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Grand Prix Oakland Wrap-Up

Sunday, February 21st, 2010

(Note: you can read a non-tournament report at my main blog)

Yesterday, Tom and I made the trip across the bay to attend Grand Prix Oakland. Neither of us are serious enough to do anything real, but with the event so conveniently close, it would seem wrong not to go. A more general discussion of my experience will be on my main blog, but let me give you the breakdown of the Magic stuff.

I was thinking I would play a Troll Shroud deck in the tournament until a about a week ago when I was thinking about playing a much more fun deck. In the end, I settled on Jacob Van Lunen’s Restore Balance deck and played this list:

Lands (12)
3 Plains
2 Island
2 Swamp
3 Mountain
2 Forest

Creatures (4)
4 World Queller

Other Spells (44)
4 Fieldmist Borderpost
4 Firewild Borderpost
4 Mistvein Borderpost
4 Veinfire Borderpost
4 Wildfield Borderpost

4 Demonic Dread
4 Ardent Plea
4 Violent Outburst

4 Restore Balance
1 March of the Machines
1 Greater Gargadon
3 Phyrexian Totem
3 Foriysian Totem

Sideboard (15)
4 Simian Spirit Guide
4 Shattering Spree
4 Trespasser il-Vec
3 Kor Firewalker

I only played 1 March of the Machines and 1 Greater Gargadon because that was all I had. Because of that, I got to enjoy the pre-tournament thrill of hunting for cards from the sellers, though no one knew of any march of the machines around. I actually found exactly 3 of them later that day in a 50 cent bin, but it wouldn’t have mattered too much. So, tournament report?

Match 1 (Bant)

I can’t remember his name, but I’m playing against some guy from Singapore, I believe. He’s a student at Caltech and came up for the Grand Prix. Overall, the match is pretty friendly.

Game 1

Turn 1, he plays a fetchland and turns it into a shockland. I joke that he just showed more money than is in my entire deck, but we move on, and I drop my gargadon on turn 2. Turn 4, I cascade for Restore Balance and manage to take out his board, including a pretty mean-looking Knight of the Reliquary. He bounces back quickly and plays a Meddling Mage, but names Gargadon. A turn before getting killed, I draw another cascade spell, sack my only land to gargadon, cascade, and am in the process of sacking my posts to bring out the gargadon when he scoops.

Game 2 & 3

I believe he managed to get a Meddling Mage before I get enough mana in both games, and  now, he knows to name Restore Balance. In game 3, he goes after my borderposts as well with negate and bant charm, but the deck turns out to be surprisingly resilient to artifact destruction. I guess I’m running more borderposts than he is artifact destruction.

After the game, he asks me if I had any creature removal, and I told him I didn’t. He mentions firespout as a good option, which sounds good, but other than Meddling Mage, I can’t think of many other creatures that Restore Balance can’t really deal with. Of course, I point out that my sideboard plan has nothing against counters.

Record: 0-1, 1-2

Round 2 (mono-red burn)

My opponent apparently has a shop in Utah, and I believe her store was represented among the sellers.

Game 1: She opens with a first-turn Goblin Guide, which is legitimately scary, especially with only 12 lands. Fortunately, she doesn’t seem to have too much action, and is somewhat lacking in the 1 mana 3 damage spells department. I restore balance on turn 4, then start up March of the Machines for the win

I bring in kor firewalkers and simian spirit guide out of my board. I tell her that I’ve been testing against Tom’s red burn deck, and it’s a horrible matchup for me. Definitely side out the phrexian totem, because a burn spell to that wrecks me.

Game 2: Not even close. I get around to Restore Balance, but she’s ready and still has stuff in hand to keep rolling. turn 1 Goblin Guide continues to hurt.

Game 3: Her sideboard tech comes up with smash to smithereens, which hurts. I have a kor firewalker in hand to deal with her turn 1 Goblin Guide again, but I never quite find the mana for it. That card definitely doesn’t belong in this deck.

Record: 0-2, 2-4

Round 3 (affinity)

I can’t remember his name, but he was a kid from Las Vegas who apparently is doing quite a bit of traveling for Magic events. A bit unfortunate that his luck meant he was playing me, but maybe affinity wasn’t the right choice for the tournament.

Game 1: I learn how good of a matchup affinity is. He plays out his hand really fast and has a huge arcbound ravager on turn 3. Fortunately, I have my turn 4 Restore Balance, then a turn 5 World Queller. Naming land over and over, I win 3 turns later with some help from a totem.

I bring in Shattering Spree instead of the Phrexian Totem. The totem is cool, but I realize the risk is way too high on it.

Game 2: I mulligan to 4 because I don’t have a basic land in any of the hands, including my 4 card one. On the plus side, I got to see how affinity works.

Game 3: This game is very similar to the first one. Early Restore Balance followed by World Queller locks him completely out of the game.

I end up conceding just before I win since I know I’m going to leave early and have no intention of trying to do well in the tournament. So in actuality,

Record: 1-2, 4-5

Overall, I’m happy with the deck. It was a lot of fun to play, and people definitely didn’t see it coming, hence winning all of my game 1s. I, of course, have no idea how it would do against truly competitive decks, but it might have some promise with a transformative sideboard into hypergenesis? Probably not.

After that, I had time to play in 1 side event, so I signed up for a ZZW draft, which went surprisingly well. The prize structure was 6-4-1-1, so there was incentive to win, but you must know I always rare-draft. I always rare-draft. Let me see what I can remember about my packs:

Pack 1: My opening pick was a Rampaging Baloths, mostly as a pretty good rare draft. I passed a Harrow, so it might not have been the right thing to do as far as sending signals, but I felt okay. Sent a foil Umara Raptor, either a Windrider Eel or a Living Tsunami, and 2 or 3 good black cards. 2nd picked a Territorial Baloth, then picked up a Magma Rift after that. I was actually really scared when I picked the Magma Rift that I was going to get cut Green, but it turned out not to be the case. Picked up a couple 2 drops and was worried that I might end up with a bimodal mana curve, but I wasn’t too worried.

Pack 2: My rare was a Kazuul Warlord, which made a little sense since I think I got 2 allies pack 1, but it wasn’t good enough to make it my choice. 2nd pick, however, I rare-draft a Kalitas over a few playables. I realize quickly that I was getting cut black in pack 1 as it’s flowing in pack 2, but I ignore it and stay on track. I’m certain that I’m in the right colors when I wheel both a Torch Slinger and a Primal Bellow.

Pack 3: Pick 1 Jace, the Mind Sculptor, no question. That moment just made it worth it to draft. 2nd pick, I’m between a searing blaze and canopy cover, though I go for the former (it was tough since I love Silhana Ledgewalker so much). The rest of my picks are very excellent, and I put together the following draft deck with relevant cards also mentioned:

Lands (17)
12 Forest
5 Mountain

Creatures (15)
2 Oran-Rief Survivalist
2 Nissa’s Chosen
2 Gnarlid Pack
1 Goblin Roughrider
1 Torch Slinger
1 Bladetusk Boar
1 Wolfbriar Elemental
2 Timbermaw Larva
1 Summit Apes (foil! non-foil in the same pack)
1 Territorial Baloth
1 Rampaging Baloths

Other Spells (8)
1 Punishing Fire
1 Primal Bellow
1 Canopy Cover
1 Vines of Vastwood
1 Beastmaster Ascension
1 Searing Blaze
1 Kitesail
1 Savage Silhouette

Other Cards ()
1 Relic Crush
1 Mold Shambler
3 Oran-Rief Recluse
1 Highland Berserkers
1 Akoum Battlesinger
1 Ruinous Minotaur
1 Magma Rift
1 Walking Atlas
1 Grotag Thrasher
1 Seismic Shudder
1 Quest for the Gemblades

So how did my matches go?

Match 1 (Will playing W/G)

Game 1: I get off to a great start with an Oran-Rief Survivalist, Canopy-Covered Goblin Roughriders, and Bladetusk Boar. I get him down to 3 before he stabilizes-ish by Iona’s Judgment on my Boar, double-blocking the Territorial Baloth, and then Mold Shambling my Beastmaster Ascension just before it’s about to go off. We end up in a standoff with me trying to get 2 more creatures on the board than him to punch through. He attacks with his Vastwood Gouger, obviously with a trick in hand. I fall for the trap, and when he taps out to activate his manland and play his trap, I kill him with Searing Blaze.

Game 2: This game was really sad for him. Turn 4 Summit Apes gets wings with the Kitesail, and he’s on a 3 turn clock. Hilariously, I actually drafted the Summit Apes thinking it was a 3/2, not a 5/2. They’re a lot better than I though. I don’t I could’ve scripted a better win than beatdown with flying apes.

Match 2 (Len playing WBR)

Game 1: I get a couple 2cc out and start beating down, and he has a double Adventuring Geared-Hagra Croc. I’m at an interesting spot when I have 4 lands in play and the Wolfbriar Elemental, Torch Slinger, Territorial Baloth, and Primal Bellow, so I still have a ton of outs in my hand. 5th land seals the deal.

Game 2: I open with 2 Survivalists, though 1 gets whacked. Soon, I have a Survivalist, Larva, and Bladetusk Boar on the table with some trivial dude on his side. He Chain Reactions to clear the board, but I still have 1 green open and use it to Primal Bellow and save my Larva. I draw even more gas, and he can’t get anything to stick.

Match 3: I don’t remember his name, but we draw instead of playing and get 5 packs each. Mine aren’t too exciting, but he gets both a Jace and a Persecutor. I would’ve liked his packs instead of mine, but I can’t complain.

There isn’t a card in that deck that I’ll complain about. Flying apes are good. I was considering whether to play red, and I absolutely should have. The little bit of removal was good, the pump was good, and the creatures were a beating. In every game, I think I still had a ton of gas in my hand. I was certainly lucky with my mana in all of my games, as I never got in trouble with that, but I’m just overall satisfied with how it went.

And that was the end of my GP Oakland adventure. As I mentioned, the more high-level perspective on the tournament is on my main blog, so head over there if you’re interested in my thoughts on the tournament altogether.

Standard U/W Control

Monday, December 14th, 2009

I’ve found it pretty difficult to build good rogue decks in Standard. Mainly, the card pool is pretty small, the metagame dictates what cards are good, and there are an awful lot of people out there that you have to beat to the punch.

As mentioned, our casual group took a turn for the Standard recently when Leland buffed up his class Bushwhacker deck into legit Bushwhacker and Tom put the Jund deck together. I have heard people lament the lack of a good control deck in Standard, so I thought I’d take a shot at it. I first turned my vampire combo deck into a mono-black control deck, which was actually pretty bad. I couldn’t stand up against all of Jund’s 2-for-1s, and so I could hold it off for awhile, but end up with an empty hand turn 6-7 with no good way to take him out.

I thought about it that night, and while I was lying in bed, I thought about another take. I had heard that Sphinx of Jwar Isle is completely unassailable. My next insight led me to Deft Duelist, which had gotten a good review on some video I watched from Worlds. I put the pieces together and came up with a first decklist for a U/W control deck I put together the next morning. There were a lot of 2-ofs as I tried to figure out what was good, and I soon came to this:

Lands (26)

2 Sejiri Refuge

12 Islands

12 Plains

Creatures (17)

4 Deft Duelist

3 Vedalken Outlander

4 Wall of Denial

2 Wall of Reverence

1 Sphinx of Lost Truths

1 Felidar Sovereign

2 Sphinx of Jwar Isle

Other Spells (17)

1 Day of Judgment

1 Martial Coup

2 Celestial Purge

4 Essence Scatter

2 Negate

2 Crystallization

4 Courier’s Capsule

1 Luminarch Ascension

It’s a close matchup with Jund, I think, and it was a rout against Bushwhacker. I would talk more at length about the cards in the deck, but I soon found out that this is basically just a budget-y version of a UWr control deck going around

Lands (26)

4 Arid Mesa

4 Glacial Fortress

4 Island

2 Mountain

4 Plains

4 Scalding Tarn

4 Sejiri Refuge

Creatures (5)

2 Sphinx of Jwar Isle

3 Wall of Denial

Other Spells (29)

3 Ajani Vengeant

2 Day of Judgment

3 Double Negative

3 Earthquake

4 Flashfreeze

3 Jace Beleren

4 Lightning Bolt

2 Mind Spring

3 Oblivion Ring

2 Path to Exile

I had considered picking up a 3rd color with the deck, but ended up not because I didn’t think I could support it. Having 8 fetches in this deck that are all useful is actually pretty amazing in this deck. Color requirements aren’t too rough, meaning that the 3 colors here are a lot more stable than for other decks, such as Jund, known for its mana problems.

A few key points in case you’re not familiar with the style of deck:

  • it gets virtual card advantage by not giving them any targets for their removal. The pro-red, high toughness, and, particularly, shroud, mean that terminate, bit blast, and bolt are all dead cards. Pulse and path work on some things, but not most. This means that a lot of cascades are worse as well
  • The finishers are good. Sphinx really is untouchable
  • My deck depends on them having few threats. Although the boros deck can get a few creatures on the board, jund depends on a few strong creatures, and those are easy to deal with. My deck would probably get crushed by the eldrazi green deck, but the UWr deck has the sweepers for that

The decks do play out differently, of course. A lot of my games go to stalemates with a large number of creatures on the board; I only have 2 sweepers because of budget concerns and no red, but I’m also stocking 3 times as many creatures.

Tournament Follow-up

Wednesday, November 18th, 2009

We ran the tournament last night that pretty much caps off the class. It was 4 rounds of swiss to form a top 8 that will play in about 2 weeks. All in all, it went pretty well.

Having never run a tournament before, I was somewhat worried that things would go to crap. Problems I foresaw included:

  • downtime between rounds. No one likes to stand around waiting for their next match
  • issues with time. Since I wanted to get 4 rounds roughly in the 2 hour timeslot for the class, I told them that there would be 30 minute rounds. I’m sure that it rushed some of the students, but whatever. I foolishly got lenient to get some games to end, but it was pointed out to me that that’s not exactly fair
  • bad pairings. I was doing it mostly manually with a spreadsheet and a program to shuffle the order of names, so I had to group people by points by hand and hope that there weren’t any repeat matchups. It only happened once in the last round, and a single switcheroo (not sure if that was fair) fixed it

Overall, I think it went smoothly. 4 rounds in about 2 hours 45 minutes, so no major hiccups. Tom and I were playing a lot of Magic during rounds (for perspective, we, knowing our decks, got in 5 games in about 20 minutes, which was how long it took some people to play 1 game), and we only got maybe 5 judge calls the entire tournament.

As far as the winners go, we had 1 person go 4-0, 3 go 3-1, 2 go 2-0-2, and 4 go 2-1-1. On tiebreakers, we got that sorted out for the top 8, with decklists posted here. A majority of the rest of the rest of the decklists are here. Some observations about how decks did:

  • Mono-black decks were strong. We had 3 in the top 8, and 3 just outside, either at 2-1-1 or 2-2. I believe Reuben actually got into the top 8 over a mono-black control deck using aladdin’s ring when his opponent brought in cop:black and plains as his anti-black hate
  • Mono-blue decks did not do well. Generally, decks running blue didn’t do well, which we could’ve expected given the lack of good strong control pieces. At the beginning of the quarter, the U fliers deck looked pretty good, but once the power level and aggro went up with Zendikar, horned turtle wasn’t able to hold back the tide so well
  • Red was not popular and therefore wasn’t well-represented. Leland has R as part of Boros Bushwhacker, but across the board, the only red I really saw was splashed for some burn in green decks.
  • Soldiers went down in popularity, but the two decks that were doing pure soldiers both ended up in the top 8. There are a lot of common elements (full armor/swordsmiths, vanguards, brave the elements), but the differences are more interesting. Yi has an equipment sub-theme going on in there, but Steve has slighly more staying power with the serra angel and team pump
  • Kotaro was the one who went 4-0 with his domain deck. Suprisingly consistent for 5 colors and not the best fixing around. It isn’t a “all the best stuff in the format” as much as it’s just playing off of domain. But who’s to complain for a 3/3 for 3 that can become a 5/5 in 2 turns?

I won’t go as far as to predict who’s going to win at this point to avoid biasing what happens here or showing favoritism, but I know that these are going to be good matchups. They have to keep the exact same decklists, sideboard and all, going into the top 8, so at this point, it’ll mostly be playtesting. Tom and I agreed that we would make similar decks to all of these so that people can practice. We are going into Thanksgiving break and then exams, so hopefully people don’t have TOO much time to be playtesting, but it would be good.

What I’m Playing With

Tuesday, November 3rd, 2009

Updates here have been slow, sorry. Of course, there’s always the podcast that I guess I could be putting links up for each week. We actually don’t have a fresh one this week because we have a guest lecturer coming in.

In the meantime, I thought I’d showcase the deck that I’m playing with. We’re limited to whatever is in the card pool, and although this is technically a constructed format, I find that the shortage of good, valuable cards means that matches play more like limited games. I’ve been watching LSV’s videos of his drafts and taking that as inspiration for decks. At the beginning of the quarter,  I was playing an all M10 blue skies deck that was half-decent. Recently, with Zendikar coming in, I put together a new deck looking like this:

Lands (24)
14 Plains
10 Island

Creatures (24)
4 Kor Skyfisher
2 Welkin Tern

4 Ondu Cleric
4 Makindi Shieldmate
4 Stonework Puma
4 Umara Raptor

2 Kor Sanctifiers

Other Spells (12)
4 Journey to Nowhere
2 Narrow Escape
4 Into the Roil
2 Adventuring Gear

It’s not bad. It’s not great, but on the plus side, it’s all Zendikar commons, so if you’re playing block pauper?…

If you’re familiar with Zendikar, there are no surprises. There’s a allies thing going on to 1) stall the game and 2) pump up umara raptor. The raptor is pretty much the only win condition that the deck has. The welkin tern and kor skyfisher can do it as well, but most people don’t really feel the pressure from that. The shieldmate and cleric are great stall. A 3/6 is hard to swing through, and you can get a good 15 life off of a single cleric. Life gain isn’t insane, but it’s pretty good when you’re trying to race a deck with fatter ground beats and you only have a 2/3 flier to beat down.

I just read an article about how allies is a pretty linear mechanic, and that’s true. The thing that I like about this deck is that even though the theme would seem to be simple in just playing out lots of allies, the bounce actually provides some really interesting options, mainly being bouncing allies in a crunch and replaying them for the bonus. There are 10 bounce spells in the deck, and they even have cool interaction with journey to nowhere (bouncing it while the enters play ability is on the stack to permanently remove something from the game).

I considered trying to make it better by throwing in some cheap-ish changeling creatures like avian changeling or mothdust changeling. The former is pretty much better than the stonework puma, and the latter has built in reinforce for my raptors and shieldmates. I think there’s something charming about zendikar block pauper, though, so I’ll probably stay with this build.


Saturday, October 17th, 2009

I realize I haven’t posted in a couple weeks, though I’ll call the podcast as a cover. The lack of anything notable, though, is a good sign that things are going swimmingly, though.

The Zendikar draft last week went well, thanks to intervention from a student who happened to have packs when ours didn’t ship in time. About half of the people there were pretty experienced players, and a couple had even taken a look at Zendikar limited. The winning deck ended up being a B/R aggro deck topped out with a Sorin Markov. I think everyone put together reasonably good decks. The only surprising move in the draft was that fetchlands were going 6th-7th pick. Apparently no one told them that they were worth more than they paid to get into the draft. Whoops.

In-class constructed is going well as well. The decks have definitely gotten a lot better. Green is pretty popular for the beatdown, and there are a few white weenie decks. I’ve seen a couple U skies decks being played, with just enough counters to go around, and a lot of mid-range fliers for beats. Red is surprisingly unpopular; I think I saw 1 red deck and 1 G/R deck, neither of which were doing too well. The lack of good burn is a problem, though I slapped together a RDW that used seismic strike for some good work (drooling ogre is great out of block, by the way). One of the most surprising developments is people playing MBC. I’ve seen at least 3, and they’re good. Looming Shade has been a big winner, and Festering Wound has been annoying, but the real winner has been Nightshade Seer. That definitely went under our radar, and its reusable, high effectiveness removal can completely destroy decks.

On the personal front, we did end up getting our booster case. 2 boxes go to the class, 2 for Tom, 1 for me, and 1 for our group of friends. It feels like a waste, but we ended up just cracking them instead of drafting. Although we spend just as much time playing super smash bros, it was hard to justify sitting everyone down for a couple hours to do that, and we wanted to get them open to be able to cash in on money cards early. No priceless treasures, though we got a bunch of fetchlands to sell. Tom got a foil Ob Nixilis, and I got a foil misty rainforest, so not all was lost. I think the set is good, though maybe a little overhyped. The good cards are certainly good, though. Already, we’ve got a bunch of new decks built out of it, including an allies deck, a landfall deck, a vampire deck, and more that I can’t think of. Of course, most of it ended up being split among other decks since we’re primarily casual, but they’re fun additions. I myself took the vampire aggro deck and put together a blood tribute/sanguine bond combo deck that’s a ton more fun to play.

There might be more to speak of in the very near future. We just got a pretty big influx of cards that’ll be explained shortly (probably next podcast), and there’s another draft tomorrow, so news is forthcoming.

Week 2 in review

Wednesday, September 30th, 2009

We had our 2nd class last night, and it went pretty well. You can find our practice recording here, and slides here.

We made some changes from our podcast to the actual class, primarily being that we cut out a lot of the chit-chat and got straight to the content. As such, we managed to shave off a good half-hour so we only took about an hour to talk through. It mostly went well, though I was a little unhappy with the presentation of some of the cards and decks. I mentioned that we were going to immediately jump into Magic and really assume that they know the popular decks and the cards. It’s actually kind of ridiculous, now that I think about it, that it’s abundantly clear to me what a blightning beatdown deck looks like, and exactly why a certain card is so good. Those are a lot more difficult to explain when your audience doesn’t necessarily know what cryptic command does.

I was pretty happy with our explanation of tempo and card advantage, though. In my opinion, those pretty much represent the highest level of common Magic theory around. They’re the buzzwords, like AJAX for web dev or bipartisan for politics, that pretty much anyone familiar with the field is going to hear a lot, but really requires a little thought to understand what it means. For me, it was a great reminder about the tradeoff between tempo and card advantage, so that good all around.

After we were done with that, we let everyone get into the card pool to build, and everyone got really into it. Everyone had stacks of cards sitting around them, trying to figure out either how they were going to tweak the deck they were given, or build a new one. I was surprised by how many people were interested in building a new deck. Not surprisingly, green was a very popular color since our card pool is creature-heavy with little control. We actually ended up with a shortage of forests, but since most people were building mono-color decks, we just had them sub in other basic lands.

About 10 people or so ended up staying a full hour past the end of class, when we wrapped things up since we had to get out of there. So getting to play Magic was definitely a factor for a lot of them. Some of the decks looked pretty good from a pretty poor card pool, so I think we should have a pretty interesting metagame emerge.

Zendikar Prerelease

Saturday, September 26th, 2009

Good news: I was actually winning in a tournament, last done at least 3 years ago. Oh, and Zendikar is a lot of fun.

I went down to the big shop in the area this morning with 2 friends for a prerelease. I’m glad I pre-registered because the line to sign up was out the door, and I’m pretty sure they had to cap. In addition to events just getting bigger and bigger, I think Zendikar was sufficiently hyped, including priceless treasures. The crowd caused the event to fall behind about an hour, but it was well-worth it.

The format was 6 packs of sealed, and I opened pretty good packs. My rares were a Malakir Bloodwitch, Bloodchief Ascension, Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle, Archive Trap, Gigantiform, and a Verdant Catacombs. 2 hyped, limited-unplayable cards, 1 money card, 2 bombs, and 1 decent card. I got a tip that I shouldn’t play white when I opened one pack and didn’t get a single white card. My white had no removal and a smattering of not-so-good allies and kor. And my blue had several playables, but nothing too good to make it worth it, leaving me with black, red, and green. The creature curve for all 3 looked pretty similar, though the quality of those creatures varied widely. The 2 bomb black rares and 4 removal spells made me think black as my central color first, but I saw that my creatures were pretty weak (confirmed when I saw some good black card pools from others). It was painful, but I ended up cutting black. The bloodchief ascension was just too good, though, to not play, so I ended up playing 2 uncommon duals, the b/g fetch, and 1 swamp to make it playable. Ironically, it didn’t matter in a single game I played. I’m thinking that in limited, it might be a “win-more” card, but maybe I just wasn’t properly poised to use it.

My initial build was a r/g aggro deck playing several borderline creatures just because they were cheap, and that was a huge mistake. I quickly learned in a practice game that you can run out of steam very quickly. Instead, it was my 3 and 4 cost creatures that were doing the heavy lifting. Also, there was a lot of talk about playing 19-20 lands in limited decks to help out with landfall abilities, and it definitely didn’t seem worth it to me. I think I had maybe 3 landfall abilities in my deck, and only the Zektar Shrine Expedition was any good. Even so, I had no problem activating it with 17 lands. Perhaps it’s just because I was playing an aggro deck, but you definitely don’t need to scale up. So here’s a round by round


Game 1: He was also playing a r/g aggro deck, and his was better. To my 1 scythe tiger, he had 2. Him playing first meant that I was always a step behind, which mattered with the amount of removal he had. Bad news, and although the life totals weren’t ridiculous at the end of the game, I never felt like I was even with him in the game.

Game 2: 5 land hand with no creatures, mull to 6. I think it was a 2-lander and vaguely playable. He got out a first turn goblin guide, which is nuts. What was worse was that even with that help, I still couldn’t find any land, not helped by the need to play a scythe tiger to get something on the table. He did at least 10 damage, probably more, with the goblin guide alone, and I think I got 2 lands out of it. It was just scary. Granted, I didn’t have a lot of lands near the top, but even so, I don’t think the lands would’ve been able to get around it. Goblin guide should be very good in constructed.



Game 1: He was playing a B/W deck with a bunch of vampires, and he came out screaming. A first turn vampire lacerator into a turn 2 blood seeker with a disfigure and hideous end for removal was bad. Oddly enough, a little bit of life gain and the lacerator damage meant we both got to 15 life around the same time, but it quickly went downhill from there. WHen I dropped below 10, things got ugly with a guul draz specter and a cliff threader meant I was never in the game. After this, I remarked that I was shocked he lost the first round, because his deck looked nuts. I sided in a seismic shudder to deal with things, and I never sided it out. There are a surprising number of good 1-toughness creatures out there, and other than a regenerating river boa, I didn’t have any, so this was amazing for me.

Game 2 and 3: I don’t remember these too well, but I somehow stabilized in both of these after some mean removal. Both of his starts were ever so slightly slower (maybe drops on 2 and 3 or something like that), and I think that made all the difference for me. The expedition’s 7/1 hasty trample was great, and gigtantiform won me games. That card was surprisingly good. I wrote earlier about how firebreathing can make a sparkmage apprentice into a relevant creature, and gigantiform did the same thing for nissa’s chosen and torch slinger. Sure, you might get 2 for 1-ed, but a late 2/2 is pretty much a dead card on the board anyways, and against this guy, at least, he used up his removal early trying to “get there” before I stabilized. I just barely got out of both of these.



Game 1 and 2: He was playing a R/G/B deck, but it really didn’t matter. First turn scythe tiger is nuts. With punishing fire to follow up against the river boa, and it’s a blowout. I really felt bad for him, because it happened twice, and he was having significant color problems, but the games were over far too fast. I think scythe tiger-like power is the only reason why straight-up aggro might be really good in zendikar. In limited, though, I think people are going to find that, plated geopede, and similar cards too sexy to pass, so it might be hard to play that.



Game 1: He was also playing R/G, but it didn’t matter since we already decided to split packs. We played anyways, though, and a first turn scythe tiger got in for I think 6 damage before he stabilized. Unfortunately, that was more than enough. He had some great stuff once he stabilized, but the Hellfire Mongrel was a blow-out. I played it when he had 1 card in hand, and his only chance at that point was to keep playing cards to race. Fortunately, I had a bunch of chumpers and a slaughter cry to fend off the 7/1 from the zektar expedition, and the mongrel got him for about 10 damage. That game was absolutely insane.


Out of it, I got another 3 packs, and my first successful tournament in awhile. I don’t have too many other insights, though perhaps to say that “land matters” is slightly overstated. To be honest, I didn’t see a lot of interaction with lands in my deck. Good to get into your deck, not necessary to have the gas to win.

Report from our first class

Wednesday, September 23rd, 2009

So things might have gotten a little quieter leading up to the first class, but we’ve definitely been ramping up. SInce Tom and I are roommates, our dorm room is very much dominated by our magic cards. We have about 10,000 cards (mostly common, mostly crappy) for the class, and we initially built 30 decks for the 30 students taking the class. In addition, we also managed to convince the guys over at mtgcast to put our practice recording on the network as a podcast, which you can find here.

So there were some pretty significant changes to our presentation after we rehearsed on the podcast. These include

  • there was a lot of general cleanup. We realized we forgot a lot of things, and we could condense here and there
  • we put in one really slick slide with animations to show the stack
  • we moved a lot of the rules stuff from the first segment to the second segment. We wanted to get students playing as quickly as possible, and since the decks we built were very basic, we figured we didn’t have to talk about things like planeswalker or artifacts immediately
  • very significantly, I lost my voice. On the podcast, I mention that I”m under the weather, and I was actually losing my voice then. It might not sound that bad, but my voice is a lot deeper on the podcast than usual. Good thing we did it when we did, as well, because 3 hours later, gone. I’m still resting now, so Tom did the entire lecture in class, but he did a great job, so no worries

We kept iterating on the slides up until about an hour before the class, which I would post, but there’s some vaguely personal information and specific information that we would prefer not to have widely available. The slides that we used for the podcast, though, are available here

On that day, as well, I also mentioned to Tom that we might build a few extra decks in case we have some extra people show up, which was an excellent choice. We arrived to a full room and ended up passing out all 35 decks, with even a couple people in the room without. The demographics of the room wasn’t quite what we were thinking it would be, but were certainly not disappointed to see people. We were hoping to get mostly new players, underclassmen so we actually have something to teach them. On a class poll, most had played before, and more than a couple had experience with the topics we’d be teaching. And amazingly, not everyone in the room was male. I’m glad to see we’re getting better balance than most local tournaments.

So the lecture part went well. We got additional help from George, a level 3 DCI judge who’s also a student here at Stanford. Fortunately, we didn’t embarrass ourselves by explaining anything wrong, only asking for confirmation on a couple things we talked about related to planeswalker. Through the lecture, we got some good questions about rules, and it definitely seemed like people were interested.

All in all, I was pretty pleased by how it went. Attendance was good, and people seemed engaged and having fun, but we’ll see if we have a good return crowd for next week. As far as content here goes, I think we might be a little silent on the blog. We’ll be working a lot more, but things go hush-hush as we’re on good footing with what we want to present, and really want to give the first look to students now. I’ll probably continue to do weekly reports here, and now we’re on MTGCast as well (thanks Tom!), so every Wednesday, our practice should go up.

So yeah, Tom and I are pretty pumped up about this. Things look good, we have 24/7 office hours, and we’re prepping for the rest of it.

Plain text flier

Wednesday, September 16th, 2009

Here’s the email I spammed the lists with. We’re gearing up to start this next Tuesday, so things might go a little quiet here, but maybe I’ll come up with some interesting content as the class goes on.


Ever been daydreaming in class about what would happen if a dinosaur were hit by lightning?

Boom! Pet dead.

Well, there’s a course where you’ll actually be on topic!

I know a lot of you are just trying to figure out classes and gearing up to do as much as you can, but for a change of pace, you might take

SYMSYS 15SI The Theory and Design of Magic: The Gathering

Maybe you have fond memories of junior high either playing or harassing the nerds who played at lunch, but whoever you are, this class is going to be a ton of fun. Perks include:

– getting to learn how to play Magic. Who knew you could get college credit to play a card game? If you’re not familiar with it, Magic is a card game where you use mana to make faeries and mutant bunnies attack and blow up the world. Think Pokemon, but way more legit (though maybe not quite as cute). We’re going to start from the basics and rules of the game, so everyone is welcome!

– ever wonder how combinatorics or nash equilibrium might matter other than at 3:00 AM on a scribbled mess of a pset? We’ll have interesting examples of how you can apply classroom material to something real (sort of)

– exposure to a lot of the Symbolic Systems major. We’ll be talking about Game Theory, Statistics, Epistemic Logic, AI, and more, so you’ll get a great look at the rest of your major if you’re considering symsys

– already an experienced Magic player? Great! Although the class is targeted towards new players, we’ll be covering new and exciting material so you can learn something, too

We’ll be meeting on Tuesday nights, 7-9 in 200-217, and you can sign up in Axess for the class. Even if the class is full, show up on the first day in case of drops.

See you there!

Kevin and Tom

Some thoughts back and forth

Tuesday, August 18th, 2009

One of the things I’ve been trying to do is to get some opinions from some more prolific people in the Magic community. It seems like a pretty natural instinct to appeal to the most knowledgeable, and fortunately, I got a hold of Frank Karsten, recent Magic Hall of Fame inductee and Magic writer, including several pieces on Magic. This is going to be a somewhat long post, but here’s what our email exchange looks like. Feel free to add in on any of the points in either:

Frank to Tom and me

Course Syllabus

A Class? On That Silly Card Game?

Game Design:

  • “…by understanding the intent of design, one can become a significantly better player.”; you may (instead) argue that learning something about game design may also be useful for computer science students when making computer games or something like that.

Game Theory:

  • “The history of game theory comes more from political situations and the arms race”; I think historically, it actually originates from an analysis of parlor games and of economic situations of coalition formation (Von Neumann and Morgenstern’s 1944 Theory of Games and Economic Behavior).
  • “where the choices one must make choices”; the second ‘choices’ is superflous
  • “whether to bluff, call, or fold”; so in poker bluffing is equal to raising? J

Week 1 – Overview of topics and the rules of Magic

Week 2 – Deckbuilding Basics and “Card Advantage”

Week 3 – Game Theory in Multiplayer games

  • I never play any multiplayer, so I may be biased here … but I would move multiplayer (if you want to cover it at all) to the end of the class, or at least after probability and deckbuilding. I would rather first teach everything about the game itself and then afterwards move on to extensions such as multi-player Magic. Putting it in week 3 seems too early, especially when not everyone is a solid Magic duel player yet.
  • Note that game theory is not only applicable to multiplayer games but also to two-player games. I regularly roll dice on the Pro Tour to decide whether to block or not (since a mixed play leaves no strategic holes that can be taken advantage of by a good bluffer, as partially explained here, for example. A game-theoretical analysis of bluffing is also applicable to games such as poker.

Week 5 – Statistics and Simulation in Deckbuilding

  • Wait, what are those articles on e.g. tempo doing there? I don’t see what that has to do with statistics.
  • However, statistics can be a very useful tool in building decks and playtesting. In addition to the relevant and valid topics you want to tackle in this class, I can add some statistical questions that I had to answer in my preparation for Pro Tour Honolulu (these are real examples of how probability theory can be applied to relevant questions and are straightforward exercises on conditional probability):
    • With X lands and Y creatures in your Z-card deck, what is the probability that a Gift of the Gargantuan will yield either one or both?
    • When deck X has an A% chance of winning before sideboarding against deck Y and a B% chance of winning after sideboarding against deck Y, what is the probability of deck X winning a match against deck Y?
  • You could also discuss mulligan decisions here and use probability to show that keeping one-land opening hands is almost always a bad move. For example, take a one-land opening hand and calculate the probability of finding at least one land in the top 2 cards of your deck. From that extrapolate to the odds of winning the game if you keep the 7-carder and compare that to an (estimated) odds of winning the game if you go down to 6 cards. If the latter is higher (it almost certainly is), then you should mulligan.

Week 6 – Epistemic Logic and Limited

Week 7 – Metagame and Applications of Graph Theory

Week 9 – Presentations

  • You may want to plan this part out a bit further. Build a deck for what format? Do you assume that everyone has all the needed cards at his/her disposal?

General Resources

  • “the makes of Magic” -> “the makers of Magic”
  • You can also add
  • And my less formatted response:

    Week 1

    Our class is intended to be just as appropriate for beginners as it is for experienced players, so no assumptions about what the students know. Our first class is an intro to the rules, and we’ll get them into games shortly after that. We’re going to recommend that they heavily visit our 24/7 “office hours” to get experience playing over that first week so that we could begin talking about more real things starting week 2. Since Magic is more the context than the point of the class, we don’t want to waste any time on that.

    The motivation for the articles that we picked is that it would be more helpful for them to have references instead of explanations of the rules (especially since readings for the first week will be done after, not before that class). Of the 3 or 4 friends to whom Tom and I taught the game in our dorm room, they all picked up the game really quickly and, as soon as they were told, understood why you play instants during your opponent’s end of turn phase and what to look for in using counters. I’m trusting that students are pretty smart and see the biggest obstacle just being how much they know about existing magic cards and popular decks. It’s usually pretty easy to see how a deck works and why it might be good. It’s a lot more difficult to try to understand why that deck might be good in a given format, especially if you don’t know what cards are there.

    Do you think those are fair assumptions about how to put this together, based on your experience with new players? This is actually a fairly big concern that we have, because if we don’t get the class off on the right foot or have the proper basis for the situations to come, we’re hosed.

    Week 3

    I’m thinking the multiplayer is a dorm room bias because I actually got a lot of feedback telling us, like you mentioned, to move multiplayer to the end of the course. As I mentioned, Tom and I are mostly casual players, and when we play, it’s pretty much just whoever happens to be sitting in the room. Given that, I still usually prefer playing 1 on 1 games, but I think the move to multiplayer early gives us a wider space to discuss game theory without introducing additional rules complexity. Since a lot of games are cooperative (you get a lot more games when not everything is 0 sum), I think that makes more sense when you have potential allies and not just one guy across the table trying to beat your face. The goal of the class is to demonstrate interesting ideas with the side effect of developing better play skills instead of trying to develop a rock-solid basis for future pro magic players (though I’d be proud if that happened), so I figured I would bend things a bit to make way for what I think is interesting. Game theory, I think, just makes a lot more sense and is more approachable earlier in the class instead of hitting with graph theory. Given all that justification, though, I’d be happy to listen to alternative schemes and reasoning for structuring that.

    Week 5

    Yeah, I think mulligan does make a lot of sense with statistics. Combinatorics is obviously huge when determining the composition of an opening hand, and it just keeps on going from then on. That sounds like a great application; thanks.

    And if you happen to have real examples of some analysis that you’ve done, I’d be very interested to see it. Certainly don’t go through the effort to write it up if it’s not in an available format, but I think it’d be great to work in analysis from “real REAL” magic so that there’s something to present to the hardcore magic community and not just toy examples to satisfy the class.

    Week 9

    Pretty much our idea for how presentations and cards would go is that Tom and I have a decent supply of extra cards, mostly bulk commons (whoever needed 50+ copies of CoP:Red?), and we would build some initial decks for them and let the rest of those cards be their entire card pool. Though it might be an interesting experiment in game theory, we’re going to bar outside cards from getting into the class environment. That way, we don’t have to worry about the class becoming unbalanced or unfun just because someone was willing to invest more into the class. The only trickiness there is that some cards will be scarce; I’m sure the 1 or 2 sudden deaths we have will be greatly desired, but we’re not too worried about that. The card pool isn’t going to be super-cohesive or uniform, but when our budget is 0 and we’re running the class out of our pockets, that’s about what we’re willing to offer.

    And Frank’s response:
    Week 1 => My experience with newer players is very limited. The last time I taught a new player was during last century. Furthermore, a completely new player would benefit more from being taught by someone who learned Magic a couple months ago than by someone who plays on a much higher level. That makes it much easier for the teacher to relate to the new player. That’s something to keep in mind.

    Week 3 => I understand where you are coming from. If you keep it in week 3, I would personally name the class ‘game theory in single- and multiplayer games’ (rather than just multiplayer games) and focus on applications of game theoretical concepts to both types of games. That is, I would spend an entire class on multiplayer games that early.

    Week 5 => Can’t think of any relevant analysis I’ve done in the past from the top of my head, but I’ll take a look at archives sometime soon. I’ll let you know if I find anything.

    Week 9 => If three players all want the same Sudden Death, this may get annoying. Another idea is to split the class in 5 groups after a few weeks and let every group build a mono-color deck. Then unfortunately not everyone has their own deck, but there will be no unfair allocations of cards and the deck building process becomes a cooperative group process rather than something everyone does individually. Don’t know if this is more desirable, but I’m just tossing out ideas.

    More ideas then … as for week 8, you may also consider doing something with search algorithms in deck building. An AI that builds decks has to take into account that adding e.g. just 4 Channel or just 4 Fireball to a given deck won’t improve it, but adding 4 Channel and 4 Fireball to a deck makes it better (use any 2-card combo for this example). Theory on search algorithms that use this logic may be interesting, perhaps?

    Definitely some much better ideas in there than what we’ve come up with. Let me know if anything in there stands out to you as important.