Friday 29 May 2015

Top Sixteen Bounce Spells

Bounce spells are plentiful in cube and come in lots of shapes and sized. They are not often heralded as power spells but they are good tempo and disruption tools and the best blue has got in terms of removing permanents. Used well or in the right sort of decks bounce spells are among the most powerful kinds of removal while used poorly you might as well just be playing Healing Salve or something comparably underpowered. That makes them my kind of card, something you can engineer to be above the curve, something that has a broad range of uses and something people are not always vigilant about playing around. Bounce comes in one shot spell form, one shot enter the battlefeild effects on dorks, and ongoing bounce effects on various permanents. I have decided to limit this list to those things that are one shot only as they function much more similarly and fulfil the same kind of broad role.

Cryptic Command1.   Cryptic Command
2.   Cyclonic Rift
3.   Upheaval
4.   Venser, Shaper Savant
5.   Vapor Snag
6.   Boomerang
7.   Riftwing Cloudskate
8.   Capsize
9.   Repulse
10. Into the Roil
11. Eye to Nowhere
12. Aether Adept / Man-o-War
13. Wipe Away
14. Repeal
15. Hoodwink
16. Recoil

Cyclonic RiftObviously Cryptic Command comes in top, it is the most powerful and playable card on the list by a good chunk and likely would remain so even if you always had to chose bounce as one of the options! Tempo, trickery, utility and value. Cryptic Command gets you out of a jam like no other blue card. The bounce is a big part of that, being so broad yet costing you very little because of the bonus effects you can get with it.

Cyclonic Rift is more of a pure bounce spell, basically it just bounces a thing and is highly comparable to a lot of the cards on this list like Boomerang and Into the Roil. There are some issues with the Rift, it doesn't hit lands nor does it hit your own things. Hitting lands can really let you exploit certain situations and is a huge help against man lands. Bouncing your own stuff is horrendous for tempo but none the less is often worth doing in the long games where you rely on a certain threat to win or really need the extra value from an enter the battlefield effect. These are both annoyances that you can live with because of the insane overload ability which turns the card from a humble single target bounce spell into a one sided mass removal spell of doom. Any slow clunky deck using planeswalkers and dorks, say an Abzan deck, gets utterly brutalized by Cyclonic Rift. Early on Rift provides some generic tempo and safety should you need it. Then it becomes one of the best mass removal spells in the game when you hit 7 mana and can be used to steal games you are behind in easily. It might not kill anything beyond tokens but returning everything with a cost is a huge setback that takes several turns to recover. This on top of being instant and one sided make it so easy to put yourself unrecoverably ahead.

UpheavalUpheaval is a bit old school and niche yet it remains one of the most powerful and exploitable cards in all of magic. Upheaval is a lot like Rift but it does more for less. In part this is because it has no cheap mode and in part because it is symmetrical. Rift sees a lot more play because you don't really need to do much to exploit it, you can just throw it in a deck and have it be good. Upheaval you really have to work at so that it doesn't wreak you just as much as your opponent. When you have such a deck then Upheaval is one of the most game ending and unrecoverable things that you can be doing, bouncing everything is a lot more brutal when you have no lands left to play the things again with either! Typically the decks that best exploit Upheaval involve lots of artifact mana sources and some cheap yet potent threat. It may see less play than it used to but it is no weaker and no less scary.                    

Venser, Shaper SavantVenser, Shaper Savant is the poor mans Cryptic Command. His Remand mode is overlooked as a four mana Remand is not often that exciting but it does somewhat give Venser the feel of having nearly as many modes as Cryptic. There is lots of delve and flashback in the cube against which Venser is very potent. Although he costs a lot for bounce he is instant and hits any target which are two of the most important aspects of bounce spells. Overall he is a great utility card and something you often reach for when you have reason to want more bodies in your deck such as equipment. A 2/2 with nothing nice like flying leaves a lot to be desired and so unless you flash him in to get an unusually good block he is relatively low value compared to the mighty Cryptic.

Vapor SnagVapour Snag has been jokingly called the blue Path or Plow. Laughable as this comparison seems there are plenty of decks that play the Snag for which it is basically an accurate one. Usually you are wanting to hit dorks with your bounce, certainly it vastly reduces the utility of the card having only creatures as potential targets but it doesn't much affect the power. Paying just one mana to instantly remove a creature from play is nice. Getting a free ping in as well is a lovely kicker. Typically it is the more aggressive decks that play Snag over broader bounce and so that damage is relevant. Likewise, the aggro decks dont much care about taking pain themselves and so you don't lose that much utility on the card as a way of bouncing your own dorks. The most common home for this card is the aggro blue red deck where it compliments burn brilliantly. Burn the little things efficiently and bounce the big things you cannot burn easily. The thing that makes this card slightly more annoying and therefore slightly less played is not that you don't kill the thing you bounce but that so many cube cards have enter the battlefield effects you don't really want to give them again. You want to hit cards like Brimaz, big fat dorks that need to get into combat before they have done much, if you hit these kinds of card there is a good chance you won't see it played again, they will either be dead before they have the time or will have won anyway regardless of the Brimaz they have in hand. Overall Snag is one of the more brutal single target bounce spells but it is more niche than most of the others. Seal of Removal and Unsummon have both had their time in the cube but the Snag won out in the end. Seal was nice for devotion but had terrible synergy with Delver of Secrets and Snapcaster Mage. Unsummon wasn't exciting enough over Snag for the slower decks and was directly worse for the aggro ones. There really doesn't feel like there is room in a cube for more than one creature only one mana bounce spell even in a 720 cards cube hence the other two very comparable cards not even making this list.

Riftwing Cloudskate

Boomerang, the original bounce spell, the counterpart to Counterspell. Two mana, anything in play, not in play, instantly. Simple. Elegant. Wonderful. I was going to do, and still might, a comparison of Counterspell and Boomerang to Vindicate so as to show that either of the blue spells are quite substantially better in the right situation but pay for it by being that much more context dependant. When you have situations where they will not be getting the chance to usefully replay the card in question Boomerang is comically better than Vindicate, one less mana, one less colour, instant speed and not even triggering any "when this dies" effects. I have won a lot of games simply by throwing out a Boomerang on their land as soon as I can. You need to know the matchup or have a good read/Peek style information to sensibly make that kind of call but it is a nice easy win when you get it right. Just another one of those blue cards that used right can give that Time Walk feeling. Although such free wins are nice they are significantly less common than Cyclonic Rift overload is relevant hence it not being higher on the list.
Riftwing Cloudskate is the first of the sorcery speed bounce spells to make the list. It has two casting modes with the suspend which adds to the utility however the sloth and the price sufficiently detract from the utility that I think you wind up with a reasonably below par bounce effect. To offset this you get a 2/2 flier which unlike Venser is a pretty useful body to have floating about, nibbling away at planeswalkers and lifetotals. You play this card mostly for the dork, the bounce is a pleasant perk that is rarely useless and sometimes pretty good. As such this is almost exclusively used in more aggressive decks where you want a body and often (being blue) have a deficit of two drops. Bounce somewhat scales well with more bounce and so Riftwing's bounce aspect is that much more potent when you have more of a bounce theme going on.

Capsize has seen most play as a finisher / out in combo style decks that make lots of mana. It is pretty hard for most decks to beat single Capsize a turn, as many as you like is almost impossible to beat! Capsize hits all targets and does so at instant speed but is either 3 or 6 mana. Like countermagic, 3 mana bounce is substantially harder to use well and less exciting than the two mana options. It feels really hard to get ahead using it. Being able to maintain parity might be all you need and having a card that can keep you a bit safer early on and then go on to lock someone out of the game entirely is nice, it just requires fairly specific decks. Control used to get away with things this slow or mana intensive, now adays you are going to really struggle beating planeswalkers and Titans with your Capsize plan....

RepulseRepulse is a great little filler card that is in a bunch of cubes and has been in and out of mine. It is much more of a draft card than one you would include when you are constructing decks with a cube. It costs three mana and only hits dorks but it replaces itself thus typically costing you less than your opponent. Being instant allows you engineer further advantage with it than just a mana one. Overall a very fair card. Like Vapour Snag it is a little let down by so many cube cards having come into play effects that you don't want to give your opponents back. It is the same kind of annoyance you face when building with cards like Doom Blade that fail to kill black creatures.

Into the RoilInto the Roil is very comparable to Boomerang, it is slightly better for normal use but much less good in a heavy bounce strategy. You can build decks with the aim of attacking mana bases and do so with bounce fairly well and Into the Roil has no place in such decks. The reward you get from Roil for not being able to target lands is an easier casting cost of 1U and a kicker for the same cost again to draw you a card and represent Cryptic Command in bounce draw mode. Roil enjoyed A cube position until Rift was printed and has not been played again since. As with creature only one mana bounce, I think two mana non land bounce only really has one slot open to it in a cube and so despite this being a very rounded and nice card I fear we have seen the last of it. In a vacuum this is one of the better bounce spells yet is does nothing better than anything else and so gets rather marked down for it.

Eye of NowhereEye to Nowhere is essentially just a sorcery speed Boomerang. This makes it pretty terrible except when bouncing lands at which point it is basically just as good. When you are going a blue mana denial route this card is one of your better options, if you are doing anything else this shouldn't be anywhere near your deck.

Aether Adept and Man-o-War are essentially the same card. The Adept is slightly better overall  but it is marginal enough that I have ranked them together. Adept is a more useful creature type and has some synergy with things like Voidmage, all B or C cube cards but synergies Man-o-War none the less lacks. Typically you are playing these cards in heavier blue decks and so UU in the cost is more of a help towards devotion than it is a hindrance to casting. Despite being a good tempo cards and fairly well priced the lack lustre 2/2 vanilla body rather lets the card down. On top of this the creature only sorcery speed bounce has far far more limited use than most of the rest of the bounce on this list and as such these cards rarely see play these days. When I first made my cube 10 years ago I think most people would have put the old jellyfish in the top couple of blue creatures!

Wipe Away is another very niche bounce spell. It does all the things you want a bounce spell to do but it charges you the clumsy three mana price. The perk for this overcosting is split second which sounds exciting and nice but in reality has very few actual applications in the cube. The most notable is in being able to "deal" with an Aetherling. It is not just the best blue spell at dealing with an in play Aetherling but it is one of the best period. With a few more such applications the card might eventually earn a permanent cube slot but for now it is far too underwhelming a card that offers little that Boomerang does not.

Wipe Away
Repeal is a rather more swingy bounce card than most. It is downright awful at dealing with Reanimate decks or even just hard cast Titans. It is however the best bounce card going at taking out some kind of token. Unless you know you have a specific good use for the card I would suggest this is actually a bad bounce spell. Sure you get to draw a card which makes it card neutral however you almost always guarantee that you are the one losing out on mana advantage. Mana advantage and broad range are the two main perks of bounce effects and this offers neither. I have lost to affinity creatures while playing with this, I imagine Tasigur would be a common new card for this to fold to pretty hard should you still have it in your cubes. Potentially this is very potent but usually it is the wrong card.

Hoodwink is an oddity as it is the only bounce card on this list that doesn't hit creatures. You play it, like Eye of Nowhere, as a blue mana denial card. As such its easier casting cost and instant speed do not do that much in its favour. After your Boomerang, your Eye to Nowhere and your higher quality 3+ mana bounce and mana denial if you still feel like you need more land disruption then you might dig out this little card. Niche, and far down the list of land bouncers but still more played than many bounce spells.

RecoilRecoil has been called the instant Vindicate which is more generous than equating Vapour Snag to Path to Exile. Discard and bounce have no real synergy with each other until you have exhausted their hand. As such this is usually just a bad Repulse or bad Capsize. Even if you are so heavy on discard that you can have this always be vindicate you would probably still rather other bounce as you will more than likely have spare discard effects. This is also a gold card making it worse too!

Jace, the Mind Sculptor, Waterfront Bouncer and to a lesser extent Tradewind Rider and Crystal Shard are the main examples of ongoing bounce effects used in cube. Jace is the clear best but much of this is down to the great versatility of the card beyond the mere capacity to bounce. Bouncer has fallen off a little in the less combo-y cube but is a nice cheap little card that does a lot of work. It would likely be about 8th on this list (9th if we are putting Jace in as well) but as I said at the start, the ongoing effects are not so directly comparable meaning that rating is more about performance in the cube rather than quality as a bounce card.

Tuesday 19 May 2015

Why is Blue the best colour?

I think if you asked most seasoned magic players what the commonly regarded best colour in MtG was they would basically all say blue. I am obviously writing this from a cuber perspective, there are plenty of blocks and standard formats where blue has been weak. With this being from the perspective of cube it will also largely apply to legacy, vintage, EDH, the theoretical "best of all time" and also fairly well to modern. You could simply argue that blue has the best and most powerful individual cards which leads to it being the best colour. This is true but does not satisfactorily explain the whole of the why.

Azure DrakeThere are broadly speaking two kinds of cube, those that are powered and those that are not. I would assert that blue remains the most powerful colour in both but it is significantly closer in the unpowered cubes. Once you strip away the colourless cards from the power and older cards that are similarly above the curve you are basically only left with blue cards and Fastbond. I do not even consider Timetwister to be above the curve however Time Walk, Ancestral Recall and Mana Drain are all disgustingly over powered to the point I have banned them in my cube so as to have fairer more fun games. If I can satisfy why blue is the most powerful in an unpowered cube it should be fairly easy to accept that it is also the case in a powered one.

I shall start off by arguing some reasons why blue is weak as a colour and then try and explain what it is about blue cards that sufficiently offset these limitations such that blue can be considered the most powerful colour. If you are only allowed to build mono coloured decks then blue quickly becomes one of the weakest colours. It has weaker creatures in terms of their potency in combat and presence on the board. It is also the shallowest in terms of creature quality, it has some very powerful ones but remove them and you are not left with much at all. Blue leans very hard on artifacts when being played as mono to support it in the areas in which it is weaker. Blue can compete as mono but it has to be built with what your opponents are doing heavily in mind, stretch it too far and it has no hope but you can tune it to deal with several different decks fairly well. Blue cannot destroy things, this is the main weakness of the colour along with flimsy minions. Typically it is for destroying things that you employ artifacts in mono blue decks. Not being able to directly destroy things means that you are vulnerable to all manner of things people can put into play. A Grim Lavamancer can be death to anything you can play, an early Ankh of Mishra can be too much damage. Certainly blue can counter things or bounce them or both, it can even just steal them. This is typically fine against the larger permanents but it is far too inefficient against cheaper cards.

Every colour has strengths and weaknesses. This discussion about blue in mono covers the weaknesses of blue and also suggests that those weaknesses are more severe in blue than they are in other colours. This would stand to reason as it would somewhat balance the extreme positives of the colour. The thing is, magic is a game where you can mix and match your colours and design your decks. Some of the best cards are those with drawbacks that you can, through deck design, mitigate such that you have a greatly over powered card. Broadly speaking this is why blue is so good, you can exploit it strengths while mitigating its weaknesses using clever design and the qualities of other colours.

Apprentice SorcererSo, what are these exploitable strengths that blue has and what is it about them that makes them stand out above all the other colours. I would group blues strengths into three categories of card types; counterspells, card draw and card quality. Counterspells are almost entirely unique to blue, those few that there are outside the colour are typically far too niche for cube play or are just complete shite. Card quality is becoming more available to other colours but blue still has the most, the best and the cheapest of the card quality spells. It has all the most generic library and hand manipulation as well as the best of the more universal scry cards. Card advantage is also becoming more available to other colours in many different forms, typically this is through incremental advantages on the likes of planeswalkers or two for one style creatures. Blue has card advantage  of this kind and some pretty good effects at that but it also has lots of card advantage that offers that advantage as cards in hand rather than your dork back or two effects in one spell etc. Cards in hand is obviously the most rounded and generic form of card advantage, it allows you to do whatever you want with those cards and your deck design. Outside of blue it is both rare and difficult to get a grip full of juicy cards from your library. Black has some tools like Necropotence but they are painful and need to be very carefully built around. Green has some stuff but they all require you to have loads of dorks in play or cast loads of dorks to trigger. Red has, er, Wheel of Fortune. If you just want a card that costs some mana and does little more than leaving you with a bigger hand than before you cast it you really have to look to blue.

All three of blues strengths are pretty exclusive to blue. Some other colours have a pretty exclusive thing, direct damage in red, permanent ramp in green (although artifacts can adequately fulfil this role), discard effects in black, but it is one thing not three, and excluding red's direct damage not in quite the same league as the blue stuff. Blue might have weaker creatures but it still has creatures, no other colour has counterspells. Removal and creatures being the weakness of blue make it very easy to offset. All the other colours have stronger monsters and are much more comparable in overall strength than the blue ones are so you can go blue X and happily have monsters that will go toe to toe with other decks. Likewise with removal, blue can deal with stuff in a roundabout way, it is like having weaker creatures. All other colours have removal for some permanent types so your given blue X pairing will not only sort you out for dorks but it will cover you pretty well for removal too. Having unique strengths is great as it means everything can gain access to new tools by pairing with you and likewise, having unique weaknesses is also good as it means help is at hand wherever you look for it.

Deep Analysis
I shouldn't really need to justify why card advantage is good but I am going to have a quick stab at it anyway. It is always hardest to explain why the obviously good is good. Essentially magic has 3 resources, life, cards and mana. As we know, life is pretty irrelevant, there is only one point of it that matters at all, the rest is just buffing. Once you are winning the life aspect of the game will take care of itself. As for the other two, you spend your mana on your cards, often trading your cards with your opponent. Those trades that are more mana disparate will afford tempo to the player paying less. Likewise, those trades that are not equal in cards will offer card advantage to the player using fewer cards or parts of cards to deal with things. You can either win by gaining too much tempo on your opponent that they are overpowered and die or you can outlast someone and trade off until they have no cards left and you still do. Combo decks don't quite work like this but still love to draw more cards. Regardless of them, card advantage is one of the two main paths to victory in magic. Card advantage that comes as cards in hand is the most universally playable and useful and so blue has a good edge on the other colours.

Lat-Nam's Legacy
I recently did an article on card quality that goes into some detail about why it is so good and which cards are the best for cube use. Unsurprisingly the list was predominantly blue and almost all the outlying cards that did not make the top X were also blue. Put simply rather than in 10,000 words or so... magic is a random game. Card quality reduces the randomness and makes you more consistent. Lots of games are lost through floods and screws and card quality is some insurance against those losses you cannot do anything about. It is not just insurance but also gives you the ability to outplay people in the more even games. Card quality spells give you a lot more options and much more immediacy on those options than most other types of cards, especially if we are talking choices per mana spent. Choices let you play the game and let you use more skill as well as luck and card power to win games.

Before we go on to look at countermagic I want to consider the scaling effect of card draw and card quality. At the start of this article I commented that this was from the perspective of cube but it would also apply to a bunch of other formats, apply reasonably to modern, but not always to the standard and block formats. While some blocks just fail to support some colours well this is not the only reason behind the trend of having a larger pool of cards and blue becoming more powerful and vice versa, blue being weaker in smaller pools. Card quality and card draw generically scale well with power. The more powerful cards you have the more value there is on drawing more of them or having the right ones at the right time. Good creatures or say, burn spells don't have quite the same inbuilt scaling with the power of other cards. Not only are card draw and quality effects very good in their own right or in a vacuum so to speak, they are able to become more and more powerful based on the power of what you put them with. Thus, the broadest and biggest formats like cube are where the potency of blue is most noticeable.
Copy Artifact
A small side note on this general area which applies far more to powered cubes but still bears some relevance to unpowered cubes; Blue has the most synergy with artifacts as part of its colour pie flavour. Blue just has more cards that interact and scale well with artifacts than any other colour. Red is close but the other three barely do anything useful with them! Much like the scaling of card quality and card advantage with powerful cards, blue in general scales well with the power and number of the available artifacts in a given format.

There is even the simple argument that good cards make other cards better. I have already used the hateful phrase "in a vacuum" in this essay but it is a fairly useless concept in magic. There is no vacuum, cards necessarily interact with each other. A good card in blue brings up the quality of the other blue cards as they are easier to play with this one good card. The more good cards you add into this generic pool of good cards the better the total resulting power is. Blue has a great depth of very good cards, all of which make each other and the more average cards that much better overall. It is almost getting a bit chicken and egg saying that blue has a lot of great cards because blue has a great cards but at least Wittgenstien would approve. It is more like capitalism, once you (or blue in this metaphor) are rich and powerful it is far easier to become more rich and powerful.

So finally we come to counterspells, the thing most associated with blue. An effect loved and feared by magicians the world over and something we can effectively say is unique to blue. For the record, I think this exclusivity is an error in the design of magic, I would love to see some carefully designed playable counter effects in other colours that remained reasonably true to the feel of the colour. Say, an Annul for 1G that also drew you a card. Perhaps colourshifting Delay to red would be reasonable too. Mana Tithe is about the only half playable example of such a card yet printed. Giving broad and/or hard countermagic to other colours wouldn't be good either but having little to nothing in that sphere makes non-blue colours far more limited and vulnerable. In the cube, if I build a non-blue deck there are invariably a wide array of things you simply cannot beat in anyway. Loads of combo decks that are relatively non interactive will just free win if you are not putting them on some sort of decent clock. There can be tools to deal with specific combos outside of blue but they are sideboard cards, not the sort of thing you put in cubes and not the kind of thing that is fun to play with. Giving the non-blue colours some protection against spells would improve the diversity of the game immensely.

You might argue that black has good protection against spells through the use of discard and this is true to some extent but really that is like comparing bounce to hard removal. A Duress will perform much the same role as a counterspell should you a; cast it before they can cast their offending spell. b; cast it after they draw the offending spell which is of course not always possible. You also need to fire off your Duress before they empty their hand of spells else it will achieve nothing. Sure, Duress is half the price of Counterspell and doesn't require you to have the mana available at quite such a specific time but it is still substantially weaker and less safe. Discard is typically used as stall, disruption that will buy you a good amount of time and be awkward. It is not used as a way to lock down anything scary your opponent might do, rather obviously because it would fail horribly in this task!

Withering BoonThis is the crux of why countermagic is so strong. It is the only thing that provides protection against spells in any sort of reliable or ongoing way. On top of this exclusive spell protection countermagic typically provides a general form of removal/disruption. Dissipate does basically the same as Council's Judgement for any spell that makes permanents and it effects instants and sorceries too! Cancel does most of what Maelstrom Pulse does and more. Yes, you have to have the counterspell and the mana for it at the right time which is not the case for the removal spells but this is a small price to pay for such a powerful effect and that only makes up a part of what the card does for you.

Let us look at Tinker, another sick powerful blue card! The options available to other colours to be able to deal with Tinker are as follows, black has to hit it with a discard spell before cast and after drawn or deal with the thing it gets. Every other colour has to deal with the thing it gets. I guess white could respond with a Containment priest but this is the kind of specific sideboard nonsense that you don't want to have to resort to. Blue knows most colours will just have to try and deal with the thing they get with Tinker and typically plays a few things that each colour really struggles with. Red and green pretty much can't deal with a Sphinx of the Steel Wind so that is a nice easy win. Blue folds pretty hard to an Inkwell Leviathan. Black and white can be a little trickier to present an unkillable threat to but you can still make it awkward as hell for them. Black does not have an easy time with the cheap Wurmcoil Engine for example. The point is Tinker is a cheap spell that you can do really very little about efficiently or comfortably outside of blue or lucky black and Tinker is just one such example of a powerful spell that is hard to disrupt well.

Counterspells are typically associated with control but this is not because they are only good in control, quite the opposite. Countermagic is usually found in control because it is very difficult indeed to make a deck capable of dealing with all the things a cube can throw at you without countermagic. There are some very good aggressive strategies that employ countermagic to good effect too. Countermagic is great at protecting you, it is like good generic removal as well as good generic disruption. It will ease the burden on your pure removal cards and it will force your opponent to play with more caution and restraint.

I would agree that Actual Counterspell is somewhat above the curve and a big part of why so many magic players hate countermagic. Negate, Mana Leak and something like Dissolve are far fairer and more balanced examples of what countermagic should be. These fair counterspells represent the bottom end of what is good in cube, I don't even have a Dissolve in mine favouring Forbid in that slot. Fair counterspells still represent an exclusive thing in magic and still offer the best kind of safety against spells. Blue however has plenty of unfair ones which only serve to make the colour even more powerful. If the Forces of Will, Mana Drains, Arcane Denials, Cryptic Commands, Remands and Spell Pierces were never printed I am pretty sure the cube would still have a similar total number of counterspell style cards, it would just play more of the weaker ones in their place.

Countermagic is powerful in principle because it is an exclusive effect that is broad in application. It is the only real protection against instants and sorceries yet it does a good job of doing the role of your Vindicates and Hero's Downfall. It too scales well with and against powerful cards and also scales well with broadening and diversifying formats. With all this going for them those counterspells that fall above the curve gain a lot in power very quickly.

Time Spiral
The focus of this essay has been on card draw and quality and countermagic being the main reasons why blue is the best colour. This is true but not the only things blue has going for it. Blue has some of the most interesting, powerful and unique cards and effects in magic. Things like Upheaval, Show and Tell, Mind Over Matter, Omniscience, Time Walk effects, Turn About and so on. These cards do rather fall into the category of cards made better by the other cards in blue. Blue is one of the best combo colours because of the support from card draw, quality and countermagic. Bubbling Muck is not a card that got much love while High Tide is a much feared archetype. Blue does have a lot of great combo cards but they are at an inherent advantage over other colours combo cards because they are blue.

There we have it, the collection of reasons why blue is the best colour as far as I can discern them.

Monday 18 May 2015


Mayor of AvabruckI love to do a tribal deck yet have to date not done an article for my own species! There are lots of humans, they cover all the colours and have a wide rage of, well, pretty much everything. The thing with humans is that they have historically been a default or filler creature type. They are in most realms and don't have that much synergy, or didn't until Innistrad block where they started to get some tribal love. I have done a couple of iterations of human decks, always a heavy white base but then sometimes mono, sometimes a black splash, sometimes a green one, sometimes more than a spalsh etc. Although they have had human themes they have not really drawn very heavily on the synergy cards and are more flavour than function. This is one of my favourite lists to date as it has the most reasons to have humans. It offers a lot of power and tenacity despite being so low to the ground. It contains a couple of more niche cards that shouldn't be in most cubes however the bulk of the deck is cube staples. As cube tribal decks go this is one of the easiest to support without leaving your packs full of awful last picks. A lot of this is because there are really not that many human synergy cards and most of those that are good enough for this deck are quite viable without much of a tribal focus. Again, a lot of this is because there are so many incidental humans that things like Champion of the Parish are viable in most decks that would want it.

Dragon Hunter
25 Spells

Mother of Runes
Gideon's Lawkeeper
Champion of the Parish
Student of Warfare

Soldier of the Pantheon
Mardu Woe-Reaper
Dragon Hunter
Path to Exile

Warden of the First Tree
Deathrite Shaman
Warden of the First TreeNoble Hierarch
Avacyn Pilgrim

Gather the Townsfolk
Mayor of Avabruk
Selesnya Charm
Dromoka's Command

Knight of the White Orchid
Precint Captain
Loyal Cathar
Hamlet Captain

Thalia, Guardian of Threben

Silverblade Paladin
Ajani, Caller of the Pride


Obelisk of Urd

15 Lands

Hamlet Captain
So, you have three tribal humans cards and a potent tribal pump effect in Obelisk of Urd. Champion and Mayor are solid cards you can reasonably see in cubes. Hamlet Captain is not. The rest of the deck is simply the best cheap green and white humans I cold find. Captain is fine but likely a powerful stand alone card without synergy would be as good if not better, I just like to go deep on things when trying them out. I played black mana sources in this list so that I could more easily activate Warden and Deathrite, this makes Dark Confidant an incredibly tempting human however with so many WW cards and the huge colour intensity of all those one drops I preferred not to risk it. Consistency is king in magic. I only had a couple of black mana sources in the deck and would have needed way more than that to support and card that needs black mana rather than just has a use for it. Many more black sources and my mana base gets substantially worse and rather more painful too.

Dromoka's Command
The Charm and Command give you some great outs, tricks and general tempo without costing you any consistency due to their great versatility. Some artifact removal within the list would have been nice. Having three mana dorks (including Deathrite) in the list is a little extreme given how cheap the deck is but two of them are doing other very useful things as well, some of the things you make are mana intense, it allows you to skimp a little more on lands and it gives you extra burst. The cheapness of the deck and the mana dorks made Armageddon too good to turn down. It is such a danger card against so many archetypes it will give you value just having it in the list. Those not wary of it will give you the odd free win too. Ajani and Path to Exile are the only other non human themed cards in the deck. Path is just great in this deck and needs little justification. With the Command and Charm as well this deck has actually got some serious killing potential which is not something common to this style of deck nor this colour pairing.

Ajani, Caller of the PrideI played Ajani in this deck to diversify my threats. Being able to pressure your opponents in several ways is a great advantage in any aggressive deck. It allows you to extend more without serious repercussions while putting more demands on your opponents. While Caller of the Pride is not the best Ajani incarnation nor is it easy to slot into any given deck it was highly appropriate in this list. Being one mana cheaper works really well with your lower than usual curve. It either sends things over the top to close a game or makes your threats more dangerous giving you ongoing advantage. Little dorks are the best to counter up, they are the least savage to have killed and improve more significantly as a relevant thing on the board than is the case when pumping larger monsters. A high count of cheap minions is also the best way to reliably have a target for Ajani. One of the reasons so many incarnations of Ajani struggle is because they do so little useful when you don't have something to go with them and for this deck that is not so much of a problem. Elspeth, Knight-Errant is way more powerful and would have worked very well in this deck as well but that extra mana would have really hurt. I was very happy with my choice to pack Caller of the Pride in this list.
Obelisk of Urd

Obelisk of Urd is an unusual card that gives you a lot of options. If you are curving out well you can easily cast it on turn three but in order to do you need to skip all your attacks that turn. Should you have utility dorks like Mother of Runes you need to turn those off which is another risk. The longer you leave your Urd the less it impacts your immediate pressure but not by much, the deck does not go past four mana very quickly at all. As we have seen from Tempered Steel, +2/+2 to all your men is really rather made of win and makes life very hard for almost every deck going. Skipping your attacks to flop out an Obelisk is horrendous should they just kill it with some artifact removal, it is pretty bad if they wrath your team, it will take several turns to get back on track even with the Urd still in play. A powerful card that is very strong in tribal decks, especially those with a low curve, high creature count and/or lots of tokens. Caution is advised however, it is not just that hardest global pump spell to play with but one of the riskier ones as well.

Broadly the deck played like a white weenie deck, it would apply some early pressure then should that not result in a win it would clogg up the board and create stand offs in which it had several good ways to punch through or simply break. I found I had way more options with this list than your average white weenie deck due to the more interesting array of minions, the lower curve and the extra ramp. I also found I maintained the early tempo advantage longer than usual due to the high amount of removal in the list. I felt this deck had one last advantage over a standard white weenie list and that was the late game where you have good ways to carry on being threatening. The level up creatures represent serious threats when you have spare mana, Urd can easily triple your on the board power and things like Mayor and Deathrite provide ongoing perks that wittle away at your opponents resources. It does have some weakness compared to white weenie as well. Firstly it has slightly less in the way of evasive threats that allow you to control planeswalkers more easily and carry on closing out a game when things are otherwise in stalemate. This list also has less recovery power than white weenie. Wrath is pretty brutal for you, I was considering Valorous Stance over the Charm or the Path to give me a modicum of protection against mass removal. Even the humble Arc Trail can be unrecoverable for this deck. You could offset this weakness with Skullclamp but I prefer to make a purer deck and adapt my play in this sort of situation.

Friday 8 May 2015

top planeswalkers III

Ajani GoldmaneAs planeswalkers are a new addition to magic relatively speaking, as well as a very select and small pool of cards there is much more change in their ratings over time than there is with most other groups of cards. As the cube meta changes too I feel compelled to re-rate the planeswalkers with some regularity. There have been a lot of strong new entries although not so much at the very top. The top six or so stand out above the rest but from there to the rest of the top 20 there is really very little to chose between them. The depth and quality of gold planeswalkers has also seen a marked improvement. The cube is becoming more midrange which is an environment where planeswalkers shine. I am currently running about 35 planeswalkers in my main cube and most of the rest reside in the B cube and see more play than most other B cube cards.

Jace, the Mind Sculptor

The Good

1.   Jace, the Mind Sculptor
2.   Elspeth, Knight Errant
3.   Liliana of the Veil
4.   Elspeth, Sun's Champion
5.   Garruk Wildspeaker
6.   Ashiok, Nightmare Weaver
7.   Sarkhan, the Dragonspeaker
8.   Jace, Architect of Thought
9.   Sorin, Solemn Visitor
10. Tamiyo, the Moon Sage
11. Chandra, Pyromaster
12. Teferi, Temporal Archmage
13. Garruk, Apex Predator
Liliana of the Veil14. Xenagos, the Reveler
15. Ugin, the Spirit Dragon
16. Freyalise, Llanowar's Fury
17. Garruk, Primal Hunter
18. Domri Rade
19. Karn Liberated
20. Ajani Vengeant
21. Ob Nixilus of the Black Oath
22. Nissa, Worldwaker
23. Kiora, the Crashing Wave
24. Sorin Markov
25. Ajani Steadfast

The Fine

26. Gideon Jura
27. Garruk Relentless
28. Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker
Vraska the Unseen29. Chandra, the Firebrand
30. Ajani, Mentor of Heros
31. Sarkhan Unbroken
32. Vraska the Unseen
33. Elspeth Tirrel
34. Sorin, Lord of Innistrad
35. Chandra Nalaar
36. Liliana Vess
37. Ral Zarek

The Niche

Dack Fayden*
Narset Transcendant
Venser the Sojourner*
Koth of the Hammer
Dack FaydenAjani Goldmane
Tezzeret the Seeker
Nahiri, the Lithomancer*
Daretti, Scrap Servant
Chandra Ablaze
Garruk, Caller of Beasts
Ajani, Caller of the Pride
Tezzeret, Agent of Bolas
Sarkhan Vol
Jace, Memory Adept

(*in cube presently)

The Bad

Tibalt, the Fiend-Blooded
Liliana of the Dark Realms
Sarkhan the Mad
Nissa Revane
Jace, the Living Guildpact
Gideon Champion of Justice

Ashiok, Nightmare WeaverThe most notable changes are as follows. Ashiok has rapidly climbed the rankings, it is cheap, very dangerous and has a lot of loyalty to chew through. The mill is far more painful and likely to kill you in cube than other formats, especially 60 card ones and as such Ashiok enjoys a charmed life in the cube. He feels a lot like Psychatog used to and is the bane of control players. Elspeth, Sun's Champion has continued to impress and is the highest new entry since the last list. It is easily more powerful than the original Elspeth who once held the number one slot but at six mana it is harder to include in decks.

The commander planeswalkers all impressed although the real surprise was Teferi who has been a control mainstay. Being able to untap four lands and still sit on four loyalty is huge, it lets you fairly safely play a significant thing onto the board and feels more like a two drop! Should it survive it will offer you ongoing mana to be able to safely play the things in your hand or cards to refill a dwindling hand. Sarkhan Dragonspeaker is another new boy on the block who has been doing good work. The card is obviously great but I was a little concerned it wouldn't be able to find many homes as midrange is not so much reds thing. Fortunately he is seeing play and being good in a reasonable range of decks.
Elspeth, Sun's Champion
Sorin Solemn Visitor is comfortably the second best gold planeswalker and came as quite a surprise to me. On paper it seems a bit situational or vulnerable depending on whether you are going +1 or -2 respectively on the turn you make it. Turns out it is just utterly amazing! Flying tokens get a lot done for you and the effect of the +1 is just so swingy most of the time you care little about those few occasions you have no dorks in play.

The backup, or fair Jace as we call him has risen greatly in the ranks. I think there may be some bias here as he gets played a lot when there is still an option on Mind Sculptor simply because the builder doesn't want to go overboard on cheesy blue power cards and win only a hollow victory. As such Architect is played slightly more than he should be but he is still impressively strong. The +1 gives him an awful lot of staying power and usually buys you enough time to either start safely milking him for cards or ramping towards the ultimate so you can finish the game. Alternately you can pretty happily throw him down sacrificially, -2 him right away and have him easily killed by attackers. This is not ideal but still usually a lot more value than a Council of the Soratami offers and is only a part of how you can use the card. A great all round tool for a lot of decks, particularly control ones that love versatility, card advantage and stall, all built into a card that can even be a win condition.
Garruk, Apex Predator
We have seen some new super top end walkers in the form or Ugin and Apex Predator. Despite being gold the latter has been the most impressive, able to save games and overpower and win them. Ugin is great too, much the same role as Karn but more potent at it. They both suffer a bit from being able to close out a game once they have bailed you hence there slightly lower ratings than Apex Predator but this my no means makes them bad!

Tamiyo is still seeing a lot of play, some of this is because she is not a Jace but much is earned through quality. She is an immediate solution to a lot of problem cards like man lands and Hellkites. She is great at protecting herself and can still be decently disruptive should your opponent have no threats out. Her ultimate is strong and she can provide card draw if need, sometimes in abundance.

Gideon JuraGideon Jura has been the most interesting transition from once being in the top five to now being decidedly average. One of the changes is the potency of creatures. Previously Gideon would just plus two each turn and either stay alive perpetually preventing any damage hitting you or force them to grossly over extend into your Wrath of God. The odd occasion they had something fat you could usually take the time to -2 it to death and get right back to +2ing with Gideon still alive and well.  Once you have stabilized you could then start to get your beat on with a fairly safe 6/6. Now Gideon easily dies in a single hit from a pair of three drops. He cannot force situations where Wrath is game ending and he cannot stall for very long either. There is a lot more removal for planeswalkers which can be crippling if you were relying on him to absorb an attack. Additionally there is more removal for creatures making attacking with him a liability. All in all Gideon has fallen very far indeed. Champion of Justice has actually seen more play in the last 18 months than Jura! Although I rate him as bad he is one of the more playable ones in the bad grouping and has some applications. He should really be a niche/bad hybrid!

Teferi, Temporal Archmage
Sorin has also fallen off a little. Black has far more life gain options now which was a big part of Sorin's success before. Although not as significant as with Gideon the more potent dorks mean Sorin is worse at protecting himself. Two damage does not kill as many things as it used to. Black is pretty clunky and so people want reliability and consistency from there six drop power cards. Grave Titan is getting most of the love that previously would have gone Sorin Markov's way.

Chandra, the Firebrand is another faller. This doesn't come as a huge surprise, red was lacking in rounded decent planewalkers until Dragonspeaker and Pyromaster came along and Firebrand was the best on offer. With those on offer Firebrand is dangerously close to being cut. I still quite like her, I like to Fork things and I love how splashable she is. Firebrand can be the red planeswalker of choice in control decks where the 0 ability on Pyromaster can hit countermagic and be terrible.

There is a small group of very rounded and powerful planeswalkers that under perform because there are few archetypes that can house them effectively and not because, like Gideon Jura, they are unsuited to the meta. This group includes Sarkhan Unbroken, Ajani, Mentor of Heroes, Nicol Bolas and to a lesser extent Ajani Vengeant. In pure power terms these planeswalkers are mostly up there with the best of the non top 6. They do great things for not that much mana but they are all awkwardly gold and awkwardly costed for that particular combination. It is easier to go for random pile of good cards in some colours.dec in cube than most other formats but it is still unadvisable, even with these easy to pick up high powered walkers on offer.
Sarkhan Unbroken

Ajani Vengeant is the one that stands out most as differing in my evaluation of the card and the MtG community in general. I have never loved it or rated it highly but likewise have always been aware this is a bit controversial and therefore potentially just wrong. As such I have tried to find the good in the card and tried to pinpoint my dislike of the card. Although not as severe as with the other gold walkers I mentioned that is most along the lines of the problem with Vengeant. For aggressive decks he is a bit clunky and midrange, you want your four drops to end the game fast and have good synergy with your list which Vengeant generally does not. For control decks you want more safety and easily obtainable value. Three loyalty is low, the keeping tapped is bad against haste and vigilance and the cost of the Lightning Helix is large both compared to how much loyalty he can gain and how much he starts with. Great in midrange decks but there are not that many of those which are also Boros in some way.

Finally I should give some props to Domri Rade, a planeswalker I am rapidly gaining respect for. His middling rating on this list doesn't quite do him the justice he deserves. Really he should be in the niche grouping because there is only really one archetype you play him in. The thing is this archetype, which you might loosely call Zoo, is greatly diverse and can be done in almost any combination of colours that contain green. Those that also contain red, which is most of them, play Domri. Zoo is a dominant force in cube presently and is substantially better than Xenegos (planeswalker) in those decks. The reason for the difference in rating is that Xenagos finds himself in more varied decks than Domri. The three mana walkers that do some broadly useful and/or varied things are very powerful indeed. Domri is usually removal when you want it to be and has a +1 that draws at least half a card on average. RG has way more access to library manipulation than before and can easily beuild good decks with 20+ creatures all in all making Domri not just as good as say Ashiok when housed in Zoo but fairly comfortably Liliana of the Veil levels of good.