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Journal of the Texas Guildmages

Written by Jeff Zandi on . Posted in Competitive Magic, Limited

Journal of the Texas Guildmages

Jeff Zandi

Jeff Zandi is a level 2 judge and an eight-time veteran of the Pro Tour. He has written continuously about Magic for over eighteen years. His team, the Texas Guildmages, have the longest running regular game in history, meeting at his home every Tuesday night since 1996.

Tuesday night, January 19, 2016 – Meeting Number 938

Oath of the Gatewatch Booster Draft

Nearly twenty years ago some Magic buddies and I decided to form our own Magic team for the purposes of chasing the highest levels of competitive Magic. We started playing every Tuesday night at my home in the suburban Dallas area. Meeting number one took place in October, 1996. Tonight’s meeting is number 938. A lot has changed in the twenty years in between. Players have come and gone and come back again. Formats and rules have changed. Everything has changed in one way or another, except for our team’s commitment to play competitive Magic. We meet each week to try and make each other stronger at the game in general, and at booster drafting in particular.

Tonight we had the “magic” number of eight players for our first Oath of the Gatewatch booster draft. Following on the heels of prerelease weekend, it was important that each player held on to whatever packs of the new set he had won from the prerelease tournaments. The set doesn’t go on sale until Friday. The first Tuesday night with a new set usually attracts our biggest crowds of the year. Tonight, however, there are just eight of us. I’ll tell you a little about tonight’s participants a little later. First, I want to share with you a little bit of what we do in our drafts.

First and foremost, we play for the rares, the mythic rares and foil cards. This encourages pure drafting and eliminates the lure of “rare drafting.” Although our weekly tournaments are unsanctioned we play them as though they were. We seat the table randomly and we play Swiss rounds. By playing Swiss rounds instead of single elimination, each player gets more use out of the decks they draft and build. Also, playing Swiss rounds eliminates some of the luck, some of the variance, associated with single elimination drafts. With eight players we play three rounds of Swiss and cut to a top four. The top four players are seeded into a four-player bracket according to their Swiss finish using correct DCI tiebreaking procedures even though I keep score for the event on paper instead of computer. After the two semifinals matches are completed, the finalists autograph a common MVP from their decks and then give the decks to me. I replace the rares, mythic rares and foils from their decks so that I can play games with their decks later. Then the two finalists split up the treasures whatever way they like. We started having the finalists split the treasure years ago. Doing this saves some time in case we want to do a second draft and it keeps one player on a hot streak from taking all the rares every single week.

I do a kind of weird thing with the finalists’ decks. I play a bunch of games with them, unsideboarded, in order to figure out what makes them work. I believe I learn a lot about Limited this way. Typically, players don’t think of Limited decks, either from Sealed Deck or Booster Draft, as having much of a life. You draft the deck, you build the deck, you play with the deck for the life of that small tournament and then you cast it aside. It’s not like you can take that same deck to another tournament. True, but the same way you learn more about a Constructed format by playing decks from that format against each other, you can learn about a Limited format by playing the winning decks from a Booster Draft against each other.

Tonight’s Winning Decks

It will surprise no one that, given the opportunity, Scot Martin started his draft with pack one, pick one Eldrazi Displacer. This card dominated prereleases more than any other. It’s the best card for draft in possibly the best and deepest color for draft. I asked Scot how soon he picked blue as his second color. Scot quickly revealed that Reflector Mage was the second pick of his draft. I like his blue/white flyers deck. This is the one archetype in the brand-new Oath draft format that I can claim to understand. The plan is to hold down your opponent’s early game with cheap defensive creatures so that you can win late in the game with flying creatures. Scot has eight flyers (one conditional flyer in Kor Sky Climber) but no particularly spectacular ones. His biggest flyer is Wave-Wing Elemental from Battle for Zendikar, a card that I have found continually underrated by other players and, at the same time, possibly overrated by me. In triple BFZ draft, this deck’s early game was defined by Fortified Rampart and Stone Haven Medic. In the world of Oath draft, Scot is forced to choose some different early game options. He drafts three Blinding Drone and declares the card his deck’s common MVP. Blinding Drone has a 1/3 body that can do some blocking before you have the colorless mana available to use Drone for what he does best: tapping opposing creatures. This card is so efficient and so controlling that opposing decks must find a way to get rid of it. With three Drones, Scot needs plenty of colorless mana sources. He has two Wastes in his deck (please don’t call colorless mana ‘Wastes mana’) as well as Blighted Steppe and two creatures that produce colorless mana, Cultivator Mage and Kozilek’s Channeler. Scot also holds down the early game with two copies of Containment Membrane. This aura costs three mana and keeps the creature it enchants from untapping normally. With two less packs in the draft giving you Tightening Coils (a better card), Containment Membrane is a necessary evil for blue drafters. I hate that you have to let your opponent’s creature punch you before you can hold it down with the Membrane. Also, it doesn’t help you when you draw it but the creature you want to stop is untapped. I don’t even want to think about creatures with vigilance.

There are some other new creatures that make a real impact on the format and Scot has two of them. Ondu War Cleric is a 2/2 Human Cleric Ally for 1W. On turn two this is just a good creature play, a guy that can attack or block. Later in games, you tap this guy along with another untapped Ally you control to gain two life. It doesn’t sound like much, but it can really add up. At some point, with a deck like this, you won’t need this creature to block and trade with your opponent’s 2/2. You would rather activate it to gain life. Scot doesn’t have a bunch of Allies in his deck but he has enough to make full use of Ondu War Cleric. Reflector Mage costs 1WU. You get a 2/3 body and a pretty good ability. When he enters the battlefield Reflector Mage bounces an opposing creature to its controller’s hand, that player may not play a creature with the same name as the bounced creature until your next turn. There are times when you bounce a creature and get no more value from the effort than a kind of Time Walk ability. This play is significantly better because you are messing with what your opponent can actually play on his next turn. You might have enough mana to play either a counterspell or a bounce spell but not both. With Reflector Mage you can bounce your opponent’s bomb creature this turn and then save your mana next turn in order to counter it when your opponent is finally able to replay it. I like Reflector Mage a lot and have no problem seeing it as a second pick overall where Scot took it tonight.

The flying team is led by three-mana plays like Eldrazi Skyspawner, Kor Sky Climber and Shadow Glider. Next come the four-drop flyers including a pair of Courier Griffins and Gravity Negator. Gravity Negator has quickly become a favorite of mine. I like that it’s a 2/3 flyer for 3U, I like that it’s a devoid creature, I like that when it attacks you can spend a colorless mana to give another one of your attackers flying until end of turn. This ability is extremely relevant. Cyclone Sire is a new flyer worth noting. You get a 3/4 flying Elemental for 4U that puts three +1/+1 counters on a land and makes that land an Elemental creature when Cyclone Sire dies.

Scot has two finishers in the deck, one an extremely fair-looking uncommon and the other a true bomb that upsets opponents to no end. Roiling Waters is a sorcery for 5UU that returns up to two target creatures that your opponent controls back to their hand and causes a target player to draw two cards. It’s interesting that the spell makes you choose a target player to draw the cards. You would almost always want to target yourself, right? The way this card is worded you have the ability to make your opponent draw two cards in the relatively rare circumstance that he is about to run out of cards in his library. This kind of thing happened more frequently in Battle for Zendikar draft with decks that had a large number of creatures with the ingest ability. Let me give you a better reason for this card’s wording. If this spell simply said “bounce two target creatures and draw two cards” your opponent could respond to this spell by, for example, sacrificing both targeted creatures to some ability and then your spell would be countered because all of its targets had been made illegal. Spells with multiple targets are countered if all of their targets become illegal by the time the spell attempts to resolve. The way this spell is worded, it targets each of up to two creatures your opponent controls plus it also targets the player that you want to draw cards (probably yourself). Because this spell has up to three targets, all three targets would have to become illegal in order to keep you from drawing two cards. You play this spell targeting two of their creatures and targeting yourself for the card draw. Your opponent responds sacrificing each of the targeted creatures. When Roiling Waters resolves you still draw two cards because the player targeted for drawing cards remained a legal target at spell resolution time. I’m sorry for making that sound complicated. Let me assure you that this spell is better for being worded the way it is. I do wish, however, that I could target one or both of my own creatures. This you cannot do. You have to target only creatures your opponent controls.

On its surface, Eldrazi Displacer is a nice little 3/3 for 2W. Attack with it? Sure, as long as you don’t think it can get killed. Otherwise, you don’t risk this card. It’s too valuable. For 2C (two mana of any color and one colorless mana) you get to exile another target creature and then return it to the battlefield tapped. Sounds simple, but it’s really quite sick and potentially sinister. When your opponent attacks with something you don’t want to have to block or take damage from you simply activate the Displacer and exile that monster. It immediately returns to the battlefield, but tapped and no longer attacking. It’s just that simple. Have creatures on your own side that have enters-the-battlefield abilities? Activate Displacer and target that creature, possibly over and over again. Remember, the creature exiled by Displacer always returns to the battlefield tapped, so the best time to use it on your own creatures is at the end of your opponent’s turn. So many uses! Your opponent attacks with a 3/3 and you have a 5/4 you could block with but you’re afraid they have a combat trick. No more worries. Just block their 3/3. If they use a combat trick to pump up their creature you can use Displacer to exile either their creature or yours. If they play a spell to deal more damage to your creature after combat you can exile your creature to avoid the hit. The only thing the Displacer can’t do is protect itself. This card is so powerful that you will want to draft protective cards to help it stay alive. Make sure you pack as many colorless mana sources into your deck as possible.

Scot’s deck only has one bomb in it, but it’s a big one. Beyond Eldrazi Displacer, Scot’s deck is a fine collection of blue/white assets that go together well in order to protect his life early and control the skies late.

Aaron Tobey’s deck is a hard-working creature deck that wants to fill the board with monsters, particularly tiny Eldrazi Scion token monsters. The goal is to live long enough to cast Tajuru Warcaller and pump the team and swing in for the win. Along the way, cards like Bone Splinters are better than usual because Tobey has so many sacrifice-worthy creatures. The colorless Spatial Contortion, Oblivion Strike and Demon’s Grasp give Tobey the ability to kill big creatures on the other side of the board. Life is cheap with this deck. That’s fine with Null Caller, a 2/4 Vampire Shaman for 3B that lets you exile a creature from your graveyard to put a 2/2 black Zombie creature token onto the battlefield for an activation cost of 3B. Too bad the token comes into play tapped.

Vile Redeemer is a pretty cool new creature that could easily find a home in Constructed Magic. It’s a 3/3 Eldrazi for 2G with devoid that has flash so you can play it whenever you could play an instant. It gets better. When you cast Vile Redeemer you can pay a colorless mana and if you do you get a 1/1 colorless Eldrazi Scion creature token for each nontoken creature that died on your side of the board in this turn. For Limited purposes, this guy is mostly good just because he has flash and devoid. In Constructed, it would be fun to play this card at the end of a turn where your opponent has just cleared the board with a spell. This ability can net you one or two Eldrazi Scion tokens in Limited, but more likely after combat has put some of your creatures into the graveyard. I can imagine a scenario where your opponent, within striking distance, like maybe at five or six life, attacks with all his creatures and you are forced to make bad blocks with creatures that won’t trade in combat. Like you have to make a bunch of chump blocks with nontoken creatures. Then at the end of your opponent’s turn you could play Vile Redeemer, pay a colorless mana, and put two or three or four Eldrazi Scion creature tokens into play. Now you have the power on board to attack and win the game. This isn’t going to come up very often, but it illustrates what you can do with this card in Limited. The bottom line is that this card gives you a nice combat trick, the ability to throw a creature onto the board at instant speed. The rest is gravy.

The most interesting new card in this deck is Thought-Knot Seer. For 3C you get a 4/4 Eldrazi that triggers when it enters the battlefield. You get to look at your opponent’s hand and exile a nonland card. When Thought-Know Seer leaves the battlefield your opponent gets to draw a card. The card they draw when Seer dies will generally be worse than the card you take away from them when you play the Seer, particularly if you play this card on curve around turn four or five. Tobey picked Thought-Knot Seer first, pick one, pack one. He took Spatial Contortion with his second pick. He took Remorseless Punishment with his first pick from pack two but then decided not to play it. Tobey was lucky to pick up Tajuru Warcaller with his first pick from the Battle for Zendikar pack.

The Matchup

At the most basic level of strategy, these two decks are exact opposites. Scot’s deck doesn’t put much power on the board in the early turns but eventually plays evasive creatures and amped up spells with awaken to make big plays later in the game. Tobey’s deck throws all of its goods into play quickly and tries to push through damage as quickly as possible. It’s a classic matchup. Each deck, however, has an X factor. Scot hopes to dig down to Eldrazi Displacer. Tobey has Tajuru Warcaller. Scot’s Displacer is less central to his deck as a win condition than Warcaller is to Tobey. Tobey’s deck has only a few ways to trigger Warcaller a second time and he has no way to help himself draw the Warcaller more quickly. Tobey wins a giant percentage of games where he draws Warcaller. In games where he does not, if his opponent knows what’s going on, Tobey’s deck has a lot harder time winning. At the same time, Scot has so many 2/3 creatures in his deck that when Tobey does manage to play Tajuru Warcaller, even Tobey’s 1/1 Eldrazi Scion tokens are deadly and unconcerned about being blocked by a 2/3. In games where Tobey doesn’t get Tajuru Warcaller Scot’s deck has plenty of time to take over the skies. For air defense, Tobey only has one card, Giant Mantis. Scot can attack without too much worry once he has a flyer in play with a toughness of three who can survive being blocked by the Mantis. Tobey actually can pump up the Mantis with Unnatural Endurance. In general, though, Scot’s deck has an edge over Tobey’s because Scot’s deck puts a deadly number of flyers in play more often than Tobey’s deck is able to draw Warcaller and take over the game. Advantage Scot Martin.

Roll Call

Tuan Doan is the first to arrive tonight, at 6:44 pm. It’s his first meeting in a couple of weeks. He has a serious day job in the investment business and a serious new commitment afterhours in the girlfriend business. In the warm months Tuan also plays a lot of competitive soccer. Actually, he does that year round. He was played Division I soccer for the University of West Virginia and has also played for the Dallas Sidekicks. He got serious about competitive Magic two years ago and promptly finished in the top eight of the first annual Hunter Burton Memorial Magic Open in March, 2014. Yup, his name is on the cup.

Mark Hendrickson is the Guildmage with the most meeting appearances (outside of myself, I live here). Mark does a good job of maintaining a high level of competitive play without seeming to ever burn out on the game. He reached the Pro Tour for the first time at Pro Tour Los Angeles in May, 1996. That was the first Pro Tour you could actually qualify for and the second-ever PT after New York in February of that year. Mark has played on the Pro Tour as recently as last year at Pro Tour Vancouver at the end of July. He plays a ton of Magic Online and tests everything.

Scot Martin is one of the original seven Texas Guildmages, a charter member who, like Mark, has played Magic more or less continually since before the Pro Tour started in ’96. Also like Mark, Scot had some early Pro Tour success, qualified for Pro Tour Columbus in July, 1996 (the third Pro Tour ever) finishing twenty-first for $1500. A couple of years later, Scot moved away from competition and became more interested in career and family. He never totally quit Magic, though, and has had a resurgence in the past few years. He finished second at the Hunter Burton Memorial last year, as a matter of fact. He’s a big fan of Limited and pays attention to what’s good in Booster Draft and Sealed Deck. He doesn’t collect a lot of cards, doesn’t buy boxes and boxes of each set, but he usually has a Standard deck ready at any given time.

Matthew Tuck is a guy I got to know when he started working at the first-ever game store in my little suburban town of Coppell. He was among the first crew brought on to work at Roll2Play. He picked up Magic when he started working at that store three years ago and quickly became a rules expert. I gave him a level one judge test and he crushed it very quickly. He’s still somewhat inexperienced as a player but he’s continuing to improve. We don’t see Matt every week, and he no longer works at Roll2Play, but he’s a nice addition whenever he’s here.

Blake Bombich is an auto mechanic that Mark Hendrickson brought with him a year and a half ago. Mark and Blake know each other through their wives friendship and, randomly enough, it turns out Blake played a good bit of competitive Magic back when he was in high school… here in my hometown Coppell. That was over ten years ago. Since coming back to Magic, Blake makes our Tuesday night meetings to draft with us almost every week. He has the best attendance record over the last eighteen months of anyone not picking up their mail here.

Aaron Tobey used to be the best Booster Draft player in Texas, or very close to it. He doesn’t play nearly as much Magic as he used to. He also has some experience as a standup comic. He has always had a very biting, dry sense of humor. He’s never been the most popular kid, but I’ve always been a fan. He works in what has increasingly become, to me at least, the generuc High Technology Field. Oh, and nobody EVER calls him by his first name. Calling this guy ‘Aaron’ just never ever feels right. You call him Tobey. Everybody calls him Tobey.

After the Swiss draft, after Tobey and Scot split up their treasure, there were still six of us interested in drafting again. So we team drafted. At the Guildhall, that means that we randomize the seating for the six players. Once we are seated for the team draft we know who the teams are, it’s every other player as seated randomly. In this one, the teams were Tuan and Lawson and Blake versus me and Mark and Matt Tuck. Mark hates it when he gets randomly assigned to a team that he thinks is unlikely to win. He doesn’t mind letting the rest of us know, either. What Mark should do is go ahead and go 3-0 so that he can blame it all on his teammates. This time, he goes 1-2 and leaves while Matt and I are not yet finished with our second matches. His instincts, however, were good enough to predict the outcome, we lost one match to five.

Thanks for reading.

Texas Guildmage meeting #938, Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Roll Call (in order of arrival)
Jeff Zandi, Guildmage #7.
Lawson Zandi, junior Guildmage, 29th meeting in a row, 324th lifetime.
Tuan Doan, guest, 1st meeting in a row, 71st lifetime.
Mark Hendrickson, Guildmage #26, 1st meeting in a row, 428th lifetime.
Scot Martin, Guildmage #4, 3rd meeting in a row, 246th lifetime.
Matthew Tuck, guest, 1st meeting in a row, 48th lifetime.
Blake Bombich, guest, 3rd meeting in a row, 64th lifetime.
Aaron Tobey, guest, 1st meeting in a row, 23rd lifetime.

Meeting ran from 6:44 pm to 1:23 am

Here’s the play-by-play of a match played between the two finalists’ decks. In this match I play both decks. I assure you there is no favoritism for either deck. I’m an only child and grew up playing board games by myself, operating all of the players myself without caring which one ended up the winner. I’ve always been able to do this. The goal of this exercise is not to test the skill of the play (I’m driving both decks) but only to test the quality of the cards in the decks and the consistency of the decks. I played seven practice games between these two decks before playing the games detailed below.

T1 Scot keeps three Islands, two Plains, Courier Griffin and Eldrazi Skyspawner. Plays Island.
T1 Tobey keeps two Swamps, two Forests, Slaughter Drone, Tajuru Warcaller and Bone Splinters. Draws Vile Redeemer, plays Swamp.
T2 Scot draws Ondu War Cleric, plays Plains, plays Ondu War Cleric.
T2 Tobey draws Snapping Gnarlid, plays Forest, plays Snapping Gnarlid.
T3 Scot draws and plays Wastes, plays Eldrazi Skyspawner putting a 1/1 colorless Eldrazi Scion creature token onto the battlefield.
T3 Tobey draws Fertile Thicket, plays Swamp, Snapping Gnarlid triggers, attacks with Gnarlid (17-20).
T4 Scot draws Blinding Drone, plays Island, attacks with Skyspawner and War Cleric and Scion token, Tobey plays Vile Redeemer, Redeemer blocks War Cleric (17-17), Scot plays Courier Griffin (19-17).
T4 Tobey draws Vampire Envoy, plays Fertile Thicket choosing not to look at the top five cards of his library, Gnarlid triggers, attacks with Gnarlid and Redeemer (13-17), plays Slaughter Drone.
T5 Scot draws Eldrazi Displacer, plays Plains, attacks with Skyspawner and Griffin (13-14), plays Blinding Drone.
T5 Tobey draws Pilgrim’s Eye, plays Forest, Gnarlid triggers, plays Tajuru Warcaller, attacks with Gnarlid and Redeemer and Slaughter Drone, Scion token blocks Redeemer (4-14).
T6 Scot draws Wave-Wing Elemental, plays Eldrazi Displacer.
T6 Tobey draws Kozilek’s Channeler, plays Vampire Envoy, Tajuru Warcaller triggers, attacks with Gnarlid and Redeemer and Drone, Griffin blocks Redeemer, Skyspawner blocks Drone, Blinding Drone blocks Slaughter Drone, Scot activates Displacer targeting Eldrazi Skyspawner, Skyspawner triggers when it reenters the battlefield putting a 1/1 colorless Eldrazi Scion creature token onto the battlefield, Tobey plays Bone Splinters sacrificing Vampire Envoy targeting Eldrazi Displacer.
T7 Scot draws Island, plays Wave-Wing Elemental.
T7 Tobey draws and plays Wastes, Gnarlid triggers, plays Kozilek’s Channeler.
T8 Scot draws and plays Plains.
T8 Tobey draws Call the Scions, plays Pilgrim’s Eye searching his library revealing and putting a Swamp into his hand, plays Swamp, Gnarlid triggers, attacks with Gnarlid and Redeemer and Slaughter Drone and Channeler and Warcaller, Scion token blocks Warcaller, Elemental blocks Redeemer, Skyspawner blocks Channeler (-1 -14).

T1 Scot keeps Plains, Island, Ondu Rising, Gravity Negator, Clutch of Currents and two Blinding Drones. Plays Island.
T1 Tobey keeps Swamp, Forest, Bone Splinters, Slaughter Drone, Scion Summoner, Eyeless Watcher and Unnatural Endurance. Draws and plays Forest.
T2 Scot draws Tandem Tactics, plays Plains, plays Blinding Drone.
T2 Tobey draws and plays Swamp, plays Slaughter Drone.
T3 Scot draws and plays Island, plays Blinding Drone.
T3 Tobey draws and plays Swamp, plays Scion Summoner putting a 1/1 colorless Eldrazi Scion creature token onto the battlefield.
T4 Scot draws and plays Plains, plays Gravity Negator.
T4 Tobey draws Call the Scions, plays Forest, plays Eyeless Watcher putting two more Scion tokens onto the battlefield.
T5 Scot draws and plays Island, attacks with Gravity Negator (20-18), plays Clutch of Currents for its awaken cost targeting Slaughter Drone and putting three +1/+1 counters on a tapped Island making it an Elemental creature as well as a land.
T5 Tobey draws Tajuru Warcaller, plays Swamp, plays Slaughter Drone, plays Call the Scions putting two more Scion token creatures onto the battlefield.
T6 Scot draws and plays Wastes, plays Ondu Rising for its awaken cost putting four more counters on his Elemental Island, attacks with Island and Negator, Elemental Island blocked by a Scion token, Tobey sacrifices the blocking Scion token for a colorless mana, combat damage happens (22-16).
T6 Tobey draws and plays Swamp, plays Tajuru Warcaller, attacks with Slaughter Drone and Scion Summoner and Eyeless Watcher and four Scion tokens, Slaughter Drone blocked by Blinding Drone (3-16).
T7 Scot draws and plays Eldrazi Displacer.
T7 Tobey draws Oblivion Strike, attacks with Slaughter Drone and Scion Summoner and Eyeless Watcher and four Scion tokens, Island blocks Scion Summoner, Negator blocks Slaughter Drone, Blinding Drone blocks Eyeless Watcher, Eldrazi Displacer blocks Scion token, Scot plays Tandem Tactics targeting Blinding Drone and Eldrazi Displacer (5-16), Tobey sacrifices the token blocked by Displacer to give Slaughter Drone deathtouch until end of turn, Tobey plays Unnatural Endurance targeting an unblocked Scion token (0-16).

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