First of all: sorry for not updating more. March was insanely busy for me, with a bunch of work-related deadlines on papers and grants applications, along with moving to a new apartment. Back to an at least monthly schedule from now on. On to the content!
On the weekend of February 23rd, there was the Arvika Festivalen, the Arvika tournament where there is no Giant Shark on the line (that one is the Scandinavian Championship during the fall). This time with Homelands allowed, but otherwise straight Swedish rules. I went there the day before, in order to have a more relaxed tournament day without having to get up and catch a train early in the morning, and also to jam some games and have good food with a few friends, namely Martin, Emil and Morgan.
It’s not the most important of tournaments. I don’t have to play The Deck or anything. At the same time, I am growing a bit tired of playing bad decks and losing. So I figured, it was time to play some Powerball again. For a year or so, I’ve toted it as the best of the combo decks, the one thing they all were measured against. The Combo School of Magic, as I’ve seen it, is concerned with doing broken things, usually involving some combination of restricted cards and fast mana like Mana Vaults or Fastbonds, and the Power Monolith combo is one of the easiest ways to convert card advantage into a win. Much cleaner than the Mirrorball plan of getting to untap with a Mirror Universe, for example, which can be both slow and inefficient against control decks. Last tournament I played it was the 2018 Winter Derby online tournament where i lost to Bryan Manolakos in the semis. It felt good. I cleaned up the list a bit, cut most of the Transmute Artifact package, replacing it with maindeck Channel and Mana Short.
So, after a surprisingly good dinner, I set out for some playtesting, of which I had done exactly 0 before, partly because I knew I had a bunch of time during this evening and the following morning, partly because I had been busy for the weeks leading up to the event. Martin was on Dibatog, Morgan on Arabian Aggro and Emil on The Deck, planning to switch to a UWb artifact midrange build for the actual tournament later. And I started losing. I lost, and I lost, only the match against The Deck feeling somewhat winnable, simply because I had time to leverage hand sculpting there. Against anything with a clock, I was dead. Sure, arabian aggro and dibatog are among the best and most aggressive decks out there, and the arabian matchup being worse from Morgan playing Memory Lapse (Homelands is allowed, remember?), and my opponents are very strong players, but still. It felt awful. As I usually stress, the cost of a dead card in this format devoid of fixing is huge, and here we have so many of them before going off. It just felt unplayable. I did what I was expecting to do, playing my fair share of broken cards and fast mana, developing the game, and it still never worked. Slow, clunky, and fragile.
Could I have misjudged things so fundamentally? Well, yes, probably. You see, the amount of data I had was not so large after all. I had played the UW-based powerball list (with books and white removal) once, going 5-1 at BSK 2017, then URx at the Winter Derby where my final record was 6-3. Then I know Bob Maher played something very similar at Kirwan’s in 2018, and my friend Robin played my list at some local gathering as well as this year’s Winter Derby, going something like 1-10 and claiming the deck is unplayable. And I think he’s closer to right than I was. It seems good to excellent in theory, but in practice, it doesn’t work that well at all. Definitely worse than Mirrorball, which has an inherent advantage against aggro decks by running 3 mirrors, mostly having issues with Dark Heart of the Woods making you play a bad mana base. And Twiddlevault, despite all its vulnerabilities, is quite good at converting those broken starts into wins, too, going off from few resources and having in general fewer dead cards than Powerball.
Well, I had more decks on my bucket list. Being firmly turned off of Powerball, for the next morning after breakfast, I put together a UWbg Tax/Tower control list I had been brewing after playing Field of Dreams just before Christmas. The build had 2 Serra Angels and 1 Tormod’s Crypt as the only wincons, but it seemed promising. I did have the urge to go deeper on the tax/tower/sylvan plan after trying out that Field of Deams list. So I got in some games here. Initially, it felt powerful. But then, I got some of those long, grinding games that control decks are known for, but I lost in the end.
Playing for 40 minutes, eking out every possible advantage, but still losing, is a horrible feeling. Not having any real win conditions does that sometimes, but getting ground out by Animate Dead/Reincarnation because you don’t find both Ivory Tower and Land Tax in time is not a good feeling. The deck did a lot of things wrong: it had narrow answers (the tower/tax engine and moats instead of more counterspells, disenchants, factories, and swords) where a lot of things could go wrong, and also narrow threats. Compared to The Deck with its broad answers and broad threats (tomes). At this point, I was a bit discouraged. And I think I am onto something, especially in the light of my recent failures with the prison archetype and success with Troll Disco. Sadly enough, there’s a reason the dib/disenchant/counterspell/bolt/su-chi decks are winning. Combo isn’t underplayed as much because people haven’t figured out the correct lists yet (although I continue to claim that is also the case), it’s underplayed because it’s bad. Midrange is good, it’s just not to my taste. I have to accept that. Doing weird things is rarely working. Beating down is. And I am somewhat tired of losing. Now, after 18 months of being open for playing non-The Deck decks, it’s probably time to be a little less adventurous. At least sometimes. Not a new deck every event.
So what to do? I did carry the cards for The Deck, or at least most of them, since I had planned to have UWx Powerball as an option. I didn’t see the reason to go there, though. But I had also brought Twiddlevault, thinking to maybe putting that together and playing on Sunday or maybe if I should lose quickly in the main event. Well, I had planned to revisit that at some point, having discussed some improvements and some lists and ideas I want to try, so what the hell. Twiddlevault it is, untested.
I had a bunch of different lists that I had been working on, mostly on my own, a bit chatting with Danny Friedman. Also I had heard about a fellow named Eliot Burke going 6-1 at the Urza’s Chalice event with a crazy 4-Recall list. I did settle for the Serra transformative sideboard, and I built the mana base out of what I had in beta (otherwise I’d play at least one more Tropical Island). This is where I arrived:
And yes, unlimited Twiddles. (At least they were easy to keep track of in hand and in graveyard!) I had bought an Alpha playset, and the seller asked me whether he should post them. No worries, I said, I could just pick them up at N00bcon, I wasn’t going to run Twiddlevault any time soon. Hmm …
Notable is the lack of Mirror Universe and even Fireball. Mirror I believe is completely unnecessary. Sure, it can help against aggro sometimes, but it generally doesn’t help you combo. And even Fireball isn’t necessary. It dawned on me that you could just play Mana Drain on one of your own x-spells each turn and thus gain unbounded mana, as drawing through your deck is trivial once you’ve gone through it once and start to chain twiddles with all the howlings and sylvans out. The plan is, of course, that most opponent should concede once you play Recall for three twiddles with 2-3 howlings out. And if time becomes an issue, I had a fireball in the board along with the angels.
So, let’s get going. Round 1, I face Martin with dibatog, probably the best player in the room with the best deck in the room. Still, I manage to almost go off the last turn before I die preboard, but miscalculate, discard the wrong card to a Recall when I’m about to turn things around, not leaving enough mana to transmute for the card I needed. I conceded rather than ask for a takeback. Now I realized I could actually board in the full 15 cards, taking out all the howlings, twiddles, the time vault, some transmutes and some sylvan, or something like that. Unfortunately, I don’t draw enough white, and when Martin has a Psionic Blast (one of his one or two) for my Serra, it was over. Hadn’t he had that, though, I might have taken the game.
Round 2, it’s time for another shark holder: Cermak. He’s on his usual UWb midrange thing, I think. Here, I’m very very lucky, and combo off game 1 by drawing perfects with Timetwister twice in a row, basically first recall, lotus, 2 moxes, or something like that. Then I win one of the postboard games with angels even though time was running very low at this point.
Round 3, I face a kid with mono red goblins, including vises and ankhs. Ankhs are a problem for twiddlevault whereas you can usually combo through vise as you draw a lot of cards in the draw step but can get rid of them before next turn. It was also not only his first OS tournament, but his first tournament ever and also his first time playing OS, or at least almost, if I’m not mistaken. I have an interesting turn where I transmute for lotus to get an extra blue, transmute for a chaos orb to kill his ankh, recall for lotus and transmute, transmute for the vault or a howling to go off, exactly on the mana. But then there’s the problem: he hasn’t played the game before, and thus doesn’t concede. No problem, time for me to prove what I do, right? Only, halfway through, once I’ve gone through the deck a couple of times, I realize my plan wasn’t so flawless after all. You see, the mana drain play is hindered by the combat step each turn. To get limitless mana, I’d have to play x-spell into mana drain both precombat and postcombat, and as I then can’t use the draw phase (with 5 howlings and a sylvan in play), I have to draw the mana drain and an x-spell on the timetwister each time. Not deterministic at all, and means I actually can never beat something like Shaman Ben’s 333 card deck preboard. Rather, what ends up happening is I go through my deck several times, play out every single permanent, then go mind twist drain into untap, unload all the twiddles on my mana vaults, then braingeyser for 51. I then proceed to lose game 2 to some quick beats, but take game 3 with some brokenness. I guess I should feel bad about doing this to a new kid, but he could have conceded, he could have at least have been part of the game instead of watching some MMA on his phone. He also picked up something like my beta jet to read it. Didn’t feel too sorry about this.
Round 4, I lose to BW midrange. Here my sideboard shows its weakness: he has disenchants and underworld dreams, so i’d prefer to bring in the angels and cut some of the combo, but they don’t even race black knight and juzams very well. So I lose a tense match which I think I should have won had I had a better board. Like shivans, or just trying to handle his disruption, or with mirrors.
Rounds 5, I face KungMarkus, on mono-red atog as usual, and I do broken things to him.
Round 6, at 3-2, I face Kalle, the third shark-holder of the day, running about the same deck as he top 8’d N00bcon with last year. Most of this field isn’t soft, I tell you. Kalle then proceeds to switftly burn me out, with the help of me having to play a naked howling which he disenchants. The worst feeling in the world.
So 3-3. Not happy, but mostly about my plays, and about the death of combo and durdling in general. I didn’t need to win this one. The deck, though? I think Twiddlevault is kind of great. With a better board, especially. I still dislike wincons. Can the combat phase fiasco be fixed? Yes, I think so. First of all, we could just play a single wincon. Fireball is kind of bad as it just doubles as inefficient removal, and that’s mostly useful for hypnotics. One mishra’s factory isn’t the worst but could hurt a bit. Tormod’s crypt is elegant and not a dead card as it trades for a regrowth or recall, but in shorter games, as this deck is aiming for, it’s not likely to be relevant often enough. No, I think the best solution is one suggested to me by Martin, and that is Fork. With a fork, regrowth is unlocked; otherwise, that’s reserved for timetwister each iteration. This means I think you are guarenteed infinite mana. Bear with me for a while, this will get technical and can be skipped.
In precombat main phase, we cast mind twist and mana drain it, then cast regrowth and fork it, returning mana drain and timetwister. Postcombat, we cast braingeyser and mana drain it, effectively transferring the mana drain mana from precombat to next turn. Then we timetwister. With all the permanents in play, timetwister in the graveyard and the recalls exiled, there should be about 19 cards in the deck. We draw 7 from the timetwister. 12 cards left. Using library, we’re at 11 left. Now, we could cycle any twiddle we draw or have drawn on the library, so those can be disregarded. 7 left. Next turn, in the draw step, we draw 4 extra from the howlings and 2 more from the sylvan, making sure you have access to those 7 remaining cards (I didn’t even need to count ancestral or demonic here). So you’re guarenteed to have access to both mind twist and braingeyser, along with mana drain, regrowth, and fork. And this repeats the loop, netting you a few mana each turn (remember we have something like 19 repteatable mana sources in play). Any questions?
So fork nets you unbounded mana. It’s also not a bad card in the deck. In any real life scenario, it realistically just speeds up the kill as you can generate 30ish mana with mana drain from one turn to the next, then just fork the braingeyser for 60+ cards. It’s also another twiddle, or allows comboing off without time vault if you have some howlings and draw your time walk, or it’s a counterspell for a counterspell. Only problem is the RR cost, of course, but that’s not impossible with 8 R + fellwars, which is likely. I’m drawn to shivans as a board plan anyway.
Other changes I’d make: I did like the third recall (I played that last time too, but suggested cutting it) as well as the maindeck mana short (kind of important when your plan is to play timetwister multiple times every time you go off, as the opponent might have too much mana to do bad things for you if it’s late game otherwise), but am more unsure about the relic barriers. Might go with 3 howling + 1 barrier, along with 3 transmute and 3 sylvan to find the good stuff. Probably cutting balance, going further down the uninteractive path.
The deck is one of the more fun decks in the format to play, and I really should see if I can get it to be good enough for serious tournaments. It won’t be tier 1, not even with Time Vault unrestricted sometimes in the future, but it might be good enough to top 8 with some luck and good board plans. That’s fine with me.
As for the rest, well, it is a bit sad midrange/aggro/control with removal spells is just the best way to win in this format, but I can live with that. One day I’ll win a tournament with combo. I promise you. (Or win a tournament in general. My top 8 win rate is not very good. Spoiler: next tournament didn’t go much better in that regard.)
Now I am way behind on this, I started writing more than a month ago. Sorry about that. I have a small article, not a full report, from the Danish Old School 3 event in Copenhagen in late March almost finished as well, but that will sadly have to wait until after N00bcon. And then there’s of course everything from that weekend to write about. Stay tuned, I’ll try to keep some updates on twitter or instagram @SvanteLandgraf but can’t guarantee anything. Take care, and please say hi if we meet in Gothenburg even if we haven’t spoken before. :)