Always Early – 2HG Nationals Style

By Richard Early & Scott Moorhouse

This installment of “Always Early” brings a guest to the byline of the column. Scott and I teamed up to play at a Two-Headed Giant (2HG) side event at Magic: The Gathering U. S. Nationals in Minneapolis, MN. 2HG is an exciting multiplayer Magic: the Gathering variation. If you’re reading this and you don’t know what 2HG is, let me quickly explain — everybody else, skip to the next paragraph. 2HG, or Two Headed Giant, is a Magic team game in which you and a partner take shared turns and start with a shared life total of 30. You face off against other teams in best-of-one matches. Our favorite 2HG format is Sealed Deck. Each team gets 8 booster packs and constructs two 40 card minimum decks, one for each team member to play. I highly recommend trying it if you haven’t –check out our Scars of Mirrodin prerelease schedule for a chance to play 2HG Sealed Deck with the latest set. At Paradox, you even get to choose a name for your team, just one of the things that makes 2HG so awesome.

Our team, “Agent Olivia Dum-Dum,” began at Paradox’s Magic 2010 prerelease in 2009. This strange team name is a reference to Scott’s “favorite” television character, Agent Olivia Dunham of Fringe. As you can tell, he really likes cheap insults and puns. Fringe is Fox’s heir to “The X-Files” sci-fi investigation throne. However, Scott is an anti-fan of the actress Anna Torv, who plays the lead role, and continuity problems with the show were a frequent topic of conversation after each new episode. I have defended the character and the show strongly, and from this rift was born a team name.

Agent Olivia Dum-Dum has always had a winning record, but we were determined to improve with each tournament. Our debut performance at theM10 prerelease was 2-1. Our loss came in the last round when I mulliganed to 4. Our next outing as a team was the Zendikar prerelease: the result was a second 2-1 record, handed defeat by our opponents’ turn two Luminarch Ascension. (In 2HG, each teammate gets an upkeep –therefore Luminarch Ascension turns on twice as rapidly as it would normally.) When it was time for the Worldwake pre-release, we were bound and determined to improve our record. We were successful at achieving our first 3-0 record. The Rise of Eldrazi pre-release garnered another flawless 3-0 victory. The M11 prerelease saw us take our win streak to9 straight after the third round, and we both wondered if our streak could be extended to double digits. However, we were introduced to Serra Ascendant in round 3 and our streak had come to a grinding halt. We did successfully (unintentionally) cheat to kill the Ascendant by trying to combine Diminish with Pyroclasm, giving our team our first Failure to Understand Card Interactions achievement. However, even that was not enough to produce a win.

Neither of us have ever participated in a big Magic event and so with US Nationals on our doorstep, Scott prompted me to join him in a 2HG side event, and Agent Dum-Dum was on its way to the big leagues, ready to play for the grand prize of two xBox Elites. Nationals took place at the Minneapolis Convention Center. Its Hall A had previously been the home to Grand Prix Minneapolis in 2009. There were hundreds of players in attendance and lots of vendors. The main event was held in a roped off area of the room while all kinds of side events took up the rest of the tables. We got there a little more than an hour before our tournament was scheduled to start and had time to chat with friends. We got a great picture of many of our pals. And then the wait was over…

We ended up seated directly across from my brother Alex for deck construction. We got our tournament directions and our packs. At a big event like this one, you register a pool of cards and don’t get to play with the packs you open. That was fine since the packs we opened weren’t as good as the ones we got.

First things first, here’s our card pool we got to build from:

White is my favorite color in M11 and with this pool we aren’t going to play it. Our Blue is fine and Green is the deepest color, although those 3 copies of Naturalize could have been better cards. Bombs in the pool are Overwhelming Stampede, Chandra Nalaar, and Mind Control.

Our deck building strategy starts with judging the playability of each color’s cards. We do this by separating cards into three piles – “yes (playable),” “maybe (marginally playable),” “no way in hell (unplayable).” For example, Green has lots of cards we were happy to put in the “yes” pile: Obstinate Baloth, Overwhelming Stampede, Fauna Shaman,  Wurm x 3, Acidic Slime, and Cudgel Troll. These cards are all strong and powerful and I always want them in my deck. “Maybe” cards include Sacred Wolf, Nature’s Spiral, Prized Unicorn, Greater Basilisk, Naturalize, and Plummet. These cards are all OK but are limited by their durability or by their flexibility. Naturalize and Plummet are narrow while the Wolf has only 1 toughness. Greater Basilisk doesn’t do much but hold the fort. “No way in hell” pile cards include Dryad’s Favor, Fog, Runeclaw Bear, Wall of Vines, and Hornet’s Sting. These cards just don’t have a strong  enough impact on the game in any situation. The point is that the  quantity of cards is not the determining factor: quality counts. Sure, you have to have 8-12 playables in a color but you can imagine a pool where Red is the deepest in card quantity but you have no interest in the cards. In our case, our
White has a few strong removal spells but not enough creatures and our Green is both deep and good.

You may be tempted to play a single bomb and get trapped in a color. Your White may have Baneslayer Angel but only two or three other decent cards. Unless you can splash the Angel, you may have to give up on it. Our “yes,” “maybe,” “no way in hell” method should help with both these issues.

Creature quality in M11 is fairly easy to figure out. Scott’s test is simple: don’t play cards that can’t battle with Cloud Crusader and Azure Drake. This ties into my belief that ground creatures must have either 4 power or 4 toughness to be played in 2HG. You’ll notice we broke this rule a couple of times here but that should tell you something about the quality of this pool.

Cards like Combust, Celestial Purge, Flashfreeze, and Deathmark are all more playable in 2HG than they would normally be. Your opponents will be playing a minimum of 3-4 colors and sometimes all 5. This also means that all landwalkers are great, as in 2HG, the landwalk works if either member of the opposing team controls the appropriate land type. Bog Raiders, Harbor Serpent, and Volcanic Strength will almost always make our decks, and in fact, Harbor Serpent is an example of a real bomb in this format. Volcanic Strength added to a creature can create a really fast clock.

After some deliberation, these were the decks we took into battle:

Looking back, I don’t know how good this U/B deck was. We included Warlord’s Axe with the intention to make late Augury Owls and Specters into threats but it turned out that the costliness of putting the Axe to use combined with the short average length (in turns) of a 2HG game foiled this plan. We feel we would have been much happier with a cheaper though situational spell like Unsummon or Diminish in this spot. However, the Axe never seemed good, so even a situational spell might have been better. The Specters and Mind Rots are powerful here, and are definitely better in multiples. Mind Control is a legitimate bomb, but there’s no real power commons like Cancel or Azure Drake, nor are there great evasion creatures like Air Servant. There seemed to be too few good creatures to Gravedigger reliably, although trading Specters for ground guys such as Garruk’s Companion and bringing them back is good.

This deck is set up to provide disruption to the opponent’s plans with counters and discard, while adding some evasive guys to the board and using high power ground guys like Nether Horror to trade with opposing Wurms, Berserkers, or Stone Golem type dudes.

The R/G deck had the best cards but not enough dudes. If you’re going to play Overwhelming Stampede, you want dudes. If you’re going to play Fauna Shaman, you want dudes. This forced us to try to use Unicorn and Minotaur despite our feelings about these creatures. Fiery Hellhound would have been better than Minotaur because it interacts with the Cloak and lowers the deck’s mana curve. That Whispersilk Cloak was just part of this deck’s synergy, as putting it on any big ground guy can give the opponents trouble. Nature’s Spiral was a flexible spell that also let us recycle Chandra Nalaar. Assembling Sacred Wolf plus Shiv’s Embrace is going to be almost impossible to stop.

There was some thought of splashing the Pacifism and the Celestial Purge in this deck. There’s a Sunpetal Grove, a Ranger, and an Expanse so one Plains would seem fine. The problem is this deck has too many cards requiring double color casting cost so drawing the Plains would screw up casting these spells.  Therefore, with 30 colored mana symbols printed on our cards, we decided not to try this. The last change was replacing Plummet with Fling. Fling can kill fliers in a pinch, acting as a removal spell, but it can also help remove the opposing team by dealing 5-6 damage with Wurms.

Let the games begin: But don’t go first. The 2 cards your team gets on the draw outweigh anything that happens early in the game. Oh, except for one thing, which you’ll see later…

ROUND ONE

VS. B/U AND G/R

Our opponents opened by casting a turn 2 Child of Night followed up by a turn 3 Volcanic Strength followed by a turn 4 Vulshok Berserker. Volcanic Strength is good, but like any Aura it has problems with creating awkward situations and 2-for-1 possibilities.  We cast a Chandra’s Outrage to remove Child of Night during their next upkeep, but they were waiting with a Redirect. Fortunately, we countered with Negate. As a bonus, we clogged up their mana on their turn by using our cards optimally. We played a Spined Wurm which was shut down by Ice Cage. Our life total was getting low, but Chandra Nalaar hit the board and took over. Our opponents cast Foresee and found a Harbor Serpent to present a big threat, but we had another answer in Combust. Finally, we used Flashfreeze to counter an Ancient Hellkite to wrap it up.

RECORD: 1-0

ROUND 2

VS B/W AND U/R

These guys started off like mono-colored decks as one player ran out Swamp, Swamp, Swamp, and the other Island, Island, Island. Turns out Mr. Black was holding lots of double White goodies like Serra Angel and double Cloud Crusader. Meanwhile, Mr. Blue went digging for three mountains for his Ancient Hellkite.  He cast Foresee and Preordain in the same turn to try to find them, but came up empty.

The game opened with a Bloodthrone Vampire / Reassembling Skeleton threatening to dominate ground combat. We played a Manic Vandal and used Fling to kill the Vampire in order to stop that problem. The game stalemated for a while with their Blinding Mage blanking our Yavimaya Wurm. We Combusted the Blinding Mage to clear the way for Wurm only to have the Wurm eat an Assassinate.

We tapped out one turn and our opponents conferred over a ‘big’ play… which turned out to be Demolish targeting our Whispersilk Cloak. We were both thinking that if that is the worst damage that they could do, that this game should be in the bag.

We added Cudgel Troll to the board and carefully put Shiv’s Embrace on it, never leaving less than 2 Forests available.  They played an Air Servant to counter but we had Mind Control to steal it and things looked good. When they “borrowed” our Cudgel Troll with Act of Treason, we wondered what was about to happen next. We put 2 regeneration shields on the Cudgel Troll in response to the Act of Treason in order to prevent them from being able to Doom Blade it. Then, they attacked us with our Cudgel Troll and we felt compelled to chump block with their Air Servant to play around Fling, which would put us at critically low life. Even though no Fling came, we feel the block was still the right call.
Serra Angel was their last gasp to try to stay in the game, but we simply cleared it away with a topdecked Chandra’s Outrage and our 6-5 flying, firebreathing regenerator finished the game.

RECORD: 2-0

ROUND 3

VS. U/W AND B/R/G

The R/G deck opened a great hand: Fauna Shaman, Whispersilk Cloak, Greater Basilisk, Obstinate Baloth, and three lands.  The U/B deck opened with a Mana Leak, Negate, Nightwing Shade, and three lands of its own, but missed its fourth land drop. When our opponents cast a turn 3 Sacred Wolf, one of our heads snap accepted it while the other debated Mana Leak. Being stuck on three lands, the Leak would give the U/B deck something to do and the opportunity to tap out to play spells on successive turns.
Plus, Wolf can get out of control with some of the Auras in the set. The debate did not rage on for long, as the head in the player A seat was the one who had already said “ok!” As it turns out, the Wolf was enchanted by Volcanic Strength and turned into a 6 turn clock.

At least we got to win a counter war in the midgame to save our Obstinate Baloth from Chandra’s Outrage with that Mana Leak. They added none other than Baneslayer Angel to the board the turn after that and we’re really in it deep. At 19 life left, we have a debate.  We’ve got Overwhelming Stampede and we can hit with 3 stampeding guys for 21 plus Stone Golem and Nightwing Shade. However, at 25 life they can can block enough damage to survive. Instead we just attack with the Cloaked Baloth and Greater Basilisk. Surprisingly, their Aether Adept jumped in front and a helping hand from Giant Growth allowed it make the trade. They go to 14, which should still be low enough to Stampede them out the next turn. However, we need to get another attacker on board, so we creatively Nature’s Spiral back the Greater Basilisk and pitch it to Fauna Shaman to search our deck for our own Sacred Wolf, which we have enough mana to play on the same turn.

Our opponents have figured out what we are holding so they dump their hands on the board. White Knight, Assault Griffin, and Duskdale Wurm all show up to the party. We’re at 9 after the next Angel and Wolf hit so time’s up. We aren’t going to do lethal through their new blockers but need to force them to trade away the Duskdale Wurm. In order to do that, we need to make sure the 6/6 Shaman isn’t blocked by Duskdale Wurm so that it lives to counter attack. We decide to move the Cloak to the Shaman after casting Stampede to ensure it gets through.

During the attack, Duskdale Wurm blocks the 7/5 Sacred Wolf, Obstinate Baloth, Fauna Shaman, and Stone Golem get through for damage; Assault Griffin trades with Nightwng Shade and we lose a Gravedigger to White Night. This attack put our opponents to 5 with their White Knight, Baneslayer Angel and Sacred Wolf remaining. Fortunately, our precombat Foresee had drawn us an Assassinate to get rid of the tapped Angel after combat, making their counterattack non-lethal. However, our plans are thwarted when Pacifism takes our Baloth out of action. We topdeck a Chandra’s Outrage but they’re now just out of reach.

RECORD: 2-1

ROUND 4

VS. U/W AND B/R/G

The theme of this match was burrito eating. Not by us, but by our seemingly disinterested opposition. Two Sylvan Rangers by one of their heads failed to find the 2 mountains needed for Chandra’s Outrage which was sloppily revealed to us from hand. Canyon Minotaur ended up being good enough here while we ate their hands with double Liliana’s Specter and a Gravedigger to bring one back. The U/W deck produced some fliers, but Chandra Nalaar controlled the board in the midgame and came back with Nature’s Spiral for a real kick in the pants. Baloth joined the unimpressive Canyon Minotaur for our team and we started dealing 7 a turn. Once their hands were empty from our mass discard, Shiv’s Embrace hit Minotaur and quickly finished the game.

3-1

ROUND 5

VS U/W AND R/B

The final life total of this game was 64-0, and not in our favor. The good news is that the R/B player played Goblin Tunneler and Child of Night, annoying but not a huge problem. The bad news is that the U/W player dropped Serra’s Ascendant on turn 1. 6/6 flying, lifelinking dragons on turn one seem good. There’s not a lot to say here. Our particular pool was very vulnerable to this card. We don’t have Doom Blade, Pacifism, Blinding Mage, Condemn, or Lightning Bolt anywhere in the pool. We had one Assassinate in the deck which we decide to dig for with Augury Owl, Foresee, and Jace’s Ingenuity. Augury Owl on turn 2 chump blocks but their life total starts to balloon.

We opt to play a Liliana’s Specter over Foresee on turn four, as we have drawn into Chandra’s Outrage. The plan is to use Outrage to deal 4 to the Ascendant once it’s committed to the attack and then block with Specter to finish it off, but this is pretty fragile given the number of cards in their hands. They don’t even give us the option, instead casting their own Chandra’s Outrage on Liliana’s Specter first to clear the air. Turn five gives us the option to play Nightwing Shade or Jace’s Ingenuity but we decide the blocker is too crucial at this point. We attempt the Chandra’s Outrage play using the Nightwing Shade, but are thwarted by Negate and take 6 more.

Our last hope is to enchant Sylvan Ranger with Shiv’s Embrace, double block and pump once to kill the stupid Ascendant. But it doesn’t really matter because we’re at 4 and one of their heads has already had plenty of time to Diabolic Tutor for something which assuredly is going to be bad for us. As it turns out, that thing was Fireball, and he topdecked a fifth land to end our misery.

We had a fair chance to stabilize the board at this point through our discard spells but it’s pretty hard to imagine that over  the course of having to deal 60+ damage, something bad would not happen to us.

After finishing us with Fireball, our opponents shared a “still had all these” moment by showing us their hands of Doom Blade, Mind Control, and double Condemn.

3-2

SUMMARY

Decks with bombs are kind of the key to 2HG in this format. Yeah, play skill can get you a long way, but the problem is that sometimes card quality is too strong. Serra Ascendant is perhaps the most unfair 2HG card ever. The previous holder of that title was Luminarch Ascension. That card was awfully good because by turn 3 you could start cranking out 4/4 fliers, but there was more hope to disrupt the Ascension with even a 1/1 creature.  Ascendant demands immediate attention from Doom Blade, Pacifism, Blinding Mage, or Condemn. Maybe a Lightning Bolt to the face or even a really bad Hornet Sting could buy some time. Chump blockers don’t get you very far as the life total still gets away from you.

I had never been to Nationals before. In fact, this was the first major WotC event for either one of us. It was pretty cool to see famous Magic names like Brian Kibler and Luis Scott-Vargas just hanging out at the tournament site. We’re friends with Brad Nelson and it’s funny to see this guy that we have known for a long time as he hanging out like “just one of the guys” with all these pros.

The venue was very classy and things were run well. There were side events running all day, and they were well managed. This helped make the atmosphere very friendly for newcomers. Things were pretty laid back and it was good opportunity to take part in a big event.

That’s all she wrote. Thanks to Scott for an awesome trip and tourney experience and the help writing and editing this article. Hope you guys enjoyed reading it as much as we did writing it. Now go play 2HG!