Sunday 19 May 2024

Carried by Tutors

As a local play group we have switched over from regularly playing either my unpowered cube or my homemade cube to a classic vintage cube build for the last month or so (list of that to be found here although as it is relatively recently rebuilt it is undergoing rather more tweaking than usual This is a small tale of a recent draft and what I learned.

I thought my draft had gone badly, I thought I had half of three decks, all too thin to stand alone, that I was going to have to hope to get lucky with. Instead, my deck went on to win on turn three pretty comfortably undisrupted and still more than capable of winning through disruption. I dropped a single game to a dumb misplay (Entombing a card I wanted directly into exile because I had played a Yawgmoth's Will) and waltzed through the rest like they were all playing standard booster draft! 

So how had I so poorly judged the potency of my deck? It is not often one thinks they have a pile and then goes on to dominate the field. There is a heuristic in magic about trying to do to much. You want your deck to do one thing. The fact that I had three angles that lacked redundancy felt like I was off to a bad start in regards opinions on my pool. This was my main concern. My mana fixing was also less than ideal. I was rather lacking in interaction. I felt like I had some filler just padding out the list. Mainly it was about having the many thin plans that I was concerned however a bias also crept in that amplified my concern well beyond reason.

In my unpowered cube I do not have any combo options, it is all aggro, midrange and control. With the power creep as it tempo became paramount in that format. That in turn rendered tutor effects pretty useless. You were usually just getting some generic curve play or answer and not specific combo pieces. As such tutor cards stopped seeing play. Raw draw and card quality effects were simply a lot more efficient tools for that kind of consistency. As such I had rather forgotten quite how potent tutors are. The main reason I thought my deck sucked was because I was undervaluing tutors in the new meta of vintage cube. Not only are there myriad combos, from powerful interactions to win on the spot, the cards in general are vastly more powerful and varied giving your tutors a lot more range and punch too. Toss five premium tutor effects into a deck with multiple combos in it and you have a fairly robust and consistent little engine on your hands. Here is what I ran;

Misty Rainforest

Xander's Lounge

12 Basic

Mox Ruby

Chrome Mox

Lion's Eye Diamond

Sol Ring

Dark Ritual

Deathrite Shaman

Careful Study


Aether Spellbomb

Vampiric Tutor

Demonic Tutor

Talisman of Creativity

Grim Monolith

Collective Brutality

Wishclaw Talisman

Fallaji Archeologist

Yawgmoth's Will

Hull Breacher

Lurrus, of the Dream Den

Force of Negation



Tendrils of Agony


Echo of Eons

Bolas' Citadel

Primarily this is a bad storm deck, but it also is a failed Tinker deck and a  Hullbreacher abuser. If I have a Hullbreacher deck I want more of the symmetrical draw 7 effects as well as more of the punisher effects (Leovold/Narset/Sheoldred/Bowmasters). I like three of each not one of each! When it comes to Tinker I like at least two good targets, ideally somewhat standalone ones. Blightsteel Colossus, Portal to Phyrexia, and that sort of jazz. Also ideally ones that attack on different axis. My only big target needs a high life total, further things to go with it, and some good fortune. All while sorely lacking in Divining Top to abuse properly! 

The storm element was my best shot, the Citadel Tinker plan plays into it quite well, but even so, it was rubbish on paper. Storm decks are the ones that want to be more pure. Every card that is off theme hurts the consistency. This list was half a midrange deck with what felt like just a hint of storm tools. Practically I am trying to go off with Ritual, LED and the other mana rocks, plus Yawgmoth's Will, or just getting pretty luck with the Citadel. That is a long long way off a storm deck. That is a free sample, a trailer to a storm deck, a demo and not the whole article. 

These seemed like insurmountable problems but when push came to shove the fact that a fifth of the spells in the list are tutors, and pretty good ones at that, fully carried it. I always had the tools I needed, I could always quickly assemble what I needed to win in any given gap or get out of sticky situations. Vamp and Demonic are well known and understood for being the best tutors. The others in this list are a little less intuitive. Tinker is a tutor even if the main abuse is gaining mana advantage. It feels laughable to get an LED or an Aether Spellbomb, but if that is all you need to be able to go off and win it starts to feel like a pretty good Tinker target. You can even get Wishclaw for the dodgy long way round to find anything!

Entomb is also well known for being great and it was working triple duty in this list. With Lurrus it was able to tutor up some utility, it was able to setup having some things you needed in the bin for a Yawgmoth's Will turn, and most importantly of all it was able to put Echo of Eons exactly where you want it. This added up to make it one of my best cards. It tended to be the 2nd tutor I wanted. Mostly I was either getting Echo or LED in the bin but that was all very powerful and on plan for most of my routes to victory. 

The real standout card was Wishclaw Talisman. I was not expecting it to be competing with these other big name tutors and it really did. Mostly you need to win, or at least do utterly devastating things with it on the turn you first use it. Giving away tutors is a bit (a lot) dodgy, but winning on the spot turned out to be very easy. Especially when you have a one mana Demonic Tutor. That was the real strength of the card, you get to pay 2/3rds of the cost on a prior turn and only need to pay 1 mana on the turn you go off. It is all the good bits of Vamp and Demonic rolled into one card. You can even sack it off to Tinker! It would have been even more impressive if I could have found an Upheaval to replace the rather desperate seeming Damnation. 

The Damnation was absolutely the worst card, I never needed it and would have done better with an filler cantrip or generic interactive card, be that targetted single target bounce/removal or hand disruption or countermagic. I ran it out of fear that I was going to just die to random crap and not be quick enough. I wanted outs rather than improving what the deck itself was doing and I didn't need to be running scared. 

The other card I wanted most after the Upheaval was a simple Brainstorm. It would have made the Tinker a whole lot more reliable and would have generally worked incredibly well in the list. Obviously you always want a Brainstorm, I just passed one in the draft quite early and lived to regret it. Careful Study did a pretty good job of representing Brainstorm all things considered. It might be the other card that stood out most above expectation in the list. 

The moral of todays story is that tutors are great in vintage cube, likely the second best generic type of card after mana acceleration. If you have a pile of good mana ramp and a pile of tutors you struggle to go too far wrong. Tutors are better in vintage cube than unpowered cube not just because they are finding combos but because the cards in general are that much more powerful and swingy. The right card in an unpowered card is not often going to make back the cost of finding it, no threat or answer still looks good when you add two mana to the cost. In vintage cube a lot of things still seem great even when you pay two more for them. Really there is no cost too high to setup a Time Twister Hullbreacher combo!

There in is another strength of the deck and the tutors there in. If you can easily threaten a devastating Hullbreacher play your opponent has to be super careful which allows you to easily win in other ways. It just gives you that time and breathing space, it opens up windows that might not overwise have been. 

Thursday 9 May 2024

The Hidden Power in Cheap Draw


We have seen power creep in most areas of magic (only really excluding mana acceleration), both ultimately over the whole existence of the game, and more consistently in recent history too. While creatures, and then necessarily the removal to cope with them, have received most attention of the power creep it is likely that value or card advantage have crept the next most. Most colours now have access to it in some form or other and the going rate for it in terms of mana and hoops to jump through has plummeted. 

Now, with this being the case, cheap raw draw is still nearly impossible to come by. All the power creep in value seems to be in the mid and top end of the curve. Night's Whisper remains the second best "pure" card advantage spell in terms of mana paid to net cards drawn after Ancestral Recall. This seems wild to me. Divination is an embarrassingly low power card and yet still the standard. Why are they throwing free added value on stuff all over the shop but being so restrained in printing cheap cards that just do value? 

The short answer is that you end up with a card that is a bit too good at all points on the spectrum. Magic is a game that starts out with lots of card based resources but few mana based ones and transforms into the the reverse over time. Late game the player with access to more cards tends to win while early game the player who is able to deploy the right things, or indeed, anything at all, will be the winner. 

This is where cards like Preordain come in. They offer negative tempo and no value but they cheaply do a lot to ensure you cast the right things early on and so more than merit the cost. In terms of the early game, drawing X cards and scrying X has a near identical boost to your chances of casting the right things and winning the early game. A cheap card draw spell simply doubles up as a card quality spell while the costlier value sources come a bit late for that to be a big saving grace.

It isn't that effectively scrying for 2 at 2 mana is too good, nor that drawing two cards for two mana is too good, it is that rolling them together into one card, as you must physically do in any Night's Whisper esque card, you wind up with something that is too convenient and potent at all points without enough real drawback. It is value for late and consistency early. There is a hidden internal scaling with card draw as you reduce the cost, you need to pay for both the card draw and the card quality aspects of the spell, else you get too good of a deal.