Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Birthday!

It was my birthday yesterday, and I am old.

It was a pretty quiet day. Taught some martial arts, worked, and went home to spend some time with the family. They made a special Pork Chop dinner with potatoes and broccoli, and a delicious Texas Sheet Cake dessert.

For presents, as money is tight these days, I got modest gifts. A batch of homemade Haystack cookies from one son, a picture from another, and a paper boat from the third. My wife got me two Magic the Gathering Boosters, power/toughness dice, and a playmat.



In the boosters the rares were Atris, Oracle of Half-Truths which is a decent Blue-Black gold card, and a Black Gravebreaker Lamia which is only good if I get a deck that cares about things in the graveyard.

One of the boosters also had the pretty alternate art Renata, Called to the Hunt which I really like.

Overall a good day for an old man like me.

Wednesday, February 05, 2020

Cleaving and Trawling

Since it was February and the month of love due to Valentine's day I decided to go wild and try and Mono Red aggro deck. Well, also because I had accumulated a bunch of Embercleaves so why not? I also decided it was time to try out "traditional" play, i.e. playing Best of 3 games and using a sideboard between matches. 

This is the deck I settled on:

Deck 4 Runaway Steam-Kin (GRN) 115
4 Light Up the Stage (RNA) 107
4 Tin Street Dodger (RNA) 120
4 Scorch Spitter (M20) 159
4 Shock (M20) 160
4 Embercleave (ELD) 120
4 Fervent Champion (ELD) 124
3 Robber of the Rich (ELD) 138
3 Castle Embereth (ELD) 239
3 Anax, Hardened in the Forge (THB) 125
4 Infuriate (THB) 141
2 Phoenix of Ash (THB) 148
17 Mountain (THB) 285
Sideboard
4 Unchained Berserker (M20) 164
4 Claim the Firstborn (ELD) 118
2 Embereth Shieldbreaker (ELD) 122
3 Redcap Melee (ELD) 135
 It did not go well. I stopped after going 5-9 record.

Part of it was learning the deck I admit, learning when to mulligan, which order to cast spells, how to get your attack through, etc. And I know people have ranked high with similar decks, but this version felt so finicky, that is to say if your lands didn't come in just right, or you flooded, it petered out fast. And everyone knows the key cards to remove to disable it.

There are other red aggro decks I'm tempted to look into, but really the whole experience left a bad taste in my mouth. So I decided to try out something else I had my eye on: Blue White Dream Trawler Control:

Deck
4 Absorb (RNA) 151
4 Hallowed Fountain (RNA) 251
2 Dovin's Veto (WAR) 193
4 Teferi, Time Raveler (WAR) 221
1 Tranquil Cove (M20) 259
2 Castle Ardenvale (ELD) 238
2 Castle Vantress (ELD) 242
4 Banishing Light (THB) 4
4 The Birth of Meletis (THB) 5
4 Shatter the Sky (THB) 37
4 Omen of the Sea (THB) 58
1 Thassa's Intervention (THB) 72
4 Thirst for Meaning (THB) 74
3 Dream Trawler (THB) 214
3 Temple of Enlightenment (THB) 246
6 Plains (THB) 279
8 Island (THB) 281
Sideboard
2 Narset, Parter of Veils (WAR) 61
1 Dovin's Veto (WAR) 193
3 Aether Gust (M20) 42
1 Glass Casket (ELD) 15
1 Mystical Dispute (ELD) 58
2 Sorcerous Spyglass (ELD) 233
1 Elspeth Conquers Death (THB) 13
1 Elspeth, Sun's Nemesis (THB) 14
1 Heliod's Intervention (THB) 19
2 Whirlwind Denial (THB) 81
I've had better success in initial testing, going 5-2. The basic idea is similar to other UW control decks I've run last fall where I delay and put off their creatures until I dominate the board. The big difference is that this deck does so with the impressive Dream Trawler instead of waiting for opponent to give up.
If you can get this guy to land on the board, it will quickly dominate the game. Power it up with some draw card spells and its game over.

One thing I will say about Best of 3 though is that its far more mentally exhausting than Best of 1. Sideboarding cards in and out is stressful, control decks tend to take longer already, and one match can easily take 25 minutes for three games. Take a look at these 5 test games:

And if you lose a 22 minute match? I find it more of a blow than losing a 10 minute match. I want to get better and I think learning the ins and outs of Best of 3 is important, but I'm not sure I want that to be my main playstyle.

Monday, January 27, 2020

So Close, Yet...

... So far.

I was running along fine since reaching Platinum 4 tier and it seemed like Diamond was easily within reach thanks to the broad shoulders of the Questing Beast and friends, and then Theros Beyond Death started to impact Standard.

Right around when I was one win from Platinum tier 1 in fact. I started getting hit with Legendary Enchantment gods, Escaping Titans, Mono-white aggro decks and Mono-black devotion decks (Gray Merchant of Assholery is on my Hate list). I was forced to make some modifications to my deck like removing Midnight Reapers for some Return to Nature instants that do triple duty against enchantments, enchantment creatures, and escape creatures in the graveyard, but even with those changes I was not doing as well.

Before Theros my record was 47-27 (64%) and after is was 53-53 (50%). While I expect the record to flatten out as I climbed the ranks, it is apparent I need to go back to drawing board.

That being said, I did manage to put on a winning streak last week and got into Platinum 1 and yesterday was twice within 1 win of my goal of Diamond. Failed to convert both times and the second time had a wonderful little 5 game losing streak. With only a few more days left of this month's season I'm not hopeful I'm going to make that goal, but that's OK. I've already started planning for next month's deck...

Blue White? Blue Black? Mono-white? Mono-black? Decisions, decisions, decisions...

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Going On An Adventure

At the beginning of November I set a goal to climb the ladder to Platinum and after a few missteps I did so with a Rakdos sacrifice Cat Oven deck. In December I wanted to expand my horizons and do a control deck on the ladder and failed to reach Platinum again, but stilled learned a lot.

January, the last month of the Throne of Eldraine standard meta, I decided to try a Green Black Golgari Adventures deck as it seemed to be one of the toughest decks I was running into on Arena. I'm happy to report that its not even the middle of the month and Platinum rank has been achieved.

Now I'm going to see if I can climb to Diamond before the end of the month.

I started off with a deck I got from @MythicMeebo who used it at the Mythic Championships to a top 8 finish.

I didn't have a great start with it, having a 2-4 record. So I switched to a similar deck:

I played this one a lot, 79 matches, and while I had some early success climbing to Gold 3 quickly it flattened out. At a 54% win rate I was not going to climb very well. The problem seemed to be that it was too slow to kill early, and lacked a lot of end game power. I tried a version with more Beanstalk Giants and a Liliana Dreadhorde General, but really it was too late or too easy to counter. I always felt I was fighting from behind.

So finally I switched to this deck:

This deck had the four mythic Questing Beasts and three Rankle, Master of Pranks which both increased the ability of the deck to hit hard and fast in the early game or as surprise damage in late game. Ideally I overwhelm the opponent before they can stabilize, and if they do stabilize then Cavalier of Night or Massacre Girl can break the deadlock.

One of the things I learned from these decks is the importance of card draw from the Edgewall Innkeeper and Foulmire Knight (and less so from Vraska). Those extra cards are necessary to keep up the pressure against counter spells from control decks or removal from other decks. Without them the deck runs out of gas and its hard to get going again.

My current deck is working well at the moment, but I've got an eye on some substitutions in case it flounders on the ladder. Noxious Grasp is useful in a lot of situations but could be swapped for something like Lucky Clover to get more value from the adventure spells (as long as you have enough targets or enough life for the ones that take your life as a cost like Swift End), and the Great Henge is OK but rarely affects the outcome of my games, its more of a "win more" card so I might swap it out for another Cavalier of Night who is a definite momentum swing.

Look out Diamond, here I come!

Wednesday, January 08, 2020

Review: Star Wars Rise of Skywalker


*** NO SPOILERS ***

OK, I've had a week to digest Rise of Skywalker and to give it a grade both as a movie and as the end of the Sequel Trilogy and end of the saga.

First off, as a movie: its Star Wars; even when its bad its good. This movie leaned into the bread and butter of the franchise which is space fighting, blaster fighting, and light saber duels. Like all the new movies it leans into spectacle far more than slow story and character building. This is a trend we see starting even in Empire Strikes Back (giant space asteroid worm? Why?) and Return of the Jedi, and since today's modern big name action directors have so much more ability to make what they envision in their heads appear on the screen due to CGI effects and knowing that these Star Wars movies are remembered for the big scenes, the trend towards spectacle over story is almost inevitable.

That being said, the lack of space to breath is really noticeable in this movie. It really goes from scene to scene to scene at a frenetic pace, trying to put a big explosive covered bow to wrap up its own trilogy and the 9 movie saga as a whole. It tries hard, very hard, to raise the stakes to a 9 movie conclusion and really, I feel like it failed in that regard.

Overall, at first I thought I liked it more than The Last Jedi but I feel now that maybe that's not true, but keep in mind I'm a big fan of TLJ so this is not a big hit on RoS. If I were to give TLJ a 7.5/10 score, I'd give RoS 7/10.

Now, taking a look at it as the end of the trilogy and saga, I think it scores better because it hits all the notes you want a big saga end to have: biggest of the bad guys, biggest of the stakes, duels, crisis, combat... you kind of want the frenetic spectacle at the end of the saga, just like Return of the Jedi and Revenge of the Sith both did. On that note, I'd give it a passing grade.

Was fun, would watch again.

UPDATE:

OK, I want to take a minute and talk about The Last Jedi again.

Yes, there were problems. Poe Dameron should have been summarily executed by firing squad for his disobeying orders, going rogue, and full blown mutiny, not gushed over by Leia and Holdo. Arcing turbo lasers without a gravity well. Taking a handful of skimmers out against an army of walkers.

But outside of those issues this movie tells a story, has meaningful character arcs for multiple characters (Rey, Finn, Poe, and even Luke!), and looks and sounds gorgeous! I love re-watching this movie with my sons, it just hits the right notes in so many ways.

And I found Old Man Luke believable and relatable, his story and arc satisfying. His confrontation with Kylo was compelling and more than just a light saber duel.

The issue with the resistance bombers dropping bombs? Capital ships generate gravity fields, it makes sense to utilize it with smaller easier to make bombs you drop into its gravity field than make more expensive torpedoes, especially for a cash strapped resistance.

Canto Bight scenes? I don't see any problem with it, it was a nice fresh look into a galaxy unconcerned with the dark/light war and profiting from it.

Anyone who wanted the Luke / Rey arc to go differently, or hated what the writers and director did with Luke as a character, I sympathize but just because its not what you expected does not mean it was not good.

The movie told a new Star Wars story and told it well.

Thursday, January 02, 2020

December Wrap Up

So the experiment with controlling decks in December comes to a disappointing end. Things were going swimmingly, I was 1 win from Platinum with over a week left and then... boom. Ended down in Gold 2.
Oof.

I went from a 60% win rate down to a 55% win rate pretty quickly. What the hell happened? Taking a look at my most played match ups gives a good hint.

The meta shifted hard in the last month to more aggro decks than I was seeing before; Red decks of various stripes, Golgari adventures, and Simic flash all were appearing more frequently and all exposed weak spots in my deck's game plan.

- Red aggro simple got in under my defenses faster than I could set up and if I didn't get a turn 5 Time Wipe or maybe a turn 5 Planar Cleansing I was toast.

- Golgari Adventures either hit me with a turn 3 (!) Questing Beast or used Midnight Rider or Edgewall Innkeeper to draw replacement cards enough to simply start over after I did a board sweeper.

- Simic flash simply got creatures on the board and then counter spelled my attempts to remove them.

All three of those matches I faced more frequently in the last ten days of December and all of them were well below a win rate to climb higher. On the upside I dominated against the mirror match up and had a good handle on any Cat Oven decks.

For the last month of Throne of Eldraine standard I'm going a new/old direction. I'm going to find a Golgari deck to use and climb the ladder with. Its going to be difficult since I only have 6 rares with which to craft a deck with so I'm going to have to leverage my existing collection more than I would like. I'll report on this experiment once I have some matches under my belt.

Monday, December 16, 2019

Getting the Hang of Controlling the Game

On December 4th I talked about trying to learn control decks in Magic the Gathering. This was a learning opportunity and I threw myself into it with the usual starting disaster I have trying anything knew. I'm just not a natural at anything I try, I can't see the combos and strategies like others can, I need to learn them from falling down a lot.

And boy did I ever. Fall down a lot I mean.

I was not having luck with the Azorius deck I was trying so I borrowed one from my friend's lists and did even worse. I went back to the Esper control deck I started with and had a bit more luck, but still couldn't make headway on the ladder.

Finally I heard about Ben Stark playing Ally Warfield at the Mythic Championship with an Azorius deck and decided to check out his list. It was even simpler than the ones I had previous tried so I loaded it up and gave it a try. This new deck, combined with some very painful lessons-learned, started to click and I finally climbed my way out of Gold 4 to Gold 3 and then Gold 2 this past weekend.

So far a 63% win rate and while it has not been completely smooth sailing up the ladder, its definitely a lot more consistent than I was experiencing earlier.
My version of Ben Stark's Azorius list for Bo1 ladder play.


And why is that?

First off was the learning curve. When you play with aggro creature-heavy decks or even mid range decks you get value from things on the board, not in your hand. Its second nature to cast things as soon as possible to get the maximum value from them, taking into account what your opponent is doing and how to get around things of course. But at the end of the day, the heuristic to use as much of your mana base as possible each turn is ingrained into my psyche.

But with a control deck every spell has to be weighed against what spells you can't cast if you cast this one. Hesitation, patience, playing the (very) long game are all called for. Its literally like playing a different game, and while I knew in my head that it was a different play style, I had to learn it in my heart and learn new instincts. That took a while.

Another factor was that the first couple decks I crafted, the Esper control and Azorius decks, were based on Best of 3 matches and I suspect that they suffered when playing Best of 1 matches. Control gets more powerful when it can customize the list for colour hate and the opponent's play style in matches 2 and 3 I think.

The Ben Stark deck on the other hand, was a simpler version of the Azorius deck and I found it surprising at the lack of win conditions. Just a few Gadwicks and Brazen Borrowers, how can this be? But it turns out that once you have control of the game in hand, a couple creatures and some 1/1 from the Ardenvale Castle are all you need to win.

Which brings me to my last point: control decks seem to have a lot more decision points involved. My normal decks have decision trees with 2 or maybe 3 branches at each point; control decks seem to have 4 or 5 branches each turn and making the wrong move can be disastrous (as evidenced by my record). Playing control is not for the casual match!

Now that I feel like I'm getting the hang of how this deck plays, I can see the attraction of control decks, the feeling that you are playing multi-level chess while your opponent is playing tic tac toe. Its intoxicating.

Next step is to ride out the rest of the December season and see if we can't get that Platinum level once again!

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