ichard: Why I built this deck and how to play it
When I was first asked whether I would be interested in building a deck to challenge Jon, my reaction was simple: 'Absolutely. I can't lose!' What did I mean by this? Well, of course I'll lose. But it won't be a real loss, because no one really expects me to win such a matchup. After all, if the inventor of basketball were to take on Michael Jordan in a game of one-on-one, I know where the smart money would be. But if I do win, what a victory! I'll earn endless glory. So on one hand I'd have no real loss, and on the other, endless glory. Not bad.
I decided to adopt a strategy that turned out to be a little... controversial. The first conclusion I came to is that my only real chance for beating Jon would be to guess what kind of deck he'll play, and then build a deck designed to beat it. Call it 'pre-sideboarding'. My second conclusion came from the matchup's unique metagame. I figured out that I could set up another win-win situation: I could build a deck full of cards that would normally be bad choices, such as main-deck color hosers and narrow-use cards, but that would destroy Jon - provided I guessed correctly what he would play. By doing this, I set up a gambit that Wizards R&D had to address. If I was right about Jon's deck, my color hosers and conditional cards would make it seem like I had read Jon's mind. And if I guessed incorrectly what Jon would play, Wizards would have to step in and make me change my deck. Otherwise they'd end up with a product that players wouldn't like at all. Devious but brilliant!
The next step was to determine what Jon would play - not an easy task. Wizards chose a card pool that would challenge Jon and me equally: Ice Age and Alliances. Given the cards from those sets, as well as Wizards' reprint policy, I concluded that Jon would have to play a two-color deck. There simply aren't enough cards of any one color in this environment to build a strong monocolored deck. I also ruled out white, which doesn't have a whole lot to offer in reprintable common and uncommon cards. That left me with a fifty percent chance of guessing one of the colors he would play.
I consulted the rest of Wizards R&D, of course, about what they though Jon might play. But as I expected, I got lots of different answers. Some, like Randy Buhler and Worth Wollpert, were absolutely positive Jon would play blue. "Until they're banned, he'll use islands in every format he plays," they said, and I knew there were enough quality blue cards available to support a solid blue deck (with some help from a second color - probably red). But others, including Michael Donais, thought Jon wouldn't necessarily choose blue. He would just build the strongest all-around deck, regardless of his own color preferences. This seemed like the more realistic opinion to me. But since blue seemed as a good a choice as red, black, or green, I settled my guess: Jon would play a blue deck, probably with red or black as a second color.
My next task was to build a deck that would beat blue. Michael Donais built the best blue deck he could for the format, which for him meant a blue-red deck. My first attempt was a really fast beatdown deck that would overrun the slow, reactive "counter-burn" strategy. But there just aren't enough aggressive Ice Age and Alliances weenies to make this kind of deck work. I also knew that playing blue would be like challenging Jon on his home turf. So I swung to the opposite extreme: all the huge green creatures I could get my hands on, with plenty of red control spells to back them up.
Testing revealed the big-creature approach to be pretty strong. The fact that Jon and I could use only two of any card meant that he couldn't load up on Incinerates or Pyroclasms, which makes the gigantic Yavimaya Ancients and the wily Walking Wall tougher to exterminate. I also decided to put in some artifact-destroying spells, as I was all but positive I would encounter some Phyrexian War Beasts and Icy Manipulators. Then, true to my initial strategy, I put in a bunch of cards to hose blue, including Pyroblast, Burnout, and Thoughtleech.
The gist of the deck's concept is dead simple: Drop creatures as fast as you can, and use the red spells to clear the way for them to attack. Most of the creatures in the deck have such a high toughness that red burn spells won't kill them, and you'll win most ground battles when push comes to shove. What happens if the game stalls out before your big creatures can stomp your opponent? My deck has a few answers to that question. First, nothing beats reusable direct damage, so milk those Death Sparks for all they're worth. Try to attack or blick in such a way that if you lose a creature, it will plop right down on top of a Death Spark in your graveyard. Second, Elkin Bottle can give you enough card advantage to break through a stalemate. It also skirts that pesky 'only two of a card' rule. Finally, there's Jokulhaups. If you draw this bomb, wait patiently until your opponent overextends, then reset the board and march toward victory. Endless glory, here we come!
You'll never guess what happened. Okay, maybe you will. The Powers That Be decided that neither Jon nor I would be permitted to play color hosers. Jon didn't seem to mind this decision in the least, which implies either that he built his deck without considering the metagame at all, or that he anticipated that I would assume he's playing blue. If he has forseen that I would chose an anti-blue strategy, his best bet would be to build the best nonblue deck he could. And although the banning of color hosers affects six cards in my original deck, I was prepared for this contingency.
I submitted my Plan B deck, which replaces two Burnouts, two Pyroblasts, and two Thoughtleeches with two Giant Growths, two Giant Trap Door Spiders, a Hurricane, and a second Walking Wall. These changes maintain the deck's overall effectiveness, although if Jon plays blue it will obviously be slightly weaker. In fact, the six changed cards make the deck tighter overall. Testing the Plan B deck revealed that the changes give it a bit more focus and effectiveness in combat.
* = from a previous set
on: Why I built this deck and how to play it.
The first thing I noticed when looking over this format was that white might as well not exist. How can this be? You may remember the old-school Ice Age-Alliances format and how dominant white was. Well, not really white in general, but Blinking Spirit, Swords to Plowshares, Disenchant, and Kjeldoran Outpost were dominant - especially our friend the Outpost. Given the predetermined rarity mix and Wizards reprint policy, there are maybe four playable white cards left, so I threw the whole color out the window.
The next thing I noticed was that red was good - very, very good. Lava Burst, Incinerate, Guerilla Tactics, and Pyroclasm are all Constructed-quality born spells. Throw in some efficient creatures like Goblin Mutant, Orcish Cannoneers, Storm Shaman, and the super-friendly Balduvian Horde - which can conveniently fill the deck's rare slot - and we ahve half a strong deck. I also knew I definitely had to play Icy Manipulator and Phyrexian War Beast. They're inexpensive efficient artificts that could form a solid basis for almost any deck.
The next job was to choose a second color. That wasn't so easy. All the other colors have good uncommons and rares: blue has Browse, Binding Grasp, and Force of Will; green has Lhurgoyf, Hurricane, and Yavimaya Ants; and black has not only the all-powerful Necropotence (all hail), but also goodies such as Abyssal Specter, Ashen Ghoul, Dance of the Dead, Contagion, Withering Wisps, and Knight of Stromgald. But because the uncommon cards are so powerful across the board, I knew that regardless of which colors I chose, the twelve uncommons in the deck would probably not be the deciding factor. And while Necropotence gave black an edge in the rare department, it would be the common cards that would make the biggest difference.
As you probably know, I tend to play blue, so I turned to blue first. I realized it didn't have that many powerful commons, but I loved the versatility of its cantrips. In a restrictive format like this, the ability to cycle through your deck and get to you few power cards as fast as possible seemed invaluable, and I always get a warm feeling in my tummy when I have countering spells in my hand. But in the end, blue was too much like a boy band - all style and no substance. So I whittled my choice down to black or green. Ironically, black's creatures are simply much better than green's in the Ice Age and Alliances sets. In the end, I decided to build a red and black deck.
How does this deck work in practice? It doesn't do much for the first two turns unless you happen to draw Dark Ritual or if you need to burn an attacking creature away. But every turn after that, you should be able to play an effecient, versatile, hard-to-neutralize creature. Seriously, every creature in this deck is a problem for your opponent. Phantasmal Fiend and Foul Familiar are nearly unkillable, and they both pack quite a punch in combat. Add in hard-charging creatures like Abyssal Specter, Goblin Mutant, and Balduvian Horde... and Richard is going to be in trouble. Yes, the deck takes a while to get going, but the Ice Age-Alliances environment isn't a fast one, and every creature in the deck is a valid threat in its own right. In addition, most of the creatures are solid blockers as well. With the exception of Lim-Dul's High Guard, which regenerates, and Foul Familiar, which I can bounce, every creature in my deck has toughness of 3 or greater.
The instants and sorceries in my deck steamroll a path through the opponent's defenses so my creatures can charge through. Pyroclasm (which destroys none of my creatures), Incinerate, Guerilla Tactics, Contagion, and Dark Banishing are some of the most efficient removal spells around. Big ol' Soul Burn and Lava Burst can serve as game-enders or removal. And in a pinch, you can finish off an opponent with Incinerate or Tactics - versatility at its finest. To add insult to injury, Icy Manipulator can work offensively and defensively by either getting a blocker out of the way or temporarily spoiling a would-be attacker's fun. Last but not least is Necropotence. The opportunity to once gain trade life for cards for only BBB got me more excited than anything else about this format. I almost included two Demonic Consultations just for some extra Necro fun, but I predict Richard will corner the market on quirky stuff. All I know is, if "The Death Skull" finds its way onto the table, we might as well go on to the next game.
To review: My deck starts by summoning versatile, tough creatures, clears a path using all of its spot removal, and finishes by hurling great balls of fire at its opponent's head. And it prays to draw Necropotence the entire time.
* = from a previous set