“I Set The Tempo”, a deck for Magic Standard (Fall 2012)

I do not have enough time to play Magic to take an existing deck and play it better than everyone else playing that deck. Sometimes a deck is so good that you don’t have any choice in the matter — but those are the times I just stop playing a format. Standard Magic right now might be as diverse as I’ve ever seen it.. even though there are some cards that are the tent-poles of the entire format. Unlike the spring of 2010 or 2011, those tent-poles can’t all go into the same one or two decks, which leads us to a great diverse field.

This great article on Star City (Select) describes the current meta: no deck is more than 20% of the field. As a TCG designer, let me say that an environment is doing well when there are at least 5 meaningful choices to bring to a moneyed tournament. Of course, even though there are many different decks, there are some things in common with them. At the end of the day, the decks are either aggro (Zombies, G/W Aggro), midrange (Jund, Junk aka Reanimator, G/W midrange) or control (almost all of them U/W and then either splashing black, red, or nothing). In a healthy meta, game designers prefer to see the classic control beating midrange, midrange beating aggro, aggro beating control triangle… and people who want to win tournaments try to break that triangle wide open.

So, to that end, I present a deck that is designed to win every matchup. To do that, I’ve built a sideboard that is not designed to stop specific cards, but it is designed to allow me to shift my deck into a different role. Presenting: I Set The Tempo.

I Set The Tempo

Stromkirk Noble
Delver of Secrets
Goblin Electromancer
Snapcaster Mage

BURN (14)
Izzet Charm
Brimstone Volley
Pillar of Flame
Searing Spear


LANDS (21)
Sulfur Falls
Steam Vents
Sideboard (15)
Desolate Lighthouse
Izzet Charm
Dungeon Geists
Bonfire of the Damned
Thundermaw Hellkite

What this deck presents in game one is the most tempo-heavy deck-with-counterspells in the format. Your role is to set the tempo. You want to play a creature on turn 1 every single game (unless they play an elf – always shoot the elf). You want to get one creature out there, and then burn their blockers and counter their removal, and win in 5 or 6 turns. How you sideboard depends on the role you choose to play. You need to decide if you are going to shift into being the control deck.

Versus Control:
You love playing against control or other decks that need time to get their plan together, because the majority of those decks can’t deal with a turn 1 creature that gets bigger. Usually either of those creatures will have dealt 6 damage before dealt with — and “one mana, one card, six damage” is a fine ratio. And, if you get a bit lucky with your draw, you can Brimstone Volley at the end of the turn where they do finally deal with your creature, and hit them for five more. You’re more than half-way done.

Don’t counter their card-drawing spells, because them spending mana to draw cards is you gaining even more tempo. When you see that their plan involves winning after turn 5, you should be throwing burn at their head. Every single time they are tapped out throw burn at them, and even sometimes when they aren’t. While sometimes Searing Spear reads “tap three of your opponent’s lands and they discard a card,” that is OK. Push as hard as you can.

Sideboard vs Control:
-2 Izzet Charm
-2 Pillar of Flame
+2 Hellrider
+2 Desolate Lighthouse

Adding the two lands allows you to bring in the Hellriders. Yes, they are probably playing Supreme Judgment after that. Who cares? You just spent 2RR to deal 6 or 7 damage. And now they are tapped out and you can burn them out from there, yah?

There are times when you want to become truly midrange against control… especially if their control involves 1/1 flying Spirit tokens. Bring in all three Lighthouses and all 4 Thundermaw Hellkites at that point. But those Thundermaws aren’t in your sideboard just for that…

Versus Aggro
You love playing against aggro, mostly because your first game is a bit of a coin flip and your sideboarded games are massively in your advantage. You are an aggro deck that can counter their largest threat, no matter what that threat is. If you are playing against zombies, that coin-flip becomes rock-paper-scissors-you-win-ties. Even if they play a Cavern of Souls to ensure their zombie hits the battlefield, that’s fine. Your burn is better than theirs, your creature curve is just as low as theirs (meaning you can block if you must), and you have reach and they don’t. Besides, 12 of their creatures can’t block (Geralf’s Messenger, Gravecrawler, and Diregraf Ghoul) so you have the tempo edge. Beat in early, burn out late.

What is great about playing against Aggro is that you have the easiest time knowing what to bring in:

Sideboard vs Aggro:
+3 Desolate Lighthouse
+1 Izzet Charm
+3 Dungeon Geists
+2 Bonfire of the Damned
+4 Thundermaw Hellkite

-4 Stromkirk Noble
-4 Goblin Electromancer (usually)
-2 Brimstone Volley (usually)
-3 others (depending on the matchup)

Some additional notes:
If they are on the Cavern of Souls plan, remove some counterspells not all of them — because your opponent will have some burn or Rancor or Searing Spear or something else worth countering.

Why bring in the Dungeon Geists? They provide a tempo shift, allow you to trade as necessary, and they kill Spirit tokens (if someone tries that plan again), but most-importantly they draw your opponent’s removal spell. Since you can easily deal 10 to the dome with your burn spells, Delver of Secrets and Dungeon Geists are must-kill creatures. That works out well for you when you drop “Baneslayer Dragon” (Thundermaw Hellkite) soon thereafter.

Why are there only two Bonfires in the sideboard? Your deck has 24 lands post-sideboard, and you really don’t ever want more than 5 of them on the battlefield. You will discard the excess to dig into your deck using Izzet Charm and Desolate Lighthouse. This means two things: you never want to draw a Bonfire early and you won’t have the mana to cast it for more than 2 damage if you don’t use the Miracle cost. At one point I was running 4, then only 3, thinking I could just cycle them away if they came up at the wrong time. That is true… but since we are not a “true” control deck we can’t waste time like that. Cycling cards away is the last thing we want to do, but we will do it if nothing else is available.

Versus Midrange
This is your toughest matchup. Depending on the nature of their plan, you can’t reliably shift up or down. Against a good midrange player, especially one packing Cavern of Souls and Centaur Healer, you are going to have a difficult time winning game one. But all is not lost… Do not try to win this matchup by clearing their blockers, because that isn’t going to happen. You have few ways to deal with 4-toughness. Instear, you win by flying over with a Insectile Aberration and throwing burn spells at their head.

You have to play nearly flawless Magic to win this matchup in game one. Being smart with your countermagic is key. Do not counter their creatures that cost less than 4 mana, unless they can stop your insect. Even then, you would rather spend a burn spell on a blocker and save your counterspells for their removal… but that option is not always available. Also, knowing when to spend that Izzet Charm to get more burn (or to find a Snapcaster Mage, which is basically the same thing in this match) is huge.

There are many flavors of midrange, and you have the tools to deal with almost any of them if you have the experience to know what your opponent is playing. This is the largest hole in my Magic skill set — I can’t get into my opponent’s head like many of the greats can. This is why I complained about this deck on Twitter recently… it seems like if I was better at the game, this deck would take me places. So when one of you pros reading this article cash in using this deck, I’ll take a physical version of Thundermaw Hellkite as a thank you gift. Seems fair, right?

A couple of other obvious notes: the value of your Izzet Charm goes up if they have Cavern of Souls. Cavern determines if you are the aggro or the control deck in the matchup, but it does so in a strange way. If they have Cavern, you are the control deck. Really. this deck uses countermagic to protect your early creature advantage. If they have Cavern, your early creature advantage will be trumped by their midgame Huntmasters and Healers and Angels and, of course, Thragtusks. Instead, you need to shift into being the control deck by relying less on countermagic and more on… control.

Sideboard vs Cavernous Midrange

+3 Desolate Lighthouse
+3 Dungeon Geists
+4 Thundermaw Hellkite
(usually +2 Bonfire of the Damned)

What you drop to make room for those cards is completely based on their deck. Sometimes Pillar of Flame will be of little value. If they are midrange without humans, I will usually drop the Stromkirk Nobles. You can reduce the countermagic too, but don’t overdo it — chances are they will have some spell you’d like to deal with (Rancor, Dreadbore, planeswalkers) which can’t be sheltered by the Cavern.

Dungeon Geists require a special comment here… they turn Thragtusk into “4G, gain 5 life.” Obviously as the aggro player you don’t like that, but as the control player you can live with it. Ideally you are playing them with 6 lands on the battlefield, leaving 2 mana up for Negate or Izzet Charm.

In this matchup, you win by flying over with a creature. Their life total doesn’t matter too much as you have the long-game inevitability. Make that Hellkite and watch it win.

Sideboard vs. non-Cavernous Midrange

+2 Hellrider
+2 Bonfire of the Damned
+2 Desolate Lighthouse
(+1 Izzet Charm?)

In this matchup, you are the aggro player. Your Stromkirks are staying in, and you are trying to win by clearing/countering blockers and countering removal. This is not the best plan, but it is the best way to win in this difficult pairing. You must counter the turn 5 Thragtusk. If this means letting the turn 4 Huntmaster resolve, so be it. If this means not tapping out to play a turn 4 Hellrider going second, so be it.

Cards I tried but had to let go:

Guttersnipe: At the RTR prerelease I killed someone on turn 5 on the power of a turn 3 Guttersnipe, so I had to see if it would work in Standard. The answer is no, not yet, but if you can find a way to make room for it in the sideboard I’d suggest trying it yourself. Resolving it on turn 3 versus control means that you have inevitability — every counterspell dings them for two. That was hilarious.

Nivmagus Elemental: This was replaced by Stromkirk Noble. One huge advantage this has over the Noble is that you can upgrade your Pillar of Flames into +2/+2 against decks without creatures, and that was fantastic. Against decks with creatures, it still isn’t always horrible to make a “turn-one” 3/4. And, of course, versus control this lets you eat each of your spells that won’t resolve.

Think Twice: This deck got much better once I removed the card draw. Do not be tempted to put it back in. Aggro decks don’t want to waste a turn drawing a card fro two mana, and we are trying to be the fastest control deck in the format, so we don’t have the time either. (Izzet Charm can be a damage spell or a counterspell, so it gets played. Desolate Lighthouse is the ideal land for us, too, because we can add them in “for free.”)

Essence Scatter: This was very difficult to cut. On the one hand, it stops Thragtusk and Restoration Angel and other spells trapped in a creature’s body. On the other hand, those midrange creatures shouldn’t matter to us because of the rest of the deck, and the early-game creatures get burned out as necessary. Syncopate replaced the 2 of these I was running; I’d be happy to hear your experiences using it.

Ash Zealot: Clearly a powerful creature, but you’d rather have Goblin Electromancer against an unknown opponent (as it is a better creature every turn other than turn two, because of all of your instants). Sometimes you run into a situation with taking damage yourself from a Snapcaster-flashedback spell, but that is very, very infrequent. And since you aren’t playing, Think Twice, we aren’t flashing back spells much at all… again, maybe I just had bad luck using her. I’d love to hear what others think.

Adding a third color: But “mana is so great right now!” Why not play with a third color? Not worth the tempo loss. This deck is the aggro deck with reach presideboard, or the fastest control deck in the format postsideboard. Adding a third color wrecks that plan.

Izzet Staticaster: This is a very important card for Izzet but there wasn’t sideboard room. Cards like this one really screw with the combat math, and are the perfect tool for making your opponent think before they act. If you can find room to put it into your sideboard, please let me know your results.

In Conclusion
This deck gives me the illusion of control. It lets me minimize the threat of manaflood by running so few in the main deck and having so many card-cycling options in the sideboarded versions. I’ve even won games keeping a one-land six-card hand, because sometimes Delver or Stromkirk Just Gets There.

I’ve posted this deck because I’d love to make an even-better version of it and actually win something with it. Help me get better at this game, would you? Suggestions welcome. PS: You can see a nifty display of this deck on Tapped Out.

Jon Elden Deserves a Lifetime Ban From Magic

At Star City Games Detroit 2012, Jon Elden was playing in the sixth round of the Legacy Open when he was down 1-0 in a best of three match. His U/W Stoneforge Mystic deck served him well so far, but he was not in great shape. He had found a way back into the match with a Stoneforge Mystic getting a Batterskull. His opponent, Samuel Friedman, was playing “good stuff” BUG and was seemingly winning the matchup of two aggro-control decks.

Here is a video of the cheat. Lots happening in a short space of time, so I will break it down action by action. All of the timestamps below imply “08:” hours into the clip, the timestamps are mm:ss format…

10:50 Elden casts Stoneforge Mystic, fetching Batterskull. Passes.

11:00 Friedman Brainstorms, plays a land, passes with 3 mana open.

11:20 Elden untap, draw, passes with 5 mana open.

11:30 Friedman untap, draw, plays 5th land, passes. During Friedman’s end step, Elden activates Stoneforge Mystic, and in response Friedman casts Vendilion Clique. We see Jon Elden’s hand: Batterskull (which was tutored for a moment ago), Sword of Feast and Famine, another Stoneforge Mystic and a Vendilion Clique of his own.

Friedman chooses the Batterskull, which forces it to go to the bottom of the deck at 11:40. Elden draw a card as part of the Clique’s ability too (11:45), and now finally the Stoneforge Mystic ability resolves and Sword of Feast and Famine comes into play. (11:52)

11:57 Elden draws for his turn (forgetting to untap his Stoneforge Mystic, which Friedman does for him). Elden then taps two lands, plays a third one tapped, then plays his own Vendilion Clique (12:04). It is a legend, killing his opponent’s Clique and his own, but first Elden’s Clique’s ability goes off. Friedman’s cards are two Flusterstorms, and they don’t matter.

Here is the setup of the cheat: At 12:10 Elden places his hand of two cards down next to his deck and quickly adjusts his deck. He’s not drawing cards here, but he is sliding the deck towards his hand a bit, then sliding all but the bottom card of his deck slightly back where it was.

The important thing is that while Friedman is putting his hand back down on the table (because Elden was through with his Clique’s ability), it was at that moment (12:12) when Elden cracked his Polluted Delta to search his deck. And when he does, he picks up his entire deck except the bottom card. That bottom card is the Batterskull which was put on the bottom of his deck a moment ago. Notice that the Batterskull is sitting there on the table next to his hand of cards.

This is the moment before the cheat. The card above Elden’s left hand is the Batterskull which should be in his deck, which is being cut by Friedman. Below Elden’s left wrist is his two-card hand. The swipe happens right after this.

Here is the execution of the cheat: At 12:18 he gets the land from the Polluted Delta into play from his deck and he shuffles… at 12:22 he presents his deck to his opponent. Both of his hands are free as his hand of cards is on the table, next to the Batterskull (which by now surely Friedman just thinks is a card from Elden’s hand). In less than one second — while Friedman cuts the deck (at 12:24, to prevent cheating, you know), Elden uses both hands to quickly equip the Sword onto the Mystic and attack. He then uses his right hand to tap the two mana to actually have equipped the sword while using his left hand to touch or adjust his graveyard, which is sitting above where his deck will go.

At 12:25 Friedman has to discard a card (from the Sword’s ability) and while that happens Elden takes his deck back with his left hand, drops it back where it was, while scooping up his hand of cards and the Batterskull which should have been on the bottom of his deck before with his right hand at 12:26.

Elden now slows down his play, untapping all five of his lands (Sword), thinks about playing a card, shuffles his hand a bit, then plays… Batterskull. (12:40) “Wow,” says commentator Adrian Sullivan. “He actually drew the… yah, that’s it” as Friedman then drew a card for his turn, saw he was dead on the board, and conceded.

When I started writing this article, I was also wondering why his opponent didn’t see what happened. I mean, the cheat was not obvious — in the moments before the Batterskull cheat Elden did draw two cards (one for Vendilion Clique, one for the turn) which means it was possible he could have naturally drawn the Batterskull — maybe a second copy was in Elden’s deck or something? Seems plausible. Not likely but plausible.

When I started writing this article, I thought that Elden deserved a one-year ban. But after going through all of the details I have determined that Elden is a master cheat. I recorded the video of the twitch stream I linked above onto my ipad so I could easily rewind the section involved over and over. And only through looking at this 20 second slice of time for an hour can I see all of the little things he does to make this possible:

  • Elden was making little errors to force his opponent to worry about the board more than he should (order of tapping cards, forgetting to untap things)
  • Elden’s placement of his graveyard above his library allowed him to shield the final critical steps of the cheat.
  • Elden’s critical cheating steps all took place during split-seconds of time his opponent would need to be doing something that required any amount of attention. Like revealing his hand, discarding a card, shuffling a deck…
  • Elden’s frequent habit of touching seemingly random things at random times made doing things that would seem like cheating “normal” in the context of the match.
  • And to top it all off: All of this cheat happened in the span of six seconds. He does six things in six seconds with surgical precision — his skill is that of a professional who has spent thousands of hours perfecting his craft. Cheating.

Jon Elden deserves a lifetime ban from Magic. He is a blight on Magic the Gathering’s competitive game scene, and should be removed from it for good. This is clearly not the first time he has cheated — he is far too skilled to have done that only once. Ban him for good.

(This blog post was updated to correct a typo: “but he not in great shape” became “but he was not in great shape”. It was also updated to correct an error: “We see Friedman’s hand” has been corrected to “We see Jon Elden’s hand”.)

One more thing: I obviously cannot verify the accuracy of anyone’s feedback they leave below. I’m approving basically everything that is not a spam link, unless I have reason to suspect otherwise. Thanks.

After more than a week, this conversation continues… but the vast majority of new comments are spam. (Something like 25 to 1 at this point.) So this blog will timeout new comments after 7 days. Great feedback everyone.


Pastimes, or “Respect Is Everything”

Original playmat for Magic Grand Prix Indianapolis 2012

Original playmat for Magic Grand Prix Indianapolis 2012 (source: @LifeOnAuto)

Pastimes is a large hobby store in Illinois, and they are also a large Magic tournament organizer in the American Midwest. It has run MTG events for years and it has made the types of mistakes that long-running organizations make. It happens.

However, this past Friday, an image was revealed for the playmat that entrants of the upcoming Illinois Grand Prix would receive. That playmat was either created by Pastimes or commissioned by them, as they are running that event. This image was grabbed from the @LifeOnAuto yfrog/twitter account, and I am a bit late to the party in my response as I was away this past weekend. Here goes:

Pastimes, what in the hell are you thinking? You are in a very honored spot in all of hobby gaming. You have screwed things up, again and again, both inside and outside the business. You have a special requirement to treat the brand of Magic and its players — male and female — with respect.

  • When you do not give enough prize support, you fail to respect the skill of the top players.
  • When you overcharge for limited and especially for constructed, you fail to respect the wallets of all players.
  • And when you dress up one of the iconic characters in Magic’s modern history in what can best be described as “basically nothing at all,” you fail to respect the brand, and everyone involved in the creation, distribution, sales and ultimately playing of the game.

No matter how sexy Wizards gets with their art, you have a special requirement to not be as sexy. You have a special requirement to follow. You are not just a major hobby store and not just a tournament organizer, you are an important link in the chain that is this living, breathing game we play. You are an important part of something much larger than yourself. But no matter how important Pastimes is, it can be replaced.

There is no valid excuse for what has happened here. Whatever process led to that playmat existing must be removed. If this is people being suspended or fired, fine. If this is changing art direction, fine. As I do not know the specifics of the internals of your business, I can’t tell you what to change. But I can say this: Pastimes, you have polluted our game. Clean up your unnecessary toxic damage to our gaming environment, or please go find another trading card game to sell.