Feature Article from Jackie Lee

Why Avacyn Restored Makes You Want To Punch Cute Animals

Jackie Lee

6/12/2012 1:52:00 AM

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You're a good person.

Or so you thought.

You can't remember the last time you were so enraged by a draft. This once-harmless activity now has you taking out anger on your family... and the internet.

It wasn't always like this. You remember a happier time. Life used to be like an antihistamine commercial; full of happy women in green fields, and topped off with a lens flare.

Full Details for TCGplayer.com MaxPoint Diamond Open $5K - Orlando

“Where did I go wrong?” you stammer, half naked and covered in yesterday's lunch.

That question is a bit outside the scope of this article.

But hey—why don't we talk about Avacyn Restored?

Variance and You

I've seen a lot of people upset about this Limited format. They say things like, “This deck looks good, yet I went 0-3. I just don't understand.” These are people who are not new to draft; they range from draft veterans to pros.

The answer is variance. The same property that makes Magic fun and interesting can also be incredibly frustrating, when taken to an extreme.

So what is causing this unusually high variance? In a word: Miracles.

See you next week, everyone.

Sorry, what? We're not even close to done? Well, gosh.

Thankfully, the issue extends much further than a single mechanic.

1. Binary Cards

Let's try an exercise. First, forget everything you've heard about Thatcher Revolt.

Now, look at the card.

 Thatcher Revolt
Store QTY Price  
DarkConfidant 4 $0.03
MTGCCG and More 16 $0.04
Good Times 4 $0.05
UniqueFindsAndDeals 1 $0.05
Silver Stock 4 $0.05
Ulrich and Helvas 4 $0.05
Katts cards 2 $0.05
Golden Phoenix Games 2 $0.05
BaT Comics Games 5 $0.05
Good Times 5 $0.06
Magic MTG Card
Magic MTG Card Thatcher Revolt Magic MTG Card
Magic MTG Card

This card is teeeeeeerrible. It's like a Lightning Bolt that costs 3, plus your opponent can block parts of it. Yet somehow, it is getting drafted very highly. Why? Cathar's Crusade, Goldknight Commander, Vigilante Justice, Havengul Vampire, Kruin Striker, and Riot Ringleader.

Essentially, Avacyn Restored is designed to take advantage of Thatcher Revolt, and when you get the appropriate pieces together, the card is actually backbreaking.

The problem is, you have to get the parts together, and it's not like there are a wealth of them. In the above list, one is a rare and three are uncommon. Cathar's Crusade and Goldknight Commander, which are potentially the strongest pairing options, require that your secondary color be white. That's even more restrictive.

How about during gameplay? Well, you still have to draw both cards, and you have to play them in the right order. The Thatcher Revolt sits in your hand, because three puny creatures that die at end of turn are equivalent to “a stinky dog turd.” However, if you managed to get a Goldknight Commander into play, you get three hasty giants that are either killing or edicting your opponent, while the rest of your team undergoes a virtual Overrun. In other words, “Now entering: Blowout City.”

Avacyn Restored is full of these janky combos, meaning your cards either great, mediocre, or worse. Flowering Lumberknot is another example, as it can be a ridiculous, undercosted monster. Alternatively, it's a 4-drop that's as combat-worthy as an unkempt topiary, except it also encourages you to play Diregraf Escort. See: “a stinky dog turd.”

Spectral Prison is another card that's either on or off. A lot of times, it will actually pass as decent removal. However, if you're not lucky, your opponent will have a pump spell, ensuring that your enchantment does nothing. In the very worst instances, your opponent will cast Fleeting Distraction to cantrip or Cloudshift to surprise-block.

Vigilante Justice is a slow card that requires you to play really awkwardly or draw very well. After casting the enchantment, you have a few options for turn 5.

On Magic Online, the lattermost option is the most popular. Regardless, the variety of options here illustrates the swinginess of the card. You're either killing creatures by the sackful or taking useless, non-game actions such as “seethe.”

Avacyn Restored is full of these cards, whose power level is incredibly binary. When they aren't killing your opponent, they're often killing you because of how ineffectual they are without their other halves. At Pro Tour: Avacyn Restored in Barcelona, Osyp Lebedowicz' loss to LSV occurred in part because he was enticed by the defensive power of a switched-on Flowering Lumberknot. Had he simply played the more power-normative Elgaud Shieldmate, both his blockers would not have been removed at once by LSV's Human Frailty. (I don't think his victory would have been assured at this point, but if Luis drew poorly, Osyp would have been able to outrace him.)

2. The Unplayable Bottom of the Barrel

In Avacyn Restored, it's not unusual to open a pack with a sweet rare, a notable uncommon, and then a pile of garbage in the shape of cards. Compare this to Innistrad, in which a weak pack had 4-5 cards you didn't want to draft. Dark Ascension had the “junk commons” problem, too, which is why some Sealed pools with Dark Ascension were nigh-unplayable, while others contained Sorin, Lord of Innistrad, Vault of the Archangel, and double Lingering Souls.

You might argue that some people just open bombs, and that's no different from any Sealed format. However, in straight Innistrad, the most important thing to look for was overall depth. The Sealed pool that David Ochoa went undefeated with at GP Austin contained a Mentor of the Meek as its sole rare. The commons and uncommons of Innistrad had such a high average power level that if you built a synergistic deck and played it well, you could win despite not having an abundance of disgusting rares. Craig Edwards had a similarly undefeated deck, which was had Devil's Play and a solid base of mostly common creatures. He splashed black for a Sever the Bloodline that could probably never be flashed back and a pair of Unburial Rites to Reanimate... his Mausoleum Guards. This is a solid creature that isn't overwhelmingly powerful, but can excel through synergies like Demonmail Hauberk.

At GP Malmö (Avacyn Restored), PV had the worst sealed pool I've ever seen. He had to splash green for three cards, including the ever-spicy Wildwood Geist and Geist Trappers. Into the Void was pretty bad in his deck, because as it turns out, bounce is significantly less exciting when you don't have any creatures on the table.

In fact, the power level is so disparate between the average rare and common that if you switch colors more than a few picks into the draft, you'll end up playing cards like Rotcrown Ghoul to fill out your 23. Also, remember what I said about binary cards? That's especially relevant, because if your cards are typically zeroes and not ones, they might as well be called 'unplayable.' This happens when you don't draft enough of the necessary synergies. As an example, I drafted the dreaded “two Flowering Lumberknot and only six Soulbond creatures” deck in Barcelona, which finished 2-1. In the matches I won, I was fortunate enough to draw a Soulbond creature and have it be allowed to survive. Still, six Soulbond creatures is really the bare minimum for this deck to work, and if your opponent drafted any removal at all, your board can go from very good to very bad.

Deadwaters is another “unplayable” card that doesn't affect the board. However, if you manage to get enough of them, it will seem like you were secretly drafting Coldsnap. Again, though, you still have to draw enough of them, and you can't stall out on lands. The cards don't do anything until you cast the final Deadwaters, at which point you instantly win. Extremely binary.

In conclusion, if unplayable Avacyn Restored cards were unsellable Atari games, they would probably be in a landfill instead of your draft. Since that's not the case, the game becomes a crapshoot—both in terms of what you open in draft and how well you draw. Your opening hand will play a huge part in whether the game goes well or poorly, which is part of the reason games often end as early as turn 7.

3. Rock-Paper-Signals

Signaling is especially difficult because of the domineering strength of certain rares and uncommons, compared to most of the commons. If you open a sweet angel, you won't immediately start picking Kruin Strikers because red seems “more open.” Because of the low number of playables, you won't have a strong handle on what is or is not open until it's pretty much too late. This gives the drafting portion a “Rock-Paper-Scissors” feel, where everyone just guesses and hopes they chose the right colors.

What's more, a recent study by Matthew Watkins has shown that RUG colors have the highest win percentage on Magic Online. So, in this game of Rock-Paper-Scissors, each option is not created equal. That's an additional headache that you must factor in while drafting. Yes, you pick a sweet angel, but if white isn't very open, you may end up with a weak deck that often loses before getting a chance to cast it.

Black is another great example of the importance of being in the right colors. Commentators have thrilled at the opportunity to talk about how bad it is, and it has the lowest win percentage on Magic Online. However, during our testing for PT AVR, the finalist draft decks were almost always black. Many of the pros I spoke with had a similar experience. A friend, Nick Cuenca, finished 22nd at GP Malmö by drafting black twice. If black is very bad unless you draft it deeply, then people are unlikely to take it. Therefore, the person who opens Homicidal Seclusion will end up with all of the black at the table.

During GP Malmö, I had a firsthand experience of not being in the right colors. In a draft that was caught on video, I was solidly white, having chosen powerful blue cards like Tandem Lookout and Into the Void. Later, I decided to go red/white, after having already passed a Kruin Striker for a generally more powerful blue card. If I had solidified my colors earlier, I might have performed better than 1-2 in the draft.

What Recourse Do We Have?

In summary, Avacyn Restored is swingy for a variety of reasons, and the “whoops, a Miracle” effect is just the icing on the fickle-cake. The set is already quite high-variance, even before considering cards that are randomly either great or uncastable. Actually, the Miracles themselves aren't even a huge problem outside of mythic cards like Entreat the Angels, whose power level increases considerably with a successful topdeck. Most of the uncommon run are only a bit better when Miracled for 1, and later in the game, they tend to function better as instant-speed tricks.

Despite the frustrating nature of Avacyn Restored, I don't intend to quit drafting entirely until the release of M13. It may not be as much of a great success as Innistrad, but it's still the game we know and love. It is my hope that having a better understanding of what is going on with Avacyn Restored will help you draft more effectively and enjoyably. High variance means there is a lot outside of our control, but as always, we can mitigate its effects. Poker theorist David Sklansky wrote, “...expert players do not rely on luck. They are at war with luck.”

There are many things you can do to win this war, starting with draft. Understand how important your choice of color will be from the outset to avoid playing with low-power cards. If possible, stay within RUG colors. If you draft binary cards, prioritize getting more cards to make them work. Draft a low curve to increase the likelihood that your opening hand contains a lot of fast options. This is harder to do, with the decreased number of 2-drops, but that's why it merits more careful attention.

Although black is considered the weakest color, it can also be quite strong. Remember, Watkins' data only showed that most black decks are unsuccessful. If you get the opportunity to draft the crazy Homicidal Seclusion, double Barter in Blood deck, you should go for it. I think that a huge part of making black work in Avacyn Restored is understanding how it works. If you get all giddy about having Bone Splinters and Undead Executioner, you may be forgetting that this “best case scenario” is actually just card parity. Your two cards trade with your opponent's two cards. And don't forget about the worst case scenario, in which you two-for-one yourself. By understanding that black is about incremental advantages and is built around delicate (and potentially slow) interactions, you can be more careful about having the creatures to back up your removal. This counts for both offensive creatures and utility creatures. Green is the most successful color to pair with black, likely because its creatures allow you to save your removal for emergencies. Additionally, although Butcher Ghoul resembles an overcosted, more decrepit Young Wolf, it's actually so important to the archetype that you need to pick it about 4th or 5th. Often, you really ought to be picking it over Searchlight Geist, which is not obvious at all.

Finally, if you are unhappy with Avacyn Restored, I suggest you to write to Wizards of the Coast. They take pride in Magic as much as we take pleasure from it, and their ultimate goal is to create an enjoyable game with strategic depth. I'm sure they would welcome your constructive criticisms, because it would help them do an even better job in the future. And that's good for everybody.

Until next time, may your drafts be successful and your heart be warmed by cute animals.

Love and battle,
Jackie Lee——
@JackieL33 on Twitter