Response to the B&R announcement: Can it be April 24 already?

The ‘don’t ban ANYTHING’ brigade got their way.

Barring unforseen tech breaking out, we will have a 100% solved metagame for Standard over the next six weeks. Six more weeks for those that own Crazy Cat Lady Combo and/or Mardu Vehicles to dominate every FNM and PTQQ, and for those that do not own the decks to not bother showing up.

After that, we will get the bans that should have happened today. Gideon and the cat will be taken out the back and shot, Reflector Mage might (or might not) be rehabilitated, and we will have had six shit weeks for nothing.

Someone might prove me wrong and innovate something impressive and new that shakes the format up. I hope so.

But that someone will not be me. I’ll just wait out the next six weeks, watch from the sidelines, and instead of spending money on Magic’s main format I’ll spend it on other things.

Wizards will get some of that money (MM3) but not all of it- some of my discretionary budget will end up being spent at the local karaoke bar, instead of at the LGS or on MTGO.

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It’s a pity because once you look beyond the format warping cards, this Standard actually has a number of diverse buried strategies that could be interesting to explore.

Tamiyo is one of the most unique Planeswalkers ever designed. She’s also completely unplayable in Standard – the decision not to exclude Fellidar Sovereign from competitive play has de facto excluded Tamiyo.

Electrostatic Pummeler can sometimes suck to lose to, but at least you see it coming. This card and its deck have a fairly unique creature-based all-in playstyle not seen in Standard since the Heroic mechanic rotated out, and unlike its Modern and Legacy variants (Infect), it’s never been an oppressive deck.

It’s not my personal favorite type of deck to play with, but it is a deck I love playing against.

Again, thanks to the decision to not ban Fellidar Sovereign in competitive play, Electrostatic Pummeler has also been removed from the competitive landscape.

Brisela is legal in Standard for about 30 more weeks. It’s a shame that for the next six she is guaranteed not to be playable. Gisela is solid on her own, and without Gideon dominating every other white ‘fair’ strategy, I think the Twisted Sisters might at least have had Tier 2 potential.

But again, from the perspective of a competitive player, the decision to keep Gideon in the format removes the Twisted Sisters from it.

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Can it be April 24 already?

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The Crisis of Standard – Thoughts and Questions

I’m posting this before the B&R announcement, because that decision has been made already and nothing I say will be able to influence it. Set design has painted WotC into a corner and they really don’t have any good choices for this B&R update anyway.

Whatever they do, Standard will continue to be mediocre, and a lot of players will be upset. We are mostly stuck with hoping that Amonkhet fixes the format, but more likely waiting until BFZ rotates out.

Anecdotal evidence points to Standard tournament turnup only slightly increasing since the release of one of the most impressive sets of the last five years (AER) and the bannings of two cards that were warping the format (and a third that was already very good and that Wizards argues would have filled the vacuum).

I want to discuss how Standard got into this situation.

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Present Standard is a 2.5 deck format.

You have two Tier 1 decks. Mardu Vehicles (Mardu) combines a fast clock, anti-Planeswalker pressure, and a solid removal suite. On average it goldfishes on turn 4.5.

Copy Cat Combo (CCC) plays for lategame power, combining traditional control elements and an over-the-top big finisher play (the combo) that outright wins the game. In this sense it has filled into the role that BG Delirium played prior to the banning of Emrakul.

There was a BG midrange counter synergy deck that was well positioned in the metagame early on after AER launched, until CCC adapted to beat it. The adaptations made to CCC actually made the deck stronger overall against the entire field.

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These three decks contain a number of cards that are just better than everything else in Standard.

Heart of Kiran

Gideon, Ally of Zendikar

Scrapheap Scrounger

Torrential Gearhulk

Saheeli Rai (Note: Not good on its own, but extremely good in its deck)

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I’m going to compare these to the best six cards (as I remember them) from a different Standard era. Kamigawa-Ravnica-9th Standard was a very well regarded Standard environment at the time. You’ll notice something different about the list.

Umezawa’s Jitte

Birds of Paradise

Dark Confidant

Remand

Wrath of God

Lightning Helix

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All of the best cards in today’s Standard are hard to answer threats. The best cards from Kamigawa-Ravnica-Ninth Standard were a mixture of utility (BOP), threats (Jitte, Bob) and control elements (Remand, Wrath).

Why are we seeing more pushed threats and less answers?

I’m going to argue that the root cause lies with the Alara rarity reshuffle.

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Prior to Alara, we didn’t have anything similar to modern rares or mythics. Instead every pack had a card that was about half way in between the two modern higher rarities. (For example, in 480 packs of KLD you can expect about 4 Saheeli and 8 Scrounger. In 480 packs of RAV you would expect 6 Birds of Paradise).

The rare slot included utility cards (like dual lands), resilient threats such as the (at the time very strong) Kodama of the North Tree, zany build-around me cards that were mostly terrible with the occasional exception, and almost all legends.

Post Alara these cards have been split between rare and mythic rare, with the cards with the larger boardstate impact mostly promoted to mythic, and the utility cards (like dual lands and answer cards) and early game plays demoted in rarity to ‘new rare’.

With five notable exceptions I can name (Lotus Cobra, Mindbreak Trap, Voice of Resurgence, Grim Flayer and Mox Opal – there may be more), utility cards and low-impact plays have not been at mythic but have been at rare.

Instead the mythic rarity has been dominated by threats. Planeswalkers, powerful legends (and some terrible but flashy ones too), and cards with hard-to-manage drawbacks like Inverter of Truth.

This has created a financial incentive for Wizards to reshape Standard to showcase the best mythics.

To do that, they have made it harder to answer these higher rarity threats.

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Returning to Kamigawa-Ravnica-Ninth era, there were plenty of cards – including at low rarity – that answered the best threats of the day and answered them well.

Remand, Hinder and Mana Leak provided temporary or permanent answers to the format’s best threats.

Mortify and Putrefy efficiently answered individual big threats. Lightning Helix hyperefficiently answered small ones.

You could even pack enough removal to kill everything your opponent tried to equip a Jitte to, and kill them before that mongrel equipment generated them any value.

Finally Wrath of God answered swarms.

It wasn’t all kittens and rainbows then – you did need playsets of a number of utility rares (Birds of Paradise, shocklands, 9E painlands) to be competitive, and those cards were rarer than they would be today. But Standard overall was much healthier.

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Contrast to today.

Yes, there are reasonably good cards that answer some of the big threats.

Unlicensed Disintegration kills the Cat Lady and her cat if you control an artifact, and at least saves you from the combo otherwise. But it is useless against the Scrounger or Gideon.

Fatal Push gets Heart of Kiran, but misses everything else.

Almost nothing answers the Scrounger.

And there are no catch-all maindeckable answers like Putrefy or Mana Leak.

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This lack of answers creates an environment where the big splashy mythics can indeed become must-have 4-ofs, which has not really been the case in much of Standard’s recent years.

In that sense it’s a short term bonanza for Wizards.

After SOI everyone needed 4 Avacyn to be competitive.

Then the meta shifted with EMN and you needed 4 Liliana and 4 Emrakul.

Then Kaladesh hits and you need the new Chandra (even if you then decide she was a mistake to buy it’s too late).

Then it’s AER and Heart of Kiran, and new life is found for Saheeli.

But it’s a short term bonanza only.

Standard is Wizards’ #1 cash cow. The present mess is the worst state Standard has been in since Arcbound Ravager was legal. And it’s been a resilient mess, with each Standard since BFZ released varying on a scale from mediocre to awful.

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So what’s the solution?

We need cards like Wrath of God, Mana Leak and Putrefy (or the more recent Hero’s Downfall) that provide maindeckable answers that can answer a variety of diverse threats. These need not be the very best cards in the format, but they should be in the top ten.

In the short term, though, the banning decision has already been made and an official article will have been written (but not posted) by the time I post this. There’s really no good options.

Wizards could also pull something unprecedented, go outside of standard policy, and do something unexpected to Standard via something like restricting a card or even adding a card to the format. The last real ‘out of left field’ B&R announcement was the Stoneforge Mystic banning (this card is banned, unless played as exactly the Event Deck list). I don’t expect this and I don’t see any great solutions to the present mess even if we don’t stick in the bounds of present policy.

For what it’s worth (not much, as I neither make the decision nor have influence over the people that do), I’d ban the cat, unban Reflector Mage, and monitor the format closely, hoping to see an interesting balance of UW tempo (possibly splashing), Mardu Vehicles and the various GB strategies that the Crazy Cat Lady is preventing now.

But whatever is done, many players’ pet decks will not be competitive in a week’s time. Either irreplaceable pieces of their deck will be banned rendering it unplayable, or the decision not to ban cards will engineer a metagame where their deck cannot compete.

The longer term issue is that answers need to get better.

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Here I want to pose two questions to readers.

Firstly, assuming that we are stuck with the Alara rarity system into the future (which I do not see changing despite my dislike of it), and assuming we are stuck with Wizards wanting some subset of mythics to be played as 4-ofs, how would you feel about more utility cards at mythic? Assume there is to be no change in the proportion of cards at each rarity that sees serious competitive play.

For example, how would you react if this card were spoiled in Amonkhet at mythic (sorry about the terrible name):

Nicol Bolas’ Variant on Doom Blade

UB

Instant

Destroy target non-black creature or non-black Planeswalker.

If the target dies this turn and you control a Bolas Planeswalker, you may return the target to the battlefield under your control.

 

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Secondly, presently in large sets, 121 packs contain (on average) 1 copy of each of 15 mythics, and 2 copies of each of 53 rares.

How would you feel about a set size reshuffle, so that instead 121 packs contained 1 of each of 25 mythics, and 2 copies of each of 48 rares? Or perhaps 31 and 2×45?

Note that your odds of opening a specific card would not change. You would open a mythic more often, but have no more (or no less) chance to get the one you specifically want. Similarly you’d be less likely to see a gold symbol, but you’d have the same chance to open a Concealed Courtyard.

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Let me know your thoughts either in the comments or on Reddit.

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The Fundamental Rules of Magic, Part 3

This continues on from http://www.mtgbrainstorm.com/?p=18 and http://www.mtgbrainstorm.com/?p=33, which are worth reading first.

Every year, a few cards are printed that are much more powerful than they initially appear. Treasure Cruise, Gurmag Angler, Nahiri the Harbinger – each of these cards was initially dismissed by most players, and then became a major Constructed card.

Two of the three (Cruise, Angler) I correctly identified as Constructed powerhouses early. This is because of my methodology – looking at cards through the prism of several fundamental rules of Magic. Any card that obeys all of these rules is inherently fair, and will not be in the upper echelon of Constructed cards in the larger formats.

Any card that breaks one or more of these rules must be taken seriously, even if it looks terrible. Those cards may simply be too expensive for a format, or the support for them might not yet exist, but they should remain on your radar.

The first three Fundamental Rules of Magic:

1) Cards cannot impact the gamestate unless they have been drawn. This was discussed in Part 1.

2) Players have reliable access to at most X+1 mana on turn X, except for turn 1, where they are limited to 1 mana. Exceeding this limit requires extreme investment of resources. This was discussed in Part 2.

3) Cards must have an impact on the gamestate commensurate with the amount of investment required to deploy them. The primary form of investment is mana, and cards with low mana costs and high forms of other investment are often dangerous.

Let’s unpack this third rule, and start with a couple of examples. First, let’s begin with a card with an absolutely massive impact on the gamestate, Worldspine Wurm, and ask a question: “Why is this card not good?”

The Wurm is extremely difficult to beat once resolved. 15 power, all with trample, is almost always a two-shot KO and often will kill in one swing. And if it does go to the graveyard, it splinters into three individually dangerous threats.

Yet the card obeys the Third Fundamental Rule of Magic. Its impact on the gamestate is massive, but completely commensurate with the investment: resolving an eleven mana spell. In fact, you can get far superior threats in today’s Standard for nine to ten mana, and all of those cards are outclassed by Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger.

The investment required to cast Worldspine Wurm is surviving until you have 11 mana, which necessitates aggressive ramping, playing a lot of lands and other cards dedicated to mana generation, and also delaying or negating your opponent’s gameplan until around the 10th turn of the game.

If you can do all of that, the Wurm is merely the finishing blow that seals a game you already deserved to win.

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Let’s contrast the Wurm to a card that breaks the Third Fundamental Rule right in half.

Treasure Cruise was good but fair during its tenure in Standard, but has earned its way into the Modern and Legacy banned lists and the Vintage restricted list, and if Frontier becomes officially supported in the future, it will probably wind up banned there.

Ask yourself: What is the total cost at which this card’s effect is fair?

The correct answer is going to vary by format, but spending 3U to draw 3 cards is a strong effect in Standard and weak but passable (maybe) in Modern. Spending 2U to draw 3 cards is strong to broken in Modern, and strong in Legacy and Vintage.

Cheaper than that is ridiculous. Spending U to draw 3 cards is (almost) equivalent to a card that is a serious contender for the most powerful card legal in Vintage, A-Call.

You’ll notice I do not include the cost of exiling cards from the graveyard. This is because in a best case scenario, this cost is marginal or even completely irrelevant, and careful deck construction allows you to set up this best case scenario often.

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What does it mean to ‘invest’ in casting a spell?

Casting a spell costs mana and sometimes other resources, for example life to cast Infernal Contract.

Each turn players have a maximum amount of mana, which is discussed in the Second Fundamental Rule of Magic.

Using these resources to cast one spell precludes using them on other spells. For instance, mana invested in casting Chandra, Flamecaller cannot be used to cast Inferno Titan.

While this last point is obvious, it is important – your spells all compete for the limited amount of mana you can generate. However, spells often do not compete for other limited resources.

For example, Treasure Cruise and Infernal Contract do not compete for their non-mana resources at all.

This is why nonmana costs, or variable costs (like Delve) where something else can substitute for mana are so potentially dangerous and why you should start by evaluating these cards in a best-case scenario. You should evaluate these cards by assuming these costs are irrelevant, then determine if that assumption makes the card broken.

In the event that it does, you should try to build a deck where that assumption (that the nonmana costs can be ignored) is true.

You might fail to do so, and for some cards, such as Rise of the Eldrazi’s long-forgotten draw spell, Shared Discovery, it may not be realistic to build such a deck at all.

In such a case, you should keep the card in mind, and revisit it in the future if the right synergistic cards are printed.

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As a corollary to this rule, cards which convert one nonmana resource (such as life) into another resources (such as cards in your hand) should always be evaluated as dangerous and potentially strong.

Even the terrible-looking Skirge Familiar was a pivotal part of one of the stronger combo decks in the history of the Standard format (then called Type 2), Renounce Bargain. If this deck resolved Bargain and Familiar, it was almost guaranteed to win the game that turn.

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Finally, what gamestate impacts are commensurate with various levels of mana investment?

Imagine a 6/6 trampling creature, with no other rules text, that is mono-green.

In Limited, you’d be content to pay 4GG for this creature, and very happy with it at 3GG. In fact you’d probably be happy first picking it at 3GG.

In Standard, there have been formats where you’d pay 3GG for this effect, and others where it would not be playable at 2GG. But usually, at 2GG it would be one of the stronger cards in the format, and at 3GG it would be a fringe playable card.

In Modern, it would not be playable at 4 mana but might see play at 1GG. (Considerably stronger combat-oriented 4 drops in other colours – Siege Rhino, Phyrexian Obliterator, Abyssal Persecutor, Desecration Demon, see little or no play in the format).

In Vintage, it might see play at 2 mana.

This question is too broad to have an absolute answer. Format-specific experience is the only way to get a feel for it, especially for unusual effects like Sadistic Sacrament or Snugglecopter (may the poor banned guy Rest in Peace).

But your starting point should be to look at cards with alternate costs, and ask  the following questions:

  • Is this card’s best case scenario utterly broken?
  • If so, can I build a deck where the best case scenario is realistically achieveable?
  • If I can, how big are the sacrifices needed to do so?

This analysis was the reason I picked Treasure Cruise as worthy of banning in Legacy as soon as I saw it on the KTK spoiler. It also results in a lot of false positives (I still half-think Inverter of Truth can be made to work in Standard, but it has done a fat lot of nothing so far…), but playtesting can allow you to filter out ideas that you cannot make work.

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Standard After The Bannings – Some Cards That Might Become Playable Again

Holy banhammer.

I knew this Standard format was shit, but after a certain Sam Stoddard damage-control article, I was not aware that Wizards agreed.

Clearly they believed Sam’s article about as much as we did. Three cards have been taken out the back and shot, in the banhammer’s busiest day in Standard since the Affinity massacre.

A couple of quick thoughts about new Standard, but first an important disclaimer. On MTGO, I own a moderate number of some of the cards that this article talks up. I bought those cards because I believe the contents of this article, and I bought them a couple of hours before writing this article. However there is a potential conflict of interest you should keep in mind while reading. 

Finally I’m not covering the new Copy Cat archetype that will appear in Standard events near you. This Saheeli Rai fuelled combo deck is being talked about a lot elsewhere and has the ability to win out of nowhere. It should be on your radar but as I’ve not tested with it I don’t know if it will be a gimmick or a powerhouse.

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Bannings remove cards from a format, but can also effectively add cards to it too.

Sometimes a previously mediocre strategy becomes good in a new, less powerful field.

Other times, a strategy is pushed out of an environment because other cards invalidate its strategy entirely. When these other cards are banned, the decks hated out by the banned card can return.

Emrakul, The Promised End was an unbeatable End-game (sorry) that pushed a lot of other strong lategame cards out of Standard. There simply was no point casting a haymaker on turn 6 if it was going to be trumped on turn 7 or 8 by His Noodly Appendage.

The Emo With A Big Sword (Sorin, Grim Nemesis) was a lategame powerhouse prior to EMN. Then suddenly he dropped completely out of the competitive limelight, because he lined up terribly against Emrakul, and to a lesser extent, The Unspellable Spider (Ishkanah), who could swarm Sorin and bring him down.

Sorin still has massive starting loyalty, a +1 that grants card advantage while threatening to win the game on its own, a very strong minus ability that assassinates Planeswalkers, protects him from creatures and also keeps you on a stable life total. I expect him to make a serious competitive comeback now that one of his main nemeses is banned and the other is probably not nearly as playable.

Sorin will, however, compete against another 6 mana black card that stabilizes you, kills creatures and threatens to end the game swiftly. (Ob)Noxious Gearhulk competes with the Emo Walker, and it’s not clear which of the two will be better.

To start with I’ll be experimenting with running four of one, and taking notes on how often I’d rather have drawn the other card. After a couple of hundred matches this will provide useful information.

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Part sweeper, part gameending threat, OGW’s incarnation of Chandra was also completely pushed out of Competitive play by Emrakul. While Chandra could sometimes kill before His Noodly Appendage hit the battlefield, Emrakul’s favorite spider was extremely good against Chandra.

With Emrakul banned, and players having less incentive to play the spider as a result, I think Chandra might well be coming back.

It’s not clear to me whether it is better to use Kaladesh Chandra to ramp past 6 mana to drop a big Eldrazi, or whether it is better to top out at the Flamecaller. I’m going to start out with the latter option because I think that the available sources of actual colorless mana are probably not good enough to power many Eldrazi into Standard.

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The second card to feel the banhammer’s loving caress was of course Snugglecopter.

Snugglecopter was one of two things that kept the Vampires deck from getting anywhere in Standard.

Being able to block and eat Drana, or trade with Olivia, Snugglecopter was a 4-of in 60% of the format, and this created an extraordinarily hostile environment for a deck that wanted to attack with fliers.

Additionally, Vampires had no truly consistent removal. Fiery Temper was powerful but unreliable, and the deck had no artifact synergies to use Unlicensed Disintegration, which at 3 mana competes with the deck’s best creatures.

This has also changed with the printing of the best removal spell Standard has seen in over five years. A quick Push should prove Fatal to most potential blockers.

For this reason I’m going to be experimenting with Vampires again. Drana is an absurdly strong card in a vacuum and lines up acceptably well against Fatal Push.

I’m going to test both a BR deck with the Madness synergies, and also a BW fliers deck without tribal synergies, because I can’t let Bygones be bygone, and I still think Topplegeist is one of the strongest unplayed cards in a long time.

Both decks will need to have a plan for a sweeper that gives everything -3/-3 until end of turn, of course. Yahenni’s Expertise might keep Vampires down again.

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Sylvan Advocate, the Land Lord we all love to hate, was the most played card in Standard for a period, and a multi-archetype staple from the release of OGW right up to a couple of weeks after Kaladesh hit.

Right now, the Land Lord is largely unplayed due to how poorly it lines up with Snugglecopter in the early game.

With Snugglecopter now a wreck, Drana isn’t the only 2/3 that might be able to attack safely in the early game.

I’m not sure exactly what home or homes Advocate might find, but the card is powerful enough that it just might see play again.

Perhaps alongside its old BFF Tireless Tracker, or perhaps slowing down the opponent while Superman takes over the game. Or perhaps alongside one or both Chandras.

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The last card I want to brew with in the new Standard is Dovin Baan. I honestly don’t think he will get into the competitive spotlight, but with his greatest foe the Snugglecopter getting Baan-hammered, he is certainly more likely to survive than he used to be.

Drawing a card and gaining 2 life each turn is powerful, but only if your board is somewhat stable. If you are able to protect Baan via other means, his -1 will put you into a commanding position.

His +1 isn’t what you want to be doing with him, but it does buy you time against a single attacker.

Baan’s weakness, however, is that he competes with Gideon for deck space. Gideon is better when you are behind as he can protect you by vomiting out 2/2 blockers.

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This Seattle Banhammer Massacre has shaken the format up. For the first time in ages I am actually optimistic about Standard.

What forgotten gems do you expect to see in Standard now? Feel free to post here in the comments, or (better) on Reddit. (Because of spam I have to individually approve comments here, so Reddit flows much better).

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Why Fatal Push (AER) is the saviour Modern needed

Warning: This article contains spoilers for Aether Revolt cards. The spoiled cards are widely known to the community, but if you are someone who likes to attend a prerelease spoiler free, your browser has a “Back” button. Please use it now.

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I’ve been saying a bit lately about how Modern has not been in a good state.

Threats have been outclassing answers, and the format has been getting too fast. The much-discussed turn four rule is dead, and decks have had to try to win super-early because of how explosive aggressive decks have been.

Say hello to Fatal Push.

In Standard it will be a good card, unconditionally killing both Snugglecopter and the guy that really shouldn’t have been mythic at card parity and tempo gain, while also having the option to sometimes kill something bigger.

But in Modern – this card is incredible.

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Modern is a fast format. Lightning fast.

The better burn hands (ones with exactly 2 of the hasty one-drops) kill on turn 3. Burn is the slowest of the all-in hyperaggro decks (Infect, Affinity, Suicide Zoo, Burn).

If you are on the play and kill turn 4, your opponent gets a total of 6 mana to spend all game, to your 10 (assuming no missed land drops). If you threaten to kill turn 3, they get only 3 mana to your 6.

Fatal Push lets the player on the defensive recover some of this tempo.

This is what makes the card so much better than higher mana cost removal that does more, like Terminate.

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Let’s look at the card again.

In its default mode, it kills creatures with CMC 0, 1 and 2.

Some critical targets at these mana costs include:

A dual land that thinks it is a Serra Angel

A very big creature for 1G

Taylor Swiftspear and her BFF

A one drop that loves masochistic players that hurt themselves

A very strong card that is out of favour right now, but I’m confidant he will be back.

And every creature in the Affinity deck except for one.

That’s just the cards you are really happy to be using this on. As always, you will occasionally ‘burn’ a Fatal Push on something like a Snapcaster Mage. This isn’t the main use of the card but it will be the right play from time to time.

It’s worth noting that this kills almost every creature Lightning Bolt kills in the format even in its default mode.

Most importantly, Become Immense and Mutagenic Growth will not save the creature. It’s going away. (Apostle’s Blessing can save it, as can some other weaker cards, but every answer has an answer).

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Activate Revolt, and Fatal Push can hit almost anything.

Revolt is relatively easy to set up in Modern via fetchlands, but there are also a lot of other ways to do so, some of which may not be obvious.

I mentioned Snapcaster early. He has a very non-obvious synergy here – remember, you can ‘hold back’ on using the Flashback.

If your opponent attacks with a Tarmogoyf, a Ravager of the Fells, and a Wolf token, you can Fatal Push the Tarmogoyf, then after it resolves, cast Snapcaster Mage, announce Fatal Push as the target for the flashback trigger, and then declare Snapcaster to block the Wolf.

Combat damage happens, you take 4 damage, and Snappy and the Wolf die. You now flashback Fatal Push, and you have wiped your opponent’s strong board at card parity (two cards for two cards) and tempo gain (four mana for six mana) – an exchange you have to be happy with.

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I’ve been down on Modern for a while.

Finally we have a very powerful reactive card that seriously hurts hyperlinear aggro and potentially can bring some control strategies back to the format.

It’s time to get excited about the format again.

I’ll be brewing UB control in the new Modern, experimenting with Yahenni’s Expertise and Ancestral Vision in a control shell, using Fatal Push and possibly even Agony Warp to buy time until the big ridiculous lategame can come online.

To ensure Revolt, I will probably end up playing a fair number of single-on-colour fetchlands as well as the four blue-black ones. Testing will tell if this is a wrong or right call.

The deck may not work, but at least it feels like it has a chance, which it did not until the printing of Fatal Push.

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Legacy – Ash Barrens should be on your competitive radar

The card Ash Barrens became legal recently in Legacy and is seeing absolutely no competitive play. It does not appear in mtggoldfish.com’s top 50 lands in Legacy.

This card should be on your radar as a competitive player.

If you run a three colour deck, Ash Barrens is inferior to fetchlands if your opponent isn’t punishing nonbasics (Wasteland, Back to Basics).

But it is far superior if your opponent is attacking nonbasics – something that is done a lot in Legacy, or if you yourself run Back to Basics.

It has all of the synergies with Brainstorm that fetches do, but is even better at the end of an opponent’s turn, where you do not need to have already played the fetchland. You can even cycle a Barrens you drew with the Brainstorm – something you could not do with a Misty Rainforest.

You can also Brainstorm with your last mana at opponent’s EoT, then in your upkeep, Ash Barrens to shuffle before your draw for the turn.

This isn’t to say Ash Barrens should be in every Legacy deck, far from it. But it should be a card you seriously consider when designing your manabase.

If you are three colours, either play this card, or know why you have elected to not play it.

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Disclaimer: I own a couple dozen copies of Ash Barrens on MTGO. These were purchased shortly before posting this article. Both my purchases and my decision to post this article were informed by my belief that this card is undervalued. I will personally benefit if this card increases sharply in price (although even if it quadruples in price, we are only talking $40 or so).

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Memorable combo deck names from Magic’s past – The Breakfast Decks

Something light hearted.

Magic deck names are starting to get more systematic than they used to be, which has its positives and its negatives.

Back in Theros/KTK days, if you heard that Jeskai Heroic won a tournament, you immediately knew it was a URW deck based around the Heroic mechanic. And so would someone who understood Magic but had never followed tournaments before.

Back when Time Spiral was recently released, there was a different URW deck that did the rounds. It was named “The Star Sprangled Banner”. This name was a reference to the national anthem of the United States of America – a country with a red, white and blue flag.

If you didn’t figure out that reference, the name told you nothing about what the deck was trying to do, or how. The name was less functional, but once you knew what it meant, it was unique and cool.

For a look down memory lane, here’s some of the sillier names from Magic’s early history.

 

Fruity Pebbles

Named after a breakfast cereal, this deck used Goblin Bombardment to throw Pebbles (0 mana creatures) at the opponent until they were dead.

This might seem like a bit of a non-bo as you need 20 Pebbles to kill someone, but that was what Enduring Renewal was for.

If you could assemble the three piece combo of one Pebble, plus Goblin Bombardment, plus Enduring Renewal, you would win the game on the spot in most boardstates.

Ironically this deck would have been even better named if it was called Fruit Loops – which is the name of the closest equivalent cereal here in Australia.

This deck would start a long tradition in the Extended format (somewhat of a precursor to today’s Modern format) of naming combo decks after breakfast cereals.

The deck would otherwise be long forgotten, as it was never very good.

 

Cocoa Pebbles

In every country in the world, Fruity Pebbles get loaded up with sugar and cocoa, and sold as a chocolate flavour.

What do you get if you add cocoa (black) and sugar (good tasty stuff that energizes you but shortens your lifespan) to Fruity Pebbles in Magic?

You get a much stronger deck, that uses Necropotence as a supremely efficient way to find the three piece combo, along with ridiculously overpowered tutors.

Unfortunately for the Pebbles decks, it’s a little tough to manage 2WW, 1R and BBB costs in one deck, especially before fetchlands have been printed. Revised dual lands and the few available rainbow lands weren’t enough to make the deck tick.

 

Trix

Trix is probably second only to Tolarian Academy Combo in its impact on Magic’s various banned and restricted lists, and is possibly the most influential deck of all time on Magic’s future design.

Trix started with the two-card knockout combo of Illusions of Grandeur and Donate. The combo requires 4 mana one turn and 5 on the next, or 7 all at once, to cast Illusions and dump in on the opponent, at which point you sit on your extra 20 life until your opponent cannot pay for Illusions’ upkeep and dies. Or, you could accelerate the process by removing Illusions yourself.

This combo was initially trialled as a way for a control deck to win. Instead of keeping the board clear until you could use a Morphling, Palinchron or new star Masticore to win, 1999 saw a few players experiment with winning out of nowhere with the unwanted gift.

Those early Illusions decks were terrible, but somewhere, a genius had a different idea, one that would revolutionise Magic. They build an all-in combo deck that sought to make 7 mana very early, and to cast Illusions and then Donate it as early as the second turn.

This deck became Trix, because naming decks after breakfast cereals was an established tradition, and this deck was full of tricks.

Borrowing tech from the quite mediocre Cocoa Pebbles deck, it ran Dark Ritual, Demonic Consultation and Necropotence. And borrowing tech from the Tolarian Academy decks that six months earlier had terrorised Standard, Extended and Vintage until they felt the banhammer’s loving caress, Trix ran all of the broken artifact mana.

Mana Vault, Lotus Petal, Voltaic Key, Grim Monolith – all of these artifacts could generate more mana than they cost to cast and could do so the turn you cast them.

Running those cards left enough room for Brainstorm and Portent as card selection, and Force of Will (and other cards – more permission or discard) as a way to protect your combo.

Trix was an utter monster.

It was the reason that Wizards have stopped printing fast mana and good tutors.

The following cards were among the casualties – suffering either a banning, or an end to reprints, largely as a result of this deck’s dominance:

 

  • Demonic Consultation
  • Necropotence
  • Dark Ritual
  • Mana Vault
  • Grim Monolith
  • Voltaic Key (later rehabilitated in Magic 2011, once it no longer had anything to combo with)
  • Vampiric Tutor and other weaker tutors
  • Other similar combo cards that Trix didn’t (usually) use, like Doomsday and Meditate and (over a longer timeframe) Infernal Contract. Basically any early game play that made you much more likely to be able to combo win the next turn.
  • In short – fast mana, cheap card selection, and cheap mass card draw with drawbacks all got largely removed from the game thanks to Trix.

 

Full English Breakfast

Long before “meme” was a word widely being used, memes were a thing in Magic. Whether it be using the word “Mise” to refer to luck, or just using silly deck names, Magic has always had memes.

By this point, naming combo decks after cereals has become a meme, and so when someone decided to make a combo deck around the (absurd) interaction of Volrath’s Shapeshifter and Survival of the Fittest, they decided to go a little silly with the names.

Full English Breakfast was tough to pilot. The deck sought to cast Survival first, then drop a Volrath’s Shapeshifter with GG or GGG open (depending upon what was in hand).

The first Survival activation dug for Flowstone Hellion, a card no-one ever thought had Constructed potential. The Hellion was promptly discarded to use Survival again, which then gave the Shapeshifter haste.

At this point the Shapeshifter/Hellion was declared as an attacker, and then its activated ability used ten times without passing priority. In response to these ten activations, you would activate Survival one last time, discarding Phyrexian Dreadnought, also known affectionately as Fido (Phy-d0)…

Once the stack resolved, your confused opponent was being smacked over the head by a just-summoned but no longer hasty 22/2 trample creature. Ouch.

 

Cephalid Breakfast

There comes a time in every meme’s life when it jumps the shark. (Warning – that’s a TV Tropes link. Definitely not safe for work, not because of lewd/violent content, but because TV Tropes is one of the most distracting sites on the whole internet. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.)

Cephalid Breakfast was the moment the breakfast cereal names jumped the shark.

Cephalid Illusionist was a weird card. Self-mill was still seen at this point as a drawback by most players, and so the triggered ability seemed like a downside to the playerbase at large.

How wrong we were.

Once your whole library is in your graveyard, it’s pretty trivial to win the game. Laboratory Maniac hadn’t been printed, but Songs of the Damned had, and if you had that card in your hand it was easy enough to find a way to win.

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As an aside: I think that Songs of the Damned is the most fundamentally broken card legal in Legacy that is flying under the radar right now. (Disclaimer: I own many, many dozens of copies of the card.)

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All you needed was a way to target the Illusionist repeatedly and you could vomit your entire library into your graveyard.

Enter Nomads en-Kor, and the whole en-Kor mechanic from Stronghold.

Under 5th edition rules (the rules when Stronghold was printed), damage redirection abilities like these were only legal to play during damage prevention windows.

However, the Sixth Edition rules changed that. Now, the ability can be activated any time targetting any creature you control, whether there is damage pointed at the Nomads or not.

Once you succeed in dumping your library into your graveyard there are any number of ways to win. Even though the ones we would use today had not been printed yet, Haunting Misery got the job done, and if it was in your graveyard, you had Reclaim to go and get it.

This made for an interesting deck.

And who hasn’t wanted to eat a Cephalid for breakfast?

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I’m skipping over Eggs and Sunny Side Up, because they were not from the same era. So that’s all for today.

What silly names for today’s best competitive decks can you come up with? Reply either here, or on the thread at Reddit.

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Cheating Opponents: How To Effectively Protect Yourself

I originally was going to call this “Fight Cheating With Cheating” but that was too clickbait-y, even for my standards. And they are pretty low.

I usually hate TL:DRs, but this is 4400 words, so I’ll put one in this time.

TL:DR:

  • Magic players generally regard cheaters as the second worst people in the community. Worse than trade sharks that prey on unknowing new players, not as bad as card thieves.
  • The best way to catch a cheater is to learn to cheat yourself so you know what to look for. Don’t just learn the theory of cheating – actively practice in your playtest group with friends that are doing the same thing. Learn to perform the Faro Shuffle, the Zarrow Shuffle and the Push-Through Riffle Shuffle (collectively “sleight-of-hand fake shuffles”) – and learn why they work so you can spot them being used against you.
  • This goes double for judges. I believe that anyone that cannot explain in detail how sleight-of-hand fake shuffles and/or pile shuffling can be used to cheat is unfit to judge at events with Competitive or Professional rules enforcement.
  • If your opponent tries to distract you, play along with the distraction but refocus and pay additional attention to what their hands are doing.
  • If in doubt, call a judge.
  • The DCI should outright ban pile shuffling and not even tolerate its use as a card counting tool.

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The inspiration for this article came about at a karaoke bar a few weeks back. Between songs, a friend of a friend was demonstrating card tricks that asked the subject to pick a card from a standard playing card deck.

The trickster then appeared to shuffle it into the deck but used sleight of hand including sleight-of-hand fake shuffles (like the Faro shuffle, also known as the ‘perfect riffle’, which you can find tutorials for online). He paired the fake shuffles alongside distractions, to position the chosen card into a specific place in the deck. Then comes the reveal – they show you the card that you had picked.

I’d seen a lot of these tricks before, and while I can’t replicate the sleight of hand needed to perform a Faro shuffle, I knew enough about ‘magic’ tricks that I could see exactly how they were all being done.

Heading home that night I saw yet another shitstorm on Reddit about cheating in Magic, and thought of the question that introduces the next section. Then this article started writing itself.

This article might provide tools to a dishonest player that helps them advance their craft. This is an unfortunate consequence of writing it. There is one piece of cheating advice that I have thought up that I am not sharing here, as wider knowledge of it would help cheaters while not helping people looking to detect them. But the other information in this article already exists online and is easy for dishonest players to find, so I don’t mind replicating it.

Hopefully this article will teach honest players the skills necessary to remove some of the dishonest players from competitive Magic, because you only usually need to catch them once or twice.

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So, how does an honest player protect themselves from opponents that cheat in Magic, and what can they do to help catch cheats?

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One option is to play on MTGO, where the game’s rules are enforced by the client, which is basically an omniscient judge. This stamps out cheating (almost) entirely.

I prefer MTGO myself, but I can certainly accept that a majority of readers prefer live play. So let’s assume MTGO is not an acceptable option for you.

In paper Magic, honest players make errors from time to time. These can be broken down into two types – strategic errors, where you make a legal line of play that isn’t the best line available to you, and technical errors, where you make an unintentional illegal play.

Strategic errors can’t be confused for cheating, outside of convoluted circumstances that a judge is unlikely to see in a tournament scenario.

It’s technical errors which are more often confused for cheating. It is pretty difficult to tell whether an opponent accidentally or deliberately drew six cards on their second mulligan, or fetched a Ghost Quarter with a Verdant Catacombs, or seriously screwed up the handling of a Rest In Peace trigger.

All of those are illegal plays, all could be innocent mistakes, and all could be the work of a skilled cheater.

If these infractions are unintentional, they have punishments that are at most a game loss. If they are deliberate, the correct response for a judge is to eject the offender from the tournament without prizes and to begin a process that may see the offender suspended from the DCI.

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An aside.

It’s my firm belief that judges should only pull the red card – disqualification – when they are convinced beyond reasonable doubt that the person in question intentionally cheated. The consequences of fucking up and DQing a person for an innocent mistake are serious – that player and their friends will likely stop participating in tournament Magic, and if the event is hosted by a store, the store could lose multiple customers over it.

By ‘beyond reasonable doubt’, I mean what statisticians call ‘three-sigma certainty’ – in lay person terms, the judge should believe that if they saw this scenario a thousand times, an innocent mistake would explain it at most twice.

Please note that the DCI does not mandate ‘beyond reasonable doubt’, or ‘three-sigma certainty’, but instead leaves this decision to judges. I am not a judge, I am an outsider making recommendations.

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Some cheating is obvious.

A player ‘mana-weaves’ their deck, then sloppily shuffles, then presents. The opponent calls a judge and explains the situation, the judge looks at the deck, sees a non-random distribution in the deck that demonstrates cheating beyond even a shadow of doubt (five-sigma or more), and sends the cheat on their way.

But catching a skilled cheater is hard.

A lot of Magic’s strategic depth lies within hidden information (I’ve written about how the Fundamental Theorem of Poker applies to Magic here). Some information in Magic is hidden from each player, and knowing information you are not supposed to have access to gives you a powerful edge.

Competent cheaters use this information, alongside sleight of hand, to gain a moderate edge, rather than trying to blatantly cheat to win outright.

In Magic’s early days, some cheaters would play unsleeved or with see-through sleeves, and would have slightly worn copies of Armageddon in their deck. Knowing you will draw Armageddon next turn results in you playing very differently, and if you are looking for sleight of hand tricks, you will not see any of them.

Competent cheaters are smooth. Often they are skilled at sowing doubt in an investigating judge’s mind. And before it even gets to that point, they are often smooth enough to talk the opponent out of calling a judge at all.

A competent cheater will act like your best friend when playing against you. They will use chatter to ingratiate themselves, and to distract you. When your guard is lowered, they will strike: not by dealing themselves an unforgettably good draw, but by stacking their deck in a manner that ensures that wherever you cut it, they have an above-average hand.

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The first thing honest players should know is, if your opponent makes a technical error, call a judge.

If something seems fishy, call a judge. But even if you do not suspect foul play, call a judge.

If you actually suspect cheating, and especially if you are nervous, call a judge, then say, “Can I ask you something about a card interaction away from the table?” Judges will accommodate this, and it allows you to explain a suspicion of cheating without actually accusing your opponent of cheating to their face.

You are not being an asshole when you call a judge, and an honest opponent will not risk disqualification or ridicule.

It’s also good practice to call a judge on yourself when you make a technical error and wear any appropriate consequences. This protects the event’s integrity, ensures you learn from your mistakes, and in my experience reduces your nerves over time. It will also help you gain a reputation for personal integrity, which doesn’t help you win tournaments but may be useful in the rest of your life – especially if you are considering judging, or working in or running a card store.

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Calling a judge on your opponent serves three purposes.

Firstly, it removes the opponent’s ability to sweet-talk you into accepting the present gamestate, or into accepting a solution that advantages them. For instance, in formats with no playable ‘turn 0’ effects, someone that draws six cards on the draw on their second mulligan might try to sweet talk you into accepting that “that is their five cards, plus their scry which they’ll keep on top and that will be the card they draw on their turn”. A judge call will get you a better deal than that.

 

Secondly, and more importantly, calling a judge provides the event’s judging team with a record of who is consistently making technical errors.

Undetected cheaters make more technical errors than the overwhelming majority of honest players. A pattern of technical errors – especially the same one – is something a judge can, should and will pay attention to.

It doesn’t prove cheating, as a nervous honest player will also make a large number of technical errors, but it does provide evidence that says “you should watch this person”. A judge can then covertly watch them at times that cheating is most likely to occur.

And third, if your opponent is dishonest, calling a judge will often intimidate them out of cheating against you. If they do still intend to cheat later, it may make them nervous, and a nervous cheater is easier to catch than a relaxed one.

Some people have ethical concerns about involving a judge over a technical error. I disagree.

If your opponent makes a strategic error (such as passing the turn forgetting to use their Planeswalker), you wouldn’t allow them a take-back to reverse that error.

Just as strategic errors have consequences, technical errors have consequences defined by the game rules and the tournament rules.

The only time there might appear to be an ethical difference between punishing an opponent’s technical error and punishing an opponent’s strategic error, is if the technical error will have consequences beyond the present match, such as your opponent being disqualified.

It hasn’t always been the case, but under today’s rules, disqualification does not occur for honest mistakes (excluding the bribery rules – which are a can of wyrms I will not open here).

You should be 100% OK with reporting technical errors to a judge, even if your opponent is a ‘nice guy’.

And beware the ‘nice guy’. Not all friendly opponents are skilled cheaters, but all skilled cheaters are very personable.

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The best way for an honest player to catch a cheat is to learn how to cheat.

Many cheating methods are subtle, and a thorough knowledge of how and when cheating methods are executed and what results they produce will help you catch people that use them against you.

It’s unethical to use these methods in any tournament. But you should learn cheating techniques inside-out, teach them to your playtest groups, and incorporate them into your testing for events.

Your playtest group may be honest, but your opponents may not be, and you want to be experienced at detecting cheating while distracted by complex board states and strategic decisions.

I recommend playtesting by picking a mirror match that you might want to playtest anyway, favoring one that maximizes opportunities to cheat. Scapeshift mirror matches in Modern are perfect – there is a lot of shuffling, games can be long, and there are a lot of pivotal moments where a small edge can decide the game.

Run a playtest session of 21 matches against one opponent, where cheating is allowed, but being caught cheating results in losing the match. The overall loser of the session pays for pizza for both players (or some other small but non-trivial incentive). This will create an environment where both players will be incentivised to attempt to cheat and to be vigilant for cheating – and this vigilance will serve you well in real events.

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Sleight of Hand: Pile Shuffling, Cutting and Cheating

First a rant about pile shuffling.

If you aren’t familiar with pile shuffling, here is a video of someone doing it. Please do not pay attention to what the person demonstrating the technique says as they are wrong.

Pile shuffling is not a shuffle. Much like cutting the deck at a specific point (for instance, putting the top 5 cards of the deck on the bottom), it is a deterministic method of reordering cards and counting them while pretending to shuffle.

This means you can predict, with 100% accuracy, where cards will end up after ‘shuffling’ them, and you can use pile shuffling to completely rig your deck.

The pile shuffle is useful in games that do not require complete randomization, such as Cards Against Humanity, where no player gains a competitive advantage from being able to predict or influence the order cards are drawn in but you shuffle to provide a different game experience.

It is not useful in games where rigging the deck provides a competitive advantage.

If you put a deck of cards into a specific order, then perform a pile shuffle on it repeatedly, you will return to the original configuration quickly. The exact number of times will vary with deck size and the number of piles, but for a 40 card deck dealt into 4 piles it is only 6. For a 41 card deck and 4 piles, it is only 10, and for a 60 card deck and 5 piles, I believe it is only 8 times (although I have not verified this).

For a dishonest player, this means that between rounds they can stack their 40 card deck into a configuration where any 7 consecutive cards form an above-average hand, then fake shuffle it via repeated pile shuffles, then offer it to you to cut.

As an example, a control player in Modern could set up Island – Ancestral VisionRemand – 12 random cards – Repeat. This doesn’t look suspicious even if they are deckchecked. But because AV is a card you love to draw exactly one of in your opening hand, this cheat ensures they do not draw two or more copies, but if they have it, they can suspend it turn 1 and have Remand to slow the game down.

The cheat then pile shuffles the ‘softly’ stacked deck into 4 piles 4 times, then puts the deck into their box. At the start of the match, they pile shuffle it twice more while talking, then present it. It is now in exactly the order it was designed to be in.

Many honest players pile shuffle. If you do, STOP.

Magic tournaments ban electronic communication devices. This is because, even though most people that SMS or call during a match would do so with no intention of cheating, the mobile phone is a powerful tool in the hands of a cheat, who can arrange for an accomplice masquerading as a spectator to pass hidden information to them.

The pile shuffle is similar to the mobile phone. Most people use it innocently, but it is a powerful cheating tool.

It would be a lot harder for players to cheat if pile shuffling were treated the same way as mobile phone use and not tolerated in competitive Magic.

End rant.

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You can protect yourself from sleight of hand cheats by always performing riffle and/or mash shuffles on your opponent’s deck each time they present it. Always, no exceptions.

But let’s assume you want to catch cheaters, not just not fall for their tricks. There are sleight of hand tricks you should research, in order to learn the toolbox of a cheat.

There are three most important ones.

First, the Faro Shuffle referenced earlier. When executed flawlessly, it is a way to pile shuffle into two piles while looking like you are performing a thorough riffle shuffle.

When executed 16 times on a 40 card deck, or 20 times on a 41 card deck, it returns the deck to its initial configuration.

Secondly, there is the false shuffle, epitomized by the Zarrow Shuffle and the Push-Through Riffle Shuffle. These are difficult sleight of hand tricks (harder to execute, in my opinion, than the Faro). To a casual observer they look like riffle shuffles, but they do not rearrange the deck at all. The Zarrow is performed on the table, which will make it look even less suspicious.

Practice these so you know how they work and what to look for.

Third, there is the slip cut, which is demonstrated as part of the video above on the Zarrow Shuffle. This allows the top card of the deck to be subtly manipulated and allows the cheater’s fetchlands to also become Vampiric Tutors.

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The last sleight of hand trick you should be aware of involves searching libraries.

A player uses an ability that allows them to search their library. While resolving it, they move a card near the top of their deck, acting like they are considering choosing it. Then they decide to pick another card instead, and perform a trick shuffle shuttling the false candidate card to the top.

There is a little known rule (400.5 in the Comprehensive Rules) prohibiting rearranging the library during a search, that most people believe exists because of this obnoxious rules nightmare and its interactions with other rules nightmares that should die in a fire.

Your opponent can ‘shortlist’ cards by holding the deck with the bottom card facing them, and pulling candidate cards slightly out of the deck while leaving them in place. Even for extremely complex decisions like a ‘value’ Gifts Ungiven, where a player might consider nine candidate cards, this is completely manageable.

Rule 400.5 exists to prevent this cheat. Enforce it. If your opponent rearranges their library mid-search, call a judge (in case the opponent has done this many times – warnings for things like this are tracked) and shuffle their deck thoroughly.

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Cheating without Sleight of Hand – Weaponizing Distraction

Intentionally drawing extra cards is something I haven’t mentioned yet. That’s because it’s not usually a sleight of hand trick. It is also one of the easiest things for an opponent untrained in cheating techniques to detect, even if they are not suspicious of you.

Drawing two cards in one fluid motion is a very difficult sleight-of-hand trick to master, and it is more common for an opponent to draw a card for the turn, then perform a distraction, then try to draw their card again.

For example, a player might draw a card, then say “Can I read that card you are playing?” and point to a card you control on the battlefield. During or after the distraction, they will smoothly draw another card.

It’s my experience that people who suspect the opponent to be dishonest put too much effort into watching for this cheat, at the expense of watching for other methods.

Early in the game, when the payoff for this cheat is higher, it is much harder to get away with it, because your opponent can easily determine the number of cards that should be in your hand.

Late in the game, it is usually more advantageous to set up a perfect draw than it is to draw one extra card.

This isn’t to say that intentionally drawing extra cards will never happen to you, just that you shouldn’t expect a skilled cheater to try it. Their methods are both more subtle and higher-impact.

If you discover that your opponent has drawn too many cards, call a judge without hesitation. You may have caught a cheater red-handed and someone caught drawing extra cards ‘by accident’ more than once in a tournament will definitely be watched. If the opponent attempts to concede the game immediately at this point, do not back down from the judge call – this is a very strong indicator that the opponent was indeed cheating.

If your opponent drew extra cards by accident, or if the judge isn’t sure whether it was an honest mistake or cheating, there exist rules handling how to repair the gamestate. These rules will work in your favour as the person calling the judge.

Another non-sleight of hand approach is intentionally misrepresenting complex board states and historic, still relevant game actions.

Players might conveniently ‘forget’ that they have played a land, ‘forget’ to lose life after activating an Adarkar Wastes, ‘forget’ to have a Seachrome Coast enter the battlefield tapped when it is your fourth land, or cast Huntmaster of the Fells with three Swamps and one Stomping Ground.

Of course, all of these are also often honest mistakes.

One thing ties these cheats together – they all involve careful sequencing to avoid attention, and distracting the opponent. Playing two lands in a row draws attention. Playing a land, then casting a spell, then asking a question, then playing a second land is much more likely to be successful.

You can create less of a space for technical errors (both intentional ones, i.e. cheating, and also honest ones) by practising tight technical play – announcing phases, announcing triggers, and writing small notes on your life pad. This will set a technically tight tone for the game.

If you detect a technical error that gives your opponent an advantage, call a judge immediately, outline the facts of the situation (e.g. “It’s her turn 5. Alice played her 5th land, went into combat, asked me for the Oracle text on a card, then after combat played another land”). If you suspect foul play but you aren’t certain, ask to speak away from the table.

If you are practising these scenarios from a cheat’s perspective in playtesting, focus more on creating a distraction than on anything else. Look for plausible questions you could ask your opponent. These may or may not relate to the game state. Some examples might be:

“How many counters are on that Aether Vial?”

“What’s the Oracle text on Aether Vial?”

“That Kaladesh Inventions Aether Vial is nice, how much did it cost you?”

All of these are questions an honest player might ask, and all of them break the opponent’s concentration on the game state.

As an honest player, remember: If your opponent is trying to distract you, now is the time to pay even more attention. Glance at their eyes to see what they are paying attention to and pay attention to it yourself (defaulting to their deck if they are looking at you). If their questions are honest, they are probably looking intently at you. If they are not, they are probably looking at their deck.

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I tend to make lists of rules too often on this site. So here’s four rules relating to cheating.

The First Rule Of Cheating:

Cheating is 90% social engineering, 10% sleight of hand.

You will occasionally arouse suspicion. The difference between an average cheat and a skilled cheat is being able to talk your way out of these situations.

This is why Mike Long was such a skilled cheater. He got caught, admitted nothing, and managed to stay so calm that the judges second-guessed themselves into believing they needed even more evidence.

If you rely upon sleight of hand alone and crumble when challenged, you will be caught no matter how flawlessly you can perform the Zarrow shuffle.

The Second Rule Of Cheating:

A distracted opponent is much less likely to detect or suspect cheating than an attentive opponent.

An honest opponent will often chat before and during a match- it’s something I do even when there’s a considerable amount riding on the match result.

Friendly banter can be weaponized by a skilled cheater looking to distract you, or even by an honest player looking to trick you into revealing information about what you might be playing.

Poker players are masters of the latter. If you want to see the honest use of this in action, watch videos of Daniel Negranu playing poker. If he played Magic, I expect he would be able to use banter to determine what deck the opponent was playing and whether they had a top 25% hand, a bottom 25% hand, or a typical hand. All before declaring mulligans in game 1.

His skill in this area is unmatched by any Magic players past or present, but some can mimic him to a moderate skill level.

A dishonest player will ask you questions multiple times during a match, but particularly while they are shuffling their deck or when drawing cards.

If an opponent asks you a question that you believe is not in good faith – i.e. they are not asking because they care about the answer – watch their hands like a hawk. They are probably trying to cheat.

If anything looks amiss, call a judge and ask to speak to them away from the table. Tell them that the opponent asked you a bad faith question to distract you.

The Third Rule Of Cheating:

An opponent that regards you as friendly is less likely to call a judge on you. If you want to cheat against an opponent, become their friend first.

I mentioned the ethics of calling a judge earlier.

Even if your opponent is a personal friend or playtest buddy, get into the habit of calling judges whenever appropriate. If in doubt, call one.

The Fourth Rule Of Cheating:

The more variance your deck has, the more cheating will help you. The more variance your opponent expects your deck to have, the more likely they are to dismiss your cheating as luck.

Conversely, if your opponent is playing a deck renowned for high variance, you should consider them more likely to cheat than an average player.

I haven’t touched this yet.

Some decks (cough, cough, pre-ban Amulet Bloom Combo; also Grishoalbrand) have hands that are just unbeatable that come up a couple of percent of the time.

If you are a skilled cheat, these are the best deck choices for you as your nefarious skills and lack of integrity will be heavily rewarded.

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To conclude remember:

  • If in doubt, call a judge.
  • Honest players should practice sleight of hand so you understand how it works.
  • No really, call a judge.
  • Always shuffle your opponent’s deck, never just cut.

-sirgog

 

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Addressing the Modern banlist

As I return from a break from competitive Modern, it’s getting clearer that the format is broken at the moment.

MTGO adapts faster to new tech than the paper world because of how much faster it is to acquire new cards. MTGO Modern is under siege from Cathartic Dredge, and paper will soon follow.

The Dredge deck got a new toy in Prized Amalgam that was enough to push it over the top, even if it has taken a few months of tuning and the printing of Cathartic Reunion for this to become apparent.

Like the pre-banning Amulet Bloom Combo deck, Cathartic Dredge is setting up a large number of utterly overwhelming game states on turn 3 (alongside occasionally winning that turn, and very rarely winning even faster).

Like ABC, the deck is too fast to effectively hate out: either you have an answer in your first seven cards, or else you don’t get a chance to draw it in time. It’s also not possible to play as much Dredge hate as might be warranted, because Dredge isn’t the only deck with a high turn 3 win percentage in the field.

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It’s getting clearer that Dredge needs to be targetted in the next B&R announcement, and I believe the card to hit is (at least) one of Prized Amalgam, Narcomoeba and/or Bloodghast.

These cards, like the already banned Dread Return, can impact the gamestate without ever being drawn and with no investment of mana.

While Golgari Grave-Troll and Stinkweed Imp seem essential to enable these three cards, there are a number of substitutes for those two cards with lower Dredge numbers that will leave the Amalgam/Narcomoeba/Bloodghast engine intact.

I want to argue to spare Bloodghast from the banhammer, however. It’s the least broken of the three self-reanimators in Dredge, and it’s also a potentially playable card in other strategies.

Likewise Cathartic Reunion. This card was the final straw that pushed Dredge over the edge, but it is a card with the potential to be played in other strategies and an interesting take on card selection that might be played in a fairer format.

An unban of Deathrite Shaman has been proposed to provide a maindeckable card to fight the Dredge menace, but that card caused other problems when it was legal. I do not support a DRS unban at this time as it runs the very real risk of replacing one oppressive best deck with another.

For the stated reasons, I want to see Amalgam and/or Narcomoeba taken out behind the chemical shed and shot with the release of Aether Revolt. The format isn’t as broken as it was during Helldrazi season, but right now it is as broken as it was during Treasure Cruise Delver’s reign of terror. Additionally the card pool may include undiscovered tech that makes Cathartic Dredge even better than it currently is – it took six to seven weeks for the best builds to be discovered during Helldrazi season.

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On unbans.

There’s a common train of thought that the smaller the ban list, the better the format.

I do not subscribe to this school of thought in general.

I’m in favor of a ban list that is curated with a goal of maximum format diversity. Unbanning some cards will reduce, not increase, the pool of playable cards in the format. For an extreme example, consider an Eye of Ugin unban – such a decision would effectively remove Liliana of the Veil, Nahiri, the Harbinger, and Cryptic Command from the pool of Competitive-playable Modern cards, both decreasing format diversity and interactivity.

Now (almost) no-one is seriously suggesting opening the can of wyrms you’d get by unbanning that card, but the principle still applies when considering more reasonable unbans.

Disclaimer aside, I think there are a number of cards on the banned list in Modern that should be reassessed.

Since the release of Oath of the Gatewatch, Modern has shifted decisively from a format with fundamental turn 4, to a format with a fundamental turn of 3.5.

It’s not just Dredge. Burn, Affinity, Infect and Suicide Zoo all frequently kill a goldfish on turn 3, and they keep getting new tools which make them better.

Even the increasingly likely ban of Become Immense – the card that is at the centre of more turn 3 kills than any other – will not change this trend – after all burn doesn’t play that card and any burn hand with 2 aggressive one-drops (Guide and/or Swiftspear), plus Atarka’s Command, plus two Lava Spikes, Rift Bolts and/or Lightning Bolts is a turn 3 kill.

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What does a turn 3.5 format change about bannings?

When the fundamental turn of the format was 4, some cards had effects that were too dominating in games that went 4-5 or even more turns. Examples of these included Umezawa’s Jitte (which simply does too much in a 5+ turn game for a card that costs 2 payments of 2 mana), Punishing Fire and Jace, the Mind Sculptor.

However, in a format where turn 3 kills are becoming more common, these cards are not oppressive, and may not even be good. JtMS in particular is probably as weak in today’s Modern format as the once banned and now largely forgotten Bitterblossom is.

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I encourage Wizards to acknowledge that the turn 4 rule is dead, and that we now live in an era of Modern having fundamental turn 3.5.

This means that if you do not stumble on mana, you can count on spending 6 mana in half your games if you are on the play, and 10 mana in the other half of your games – for an average of 8.

On the draw, you can count on 3 mana in half your games, and 6 in the other half, for an average of 4½ mana.

And overall, that’s an average of 6¼ mana per game that you can rely upon living long enough to see, assuming your opponent is playing a fast strategy.

In this context, 4 mana cards – even ones that threaten to win the game outright with the appropriate setup (JtMS, Splinter Twin) are completely fine*.

The last time a high profile player suggested unbanning Umezawa’s Jitte I immediately thought “what is this person smoking, and where can I get some?”. But Modern has sped up so much since then that spending 4 mana to get 2 or even 4 activations of the Jitte is no longer more powerful than what the other decks in the format are doing; in fact it is less powerful.

So here I am, echoing their suggestion today.

* – While the combination of Deceiver Exarch and Splinter Twin may be trouble together because Exarch both attacks your mana and is hard to kill with maindeckable cards unless you keep up multiple mana, Exarch should have taken Twin’s bullet in the first place. The combination of Pestermite and Twin, or Krasis and Twin, or Village Bell Ringer and Twin, is IMO perfectly fine in the format and would increase both interactivity and format diversity.

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Proposed ban list amendments:

Note – ‘Watchlist’ means don’t ban this card now, but keep a close eye on it and say publicly that the card is a high ban risk in the forseeable future. It’s a term Wizards used back in the Urza Block days, when Yawgmoth’s Will was constantly one step away from the banhammer but never quite felt its loving caress.

Transparency of a watchlist is key. Cards in Modern are expensive and the banning of key parts of a deck can cause the deck to fall by hundreds of dollars.

A public watchlist allows risk averse players to divest holdings in decks that have a high ban risk.

There’s no guarantee that cards not on the watchlist will not be banned, but it will be more common for cards to spend time on the watchlist first.

 

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Well that got longer than I expected. Let’s see how much shit I just stirred up. As always, post replies, counterarguments, or the like as a reply on Reddit (preferred) or in the comments section of the website.

Note that because I get a lot of spambot attention, the website comments require me to manually approve them and this can take a while – this site is a side hobby, not a job, and I’ll be going and singing up a storm at karaoke tomorrow night rather than sitting at a computer.

  • sirgog

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Oppressive Aggro and Magic’s History – Lessons from Mirrodin Affinity

Howdy folks.

I definitely caused a shitstorm a while back with my post on the state of Modern. Since then Modern has continued to evolve.

The trend toward hyper-linear strategies – mostly aggro with elements of combo – has continued, but with one new deck: Cathartic Reunion Dredge, which is rapidly becoming the new bogeyman and is already drawing calls for a banning (as well as lots of people who regard the idea of another banning in Modern as utter heresy).

I’m not going to comment directly on the banning calls. A month away from actively playing Modern has left me unaware of nuances of the metagame and so I’m not qualified to judge format balance right now.

I would shed no tears for Cathartic Reunion if Chandra and Pia are taken out the back and shot, reuniting them with Kiran (sorry -too soon?) but this article is not arguing for that to happen.

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I’m going to assert that Cathartic Reunion Dredge is a synergy based aggressive deck. Some would term it aggro-combo, others would call it outright combo.

But fundamentally I would argue it plays the same game as Bushwhacker Zoo – its goal is to deploy a critical mass of aggressive creatures extremely quickly, and to overrun the opponent before they can develop their own gameplan.

While Bushwhacker does this via Magic’s normal mechanisms for casting spells, Dredge uses other means. But its mechanism for winning is the same as other go-wide aggro strategies, and it has similar problems with a resolved Ghostly Prison, Anger of the Gods or Porphyry Nodes as Bushwhacker has. (Both decks can beat all of those cards; just pointing out that they interact with the strategies in the same way).

I draw the line between aggro and combo somewhere between Affinity (synergistic aggro) and Infect (creature-based combo). Readers are free to disagree with this division and draw the line elsewhere if you want – I hope the points made will still be useful if we disagree here.

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There is an idea common among Magic players that certain strategies are more ‘oppressive’ than others. When these strategies have been good, Draw-Go, hard prison decks (including land destruction strategies) and combo decks – particularly those where the deck’s best hands win blisteringly fast – are often termed oppressive. I don’t agree with this.

Aggressive decks can be oppressive too. They are responsible for the second worst Standard of all time.

I’ve played competitive Magic for almost twenty years, and have encountered three truly oppressive formats.

The first and the worst was the Standard format utterly ruined by Tolarian Academy combo. This deck resulted in the banhammer getting a serious workout, and taught Wizards that fast artifact mana is inherently unfair.

The second to occur, and the third worst, isn’t all that relevant to this article as it was Mercadian Block Constructed with an old version of the Legend Rule.

The most recent truly oppressive format is the one we can learn from. Mirrodin-era Standard, with the Affinity monster.

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The banhammer that had been working out during the Tolarian Academy era got a fresh workout with Mirrodin era Affinity.

Skullclamp was banned first, for obvious reasons.

But after players got sick of maindecking Oxidize, eight more cards – the six artifact lands, Arcbound Ravager and Disciple of the Vault, were all given a bullet in the biggest mass banning Standard has ever seen.

Cranial Plating was spared to add insult to injury – as the second best card in the Affinity shell, it was left a shadow of its former self, legal to play but basically unplayable.

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The Affinity deck was a synergistic aggro deck with considerable reach. Builds varied, but the deck would vomit out a mass of threats as early as turn 1, then would either win turn 3 or 4 on the back of going all-in on one threat, or would play a more cautious game, chaining Thoughtcast or even going bigger with cards like Somber Hoverguard, before finishing the game out of nowhere with Shrapnel Blast.

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Why was it oppressive?

Standard is a format that usually has fundamental turn of 5 or 6, with aggro decks often coming in at around 4.5. (The concept of the fundamental turn was first introduced in this excellent article from over 15 years ago).

Prior to Darksteel’s release, the two versions of Affinity were Broodstar affinity (a control deck that used Talismans and artifact lands to ramp into its namesake card) and AtogDisciple of the Vault aggro. These had fundamental turns of 5.5 and 4.5 respectively which made them perfectly fair decks.

Then Darksteel and Fifth Dawn completed the decks, and suddenly the ultra-tuned Ravager Affinity monster had a fundamental turn of 3.25-3.5.

This meant that if you were not playing Affinity yourself, you had to dedicate multiple cards – Oxidize and the like – just to stay alive long enough to have a chance.

Playing those cards maindeck meant that your deck was worse against all of the non-Affinity decks in the metagame. And so the correct call was to play an Affinity list tuned to beat the mirror match.

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During the period where Ravager Affinity Aggro dominated Standard, tournament attendance plummeted despite better than average FNM promos (even for the time).

Wizards eventually saw the need to act and terminated the Affinity deck with extreme prejudice. Where three bannings would have saved the format (Ravager, Disciple and Cranial Plating), they instead banned eight cards to make a statement that they were serious about turning Standard around.

Since then, there has never been a need to ban additional cards to make a statement like that. This should be a testament to how oppressive Affinity was.

Modern a month ago (when I last had the time to play it seriously) wasn’t as dominated by oppressive aggro as Mirrodin era Standard was. But it was the closest we have been since.

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