Although I didn't open an Expedition, my pre-release went about as well as it could've. I opened a challenging but incredibly strong sealed pool, featuring Undergrowth Champion, Beastcaller Savant, Brutal Expulsion (as my foil promo), Guardian of Tazeem, Ruinous Path and a suite of incredible commons and uncommons.
The pool was a difficult build because the truly top-tier cards were split amongst all the colors.
The Building Choices
Blue was an obvious first choice; I opened an insane 3x Benthic Infiltrator, Guardian of Tazeem, and a slew of other great, evasive creatures. I was certain from the go that my deck was base blue. I had some difficult choices to make for my second color. I flirted with the idea of a third, but I ultimately decided that my goal was consistency, nothing else.
My white was strong, but shallow and lacked true tier 1 cards beyond Stasis Snare, which is a first-pick caliber card. Even the extremely good Awaken cards in white weren't enough to make me want to play it.Limited is all about creature combat, so I decided to focus my efforts on building the most consistent aggressive deck possible. White's creatures just didn't support this focus.
Green was very tempting, for obvious reasons, but the cards didn't run that deep. Champ isn't the same card without fetch lands, and Beastcaller Savant is not a build-around-me card. As sad as I was to discard my two awesome green cards, it just wasn't the best deck available to me.
Red was also highly tempting, because my removal package was absolutely amazing. The creatures were nothing special, however, and I recall PVDDR's advice not to overload on mediocre removal spells. I heeded this warning, despite the allure of brutally expelling things with my fun Izzet-colored Brutal Expulsion.
Ultimately, black proved to be the winner. When comparing red and black, it was clear that black gave me the best creatures and, although it didn't give me the most removal, it gave me the best. When looking at creatures, Dominator Drone x2 was a huge draw. They would prove to be incredible, aggressive cards that were 'live' about 80-90% of the time. Twice, the extra damage was game-ending. I had multiple ways to recur the Drones, and I also had an Eldrazi processor that let me re-cast Ruinous Path. The ability to re-cast my best cards was the final deciding factor.
Ruinous Path was the best card in my deck. I can't say enough great things about this card (I am hardly alone in this sentiment). This card is obviously among the top tier of cards in the format, and although I am worried about the glut of rares on the market, and the buy-a-box promo, I still believe it will hold significant value. It's a cut above most rares in the set.
So, I built a UB control deck around cheap, evasive Ingesters, premium removal, a bunch of Awaken cards, and some midrange Eldrazi. So, how'd it go? Well, other than the fact that in 4 rounds (mulligans and all), I literally never drew Guardian of Tazeem, pretty darn well.
Playing Some Magic, and a Controversy
My first round opponent was inexperienced, and played a 60 card deck. He also missed a few opportunities to ping me with the Lobber Crew colorless clone, which may have cost him a game. We discussed the follies of a 60 card deck in Sealed (he was loathe to take my advice, but cut a few cards), I explained how and when to use his pinger (on my end step and/or in response to casting another colorless spell), and wished him well.
Record: 1-0 (2-0)
My round 2 opponent had me sweating a few times, and didn't seem to make any bad play mistakes. The games were close, and at least once I was sure I was dead. My deck did it's thing, drawing removal and slowly grinding its way back into tough games, and I didn't make any giant misplays. The theme of the day definitely revolved around the fact that I played mediocre Magic and my deck bailed me out time and time again.
Record: 2-0 (4-0)
My round 3 opponent was an experienced player with a strong deck. This was a strange match for me, because I had the unshakable urge that I was being cheated. I am not a baseline suspicious person, but I could have sworn he was looking at my deck while shuffling. In game 1, he seemed to 'accidentally' see a Swamp. I asked him to please be more careful and not look at my deck. He protested, saying he hadn't seen anything. I was hard-pressed to believe him, as I always watch my opponents while they shuffle my deck.
I remembered the video I watched about the "lands" cheat shuffle, whereupon an opponent of loose morals will 'accidentally' see some cards and then manage to send your lands to the bottom of the deck, increasing the chance that you'll mulligan. When I drew my opening hand, I was greeted with my first mulligan of the game. Hardly damning evidence, but it surely arose my suspicions. I locked eyes with him as he shuffled after my first mulligan, and he did not do anything suspicious. Regrettably, I didn't remember the Vancouver Scry rule (nor was my opponent sporting enough to remind me) and simply proceeded with my 6 card hand.
I managed to pull out of the mulligan on the draw because my deck once again took care of business on my behalf. The games mostly played out the same. I took a beating, stabilized, ground it out, and eventually took over with cards like Ruinous Path.
Game 2, however, was where things got interesting. He was shuffling my deck again, and I once again maintained eye contact all the while. This time he actually dropped 2 cards (one of which was an Island, the other I did not see), and then actually turned his head down to look at them. I was visibly upset and said, "that's the second time you've dropped and seen cards from my deck. You need to be much more careful with my cards." He protested, claiming it was an accident (again?) , gave my deck a few shuffles, and presented it back to me. This is when things got strange.
"Shuffle it more", I requested.
"I don't want to", he shrugged.
"Please shuffle my deck more", I insisted.
"I don't have to", he protested.
"Shuffle my deck more. You dropped two cards, you saw two cards, and you didn't shuffle enough after doing so. That's the second time you've seen cards in my deck. I have never had this problem with another opponent. Shuffle. My. Deck. Again."
He got very angry and raised his voice, accusing me of accusing him of cheating, saying I should call a judge and that he didn't need to shuffle the deck if he didn't want to. I told him, "I am not accusing you of cheating. I am saying that you have been extremely careless with my deck and have seen cards that you shouldn't have seen. You need to reshuffle my deck thoroughly."
He must have gotten the point that I wasn't going to start the game without quite a few more shuffles, so he finally acquiesced and told me to "just drop it", and further reiterated that he didn't appreciate being accused of cheating. I never accused him of cheating, interestingly, just carelessness. So, his reaction was rather surprising. Regardless, he gave the deck some honest shuffles and presented it back to me.
I legitimately do not know if I was being paranoid here, but my spider sense was tingling like a madman and I really didn't care for the way he was dropping my cards left and right. I think I did the right thing by calmly insisting he shuffle it more, and his reaction made me even more suspicious.
Game 2 was extremely close, and the life gain from one of my giant Eldrazi processors was the only thing that stood between me and my first game loss of the day. But yet again, my deck bailed me out of trouble. Blighted Cataract put me back into a game I was slowly losing. Chain-casting Awaken spells to make a land a 6/6 got me the board advantage. Firing off a full-power Ruinous Path ended it. It was a tense, difficult game and I was definitely a little on edge after the shuffling altercation, but I managed to rein in my focus and get there.
Record: 3-0 (6-0)
Since this was a small pre-release, I was able to intentionally draw with the other 3-0 to secure my sweet sweet prizes. We agreed to the ID and an even split of the prizes, and played out our match to determine who got the extra pack if there was indeed one to split. At this point I was undefeated in games and matches, so I was eager to see if I could close out the day without a single loss.
This is when Transgress the Mind decided to prove its worth. Since pre-releases permit constant tuning of your deck between games and matches, I had discovered how much I wanted to play this card in my second round. My opponent was clearly on the "hope I hit 8 mana" plan during that match, so I brought in Transgress in game 2, removing my second Mist Intruder (I had 3 in my pool, ultimately ended up only playing 1). It was an immediate hit, keeping me from getting mashed by a Desolation Twin that would have taken over the game.
I drew Transgress in my opening hand both games, and in both games I had the difficult choice of playing it, or a 2-drop creature, on turn 2. On the play, I was confident I could wait another turn, but I didn't want to miss out on playing a strong 3-drop. In game 2, I was on the draw and knew that I could easily get rid of a key 3-drop if I cast it instead of a 1/2 flier. Both times I hit Ob Nixilis, which felt like winning the secret leprechaun double-lottery. My opponent's entire game plan in both hands was crippled as a result, and the match was much easier to take down.
I should also note that the information provided by Transgress proved to be invaluable. One hand contained nothing but removal spells, so I was able to sequence my plays to work around their assorted limitations. One only killed tapped creatures, one only killed 3 power or less, etc. I love cards like Transgress because, to borrow a phrase from chess prodigy Joshua Waitzkin, they allow you to "control your opponent's intent". I was able to induce my opponent into using his removal spells on sub-par targets so that I could eventually steal the game with something he could have killed if he had waited on removal. By presenting a juicy target, I pulled the removal out of his hand and took control of the game with superior threats.
I obviously cannot say enough good stuff about Transgress the Mind. It's not Thoughtseize, but it's not that far away. The fact that you don't lose 2 life is worth bearing in mind, and exiling the card means you're not powering up their Jace, Vryn's Prodigy or Tasigur, the Golden Fang. I suspect this will be one of those dollar commons in the months to come, if not more. Its inclusion in the event deck won't hurt the price much, as event decks tend to be expensive and not widely opened.
So, thanks to this new Duress effect, I managed to not only 4-0 the pre-release, but 8-0 my games. I'm not the most talented or competitive player, so this was a huge thrill for me! My prizes were a Jace "Champion of Zendkiar" trophy, 6 packs of BFZ, and a buy-a-box Ruinous Path promo. Not bad! My prize packs weren't that exciting, though I did open a Shambling Vent that'll go into my Teysa Commander deck and some useful uncommons.
A Note About Expeditions
My real prize was the Misty Rainforest that the gentleman to my right opened. Seeing these Expeditions preveiewed at PAX Prime was one thing; seeing one in person was another. They are spectacular. The foil finish is flawless and does not have the cheap appearance like the FTV foils do.
I couldn't help my self. I needed to own it.
The player who opened it was very casual, and had no desire to keep it. We all showed him the TCGPlayer listings of $300 or more, which excited him, but he was pretty set on the idea that he wanted to trade it for a booster box of BFZ. He was a full-time traveler like myself, but he was backpacking, not RVing. Thus, the idea of keeping such an expensive card was absurd to him and he wanted to divest himself of it immediately.
I have no idea why he didn't at least set his sights on two, if not 3 booster boxes, by the way. I explained to him that he couldn't buy BFZ boxes today, but I'd be glad to give him enough cash to buy one when they come out next week. I then strongly encouraged him to sell it for the best cash offer he could get, rather than just barter it for a booster box. I told him my offer was "enough cash to buy a box", and that he should ask everyone else to get better bids. He knew the value of what he had, and I wanted to make sure he got his money's worth.
At the end of the day, I asked him what the highest cash bid was. Amazingly, it was only $120. True to my word, I offered $130 and he accepted. I almost felt bad, but I knew he was intent on selling it, for cash, that day. I knew he knew the value of it. I knew that no one else in the room was offering more cash. So, with a bit of remorse, I handed over the cash and quadruple-sleeved my new treasure, which is now hidden deep in the bowels of my MTG closet.
This just proves what we all know by now. Cash is king. Always was, always will be. I tried to trade KTK fetches, Aether Vials, and such to this gentleman, but he was only interested in cash. Every day that goes by, I become increasingly more confident that the best trade binder is a wallet full of 20 dollar bills. You'll never go wrong that way.
So I got my expedition, though not the way I had hoped. I initially thought about flipping it for a double-up, but I think I'm just going to put this one in the proverbial vault and wait a few years. I cannot imagine these won't be massively desirable for a long time to come.
All the Awaken spells were amazing. Even the ones that look junky, like Ondu Rising, are surprisingly good. Of specific note was the new Unsummon clone, which was a 2-of in my sealed deck. It steals back tempo like no other. The less powerful ones won't see constructed play, but the powerful ones like Planar Outburst are going to define a format.
Ob-Nix is horrifying. All of his abilities are relevant, and I was terrified to face decks with him. Watching a Planeswalker come down, nuke my best creature, and threaten to take over the game is not fun. As I said before, I suspect he will see Standard play. He's among the best things a control deck can do on 5 mana; kill anything or draw cards.
I faced 2 decks with Ob Nixilis Reignited, and saw him 3 times. Twice, Transgress the Mind stopped any trouble before it started, and the third time, I had the Ruinous Path to clear blockers to kill him outright. Even still, I respect the power level of the card and am certain it will see at least some Standard play.
Transgress the Mind won me 3 games outright. In a format where players aim to ramp, this breaks a game plan in half. Once, an opponent kept a hand based solely around his Planeswalker, and I stripped it away on turn 2. The game ended then and there, despite the fact that I still had to deal 20 damage. If Standard decks start looking like they're going to be greedy, long-game decks, Transgress will be a superstar. If the format looks aggressive, Transgress might not get there (although it's a nice way to deal with Undergrowth Champion before he shows up).
The new discard spell was amazing, without a doubt. It's not Thoughtseize, but it's a great tool for controlling the pace of the game. Exiling the card was great for many reasons, but I don't think it'll be relevant in Standard until the next set is released. Ingest isn't that scary yet, but I suspect it may eventually be. I'd love to see an Eldrazi Titan that acts like a processor, for sure.
Blighted Cataract is bonkers. Turning a land into 2 cards felt like winning the lottery, and I am pretty sure that this card also won me a game or two. Yes, it costs net 7 mana to cash in, but consider that to be a "safety" mechanism so you don't crack it too early and hamper your game plan. I'm not sure that Standard will be slow enough to warrant this, nor am I certain that decks will be able to support colorless lands at this juncture. If they can, then it's got a shot at being constructed playable. I want foils ASAP. The others are similarly good (perhaps even the much-maligned white one).
Bone Splinters is premium removal and an important reprint. This card just looks like Limited fodder, but I assure you it is constructed-playable. In fact I think it's going to play an important role in the metagame. Why? Well, let me explain; I have a Teysa, Orzhov Scion Commander deck. This card shines in that context.
I also have a Pauper cube, where black is built around sacrificing creatures, and pairs with white and red's token generation. Bone Splinters is an all-star there, too. Possibly first-pick-worthy in fact. So, what about Standard? Well, Hangarback Walker. One of the best things about Bone Splinters is that you can turn your Walkers into fliers and obliterate their best creature. It costs a SINGLE mana, so you can ostensibly cast it alongside Walker on the same turn if you really must. I've seen some Abzan Token lists using Bone Splinters, and it truly does act like premium removal in the format.
Casting giant monsters does not equal a game win. It can, but it's not automatic. In Limited, there is still so much great removal that a random 7/7 does not just auto-win. In Constructed, even casting Ulamog isn't 100% game over. He can be countered, he can be exiled, and although you get his Exile triggers when cast, he's still not necessarily going to end the game. Remember this when you're building ramp decks for your Pro Tour projection gauntlets; there's still a lot to be said for curving out one-two-three with strong, aggressive creatures.
Obligatory Deck List Time!
Speaking of Ramp decks, I put one together and took it for a spin the other day. My thesis was that casting Ulamog is the best thing you can do with a ton of mana, so getting to 10 is what's important. To that end, I decided that most of my decks need to be mana dorks. I love that we cannot play with Llanowar Elves style cards anymore. We're forced to use Rattleclaw Mystic and Shaman of Forgotten Ways, which are competent attackers as well as accelerators. This makes a huge difference in the way games play out, because you're not 100% all-in on your monster guys.
The deck list below is my second evolution of the list. My first list was base green with a splash of red, but after re-evaluating the way the deck plays, I decided it could afford to run a third color. The rewards have been very tangible.
The sideboard is a fluid thing, but right now it contains some combination of Roast, Wild Slash, Sarkhan Unbroken, Kiora, Master of the Depths, and the 3rd and 4th copies of stuff in the main deck. I have not tested much with the Planeswalkers, as the anti-synergy with Shaman of Forgotten Ways and Beastcaller Savant is frustrating.
Let's call a spade a spade here: this is an Oblivion Sower deck. Oblivion Sower is the real deal, as is the combo with Crumble to Dust. When you're using mana dorks, casting a 4-mana landkill spell on turn 3 is almost a given. Setting the opponent back a turn while you're ahead on mana is a great way to compound their misery. I wish that there were another landkill spell I could play, but nothing really appeals to me at this juncture.
The deck needs to run so many mana producers because it's basically a combo deck. Almost every mana producer in the deck produces TWO mana at some point in the game. That's crucial when you are trying to cast 10-drops. You want to get to 5 as fast as possible to turn on Whisperer of the Wilds with Surrak Dragonclaw and Kozilek's Channeler. You want to hit Oblivion Sower on turn 4 if possible (doable with 4 lands and either Shaman or a morphed rattleclaw). You'd love to hit Atarka early enough to dominate the board, and of course you want to get Ulamog out as fast as possible.
You need so many mana creatures because they'll Languish'ed away, follow a ruinous path to their demise, or get caught in a Planar Outburst. Eventually they'll run out of removal, and when that happens, your Oblivion Sowers and other fatties take over the game. You'll eventually draw enough lands to cast Oblivion Sower unassisted, and he's very good at getting you over the hump to your truly insane cards. Frontier Siege is amazing, and it's worth remembering that it triggers on each main phase, so casting it pre-combat will let you fire off another mana dork after you beat down.
This deck is a total dog against Grixis Control, and I found that all my mana dorks died, my big guys got countered, and my best creatures got stolen by Dragonlord Silumgar. That card, by the way, is not to be underestimated! It makes me respect the UB control decks far more than I had in the past, and might be enough to deter me from taking this particular deck much further down the development pipeline.
I still think that the deck I presented last week would be a better choice for the Pro Tour (remember what I said above about curving out being the most reliable way to take games?) but a more talented deck builder might be able to make this kind of build work. For me, it's a bit too all-in, too fragile. When it works, however, it's a blast to play.
I still stand by everything I outlined last week as the criteria for the format. After the pre-release, I am even more certain that we want to be looking for ways to punish decks that rely on slow mana and expensive spells. The best defense is indeed a good offense. Controlling the opponent's intent by forcing them to make combat decisions early and often is the way to implement that principle. Having a game plan that's robust and redundant, instead of one that revolves around firing off one or two big bombs, is the way to victory.
I have no doubt that control decks are viable in Standard. They may even end up being dominant. But in these first few tenuous weeks, I suspect aggro will reign supreme as it always does. There are other ways to build aggo, like around Monastery Swiftspear and Abbot of Keral Keep, but I will leave it to our other authors to cover that build.
Lastly, don't forget that the Star City Games Open is this saturday. It's the first major Standard tournament of the season, and it will be crucial to pay attention here. What we see at the SCG Open will serve to define the metagame going into the Pro Tour. Keep your eyes on your inbox this weekend; we'll let you know if there's anything worth caring about!