Tuesday, July 31, 2018

If the Season Ended Today 2018 AL Division Series

Of the teams that would be guaranteed to face each other in one of the American League Division Serieses if the season ended today (but also at the All-Star Break, when this feature is based) one has a fairly insurmountable lead in their division, while the other got off to a tremendous start, but has since seen their competition surge forward. In fact, the former team (the Indians) doesn't even have a better record than the THIRD PLACE team in the division of the latter team (the Astros). But that bit of trivia doesn't mean that one team would steamroll the other were they to match up in a best of five series. Let's check out the roster of:

If it sounds crazy that Houston may have gotten even better than the season where they became the defending World Champions, just remember that we're living in a crazy world. The 'Stros sent six (6!) players to the All-Star game this year, which is a total only matched by (spoiler alert) their projected opponents in this ALDS. Of those six, the only fan-elected starter was diminutive second baseman Jose Altuve, who actually just went on the disabled list for the first time in his career last week. Ace pitcher Justin Verlander was deemed unavailable due to scheduling concerns, and last year's Game 7 hero Charlie Morton was only brought in as a replacement for Aroldis Chapman, and ended up with the first of two blown saves on the night. 2017 World Series MVP George Springer and the AL's lone Home Run Derby participant Alex Bregman both made it via the player ballot, and each player drove in a run during the proceedings. Offseason acquisition Gerrit Cole was the main reason for this team's year-over-year improvements, but his own manager, A.J. Hinch, chose not to utilize him in the All-Star Game.

I n terms of non All-Star acquisitions, Hector Rondon had taken over as the team's closer due to the struggles (and subsequent demotion) of Ken Giles (518 fantasy points in the majors this year, 15.2 points per game). But Rondon will likely be ousted from that role this coming Sunday, when the newest member of the Astros, Roberto Osuna (404 / 26.9), is eligible to come off the Restricted List. The former Blue Jays closer is serving a 75-game domestic violence suspension - a crime for which he is still facing criminal charges and possibly jail time - yet unlike players who have been caught using performance enhancing drugs, Osuna WILL be eligible for the postseason (a gross moral oversight on MLB's part, at least from the perspective of this Philosophy major with a concentration in Ethics). In a less controversial bullpen move, General Manager Jeff Luhnow also just recently acquired high spin rate specialist Ryan Pressly (391 / 8.1) from the Twins. If there's a way to imagine the above-presented lineup getting EVEN BETTER, it's looking forward to the DL activations of shortstop Carlos Correa (977 / 13.4) - whose position is currently being filled by Marwin Gonzalez - and catcher Brian McCann (302 / 6.0) - although the latter's absence was made easier to stomach with the trade that brought in former Gold Glove winner Martin Maldonado (493 / 6.7) from the Angels. Oh, and also consider that the four-man playoff-style rotation I listed above doesn't even include former Cy Young Award winner Dallas Keuchel (899 / 45.0).

As I mentioned above, Cleveland, like Houston, had six All-Star representatives this year, and also like Houston, just one was a fan-elected starter: MLB offensive fantasy point leader Jose Ramirez. In yet another similarity to the defending champs, ace Corey Kluber was unavailable, but the Indians had one more replacement player than the Astros did: emergent co-ace Trevor Bauer stepped in for Verlander (ironically enough) and backstop Yan Gomes took the roster spot (but not the starting lineup spot) of injured fan-elected catcher Wilson Ramos (929 / 11.9). Player Ballot honorees Francisco Lindor and Michael Brantley saw action as late inning replacements, but a sacrifice fly by the latter was the only notable production from the pair.

As is apparent from the ragtag pair of relievers listed behind closer Cody Allen, the bullpen has been a source of weakness all year for Cleveland, owing in no small part to the injury (and ineffectiveness when healthy) of lefty relief ace Andrew Miller (114 / 6.7). Could it be that two postseasons in a row of blatant overuse is finally catching up to him? Either way GM Chris Antonetti went and picked up another lights-out lefty arm for skipper Terry Francona to abuse in the form of Brad Hand (1,190 / 29.0), plus first-year rookie Adam Cimber (463 / 11.0) from the Padres shortly after the break. Miller isn't the only significant injury to befall the Tribe, as both projected right fielder Lonnie Chisenhall (255 / 8.8) and center fielder Bradley Zimmer (220 / 6.5) have both gone down long term, testing the integrity of the team's bench bats (also including Greg Allen, 227 / 5.0) and minor league depth (i.e. Melky Cabrera, 123 / 7.2). Does anyone else see a trade of Adam Jones (878 / 9.5) as a natural fit?

Only one more post to follow: the top-seeded teams in both leagues!

Sunday, July 29, 2018

If the Season Ended Today 2018 NL Division Series

If the 2018 MLB season ended at the All-Star Break, the participants in the NL Division Series (the one that would not involve a Wild Card team) would be separated by just a half game: the Phillies and the the Dodgers had the same number of wins, but Philadelphia had one fewer game in the loss column. Looking at the standings heading into play this Sunday, that's in fact still the case. The last time these two teams faced each other in the playoffs, the Los Angeles lost two straight NLCS matchups in 2008-09, but needless to say, there have been wholesale changes to each organization in the decade since. Let's check out the Dodgers lineup that will hope to reverse the recent historical trends of the postseason meetings between these two teams.

This Dodgers team hinges on positional versatility, as evidenced by the fact that the above lineup makes no sense if you look only at the Position 1 column. In order to make this particular group of players work, no fewer than three players would have to rely on their secondary position: Cody Bellinger would need to move from first base to center field to make room for breakout Home Run Derby participant Max Muncy. All-Star starting left fielder Matt Kemp would have to shift across the outfield to accommodate Joc Pederson in left - at least that was the case until regular right fielder Yasiel Puig returned from the disabled list this weekend, who has 835 fantasy points on the year, with 11.5 points per game. And utility player Enrique Hernandez is currently the top scoring second base option, relegating Chase Utley and Logan Forsythe (293 / 4.7) to bench/DH roles. Of course this whole calculus changes with the post-All-Star Game acquisition of Manny Machado (1,524 / 15.9), fresh off representing the Orioles as the starting shortstop for the AL All-Star squad, as a replacement for the injured Corey Seager (272 / 10.5).

The order of the starting pitchers presented above is somewhat skewed, given that they're organized by total points. Ross Stripling has had a tremendous season, despite picking up the loss in the All-Star Game, but Clayton Kershaw would clearly start Game 1 of any playoff series, health permitting. If we go by last year's playoff usage, Kenta Maeda would be relegated to the bullpen in favor of Rich Hill (350 / 29.2), but this year, manager Dave Roberts will hopefully also have to factor in rookie Walker Buehler (597 / 54.3) and currently injured Hyun-Jin Ryu (443 / 73.8) into his postseason plans. This team's bullpen has been something of a work in progress, beyond All-Star closer Kenley Jansen - LA has already acquired five different relievers midseason, including the above-pictured Dylan Floro (who was actually recently optioned to the minors). With just four days to go until the trade deadline, I would be surprised if GM Farhan Zaidi was done tinkering.

Of all the offenses we've looked at so far, Philadelphia's might be the least impacted by injury. Former top prospect J.P. Crawford (213 / 6.3) is currently on the 10-day DL, but he had already been leaprogged in the team's infield depth chart by just-graduated prospect Scott Kingery, who signed a multi-year extension with the club this offseason before appearing in a single Major League game. The offseason signing of Carlos Santana pushed Rhys Hoskins into the outfield full time, which hasn't led to a dropoff in power, as evidenced by his Home Run Derby participation this year. Center fielder Odubel Herrera is in the midst of a breakout season, and even the much maligned Maikel Franco is putting up decent numbers. If this team has an obvious weak link, it's in the outfield, where neither Nick Williams nor (especially) Aaron Altherr are living up to expectations... which is why it was surprising to me that GM Matt Klentak's biggest midseason acquisition so far was infielder Asdrubal Cabrera (1,094 / 11.9) from the division rival Mets.

It was also surprising that a first place team would have just one All-Star representative, but Aaron Nola was no token choice: he was in fact the sixth most productive starting pitcher in all of baseball at the break, according to fantasy points. Jake Arrieta hasn't quite lived up to the hype since signing a late free agent deal this spring, but he has served as a solid mid-rotation piece for first year manager Gabe Kapler. But the most surprising story of this pitching staff is the emergence of Zach Eflin (801 / 66.8), who just came off the DL to round out a very impressive starting five. The second-most surprising Phillies pitching story is the DE-mergence of Hector Neris (398 / 12.1) who not only lost his closer role to first year rookie Seranthony Dominguez, but was also optioned to the minor leagues prior to the break. Dominguez (Philly's #30 ranked prospect heading into the season) and fellow rookie reliever Victor Arano (#28) have held their own this year, joining veterans Tommy Hunter and Pat Neshek, but this strikes me as another team that could stand to pursue some bullpen help at the deadline.

Next time, I'll take a look at the AL Division Series, non-Wild Card edition.

Saturday, July 28, 2018

If the Season Ended Today 2018 AL Wild Card

Previous Post: NL Wild Card

The American League Wild Card situation was somewhat more settled than the National League at the All-Star Break, with the Yankees and the Mariners trailing two of the league's most powerful superteams (the Red Sox and the Astros, respectively). If we were using today's date as the cutoff (as opposed to the All-Star Break), things would have tightened up a little, given the otherworldly play of the A's recently, but this would still be the matchup if the season ended TODAY today.

The Yankees had four players selected to the 2018 AL All-Star Team, but only two appeared in the game: starting outfielder Aaron Judge and ace pitcher Luis Severino. Closer Aroldis Chapman and star rookie infielder Gleyber Torres (816 points on the year, 13.0 points per game) were also elected via the player ballot, but were deemed unavailable for the proceedings. Torres was replaced on the All-Star roster by Oakland second baseman Jed Lowrie (1,196 / 12.7), whose team is currently just 1.5 games behind Seattle for the right to face New York in this game. In real-life, Torres has since been activated, but while he was on the shelf, offseason acquisition Neil Walker covered second base. Another injured starter who has been activated since the All-Star Break is catcher Gary Sanchez (728 / 11.6), but he was actually since placed BACK on the DL just days later, so it's going to be more Andrew Romine for the Bronx Bombers. Speaking of bombers, perhaps the biggest blockbuster acquisition of the offseason, Giancarlo Stanton, hasn't exactly lived up to the expectations since arriving in New York, but he's still a formidable force in the middle of the lineup.

While I'm sure every Yankee would prefer that their team surge forward and win the AL East rather than having to fight their way through a one game playoff, I'll bet Luis Severino would relish a second chance at a Wild Card Game, after making it through just 1/3 of an inning in last year's contest against the Twins. If New York should so happen to make it into the divisional round again, their best bet to start Game 1 would be Masahiro Tanaka, who has shown flashes of brilliance this year, or CC Sabathia, an 18-year veteran whose knee has given him so much trouble that he has at times contemplated retirement. As of the All-Star Break, manager Aaron Boone's best option for a number four starter would be the extremely disappointing Sonny Gray, but the trade market has been active since play resumed, and GM Brian Cashman just swung a deal with the Blue Jays two days ago to net lefty starter J.A. Happ (1,038 / 54.6) to shore up the middle/back of the rotation. Similarly, in the bullpen, if we extend the cutoff from the All-Star Break to Present Day, the Yankees would have access to a SECOND shutdown lefty reliever behind Chapman: former Orioles closer Zach Britton (249 / 16.6), whose numbers are less impressive than normal due to his recovery from offseason knee surgery.

Like New York, Seattle also had four All-Stars on the 2018 AL roster, but unlike New York, all four of them played in the game. Closer Edwin Diaz earned ("earned") the win, after also blowing the save in the ninth inning. (Incidentally, the game was closed up by the newest member of the Yankees, J.A. Happ, who was representing Toronto in the game.) Final Vote winner Jean Segura hit a big pinch hit home run that likely would have earned him All-Star Game MVP, if not for his teammate's late inning collapse. And Player Ballot recipients Mitch Haniger and Nelson Cruz combined for three plate appearances with one time reaching base between them (a walk by Cruz). The two players with cyan shading in their Last Name column shows that the game's busiest GM Jerry Dipoto has been at it again, striking an early deal with the Rays to net an outfielder and a late inning reliever.

The addition of Denard Span is especially important since the PED suspension of Robinson Cano (488 / 12.5) forced offseason acquisition Dee Gordon to move from center field back to his old position of second base, thinning out the outfield depth - although that still hasn't tempted manager Scott Servais to deploy Cruz in the outfield for even a single inning, causing his fantasy stock to suffer. On the injury front, the Mariners have seen significant losses, both on the mound and behind the plate. As impressive as Marco Gonzales has been this year, all things being equal (i.e. healthy), the clear choice to start a one-game playoff would be James Paxton (1,295 / 64.8). And of course possible Hall of Famer Felix Hernandez (656 / 34.5) would be a much better option to round out a playoff rotation (or even serve as a tag-team long reliever, given Wade LeBlanc's strong season) than whatever replacement level minor leaguers happen to be hanging around. And lastly (at least alphabetically), catcher Mike Zunino (435 / 7.3) has been activated in real life, but he remains sadly unavailable for this particular thought experiment.

National League Division Series coming up next!

Thursday, July 26, 2018

If the Season Ended Today 2018 NL Wild Card

As someone who is used to having the MLB All-Star Game fall on or around my birthday, I couldn't help but notice that this year's festivities occurred later than usual. I'm aware that the All-Star Break has always happened several games after the season's mathematical midpoint, but this extra week makes it harder to refer to pre-break baseball as the "first half," even symbolically. However, this later midsummer classic provides a broader statistical baseline for a feature that I've returned to sporadically over the years: If the Season Ended Today! I'm considering "today" to be "the All-Star Break," because that's when I took a snapshot of rosters, stats, and defensive positioning and updated my patented baseball database, a task that has taken me the better part of the last 10 days.

I'm starting with the NL Wild Card game because it involved some of the closest playoff race at the break. The Brewers, who challenged for a wild card spot last year, had secured a one game lead, but behind them were four teams contending for three spots that were separated by less than a full game in the standings. In the NL East, the division of two of the season's most surprising contenders, the Phillies led the Braves by just a half game, while out west, the Diamondbacks trailed the Dodgers by the same amount. But given the precise winning percentages as of the 2018 All-Star Break, the NL Wild Card Game would be Milwaukee vs. Atlanta. Let's start with the Braves because a) they come first alphabetically, b) they would be the away team in this scenario, and c) however else I want to justify starting with the Braves.

Since this experiment is all about the All-Star Break, it's worth noting that the Atlanta roster has four All-Stars: fan-elected starters Freddie Freeman and Nick Markakis (making his first All-Star appearance) join fun-loving second baseman Ozzie Albies and staff ace Mike Foltynewicz, who made it via the player ballot. The green shading in superprospect Ronald Acuna's Position 1 column denotes his rookie status, the green in Pos 2 indicates that he was just added to my database this previous offseason (as a non-roster invitee to Spring Training), and the italic type shows that this is his first year in the majors. The only notable offseason acquisition on the Braves offense (yellow shading in the Name columns) is Charlie Culberson, the guy who would serve as the DH if the National League would get its act together; as it stands, he has manned left field, while Acuna was a) having his service time repressed, or b) injured.

If Atlanta managed to get past this hypothetical play-in game, they would be well positioned in terms of starting pitchers for a Division Series. Julio Teheran is a former ace himself, Sean Newcomb is living up to his top-prospect billing, and Anibal Sanchez is pitching near his peak career levels at age 34. Teams don't usually utilize a fifth starter in the playoffs, but that honor would go to now-injured Brandon McCarthy (505 points on the year, 33.7 PPG, or points-per-game). Speaking of injuries, closer Arodys Vizcaino (827 / 25.1) has been dealing with shoulder issues all season long, leaving a group of surprisingly effective, yet not at all recognizable rookies to hold down in the relief corps. A.J. Minter was seen by many as a successor to Vizcaino (hence his moderate preseason ranking), Shane Carle is a reclamation project from the Rockies (by way of the Pirates), Dan Winkler is ... (checks notes) arbitration eligible two more times, and Jesse Biddle (407 / 13.6) had some top prospect fanfare back in 2012-14 with the Phillies, but is just this year making his MLB debut. This strikes me as a team that could stand to add a shutdown arm to the back of their bullpen down the stretch.

If you thought Atlanta's four All-Stars were impressive, how about FIVE for the Brewers!? Player ballot honorees Christian Yelich and Lorenzo Cain happen to be two of the most significant offseason acquisitions league wide (one via trade, the other signed as a free agent). Breakout first baseman Jesus Aguilar won the NL's Final Vote (TM) competition. And then we have quite possibly the most controversial bullpen duo in the game: former hate-Tweet spewer Josh Hader (player ballot) and multiple substance abuse suspension server Jeremy Jeffress (chosen as a replacement for injured Nationals closer Sean Doolittle, who has racked up 1,267 points and 36.2 PPG on the year). It's been rumored that Milwaukee has been on the lookout for pitching help, so it's possible that the pitcher who might start a hypothetical Wild Card game might not yet be on the roster. But as things stand now, they're looking at the somewhat unimpressive Jhoulys Chacin, or Chase Anderson, or perhaps a combination of the two.

Injuries have really hit the Brewers hard this year, causing them to do a significant amount of midseason tinkering (represented by the light blue shading in the Name columns). Were they not each on the 10-day DL, Ryan Braun (702 / 9.9) and Eric Thames (670 / 13.4) would have helped shore up the outfield/first base situation. Jonathan Villar (642 / 7.4) wasn't playing great before he got hurt, prompting GM David Stearns to pick up Brad Miller from the Rays. And the catching situation has been in such disarray - with Manny Pina (430 / 7.3) on the DL and Stephen Vogt suffering a career-threatening shoulder injury - that they have to rely on journeyman Erik Kratz. And that's not even counting projected starting outfielder Domingo Santana (343 / 5.5), who played so poorly to start the year that he was optioned to the minors, and then bypassed by Keon Broxton when the team needed outfield reinforcements. That's the same fate suffered by former shortstop-of-the-future Orlando Arcia (228 / 3.5), whose poor play (combined with that of the since-released Eric Sogard, 84 / 1.5) led to the acquisition of utility infielder Tyler Saladino from the White Sox.

The Brew Crew's rotation has had its share of issues as well, with Junior Guerra (868 / 48.2) and Zack Davies (163 / 20.4) also on the disabled list at the time of the All-Star Break. It's worth noting that Guerra and the three above-mentioned position players have since been activated from their DL stints, but remember, it's not technically if the season ended ON TODAY'S DATE, but rather as of the All-Star Break. Of course, if we did extend the cutoff to today, starter Brent Suter would replace Guerra on the DL (he's out for the year with an elbow injury), and the team would also have access to former White Sox closer Joakim Soria (730 / 19.7), who was acquired just moments ago.

Stay tuned for more hypothetical mid(ish)-season playoff series projections!

Thursday, July 19, 2018

All-Star Rosters 20 Year Anniversary

During the 2018 All-Star Game, I tweeted out the following analysis of how the 12 astrological signs were represented across the All-Star rosters:

As you can see, Cancer (my own sign) is at the top, while Aquarius (my wife's sign, who hates baseball) is bringing up the rear. It's worth noting that the All-Star Game itself occurs during Cancer time - or rather, while the sun is in Cancer? Is that how to say it? - while Aquarius happens deep in the offseason. I put together this list using my patented MLB Roster Database, excerpts from which I also tweeted prior to the game. Here's the victorious AL Roster, with fantasy points up to date as of the 2018 All-Star Break:

As you can see, it's organized with the fan-elected starting lineup at the top, then the reserves in the next chunk, followed by pitchers. On the right, you can see how each player made his way onto the roster (with the exception of Justin Verlander, whose status wasn't listed, but since he was unavailable for the game, it's a moot point). And now check out the NL Roster:

I didn't bother to arrange the starters in the order that they appeared on the lineup card, which was an admitted oversight on my part, since the lineups had been posted for days. However, I DID do that on the following charts, which are part of a larger project I've embarked on in the last few weeks: a 20th anniversary retrospective of the 1998 season! This was inspired partly by Grant Brisbee's weekly recaps of the thrilling McGwire-Sosa home run record chase, and partly because the first baseball video game I was truly obsessed with was All-Star Baseball 2000 for the N64 (which, counterintuitively, was released prior to the 1999 season, and thus had player stats from 1998). Here are the AL All-Stars, who also came out on top 20 years ago, by the score of 13-8:

The above stats comprise the entire 1998 season (as opposed to the mid-season snapshot from this year's charts), and on the right I have each player's home city/state/country rather than a breakdown of how they made the roster, because I didn't bother to search the interwebs for that information. Also notice that Bartolo Colon's name is in bold, because he's one of just two players who qualified for my 1998 database (200 PA for hitters, 40 IP for pitchers) to still be active 20 years later. Care to guess who the second player is? Here's a hint: he's a teammate of Colon on the Rangers...

So what the "o" in Fernando Vina's name is cut off a little bit? I changed all the other column widths to fit Mike Piazza's ridiculous three team odyssey, and also such long-winded city names like Washington Court House and San Pedro de Macoris. Speaking of the Dominican Republic, Hall of Famer Pedro Martinez was also on the AL roster - along with Aaron Sele, and also Rick Reed for the NL - but did not make it into the game for some reason (again, I'm not going to bother to check why). However, I did include those three players in the tally of astrological signs amongst 1998 All-Stars, which looks something like this:

Cancer, Scorpio - 9
Leo - 8
Sagittarius - 7
Taurus, Gemini - 5
Aries, Virgo, Libra - 4
Aquarius, Pisces, Capricorn - 2

There are some wholesale changes in the middle of the pack, but as you can see, the top and the bottom are just the same as this year. If there is such a thing as a cosmic constant, I think I might have just found it...

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Core Set 2019 Prerelease

Here's a conversation close to one that must have taken place at Wizards of the Coast several months ago:
"OK, it's a close up picture of a sword, right? But the hilt is carved to look like the face of a gallant knight. And the crossguard is formed by his luxurious beard spilling over the hand of whoever's holding it."
"Yeah, sounds perfect, Johnny, draw it up!"
I know that's not how art descriptions work, but it's an at least plausible story of how we got John Stanko's art for Sigiled Sword of Valeron, the very first card I saw from my Core Set 2019 prerelease pack. How we got the CARD Sigiled Sword of Valeron itself is another story, as someone had to decide to place it within the plane of Alara, where the Bant faction is known for its knights. Whatever its history, what you get is a very impressive piece of Magic.

It happened to be my promo card, so it was foil and had the date stamped on it. That also meant I could use it in my prerelease deck, regardless of what colors I picked, due to its versatility of being a colorless artifact. And it could almost go in any deck regardless of strategy, as this equipment CREATES creature tokens, making it pure upside in any deck that's interested in attacking.

I had this in mind when I opened my six packs of M19 and prepared to build my sealed deck. I took the same approach that I saw LSV take in his first M19 sealed video - a video he posted seemingly in place of the completion of his set reviews, which didn't conclude until after my prerelease event was over, depriving me of some valuable insight... but anyway, the approach is to first separate all your rares and look for patterns or bombs.

As it happened, the only thing my rares shared were that none of them had anything in common with any of the other ones. All six rares had a different color identity: White, blUe, Black, Red, Green, and none (i.e. Colorless). And given that diversity, I'll go over each color in order of impressiveness of that rare.

Blue had a flying threat that is a win both in value and in flavor. First seen in the first dated core set, Magic 2010, the Djinn of Wishes literally enters the battlefield ready to grant you three wishes (i.e. free cards) for the low low price of four mana each time (i.e. 2UU). Even though this is what Djinni (Genies?) are best known for, I much prefer the more belligerent attitude of Zahid from Dominaria. The helpful djinn was not the only flying threat, as Horizon Scholar returns from the Greek mythology plane Theros, establishing a very strong top end. Add in some marginal card advantage engines (Sift, Anticipate, both reprints), some marginal removal (Dwindle, Uncomfortable Chill), some less-than marginal academic creatures (2x Tolarian Scholar, Scholar of Stars, one of each), and a self-only Clone (Mirror Image), and you have ... not a lot of impact. (There were a couple of other Artifact synergies in there, but I'll save that for the Colorless section.)

One of the terms describing green mana in a printout of the color wheel that I made is "growth," which is also in the name of the Green rare I pulled. Prodigious Growth can make something permanently BIG, +7/+7 in fact, which is the same size as the new set's only Treefolk, Ghastbark Twins, of which my sealed pool had two (one foil)... which makes four twins total. Those beefy bark boys weren't the only huge green creatures at my disposal: I also had a copious amount of dinos (3x Colossal Dreadmaw), rhinos (3x Rhox Oracle), and wolves (2x Thornhide Wolves), which makes for 57 total power, but for 92 total mana. But what was missing from the classic green strategy is any way to ramp up to those giant creatures. I did have two low drop Elves, but rather than being ones that tap for mana or dig for lands, they were a dorky vigilance bear and a Naturalize-on-a-stick. Just playing a bunch of big creatures and hoping to hit every land drop did not seem like a viable strategy.

I liked the look of Red's rare because I knew it had a place in the metagame as an important part of the "sacrifice for value" deck. Dark-Dweller Oracle is what's known as a "sac outlet," in that it lets you spend one of your own creatures as a resource, in this case, being able to cast the top card of your library. This doesn't sound great unless you combine it with a "take control" card like Act of Treason (which I incidentally had one of), allowing you to set up the combo of stealing your opponenent's creature, attacking them with it, then sacrificing it while it's still under your influence. DDO also had the benefit of being a Goblin, who paired well with other new tribe members Goblin Motivator and Volley Veteran. Rounding out the cheaper-than-green's four-power creatures were 2x Havoc Devil and an Onakke Ogre (whose weird pinhead-plus-tusks art kind of freaks me out). And for the top end, I had a Limited Edition Alpha reprint Fire Elemental and 2x direct-damage mainstays Lava Axe. Not a single piece of damage based removal.

Perhaps LSV put it best in his aforementioned M19 set review when describing Suncleanser, the White rare in my pool:
This is a clean and elegant answer to the now-banned energy deck in Standard, or something. In Limited, this will play as a 1/4 for 2, and every now and then will knock some counters off an Ajani’s Pridemate.
It's not the worst card to have, since it gums up the ground, and it's a new card, and it shares a creature type with another white 2-drop in my pool (Daybreak Chaplain), but it's far from exciting or a build-around. The most exciting white card I had was one of two common Elks in the set, the Star-Crowned Stag, although that's only really good in certain circumstances. There was an opportunity for value and fun flavor interaction with Novice Knight, an undercosted 2/3 that can't attack unless it's enchanted or equipped, and Knight's Pledge, a buffing enchantment... not to mention the aforementioned Sigiled Sword, and a couple other artifacts that... oh what the heck, I'll go into them now, since those were basically all my playable white cards.

Marauder's Axe isn't super cool, but it's fairly cheap and on-brand with the Novice Knight plan. Rogue's Gloves are similarly cheap, but the payoff isn't nearly as immediate. Arcane Encyclopedia is just a card-advantage engine. And as long as we're here, I might as well talk about the Blue component, as Gearsmith Prodigy and Aerial Engineer (who is both Blue and White) both get buffed if you control an artifact, and my 2x Gearsmith Guardian are colorless, but they get buffed if you control a blue creature. Also Explosive Apparatus counts as removal and Gargoyle Sentinel is an expensive but effective way to attack in the air.

Last and actually least is the colorless rare, Desecrated Tomb, which could make you a bunch of Bats... but only if you can have creatures LEAVE your graveyard, which only about eight cards in the set can make happen, and only two of those at common. But my Black rare was even more comically useless as a card in Limited format in general (and my sealed pool in particular), Liliana, Untouched by Death. She's a planeswalker, and a key character in the storyline of the most recent expert level expansion, Dominaria, where she ended up in the clutches of the flashback-antagonist of thsi Core Set's storyline, Nicol Bolas. But the particular version of her that shows up in M19 LITERALLY does nothing unless you have a ton of cards with the Zombie subtype. It turns out that I had four cards that reference Zombies in my pool... but they were 4x Doomed Dissenters, none of which interact with Liliana, since they are Humans that only make Zombie tokens when they die (i.e. go INTO the graveyard).

The rest of my Black commons and uncommons, however, seemed pretty powerful, starting with a Murder and 2x Strangling Spores. ... On a side note, the two most prominent descriptors of black mana on my above-mentioned color wheel printout are "Death" and "Decay." And I always point out that black mana is so much more than that, it's about ambition, and doing whatever it takes to win, regardless of the cost. But looking at these two premium removal cards, maybe death and decay is just what that color does best. Considering also that my best black creatures were Vampires (Child of Night and 2x Skymarch Bloodletter from Ixalan's Legion of Dusk) and Skeletons (2x Skeleton Archer, a card whose name is exactly its subtypes, which strikes me as both really fun, and really lazy) really drives the point (stake?) home. I also had a Plague Mare, one of the extended cycle of color-hoser Horses, which struck me as a sideboard card, and Poison-Tip Archer, this one an Elf with skin and everything, but which also had green in its mana cost, so it would require a splash.

Looking at these cards presented to me, I decided to go Red/Black Aggro, not just because I had a Cinder Barrens (the R/B dual tapland), but also because I felt that would be the archetype best able to take advantage of the "always be attacking" style that would suit the promo Sword, and because I really wanted to pop off that Act of Treason/Dark-Dweller Oracle combo. (Spoiler Alert: I didn't.) In fact, I lost the first two matches, both to basically identical Blue/Black control decks (except with only one running Tezzeret). The only games I won were the ones where I got the Sword going, as the rest of my creatures were too ineffective to take over the game. However, I did win my final two matches, one against a Red/White lifegain/dragons deck, also running the above-suggested Sigiled Sword/Novice Knight combo, and the other against a Green/Blue mill deck, with 2x Millstone and 1x Psychic Corrosion... one of which I pulled in my one pack of prize support, and which is immediately going into my Phenax Commander deck... posisbly for Curse of the Bloody Tome, but maybe for Jace's Erasure... Now I just need to keep my eye open for a Patient Rebuilding, which is what I probably should have done with my deck before racing headlong into the Aggro strategy.

Looking back, I probably should have added the Encyclopedia... but, I thought, Aggro can't usually afford to take a turn off just to draw cards. And I should have splashed for the Elf Archer... but, I thought, it's not very aggressive, and my mana would be tough enough anyway: I played 17 lands, and still got totally screwed in two of my deciding games. Actually, looking back, I should probably have ditched the Red altogether and gone with Blue (still splashing the Archer), trying to dig for my Djinn and out-value my opponents to victory. But sadly, the only thing left to do is build that deck now, then buy ANOTHER prerelease pack when Core Set 2019 is officially released on Friday, and battle them against each other in a fishbowl style matchup for no one's benefit in particular...

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Core Set 2019 Open House

"Now remember, what do you do when you attack?"

I heard this while stepping into a game store I didn't know I was going to be at, this past Sunday, which was day two of the Core Set 2019 Open House event. I saw an adult and a child, presumably related, by the looks of it, playing a game of Magic against each other, with a store employee guiding them through the rules. It was the combat step, by the sound of it, and the father, having been reminded to do so, taps his attacking creatures.

"Is this the Open House?" I venture, approaching? "Any chance I could take a look at those welcome decks they're playing with?"

"Sure, once I finish with these guys, I'll walk you through it," the employee answered jovially. "You can learn to play and even buy some of the products two weeks before they're released!" (See below for some cards from one such product.)

New character Vivien Reid stars in her own Planeswalker Deck.

"Well, I already know how to play," I admitted. "As a matter of fact, I just tried to teach a bunch of kids, using custom-made welcome-type decks from Dominaria, and it was pretty hectic..."

But the employee had returned to the game on the table. "Now you have to tap five more mana for that... aaaand your angel's out."

The son had just dropped a bomb rare, Serra's Guardian, a six-drop creature that flies and gives all your dudes vigilance. It was the flagship card of the white welcome deck, which I was itching to get my hands on. My last experience with welcome decks left me itching for the older version of the product, but apparently the folks at Wizards have made a litany of changes, specifically to this set, to make it more beginner-friendly.

This was explained to me by another employee, who had dug up a box of these welcome decks. "You can pick one of these to do a battle with. We have white, blue, black, and red ones left, all the greens are gone."

Being a Vorthos gamer type, I recognized the four characters, or planeswalkers, on the fronts of the boxes. Red was Sarkhan, last seen in the dragon-themed plane of Tarkir, the setting of the current official Magic story. Black was Liliana, a necromancer who was key player in the last set, Dominaria. Blue was Tezzeret, an agent of Nicol Bolas (the dragon from the key art) and also obsessed with artifacts. And white was Ajani, a leonin (read: humanoid cat), both of these last two were last featured on Kaladesh.

Naturally, I picked red, because dragons. And partly because of the promo card, a foil red goblin called Guttersnipe, my new copy of which I was currently admiring.

"Oh, is this where we get to try out the new cards?"

Just then, another customer entered the store, another adult male, this one snappily dressed and holding binders of cards. "It is," he was told, "but now you just have white, blue, and black decks to choose from." I sheepishly waved the last remaining red deck in the air.

"Oh, so everyone knew what was in the packs and went for whatever the overpowered green card is," he remarked, with a knowing glance. "Alright, let's see here, the other customer began analyzing. White is probably knights... Black could have a graveyard theme... Blue is counterspells... I'll go with white."

"A white mage uses teamwork and protection to overwhelm their foes!" the first employee informed us, reading from the how-to-play portion of the product included from the manufacturer with the box of decks. It had a cool clipboard style cardboard display, outlining the colors and types of cards and parts of the turn, etc. He was now done using the display for his teaching game: the son's ground forces overwhelmed his opponent's defense while his dad was using all his resources against the angel.

"You know, each of those packs has two decks in it: the one with the color on the box, and then a random one. You're supposed to battle it out with the two decks in the pack. But, since you each get a pack, you could use these as two parts of a single deck, and shuffle them together."

UR fliers/spells
I was down to try, as I saw that my red welcome deck was accompanied by a blue one in my little deckbox, which also had a slick easy-open tab. I noted that was the same color pair as my very first Magic deck, the 40-card Zendikar intro pack.

"And furthermore..." the first employee offered, as he saw that my opponent's white deck would be paired with a red one. "Since I see you both have red in your pool, I wouldn't be opposed if you wanted to add the guttersnipe to your decks."

W e both agreed, since we were both accomplished Magic players who craved more than the simple beginner-level interactions from just the mono-colored welcome decks. We each took out a low drop creature to keep the ratio at the optimal 60 card mix (or so we thought). We also didn't have any dice (we borrowed a d20 from the store to roll for who would go first) and my opponent was kind enough to keep track of our life totals with a good old fashioned pen and paper.

While shuffling, I learned that my opponent was not only a player, but also a serious collector. He had already idenified the "six or so" cards in the set that he wants, in order to complete a certain constructed archetype. He also revealed that he likes to play the legacy format, since he has a lot of older cards in his collection.

He actually used a reprint of one the game's oldest cards to beat me in the first game. Not only did he have the angel that I had seen in the previous game, but also a Shivan Dragon to completely overrun me in the air.

"You should've double-blocked the dragon," my opponent offered. "Them both having vigilance means they can attack and still be good blockers."

"True," I explained, "but I had a couple of good combat tricks to set up a blowout if I attacked and forced you to block. You just happened to have another combat trick to equal one of mine." But I had seen some pretty strong burn- and tempo-based removal in my deck, so I was feeling alright as we commenced to shuffling for round two.

Apparently my opponent had started collecting Magic cards in 1994, one year after the original print run ended, and when I was the tender age of eight. He said he had a full playset of the dual lands - the ORIGINAL dual lands, although not with a black border I guess - and also a bunch of some kind of djinn? Maybe he was saying Juzam? Don't get me started on the issues of Magic pronunciation...

I took the second game with almost entirely a water-based path. My double Waterknots tied up the ground, while my Frilled (and unblockable) Sea Serpent slammed in for the kill.

"I don't have anything to deal with enchantments in here, so all your auras are just kill spells to me," my opponent lamented, as he perused the cards in his deck.

"Weird," I remarked. "Usually there's a Disenchant effect in there somewhere. "You know, Disenchant is one of the most new-art-reprinted cards, with nearly ten unique art printings..."

No, I actually didn't go into that in real life. Instead, I found out that my opponent had compiled quite an impressive collection of cards, but that it didn't come cheap: he told me there were some cards that he had paid upwards of a hundred dollars to acquire at the time, but now worth they were worth in the thousands. Quite a return on his investment! If only my elementary school self was a little more shrewd in his choice of hobbies...

I lost the tiebreaker pretty handily, as my creatures kept falling victim to good removal. The conclusion took a while to get to, though, because none of us was drawing anything but lands for a significant portion of the game.

"24, 25, 26 lands! That's why!" exclaimed my opponent, going through the deck. "Four more than I would have put in-- well..." he stopped himself. "I feel like I was missing at least three creatures."

"True, but remember, these were originally 30 card mono-color decks made for beginners," I reminded him. "If you're teaching someone how to play Magic, there's nothing less fun than to be mana screwed. In fact, the last people I tried to teach Magic weren't even old enough to SAY 'screwed.'"

I didn't go into that either, but instead purchased an M19 Planeswalker deck, since they were available early, and why not? I clearly picked green, because that was the color in highest demand. Reading the introductory material that came with the deck made me wish I had read it before my aforementioned Magic lesson. There are cards with the (very simplified) rules printed ON THEM. It's like Fluxx in a way, which I've always said was a great precursor to Magic in a lot of ways.

Even a mana dork can finish up a game quick-snap with Oakenform and double Titanic Growth .
Anyway, since bringing Vivien's deck home, I have played a couple skirmishes against a streamlined version of the UR aggro compilation welcome deck (supplemented with some cards from Viven's booster pack, most notably a Meteor Golem, a card I like a lot so far), and my Open House deck has not fared very well. Hopefully I open some mythics in the prerelease pack I have already preordered for next weekend, and I can build a comparable deck that could go up against Vivien. But only time (and which promo cards I open) will tell...