Sunday, 24 December 2017

“In Praise Of” Part 3: Land Tax, by Brother Ben (plus December roundup)

This has been a great month for Old School in London. 

Chris Cooper attracted some criticism in advance of his Team Cup event for charging a hefty entry fee and involving a judge. I confess to have had my reservations, but I was wrong - it transpired the 'judge' was more of a jovial compere, ably keeping the pace up and tracking scores so Chris could participate with his innovative mono brown deck. The entry fee included a three-course meal which was a highlight; eating together was a bonding experience enabling us to get to know the other players from around the world. The traders at Magic Madhouse had a great selection of old cardboard goodies ready for us, and kindly converted my unused legacy staples and junk rares into a beta pearl. A first class event, well done Chris.

Markus hosted the London Christmas gathering and sourced old product for us to draft. A great crowd of relaxed players any of whom I'd be glad to play cards with all day long - not something that can be said of some of the attendees at standard GPs. Indeed, escaping obnoxious punks is a big draw for Old School. Which is why I am troubled by the recent chatter from spikes who are vocal on social media about banning cards that aggrieve them and trying to rewrite the format before they have played it for long enough to appreciate the subtleties. There is a joy to getting a basic deck and gradually improving or pimping it over time, inching towards a Swedish legal version. 

Optimised decks aren't necessarily the most fun to play. At the Brothers Of Fire COPcon events our most coveted prize is awarded for the most interesting deck. I fell in love with N00bcon piloting a deck including Dakkon Blackblade, Lady Evangelina, Knights Of Thorn, and Angry Mob. 

It also included Land Tax, which, like Blood Moon, is a great card for anyone who doesn't have playsets of dual lands. So in keeping with the series of articles at Brothers of Fire, I will blast the trumpet for Land Tax!

I love drawing three cards from Ancestral Recall, and Land Tax can give that happy feeling every turn. It means those have to be basic lands, but this enables easy splashing for non-white cards - including one of my all-time favourites: Braingeyser.  

The card also enables hand and library manipulation.  Your spare basics can be converted to business cards with Jalum Tome.  And searching your deck with land tax is one of the few ways to shuffle away the unwanted top two cards after using Sylvan Library.

Of course, Land Tax is also your best friend against evil decks - I'm thinking here of two in particular.  Firstly, those that try to destroy your mana base, largely negating classics such as Ice Storm, Stone Rain, and Sink Hole.  Secondly, a fistful of basics weakens the power of Hypnotic Specters and nullifies Disrupting Sceptre.

On top of these generic benefits, Land Tax interacts beautifully with a load of my favourite cards in the format. A glut of land can be used to good effect with Land's Edge, Dakkon Blackblade, Ivory Tower, Library of Alexandria, and Armageddon.

Land tax thins your deck so you are more likely to draw non-land cards in the late game, and even allows you to play Blood Moon without drawback.

Truly a card to love!

Happy Christmas one and all.

Tuesday, 12 December 2017

Event Report: London Old School 2017 Christmas Draft, by Brother Jonas

It's been a fantastic year for Old School in London.  Only a couple of years ago there was just a handful of players.  This year we've seen our biggest events, and COPcon has almost quadrupled in size.

As Brits, we don't need much excuse for a party, but clearly something was needed to mark such a great year.  But what format should it take?  After some discussion in the community we decided that nothing could be better than cracking some product together.

Then came the question of practicalities.  As much as we all admire the purism of the Swedish card set (and have a good number of players who only stick to 93/94 cardboard), we couldn't really stretch to a box of Antiquities.  At least, not until one of us has a big lottery win.

But here in the UK we also allow old-frame original-art re-prints.  This meant we could feasibly chip in for some sealed Fourth Edition starters and a box of Chronicles - helpfully sourced by Jason.  The plan was agreed to open a starter each, and then draft three boosters.

As the day drew nearer, Markus charitably offered up his sumptuous North London pad as a venue.  We were all set for a classic...

Before the event I had been quite blasé about opening new product (particularly given that none of it would be black-bordered), but when I actually held it in my hands there was an unmistakable moment of Proustian reverie.  Fourth Edition and Chronicles (along with Fallen Empires) were the current sets when I got into the game and for a moment I was back in the halcyon days of 1995.

For one of us, however, the moment was slightly lost - this was their first ever opening of any Magic product!  Now that is real Ivory Tower purism!

We had twelve attendees: your gentle author, Markus, Ben, Stebbo, Jason, Oli, Scott, Bev, Graeme, Karl, Bryan, and newcomer Patrick.

Your author experiences the head-distorting curse of being the guy with the long arm

We opened our starters individually.  Talk immediately turned to who was going to open the junkiest rares and Scott quickly stepped up to take first prize:

Two laces and an Island Sanctuary!

I, meanwhile, was pretty chuffed with my own selection, with two highly-playable artifacts leaving me some nice flexibility in the draft:

We took a break to fortify ourselves with Markus's special brew of Glőgg.  This appeared to be a heavily-mulled wine supplemented with vodka, but I am pretty sure there was some supplemental Scandi magic in the concoction.  Washed down with a few fine ales, it nevertheless left us all feeling thoroughly refreshed.

Now it was time for the booster draft: opening Chronicles in two circles of six players.  I remembered from my youth that Chronicles was a set to get excited about - a chance to get my hands on all the Arabians that had passed me by (although of course back then they were super-affordable by today's standards).  It was therefore something of a shock to realise quite how many terrible cards were in the set.  By the time a booster had passed through two or three players it was frequently denuded of anything attractive:

Weirdly though, this actually felt like it made the draft more fun.  Particularly as we had agreed that there was no upper limit on the instances of any one card.  Also I was able to absolutely cash in on Bog Rats!

We then moved into deck-building.

With two white superstar cards in my starter (Serra Angel, Divine Transformation), I was pretty sure I would pick this colour as my base.  As a result I picked up a lot of Repentant Blacksmiths (with their sumptuous Drew Tucker art) and four War Elephants.

I was tracking green and black in the draft but ended up tacking to black to support my Howl From Beyond, Terror, and Drudge Skeletons.  X-damage, regeneration, and removal are just too good to ignore.  Nevertheless it was noticeable that my final 40 was hugely weighted towards 4th Ed cards.  It's understandable, though evident, that Chronicles just wasn't built for drafting!

Yours truly, Angry Mob

What followed was some of the most enjoyable Magic I have played this year as we all grappled with unfamiliar cards - many of them ostensibly terrible but coming into their own in strange ways - and many of us relearned the (surprisingly powerful) mechanic of banding.  At various points of the evening someone would declare the tabling of some unlikely card or other... Perhaps you had to be there, but it felt very much in the spirit of the format despite (or perhaps because of) the lack of the usual cards.  

Here were a few of the most notable board states that I was able to capture:

Brother Ben tables a fourth-turn Shotgun (aka Aladdin's Ring)

Oli holding the fort against Graeme's Time Elemental with.... Sivitri Scarzam!

D'oh'venant! An rather unusual hand and mana screw for Graeme...

Flavour-breaking Power play proves controversial: Scott sacs his Digging Team to undermine the foundations of Markus's... Wall of Vapor.  He was not amused.

Blackplayed: Oli successfully tables Dakkon, to much acclaim 👏 
Markus deploys the lesser-spotted Steal Artifact - but can it hold off one of Graeme's three (count 'em!) Elder Dragons?
Brother Ben went full Urzatron with a serious helping of obscure artifacts (Barl's Cage, anyone?)

With most people playing unsleeved, between rounds there was also the joy of placing your deck back into a proper fourth-edition box - for that authentic 'back to the 90s' feeling.  All it would have needed was for Markus to cue up Three Lions on his soundsystem and I may have regressed totally!

In amongst the hi-jinks there was actually some gaming to be done.  I had enjoyable victories against Scott (despite a pesky Sentinel) and newcomer Patrick, and my deck was performing well.  I had even managed to evade Patrick's unlikely combo of Channel and Disintegrate, although he had come a cropper earlier in the evening to his own strategy when deploying Channel and Earthquake, forgetting the double damage he would receive...

In particular, the combination of Serra Angel and Divine Transformation got me out of trouble on more than one occasion.  For flavour purposes, I'm assuming she had an additional set of wings.

Given time considerations, I was then pitched into a final (of sorts) against Brother Ben (my real life brother) for a shot at a unique prize... the first ever white-bordered Brothers Of Fire trophy card (pulled pack-fresh from my own starter box).

As is his habit, my older brother proved too strong for me.  In particular, Pestilence's board wipe proved brutal against my army of weenies.  As a result I had to console myself with second place.  Ben duly took home the trophy card (an edition we do not intend to repeat, barring another opening of fresh product) and the opened display box.  

The winning pile

With that, there was time for some constructed play.  After saving up my mana for War Elephants and Banshee, rolling out my Lightning Bolts and power felt like switching from a pedal-bike to a Ferrari!

All in all, it was a brilliant evening and a reminder of the great community that's here in London.  We're hoping it will continue to grow in 2018. 

Happy Christmas Everyone!

Friday, 8 December 2017

“In Praise Of” Part 2: Spell Blast, by Brother Stebbo

Part Two of an occasional series where members of the London Old School community reflect on their favourite cards.

“Thither he will come to know his destiny.
Your vessels and your spells provide,
Your charms and everything beside.”

- William Shakespeare, Macbeth (Act 3, Scene 5)

Probably my favourite aspect of Magic is its counterspells. They are inherently strategic, and automatically enrich the game, providing great depth. When they are going against you, they can feel truly vindictive. When you successfully cast a spell against a blue player, it almost seems like an elaborate ruse where you don’t quite understand how the pieces came to be where they are and how your spell resolved.

As a blue mage, there are those wonderful looks of disappointment, frustration or resigned inevitably on the face of your opponent, as their favourite spell, or a match-saving play, is countered. Then there's the endless poker-game or mental battle within the game of Magic itself - where your opponent is constantly trying to figure out if you have a counterspell, especially when you have two blue open.

When you think of unconditional counterspells, one naturally is drawn to the eponymous card from Magic's first set, complete with that classic camp 80s high-fantasy art by Mark Poole. Then there is its bigger, restricted, brother Mana Drain with its sinister, mysterious otherworldly art by Mark Tedin. 

The Famous Five.

Bold, situationally courageous mages will then turn their minds to the 'Blasts' of Red and Blue, often in the context of a sideboard strategy, or perhaps an Avoid Fate. Beyond that, invariably a mage running counterspells beyond the Famous Five will soften their resolve and turn to the conditional Power Sink generally looking to punish an opponent tapping out to make either an early play on curve or a devastating late-game play, or instead seeking a narrower line where they need their opponent to tap out.

A mage who has softened their resolve, turning to conditional countermagic!

There is however another option that I feel blue mages all too easily neglect: Spell Blast. 

Here Comes the Sun.

Spell Blast is a wonderful card, which relies on a mage having a deeper understanding of the meta and their opponent's capabilities. To the naïve, it may appear too narrow or too inefficient. However in the right hands it can prove a permission weapon of surgical precision.

One of the best uses of Spell Blast is also perhaps its most obvious: from turn one it is a one-mana counterspell against enemy Moxen or a Black Lotus. Whilst it may seem that this is 'small game' for a counterspell, stopping an early mana rock can be devastating; preventing an early, back-breaking play, potentially turning off a supporting colour or, in the case of ‘Blasting’ a Mox Sapphire, preventing an opponent having double blue open early. Fortune therefore may well favour the mage with the gumption to deploy their bonus countermagic early doors.

At two mana the Famous Five are more efficient unconditional counters, however options will come where you can give an opponent’s three or four drop a good Blasting, thereby enabling you to save your more efficient counters for a later battle.

The mid to late game, however, is where Spell Blast truly shines. Often by this juncture decks are playing off the top and not able to string two significant spells together. Often rival blue mages may not be able to protect their threats with counterspell back-up. Here, providing a blue mage has built their mana base correctly and has been playing a land each turn, they can expect to be, at least, on parity with their opponent for mana come turn six or later. Accordingly Spell Blast can be used as a hard counter to virtually any threat an opponent plays, with the blue mage having ample mana to pay the cost of “Opponent’s Spell’s CMC + 1”.

Most threats in Old School cost four mana or less, save for Serra Angel, the Hive and a suite of typically 'one-of' six drops such as Shivan Dragon, Mahamoti Djinn and Triskelion. This means Spell Blast can play a fine supporting role to the Famous Five as a flexible tool capable of unerring accuracy.

And don’t forget, Blasting a key spell doesn’t have to just look great on the battlefield. You can look and feel great as well by raising those arms aloft, back-muscles glistening in the Dominarian sun, and emulating this fine card in person as it resolves! Just make sure you’re on good terms with your opponent first…

Because of course, like all Old School cards, Spell Blast has amazing art. Brian Snoddy has done an amazing job in taking a relatively simple concept, and creating ambiguity and intrigue through the perspective and colours involved in this abstract piece. Why are we standing behind the mage? Why is their back so ripped? Do they have a tail? Are they naked? Are they the Blastor or the Blastee? So many questions…

To my mind, I’ve always seen the art as depicting a mage’s spell being incinerated by a searing volley of raw energy. It’s a cross between someone getting a very dodgy tan at some cheap Tolarian salon and someone achieving momentary enlightenment, only to realise that the key message from the presentation is that their spell is getting a Blasting as they stared at the sun too long.

This irreverent look at the countermagic of Old School has touched on an established hierarchy, and one that is not going to change under the current rules. But I’d urge you to give Spell Blast a go next time you’re looking to fill that 60th slot. It’s a fun card which will make you think differently about both how to deploy your countermagic, and how to deploy your spells when playing against a mage with one blue (or more) open.

Because despite burning brighter than the sun, somehow they never see it coming.