Saturday, June 28, 2008

Buried In Bits Of Colourful Cardboard

Advisory: This column consists pretty much entirely of Magic: The Gathering geekery. It's also going to be long. If that doesn't appeal to you, bail out now.

Well, as Magic: The Gathering tends to do to people, it's spiralled completely out of hand on me.

Not long ago, I started buying a few cards again. Just once a week, anything from one to five packs at a time, from Crave Manga.

Then my wife and I started playing regularly. It's tapered off a bit from its former frequency, but we still manage at least a couple of times a week. (Do I need to go for a "hey, maybe I'm not talking about what you think I'm talking about" bit again? No, not just yet.)

It snowballed from there.

First, we realized that we simply didn't have enough basic lands to build as many decks as we wanted. Each time I buy one or more new packs, i.e., pretty much every week, I have a policy: all the new cards go into one of our decks, at least for an "audition" of a couple of games. The only exceptions are commons that we're already familiar with. All uncommons and rares, and any new commons, get at least a cursory play-testing.

That means that our decks get quite large, quite fast. Also, whenever a deck gets too big and unwieldy, I go through it and "split" it, based on themes and card synergies. For example, we used to have a deck with pretty all our new red cards, and another with all the white cards. (Several weeks back, we had so few new cards that I simply made six decks: one for each colour and one five-colour deck that had any multicoloured cards plus any lands or other mana sources that could produce multiple colours.)

Then, when those decks got too big and we saw some themes emerging, I took all the giants out of those decks (white had a few), and all the Kithkin (which have a lot of cards that reference giants, either giving them bonuses or getting bonuses from them) from the white deck and made a red and white giant / Kithkin deck.

You get the idea. Anyway, now we have 13 decks sitting on a shelf to my left. Each one is ready to pick up, shuffle and play. Some of them are built entirely from new cards purchased since this revival began, and others are cobbled together almost entirely from old cards rescued from one of my formerly dusty binders.

They are:

- Cantrips (blue / green)
- 10th Edition Commons (black / blue / green) - we have two of these, identical.
- Rebels & Soldiers (white / black)
- Thallids (green with splashes of black and white)
- Black (no real theme, although it has a lot of discard)
- Elementals (red)
- Shadowmoor I (a tournament pack and booster, shuffled together and untuned)
- Shadowmoor II (another tournament pack, shuffled and untuned)
- Giants & Kithkin (red / white)
- Slivers & Other Multicolour (all five colours)
- Merfolk (blue / white)
- Warrior's Code (a Morningtide preconstructed deck)

Here's how this happened. First up, as mentioned, I realized I needed basic lands in fairly large quantities. Crave Manga doesn't carry singles. After a trip to the local card shop proved a waste of time, I turned to eBay.

The best deal was for a "playset" of 10th Edition commons (4 of every common card in the set), with 80 basic lands. I was actually far more interested in the lands than the playset, but it was a nice bonus. To make matters even better, I e-mailed the seller to ask whether he had any more lands for sale, and he offered to throw in a bunch more at no extra charge. (For the uninitiated, basic land cards are the most common cards in Magic. Dealers and players with large collections often wind up with far, far more of them than they can ever use.)

So, I got those. Another great bonus that the seller included was a stack of Saproling token cards. Since we already had the Thallid deck (one of my wife's favourites to play), those came in really handy. In fact, until that playset arrived, I had been looking around the net trying to find some of them to buy separately.

Our first move with that playset was to divide it up into two identical (huge) decks. Each deck contained two copies of every common card in the set, and exactly half of the basic lands that we received. Those decks were a lot of fun to play against each other, but not so much fun to shuffle. Each one was about five inches thick.

We eventually dismantled those, at least partway. I wanted to get the Giants & Kithkin deck running, and we needed the Plains and Mountains. That also meant removing all the red and white cards. So now those 10th Edition common decks contain only the black, green and blue cards, but they're still fun to play. They aren't at all competitive against any of the other decks that we've actually built and tuned, though, so we just play them against each other.

Then, my wife got my a Shadowmoor tournament pack (which I still think of as a "Starter Deck") and booster pack for Father's Day. I simply shuffled them together and played them that way, without even looking through the cards first. (That's always been one of my favourite ways to play Magic.) hat deck worked surprisingly well, even against some of our constructed decks, and is still together in that form.

Throughout all this, we continued to buy packs at a rate of one or two a week. Usually Lorwyn, but also Time Spiral, Future Sight, and Planar Chaos. We're probably going to keep doing that unless and / or until Crave Manga are sold out of packs.

Then, I placed an order for a bunch of cards from a website. I included several "grab bag" assortments - I've always been a big fan of that sort of thing.

Back when I ran a comic shop, I even used to love it when one of my suppliers would run that sort of special. Diamond, the biggest (and practically only) wholesaler in that field, used to sometimes run "scratch and dent" specials (items that couldn't be sold as new due to a defect) or "final copy" specials (items they only had one of left in the warehouse and wanted to get rid of), where they'd basically send you as much stuff as they could cram into a large shipping box for an incredibly low price (usually well over 90% off retail). You didn't know what you were going to get, but you knew that it would be cheap and you'd get a lot of it. I ordered at least one box pretty much every time around, and was never disappointed.

Some comics publishers would even do that sort of thing - I remember the Fantagraphics "Box of Books", which consisted of a full box of their unsold comics from the last couple of years at a bargain basement price - something like $10 wholesale for $100 cover price in books. Those numbers may be off, but the point is that you got a lot of cheap books. Even if you sold them at a quarter each, you made a profit, while exposing customers to some good books in the process, maybe getting them to start picking up the new issues at cover price.

But I digress. The point is, I ordered a bunch of cards, not knowing what some of them would be when they arrived.

Then, as we were waiting for that order to come in, my wife picked me up another present: another Shadowmoor tournament pack (which again got shuffled and played as is) and a Morningtide preconstructed deck, "Warrior's Code", which is surprisingly nasty right out of the box. Again, those two decks are still being played as is. In fact, I haven't yet actually looked through the cards in them, beyond seeing them come up as we play.

Then, the funny part: my latest order of cards arrived in the mail the same day that we got those two packs. So, we're in new card overload mode at the moment.

First up, I ordered a few specific cards:

4 Reminisce
3 Sadistic Glee
2 Stinkdrinker Daredevil
3 Sporesower Thallid

All of these except the 4 Reminisce are for decks that we either have now, or that I have planned. Besides the 13 decks we already have built and ready to play, I have sketched-out ideas for 4 more written down.

Reminisce is a card I had wanted Wizards to print for years. I've always loved graveyard recursion. Feldon's Cane disappointed me because of its remove-from-game cost. Gaea's Blessing is one of my favourite cards; I almost always put two of them, allowing infinite recursion (barring countering, etc.), into every green deck I build. I was very pleased to hear it was back as a timeshifted Time Spiral card, and even happier to get one out of one of my first Time Spiral packs. (The only other timeshifted cards I remember getting offhand, out of the couple of dozen packs or so that I bought, were Bad Moon, Lord of Atlantis, Call of the Herd, and Enduring Renewal.)

Another longtime favourite of mine is Soldevi Digger. I have a few of them, and almost always toss one into any non-green decks I build. Still, I always wanted Wizards to print a card worded, "Shuffle your graveyard into your library." Because of the way spells resolve, a sorcery worded that way will (normally) always wind up as the only card in your graveyard. Put two of them in the deck, and you have infinite recursion in principle.

Reminisce is worded almost exactly as I hoped: "Target player shuffles his or her graveyard into his or her library." Since I don't object to having an additional option on the card (albeit one I'd generally be very unlikely to use unless playing team-based multiplayer) besides the ability I wanted, I'm satisfied with it.

As a side note, now that I'm talking about specific cards (and will be talking about lots more before I wrap this one up), I had considered linking to the Gatherer entry for each card, so you could click on its name and have it pop up. That would have been nice, but this entry would have taken far, far longer to write by inserting all those links, so I took the easy way out.

Gatherer is an official online database of Magic card information, maintained by Wizards of the Coast themselves (the folks who make the game). To see the Gatherer entry for any card, go to this page and type the card's name into the search field. You'll see the card, along with its official wording (long story - most cards don't do quite exactly what they say anymore), rulings, what sets it's been in, and more.

Besides the singles (which were all really cheap), I ordered 20 Forests (again, cheap, and helpful for the number of green decks I build) and a bunch of grab bags. On to those.

First up, I ordered a pack of 10 green rares for $2.99. At that price, I was willing to take a shot, and certainly wasn't disappointed. All of them will get at least a token "audition" in a deck, as I described earlier (and so will pretty much all of these new cards, or at least the uncommons and rares), but some may wind up as permanent additions, or inspiring completely new decks.

There was only one (Magus of the Candelabra) that I already had a copy of. Bounteous Kirin is probably the least interesting of the others, but only because I have (almost) no cards from Kamigawa block, and it's pretty dependent on playing a deck full of Spirit and Arcane spells. Bioplasm, Glissa Sunseeker, Magus of the Vineyard, and Tranquil Grove all earn indifferent shrugs, but I'll toss them into decks because they're new.

Hypergenesis, Spike Tiller, and Primeval Force all look like fun, and will probably stick around past a brief audition. Finally, Thelon of Havenwood is going straight into our Thallid deck and not coming back out. You could say that its ability, which encourages Thallid players to build up their counters instead of putting Saprolings into play, goes against the grain of a Thallid deck, but I just see it as giving another strategic option.

Next up was a $1.99 grab bag, with pretty much no indication of its specific contents. I was pleased with it overall. 12 of the 15 cards in it were artifacts, mostly mediocre ones from the mid-1990s (Ice Age, Chronicles, Fallen Empires).There were also three Kamigawa block uncommons and Grid Monitor, a rare. However, the stars of the pack were an Eighth Edition Phyrexian Colossus and a Skull Catapult. That last one may not impress most players, but I really like Skull Catapult. I think it's a terrific card in any deck that pumps out lots of little creatures (especially with token-making engines), and the fact that I only had one until now means that I had to choose which deck to put my single copy into (I don't care for swapping cards from deck to deck; if I need to remove essential cards from a deck to build a new one, I usually just completely dismantle the first deck).

Next, a $2.99 grab bag, again with no substantive description. I didn't even have any way to differentiate them when ordering, other than their price. I just decided to chance that the $2.99 version would have some advantage over the cheaper one.

As it turned out, the more expensive pack was larger (30 cards), with four rares. Of those, two are so narrowly focused that I can't see them fitting into any of my decks, Long-Forgotten Gohei is another card that's dependent on playing a deck full of Spirit and Arcane spells. Maybe someday I'll get a bunch more Kamigawa block cards, but for now it's essentially useless to me. Teferi's Response is powerful, but dead unless your opponent attempts to target one of your lands.

Cytoshape and Mephitic Ooze are more versatile, but still not especially interesting to me. Other than those, the pack contained commons (and perhaps a few non-noteworthy uncommons), mostly from Revised, Ice Age, Stronghold and Exodus. There were a few good utility cards included (Mulch, Sift, etc.), but nothing I didn't already have. Overall I liked the smaller pack better, but that's probably only because of my pre-existing like of Skull Catapult.

Finally, I ordered 13 Odyssey "repacks". Those are packs the retailer had assembled, each containing one rare, three uncommons and 11 commons from the set, the same ratio as an unopened booster. However, they were 99 cents each, instead of the three bucks or so that an unopened booster normally costs.

I wanted these because I had lots of cards from Revised / Fallen Empires through to Apocalypse, then lots from Time Spiral and Lorwyn blocks, but nothing in between. That made Odyssey the first set in the unrepresented gap in my collection, so I wanted to get a good assortment from that set. If (or more likely when) I order more cards, I'll go for a Torment mix, working up through the gap, and so on until I have a working assortment of cards from each set.

First up, I realize that these repacks do not show off the best each set had to offer. The dealer openly stated that buyers will not be getting the marquee rares or even the better uncommmons from the set, and I understand that. Why would they put a card that they could readily sell by itself for a few dollars into a cheap bulk package?

However, I'm not impressed with the cards. It seems like another Mercadian Masques: overcosted, underpowered, and not very interesting. I've separated them into colours, and here are the highlights as I see them:

Blue - Pedantic Learning, Unifying Theory. I'm nearly obsessed with card advantage, so anything that lets me draw extra cards immediately gets my attention. Pedantic Learning could work in a deck with cards like Mulch that cause you to mill yourself, but you'd have to plan that deck out very carefully to make it work. The Unifying Theory is very risky because it works for your opponent too, but that's a risk I usually don't mind taking. Symmetrical cards (cards that give your opponent the same benefit / drawback that they give you) are often worth it, because your deck will (should) be designed to deal with their effects, but your opponent's deck probably won't. Finally, I've been toying with the idea of building a Madness deck, and Rites of Refusal would be a nice addition to it.

Green - Gorilla Titan looks like fun, and I definitely have an affinity for ape / monkey cards. (By the way, my wife immediately noticed that the Gorilla Titan has a long prehensile tail. That's a taxonomic problem.) However, my decks would usually have a hard time meeting his condition of having an empty graveyard. I'll still probably play it, just because it's an ape. Time for a new Planet Of The Apes deck, perhaps.

Other than that, the green cards of note included Bearscape, which I normally wouldn't like but I could use to empty my graveyard for the Titan; Chatter of the Squirrel, which I would like if it had buyback instead of flashback; Elephant Ambush and Sylvan Might, which demonstrate that Wizards went way off the rails setting their flashback costs too high in this set; and Woodland Druid, which I really, really don't like. It's so bland that I'm surprised it didn't get reprinted in 10th Edition.

White - I like Karmic Justice, Delaying Shield, Testament of Faith, Sphere of Reason, and Sphere of Duty. I assume there are other Spheres out there that prevent black and red damage; those would be better, of course. Ray of Distortion again demonstrates the flashback cost insanity that had apparently gripped Wizards. It's pretty much completely unplayable.

Red - Epicenter is the definite highlight. I've never been a big fan of Armageddon effects, so my collection doesn't contain many of them. However, I'm starting to see how they would fit into some decks, so I'm warming to the idea a bit. Bomb Squad looks like fun, Battle Strain is good, and Earth Rift and Scorching Missile continue the theme of wildly overpriced, unplayable flashback costs. Finally, Dwarven Recruiter may be the most useless tutor I've ever seen, given how poorly supported Dwarves have been over the years. I see a few more in this set, but the Dwarf population still isn't particularly impressive compared to Goblins, or even Homarids.

Black - Repentant Vampire looks nice, but suffers from the same problem as all of Magic's vampires: you almost never get to use its ability. Your opponent simply will not block it, or attack into it, with anything that it can kill. It has a great Threshold ability, though. Sadistic Hypnotist and Hint of Insanity are good discard engines, although Hint of Insanity is probably overpriced for how much it does. Travelling Plague looks like fun in the same vein as Bomb Squad.

Painbringer could be good removal for most players, but I don't like removing cards from the game, even when they're already in my graveyard. I enjoy graveyard recursion too much for that. Skull Fracture and (especially) Morbid Hunger complete the colour cycle of wildly overcosted flashback cards. Black also has way too many "remove a card in a graveyard from the game" effects.

Other - I got no artifacts, and only one gold card, Thaumatog, which is mildly interesting. I like the common cycle of nonbasic lands that can be tapped for one of a given colour, or sacrificed for one of any colour. Those will be going into my five-colour Sliver deck. I'm a lot less impressed - which is to say not at all impressed - with Cabal Pit.

The second order of cards I placed, with all the grab bags, was from Magic Arsenal. I picked them after looking around the web for single card dealers (I started out just looking for the Sadistic Glees and some basic lands, and it snowballed from there). They got the order - and will probably get more orders from me - specifically because of their selection. They offered lots of interesting bulk packs, repacks and assortments. Their shipping rates were reasonable (i.e., no "Canadian orders triple the shipping costs then add another $20" nonsense), and the order arrived quickly with no errors. I recommend them to anyone looking for Magic singles.

Anyway, this has really all been mostly to record this for myself. My apologies for using the blog in lieu of a notepad stuck on the fridge. However, I'll probably do it again, which makes the apology worth the electrons used to spray it onto a CRT monitor.

Enough rambling. Here's a picture that was taken out the car window.

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