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Letting the Black Cat out of the Bag

Written by LegitMTG Staff on . Posted in Competitive Magic, Limited

Sweet, Sweet Product

In early December last year, I had the opportunity to tour a chocolate factory while in Florida. As part of the tour, you get an introduction to the production of chocolate as well as instructions on the “correct” technique for eating chocolate. Yes, you read that correctly. There is a right way and a wrong way to enjoy good chocolate, much like with good wine. Here’s the technique:

  1. First, smell the chocolate. This prepares your senses to get the most out of the experience.
  2. Second, snap the chocolate into smaller pieces.
  3. Third, take a piece of the chocolate and use your tongue to push it to the roof of your mouth. Hold it there with your tongue and let it melt down your tongue into your mouth.

Using this process, you should get a longer, more flavor-rich chocolate experience than the typical process of mashing it up with your teeth and swallowing. This is similar to wine tasting procedures which are designed to make the experience as full as possible–if not a bit namby pamby. Bottom line–if you want to get your money’s worth and enjoy something to its fullest, don’t just rip into it. Give it a smell first. Smell is strongly linked to memory. Engage your senses.

Because now they are handing out our booster packs. The next time you get a fresh pack at a pre-release, give it a smell. Does it remind you of you when you started playing Magic? Your first time playing a pre-release (mine was Urza’s Destiny!)? You might be surprised. I cringe whenever someone just opens a booster without having any fun with the thing. Just like the chocolate, you can get more out of the experience. Draft with a friend. Only have a few boosters? Pack Wars. Mental Magic. Anything. Make it fun. Even pick orders for a single pack are good practice and a little extra spice if you’re a limited player.

For example–and I promise I’ll get back to the sweet, sweet product in a minute–Serge is sitting next to me and has a random, unrelated Innistrad pack. While the Tournament Organizer is going over basic Sealed instructions, promotional announcements and the like, he opens up the Innistrad pack and we have a little pick order debate. The pack is not very strong and most everything is not a pack one pick one. We narrow it down to two cards:

  1. Civilized Scholar/Homicidal Brute
  2. Prey Upon

Serge picks Prey Upon. Serge’s rationale is that it’s removal and green is a solid color. It leaves you open for Travel Preparations, it’s good in the Memory’s Journey/Runic Repetition combo deck, good in any form of RG or UG Moonmist type deck. It’s a solid card. I pick Civilized Scholar. I really like blue in Innistrad and play a lot of UW, UB, UG and even UR when people hear that red is terrible and pass me Devil’s Play or Charmbreaker Devils. Looters are great on color or off color splashing and leave me the option of a more aggressive or controlling strategy, whereas I prefer Prey Upon largely in the UG deck. At any rate, we have a tie. So we ask Vish to weigh in and he snap calls the Scholar. 2-1, team Jekyll. What do you pick here? Leave a comment. I’m fairly sure this one is a straight up preference call.

But, yeah. Sweet, sweet product is laid in front of us and it’s finally time to build. Jason rips his open like a frenzied 10 year old. Meanwhile, from the other side of the room comes a lady yelling “SOOOORRRRIIIIIINNNNN!” in full-on “It’s a tiara!” voice. And then cheering. And then silence. And then the same voice lets out a “FOIL SOOORRRIIIINNNNN!” The ensuing cacophony of guttural enthusiasm reminds me of several key moments in professional sports history. If the store had a goal post, it would have been torn down and hauled out to someones car, I’m sure. It turns out the lady who opened the Sorins was the same person who sponsored the donuts. Cue a reference to karma. Or to that one loosely related Ratt song. I give my packs a sniff and hope for some action.

Then I fire off a tweet that we should treat Dark Ascension boosters as $2 in trade value. Think Worldwake, but without the man-lands. Perhaps 2Sorins lady sucked all the value out of the twenty person event, but Jason and I got total garbage, price-wise. Jason had the only mythic between the two of us. Unfortunately, it was Archangel’s Light. I help Jason assemble a Jund-colored Vampires/Werewolves deck. He’s my ten year old son, and he really likes Jund. His GW looks slightly stronger, but not by much. My main concern was the complexity of his Chosen of Markov and Vampire Aristocrat abilities being too complicated to wield correctly given his relatively low experience level with Limited and with complex combat math, sequencing and activated abilities.

And then I get down to my pool. My black and red are too thin to be a color and I have what looks to be about three to four interesting green cards. My UW doesn’t have a lot of obvious bombs, but looks solid. So the decision comes down to adding green for Bant and slightly higher card quality or running a few not-so-hot UW cards and staying in two colors. Considering my Loyal Cathar and Elite Inquisitor at WW and Stormbound Geist at 1UU, I decide to avoid the greed.

Here is the deck:


Avacynian Priest
Thraben Heretic
Loyal Cathar
Elite Inquisitor
Village Bell-Ringer
Gavony Ironwright
Niblis of the Mist
Voiceless Spirit
Elgaud Inquisitor
Selhoff Occultist
Stormbound Geist
Tower Geist
Makeshift Mauler
Galvanic Juggernaut


Moment of Heroism
Smite the Monstrous
Sudden Disappearance
Saving Grasp*
Silent Departure
Think Twice
Chant of the Skifsang

Artifacts Other Than Galvanic Juggernaut

Silver-Inlaid Dagger


8 Island
8 Plains

I put an asterisk on the Saving Grasp because this slot changed frequently and exclusively as my matches progressed. I’ll try to note the modifications, but the short summary is that my deck was so reliant on tempo that I never had the opportunity or mana to use it profitably in my games. So it didn’t last very long. But I wanted to start it in the list because part of the pre-release experience is evaluating new cards. I normally play 17 lands as a baseline, but in this case I felt comfortable with 16 based on my curve and the presence of Think Twice, Tower Geist and the Dagger.

This looks like a no-frills, nuts and bolts UW tempo deck with no real bombs but enough combat tricks to play my way to an x-1 finish. I’m comfortable with this approach because I have a lot of experience with UW in both Sealed and Draft and felt like I could play tight and squeak out some small edges. Let’s get some validation for that prognostication.

Playing with Matches

Round 1 – Lois w/ WBR

First off, I would like to apologize to Lois. I was seated at the table next to, but across from my son and spent an inordinate amount of time keeping an eye on what he was doing as he played against Vish. This lead to me missing a bunch of triggers that both hurt and helped each of us in turn. Not much changed as a result since we caught them, but it was sloppy on my part. She hadn’t played in a while and was rocking a head cold, but I should have been in it more than I was. After the match, I offered her part of my prize pool if I won anything–just out of professional embarrassment. She turned it down, though.

Game 1 – on the draw

I keep a pretty good opening hand with sufficient land in both colors, some early plays and a Makeshift Mauler. She mulligans, so things are looking good for me. She opens turn 2 with a Bloodcrazed Neonate. This has me pretty excited, since my prior experience with Innistrad tells me that the card is usually underwhelming. However, she follows with Stromkirk Captain, then kills both of my blockers with removal, making the Neonate too big for the Mauler, and eventually Flings the Neonate at my head.

I board out Saving Graps and bring in… I never thought I’d say this… Divine Reckoning.

Game 2 – on the play

As it turns out, I curve out beautifully, she gets stuck on lands and misses her third color and I steamroll her in an irrelevant fashion without losing a point of life. The only note that I write down is about her keep. It says “loose.”

My “consistency over power” gambit is working so far.

Game 3 – on the draw

This game was my startling introduction to the raw power of Fateful Hour as a mechanic. In case you aren’t familiar with Fateful Hour, here’s an example:

She gets her Stromkirk Captain down early again, despite a mulligan looking for mana. I end up getting her to overextend vampires into Divine Reckoning, but go very low on life due to Falkenrath Noble triggers (this was the sloppy part, we had to retrospectively catch up on those triggers and some Occultist triggers). I end up going down to 3 life, but then I play the Gavony Ironwright and a Lifelink guy who is now a 3/8 and claw my way back to victory in extra turns.

After the match, I asked Vish how Jason did and he said “pretty good, but he made some really awkward attacks.” Yeah, combat in limited is pretty tricky. I made a note to set up some games at home with Jason where I could teach him about this critical skill, but without making it obvious that I was teaching him anything. Parenting 101. Since Vish had a vampire sticker, Jason is converted to Team Edward.

Round 2 – Serge w/ WBR – on the play

I’m a bit worried about this match-up. Serge was sitting next to me during deck construction and we compared notes. His pool was much better than mine and he’s a very good deck builder and player. I like him well enough to forgive him constantly calling me “The Juice.” This nickname is a side effect of my name being so long that the Star City Games pairings list me as Duewel-Zahniser, Jus. At any rate, time to put the squeeze on Serge.

Game 1 – on the play

I curve out pretty well. Serge has a Selfless Cathar, which seems out of place in three colors. But then I see a Falkenrath Artistocrat.

And the Aristocrat does some dangerous things with the Cathar and a Haunted Fengraf, which I considered a little greedy in a three color deck. However, I am able to regain the tempo and take advantage of his eating of his own creatures and lands by putting the Aristocrat back on his library.

Then out comes a Geist-Honored Monk. But I have Sudden Disappearance and my army swings through empty battlefields for the win. I note down the following three cards: Geist-Honored Monk, Falkenrath Aristocrat and Burden of Guilt.

Game 2 – on the draw

Serge keeps a one-lander on the draw and only hits a second land. I plow through him with Thraben Heretic, Stormbound Geist and a Galvanic Juggernaut. My life total does not change.

After this game, I joke with Serge that I am now going to refer to myself as the Serge Suppressor. Whenever we play, he has significantly better cards and I consistently defeat him 2-0 regardless. I think it’s just an issue of small sample size and I inform him that I’m sure he’ll catch up soon enough. I check on Jason and he’s now 0-2. He’s debating switching his deck over to Green/White, but we decide to instead take advantage of the remaining time in the round to go get Chipotle. Serge tags along.

Round 3 – Ryan w/ Esper – on the draw

Ryan has some relationship with Lois that appears non-platonic. So this was a revenge match in my mind, even though he likely didn’t care.

Game 1 – on the draw

He has to mulligan, has land drop issues and I shatter him like wine glasses in a rhino stampede.

Game 2 – on the play

We both have to mulligan and play a long, hard-fought game. He takes the win, however, with Tragic Slip and Feeling of Dread swinging the combat in his favor. I note these two cards down. At this point, I also conclude that while Sudden Disappearance has been good all day, Feeling of Dread is still just better and I would rather have the common than the rare in my UW deck.

Game 3 – on the draw

I have to mulligan and keep a solid two-lander with a good curve and lots of early plays on the draw. And then I miss 4 land drops in a row, get too far behind and lose a non-interesting match. He does cast a Drogskol Reaver on the final turn. I stare at the Smite the Monstrous in my hand and giggle.

I check on Jason and he is now 0-3. He’s handling it fairly well, however and pulls the trigger on switching to the Green/White deck for the last round. We put it together and wait for pairings.

Round 4 – Vish w/ RG Werewolves – on the play

Jason lucks into the final round bye to end the day at 1-3. He comes over to watch me play against Vish, commenting wryly that the Green/White deck proved to have a better win rate. I remind him that leaning on my shoulder is okay, but talking directly into my ear drum may have long term side effects.

Vish and I look at the prize payouts and conclude that we should ID. The winner goes up one pack and the loser goes down one pack. So the total pool stays the same either way. So we ID and then play for fun. Our Tournament Organizer is a great guy and has a very generous prize pool for the pre-release (Jason even got a prize for his one win–very kid/casual friendly), so people really get to enjoy themselves. I stomp him decisively in two quick games, again abusing my Sudden Disappearance and plethora of flying spirits.

I collect my prize packs and trade my “surviving human” prize and a foil Strangleroot Geist to Vish for two of his prize packs. Yeah, yeah, yeah. I know they’re value garbage, but it’s still fun. I’d tell you what I got in those packs, but that’s not the fun news. The fun news is that 2Sorins lady went a whopping 1-0-3 on the day. A first round win followed by three draws. Lord of Innistrad, indeed. The Tournament Organizer jokes that this is the first time he’s ever had to pay out the prize tier for someone with three draws. Everyone laughs, including 2Sorins lady. A good time is had by all. And when it comes down to it, that’s exactly what we’re paying for.

Jason, Vish, Serge and I play a game of Ascension before the second sealed starts, in which I’m not playing. Jason gets revenge on the day by crushing us all by a healthy point margin. Vish comes in second place. A nice performance by Team Edward in the end.

Some Big First Impressions

  • Gavony Ironwright/Fateful Hour – this mechanic proved to be just as powerful as it looked on paper. Nearly killing someone is actually dangerous now. The Ironwright also proved to be better than I thought simply due to pairing him with Lifelink. This is a strategy that I will look for again in any future nuts and bolts WX decks.
  • Tower Geist– every bit of awesome that you’d imagine. A 2/2 flier for 3U isn’t amazing (see Moon Heron), but the ability to look at the next two cards, bin one and keep the other is perfect for the format. Here were some splits that were just perfect on the day:Land/Flashback spell. Need land, keep the land, use the flashback spell later.
    Land/Creature. Need land, keep the land, Skaab out the creature.
    Land/Flashback spell. Have enough land, keep the spell, use it twice.
  • Stormbound Geist/Undying – although a little tough on the mana at 1UU, this guy was a house. 2/2 and flying for three is solid, he spent most of the game racing and never really wanted to block and they were reluctant to chump and make him bigger. I would not play this in a three color deck and I’d be careful running it in a controlly strategy, but in a tempo/aggro deck I could hardly ask for more.
  • Griptide – I was hoping to get this in my pool and was thrilled to play a copy. I love Grasp of Phantoms and Silent Departure and having more in that vein is awesome. But wait. It’s a common. And an Instant? I’m in. This was good all day, blowing out double blocks, swinging tempo, sending back Skaabs with no more creatures in the yard. The jury is still out, but I’d almost consider splashing blue for this in much the same vein as splashing red for a Brimstone Volley.
  • Falkenrath Aristocrat – I ended up with mixed feelings about this card after playing against it. On the one hand, if you don’t have flying blockers or Reach, it presents quite a clock and the Indestructible option is more formidable than I thought, given the cost of eating one of your creatures. I think it clearly excels in a WBR deck where you can expect to have tokens and humans. You’re probably splashing for the third color. For example, a WR Rally/Burning Oil type aggro deck that runs some black for Aristocrat and some removal seems like the best placement. Here’s my concern, though: you invest a lot in making this very impressive, then you run out of sac outlets and lose it to Griptide, Silent Departure or just run out of sac outlets and have it killed or hit with Bonds of Faith or Claustrophia when it’s an X/3. You are setting yourself up to be blown out in exchange for a conditionally impressive, evasive clock. I would advise caution on this one and try not to stray too far from WbR or WBr if you give it a try.
  • Sudden Disappearance – this card ended a few games immediately that I might have otherwise won anyway, but might have lost as well. In general, I would prefer Feeling of Dread which can be used twice, can be used on offense or defense and is an instant. However, it is worth noting that Sudden Disappearance does very well against token strategies and can also be used to kill auras (yours or theirs) and un-attach equipment. The mana cost is quite high, though, so I would treat it purely as a finisher in an aggro/tempo strategy for now.
  • Loyal Cathar/Undying – I ended up with very mixed feelings about the Loyal Cathar. A two-drop 2/2 with Vigilance that turns into another creature should be a windmill slam, right? Although he pulled his own weight all day, I was left with a bad taste in my mouth. I think it’s simply the WW cost. This guy is relatively unimpressive after turn 2, given that the Undying side can’t block, doesn’t trade with much and has no evasion. It’s value, but I’d rather have a 1/1 spirit token even without flying, I think. I would be cautious about playing this in any deck where White is the second color and I would not likely play it in a more controlling strategy where I anticipate the the undying side would do a lot of not attacking and not blocking. But I look forward to giving this another shot and seeing if a larger sample size changes my opinion.
  • Stromkirk Captain – I was quite impressed with this card. I think it significantly upgrades the value of the vampires in the Innistrad packs. And, since you get to open Dark Ascension first, you can avoid the trap of picking a bunch of them and then failing to find a Captain later on. First strike is very relevant, especially against undying. The fact that vampires become highly unprofitable to block makes their +1/+1 ability even stronger. Time will tell, but I feel like this card can put RB aggro back on the map.
  • Niblis of the Mist – another card in the category of good tempo/aggro creatures. Without flash, this doesn’t count as a combat trick. But if you have a nice curve going, this is very much like a splash-able, flying Crossway Vampire. It shuts down a blocker to get some damage through and then still has evasion and chumps well enough. I don’t think I’d take this over a Chapel Geist, but I was impressed.
  • Tragic Slip – all the hype appears to be correct. Given the instant speed ability and the cheap cost, this card is not even remotely hard to maximize in Limited. I lost several 3-4 cost creatures to this card in the course of normal combat. Although I’m not a huge fan of Black as a color in Dark Ascension so far, this card is one of the shining exceptions.
  • Burning Oil – I was also impressed by this card when it was used against me. I think it’s thoroughly playable even without the white splash, but obviously even better with. Red and white have a reasonable amount of first strike which even further ups the value of this card when you pour oil on something large, then kill it with your first strike creature and get a .5-for-1 and a tempo upgrade. Between this card, Tragic Slip, the Stromkirk Captain and some of the new vampires, I think the R/B aggro deck and the R/B vampires decks in general might be a real thing now. I look forward to forcing it in draft to see if I’m correct.


Overall Thoughts on Dark Ascension

Innistrad was like this perfect, awesome, campy horror movie. I’m afraid that Dark Ascension suffers from the problem of all sequels. There’s nothing wrong with it, per se, but it’s obviously a sequel. Maybe I’m a grumpy 30-something gamer with kids who needs to camp out on the porch in a rocking chair with a shotgun, but I thought 3xINN was basically the best draft format ever. It’s like Rise of the Eldrazi, but with better story and flavor.

So perhaps I look upon Dark Ascension with a jaundiced eye. We’ll see if I still feel the same after the launch party. Obviously, Jason did the math on “more werewolves + more vampires = more awesome.” Oh to be 10 again. Will we still feel the same after the next event? Will he convert to the humans tribe, while I sell out my blue roots and force Vampire aggro? Stay tuned.


is out of the bag.

Justin Duewel-Zahniser

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