feat231b_cartel_aristocrat

Learning From Pauper—The Aristocrat...

By: Grillo_Parlante In my last article I discussed blurring archetypes, using as a centerpiece example pauper goblins for an aggro-control deck, an...

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Fangs and Figures – Analyzing...

Fangs and Figures - Analyzing the Legacy Cube By Dom Harvey   Recently the Legacy Cube returned to Magic Online as the time-killer of choice...

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Learning From Pauper – Rethinking A...

By: Grillo_Parlante When I woke up this morning I intended to do actually work, but instead found myself browsing pauper content, eventually stumbl...

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Vampires are Storm

By: CML Everyone knows Black aggro is terrible in conventional Cubes and the Legacy Cube is a conventional Cube. Moreover, it probably has to be at...

Learning From Pauper—The Aristocrats

By: Grillo_Parlante

In my last article I discussed blurring archetypes, using as a centerpiece example pauper goblins for an aggro-control deck, and providing a number of low-power examples of this principle being applied. Not unreasonably, a number of readers pointed out that it would have been nice to have some higher power examples, and I’m here today to do just that. We are going to go through a mock design process, taking insights from pauper goblins to hopefully design an aggro-control archetype for a higher powered format.

First, let’s look at a slightly more recent goblins list:

cspickle (4 - 0), Pauper Daily #8373448 on 2015-06-11

Creatures (36)
Foundry Street Denizen
Goblin Bushwhacker
Goblin Cohort
Goblin Heelcutter
Goblin Matron
Goblin Sledder
Mardu Scout
Mogg Conscripts
Mogg Raider
Mogg War Marshal
Sparksmith

Spells (6)
Flame Slash
Lightning Bolt

Lands (18)
18 Mountain
Sideboard (15)
Electrickery
Flaring Pain
Latulla’s Orders
Pyroblast
Sylvok Lifestaff

A more aggressive variant than our original example, it still has all of the essential pieces: ample sources of pressure, resilient threats, and board control tools. The deck can quickly curve out and kill like a Sligh deck, or it can take a more controlling axis. For the curious, its control plan is described here. We concluded that the elements for an aggro-control archetype in cube involved providing the following for an aggro player:

1. Sources of incremental value
2. Removal or other disruption that supports an aggro strategy
3. Variety

But just as any of the other major archetype labels can encompass a broad variety of sub-strategies (e.g. draw-go control vs. tap-out control), there are a number of different ways to support aggro-control. Since we’re using goblins as our guide, we have to first ask ourselves what type of aggro-control deck we are dealing with.

And the answer is that it’s an aristocrats deck.

This particular deck type has some existing relevance to the cube community thanks to Gravecrawler, but recent printings from Khans block have essentially revamped the archetype, letting us innovate on what will hopefully be somewhat familiar ground.

But what is an aristocrats deck? Put simply, it’s an aggressive synergy based deck revolving around sacrifice effects and death triggers. Originally designed by Sam Black (you can read his account of the development here), its constructed laurels rest on it winning Pro Tour Gatecrash. The deck was more or less ported over to cube by Jason Waddell, as described here; and since the deck actively benefits from creature death and runs recursive threats, it naturally did very well in cube formats packed with efficient and powerful removal.

Oftentimes when people talk about this deck, they get caught up in the original vision of a B/W/R sacrifice deck. We are going to stay in that familiar spectrum for the time being (peeking a bit into green), but it’s important to step back and remember that we are applying conceptual pieces. You don’t have to stay in the constraints of those colors. The elements we will be dealing with are described by Sam Black as:

1. The Aristocrats: Carrion Feeder and Goblin Sledder
2. The Travelers: Doomed Traveler and Goblin Arsonist
3. The Fodder: Gravecrawler and Mogg War Marshal

In the above, I provide one example each of cards that could show up in the original Gatecrash deck or a pauper goblins list, respectively. The idea is to combine aggressive fodder with sacrifice outlets, which let you convert those previous investments into some sort of advantage. Travelers are creatures that provide some active benefit when they die.

The key principle is to craft an aggro deck capable of converting its prior investments into value. If a durdly good stuff midrange deck can make up for lost tempo via ETB spell effects attached to fatties, our fast aggro deck can make up for lost tempo by maximizing the number of “leaves the battlefield” spell effects we attach to our creatures. This is the core principle at work (and incidentally why I think Thragtusk represents more value than is healthy for a lot of cube environments).

The original Gravecrawler-based aristocrats deck combined Gravecrawler as a fodder card to be used in conjunction with aristocrats, such as Carrion Feeder, in a zombie tribal package. Recent printings from Khans block, however, have provided an interesting alternative in the form of Bloodsoaked Champion.

Let’s nail down the essential pieces and then flesh things out with what we’ve learned from Goblins.

The Fodder

Here we are making a shift towards Bloodsoaked Champion. Gravecrawler is certainly still playable, but the need to support zombie tribal, and the awkward mana cost of some of the supporting cards (Bloodghast and Geralf’s Messenger) is a constraint that is no longer necessary. While Bloodsoaked Champion doesn’t necessitate any tribal commitment, it’s worth noting the two creature types: human warrior.

This means we can combine the card with another well-established beater.

Most cubes already feature a huge density of humans across all colors, and the combination of Champion of the Parish, Bloodsoaked Champion and sac outlets is an outright engine for an aggro deck. The ability to vertically grow a threat adds longevity to the deck’s strategy, as a large Champion of the Parish can compete reasonably well on a board against other large midrange creatures. Meanwhile, the Bloodsoaked Champion provides an element of inevitability against aggro’s other main concern—removal heavy decks.

It gets better, though.

Necromancer in conjunction with a recurring Bloodsoaked Champion is a powerful engine in itself. Goblin Rabblemaster is an excellent aggro beater that can trigger raid, and provide an endless source of tokens to sacrifice.

Mardu Strike Leader’s dash ability (and to a lesser extent Lightning Berserker and Mardu Shadowspear) provides pressure from multiple angles: pumping Champion of the Parish, triggering raid, and providing a token to sacrifice. In addition, dash plays around sorcery speed removal, demanding that an opponent have a diversified removal suite.

It’s worth mentioning there are many other cards that can act as fodder. Any sort of cheap vanilla persist or undying creature would qualify, as would cards like Mogg War MarshalChandra’s Phoenix, or Loyal Cathar.

The Aristocrats 

Ideally, we want cheap 1-2 mana creatures with no mana or tapping cost. The best options are:

Slim pickings. Tymaret is so on par with the overall strategy that it would be a mistake not to consider him, especially since his creature types—warrior zombie—may be relevant to our setup. Cartel Aristocrat is quite good and provides a lot of interactivity on a cluttered board. Carrion Feeder and Viscera Seer are good, cheap sacrifice outlets.

There are a few 2cc non-creature cards to consider: Goblin Bombardment and Blasting StationGreater Gargadon is also an excellent sacrifice outlet in formats that are not too fast for him.

Once we move up the mana curve, however, things become more powerful.

Flesh Carver and Stronghold Assassin require either tapping or mana to sacrifice a creature, but make up for this in terms of power level. There are a number of non-creature sacrifice outlets that also could be run—such as Attrition or Mind Slash—that I don’t recommend as I find they lead to frustrating gameplay.

The Travelers

These are, of course, named after Doomed Traveler. In cube, the best examples would be Tuktuk the Explorer and Perilous Myr. While there are only a limited number of cubeable cards that squarely fit this category, there are lots of creatures that provide creative ways to garner value upon their death. Sacrificing a Mesmeric Fiend (or Tidehollow Sculler), with its trigger on the stack, is a good example. In general, creatures with keywords that doom them to death are our likely travelers. This includes creatures with vanishing, haunt, persist, undying, fading, unearth, evoke, or echo.

There is also a subset of cards that provide value from other creatures dying. Cards like Skirsdag High PriestBlood Artist, and Sylvok Lifestaff. This card pool also encompasses creatures that grow based on graveyard count (Bonehoard), cards that grow vertically upon creature death (Rockslide Elemental), or just useful triggers like Athreos, God of PassageHissing IguanarXathrid Necromancer, and Grim Haruspex. Delve or threshold cards also fit loosely into this category.

The Red Crush

So now that we’ve gone over the basic framework of the archetype, let’s flesh things out a bit, taking inspiration from our pauper goblins. At the moment, we are supporting a low to the ground, removal resistant aggro archetype with sources of card advantage that can grind out a win in the mid to late game if need be. We also have some elements of vertical growth via Champion of the Parish and horizontal growth, thanks to Xathrid Necromancer, Goblin Rabblemaster, and Mardu Strike Leader.

We want all of the same tools that pauper goblins has, just dialed up to our power level: 1) ways to leverage sacrifices into board control, 2) tutors, and 3) burst damage. We need to emulate the effects of cards like SparksmithSylvok LifestaffGoblin BushwhackerGoblin Matron, and Death Spark, which thankfully we can do.

Board Control

An unanswered Goblin Sharpshooter can dominate a board when combined with sacrifice support. Goblin Bombardment can have a similar effect, and the two of them combined can really pose a problem for an opponent on a creature based plan, taking over a board with the assistance of recursive threats and expendable creatures.

These sorts of strategies coincidentally get better with a large store of fodder, and Khans block has given us a card that can fill a variety of roles: threat, removal, or sacrifice fuel.

What a great card for an aggressive aristocrats deck. Outside of being a mana sink, it can act as a surprise threat or help control the board with its tokens. It eloquently supports both the control and aggro axes of the deck.

Raise the Alarm and Midnight Haunting also fill similar roles. Lingering Souls may be a sorcery speed card, but flashback provides another source of board control and pressure.

Burst Damage and Tutors

So now we have a token element that supports both the aggro and the control elements of our strategy. However, we need a Goblin Bushwhacker clone to provide an additional strategic axis based around perceived pressure, rather than actual pressure.

And this brings us to a discussion of anthem effects, most of which are either way too expensive or don’t come attached to a body (problematic for a deck built around sacrificing bodies). Worst of all, many of them are extremely narrow, having no other application than closing out the game. One of the most interesting things about Goblin Bushwhacker is its ability to provide haste, and it would be nice to have an anthem effect active at more stages of the game. Thankfully, the perfect card exists.

An anthem effect that adds a relevant body and which can lead to all sorts of interesting interactions at all phases of the game. This is exactly what we want.

Finally, it would be nice to have a tutor effect like Goblin Matron; and we can easily have this in the form of Imperial Recruiter. In addition, we have an interesting option in green in the form of Collected Company.

So far so good, but how close are we to fulfilling our aggro-control elements? Do we have an aggressive deck that supports:

1. Sources of incremental value
2. Removal or other disruption that supports an aggro strategy
3. Variety

Our entire deck is built around the concept of incremental value and we have access to removal pieces that fit our strategy. We have vertical growth, horizontal growth, sources of burst damage, hand disruption, and removal -resistant threats. We can come out racing, putting an opponent under intense pressure, or we can play a longer grindy game with our sacrifice value engines. Instead of a fragile Sligh deck attacking along a single axis, we now have a dynamic aggro deck; one which we can even expand on if we wish:

Aggro-Combo

We can add aggro-combo elements via a few white double-strike creatures, and copies of Feat of ResistanceAjani, Caller of the PrideVines of Vastwood, or Become ImmenseSilverblade Paladin and Mirran Crusader make their way comfortably into higher power environments; while somewhat more niche are Fabled Hero and Arashin Foremost. The latter is probably currently too narrow, but has some interesting interactions with black’s dash warriors, Secure the Wastes, and Mardu Woe-Reaper.

Value Reanimation

Cards like UnearthVictimizeStitch Together and Alesha, Who Smiles at Death can add an interesting value reanimation axis that lets you reuse travelers to maximize incremental gain.

Persist Combo

Another Khans block gift is Anafenza, Kin-Tree Spirit, which means we don’t have to choose between running cards like Melira, Sylvok Outcast, or upping the mana curve to support persist combo.

Conclusion

There are, of course, other ways to design aggro-control decks. You can focus more on the disruptive aspects if you wish, concentrate on tempo advantage, or experiment with applying this style of deck to other color combinations (or even ultimately bump it up to a midrange deck). This isn’t intended as a piece to be strictly followed, but rather to help people unhappy with their aggro sections think critically about what they can change. Hopefully, walking through a mock design process will have made that a little easier to do.

Happy drafting.

***Also, credit to Safra on the forums for posting similar decks, and getting me thinking about the archetype.

Fangs and Figures – Analyzing the Legacy Cube

Fangs and Figures – Analyzing the Legacy Cube
By Dom Harvey

 
Recently the Legacy Cube returned to Magic Online as the time-killer of choice before the new set release. After a long binge, I formed what I think is a decent understanding of what worked and what didn’t. Some of it is obvious – there’s a reason that ‘…Vampires?’ was the universal reaction on social media – but there are more subtle problems too. In this article I’ll explain the flaws as I see them and offer constructive feedback for addressing them.

As a disclaimer, the ideas on this site can be very unorthodox. Our priority as Cube designers is optimizing our lists for local playgroups under parameters that we control; it’s a much different task to design a list that works for a mass audience of experienced and newer players, that offers enough variety to keep you interested during the third draft of the day, that conforms to conventional ideas of what Cube is, and so on; my ideal Legacy Cube list would not look much like my personal Cube(s). The goal is to help the Legacy Cube be as good as possible on its own terms.

==

http://www.channelfireball.com/articles/designer-fun-black-versus-cube/
http://www.starcitygames.com/magic/cube/24754-Cubers-Anonymous-The-Black-Plague.html
http://www.channelfireball.com/articles/cube-design-remodeling-part-one/

If you follow Cube discussion for long enough, you will hear someone bemoaning the failure of black aggro. Designers dutifully pack their lists with Sarcomancy and Dauthi Slayer, only to watch them circle the table and end up in sideboards. Faced with this dilemma many Cube owners double down on black aggro, cut it entirely, or explore radical solutions, with no real consensus emerging.

Given that, I understand the urge to try Vampires, but the backlash was predictable and justified.

Randy Buehler summarizes the most important part of the official Cube philosophy here:
http://magic.wizards.com/en/MTGO/articles/archive/new-magic-online-legacy-cube-2014-11-3

“We briefly discussed radically changing the theme of the Cube, but at the end of the day we all agreed that “Best of Magic” or “Greatest Hits” Cubes are just awesome, so the Legacy Cube will continue to be a Greatest Hits Cube. In fact, nothing was cut purely on the basis of power level—not even Jace, the Mind Sculptor. We cut some “hits” that were highly non-interactive (aka, straight-forward and/or dumb whether you’re playing with them or against them), so you won’t find True-Name Nemesis in the Legacy Cube and there aren’t any Swords either. We also cut some of the one-dimensional red cards (like Ball Lightning) that make it hard to keep all red decks from turning into mono-red aggro decks (so splashing another color should make more sense now), but mostly we just looked for the most exciting and powerful cards we could find”

In a ‘power-max’ context like this, the bar that any card – an experimental theme, cards from the new set, whatever – has to meet is very high. A few years ago, you could jam whatever ridiculous creature had just been printed into your Cube and call it a day; now, every set brings a bunch of impressively undercosted threats, and cards that were auto-includes before are being edged out. To earn a slot in this cutthroat environment a card must be very strong, both in relative terms and on its own merits. Sangromancer is a bad card to begin with, and is downright embarrassing alongside the likes of Hero of Bladehold. It’s not even better than the other lacklustre black cards that auditioned for that slot. Liliana’s Reaver is not exciting, but it suggests a plan – I’ll play Reaver, remove whatever my opponent puts in the way, and create a cascading effect that is hard to recover from. This plan only asks for cards I want to play anyway – discard and removal spells.
With Vampires, I need to play bad cards to power up my other bad cards, in hope of a payoff that isn’t demonstrably better than what I get from a normal strategy. For a deck based on synergy to succeed, it has to be better than the sum of its parts by a big enough margin to justify downgrading individual cards. I doubt this is true of Vampires: a perfect start of 1-drop -> 2-drop -> Captivating Vampire -> Vampire Nocturnus will win most games, but so will 1-drop -> 2-drop -> Brimaz, -> Elspeth or 1-drop -> 2-drop -> Goblin Rabblemaster -> Hellrider, and in those examples it’s much easier to win if I’m missing one of the pieces. This goes for the draft too: Randy says, “If you want to pass me Vampire Nocturnus or Anowon, the Ruin Sage I am quite happy to grab them and build around them” but his neighbours are also quite happy with that, as they have less competition for the legitimately good cards and can cripple Randy’s deck by hate-drafting at the right moment.

The other major problem is that so many cards are useless outside ‘the Vampires deck’. The biggest offender is Necropolis Regent, which is unplayable elsewhere and also bad in Vampires: with that deck I want to win quickly so my opponent has no time to play their good cards, not drag the game out, and even in the perfect deck for Regent I would rather have Grave Titan. The same problem afflicts the Guul Draz Vampires and Stromkirk Captains that fill out the deck: if I’m currently in another archetype, even a good Vampire tribal card gives me no reason to switch or dabble in black. The other side of that coin is that Vampires has no exit plan: if you move in on Vampires but what you need isn’t coming, you may not have enough picks left to avoid a trainwreck.

Randy argues that you could say the same about the usual black aggro cards, but insofar as that’s true I think the blame lies with the rest of the Cube. Few people enter a draft intending to force black aggro, but the lack of respect it garners means you can often pick up the cards late. Suppose you start with a run of blue cards, but it’s soon clear that blue is being cut and you need a new plan; you see the black aggro cards coming back, and take them from a few shallow packs to keep your options open. You then open a good black card – say, Bitterblossom – and move in, ending up with a solid base-black aggressive deck touching blue for some disruption and maybe a Serendib Efreet or Phantasmal Image. Maybe you’re in mono red, but Carnophage and Falkenrath Aristocrat fill out your curve and Doom Blade gives you outs to larger creatures; or perhaps your white aggro deck really wants that Lingering Souls, and is happy to pick up Dark Confidant and Knight of Infamy too. That kind of flexibility makes aggro in general – not just black aggro – viable in Cube when the draft isn’t going perfectly, and for it to exist you need the aggro cards to be strong outside their own niche and not dominated by only a few colours – UG and BG aggro decks don’t need to be common, but they should be theoretically possible. Vampires violates this rule at the most basic level; Carnophage and friends do not.

The other crucial ingredient to making aggro work is manafixing. In Constructed, multicoloured aggro decks often have 8 or more dual lands – more than a third of their manabase; in Limited you might get a dual land or two depending on the format, but your mana requirements are less stringent and you can usually afford to play your splash card a turn or two later. Cube, which so often is the best of both worlds, is the worst of both here: Limited-quality manafixing is expected to enable Constructed-quality starts. It’s a much less forgiving format, where delaying a key play by a turn is often lethal. This is especially brutal for aggro decks, which need to deploy their cards early to compensate for their relatively low power and which can’t afford control’s extra methods of stabilizing its manabase – Signets/ramp spells, card draw, and the like. Black feels this more than any other colour, as its flagship cards require a heavy black commitment – Bloodghast and Geralf’s Messenger certainly contribute to devotion, to put it nicely. The Legacy Cube isn’t too bad in this regard, but for the more aggressive colour pairs switching out Temples or the Glacial Fortress cycle (which don’t let you go T1 R into T2 BB, for instance) for filter lands or the Seachrome Coast cycle would help if you’re willing to mix and match. Black could really use Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth.

The size of the Cube is an understated issue that looms over all of this. The Magic Online Cube has to be reasonably large to sustain people’s interest – if players see the same cards over and over, boredom quickly sets in. As a result, there’s no guarantee that any given card will turn up in a draft. This has depressing implications for the two-card combos sprinkled throughout the Cube. Take one recent addition: when I pick Scapeshift I know it’s a blank card if I don’t see Valakut, but that’s fine as nobody else wants Valakut and I can bet on it reaching me. In a 600 card Cube, the Valakut might not even be there! It’s hard enough to justify experimenting with these combos when both cards are in circulation, but when that’ s not even assured you almost always take the safer route. The same applies to a lesser extent to Vampires: building around Vampire Nocturnus is dubious when you’re guaranteed to see it, so when you aren’t…

The strangest part about all of this is I’m not sure black is a problem that needs fixing. In a Cube as creature-centric as this one, efficient and versatile removal backing up solid threats – Desecration Demon, Grave Titan, planeswalkers – has been a very successful strategy for me. Reanimator and ‘Pox‘ (and similar effects) have been tried in other Cubes to various degrees of success. Black aggro, if adequately supported, might yet be good enough. The one systematic weakness that black has is its inability to deal with certain card types – artifacts, enchantments, and planeswalkers. Cutting Swords and Jitte goes a long way towards fixing that, but green and white have a dozen planeswalkers between them and the Cube could stand to lose one of Garruk, Apex Predator and Vraska, Chandra Nalaar, and so on.

If they do give black aggro another go, I’d swap the Vampires for their replacements and then make some minor adjustments:

- Anowon, the Ruin Sage
- Ascendant Evincar
- Bloodlord of Vaasgoth
- Captivating Vampire
- Dark Impostor
- Guul Draz Vampire
- Kalastria Highborn
- Malakir Bloodwitch
- Necropolis Regent
- Sangromancer
- Vampire Interloper
- Vampire Nocturnus

+ Bloodsoaked Champion
+ Carnophage
+ Diregraf Ghoul
+ Gnarled Scarhide
+ Knight of Infamy
+ Lifebane Zombie
+ Mesmeric Fiend
+ Nantuko Shade
+ Sarcomancy
+ Spiteful Returned

+ Carrion Feeder, crucial for any sacrifice shenanigans and has crossover value with the token generators in red and white
+ Silumgar Assassin, a much-needed two drop from the most recent set
+ Flesh Carver, a startling omission if you’re taking black aggro seriously

- Underworld Connections, too clunky for aggro and underwhelming in midrange decks
+ Sign in Blood, a sleeker draw spell that serves double duty in aggro decks
+ Read the Bones, a more surgical draw spell without the heavy mana/time commitment of Arena or Connections

- Crux of Fate
- Skinrender, a conditional removal spell that feels redundant when you have Bone Shredder, Nekrataal, Shriekmaw, and the noncreature black removal
- Sorin Markov
+ Abyssal Persecutor, the original Desecration Demon and a solid midrange threat for black that creates an interesting subgame
+ Sidisi, Undead Vizier

- Diabolic Servitude
+ Makeshift Mannequin, which is unique among the plethora of reanimation spells

Statistics

For most of us, refining your Cube is a lengthy and gradual process. If you’re lucky you get a draft or two every week, where one card overperforms or something goes undrafted again. You try out the obvious cards from the new set, move on to the less obvious, adjust the rest of the Cube accordingly, and by the time you’ve reached an informed opinion another set is on the horizon.

The Magic Online Cube lies dormant for most of the year, and is then subjected to more drafts in the first hours of its run than most Cubes over their entire lifetimes. There is enough evidence from thousands of drafts that ideas about what does and doesn’t work in the Cube can be backed up by statistics and not just anecdotes or intuition. Randy’s articles explaining his changes are laden with references to these results.

The problem for us is that we don’t have access to the data; we only ever see it when the organizers use it to justify their changes. When we do see it, it often doesn’t support the point being made (or the point remains underdetermined).

Take this quote:

“The really interesting data comes when you compare the average draft pick of cards among people who won their draft to the average position among other drafters. Of the top 30 cards on that list, 29 are mono-red aggro cards (with Sulfuric Vortex having the biggest difference). Clearly mono-red decks are too efficient, and while I am happy to have mono-red be around as an option, it shouldn’t just be easier to win with than all the other archetypes”

Sulfuric Vortex is strong enough to be listed as a top-tier Cube card, no matter how that list is drawn up. But what about Firedrinker Satyr and the rest of Vortex’s groupies? How about the low-tier red aggro cards like Scorched Rusalka? These cards all go in the same deck – and only the same deck – as Sulfuric Vortex, so if red decks have a great win percentage then all these cards will place higher even if most of the work was done by Vortex and other premium cards. Vortex being high makes every other red aggro card that much more likely to be high too; it would be surprising if the list weren’t overpopulated by red aggro cards.

Cards specific to red aggro will look better in this context than cards that are more widely playable or better in the abstract. Lightning Strike is a better card than Skullcrack; if you could only include one in your Cube or your red aggro deck, you would pick Lightning Strike. However, any red deck can find room for Lightning Strike, so these R/G midrange decks or U/R control decks drag down Lightning Strike’s win percentage and lower its position on the list; Skullcrack is certainly higher, and Lightning Strike probably lower, than their power would suggest.

What the data does show is that red aggro cards are ‘poisonous’: a card like Sulfuric Vortex is an automatic pick if you’re drafting the deck and an automatic pass if you aren’t. In this respect it isn’t much different from black aggro, but it’s more successful and has a long pedigree in Constructed and retail Limited so its inclusion has become a sacred cow in Cube. The graveyard theme in B/G was junked for being equally poisonous but less successful – in Randy’s words, “I think we landed in a place where there just weren’t enough rewards in the Cube to justify the enablers (mostly because we cut the rewards because they tend to be super-narrow cards that only work in one deck)”. Ultimately, is there a difference between Shrine of Burning Rage and whatever your reward for the B/G deck would be? With enough delve cards, reanimation effects, and so on, I think there’s room for a successful graveyard deck that offers more interesting gameplay than typical aggro or midrange decks while furnishing black with a distinct identity. The danger is that new Cube designers will look at these results and conclude that this theme, or any unusual theme, is doomed to failure in Cube. As an ‘official’ product this Cube sets the tone for the public’s understanding of what Cube is and what works, so any failed experiments have larger implications.

It’s clear that people were winning a lot with red aggro. What’s less clear is who, and why. Mono red is ruthless at punishing mistakes in deckbuilding and gameplay, and many less experienced players end up with decks that are terrified of Mountains; equally, mono red allows those players to run over better decks and players without engaging them on their level. It’s hard to tell from the statistics how much of red’s win percentage is due to its inherent strength and how much is due to the weaknesses of other decks and players. If everyone paid close attention to their deck’s mana curve, hate-drafted red aggro cards when appropriate, and sent back hands without early interaction, its win rate would be a fair bit lower. Does this matter? The Magic Online Cube isn’t meant to be a perfect test of skill or a purely competitive experience. It stings to ‘waste’ time and money losing to Goblin Guide in five minutes, even if you could have done things differently, and you don’t want to scare newcomers away from Cube permanently.

This same issue applies to individual cards: it’s hard to judge a card in isolation when the other contents of a deck and the skill of the pilot skew the results so heavily. Recently on Twitter, some Pro Tour mainstays were bashing Tangle Wire as a trap that’s only used by bad players in bad decks. Even if their general distaste for the card is on point, the fact that it’s used badly doesn’t make it unusable. Lots of players jam Tangle Wire in decks that aren’t built to exploit it properly, where it’s a waste of a card and mana, and their low win percentage will lower the card’s rating. If, on top of that, the best players are avoiding Tangle Wire, its placement will be solely determined by worse players creating a warped perception of how bad it truly is.

Discuss this article in our forums.

Learning From Pauper – Rethinking Archetype Design

By: Grillo_Parlante

When I woke up this morning I intended to do actually work, but instead found myself browsing pauper content, eventually stumbling across a series of articles by an Italian blogger who goes by the name Near. Pauper is an interesting format in the sense that even though it would be accurate to say that it’s a format defined by commons, it would be much more precise to say that it’s a format defined by pre-NWO commons, and by that I mean, Wizard’s mistakes. The end result is a format executing powerful interactions but fueled by the daintiest of engine pieces. If Vintage and Legacy are the wild guys at the party, Pauper is like their nephew whom you had such high hopes for, until the day you caught him generating infinite mana on turn four in the garage. There is a tremendous amount that Cube can learn from Pauper, as Pauper’s creature-based bizzaro take on a degenerate eternal format offers a unique perspective for cube—itself a creature based, bizzaro take on degenerate eternal formats. And this brings me back to this morning, and Near’s blog post.

In the post, he was discussing some of the common errors in pauper, and number three on his list was “Over valuing Midrange Decks.” The key excerpt, translated below, reads:

“[this is] A common error in almost every format, because Midrange cards appear very strong, given that they often represent the best cards in every color and seem able to handle any situation.”

I think every cube designer has, at one time or another, faced the “Junk Problem” aka the “Good Stuff Problem” aka the “my drafters only want to draft similar looking and playing midrange decks how do I stop this” problem, aka the “my format is ruined because aggro is hardly every drafted and what do I do now” problem. The traditional way of balancing out Magic archetypes is to broadly create “Roshambo” or “Rock, paper, scissors” categories for “aggro”, “midrange”, and “control.” Aggro beats control, control beats midrange, and midrange beats aggro. Unfortunately, even if you do a very nice job designing for control and aggro, if your players are biased towards drafting appealing looking midrange cards, your cube vision can never truly come to fruition, and the entire format is knocked off balance.

So what’s the solution? I’ve seen (and tried) the “nerf midrange to oblivion” plan—didn’t work, casual players just draft bad midrange decks. There is also the “give aggro a super buff” plan—doesn’t work, people just jam the best aggro cards into a midrange shell. Probably the most bizarre (and worst) approach is to just cut aggro completely from the format; the designer evidently resigning himself or herself to a world ruled by King Thragtusk and his Knights of Green Fat.

Pauper, however, poses to us an intriguing question—have we been, perhaps, narrow-minded in our attitudes towards aggro design? Pauper, as a very condensed format, where everything must operate at low CC amounts due to the power of its combo deck and aggro decks, has resulted in some truly bizarre deck adaptations. In this harsh, ultra-condensed world, at what point might a very low CC deck start to heavily bleed parts of the rock/paper/scissors formula to both survive and thrive? What would be the result?

Goblins/Mono Red Control (2014), by jsiri84

Creatures (31)
Goblin Arsonist
Goblin Bushwhacker
Goblin Cohort
Goblin Matron
Goblin Sledder
Mogg Conscripts
Mogg Raider
Mogg War Marshal
Sparksmith

Spells (11)
Death Spark
Flame Slash
Lightning Bolt
Sylvok Lifestaff

Lands (18)
18 Mountain
Sideboard (15)
Electrickery
Flame Slash
Flaring Pain
Gorilla Shaman
Pyroblast
Smash to Smithereens
Sylvok Lifestaff

I choose this list both because it’s an extreme example of this concept (red and creature based), and because of how successful it’s pilots have been in competitive pauper events. You can read more about the deck here or here if you wish, but as it ties into our conversation today, it represents the idea that even fairly extreme looking aggro archetypes can be tweaked to blur traditional archetype lines. Ultimately, it’s probably more correct to describe the above list as an aggro-control deck, and as we go further, let us partly frame the issues in terms of how we can better apply aggro-control principles to our format.

Now, clearly a direct port of this list into any cube would be a disaster. Some designers require a much greater amount of raw power from their cards, a number of these cards are too narrow (sparksmith/goblin matron) to make the conversion, and it’s also possible that certain cards might be too complicated for some play groups (death spark). So let’s focus instead on a few broad principles.

1. Sligh Aggro is not fun for casual players. I want to bring this to the forefront, because we are not going to get very far without acknowledging this basic reality. Remember our quote from Near? Does playing a bunch of 2/1 creatures for 1 mana seem exciting, powerful, or able to handle any situation? The answer is a resounding no. Unfortunately, this one style of aggro defines what many cube designers will support (usually in only 1-3 color combinations), while at the same time providing a critical mass of attractive looking midrange cards in every other single color combination in their cube. Combining this with how sligh decks are very punishing of drafting and play mistakes, and their focus on technical play rather than flashy play, we shouldn’t be surprised when many such cubes finish midrange dominated.

2.Aggro can play the long game. It’s possible to bleed ideas of card advantage and removal into aggressive strategies. The above list has an engine of reusable removal and incremental advantage that can grind out an opponent if it must, or it can just curve out and kill like a normal aggro deck. This combination of removal, and incremental advantage, creates dynamic games that don’t feel like they are largely decided by turn four, while also providing a big flashy (and fun) way to end the game. This helps address the insecurity that drafters may feel about going into an aggro archetype in the first place, as well as the perception that it’s a fairly bland archetype.

3.Aggro-control decks do not need to be spell based or blue. Aggro decks featuring removal and sources of incremental gain can appear in even the most stereotypical of aggressive guises—in this case, little red men. This is good news, since most cube decks are defined more by their creatures than their spells, and also because any form of blue based aggro is notoriously difficult to support in cube.

So, than, the big question becomes how do we provide our aggro decks with:

  1. Sources of incremental gain that facilitate a presence in the long game
  2. Removal or other disruption, that supports an aggro strategy
  3. Variety

But let’s come back down to earth for a moment, and look at some examples of how this might look in practice, based on a few lists from my own budget cube.

R/W Heroic Goblins

grillorwheroic

Starting out safe. We have a pretty typical looking R/W goblins list. The format is a bit slower so having your pressure arrive on turn two is fine here. More relevant to our discussion, is the touch of control elements that work nicely with the aggro pieces: Blood Artist, Goblin Bombardment, Goblin Sharpshooter, Spikeshot Elder, Gods Willing, and Shelter. The latter two specifically can act as conditional counterspells (or conditional removal) protecting key threats, while the remaining four pieces variously serve as reusuable removal, or facilitate incremental gain by allowing the pilot to trade up with tokens. Recursive threats, such as a mogg war marshal, provide another source of incremental gain. Alternatingly, the deck can kill suddenly with fabled hero or the goblin bushwhackers, or go over the top with a heroic threat.

The variety of strategic axes, combined with the ability to confidently enter the mid and late game, helps make for a more appealing aggro package than a typical savannah lions based aggro deck.

Now, let’s take those ideas, and flow with them from the other direction—after all, our focus is on bleeding broad archetypal concepts, not just buffing our aggro decks:

G/W/r Hexproof Auras

grillogwhexproof

Here we have a midrange list, but its 2-3 CC focus brings it closer to the ground than a more traditional 4-6 CC midrange deck. While there are some faster draw sequences (generally revolving around Favored Hoplite, Ainok Bond-kin, Kor Skyfisher, and Fabled Hero) the list as a whole is much more focused around building an overwhelming board presence to go over-the-top with (though it does support an aggro-combo and horizontal aggro axes to much smaller degrees). The big payoff a drafter gets by going with this slimmer midrange approach, is that the 2-3 cc outlast cards mutually support one another, allowing the pilot to establish a somewhat earlier board presence, while still reserving the ability to horizontally grow dominate threats.

Ultimately, these two decks represent very different strategies, but due to our aggro deck’s potential to play a longer value game, and our midrange deck’s potential to assert early pressure, we’ve blurred those broad archetypal lines making it more difficult for a drafter to draw harsh strategic distinctions, and write off one part of the cube. Most importantly, by bleeding these broad archetypes into one another, we’ve made moving around the cube space a bit more appealing to that stubborn drafter stuck in the midrange comfort zone.

Now, let’s bring everything we’ve talked about thus far together.

Heroic Metalcraft Aggro

grillorwmetalcraft

There is a lot going on here, and I don’t want to divert too much into the very spikey mana base design, but this is a very powerful deck: strategically operating as an aggro deck, but with elements of midrange and control, and representing a lot of different aggro axes.

The heroic mechanic combined with combat tricks and protection effects, provides a source of disruption, as well as acting as conditional counterspells and removal—a form of incremental gain often generated through the combat step. Quite simply, you can trade a protection spell or a pump spell to control what is allowed to exist on the board, while also growing a threat that can later dominate the board through its size. This is a deck that is exerting pressure on turn one or turn two, but has enough control tools to play the long game (while also top decking better due to the wellsprings and low mana count), and can also eventually present a single high quality threat able to dominate the board in a manner not dissimilar to what a midrange deck might do.

Strategically, its capable of going with a fair beat down approach, taking a horizontal growth strategy supported by overrun effects, an over-the-top approach via a vertical growth strategy, or a more exotic aggro-combo approach supported by Fabled Hero, Assault Strobe, protection effects, or any other large vertical growth threat. By designing the cube in a way that blurs these broad archetypes, and by supporting a wide swath of viable aggro strategies beyond just sligh, we’ve created some very dynamic and complex aggro decks. Hopefully, our drafters will begin to understand that in our format, what a mistake it would be to overvalue midrange cards, and what a mistake it would be to dismiss those little red men as being simple idiots that must always effectively win by the midgame.

These ideas are also not so distant from what higher powered formats are capable of doing. The idea, for example, of using recursive threats to gain incremental value is already well represented in Gravecrawler-based black aggro. It may take some creativity to broaden those principles into other color combinations at various power levels, but the precedent for doing so exists.

Happy drafting!

Vampires are Storm

By: CML

Everyone knows Black aggro is terrible in conventional Cubes and the Legacy Cube is a conventional Cube. Moreover, it probably has to be at least a little conventional to satisfy people’s expectations of what an official Cube “should be,” which might limit the number of solutions the designers have at their disposal — it would be great if Randy and Gerry could speak to that, and understandable if they can’t.

At any rate, Carnophage et al. are too weak of cards to match up well against much of anything in the average 2015 Cube environment, which is undesirable from a design standpoint, nobody disagrees with that. One solution would be to weaken the overall power level of the Cube by cutting its strongest cards, but I tend to prefer higher-power environments and so do the Modo drafters, presumably. Another solution would be to just cut Diregraf Ghoul et al. and replace them with different Black spells — more finishers, more removal, or more viable yet more expensive creatures. This may have the desirable result of strengthening Black, the conventional worst color in conventional Cubes, to the point it doesn’t suck in general. This would promote deck diversity through balance. I will come back to this.

The argument for trying to keep Black aggro would also be one of diversity — if a color doesn’t have aggressive options, then there’s less you can do with it. So in order for Black aggro to be worth having around, what Black gains in versatility has to outweigh what it will lose in power level. This is an evaluation that every designer has to make for every “theme” they put in their Cube — should I have Academy Rector and a few goofy targets, or a Sublime Archangel and three more beaters? Aggro “themes” are bigger than other themes — they require a lot of slots — but we don’t think about it much because putting in beaters in Naya is what everyone does and everyone should do. However, the conventional Cube community, at large, has ruled against at least one aggro theme: Blue aggro. Check out http://www.gatheringmagic.com/enabling-blue-based-tempo-or-“blueggro”-in-your-cube/ and tell me that Lu Xun, Horizon Drake, and Mistblade Shinobi are worth three slots in your Cube. If they’re not worth it, the other bad support cards you need to make the theme big enough to be supported aren’t worth it, so then it’s time to get rid of the theme and allocate the slots to six Brainstorms, four Rune Snags, and a Dissolve or something.

I mention the multiples because in the case of Black aggro I could come up with no solution that did not involve breaking singleton. Jason Waddell’s excellent articles on CFB are not perfect, but they do have a lot of ideas worth borrowing, and the most successful one I’ve implemented in my own Cube (http://www.cubetutor.com/viewcube/114) is detailed here: http://www.channelfireball.com/articles/cube-design-remodeling-part-two/. The Cliffs are that Black aggro with Gravecrawlers, Carrion Feeders, Bloodghasts, and Blood Artists is lots of fun because the cards interact well with a number of other themes, can be reduced or increased in number to nerf or buff, and are viable and flexible enough to lead to interesting drafting and gameplay decisions. Some of the cards the Gravecrawler theme works well with are Vampires, and my Cube contains Blood Artist, Bloodghast, Bloodghast, Falkenrath Aristocrat, Guul Draz Assassin, and Stromkirk Noble, popular inclusions all, as well as DKA Sorin who makes little lifelinking Vampires.

Given that everyone likes these cards, and that Vampires, being an OK deck in a Standard format with Jace and Stoneforge, are among the most-pushed tribes in MTG history, a Cube Vampires theme is tempting. I tried it. It failed, but I learned something from it and some of what I learned I will type out below.

Start at my Vamps thread here: http://riptidelab.com/forum/threads/vamps.361/. To the typical lineup of Vampires, you could also add Bloodline Keeper, Olivia, Kalastria Highborn, Vampire Nighthawk, Gatekeeper of Malakir, Vampire Nocturnus, Blade of the Bloodchief, Bloodthrone Vampire, Anowon(?), and maybe another few that I’m missing, without making the theme too obtrusive. People who aren’t drafting “the Vampire deck” will want to play with most of these cards at least sometime, and that’s what you want.

At first blush, therefore, the theme looks reasonable. Why didn’t it work? Most of why is captured by Waddell’s comment — “There’s not a lot of actual incentive cards. Maybe the captain and Kalastria Highborn? Like, Bloodghast just works better with Carrion Feeder than any of these dumb old vampires” — but I should go into further detail. You want the “filler” cards to be fought over by a bunch of different people, but not too much — so far, so good. You also want there to be the incentive of synergy if you get a lot of these cards; this is what did not happen. The payoff for assembling the tribe was just not that great, and the tribe didn’t come together often enough. For the week or two I tried the Vampire theme there were maybe 20 vampires in my Cube of 450 cards, or 4.4%. By comparison, there are 56 humans in my current build of 470 cards — 11.9% — and I still cut Mayor of Avabruck and worry about people not picking Champion of the Parish and Xathrid Necromancer until late.

Yet 4.4%, which is insufficient, is significantly higher than the proportion in the Legacy Cube — and my list did not include Guul Draz Vampire, Vampire Interloper, and other draft dreck I see here. It is always funny to me how Cube power-maxers say “Cube is about the good cards,” and then include Sangromancer and defend themselves. (Though Vampire Interloper does make our jokes about Greg’s including Stormfront Pegasus even funnier, if that’s even possible.)

But I digress. In the unlikely scenario someone assembles a decent Vampire deck in the Legacy Cube and gets an incentive card or two, they may win some matches. Far more likely are the scenarios where the deck only comes partially together (40 percent of cards aren’t “opened” in a 600-carder), or where all the cards go 13th pick. The Zombie theme, synergizing as it does with sac outlets and recursion, is only partially a tribal theme; by contrast, Vampires (minus Bloodghast) are just regular dudes. Pure tribal in Cube is fundamentally problematic unless it is Humans. Compare Mayor of Avabruck, a two-mana lord in a big tribe, with the possible Vampire reward cards:

Blade of the Bloodchief sucks, nobody else will ever want it.
Bloodlord of Vaasgoth also sucks.
Vampire Nocturnus looks like it should work, but it will not. 1BBB is a restrictive cost in my Cube, which has a lot of fixing — and no one who has ever played both triple KTK and full-RTR block should ever bemoan games decided by something other than color screw.
Stromkirk Captain will be drafted by nobody else and is two colors. In general, the lack of fixing in the Modo Cube engenders awful games and throttles options for multicolor aggro, which brings me to the next card.
Kalastria Highborn is an amazing card, but there’s only one of them, and it’s not worth it with such a small amount of Vampires.

The larger issue is that the Legacy Cube is too big — 600 cards is better than 720, but it’s still obese. With a 600-card singleton Cube, there will never be enough strong Vampires to make a worthwhile theme, yet the theme will be too large and will stoop to include weak cards to artificially support itself — Guul Draz Vampire isn’t better in the abstract than Sarcomancy. This will ensure Black aggro continues to suck, which will make Black continue to suck, which is undesirable for all the reasons I covered at the beginning that everyone agrees on.

There are certain problems that cannot be solved without drastically slimming down the Cube or breaking singleton, likely both, and one of them is the problem of Black aggro. That Black aggro is not seen as irreparable when Blue aggro is widely looked down upon is, I think, due only to inertia and accepted convention, yet for some reason there are Vampires in the Modo Cube and I am writing a polemic about it.

While we’re at it, I’ll articulate my thoughts on aggro in Cube: having it is absolutely vital, and most of my design choices in my own Cube — more fetches and duals to fix and fix untapped, a smaller size, a lower curve — flow from this axiom. Yet I think that singleton Cubes mainly support aggro through having control decks either draw too many 4-drops or color-screwing themselves. (It is also funny to me how Cube power-maxers claim that “the decks should do powerful things” when the average deck will just implode pretty often.) Anyway, this does technically balance the Cube by bridging the power gap between “Scorched Rusalka” and “JTMS,” but leads to rote drafting and lots of horrible games. I also think nobody would consider playing big singleton Cubes were the RiptideLab.com-style Cubes popularized first.

Yet it is easy to rip something apart without doing any better myself. I will propose several solutions:

— Actual redesign of the Legacy Cube with Gravecrawlers, Bloodghasts, and so on.
— Ideal: let everyone make their own Cubes on Modo and draft them free of charge.
— Decent: maybe offer multiple Cubes.
— If the constraints on my solution are what I think they are, I would cut all the weaker Vampires (maybe a dozen of them) and add the strongest Black spells, regardless of function, you can find. Demonic Tutor would be a good place to start.

Jason Waddell articulates the process by which a theme becomes not worthwhile in his excellent article “The Poison Principle,” though, for Vampires, a more pointed comparison might be to Storm. Nobody will argue that “Great, I get to pass this 14th-pick Empty the Warrens again” is a good drafting dynamic, yet here we are with Guul Draz Vampire. Anecdotally, this is what happens when I include a terrible, half-baked theme, which I have done dozens of times in the last three years since I assembled my Cube. There have been a lot of bad cards in my Cube and there are still a lot of bad cards. A few of the bad cards leave and come back and are adopted given time, but almost all do not.

I support experimentation in Cube — I’m on Riptide Lab all the time, I find maybe one idea in twenty worth trying and find that to be worth the time spent, and I have a lot of radical ideas for Cube, including lowering the power level to open up a wider variety of cards, a broader and less explored design space. I’m not arguing that no one should try Vampires — I have tried Vampires. Rather, I am arguing that, based on personal experience and heuristics, and in the context of a 600-card singleton Cube with a conventional power level, it is very likely Vampires will not fix the issue their inclusion is meant to fix, or will just fail to work out according to game-design principles we as MTG players largely agree upon.

The Quest: Part 1: The Quest

By James Stevenson

“By God, when I get home… I’m gunna take that frozen fruit, put it in the bottom, cover it in cake mix, then pour on a can of soda, then bake it.” I was having an excellent introduction to Canada, eavesdropping on a table of old ladies in a restaurant. An old man hobbled over to their table for a quick flirt, opening with “How are you fine looking ladies enjoying your meal?” and telling them how good the food was there.

I was in Peggy’s Cove, a world famous town I’d never heard of, home to 38 people, a lighthouse, and a beautiful coastline of exposed rock. It looks like a moonscape, except for the sea and the groups of tourists that get bussed out from Halifax every day to say “how quaint” for an hour. A local complained to me that one hour is not really enough to see the town, and I quite agree. An hour and a half would be perfect.

I’d only been in Nova Scotia for a few days and I was ready to stay forever. I was staying in Halifax, and after London I felt like I’d finally ascended from Purgatory to Heaven. Gone were the gray streets and gray people, replaced by green trees and blue waters. People seemed happy and unhurried here. I remember staring out of a café window, half asleep at 8am. A pretty girl jogged up to the crosswalk next to the window and looked at me. Instead of glancing away, she held my gaze and smiled. I was amazed! What was this place? Why hadn’t I been here years ago?

Peggy’s Cove was just a day trip for the sake of checking out Nova Scotia. The people who drove me were really down to earth and easy-going. I got given all kinds of advice about wild animals, people would talk about moose and coyotes and bears. One guy’s parting words as he drove away were “Buy bear repellent!”

I got two consecutive lifts from a couple middle-aged hippies who were spacing out happily and driving around with some young kid in the back seat. They loved Peggy’s Cove and were really happy I was going there. When I left one of them said “Thank you for bringing the medicine to Nova Scotia,” and wished me a meaningful, loving trip.

After a week in Halifax the real trip begun. I was heading north to Quebec, six hundred miles away. I’d travel along Nova Scotia and into New Brunswick, and for a little while I’d be in civilisation. Once I reached the TransCanada Highway there would be a long stretch of wilderness before reaching Quebec, hundreds of miles of forest. Towns were rare; there was only the woods, the animals, and the creeps who go out there to disappear. Or at least, so I was told.

Right in the beginning I had really good lift. I’d been dropped off after a ten minute ride and I was walking along the shoulder when this car swerved over and screeched to a stop ahead of me. It was a little two-door thing, low to the ground and looking kinda beat up. I ran over.

“Oh man I love picking up hitchhikers!” my driver exclaimed. He was a skinny guy with a mad grin and tattoos down his arms. I jumped in and he floored it. “I got a bit of a wet foot! I hope that’s ok!” he said.

He slouched back and smiled slyly while he talked. He had this kind of confidence that the world was his oyster. What he did for a living escapes me, but I do remember him telling me what a profit you can make transporting Canadian weed into America. He said they don’t let him through the border any more.

“Why not?” I asked, wondering if he’d been caught.

“Because I got a criminal record as long as my arm!”

He told me about a Russian girl he met on chatroulette.com that he’s kept in touch with for years. He almost went to Russia to meet her, but something about it didn’t work out. Maybe it was his massive criminal record, or maybe it was her stern, Putin-loving, west-hating father (Now that I think about it, how old is she?). He was still hoping she’d come to Canada one day. “I don’t know how I’d make that work with a wife and kids, but I’ll find a way!”

“You’re really lucky I picked you up,” he said. “I’m gunna take you to a big truck stop, you’ll get a ride in no time.”
The place he took me was completely dead, and I waited for three hours, getting slowly colder and adding layers of clothing until I was wearing everything I had. There was hardly any traffic, though one guy pulled over and handed me a bag of chips and a can of soda. “I’m not going that way, but here, have some pop and chips!”

I got fed up and went to warm up in the Schnitzel Haus, a weird roadside German restaurant that smelled like eggs. It was like being in a chalet, with chequered table cloths and a waitress in a dirndl She had a lovely Nova Scotia accent that was really out of place.

After twenty minutes enjoying this bizarre atmosphere I hit the road again, and it wasn’t long before I started getting lifts. I remember having a lift with a guy in a pickup truck who cracked open a couple beers for us as we drove. I just went with it. There was also a retired school teacher who wanted to write a book about teaching. People these days don’t know how to get respect from their students, he said.

I ended up somewhere in the south of New Brunswick, still four hundred miles from Quebec. I was surrounded by open green fields and rolling hills, crisscrossed with lines of little trees that led to the edge of dark woodland. The sky was huge here. The clouds which had kept the earth so cold all day started to drift away to the west and the sun, dipping towards the horizon now, threw great beams of light over their edge. I sat on my duffel bag, finally warming up in the sunlight. Whenever a car appeared I’d stick out my thumb, but for the moment I was perfectly content where I was.

I got one more lift that day, a long lift with a trucker who was on his way home to Woodstock, New Brunswick. He was another skinny tattooed guy, with a bandana wrapped around his forehead. He laughed a lot as he talked, and he would bounce around nervously in his seat when he did. He was in his sixties, but he was lean and wiry. He trained in mixed martial arts and kept a chrome baseball bat next to his seat, just in case.

The light of his life was his daughter, who could do all kinds of neat things like fix cars and hunt and whatnot. He called her the son he never had.

He told me all kind of stories about the women in his life. He had a “lot lizard” (that’s a euphemism for truckstop hooker) in New Jersey who was quite fond of him and would drop whatever she was doing and see him if he was in town. He assured me she was clean several times, and in one story about a three-way he assured me the other girl was clean too. I don’t know why I’m mentioning this; he just said it a lot. He also had a girl in Texas, who’d hitched a lift with him once. She given him weed and slept with him during the trip and would also drop whatever she was doing to see him if he turned up in Texas. And then there was his wife, who knew all about these women and didn’t mind.

I asked if he knew other truckers, what he did in truck stops. “Oh you know, I’ll pull in and go see what’s going on. See who’s telling the tallest stories.”

When we finally got to Woodstock I was let out in a truck stop. It was dark, but trucks were still moving, so I stood by the exit and held out a thumb whenever anyone passed. I didn’t get anywhere that night, but one Nova Scotian trucker did pull over and hand me five dollars. I spent the night on the sofa in the truckers lounge. I was nervous I’d get kicked out and tried to look awake whenever anyone walked by.

I gave this up and went back outside around 7am, and this is the day that things got weird.

I went back to the spot I’d been standing at the night before, and a guy in a pickup truck pulled over. He was 78 years old, nuts, and he talked like he was missing all his teeth. He was out that day to pick up potatoes from the fields and sell them. As he explained, the harvesters miss potatoes and leave them behind, and he would drive onto the fields after the farmers had left and fill up a couple of boxes.

We were driving past endless potato fields and he would stare around wildly, looking for farmers. “You cocksuckers!” He’d shout. “Where are you cocksuckers? All them potadas are gunna burn!” He must have spent a solid half hour gumming about potatoes, he knew everything there was to know about them. When we did finally pass a field being harvested he shouted triumphantly “There you are you cocksuckers! I’ll be back!”

As I slowly learned, Potato Man had had a hard life. “You got a girlfriend?” He asked me. I said no. He showed me a picture of a woman. “This is the lady I was taking care of,” he said. She had died earlier that year, and his son some time before that.

“I used to pick up bottles along this road.” In Canada many homeless people collect bottles and collect the deposits on them. “I used to jerk people off for fifty bucks. I’ve slept in boxes, abandoned cars, you name it, I’ve slept in it.”
We were off the highway so that he could scope out potato fields, and anyway he had some burning hatred for the TransCanada Highway that I didn’t understand. We passed a cornfield and he pointed into some trees at the edge. “That’s where I used to pull up my truck. I’d pull in there, go take some corn, and go sell it.”

More and more he would talk about jerking people off, and slowly the stories started to be about hitchhikers. He’d picked up eleven hitchhikers that summer, he told me. He said he’d been telling another hitchhiker about his sexual encounters, and that hitchhiker had told him to stop and jumped right out. “But I ain’t never attacked anyone!” he told me.

He also warned me several times not to go to Kitchener, Ontario because it was “full of queers up there”.

The closer we got to the end of the ride the more desperate and up front he became about what he wanted from me, though he never came out and said it. “I ain’t never attacked anyone,” he said, As we were pulling to a stop, “but if someone gets it out I’ll play with it!”

Now I was spooked. Maybe I should have jumped out too, but I wasn’t scared, just disgusted. I bought a doughnut from Tim Horton’s to feel better, but that didn’t really help. It was Tim Horton’s so I don’t really know what I’d expected.
In the next car I was wary. “What does this guy want from me?” I wondered. But he was just another nice guy. Thank God.
I caught a third ride, slowly making my way north, slowly feeling better. My driver was a salesman from Maine. He would visit Canadian companies and sell advertising slots on American TV.

We were getting along fine, talking about whatever, and then he asked me if I had a girlfriend. I said no, and he said something I didn’t quite hear. And then, after a pause, “You wanna make a little money?”

I knew what was going on, but thinking there was a chance all he meant was “Do you want to get a job while you’re travelling”, I answered “Maybe.”

“I’ll pay you to let me jerk ya off while we drive.” His voice kind of oozed and purred, oily. Every time I think back he sounds more like Heath Ledger as The Joker.

This time I said no. He nodded.

“Thought I’d ask.”

More afraid of an awkward silence than of him, I picked up the conversation again. “So you’re married, huh?”

“Yeah.”

“What’s that like?”

“Marriage? It’s alright.” There was a pause. “But I’ve been bi my whole life.” He still sounded like The Joker.

After that ride I was feeling terrible. I’d hitchhiked thousands of miles in Europe and never had anything like this at all! I was starting to think back to all the rides I gotten in my life. What were they after?

The Joker had told me he’d pick me up again if I was still there after he was done in the town, so I was really hoping I’d get picked up before I saw him again. Thankfully a couple French speaking guys let me into the back of their minivan and completely ignored me. I leaned against the window, nervous and exhausted. My eyelids were starting to droop. “What the hell,” I thought, “these guys are probably fine,” and I fell asleep.

They woke me up when they were turning off and I hopped out. I started walking and started to feel good again. The sky was clear and the sun was warm. For the first time in 24 hours I took off a layer of clothing. I wearing a rainbow patchwork jumper and a swagged out Turkish sunhat, and I thought to myself I must look like some kind of weird ginger hippie chinaman. I giggled a little, and a great euphoria welled up in me. I laughed and grinned and breathed in the fresh air. This was real hitchhiking! Out here in the middle of absolute nowhere, surrounded by a sea of trees, walking on highways and being picked up by repressed homosexuals. I was miles from home, miles from anywhere and I felt so alive!

At the top of a hill I could see for miles. All around me was green forest, dotted with blue lakes. It was just me, the land, the sky, and wind at my back, blowing north. Ahead of me I could see a big sign prohibiting anyone from walking further. That meant civilisation! I was getting close!

I got one last ride that day, with some kind of cultural minister from Quebec City. As we drove he told me all kinds of interesting things about Canada and about Quebec, and around us towns and houses started to appear again. The mighty Saint Laurence River appeared ahead of us and led us to the city. We crossed over a great bridge to the island and took the scenic route into the old town, my driver pointing out different buildings and interesting things.

He drove me right to the steps of Hostelling International. I booked a room for the night, went in, collapsed on the bed, and slept.

That night I took a long walk in the rain. I had a lot to think about. The last two days had been more interesting than whole months of boredom at home. Not only that, but the next day I knew I would be heading for Montreal, and I was excited. Montreal was my goal. I know I haven’t yet told you why I was in Canada in the first place, but you’ll just have to hold on. Things were about to get completely absurd, and I won’t say anything at all until part 2. Stay tuned!

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