Bennie determines the winner of Deck Challenge #2, announces the next throwback set to be released on Magic Online, and then talks to Rachel Reynolds about the toughest card to program from the upcoming Guildpact release.

The Tombstone Stairwell Deck Challenge Winner!

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The letter H!as anyone else noticed Tombstone Stairwell looks a lot like the abyssal pit that Imhotep tossed himself into at the end of The Mummy Returns because his woman ran off? Someone in the visual effects crew was a fan of either the artist Dom! or Magic: The Gathering, I just know it. At any rate, after a month, dozens of deck submissions, plus several cuts, we finally have a winner in my second Deck Challenge (the first Deck Challenge was with Greater Good)! Before announcing the winner, I'm going to go over my experiences with each deck.

The mana for this deck was a hair shaky, running about two lands shy of what I would have preferred, but the Twisted Abominations and early drops allowed me to get away with it. In one game against EntropyGuardian, I kept a hand with two Swamps and Coffers due to the game-saving Abominations (which obviously fit perfectly in a Tombstone Stairwell deck).

EG's deck kept me guessing what he was up to for quite a while. Tel-Jilad Stylus putting his Fists of Ironwood back into his deck was interesting. The Fists had me worried he might be playing a Warp World deck, which has thus far defeated me all three times I've faced it. However, once I played Tombstone Stairwell, the nature of his deck revealed itself.

Confusion in the Ranks! Obviously, the tension between the two enchantments was going to make for a wild ride, though he ganked my Stairwell with the Confusion itself, so I would have to find another copy. He also played Darksteel Citadel to steal my Coffers, then used the Stylus to put the Citadel on the bottom of his library. That was hardly fair, though I have to admit it was quite clever.

It took a little while to set up, but once he had no creatures in play, I dropped Withered Wretch to clear out his graveyard, so I could play my second Stairwell with relative impunity. My traitorous and confused Spawning Pits (and his timely Naturalize) kept things interesting for a few more turns before I finally transmuted for my third Stairwell and ended it the following turn. Props to EntropyGuardian's offbeat deck, which kept me on the edge of my seat the entire game!

Deck #5 by Orderlychaos7

The mana for Orderlychaos7's deck felt even shakier, and I had to mulligan with this build more than any of the others. Despite that, the Dredge aspect of the deck more than made up for it!

One game against jono5710 (after having to mulligan down to five on the play), I at least had the possibility of a turn 2 Necroplasm if I drew another land (having to use a Chrome Mox after a double mulligan is extra painful). If there's one thing I've learned about dredging, it is that the mechanic blunts the pain of mulliganing quite nicely.

The mana gods were kind, and my opponent was even kinder, dropping a Howling Mine on his second turn! Necroplasm went to work starting on turn 2, as I hoped for the Mine to pull me a miracle (realizing it was probably feeding my opponent all kinds of good stuff too). The Mine drew me a Stairwell, so I went ahead and played a Stinkweed Imp the turn that Necroplasm had three counters, sending both creatures to the graveyard with hopes of dredging a bunch of creatures into the graveyard to make a lethal Stairwell.

It took a little more work than I would have liked, since the deck only has 21 creatures in it. Luckily, my opponent took a bit of time getting his plan to come together, and it ends up he's playing Elves. A Darkblast killed his Wellwisher in order to keep his life total low enough to try and get a lethal strike through. He ended up playing a Coat of Arms, making his Elves go large, but the kicker was that it made our Tombspawn Zombie tokens huge! I managed to create more tokens with the Stairwell than he had blockers, and got in for the kill.

Continuing the theme, Leo van Nierop's deck was also a tad leaner on mana than I like, but the Birds, Elders, and Wood Elves tended to help pull the deck through. Power Conduit and Doubling Season never really worked well for me either, but the Drover was certainly an all-star when I drew him! Dross Harvester was also surprisingly nice. What I really loved about the deck though was Fecundity, one of my old-school favorite cards. In one game against nemesisinfinity I had to mulligan into an all mana hand, but at least it wasn't all lands.

I played an Elder and drew a Wood Elves for tons of acceleration and Elf beatdown. Luckily my opponent wasn't doing too much other than assembling his Domain mana with Kodama's Reach and Explosive Vegetation. This being Classic, I had no idea what he might be up to, but I thought my worst nightmare would be Collective Restraint. Meanwhile, I drew Fecundity.

After attacking with the Elves, I sacrificed them to the Altar for a Green mana, figuring if Fecundity gave me a land, I could just play the Bird in my hand. I ended up drawing another Wood Elves, playing it and then sacrificing it to the Altar again. I drew a land, so I played the Bird. At that point, I decide “no guts, no glory” and sacrifice the new Bird for a Green mana, rolling the dice on Fecundity one more time. It showed me Diabolic Intent, and what do you know? I still have a creature in play! I tapped the Bird for a Black mana, sacrifice it to Intent to go fetch the Stairwell, and go off to the races!

Across the board, nemesisinfinity dropped Bringer of the Blue Dawn... ah, I can certainly respect a man who Brings it! My Tombspawn tokens swarm around Bluey and whack his master for eight. The tokens all die, I draw tons of cards from Fecundity, and the plan is to dump creatures into the bin and end it very soon.

The Blue Bringer has other plans, digging up a Platinum Angel for my friend nemesisinfinity. I wrack my brains trying to remember if this deck has any way to deal with that. It's packing Green, surely there must be something in it? I draw into another Diabolic Intent and go fishing through the deck. Nada. Zip. Nothing. Man, with Intents and Dimir House Guard, this build could really use a Grave Pact or Nullmage Shepherd, which could have made all the difference.

Deck #10 "Flaming Zombie Death For The Win" (Classic Vanguard) by bateleur

Finally, mana you can love, made even better by your avatar! The one drawback to bateleur's deck was finding an opponent playing Classic Vanguard. A few times I had to just cancel my Waiting for Duel because no one stepped up to the challenge. When I found some games, however, the deck performed very well.

One match I faced Gobo_Fraggle's Seshiro deck. Seshiro naturally named “Snakes” and produced all sorts of weird, hybrid serpents.

I started off well, with solid mana acceleration and an early Etched Oracle (a staple card for Birds of Paradise avatars). Cabal Coffers and Llanowar Elves providing a huge mana boost is just unfair, and I used it to transmute first for Tombstone Stairwell, and then transmute for Homura, Human Ascendant.

The following turn, I dropped the Ascendant and Thoughtpicker Witch, and sacrificed the Ascendant to the Witch, so that he came back flipped, making all my critters huge, flying beasts swooping over the slithery squirrels and insects for the kill.

The Winner Is...?
It was tough picking the winner, since each deck had some really cool elements to it, and can all be further tuned and tightened to be really fun decks to play in pickup games. But the contest requires a winner, so without further ado, the winner is...

Deck #10 by bateleur!

All of the decks had really great things going for them, but only bateleur's deck was consistent in its mana, and as we all know, without good mana, you can't really get your game on. With bateleur's deck, I could focus on my game plan; with the other decks, I had to mulligan a little too often and sweat the early mana development a bit too much. So bateleur gets a play set of premium (foil) Tombstone Stairwells added to his collection, and the other finalists get a play set of currently available booster packs. Thanks to everyone who submitted decks, voted, and participated in the forum discussions, helping to make this Deck Challenge just as fun as the first one!

It Wasn't Just a Mirage, It Was a Vision

Frank Gilson of R&D had some big news to share for fans of classic Magic expansions for MTGO—Visions has been given the go-ahead and will be released soon! I asked him some questions about it and this is what he said.

IntoTheAether: Since we're having this conversation, I suppose that means you all were pleased with the reception of Mirage for MTGO?
FrankGilson: We're quite pleased with the MTGO release of Mirage. Players responded well and really gave the set their attention.

IntoTheAether: In the announcement for Mirage's release on MTGO, Justin Ziran mentioned the hopes that Mirage (and older sets) being released might draw older players into giving Magic Online a try. Seen any evidence that that has been happening?
FrankGilson: Yes, we use many metrics to measure the success of a particular release. In this case, new account creation, event attendance and relative sales seemed like the most appropriate measures. Sales & event attendance showed strength and new account creation for the month of December was up from the yearly average. Currently, we don't have a way to measure the average age of those playing in a particular type of tournament, but anecdotally we seemed to hit the mark based on comments and feedback to the adepts and Wizards of the Coast staff.

IntoTheAether: The avatars from the Mirage release events were pretty cool; what's in store for Visions? Ovinomancer, maybe? Pygmy Hippo?
FrankGilson: One of the Visions avatars is Chronatog. Just imagine what the Vanguard ability is! I will have to leave the other avatar up to guesswork for now.

IntoTheAether: Any concern that there just may be too many Magic expansions running around for the average gamer to keep up with?
FrankGilson: A funny thing is that there doesn't appear to be an "average" gamer. There are many different people playing MTGO. Various expansions and kinds of events and ways to play serve such a diverse player base well.

IntoTheAether: Will we have Mirage-Visions drafts? What about Mirage Block Constructed?
FrankGilson: Yes, there will be both. I remember the PTQ season that used Mirage Block very well. There are certainly a variety of decks to build and play with. Visions adds a lot to that Block's draft strategies.

IntoTheAether: Is Squandered Resources going to remain banned in Block Constructed?
FrankGilson: Yes, it will. Pro Tour Paris in 1997 showed us that Squandered Resources was too strong for the Block. I did make a Top 8 with a Prosperous Bloom deck after that banning during the following PTQ season… so it is still worth investigating.

IntoTheAether: Does this mean we might see Weatherlight this year?
FrankGilson: You may indeed. However, I will say we haven't settled on a firm release date for Weatherlight, and need to take a look at a lot of factors. The success of Visions would be one of those.

IntoTheAether: Any interesting/functional changes to cards due to Oracle updates to card wordings and creature types?
FrankGilson: Oracle updates to Visions can already be seen if you look at the set through Gatherer. As an example, Necrosavant was creature type Necrosavant, but is now a Zombie Giant. That's one tough Zombie!

IntoTheAether: Presumably Mistform Ultimus will be adding Chimera to his creature type repertoire (or did that already happen without my noticing)?
FrankGilson: That sneaky creature has in fact already added Chimera.

IntoTheAether: Are you going to do Visions theme decks like you did with Mirage?
FrankGilson: We do have a set of Visions theme decks. They were created inside of R&D, rather than through a set of votes and contests.

IntoTheAether: Why the change?
FrankGilson: Visions is a smaller expansion. A little less than half of the cards in theme decks for it are from Mirage. With less creative room, and a compressed time schedule, we felt it best to handle them in house.

IntoTheAether: Since Mirage was not available for the Redemption program, presumably Visions won't be either?
FrankGilson: That's correct. These releases of older Magic sets won't be redeemable.

Thanks for the info, Frank! You can be sure once the details for the Visions release events are firmed up, Into The Aether will bring you the scoop!

Behind the Curtain: Tales from Programming Guildpact, Part I

Programmer extraordinaire Rachel Reynolds is back with some more behind the scenes stories of the trials and tribulations of a Magic Online programmer. Over the coming weeks, we'll hear some stories about the challenges and fun behind programming Guildpact! Don't forget that Guildpact releases this Monday, February 27th and the Release Events start this Wednesday, March 1st. I wrote about the Release Event Avatars here.

Djinn Complicatus

RachelR: “Replicate didn't seem particularly hard to program initially, and Djinn Illuminatus also didn't seem that complicated. It was certainly the hardest of the guild mechanics in Guildpact, but I had dealt with cost manipulation for both offering and convoke, and I could reuse some of the storm code to make the replicate copies.

“I used the way I programmed convoke as a model for replicate. I stored the replicate cost for each card with replicate, and replaced the cost stored for the card with something that indicated to the cost paying code that it needed to ask how many times the player wanted to replicate the card and recalculate the cost. When the cost paying system sees that a card has replicate, it displays a prompt where a player can indicate the number of times to replicate the card. When the player clicks OK, the game then uses the cost of the card, the replicate cost, and the number of times to replicate it to determine the new cost of the card, then goes into the cost paying code again from the beginning. The number of times selected is stored for later use in determining how many copies to put on the stack.

“Getting Djinn Illuminatus working wasn't much of a leap once I had replicate coded. When Djinn Illuminatus was in play, I gave its controller an attribute indicating their instants and sorceries had replicate. In the code that calculates extra costs and discounts for each ability, I checked that attribute, and if the card was an instant or sorcery, I changed the cost to indicate it had replicate. I also obtained the mana cost of the spell in question and stored it as the replicate cost for the card. The card now had all the information necessary to be handled like any other card with replicate when it was time to pay its cost.

“The real battle with Djinn Illuminatus began shortly before the beta started. The card had appeared to be working, and was, in the basic cases. However, I began to realize that Djinn Illuminatus interacted with about every mechanic ever printed, and the combinations often did not have desirable results. I believe the first bug report I got, which I fixed before beta started, was something about Djinn Illuminatus not letting you tap creatures to reduce the cost of replicate spells with convoke. Shortly after the beta started, it got to the point where about half the bugs on my list involved Djinn Illuminatus.

“I spent a day primarily fixing Djinn Illuminatus bugs, and fixed all 6 bugs with it that were on my list at the time. Unfortunately, since I always had the Djinn in play during testing, I didn't realize that I had completely broken normal replicate cards! There had been a problem with the Djinn allowing you to circumvent additional non-mana costs (like the three life from flashing back Deep Analysis), but it was simple to fix by simply taking that cost and adding it to the final post-replicate cost of the card. The problem was that the non-mana cost of regular replicate cards indicated that the number of times to replicate it still needed to be determined, so the replicate cost would never be removed. It would ask you to choose the number of times to replicate, prompt you to pay the cost for the spell and all the copies, and then start over again and keep up these prompts until you hit the Cancel button. Luckily, that issue was discovered quickly and I fixed it before the problematic code was put on beta.

“However, my fight with the troublesome Djinn did not end there. Shortly after I fixed those issues, I got a bug report about its interaction with madness. I was a bit scared I would have to touch madness code, something I didn't much want to mess around with, but ended up fixing a lot of issues by simply storing the cost of the first copy when I determined that a card had replicate because of Djinn Illuminatus. I then had trouble with the way I was storing the cost, as the cost for one possible way to play a card was overwriting the cost for alternate casting options, but solved that by storing the cost with each action instead of storing one saved cost for the card.

“Overall, I count 17 bugs found and fixed with Djinn Illuminatus. There were issues with convoke, Chord of Calling, madness, alternate casting costs, Fireball, Fist of Suns, Drain Life, Flashback, non-mana costs, additional costs, and more. There were problems that only came up with combinations of 3 cards or mechanics, such as the problem with Djinn Illuminatus + convoke + Fist of Suns. When I fixed one issue, I had to make sure that every combination of cards that I had already fixed still worked, and sometimes a fix to one card combination broke something else.”


Thanks for the giving us a peek behind the curtain Rachel! Make sure to check back in with us next week for another Guildpact programming story, and more!

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