Turning a 2/1 into a 3-0

by Tobi Henke on 16 August 2018, Thursday

Tobi Henke


Turning a 2/1 into a 3-0


When I arrived in Turin to cover one of this year's M19 Limited GPs, I wasn't the biggest fan of the format. Okay, I'm still not the biggest fan. (That would be Andreas Reling.) But the event taught me enough that I've developed a grudging appreciation for Core Set 2019 Booster Draft.


A life lesson, by the way, which holds true with regards to most human endeavors as well as humans themselves: Dislike rarely works without a healthy dose of ignorance. Knowing more about something or someone usually serves to erode negative opinions.



Now there's no denying that M19 makes for a woefully under-complex Limited environment. Hardly a conversation was to be had in Turin that didn't include mention of how many games are lost to screw and flood. The format still leaves a lot up to chance. Anyone can win or lose by sheer dumb luck.


Exhibit A: Previous individual Limited GPs this season featured an average of 4.4 players returning to the playoffs. Meaning more than half of the people who sat for a Top 8 draft had been to a Grand Prix Top 8 before. (That's a lot. To give a frame of reference, it's about 0.8 higher than the number for individual Constructed GPs during that same time.)


Exhibit B: The average for the four M19 Limited GPs came to 2.75 repeat Top 8ers. What I wrote two weeks ago about the format proved prophetic: "Let others have fun and enjoy their greater share of victories."


In many countries, Nationals are coming up. These tournaments consist of Standard and M19 Booster Draft. Competitors don't have the luxury to leave a lot up to chance then. Don't let others enjoy their victories; read on!



Level One


Cavalry Drillmaster, Child of Night, Viashino Pyromancer, Highland Game, Field Creeper … 2/1 creatures are quite common in this set.

However, every color also has a common 2-drop which renders such a creature all but useless: Daybreak Chaplain, Omenspeaker, Doomed Dissenter, Goblin Instigator, and Druid of the Cowl.


Child of Night Doomed Dissenter


The obvious conclusion is to avoid the former and run the latter. But if everyone does that, then we surely don't need many of the second set either, right? Why not abandon 2-drop frivolities altogether and play more Divination instead?


That was the baseline assumption: a durdly format where value is king and the prime directive is not to play any bad cards. An arms race where, à la War Games, the only winning move is not to play. A dead end.





Well, this entirely wasn't how things played out on the big stage…


At GP Sacramento, Marcus Luong went 3-0 with four copies of Viashino Pyromancer in his deck to earn a spot in the playoffs. Luong then also drafted the most aggressive, and likely best, deck in the Top 8. Although it was Richard Liu, who won. Liu's deck, in turn, included not just four 2-drops, three of which exhibited toughness 1, he ran five 1-drops too!


Viashino Pyromancer Boggart Brute


Likewise, it was surprising to talk to Italy's top pro Andrea Mengucci who ranked Boggart Brute as the top red common, followed by Shock and only then followed by Electrify. Mengucci considered red aggro with Brute and Goblin Motivator to be the strongest archetype.


Anecdotal evidence, all of it, but evidence nonetheless. Grand Prix Turin's coverage team, i.e., I, wanted more data.


Aside: Have you ever looked at the home screen of a Magic Online Draft League and wondered where the "Undefeated Decklists" button takes you? To my great disappointment, it takes you nowhere. No one cares enough about Limited decks, it appears.


Cicking this button is essentially what I did halfway through Day 2 of Grand Prix Turin. Only I made it work. I located, posted, and analyzed the 27 undefeated decklists from the tournament's first draft. The following were the most played cards:



Not necessarily a bad omen for Omenspeaker, which, at six copies, came close. But overall, aggressive rather than defensive creatures ruled the day. Cheap ones too! They accounted for way more biomass than expensive fatties in the 3-0 decks. Five 7-drops and sixteen 6-drops were dwarfed in numbers by 30 creatures for one mana and 100 creatures for 2.



Don't Fight It, Embrace It!


As far as I can tell, the key to deal with variance in M19 Limited lies in acceptance. Games will be won and lost because someone misses their third or fourth land drop. That's just a fact of life. The trick is to be the one who wins.


Before Turin, I often drafted a reasonable amount of cheap 1/3 creatures, only to watch in growing frustration whenever I didn't draw them early enough and got pummeled by bad cards like Viashino Pyromancer. I was the one who surely would have won with the extra cards from Liliana's Contract if only I hadn't missed this one crucial land drop. The other player was the bad guy, taking advantage of my misfortune.


After Turin, I decided I'd rather be the bad guy.





Whereas I barely had a 3-0 deck to show off before, now I have a ton more like these, especially in black and red. What they all have in common is that they won a fair share of games even when I missed a land drop or two. Granted, in some of these games opponents missed land drops too or lacked early drops, began with Divination as their first play, or something. Of course, whenever opponents stumbled, and I didn't, victory was assured.


Part of this is basic threat/answer theory: If one player draws their attackers and the other fails to get their defenses up in time, the aggro player wins. If both show up, superior blockers win. But in the absence of attackers to dominate, great blockers stand there, shuffling their feet in embarrassment. To take the reactive instead of the active role means to forgo a certain number of free wins. This goes double for a format where some stumbling is to be expected.


The other part is that M19 bristles with tools that someone who's in a position to attack can wield vastly better, or exclusively even. Just among white commons, one finds Angel of the Dawn, Cavalry Drillmaster, Inspired Charge, Knight's Pledge, Mighty Leap, Pegasus Courser, and Star-Crowned Stag. Take a moment to consider that white only has 18 commons in total, and most of the others are creatures, able to and supposed to, attack.


Angel of the Dawn Pegasus Courser


Attacking with Child of Night into Omenspeaker and having to use Marauder's Axe, Abnormal Endurance, or Skeleton Archer to make this a one-for-one trade isn't great value. (Note how all of these cards appear in Turin's top cards listed earlier.) The thing is, the same trick works against lots of blockers that cost 3 or 4 mana just as well.


This is value, albeit not the card advantage kind but the mana kind. Such payoffs, however, require the investment of a 2-drop, to begin with. Its face value may be low, but the dividends are royal.


Now I'm not advocating the use of Field Creeper, let alone, shriek, Highland Game. I don't even like Child of Night much; in black-red, I prefer Viashino Pyromancer. Though the following deck went 6-0 in games and it wouldn't have done so with one fewer 2-drop:



The best card here, however, was Talons of Wildwood. A curious splash, one might think. Then again, the plan wasn't to cast Talons of Wildwood, at least not early, certainly not before casting Tormenting Voice. In one game, I managed to discard Talons of Wildwood four times. Good times.


For all the talk of embracing variance rather than fighting it, Tormenting Voice will always have a place in my heart and in my decks. I have discarded an inordinate amount of lands, Fire Elementals, Reassembling Skeletons, and, indeed, Talons of Wildwood to the Voice.


"You know, I don't think you got quite enough value out of the Talons yet," is what one opponent told me after I had discarded Talons of Wildwood seven times, all to my effects, all within a single game. This deck was another 6-0:



The unlucky fellow deserves my gratitude and my apologies. Although two Gravediggers, both returning Mentor of the Meek, were no match for this value machine, they at least put up a fight. Most everyone else already conceded when I summoned my second Volley Veteran.


The feasibility of going crazy with Volley Veteran is the final takeaway from Turin. Not that one could reach the dream destination with reliability, mind, but that it's worthwhile to embark on the journey. To find 11 copies of Volley Veteran within 27 undefeated decks was astounding. No other uncommon made it beyond five copies, and Gargoyle Sentinel only did by being an artifact.


Thanks for reading. Until next time, I hope you'll too experience the positive surprise and the joy of being wrong!

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