Sunday, November 18, 2007

City Champs *Top 4*

Last week this article was about City Champs and after speaking with representatives from the Wizards, Tournament Organizer, and player camps I was pretty excited to get cracking on the brand new season. The biggest obstacle for last year's season, and why many players wound up not following the circuit after the first month was simply that there were too many events spread over too far a distance. Compounding that problem was the fact that many stores opted to schedule their City Champs events on Saturdays, prime PTQ time. Luckily fortune is on our side this year and personally the very first City Champs tournament at the local store I game at was scheduled for this past Tuesday (November 13th for those keeping score at home).

Because Tuesday is the usual draft night at the shop the first event was scheduled as Limited. The turnout, however, was considerably larger than what anyone had anticipated. An entire extra draft pod worth of people showed up to campaign for Store Rankings points and so many extra players coupled with above average Lorwyn booster sales for the week meant the store was actually short on packs. Fortunately I still had well over a box of product with me, so we had enough to game with.

In a recent blog (which you can read here) I talked about my performance at the recent PTQ in Madison, Wisconsin. While my pool didn't seem bad, it also didn't seem that great and I wasn't sure how to build it. I wound up registering one pool, then sideboarding into another only to come home and find I had still forgotten about one card (Footbottom Feast) in my splash color that's actually very good. Sam Black, who won one of the championship tournaments at Gen Con and is a well respected pro in the Midwest, went so far as to call it the common he most wanted to open in a sealed pool. I'm not sure I'd go that far (I do love me some Mulldrifter), but I would agree that having it in your deck certainly provides you with a feeling of inevitability.

The point of all this is to demonstrate how complex the Lorwyn Limited experience is. I've done a fair amount of drafting and playing with the set since the prerelease but I still feel as though I'm learning something new each match I play. This was especially apparent in the comments I received on that aforementioned blog when David Gleicher and Zachary Schmidt both offered alternative builds to my proposed builds. Zach wanted to know if I had considered Wort, Boggart Auntie as a 3/3 fear even though I had minimal amounts of Goblins to return with her. Truthfully I had completely forgotten she had fear. David pointed out the interaction between Amoeboid Changeling and Goatnapper, which I admit I had also not seen though Changeling is so confusing that should come as no surprise. It seems every time that card is mentioned in an article it's done something entirely new and relevant.

Anyway some 24 players sat down at Critical Hit Games in Coralville, Iowa for their first crack at City Champs fame and fortune. That meant three draft pods, two of eight and one of six, and five rounds of cross-pod play, usually against local home rules but because of the special circumstances an actual necessity.

The first pack I opened was remarkably weak. There were four or five red cards meaning it was going to be difficult to take the best (Consuming Bonfire) and cut anyone out of the color. I'm loathe to draft white in general and because I was seated between two players I didn't know I was intent on not drafting green unless it was handed to me in a basket with a bow. It has been my experience, and perhaps it's only a local thing, but it has been my experience that the old adage “novice players draft green” holds true and whenever I'm seated between two players I don't know, I assume they're new to the format and stay out of the color to be safe. It's probably not the fairest thing to judge a book by its cover and all but when there's boosters on the line…

In any case the only blue card in the pack was Whirlpool Whelm, something of which I took note. I love the blue cards in draft and felt that if I took the only blue card in the pack my opponent would be less likely to go into the color both because it wasn't there and because greenhorns typically don't understand the nuances of a “weak” color like blue which make it quite powerful. That means “wasting” my first pick on a solid card but one that is not typically what you're hoping to nab pick one, pack one.

As it turned out I was quickly rewarded with a second pick Mulldrifter in a pack with the rare missing, and a tough decision on the third pack: Ethereal Whiskergill or Silvergill Douser? I think few would argue that Whiskergill is better than Douser, but the Merfolk potentially forces you to draft an archetype while Whiskergill is simply good on its own and, when combined with the Mulldrifter, potentially opens you to the possibility of drafting the Smokebraider deck. Those were the thoughts running through my mind as I flipped back and forth between the two cards before I struck on a final thought: Douser going third indicated the possibility Merfolk was open, but shipping it fourth might indicate to my neighbor that blue, and specifically Merfolk, was open for the taking. Whiskergill doesn't do that so ultimately I opted to take the 1/1 and look at the possibility of drafting a solid tribe.

Normally I don't go into a tribe so early on but there are a few signs specific tribes are open, and a Douser third pick is as good a sign as any. To be fair reading those signs is more akin to meteorology than chemistry in that you're looking at the variables you know and making predictions which are often-but-not-always correct, but there's only so much you can do. Only so much for me meant picking up three Judge of Currents in the first pack, tabling an Inkfathom Divers, and in general cutting both blue and Merfolk off from my left hand neighbor. By the end of pack one I was feeling pretty comfortable with my deck.

Things only got better in pack two. I opened a second Mulldrifter, then got passed a Sygg, River Guide. It took an intense amount of self control to not let my eyebrows shoot up into the Canada region of my furrowed brow after seeing that particular rare in the pack, but if you're not in Merfolk at the draft table Sygg really isn't worth that much to you. I managed to pick up a Harpoon Sniper, a Stonybrook Angler, and exactly when I thought to myself “hmmm…I'm low on removal” I was gifted a late Moonglove Extract and Neck Snap. I really couldn't complain, although I noticed two Paperfin Rascals I had hoped to table never made it back.

The final pack loomed and I was still short about 6 cards for my deck. I knew I was going to have to value true removal higher than everything else and I really hoped I could crack an Oblivion Ring. While Moonglove Extract and Neck Snap are good “removal,” both struggle to deal with some very good creatures that rarely enter combat. Brigid is one example while Drowner of Secrets, sure to be in the Merfolk draft of another player at a different table, was another.

In any case I didn't crack the Ring, but I did open a pack with an odd run I've never seen before. The commons consisted of two copies of the exact same four card print run. That meant that as I flipped through the pack I saw two Kinsbaile Skirmisher, two Lace with Moonglove, two Elvish Vinebreeder, and two copies of yet another unexciting common. Blech. There were no picks for me in the commons, and the uncommons featured no blue or white cards topped off by a Nova Chaser in the rare slot. Not good.

Still the pack wound up going all right for me. A late Warren Pilferers made it into my pile as my splash card, and a Springleaf Drum managed to sneak into my pile as well. That card is so good it deserves a mention on its own…

Springleaf Drum in Merfolk

During the PTQ this past weekend it seemed everyone at the site had come to the same conclusion regarding Springleaf Drum: it's insane. Not only is it a mana fixer for a format filled to the brim with opportunities to splash but it can interact with the creatures you're using to tap with it as well. At one point in the tournament Jim Hustad, a respected Madisonian who's seen some feature match coverage at the Pro Tour Level, had the opportunity to evoke Mulldrifter, put the sacrifice trigger on the stack and tap it to his Drum to get two cards and a mana for free.

No tribe takes advantage of the drum so well as Merfolk. Judge of Currents, Fallowsage, and Veteran of the Depths all immediately spring to mind as cards that directly benefit you by generating mana using the Drum. That makes the artifact ideal for allowing you to splash Lash Out, Tarfire, Warren Pilferers, etc. in your fish lists and I've found myself unhappy playing the archetype without at least one copy. And if you open Surgespanner, as Andy Hanson did at the PTQ before we were paired round 1? Then the Drum just gets nutty insane.

The Deck

1 Vivid Meadow
1 Shimmering Grotto
6 Plains
8 Island

1 Whirlpool Whelm
2 Moonglove Extract
2 Neck Snap
1 Springleaf Drum
1 Ponder
1 Wings of Velis Vel
1 Aquitect's Will

1 Sygg, River Guide
3 Judge of Currents
1 Silvergill Douser
1 Stonybrook Angler
1 Deeptread Merrow
1 Silvergill Adept
1 Harpoon Sniper
1 Drowner of Secrets
1 Inkfathom Divers
1 Warren Pilferers
2 Mulldrifter
1 Benthicore

1 Ego Erasure
1 Merrow Commerce
1 Wispmare
2 Shields of Velis Vel
1 Soaring Height
1 Triclopean Sight
1 Mournwhelk
2 Hornet Harasser
1 Weed Strangle
1 Lys Alana Scarblade
1 Facevaulter
1 Oakgnarl Warrior
1 Gilt-Leaf Seer
1 Flamekin Spitfire
1 Boggart Sprite-Chaser
1 Caterwauling Boggart
1 Boggart Forager

By the end of the third pack I had that excited feeling you get when a draft you've done has gone well. Things had just seemed to go my way when I needed them to during the draft; when I felt I was short on removal? Double Moonglove and double Neck Snap. When I felt I hadn't gotten enough “good” Merfolk? Harpoon Sniper and Drowner of Secrets. And just for kicks, late in the third pick? Silvergill Adept.

Still, as I spread the cards in front of me I realized things weren't all super in Mudville. I only had a singleton Douser and Angler meaning I couldn't really mess with the combat step all that much. I was low on creatures which could reasonably attack against other creatures, a hallmark of Merfolk, and I lacked true removal for the problem threats outside the combat phase. I couldn't complain too loudly though as Benthicore gave me some fat Merfolk decks usually don't get to enjoy and the triple Judge of Currents from the first pack gave me the potential to stall the ground against aggro decks while building up a critical mass of cards which “do things” until I could Drowner someone out. It had certainly shaped up to be one of the better Merfolk decks I've drafted, but certainly not the best (and I have yet to crack Summon the School).

I wasn't sure where I stood with my manabase following the selection process. I was playing Merfolk which meant my curve was pretty low, but it did have Benthicore as an outlier. I'm a greedy greedy mage and I shave lands whenever I feel I can get away with adding one more card that “does something.” This draft, however, I felt that was completely justified. With such a low curve Springleaf Drum was as good as a land (and often better with triple Judge). Ponder and Aquitect's Will would combine to cantrip me in to additional mana, and once I hit at least three lands either of two Mulldrifters could evoke me into the resources I needed to take over a game.

Round 1 Paul Novak

Game 1: Paul won the die roll and came out of the gates with an Elvish Handservant. It was quickly pumped by Blind-Spot Giant, but I had Moonglove Extract to end those shenanigans, then started building my fish stocks. Stonybrook Angler hit, then Drowner of Secrets and Paul sat back with nothing to do, short a Giant to put his 4/3 on the offensive. I started the milling process and began turning over bomb after bomb. First Thoughtweft Trio, then Ajani, Sunrise Sovereign, and most of his removal. I started making notes of what was disappearing while Paul added a few Goldmeadow Harriers to his board. I opted to keep milling away figuring it was unlikely I would be getting through on the ground. Sure enough Paul eventually reveals a bomb I hadn't seen when he end-of-turns a Cloudthresher. Unfortunately for him that leaves me at an ample 15 life and I Snap the Elemental's Neck when it attacks on his turn. Out of steam Paul wisely packs it up before revealing the rest of his deck to me.

Game 2: Because Paul is a local player we regularly lock horns and he has a tendency to draft three color decks. Usually he has pretty sound reasoning but occasionally his eyes are bigger than his stomach, so to speak, and he winds up with decks solidly in three colors instead of two color decks splashing marquee cards from an off-color. This was one of those drafts and I because I had seen much of Paul's deck thanks to Drowner game one I knew it. He appeared to be a Giants, Kithkin, Elves hybrid but was simply playing good cards from all three decks instead of cohesive cards that played well together.

I started off on a mulligan to begin game 2 while Paul ran out another first turn Elvish Handservant. I had the trump in Moonglove Extract again, then followed up with a Mulldrifter to complement two Judge of Currents already on the board, actively being tapped thanks to my Springleaf Drum. The Mulldrifter put a slow beat on while Paul's combat step began to smell fishier and fishier as I started adding my Merfolk with defensive abilities to the board. When Stonybrook Angler hit it was all but over and Paul conceded so we could get to some Standard playtesting.


Stonybrook Angler and Judge of Currents

Cleverly concealed within the weak bodies of the Merfolk tribe is a tiny combo gifted to us by Wizards R and D to make sure the chumpy fish critters have the means of stalling out a game: Stonybrook Angler and Judge of Currents. Lots of players immediately recognize that the Judge allows you to gain a life with the Angler each time you use its ability, but I've seen a lot of players miss out on opportunities to gain massive amounts of life utilizing the Angler's other ability: untapping creatures. It's easy to overlook but at the very least the Angler can garner an additional life point for each 1U you have available on your opponent's turn. Instead of simply tapping their Oakgnarl Warrior and gaining a life, filter your mana tapping the Angler to untap before stopping their creature from attacking. You're effectively “gaining” 5 life and preventing the Warrior from blocking, plus gaining actual life for each set of two mana you have available.

And when the combat step has reached a point in which neither side can afford to attack? Don't just blindly tap one of your opponent's creatures each turn for no benefit; tap your Judge to gain one more life! Merfolk are inherently weak as creatures, they always have been. However those crafty devils at WotC R and D has made sure the tribe has the tools it needs to make up for its shortcomings.

Round 2 Gregory H.

Game 1: I won the die roll but things didn't exactly start out in my favor for this match. My Judge of Currents was trumped by an Inner-Flame Acolyte which dropped me to 16. His Lash Out hit on the clash and I dropped to 13 while losing my Judge, but a second one came to play. Still the hits kept coming for Greg. Soulbright Flamekin, Hostility, and eventually Hearthcage Giant all left me in a world of hurt with naught but a Judge of Currents, Silvergill Douser, Deeptread Merrow, and Inkfathom Divers. I did have one out, and when Greg did some counting on his turn I felt confident I would be able to capitalize.

Prior to his combat step Greg made 8 mana with his Soulbright Flamekin, then made sure all of his critters had trample, including the two 3/1 Elemental tokens. He turned everything sideways and I went into the tank. My plan was simple: block not-Hearthcage Giant then sell the fact I “didn't realize” you could sacrifice any Elemental to the Giant to make it huge. I did exactly that putting myself into a position to drop to 6 if he didn't go all in and probably lose, but to be at 7 if he did and likely pull it out. Sure enough he started saccing and after we got done reshuffling Hostility I hit him with the bad news, Snapping the Giant's neck, untapping into Drowner of Secrets, and decking him in short order while Healing Salving myself each turn.

I think it's safe to say I got a bit lucky in that game. I'm not sure why Greg didn't consider the possibility of Neck Snap when I had at least four mana open and he was doing a substantial amount of damage to me while trading favorably for most of my board, but that oversight on his part gave me the foothold to get back into the game. Suffice to say that trick was certainly not going to work twice against him.

Game 2: Greg opened on Ashling the Pilgrim and I actually had to swallow a knot out of my throat. The legend threatened to wreak unconscionable havoc on my team if I wasn't careful, and I needed to find an answer fast. Fortunately for me my Whirlpool Whelm was sitting on top of my library, waiting for me. That would allow me to reset the Pilgrim just prior to Greg hitting six mana and critical mass, then hopefully I could draw into a Moonglove Extract.

In the meanwhile I began deploying creatures making Silvergill Douser and Harpoon Sniper. When I hit four mana I made Judge of Currents then passed, intent on Whirlpooling the Pilgrim. Greg made Cloudcrown Oak and I bounced his Pilgrim, winning the clash with Mulldrifter. The Drifter yielded me Moonglove Extract to answer the re-played Pilgrim, and from there it was pretty basic as my creatures began making favorable attacks while Greg was forced to chump losing threat after threat to a combination of Harpoon Sniper and Silvergill Douser.


Round 3 Raine

Game 1: Raine won the roll and opened on a Tideshaper Mystic to begin with. He couldn't hear the inner groan at the thought of playing the mirror match, but it looked like that was what was to be. My hand seemed good for the mirror; a Silvergill Adept promised to keep me ahead of my opponent in the card count and a Deeptread Merrow was actually going to cause problems for him on the ground. Initially that's how things played out with Raine getting in for a few using his 1/1 while I bashed back with an unblockable 2/1. When he played a Plains revealing we were playing a true mirror match things promised to get interesting, and soon enough they did.

A Summon the School hit play for Raine, and he was in a healthy enough position to begin recurring it. I had managed to draw a glut of land but kept the Merrow swinging in each turn, hoping to turn things into a race. Silvergill Douser for me prevented his Merrow Harbinger from dealing damage in the red zone, but I very quickly got Schooled and an Oblivion Ring on my Douser sent me to my sideboard for game 2.

Game 2: I boarded in a Wispmare for Aquitect's Will hoping to nab Raine's Oblivion Ring if it came up. During the draft I had hoped to Snag a Counterspell or two, and was regretting not having been able to do so a great deal. Raine had managed to pick some up, and I knew I would have to be mindful of them when resolving some of my spells.

Things started off well for me with an early Judge of Currents giving me an edge in life. Raine came back with Streambed Aquitects but I continued to stay ahead in the race thanks to Springleaf Drum and Stonybrook Angler. Eventually Raine tapped out to play Merrow Harbinger and I managed to resolve Drowner of Secrets. In the mirror match I consider that card to be one of the most important elements of the Merfolk deck (and consider it very strong on its own), and game 2 against Raine demonstrated why. He was left trying to get through on the ground while I went to town on his library, free from the meddling of blockers and life gain. My Judge made sure I was gaining 5 life or so each turn meaning Raine was attacking for only 1 or 2 damage, or 1/10th of my beginning win resource (life) while I was milling for 3-5 cards each turn, or approximately 1/7th of his (cards in library). It isn't hard to determine which of those two numbers is greater.

Game 3: I run out turn 2 Deeptread Merrow while Raine makes a Drowner of Secrets. Sensing an opportunity I play my own, and it's my two Merfolk to his singleton. He makes matters worse for himself by playing a Mulldrifter, potentially saving me two Drowner activations in the race to the bottom of our decks. After untapping he plays his sixth land and Oblivion Rings my Drowner. I had seen that play coming, however, and was prepared with the trump: Wispmare. Unfortunately for me Raine had a second trump in the form of Faerie Trickery.

My heart sank.

The Merrow tried to islandwalk a game of it, but the math from the previous battle works out again in the final, albeit it in Raine's favor. I gained oodles of life each turn using my Judges of Currents, but his army supporting Drowner was simply too much.



Through the first two rounds of City Champs week one I did zero sideboarding. That isn't to say I didn't look to see if there might be something worth bringing in, simply that I couldn't find something relevant and left my maindeck as it was for the second and third games. Not being able to sideboard in a ‘new' draft format is a sign to me that one has not yet mastered the nuances of the environment. It amazes me to no end at PTQs when players can go an entire match without touching their sideboard in an effort to at least see if there's something they should bring in against their opponent. If checking but not bringing anything in is a sign of not understanding the nuances of an environment, not even bothering to check is surely a lack of understanding the nuances of drafting in general.

Of course, some cards in the board are easy to figure out. Wispmare, which I sideboarded games two and three against Raine, is great against Oblivion Ring, Forced Fruition, Fertile Ground, Epic Proportions, Glimmerdust Nap, etc. and the 1/3 flyer attached is actually the booters. In fact, the Japanese players value the card highly enough to run copies main, as Kenji Tsumura and Kazuya Hirabayashidid at the recent Grand Prix-Kitakyuushuu. Other cards are not so easy to see or understand; Shields of Velis Vel is a great example. Merfolk are usually weak and the number of X/1s you wind up playing within that tribe is often high. For that reason a card like Peppersmoke or heaven Forbid Hurly Burly can absolutely wreck you if you're unprepared. The Shields help counteract those cards and potentially Thundercloud Shaman as well. It is these slightly more nuanced cards which are difficult to find as you figure out a Limited format and as a result, for the first time in probably two years I played two straight matches of Limited without sideboarding anything.
Game 1: Luke won the die roll and came blaring out of the gates with a turn 3 Blind-Spot Giant. I had a lowly Silvergill Adept which put me into Springleaf Drum and promised to enable a turn 4 Inkfathom Divers. Before we got there, however, Luke made a second Blind-Spot and bashed me to 16. The Divers hit play as expected revealing a medium-powered set of four cards on top of my library. On Luke's return attack they happily traded for one of the Blind-Spots though the other got through putting me to 12. Post-combat Luke mainphased a Giant's Ire but had no other threats to play. For the moment he seemed out of steam and I seemed to be at just 8 life.

That quickly changed as I peeled my Judge of Currents, stacked to be on top, then utilized it with Springleaf Drum to play Drowner of Secrets. With that combo on the board my life total quickly swung back around and Luke could do nothing but offer up a Glarewielder a few turns later while being milled to death. I felt a little guilty about being the benefactor of some very good fortune as Drowner activation after Drowner activation revealed sauciness while Luke could do nothing but draw lands. By the end of things he had revealed Tarfire, Heat Shimmer, double Lash Out, and scariest of all a Thundercloud Shaman.

For the final games of the match I decided to board in a Shields of Velis Vel over my Aquitect's Will in the hopes the instant could catch his Thundercloud Shaman and/or a potential Hurly Burly for the save.

Game 2: Luke opened on Fire-Belly Changeling which I answered with Judge of Currents. He seemed content to charge in with the firebreather, pumping to do maximum damage while I simply made Silvergill Douser and started undoing said damage. Eventually an Inkfathom Divers joined the party though Luke complicated matters with a Thundercloud Shaman. If I recall correctly I had a Moonglove Extract for his Changeling in response, then Shields to save my team. Unfortunately he had a Heat Shimmer the following turn and my only out was to Whirlpool Whelm the Shaman to counter the Shimmer. That meant he was going to get a free replay so I bashed with my team to drop him to 12.

After the Shaman went off again I was able to rip Mulldrifter complementing my Inkfathom Divers and that gas netted me a second Judge of Currents which allowed me to maintain a high enough life total to get through in the air.


Round 5 Chris

Game 1: Chris managed to win the die roll but came out of the gates pretty slowly. I managed to draw Springleaf Drum in my draw step for a turn 1 play, then followed up with Judge of Currents. That quickly led to a Mulldrifter on turn 4 while Chris simply had a Glarewielder to bash me to 18 with the help of Fertile Ground. A second Judge joined my side of the table and I started to set myself up to win a long game from simply drawing a ton of cards off of Mulldrifter. The first reset came at the hands of Whirlpool Whelm with damage on the stack against Mulldrifter. That replay netted me the other ‘Drifter and that drew me into one final rebuy using Warren Pilferers.

Chris meanwhile had been adding the occasional Elemental to the board, indicating he was playing the Soulbright Flamekin deck with Ceaseless Searblades and Inner-Flame Igniter to create a critical mass turn in which a whole host of activations created a dead opponent. He even had the Caterwauling Boggart to make sure his creatures got there. Unfortunately for him I was way up in the card count and hit Drowner of Secrets with double Judge. That turned into a nightmare for him as my life total quickly rocketed to 50+ while his library slowly dwindled. Interestingly enough while he was being milled I saw precious little targeted removal, which boded quite well for me for the second game.

Game 2: The second game saw Chris start on a mulligan but still manage to get an early Glarewielder, this time from Smokebraider instead of Fertile Ground. I have an early Judge of Currents which is joined by a second and then both are joined by Drowner of Secrets. In a normal situation that would probably be game over but Chris puts together Ceaseless Searblades, Inner-Flame Igniter, Flamekin Brawler, and Smokebraider to make life difficult. Even gaining 6 life each turn I was still in a potential spot to lose if Chris managed to critical mass his Searblades.

Unfortunately for him he was stuck without a second color for much of the game and when he finally did try to go big on the 2/4, I had the Neck Snap ready. At 29 life and gaining nearly 10 each turn I managed to exhaust the remaining cards in his library for a hard fought victory.

And that was that. Thanks to the loss to Raine round 3 the final record for the night was 4-1, good for two Store Ranking points. The tournament itself was a blast, and I'm excited about the City Championships tournaments to come. The truly exciting thing is seeing more and more Lorwyn Limited, learning each time I sit down to draft/sealed deck. It seems very apparent Wizards of the Coast has done a good job of making this Limited format engaging, challenging, and most importantly fun.

-Bill Stark
Assistant editor,