Prerelease Report: Shards of Alara

Prerelease Report: Shards of Alara
by Andrew Hanson

Hey everybody! Did you play in the Shards of Alara Prerelease? Well, for the first time in a year, I did. For the past three expansions (Morningtide through Eventide), I judged at the Prereleases, but not this time. I got to play, and it was awesome.

On Saturday, I came ready with my paper, my pencil, some dice, and a building strategy. Go Blue. I know, it's not a very inspired strategy. Yet in all the Limited tournaments I've done, that's been my strategy, and my track record for these events is pretty good. At the Lorwyn Prerelease, I went 3-0-1 and took second. I took first at both the Morningtide and Eventide Launch Parties using the "Go Blue" strategy, and I took second at the unsanctioned Midnight Madness my local store held for Shadowmoor (I intentionally drew in the finals, and lost on the tie-breakers; since then, I won't intentionally draw at these small events anymore).

Look at those beefy arms. Would
you want to chump block him?
The advantage of going Blue is the suite of fliers to get there with. Sure, Green has the most efficient, or most common, fatties, and Red has burn, which can act as creature control or it can go to the face. But Blue has evasion. Even a lowly Grizzly Bear can stop a Craw Wurm. But it can't stop Aven Fisher. And it can't stop Tower Gargoyle (more on that in a moment). Combining the awesome evasion abilities of Blue with the creature control aspects of White and/or Black, a deck is born that beats in the air while muddying up the ground and uses kill or neutering spells to deal with any bomb threats or, in weenie deck cases, to control the tempo and give the fliers the time they need to win.

So, after we sat down, got the product, and listened to the usual spiel by the head judge, we got to tear into our packs. I opened my tournament pack first. Now, last time I did any kind of sealed deck (this would have been the judge flight at the last Prerelease—the TO set up a casual, and wacky, sealed deck flight for the judges to play in near the end of day two), I completely forgot about the foil card hiding behind the lands. Luckily for me, someone pointed it out then. And luckily it was casual, so no need to worry about an Outside Assistance infraction. But this time, no one was looking over my shoulder, and even if they were, they weren't supposed to tell me anything. No worries. I learned from the error of my ways, and the foil was the first card I looked at. Tower Gargoyle. My plan to go Blue looked well under way.

I dug through the rest of the tournament pack, looking for more stuff. I hit a Courier's Capsule in there, a Tidehollow Sculler (which is solid gold in Limited; no pun intended), and, you've got to be freaking kidding me, another Tower Gargoyle. I promptly called the judge over. Now, with three more packs of Shards coming my way, it wouldn't be all that unlikely to end up with two of the same card, but I decided to play this one by the book, and let the judge know I just pulled two of the same uncommon in my tournament pack. And, as I am friends with the judge, it also gave me a chance to brag about my luck.

The rares in that pack were pretty underwhelming. I pulled a Crucible of Fire (go tribal Dragons!), a Vicious Shadows (converted mana cost 7 enchantment), and a Covenant of Minds (decent card draw; the only respectable rare in the pack). The commons in the pack were respectable, and included an Agony Warp, both an Esper Panorama and Bant Panorama, as well as an Obelisk of Esper and an Obelisk of Naya, the latter of which looked useless at that time. Time for the boosters.

Blaze on every attack? Yes, please.
I'm going to start with the rares here, because they were the cause of much inner turmoil. Predator Dragon in pack one. Mycoloth in pack two. Flameblast Dragon in pack three. Holy crap on a cracker, Batman. Here I am, sitting with my budding Esper cards, and I open doom in Green and Red. Well, let's look at the rest of the packs. I hit another Tidehollow Sculler, another Courier's Capsule, an Executioner's Capsule, a Windwright Mage, an Esper Battlemage, a Sanctum Gargoyle, three more Esper Panoramas (that's right, one per booster pack), three more Obelisks of Naya (again, one per booster, and now it's looking doable to go Red and Green), a Sprouting Thrinax to combo off with my two devouring rares (eating the Thrinax with the first devourer, and the tokens with the second), and a Fire-Field Ogre, in case I needed further encouragement to go Red. Less bombastic but still good pulls were a Druid of the Anima, an Akrasan Squire, two Bloodpyre Elementals (which is a kill spell against Tower Gargoyle or Woolly Thoctar, and a four-power beater if there's nothing to kill), a pair of Gift of the Gargantuans, and an Algae Gharial.

So I sat there, looking at my card pool, and wondering if I was actually going to go all five colors. Maybe I could go Esper and splash Red for the Dragons? But the Dragons, especially the Predator Dragon, require more than a splash to come out reliably. So I toyed with the idea of a five-color deck, even going so far as to mention this to others. I took another look at my pool and realized I'd be crazy to go all five colors. I needed to be in just Blue/Black/White, despite the nukes I could tote in a Green/Red deck.

With a Mycoloth and two Dragons in my pool, what could possibly make me think it'd be crazy to run Green and Red? My two drops. I had two Tidehollow Scullers, a Tidehollow Strix, and a pair of Courier's Capsules—all cards that would be at their best coming down on turn two. Especially those Tidehollow Scullers. On turn two, they could be the difference between losing to my opponent, and blowing my opponent out. So I cut Red and Green, and here's what my decklist looked like:

My Esper Sealed DeckMagic OnlineOCTGN2ApprenticeBuy These Cards
1 Bant Panorama
4 Esper Panorama
4 Island
5 Plains
4 Swamp

1 Akrasan Squire
1 Cloudheath Drake
1 Dawnray Archer
1 Esper Battlemage
1 Guardians of Akrasa
1 Kathari Screecher
1 Sancum Gargoyle
1 Sighted-Caste Sorcerer
2 Tidehollow Sculler
1 Tidehollow Strix
2 Tower Gargoyle
1 Viscera Dragger
1 Welkin Guide
1 Windwright Mage

Other Spells
1 Agony Warp
2 Courier's Capsule
1 Executioner's Capsule
1 Obelisk of Esper
1 Oblivion Ring

All I want to say at the moment is thank God for continuous deck construction. There were some cards that should have been main deck from the get-go, and some cards that should never have even seen the light of day.

Okay, the deck was done, the time for construction was up, and the pairings for round one were announced. I sat down across from opponent—we'll call him Josh—and lost the die roll. Josh decided to play, and I drew my opening hand. I can't remember exactly what it contained, but it wasn't bad. I know I had a turn four Tower Gargoyle available, which I had to set up with one of the fetch lands. What really stuck out about game one was my opponent laying a fetch land on turn one, a Forest on turn two which he used to activate the fetch land for a Plains, then a Mountain on turn three, tapping the lands to play Woolly Thoctar.

Oh crap.

I made a turn three Guardian of Akrasa. He made a turn four Jhessian Infiltrator. I made a turn four Tidehollow Strix (top-decked) to deal with that Thoctar, as well as the Sighted-Caste Sorcerer. He swung into the Strix, lost his Thoctar, then played two Obelisks. I played my Gargoyle. He played a Gargoyle and a Screecher. So now he has more mana on the board, the same beaters I do plus a 2/2 unblockable, and still has a couple cards in hand. On his next turn, he took out my Gargoyle with an Oblivion Ring, and the game ended shortly thereafter.

I lose: 0-1

For game two, I decided to draw first. It's sealed deck, and having that one extra card can often make the difference between having answers/threats in a timely manner. But for sideboarding, I decided that the Guardians made me angry—they couldn't deal with a Thoctar. So it came out, and I put Fleshbag Marauder in its place. If my opponent had the same opening, the Marauder would be an awesome response. My opponent did not have the same opening, but Josh still came out fast. He had me on the ropes for most of the game, but I managed to stabilize the board around the time he had my life total in the single digits. He didn't draw anything to really save him, and I drew nothing but gas.

I win: 1-1

At some point in game two, I had the Dawnray Archer in my hand, but didn't play it. I realized then, at that point, that the Archer would probably be the very last card in my deck that I would play in pretty much every situation. So out it came. In went Vectis Silencers. It's not exactly a powerhouse, nor would I really call it good, but it is a body that can get deathtouch. Once I put this card in, it performed so well that I never took it out. Deathtouch is an ability that one should never discount.

Onto game three. Josh chose to play first, and opened with a land on turn one, and a fetch on turn two. I open with Akrasan Squire on turn one, Tidehollow Sculler on turn two. Josh's hand was pretty bland except for a Resounding Silence, whereas mine had my next two land drops, an Executioner's Capsule, and two Tower Gargoyles. I was fairly certain that game would be mine. Then the judge called time. It was the end of my second turn, I was at 20 life, Josh was at 18, and Josh was about to start turn one of the last five. Shoot.

Draw: 1-1-1

Match Results: 0-0-1

We were the last table to finish, so I didn't have any time to really tweak the deck at all. I didn't even bother to deboard as the cards I had pulled out were so bad. At least, I thought so then. In hindsight, the Guardians of Akrasa should have gone back in. Sure, it was bad against a Woolly Thoctar, but I never saw another of those beasts for the rest of the tournament. Oh well.

My opponent sat down across from me—this one we'll call Erinn—and told me that his match also went to time and he hadn't had time to mess with his deck. Apparently, they finished their last of five turns right before Josh and I did. This time, I won the roll, and I still followed the philosophy of drawing first. My deck wasn't that fast and I was better served with the extra card—it increased my chances of maxing out the plays on my curve. My opening hand was a one-lander, but I had a Tidehollow Strix, a Tidehollow Sculler, and a Sighted-Caste Sorcerer, and my land was an Esper Panorama. I thought, "What the hell, it's just a Prerelease," and kept.

My first draw: not a land. My second draw: Plains. I fetch out a Swamp. Turn three, I drew an Island, played it, and played the Sculler. Turn four, I drew another fetch land, and played a Tower Gargoyle. Erinn's plays, by comparison, were land, fetch land, land, land. My Sculler had taken his only real early/mid game play. In retrospect, because I kept a one-land hand, I didn't deserve to win that game.

I Win: 1-0

Okay on turn two. But,for the love
of God, don't top deck him.
This time for sideboarding, I decided that the Marauder, whom I did have in my hand last game but didn't play, would be better out of my deck. But what did I have to replace him? Not much. I put in Glaze Fiend. I'm weird that way. But in game two against Erinn, I opened with the Glaze Fiend on turn two, and a Tidehollow Sculler and an Executioner's Capsule on turn three. Erinn played Angelsong on the 4/5 flyer, rightly assuming that was the biggest he'd ever be. On turn four, I played a Tower Gargoyle, following it up with a second one on turn five. The game didn't take too much longer.

I Win: 2-0

Match Results: 1-0-1

For my third match, I played against the same guy that Erinn played in round one. We'll call him Chris (in case you're wondering, I've been using their real names), and he was also the guy who gave me a funny look during deck construction while I muttered about five-color decks. I didn't deboard after my match with Erinn, figuring this was probably the best build of the deck I had so far, and won the die roll, choosing to go second. My opening hand was a six-lander, one of which was a fetch. How far could my luck stretch? Not far. I kept it, and it turned out poorly. I drew land for the first three turns. I was never in that game, and despite my best efforts to fight it out, got crushed. But I did get to see some of Chris's deck, which included a Tezzeret the Seeker and a Rafiq of the Many.

I lose: 0-1. And boy, did I deserve it. Six land opening hand...

Game two, no sideboarding, and my opening hand looked much better. Still on the draw, I opened with a Plains on turn one, and a fetch land on turn two, getting a Swamp at the end of Chris's turn. Turn three, I dropped Tidehollow Sculler, and Chris made an unhappy face. Tezzeret was in his hand. I don't even remember what else was in his hand—a land was one of them, I know—but nothing mattered like Tezzeret, which could have dropped on Chris's next turn. I eventually got out a couple of fliers and managed to make them go the distance. That game, really, everything rode on Tezzeret getting axed. Go Scullers!

-X: Tutor a creature directly into
play. Yeowch.
I win: 1-1

Game three, still no boarding. Chris chose to play, and I again opened with a turn three Scullers. This time, no Tezzeret, which was a mixed blessing. He didn't have it, but I couldn't get rid of it. A good top deck on his part could be devastating. Instead, the only cards of note were a Resounding Silence and a Rafiq of the Many, which Chris couldn't play. So I took the Silence, and made a turn four Tower Gargoyle. Chris top-decked an Oblivion Ring and took out my Gargoyle. Turn six, I made a second Gargoyle play. Chris was not pleased, but two turns later played a Dispeller's Capsule and whacked my Gargoyle. On my next turn, I made the Sanctum Gargoyle play, resurrecting the Tower Gargoyle. Things looked pretty good for me, especially since I had an Executioner's Capsule sitting on the board, waiting. Chris drew Tezzeret, but things already looked pretty bleak by then. He used the planeswalker's second ability to dig out an Obelisk that would let him play Rafiq, but I took it out with the Capsule.

I win: 2-1

Match Results: 2-0-1

Match four, and I got paired up against MTG Salvation's very own Dan Rezendes, aka VestDan. Now, I'm not saying this to toot the website's horn or anything, but this was perhaps the most epic game of Magic I have played in the last six years. I won the roll and chose to draw. Both of us kept. Dan opened with Akrasan Squire, whereas my start was slow (I activated a fetch land on turn two). We were both making alright plays—Dan kept slamming into me with a 1/1 that hits for so much more—then Dan pulled out a turn four Elspeth, Knight-Errant.

Oh crap. Oh crap. Oh crap.

Dan started alternating between making 1/1 Soldiers to chump block for the planeswalker herself (I'm coming at her with teeth bared; I lose if her big ability goes off) and using her pump ability (if he made a creature drop that turn). The pumps were aimed at the Squire. My life depleted to dangerous levels rapidly.

Then Dan started missing creature drops, and I was still laying down my fliers. I was down around five life or so (read: a Squire that got pumped by Elspeth and swung in unblocked would kill me), and my creatures finally managed to kill his planeswalker. VestDan made a few more land drops as my army turned to deal with him. Really, I only won that game because of Dan's land flood.

This chick will kick your ampersand-
dollar sign-dollar sign.
I win: 1-0

Still no boarding for me, but Dan did a little. We both had similar starts to the last game. Sadly, for me, Dan had a turn four Elspeth again. We duked it out for a while—me making the fliers I need to stay alive, Dan using Excommunicate to maintain a good tempo against me—and I eventually got in there for lethal on the planeswalker. By that point, Dan had two Jungle Weavers in play and my fliers were stuck on my side of the Red Zone. Then, while still at a hefty life total (somewhere up around 16), he alpha struck. I was only around ten life, so I needed to make blocks to stay alive. A 1/1 token was the only creatures getting through, but Dan cycled a Resounding Roar. I was almost dead and Dan still had a couple of creatures in play. I simply didn't have the resources to survive another all-out swing.

I lose: 1-1

So, we were going into game three, and I decided to take a lesson from Dan. Excommunicate is good. Sure, the creature kill I had in my deck actually killed the creatures, but a well-timed Excommunicate could give me the kind of tempo I needed to take out an Elspeth if Dan got so lucky as to drop it again. I boarded out my Glaze Fiend and my Sighted-Caste Sorcerer for the two Excommunicates that I had. It didn't make a difference. I never saw them.

Dan played first and opened with Akrasan Squire turn one, Akrasan Squire turn two. That is a fast opening, let me tell you. Meanwhile, I did my land/fetch-land trick on the first two turns, taking it in the face for six before I made a play, which was Windwright Mage. Whew. Turn four, Dan played Elspeth. That was three games in a row. How am I supposed to deal with that? Well, on turn four, Windwright Mage started swinging at her, helping to offset the damage from a 6/6 flying Squire. I also played a Tidehollow Sculler. Dan's only threats were an Incurable Ogre and a Jungle Weaver. As it was turn four, and the potential for Dan to not be able to play the Weaver was there, I removed the card that could be an immediate threat.

The game continued. I dropped some fliers, hitting both of my Tower Gargoyles. Dan slowed me down with Excommunicate. And, oddly enough, Dan spent two turns in there making 1/1 soldiers, perhaps fearing an alpha strike on the planeswalker. But it didn't save her. Eventually, I had enough fliers to kill the Knight-Errant. Dan played a Sigiled Paladin. My life dipped below double digits - exalted is an extremely powerful mechanic in Limited. Then Dan killed my Sculler and played the Ogre it had taken. He swung out. I blocked, killing the Paladin, the Ogre, and a few others, but I lost one of my Tower Gargoyles. My life total got lower. Down to 3, I think. I swung in, hitting Dan for the first time, but had to leave a number of guys back for defense. Dan came at me, bringing me to 1 life, then dropped a Jungle Weaver.

I drew an Executioner's Capsule and killed the Weaver. That let me hit him for a little more. It was harsh. I was trying to get his life to a point where I could kill him with an all-out swing, but I had to do it with one creature at a time or else I lost to Elspeth-spawned tokens. Then Dan drew another Jungle Weaver. I drew a Cloudheath Drake, played it, and passed turn. He drew, didn't do anything, then passed the turn. I drew a Sanctum Gargoyle. That critter brought back an Executioner's Capsule, which killed his second Weaver, and I got in with enough to bring his life to 5. Dan drew, thought for a minute, then played a land and passed turn.

In Alara, this guy is Grave Digger
on crack.
I was nervous. I had my Tower Gargoyle, a Cloudheath Drake, and a Sanctum Gargoyle. Any two of those would be enough to win. But what if he had drawn a Resounding Silence? He had two cards in hand, and he certainly had the mana to cycle the Silence.

I made the safe play. I activated the Drake, giving it vigilance, and swung in with it and it alone, putting him down to two and leaving me with three untapped creatures to deal with his two tokens (just in case he had an Excommunicate in hand). He drew and passed turn. I swung in with the Drake again, and Dan extended his hand.

I win: 2-1

Match Results: 3-0-1

Only one person went 4-0, and I was the only one 3-0-1, so I ended up in second place. Woo hoo! I talked with some people after the tournament, mentioning my decision to cut the Red and Green, despite the Dragons and the Mycoloth, and most of them agreed with my decision. My commons and uncommons were just so strong in Blue/Black/White, and it's the commons and uncommons that make a Limited deck good. It's what keeps a deck from being a one-trick pony, from getting neutered by a well-timed spot removal spell.

Besides, I always try to go Blue in Limited. I want my fliers.


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