Lately, it seems, everybody’s been ragging on core set. August’s hot, people are looking forward to minty-fresh packs of Theros, with gods and monsters and, um, enchantments thundering about—and M14 seems like a pain-in-the-ass kid brother who can’t keep up.
I’m going to say it right here and now: I love M14.
There, I said it. And the gods did not strike me down.
As I was thinking about this week’s post, the word “fundamentals” kept running through my mind. Then, earlier this week, as I finally got around to getting all the way through last Friday’s Limited Resources podcast with LSV (definitely worth a listen), it turns out that those guys have fundamentals on their mind, too. LR host Marshall Sutcliffe even compared the annual summer core set to basketball camp, wherein the coach would emphasize fundamentals.
I never played basketball, but I was on the precision rifle drill team as part of Marine Corps Junior ROTC at Catholic High School for Boys. Yeah, that’s probably a big shocker for any of you who know me well, but it’s true: I was once a high-and-tight-having, shoe-shining, URAA!-shouting maniac. I dunno, I liked it. There was literally esprit de corps, and I appreciated the precision of the whole affair. Towards the end of school I was thinking about trying to get a Navy scholarship, but my love affair with books was growing, and one day I found myself thinking, “Wait—I don’t want to do this.”
No offense at all, of course, to anyone who does join the military; I’ve got mad respect for the people, including a brother of mine, who do. It just wasn’t my path.
But I digress. Each summer (and I swear I made this connection prior to the LR podcast) before school started, the drill team cadets would meet for two weeks in the hot August heat, every morning from 6–10am. The reason it was so early is that it’s basically impossible to do anything physical safely outside in Arkansas (where I’m from) in August after the hour of 10am, but also they probably did it because it was a fucker.
Here’s what we wore: white T-shirts tucked into khaki shorts, with regulation Marine Corps belts and black drill shoes. We looked like a bunch of idiots. And what we did on the blacktop of the school parking lot probably looked even dumber. If memory serves, we barely used rifles. We stood at attention a lot; we lined things up; we marched very precisely; we did insane numbers of push-ups. We practiced the same small moves with the rifles, when we did have them, over and over and over. (We were basically preparing for performances and competitions in the fall, wherein we would compete against other Junior ROTC teams from around the state and the region.)
In the fall, we would be doing really complex routines, tossing M-14 rifles between each other, behind our backs, over our heads, spinning them and snapping them, all while marching in formation in full dress blues, under stadium lights and with a crowd watching. We needed to not have to think about the little things; we needed the little things to be automatic. And, at least in part because of our summer training, they were.
That’s what core set—and M14 in particular, I think, more so than M10 through M13, given that M14’s returning “mechanic” is Slivers—provides. Core set is like Magic summer camp, where the fundamentals get reinforced, so that you don’t have to think about the little things in the fall, during sealed PTQ season for the new big fall set.
I had that experience this past FNM at Twenty Sided Store, where I drafted this smashy monstrosity in a six-man pod:
2 Predatory Sliver
2 Blur Sliver
1 Battle Sliver
1 Shivan Dragon
2 Advocate of the Beast
1 Briarpack Alpha
1 Giant Spider
1 Rumbling Baloth
1 Maruading Maulhorn
1 Lightning Talons
2 Hunt the Weak
1 Shiv’s Embrace
2 Volcanic Geyser
1 Regathan Firecat
1 Striking Sliver
1 Dragon Egg
1 Cyclops Tyrant
1 Pitchburn Devils
1 Brindle Boar
1 Groundshaker Sliver
1 Darksteel Ingot
1 Fleshpulper Giant
1 Dragon Hatchling
1 Verdant Haven
1 Lay of the Land
I first-picked Shivan Dragon, and then got shipped both the Mindsparker and the Witchstalker in subsequent packs, along with my second Volcanic Geyser. It was one of those rare drafts where I felt like I was in exactly the right two colors, even though Limited master Brendan, who’s been making some really helpful comments on this very blog over the past few months, was also in red (and blue), to my right.
There were approximately a million Acts of Treason spinning around the table, but I knew enough (fundamentals) to know that my deck didn’t want them. Sure, there definitely are formats (Return to Ravnica and Traitorous Instinct being one of them) where stealing a blocker and attacking with it is enough to get the job done, but Act of Treason isn’t in M14 for this reason, as your opponent will almost always have some random useless durdle hanging back to block the guy you’ve just Act of Treason-ed. I’d rather just have another smashy smasherson with which to smash in.
God, and nothing feels better than going Predatory Sliver into Blur Sliver. Swinging for five damage on turn three is fucking sweet.
In round one I faced Portland native Austin, who’s only been in town for a couple months, and who schlepped all the way down from Harlem (if I remember right) to play with the rest of the Twenty Siders. I appreciate that commitment.
Austin is relatively new to the game, and is mostly a Modern aficianado. Tonight, though, he drafted a GW build that unfortunately went a little too low on the curve, flattening out at three mana, and with too many low-impact one-drops (Gladecover Scout) without ways to capitalize on them (strong auras). Despite Austin’s occasionally scary multiple-Predatory Sliver draws, I was able to go over the top as my creatures climbed the curve, and won 2-0. After the match, I talked through Austin’s build with him, and advised him to get rid of the non-synergistic Gladecover Scouts and get those big beaters like Serra Angel (!) and Siege Mastodon in there. I dunno how Austin did after our match, but I hope his rebuild served him well.
In round two—uh-oh—I faced Brendan.
Tonight was actually the first time I’d met him in person, but I knew from his comments on this blog that he knew his stuff. We had a great three-game set that was too complex for me to remember everything that happened, but at one point I had out the aforementioned Predatory + Blur Sliver combo—and just attacked with the 3/3 Blur, not Predatory, into Brendan’s empty board, with four untapped red and blue mana up. Brendan nodded in acknowledgment of my read, and took three from the Blur Sliver before end-stepping a Nephalia Seakite.
At another point, I was at 10 life and Brendan was at somwhere less than 10, I think. I was sort of low on resources at this point, and needed the Marauding Maulhorn I’d just cast to live until next turn so keep up the pressure. He swung in with his own Maulhorn, and I mulled whether or not to block. I knew Brendan didn’t have a Volcanic Geyser, and I seemed to remember a few Lava Axes passing through him to me—so I calculated my odds. Sure, if he had the Lava Axe, he had the win—but I didn’t think he had it. And I needed my Maulhorn to live in order to win myself, or else rely on topdecking. So I took the damage, Brendan didn’t have the Axe, and I went on to win the game and the match. “I don’t suppose there was anyhing I could do to get you block there, huh?” said Brendan after that game was over.
I also took care, during our match, to sideboard out my enchantments, and bring in a Pitchburn Devils and a Thunder Strike. I didn’t want to given Brendan any openings to Time Ebb a guy of mine with a Shiv’s Embrace on him. Time Ebb is already enough of a beating without giving your opponent another card on top of it.
In the finals, I faced Richard.
He was on a somewhat scary RW build, with many many Suntail Hawks, Lightning Talons, and the like. In G1 he went Hawk, Hawk, Lightning Talons, and I couldn’t answer it. I felt bad, because my deck was good and I didn’t want to lose to Suntail Hawks; I just don’t think they are a good enough card. I forget the particulars, but I was able to blow out my opponent at one point in G3 by Volcanic Geyser-ing (for one) a Suntail Hawk whose Talons were about to get all Lightning-y.
3-0! I don’t care, I still get a thrill out of winning a draft, whether it’s at FNM or day two of a GP. But as I was saying about fundamentals—this deck in particular underlined a number of them, such as:
What land are you playing first?
In this deck I had a number of both double-red and double-green spells, including two of my premier three-drops, Witchstalker and Mindsparker. I had to think about which land to play on turn one and two, in order to prepare for potential double-green or double-red, as well as what two- or three-drops I might potentially draw in the next few turns.
What tricks are in the format?
Nothing feels better than getting a read on a trick, like when Brendan acknowledged my read on his Seakite. Earlier in the format, I thought I had a read on another Seakite from my blue-green opponent—and decided that it was OK, and attacked in … and promptly got one of my guys eaten by a Briarpack Alpha. You have to know which tricks are in your opponent’s color(s), and which tricks are going to matter, as many often don’t.
Which spells should you play, and in which order?
This is somewhat more subjective, of course, but it still makes for super-interesting decisions. At one point during my game with Brendan, I had in hand 2X Advocate of the Beast, a Giant Spider, a Pitchburn Devils, and a Battle Sliver. I had five mana and no lands in hand. I seem to remember really wanting to get an Advocate only the table, in order to pump a Maulhorn (again, I think)—but I also wanted to use up all of my mana, which in general is a good resource-management rule of thumb: In any given match, the person who spends the most mana is favored to win.
So I’m thinking, OK, I need to wait on the Advocate, because I want to spend all five mana this turn. But which five-drop to play? Pitchburn Devils is a good card to hold off on, because it represents a surprise three damage, which is exactly what you want as a smashy RG deck. So I decide to play the Battle Sliver, even though I knew whatever I played at this point would probably eat removal. The following turn I drew a land and dropped double Advocate. (Dave McCoy, passing our table at this point, asked, “Why’d you lawyer up?” Ha ha ha—I loved that.) Toward the end of the game Pitchburn came down and locked it up.
Maybe all of the above seems simple—and it is. But it’s still great practice. And I find the decisions about what card to play when, land or spell, to be just be endlessly fascinating. I think what really makes a genius player, as opposed to just a really good one, is this intuitive grasp of the most basic layers of the game—and so that’s why I will continue to keep on digging on M14, and welcome next summer’s core set similarly.
Finally, this is 20SS regular and all-around good guy Gene. He was pissed (not really) because he never seems to get paired up against any Hipsters, and therefore never gets his picture on the blog. SORTED, INNIT:
23/17 is a Hipsters of the Coast column focused on Limited play—primarily draft and sealed, but also cubing, 2HG, and anything else we can come up with. The name refers to the “Golden Ratio” of a Limited deck: 23 spells and 17 lands.