Ravnica sealed season when I think about deckbuilding in this format, with Alara's plethora of common mana fixers and multicolor madness that was characteristic of Ravnica sealed deck. However, there aren't any bouncelands to destroy and there aren't even any four-mana Stone Rains. I agree that land destruction is probably an element that the new generation of players that Wizards markets to isn't privy to, but I must admit that I am a Stone Rain man to the bitter end.
Although the multitude of multicolor cards and sufficient encouragement to play as many colors as possible (see decklist above) is reminiscent of Ravnica, Shards of Alara has many elements that make it unique. Personally I am enamored with the look and feel of the set, as it feels new and exciting without feeling too alien (an area that Shadowmoor fell audaciously short in).
#5: Draft is fun, too
Here's an example of a recent draft that I felt went horribly awry...
Somehow I managed to 3-0 with this heap.
I started out in white and some blue, with hopes of being Bant, but some very late Soul's Fires, which I tried my hardest to ignore, let me know that red was open. When I opened Flameblast Dragon in pack two, I greedily snapped it out of an otherwise weak pack. In the end, I was removal light and had to play that Bant Charm and awkward Coma Veil. And in pack three I saw the exalted deck that could have been (two Sigiled Paladins that no one else could play and a bunch of solid picks). Hindsight being 20/20, I probably should have either moved into red sooner or ignored it completely, but I digress.
Rip-Clan Crasher and Hissing Iguanar are both amazing aggressive cards and I would love to cast them in a deck with a little bit more mana consistency. Red/green with a splash is a draft archetype that I can really get behind; unfortunately you'll often be fighting your neighbors for cards in these colors. A part of me really wants to first-pick Hissing Iguanar and just draft every bear I see. Iguanar is really that good. If you routinely force trades with small men, the result is still substantial damage being dealt to your opponent – and with multiple Iguanars the result is a Catch-22 that results in the death of your enemy. Often this draft deck was able to finish with a large Cavern Thoctar or a pesky Waveskimmer Aven post-Iguanar. The Iguanar also has synergy with the devour mechanic if you can get a Predator Dragon or some such. Iguanar is a card I really like because at first it seems like such an innocuous common, but in many situations he is a free damage powerhouse.
My manabase wasn't really that bad considering how greedy I was with my card choices. I had a solid curve and good fixing, played well, and got a little bit lucky.
And for the record, I drew that Flameblast Dragon a grand total of zero times.
My finals opponent had a greedy bomb-laden deck that was very much reminiscent of a sealed deck. In his second round he destroyed his opponent with Vein Drinker and Fatestitcher eating two men every turn; unfortunately his three-Obelisk deck wasn't able to come online against my plethora of bears and a well-placed Coma Veil on his Fatestitcher.
The problem with drafting a greedy deck with a lot of Obelisks is that it folds to a deck like mine from above, or lord forbid, a more focused aggressive deck. I'm sure with enough defensive cards (Infest, Kederekt Creeper, Deft Duelist) and reliable mana a viable deck is possible, but in my experience this draft format is blisteringly fast and there is a tendency towards racing a lot.
Other than green/red type decks, decks featuring the exalted mechanic are of considerable strength. Having as many exalted men as you can (even the maligned Outrider of Jhess) and a good curve are the keys to having success with this archetype, but other than that it's pretty straightforward and boring so I'll spare you a lengthy discussion.
As far as funky alternate draft strategies, I've seen some successful Glaze Fiend decks, with enough artifacts and/or Master of Etherium to make the Glaze Fiends big (not too unlike the Krovikan Mist deck from Coldsnap; props if you survived Coldsnap draft). The advantage to drafting this deck is fairly obvious: cards like Glaze Fiend push a linear so hard that you probably won't have to fight too hard for quality picks - like Sanctum Gargoyle – if you're the only one drafting that linear. If not, well, it's a bit more difficult to manage as the picks aren't really deep enough to support more than 1.5 drafters. We've seen this phenomenon in limited formats before (Dampen Thought and Ravnica Dimir milling strategies come to mind), and drafting those decks successfully required good reads and gut-checks.
Yoda: No! No different! Only different in your mind. You must unlearn what you have learned…
#6: Puppet Conjurer is beyond awesome
I'm not sure entirely why, but everything about this card pleases me. The colored artifact frame is awesome; the art is simple, elegant, and dynamic; and the flavor just makes me happy inside - not to mention the synergy with Glaze Fiend. The artificer keeps trying to form little guys from etherium, but they come out wrong so he repeatedly crushes them into the dust with contempt! Awesome.
I am indeed a fan of any token-making card that makes sense from a flavor perspective, Bridge from Below being perhaps the most notorious example (as my men die, zombies come pouring over the bridge from undead-land onto my playmat!) and Skeletonize being by all standards amazing. Even Bitterblossom, Oona, Queen of the Fae, and the whole baby-faeries-spawning-from-flowers thing have good flavor.
I am much less a fan of token-generators that don't really give you that extra facet to stimulate your imagination, or require a significant stretch thereof (e.g. Jund Battlemage, which turns your blood into beverages into Saprolings, or Imperious Perfect, which makes a lot of babies because... she's the most beautiful in the society of beauty?)
#7: The formula for card-naming
My good friend Andrew Nagy introduced me to this concept, and I find it to be more and more true with each set. Many card names are formulated by mashing together three or four random nouns into a one- or two-word cardname ("Siege-Gang Commander," "Tidehollow Strix"). A variation on this is the made-up modifier, usually an adjective (like "Boros" or "Viashino") followed by up to three random nouns combined in the manner just described ("Boros Fury-Shield," "Viashino Sandswimmer").
I am not saying that this is a bad thing; admittedly there are limitations on the naming of cards for a trading card game (barring the lengthy cardnames of Kamigawa), but you can use this formula for your amusement.
Using a random word generator (like this one), you can create some interesting potential names:
Levitation Gannet Artlessness
Coagulant Cellophane Separatist
And so on...
#8: I'M PUMPED UP FOR SEALED SEASON!
And you should be, too. I know that Wizard's changes to organized play, the faltering economy, and Shards of Alara's weirdness are all deterrents to playing. But I can't remember the last time I felt this way about a limited format. The card quality and depth at common is one of the more exciting things for me as it becomes more difficult to open a bad sealed deck, and you're not even up the creek without exciting bombs like Kederekt Leviathan, Spearbreaker Behemoth, or mythic rares.
One of the interesting things to note is that the draft format promises to be much, much different than sealed (more focused, faster, and otherwise rowdier), and I for one can't wait to draft until drafting interferes substantially with my schoolwork and personal life.
As for you, dearest reader, best of luck this season in all your endeavors, and as for me, well...
KEDEREKT LEVIATHAN AAAGHHHH!
Ride the wave