Sweet Dreams Aren’t Made of This

Underworld Dreams Combo is an archetype I haven’t played much myself, but one I believe to be a bit underplayed and underdeveloped. It’s not without its flaws, though. One is a weakness to opposing Lightning Bolts and Chain Lightnings, as you give your opponent cards through Howling Mines and want to strand a bunch of those cards long enough so your Winds of Change can combo with Underworld Dreams to finish the opponent off. Against a player with 8 bolts, that can just mean a swift loss for you. How can we solve this?

One idea I got was to add Dark Heart of the Wood to the deck. It makes perfect sense in theory: green also adds Sylvan Library and Fastbond, which combo with Howling Mine and Winds of Change, as well as Avoid Fate to protect your heavy permanent-based game plan. I arrived at this list:

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Yes, this is a sideboard Mind Twist. It just doesn’t work well enough with your main plan, I think, but I might be wrong here.

Then I sleeved it up and did some battle. Only online against one deck, but out of 5 or 6 games, I won exactly 1, and was never close to winning any other. This deck sucks. And now I’m going to tell you why.

First, there’s the small issue that you want all your lands to be forests producing black mana. Yet you can only run so many Bayous. This leads into the second point: using Dark Rituals to solve the black mana deficiency and power out the Underworld Dreams: that turns your three-card combo (Dreams, Howling, Winds of Change) into a four-card one, and that’s very much harder to assemble.

And the combo is already not the smoothest. It seems like Howlings and Winds should help you find what you need, and that is partly true, but when you finally get and resolve an Underworld Dreams, you have to start comboing for real, surviving several turns while doing so. The deck can be great when you get turn 1 Dreams or draw a bunch of restricted cards, but that’s it. This is very different from the Power Monolith builds where you actually win when you get the combo, and one reason I chose to include a single copy of Lich in there. (No, not really. I included the Lich because it’s sweet. Who am I kidding?) Dreams Combo is a whole other story. It’s about chip damage, which makes me lean towards playing Lightning Bolts. Still I’m not a believer in Black Vise, but we’ll see. I have several versions of this archetype on my bucket list so I’ll make sure to revisit it in the future.

(In fact, I’m having a hard time to decide whether the great divide between different kinds of combo decks is between having and not having Howling Mines or caring or not caring about chip damage. Howling builds have to worry about giving the opponent cards while setting up, but maybe that’s not so different from the draw-7s. I used to think this was a useful differentiation, but now I’m leaning towards chip damage being more important for playstyle and deck building. The problem, then, is that it’s almost only Dreams combo which cards about chip damage, with the possible exception of some Mishra’s Factory-using Candleflare lists. Well, we’ll see, once I get to the Combo School of Magic theory article series. One of these days. :) )

So what lessens can we learn here?

First: when your mana base is actively fighting against you, you might be doing something wrong. It can still be worth it; you have to play a lot of forests for Dark Heart of the Wood in Mirrorball, or a lot of red mana in any Fork deck, or all blue-producing lands and still not having enough blue mana in Twiddlevault or Power Monolith, or just being generally miserable when trying to cram factories or the wrong kind of basics (like plains in Power Monolith or island in Mirrorball). But that is exactly it: the price has to be worth it.

Second: you want to minimize the number of dead or weak cards in your deck. An Underworld Dreams you can’t cast is a dead card. In a similar vein, Winds of Change with 2 or 3 cards in hand is just not a powerful card.

Third: combo decks work on ignoring what the opponent does, by and large. When you win gradually, and depend on the opponent having cards in hand most of the time, you very much can’t ignore that.

And that is in addition to the usual problems of combo decks, like dying to Blood Moon, Energy Flux, Nevinyrral’s Disk, and Underworld Dreams. Some of those can be mitigated in different ways, of course, but their presence has to be considered. And if you die to all of them, you have to do something really powerful in order for it to be worth it. Handling Energy Flux by going for a 3rd turn powerball kill is certainly a plan, for example.

All of these problems can be handled in different ways. But this list is not the one to do it with.

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Nine Notes on N00bCon

On The Deck

I’m strongly convinced this is the best 75 in the format (if playing in a less blue-heavy metagame than N00bCon, feel free to switch places of the Abyss and the maindeck REB):

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Still, that is not what I sleeved up for N00bCon. Why? I did put this exact deck together on the Monday before the tournament. I drew some starting hands. Those beta Serras sure are beautiful; but it just didn’t feel right. I got hands with too little colored mana, hands with no power cards. Normal cards just didn’t cut it for me anymore. I needed the kick of maximum power. Mana vaults. Sylvans. Channel. Also, did I really need to win? I wanted to, sure, but I didn’t need to. That’s not really why we play, not in the long run. I wanted to win with combo.

The only real reason for me to go with The Deck was the (at the time quite high) possibility that Jayemdae Tome would get restricted shortly afterwards and this was my last time to play with the four books. But that didn’t weigh heavily enough.

 

On what I played

This is what I went into battle with:

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It builds heavily on my Arvika deck  modified by my thoughts after that tournament, some other spice I dreamed up, and general thoughts. Unfortunately, it’s bad. Like, really bad. I went 4-3, but I really don’t know how. The problem is connected to something fundamental of the format: the cost of a dead card. After N00bCon, I tried out the deck I wish I would have played, with more maindeck Hurkyl’s Recall for the Hurkyl/Mana Vault/Fireball/Fork backdoor combo. And things just don’t work. Sometimes Hurkyl works, when you have wheel or twister, or a couple of mana vaults and a fireball and a fork. But a lot of the time, you don’t have those things, and you die to a random Sengir or something. It sucks. You can’t play bad cards. Play good cards and win. Mirrorball is okay, but this list isn’t. And very likely, Mirrorball is just a worse Power Monolith. Mirrorball is good at abusing the power cards, as I will write about more when I get to fleshing out my theories about the Combo School of Magic, but it’s quite bad at converting that power into actual wins, which is a strong suite of the Power Monolith combo. A better version of my Winter Derby list, running 2-3 mana vaults to abuse the restricted list better and accelerate the combo, is likely the best one. I will try that one in the future, for sure. Mirrorball will be put on hold for the time being (also connected, of course, to my bucket list being at least 7 decks deep at this point). There’s also the possibility of using Lich to convert the cards you draw into a game-winning combo, but that’s very much a topic of its own.

 

On the matches

These are my matches. Here, though, we start falling into the real problems of writing this report a bit over a month afterwards. I’m old and my memory is bad. Huge chunks of it is just gone. So this is a summary, much more than a play-by-play report.

Round 1: Charli Hahn, U artifact midrange, 2-0. This deck is missing from the decklist page, not even labelled as “missing”. I’m still quite sure that it was a blue midrange artifact deck with mana vaults, copy artifacts, and robots, without red but possibly with some other splash. I won the first game, and then this was my turn 1 in the second game:

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The question is, of course, how many cards to draw. I chose 12, but I’m far from sure that’s correct. In particular, it’s very good go be able to play some of those cards you draw. I did draw into a bunch of moxes and won easily, but it’s a hard choice to make for sure.

Round 2: Martin Jordö, Mirrorball, 0-2. Yes, the actuall Mirrorball mirror. He drew better than me both games, I think outdrawing me with Library the first game, and me for some reason leaving in the Triskelion the second one.

Round 3: John Grudzina, The Deck, 0-2. I got beaten down by a Mishra’s Factory and didn’t get enough time to get things going. The second game, I had active Library and had to discard twice because I couldn’t find lands and didn’t want to tap out to play stuff with a counterspell in hand. Sure, I can’t complain after having Library, but still.

Round 4: Marcus Strömberg, probably WG berserk, very easy 2-0. The hardest thing was finding a Fireball or something to finish with after trading lives on an early point with a Sylvan out and using Triskelion to clear some attackers postboard. Eventually I believe I found some way to recur the Trike from the graveyard from the win. This matchup is insanely easy.

Round 5: Erik Sundberg, hurkyl/copy/vise/bolt, 2-0. Erik is a good guy I usually face while playing Vintage at BSK or something. This time, my deck does the far more broken things. I’m quite good at emptying my hand from a Vise, and mirrors are excellent here.

Round 6: Daniel Friedman, UWx millstone copy, 2-0. Danny Friedman was a new acquaintance but easily one of the friendliest guys I’ve ever talked to. His deck was some kind of The Deck list but with lots of copy artifacts, millstones, and sweet cards like a time vault. I think I just did dirty Sylvan things to him.

Round 7: Michel Hollenberg, slow UR, 1-2. One game I lost to Blood Moon, the other one to disruption and burn, I think. The game I won, I did get to win with Shivan, although the Triskelion I also had would have sadly been enough.

 

On winning streaks

So I top 8’d every tournament I played in the 17-18 season: N00bCon 9, Ivory Cup 2, Scandinavian Championships, BSK, Lucia Legends, Winter Derby. No win, but that’s okay. I’m very happy with that altogether, especially since I haven’t played The Deck since Scandinavian Championships. But now, that streak is at end. Why? Partly, I think it’s because of boring old variance. In Ivory Cup, for instance, I finished 4-3, losing in the quarterfinals after sneaking into the top 8 at 4-2. That’s the same score as my N00bCon finish this year. It all depends on where you get your losses. I got lucky catching so many good breaks this season, but at the same time, I got unlucky in that I didn’t win any of those tournaments. Now that streak is over and I can relax a bit more. :)

 

On Recall

I guess this could be a topic in and of itself, and it’s a bit anachronistic as I add it now, but whatever, time has passed, I’m not publishing anything, I need another point and I need to get it out there. Listen to the episode of ATC where I discuss it if you want to hear more about my thoughts on the unrestriction of Recall, but the short version is that it makes me happy, that it doesn’t affect The Deck in any significant way, and that TwiddleVault might be better now. Also possibly Fork Recursion. However, since doing that interview I’m starting to lean towards a restriction of City in a Bottle making the format better. Currently that is my recommendation for next year’s changes, and nothing else.

 

On logistics

This was my third N00bCon so I am by no means a veteran of the format. I also have no nostalgic connections to Rotary pub. But even with those disclaimers, I don’t really think this works anymore. The tournament is just too cramped, the physical atmosphere unpleasant, the tables are bad. I’d much rather move it somewhere else and make it open, even though that might make it 250 or 300 people. The beer is good, sure, but I can live with slightly worse ones if it meant getting to play at a better location. The whole thing about getting awarded a N00bCon slot is also tiresome. It blurs the line between competitiveness in some circles and just community things in others. I wish everybody who wanted to play at N00bCon would be able to do so, and then we could maybe host some kind of smaller Invitational-like tournament some other time. I know this won’t happen, and I’ve since heard Magnus is about to scale down N00bCon a bit for next year, which of course is another way of handling part of the problem. It’s his tournament and he does whatever he pleases, and I always trust him to make a wonderful event anyway. I hope I’ll be able to attend next year as well, somehow, but otherwise I’ll just hang around, play other tournaments and chill.

 

On acquisitions

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I’m quite happy about this pile, although I might have to get rid of that Fork again now that I’m unlikely to play this deck very much in the future. Oh, who am I kidding? Never sell.

 

On Olle Råde

At times, Olle doesn’t care much for the format. He doesn’t brew, he certainly doesn’t playtest. What he does is play UR incredibly well. As we were sitting at a café sipping coffee some hours before the tournament was supposed to start, him borrowing a Badlands from me like so many times before, he reflected on having unexpectedly many sideboard slots open. Then we noticed he had forgotten to add the Blood Moons, beyond the single maindeck copy. Whatever, he said. Let’s just roll with it. And then he comes within striking distance to take it all down. The man is just a master. Still.

 

On counting to nine

It’s hard. Fuck it.

(I used to have a part about Magnus or Gordon calling me a sober pro player on Flippin Orbs, but I forgot which episode before saving the link. I might be sober compared to Gordon, true, but I like myself a good beer more than most. And I’ve never been a pro. :) But let’s elaborate on this some other time.)

 

Mirrors in Arvika

I’ve realized I’m not very much into writing tournament reports at the moment. The motivation just isn’t there; the narrative gets repeating, and I’m far too bad at remembering interesting board states and play-by-plays, even when aided by short notes on the life pad. I will return there, I’m sure of it, but for now, I’ll concentrate on other things. Like deck discussions. There will be a gameplay section, but this time, the focus won’t be on that, nor on traveling and beer.

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Except for this photo, taken shortly after leaving Linköping by train.

As I mentioned previously, I played Power Monolith through the Winter Derby. It’s a good deck, one just up my alley, but it has a few problems: drawing dead combo pieces, and getting worse after sideboard as it’s weak to REB, BEB, and all kinds of artifact hate. There’s also more to be explored. I’ve always been a fan of Sylvan Library, ever since using it with Abundance in Extended (or with Pursuit of Knowledge in Standard) way back in 2000 or even earlier. And there’s a deck abusing Sylvan like almost no other: MirrorBall. I also recently got ahold of my third Abyss, and got the idea to try out how good Maze of Ith really is in a Fastbond list.

What really made me want to play the deck, however, was a couple of realizations I had. First, that this deck could use Energy Flux as a sideboard plan against The Deck and artifact-based midrange decks, as it doesn’t really use any artifacts other than the power which isn’t basically sorcery-speed (Mana Vaults, Mirror Universes, Chaos Orb). Second, that there’s a possibility for Verduran Enchantress as a plan against control. I like having some creature in the board when you’re running a creatureless main deck, but playing Abyss eliminates the possibility of Guardian Beast or anything like that, which you’d want against midrange or aggro. Enchantress as a blast- and Disenchant-proof card drawing engine against control seemed alright, and 10-11 enchantments should be enough.

I went back and forth a bit on how the list should be built. Martin Jordö has played the following two builds to the top 8 of different tournaments:

Martin Jordö’s MirrorBall, BSK 2017, 2nd place
Martin Jordö’s MirrorBall, BSK 2015, 4th place

I wanted Sylvans, as mentioned, and I didn’t think a 1/1 split of Dark Hearts of the Wood is enough to make a forest-based mana base for. Also, 4 mirrors seemed like an awful lot, even though I know Jordö said he’d run 5 (along with 5 Mana Vaults) if he could. I settled on the following list:

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In the last minute before the tournament, I went -1 counterspell -1 mana vault +1 power sink +1 balance, but those changes are pretty much horrible.
The mana base is weak to support UU, but multiple power sinks just aren’t good enough. And balance was never close to being useful. I wanted to have it, and it was the last card cut for the longest time, but I used to run the fourth Taiga over the fourth City, which I realized made the mana base a little bit too bad. Still, 5-6 white mana is a bit too little, and the card was never strong enough here with no fellwars. Or maybe it was variance, I don’t know. It might be worth to test out more, but I certainly wasn’t convinced here.

So, to the matches!

In round 1, I faced KungMarkus, the organizer of the event. He always plays mono red, and this time, he was on an Immolation build, using them to kill off opposing Hypnotics as well as making his Ydwen Efreets into 5/4s. Game 1, I took some damage from a turn 1 Goblin Balloon Brigade and assorted burn and a Ball Lightning, playing a Mirror and switching life 20-1, then taking a few more turns of damage before finding a Fireball. Game 2, things went well until Markus played Blood Moon; I had BEB, but he had the REB. I did have Dark Heart of the Wood in play but refused to sacrifice any lands, because I had 10 of them with two fireballs in hand. Unfortunately, a Ball Lightning and a bunch of bolts finished me off before I could do anything about it. The final game, I believe I managed to luckily BEB a moon. I had gambled on not facing many Blood Moons with this build, and considered myself quite lucky to have escaped one such matchup with a win.

Round 2, I faced I believe a Norwegian player with some kind of UGW build if I remember correctly (my notes are unfortunately quite bad, and, being old, so is my memory). The interesting thing here is game 1, where I Timetwister, then proceed to Channel-Recall for Timetwister, Ancestral and Black Lotus. The second game involved casting a Braingeyser for 6 after having Mana Drained an Erhnam, followed by Time Walk. 2-0.

Round 3, I face a player I don’t know. He says something to the lines of “nice, I was getting so tired of facing aggro”, to which I reply with a question if he knew what I was playing. He says he wasn’t, but that I always play the same thing. It’s good to have a reputation, I suppose. He casts something like a mox and a fellwar, and I play turn 2 Wheel of Fortune, seeing his hand of Fireball, Fork, Disenchant and a few mana, or something along those lines. In play, he has a bunch of URB mana. I wasn’t expecting that, he said. I mostly smile. He resolves a Jayemdae Tome, but is strapped on mana, so I Power Sink his Mox Ruby to tap him out, letting me resolve a huge Braingeyser, eventually mirroring from 11 life and Fireballing him out. The second game is where it gets interesting, because my sideboard plan works out. Or, well, he was again kind of mana screwed, and I didn’t draw any of my moxen, so when I resolve an Energy Flux, I’m very far ahead. I also get to draw a few cards off of an Enchantress. At this point, Emil walks by, trying to see what I’m playing. He’s one of the best The Deck players in Sweden and certainly in this room and one of the opponents I least want to play. Now he thinks I’m on Enchantress, and I do nothing to dissuade him.

Round 4, I play against Tax Edge, in fact the first time I ever face that deck. In game 1, I play turn 3 Channel Mirror Mind Twist, leaving me at 4 and him with no hand. However, I proceed to draw something like eight straight mana sources, while he’s climbing back with an Ivory Tower. I play a second Mirror which gets disenchanted. However, then I finally find a Sylvan, Regrowth the Mind Twist, getting rid of his 9-card hand before he can find a Land’s Edge, leaving him with something like Ivory Tower, Library of Leng, and two lands in play. Then my third mirror along with a Fireball finishes it. Game 2, I keep a hand of 2 Fireball, Black Lotus, 3 lands, and Chaos Orb, if I recall correctly. I debate on whether to take a mulligan, as I really want to have something proactive, ideally a restricted draw spell or a Sylvan, but I figure I have lots of good draws with the Lotus, as well as time with the Chaos Orb and his deck not being overly fast or aggressive. He also lets me be on the play, which I think is very wrong, as the odds are so big I just do something broken on turn 1 that he can’t do anything about. He plays land, go. I topdeck Channel turn 2. 4-0.

Round 5, we are 3 people undefeated: me, Johan Råberg and Emil Klintbäck. I hope I face Råberg, running BWu midrange, with a slow clock and not a whole lot of disruption, while also being weak to my abyss/maze plan. Instead, I face Emil. On the play, I play turn 1 Mana Vault; he plays Ancestral in my upkeep, and although I have a second Mana Vault and a Mind Twist, I choose not to make him discard 5 cards as he has 9 in hand at the moment. So I Mind Twist for 6 on turn 3, which resolves, leaving him with 1 card in hand. On his turn, he plays land, Time Walk, and on the extra turn, plays Timetwister. I then proceed to draw mostly mana while he plays a bunch of Moxen and a book. Game 2, I once again don’t get an early enough Sylvan, and a swift book from Emil does me in. I can’t count on beating The Deck, especially not with a good pilot like Emil, but as he knocked me out in the quarterfinals of last year’s N00bCon, I would have liked to win this one.

Round 6, I face Odd, a nice Norwegian player who I haven’t met before. I knew he was on some kind of UR Blood Moon deck, but it turned out he’s on a list with 3 main deck moons and no Counterspells, due to a lack of dual lands. Game 1, I win with Mirror, using Dark Heart of the Wood to stay out of harm’s way. Game 2 is very interesting. I get hit by a Blood Moon, but Odd has a very slow clock. Eventually, he Timetwisters with me at 6 life, which I let resolve, even though I have a REB in hand; I need cards, and I just have to take the chance he draws worse than me. He Bolts me and taps out for a Jalum Tome after some deliberation. On my turn, I play Sapphire, some other Moxen, and Timetwister. On the Twister, I draw Chaos Orb, and can finally destroy the Blood Moon. Then I have 9 mana, including a Mana Vault, and Mirror Universe, Demonic Tutor, and 2 Power Sink in hand. If I had one more mana, I could have played Mirror and tutored for Time Walk. Instead, I tutor for Walk, then play Mirror, passing the turn with double Power Sink up. They aren’t very good against Odd’s hand of burn, with me at 3, so I lose. I have no idea why I didn’t tutor for Dark Heart of the Wood instead. Could I really have had so few Forests? I had something like 7 or 8 lands. It must have been a mistake. Then, the final game, I once again take a mulligan and don’t do very much, but Odd’s clock is slow. Maybe because I have an Abyss or something. Eventually, he gets a Jalum Tome, when I need to topdeck something. I’m on 1 life and play a Mirror. Both his draws are blanks. 5-1, and 3rd place before the top 8.

I must mention that the tournament went smoother this time than last year. The Swiss ends about midnight, which is fairly tolerable, whereas last September, the finals was over at 5 a.m.

In the quarterfinals, I face Thomas Nilsen. We played at N00bCon where I beat his Troll Disco with my The Deck. This time, he’s on an interesting Eureka Robots list, with Su-Chi, Colossus of Sardia, Yawgmoth Demon and Copy Artifact. Game 1, I don’t remember what happened, and my notes aren’t telling, but I lost, probably due to a Mishra and a fast Su-Chi while drawing nothing. Game 2, I get out first one, then two Energy Fluxes, and Thomas can’t do much except attack with a Mishra, while I get a Mirror. The last game, I mulligan, and get beaten down by first two, then three Mishras which my Maze isn’t doing much against. Then, when Thomas just plays his third Mishra and the one I can’t maze thus attacks for 4, I miss a Chaos Orb flip on it, leaving me at 9 instead of 13. Because I have the opportunity to do things with Fastbond next turn, that comes back to bite me, and I succumb to the land beats.

A bit disappointing, because I believe this matchup is pretty good for me, but my goal was mostly top 8, partly to keep my streak alive (counting the Winter Derby, I’ve made t8 of the last seven tournaments I’ve played), and partly because I want to continue pushing combo in the format. It was also sweet to be back at the hotel to catch some sleep shortly after 2 a.m., watching Emil take it all down against Odd in the finals on Cermak’s Facebok broadcast.

 

So, after all of that, what do I think about the list?

  • Fastbond isn’t really working. Even when drawing sylvan-fastbond-dark heart, fastbond is close to useless. It’s only really good when doing heavily broken things with Wheel or Twister or Braingeyser. One copy might be fine, but not more. Not even with Mazes.
  • Dark Heart of the Wood is sometimes really good: makes you Mirror safer, helps a lot against burn, lets you Channel-kill people in the midgame against midrange. But the amount of damage it inflicts on your mana base is extensive. I fear the deck is just stronger when ommitting this component. That leaves options of more blue for Transmute, and/or more red for Fork.
  • Sylvan is great. Everybody tells me 4 is too much, but if anything, I was drawing too few copies of the card throughout the tournament, not too many. I could see going to 3 without Dark Heart, but 3 is really strong.
  • Mana Vault is underrated in general. It makes all the broken stuff (Wheel, Twister, Mind Twist, Braingeyser) that much better.
  • Channel is nuts.
  • The Enchantress plan is just too cute. Not worth the slots. Would be better off as something like a Mana Short and the third REB.
  • Energy Flux is great when it works, but against The Deck, you really have to count on not drawing too many moxes yourself. I’m unsure. And without it, you could run Fellwar Stones which fix your mana (as I’ve said countless times).
  • Maze was very underwhelming. You can easily just lose to multiple Mishras anyway. And it ought to be almost at its best here, brought in alongside multiple copies of The Abyss or Energy Flux in a Fastbond deck. Unless you run Candelabras, I suppose. Its unrestriction continues to be proven to be very safe.

So, there’s definitely a build of this deck that’s working, but it feels weaker than Power Monolith in many ways. You do draw more air than I expected, with mirrors, dark hearts, fastbonds, extra sylvans and the likes, especially when boarding in more reactive cards. I think there are ways to fix that, but that mutates the deck into something else. Back to brewing.

If you absolutely want to play with Dark Heart of the Wood, I recommend the following changes from the list above:
main: -1 fastbond -1 power sink +1 mana vault +1 counterspell
sb: -1 maze -1 abyss -2 enchantress, +1 reb +1 beb +1 mana short +1 city in a bottle (the 2nd maze could also be cut, if you find anything else you’d want against aggro or midrange)
And also, give the cred to Martin Jordö and not to me, as I just tuned his lists to arrive here.

Next up: N00bCon. If you should see me there and I don’t know you, please say hi!