Some friends and acquaintances of mine have had a fraught relationship to Magic during the pandemic. While many players rushed to Magic Online in the first weeks of the pandemic, frustrations with the Companion mechanic and other over-powered printings in recent years, combined with turmoil in the community, soured interest and a dismal atmosphere pervaded. Although I was among those who initially rushed into Vintage leagues and Challenges in late March and April, I, too, found myself frustrated with the state of affairs in Vintage, a discomfort which culminated with the banning of Lurrus, and then an ad hoc power level errata to the mechanic, something which I believed Wizards had disclaimed.
I needed a refuge – a hobby away from my hobby. I found that in the comforting arms of Alpha. Alpha is the peak experience of aesthetic Magic. It is the most simultaneously beautiful and nostalgic set in Magic for those of us weaned on Magic in those halcyon days of 1993 and 1994 (I played my first game of Magic in December 1993 at a friend’s house, and acquired my first cards in the summer of 1994). Even for players raised on Unlimited, Revised, or Fourth Edition, Alpha is the foundation for those base sets.
Last year, I won the Wizards Tournament II, the largest Alpha-only tournament since 1993, held in Sweden. But in the year and a half leading up to it, I built a deck that I greatly enjoyed playing, and enjoyed the hunt for Alpha cards nearly as much. When the Alpha Facebook group announced “League” play in late 2019, I knew I would want to participate, but I seemed to miss the brief sign-up window every month. In late May I began building a deck in anticipation of League play. I reviewed my assembled collection, and decided that my most competitive option, under the strict parameters of League rules, was Blue-Black.
The core of my league viable Alpha collection – the Icy’s, Juggernauts, and Jade Statues – can fit into any deck, which gives me a great deal of color discretion and flexibility. But after perusing my collection (which is probably about 200 cards total), I decided that I was strongest, if not deepest, in blue and black. Blue, because I have Ancestral Recall, some countermagic, and four Psionic Blasts. Black, because I owned 4 Dark Rituals, 2 Sengir Vampires, a Hypnotic Specter (I now own 3), and 3 Terrors. The Dark Rituals synergize nicely with the artifact core of my collection, so I felt like this was the way to go.
I did a little bit of goldfishing and theorycrafting, and found one guy (named Braunski) in the Alpha40 Discord room to play a few league games in late May. In my test match, I realized that Psionic Blast was pretty painful to run a full complement of against red decks. I also realized that I probably wanted a Drain Life, as there was a chance I’d need to recoup some life to swing back into a game at some point. Not to mention, it was also a decent finisher.
That led me to this deck for the June Alpha League:
To understand why this deck was constructed this way, you need to first examine the Alpha 40 League deck construction rules, provided in this nifty rulebook.
In brief, however, you can only play a single artifact accelerant, so I chose Sol Ring over Black Lotus. The format also restricts both Ancestral Recall and Demonic Tutor. Every non-restricted rare is set at a maximum of 3, known as “moderated.” A bunch of cards are restricted, and a precious few are “super-restricted,” in that you can only choose one among a larger group.
With a single match under my belt, I felt ready to go, but was more excited about the format than nervous for my games. I couldn’t wait to see what my opponents would be playing.
Match 1 vs. Patrick Quinn playing Blue/White Prison Control
Game 1: This game is a classic match of threats and answers. Patrick answers every threat I played with Swords to Plowshares and other removal. The game drags on for what seems to be a very long time. He resets the game, when both of us have about ten cards left, with an Armageddon. Unfortunately for him, I recover faster and better. I play an optimal mix of Islands and Swamps, while he has an awkward post-Geddon development. All of his Serra Angels are met with a Terror, and I eventually win by casting Ancestral Recall on him to deck him after he taps out with less than three cards left in his library. Gotcha! I drew Ancestral three or four turns before, waiting just for that moment.
Game 2: I am mana screwed, and never get a foothold in the game. I lose in a landslide, crushed by an Angel.
Game 3: This is an incredible game, and one in which I wish I had a time machine or a recording to re-watch. It was intricate and complex.
Once again, Patrick removes most of my threats while I answer his. This time, however, he starts to play some unexpected cards. A turn after I tap out, perhaps to cast a Jade Statue and attack with another, he casts Winter Orb. Clearly, I won’t be using Jade Statue. I untap and draw enough lands that I am able to squeeze an Icy Manipulator on the board. I may have had the help of a Dark Ritual.
I’m right on schedule to be able to tap his Winter Orb on his end step, so that I can untap first, when he complicates things even further by casting Stasis! Yikes.
He pays for the Stasis for three or four turns, making land drops enough to keep the game locked up. Eventually, however, he has to let it go. On the end step of the turn Stasis dies, I finally use my Icy to tap down his Winter Orb, allowing me to untap first.
I drop a boatload of threats onto the table, hoping to overwhelm him. Unfortunately, it is not nearly enough. He untaps and plays a boatload of things on his end as well, including some combination of removal spells (perhaps a Wrath of God?). Most importantly, he plays a Howling Mine and an Icy Manipulator.
Now the math gets tricky. Our libraries are very close in size. I think my library had about 1 more card than his, so the timing of the Howling Mine could be decisive. If I had 9 cards, and he had 8, then Howling Mine could win the game, if turned off at the last moment. Moreover, I have to use my Icy on his Icy, rather than the Winter Orb, to keep my Icy advantage. To prevent himself from decking a couple of turns later, he taps his Howling Mine in one of his upkeeps. But the damage was already done. In his draw step, I cast Ancestral Recall, and he is again decked!
My first official league match, and both games I won were won through decking. I’m all in on this. My enthusiasm for this form of Magic could not be greater.
Here’s what Patrick played:
Match 2 vs. Tim Moran playing White/Red
Game 1: I have no memory of our first game, but I don’t think it was particularly competitive. Tim was playing the Orcish Artillery combo deck, but with just a single copy of Circle of Protection: Red. He had a lot of removal though, with Swords to Plowshares, Lightning Bolts, and Fireballs.
Without COP: Red, the Artilleries are not a serious problem. A pair of them can take out my main threats, but not Jade Statue. And even if they strike down Sengir or Juggernaut, the cost is steep in life.
I think this was roughly the situation, with Jade Statue as my trump. All I recall is that I won this game.
Game 2: This game was a little dicey. He rolled out Dragon Whelps, which after inflicting a non-trivial amounts of damage were finally stopped with Terror, or traded with one of my big flyers. I think he may have even cast a Roc of Kher Ridges, which I also answered.
That’s when things took a strange turn. Because of my mounting board presence, including Jade Statues, he cast Island Sanctuary, and put an immediate halt to my attack. Hesitantly at first, but more confidently in subsequent turns, he skipped his draw steps, although he had a few cards left in hand.
Each time he did this was a curious sensation for me, of both fear and excitement. I was excited because my hand steadily grew while his board state remained static. He appeared to hope that I would deck, which explained my fear. I only had four flyers in my deck, and I think he had killed or removed at least two of them.
To win this game was not going to be simple. I needed several things to occur. First, I needed to draw a flyer to win the game. Second, I needed to do so with enough cards left in my library to not deck before winning. And third, I needed to find protection – one of my counterspells – in case he was holding a Plow or removal spell in hand. Drain Life was not likely going to be enough as a finisher. I needed a flyer to inflict at least a couple of attacks to have a shot at winning.
That’s exactly what happened. I drew my last large flyer with barely enough turns left, and it turned out that he had nothing relevant in hand anyway, just another Island Sanctuary. Island Sanctuary put him into a huge hole, but it also shifted the pressure to me. It was a wild gambit. Great games.
Here’s what Tim played:
I don’t think he played with sleeves. Tim was playing like we played back in the day!
Match 3 vs. Angelo Russo playing Mana Flare Ramp
Game 1: Angelo is mana screwed. I see a Mountain, and then another, but not much besides, and I quickly overrun him with threats.
Game 2: This game was much more interesting. He played an early Copper Tablet, which starts pecking at our life. I believe I Dark Ritual out a threat and then start attacking him as well with a decent-sized threat. On turn three or four he played a Mana Flare, with what appears to be a hand full of big X-spells. He lands his first punch, a large Disintegrate, and halves my life. I’m clearly dead the next turn.
I tap four Swamps and an Island, and I cast Dark Ritual, and then Drain Life on him for 10, sending me up to 17 or so life, and sending him to 1. The Copper Tablet does the rest.
Match 4 vs. Jeremy Jones playing Mono Blue Control
Game 1: I have very little memory of this game, but what stands out is that Jeremy finds and casts a Jayemdae Tome, and starts drawing cards with only about 10-15 cards left in his library. I luck out, because I cast Ancestral Recall on myself, but he outdrew me by about 2 or 3 cards, and that made all of the difference. Jeremy decked himself.
Game 2: Emboldened by my game 1 victory, I came storming out of the gates cocky and confident. I think I drew Sol Ring and played a Turn 2 Juggernaut, and a Turn 3 threat as well. This massively backfired. He Copied my Sol Ring with Copy Artifact, and then stole both the Juggernaut and other threat with Steal Artifact and Control Magic. I was dead in short order.
Game 3: I learned my lesson. I was going to come at him very differently this game.
Based upon what I had seen so far, Jeremy seemed to have very few actual win conditions, perhaps a few Air Elemental. Most of his threats were based upon stealing or copying mine.
My Terrors could keep his threats off the board. And, if things went right, I could win the game by decking him. If he couldn’t kill me, I could deck him, like I had Patrick.
The most important thing I needed to avoid doing was play a Sengir Vampire, as I couldn’t Terror my own Sengir. I drew both Sengirs, but never played them this game.
The game unfolded partly according to plan, except there was a bumpy moment in the middle. He had an Air Elemental attacking me – and I can’t recall whether it was a Clone, my own, or one of his, and he landed a Prodigal Sorcerer. The Sorcerer, alone, couldn’t kill me before Jeremy decked. But I needed to deal with the Elemental immediately. I also felt like the game was slipping away when I drew Demonic Tutor. I had two basic options: find Ancestral to try to get something going, like a combination of threats and answers, or just Tutor for a guaranteed answer. I decided I needed to roll the dice. An answer wasn’t going to be good enough. I needed some card advantage.
I found Ancestral, and cast it. It yielded the Terror I needed, and another relevant spell, which I can’t recall, but perhaps was an Icy Manipulator. The game was rebalanced, but I didn’t feel ahead.
A new wrinkle arose. Jeremy found Crystal Rod, and I could no longer ignore it. I started Icying the Rod in his upkeep, so that he couldn’t cast spells just to gain life. But he drew a second one, and started gaining gobs of life by playing irrelevant spells.
Jeremy’s life peaked somewhere around 56 life when I began to attack with a pair of Jade Statues for 6 damage a turn, pecking away. On the final two or three turns, if Jeremy had drawn a blue spell he could play, I would have lost the game, and decked. Instead, I studiously avoided playing any spell that might allow him to cast a counterspell, simply to prevent him from activating the Rod. Unfortunately for Jeremy, he drew dead – either lands or countermagic – in the final turns. I think I won with three cards left in my library.
Jade Statue, and a lot of luck, won me this match.
Here’s what Jeremy played:
Match 5 vs. Ash Anabtawi playing Mono Green Stompy
Game 1: This was the longest game of our match. I believe I opened with a first turn Hypnotic Specter, which did get in an attack, but was destroyed in the process by getting Berserked.
I developed slowly, but surely, playing out Jade Statues and Icy Manipulators, careful not to allow my life to go too low. The key card in this matchup, I discovered, was Terror, since it could trump his most lethal attacks. Nonetheless, I allowed some damage to seep in, but never allowed myself to become critical.
I believe he cast a Force of Nature, but it was too late. I either Terrored it, Icy’d it, or simply won the game immediately afterward.
Game 2: In this game, Ash opened with an Elf, and then another Elf and a Sprite. On Turn 3 or perhaps 4, he cast Giant Growth and double Berserk, after I had tapped out. That was 16 damage, killing me.
Game 3: This game was less interesting, as I recall. I don’t remember the specific sequence of plays, but the general feel was similar to the first game, but less interesting or uncertain was the outcome. Perhaps it was because I drew more Terrors or more broken spells, but the game was over fairly swiftly.
Here’s what Ash played:
Match 6 vs. Reed Stiles with Mono Black Weenie
Reed’s swift ascent in our league standings led me to believe that Reed was either playing an uber-powerful Mr. Suitcase deck, or was on a hot streak with a good deck. Either way, I thought this would be a real test.
Game 1: I believe Reed won the roll, and when he opened with a basic Swamp, and cast Will-o-the-Wisp, I surmised that he must be on Mono Black, which also fit. That would be a fierce some archetype. I believe I opened with Dark Ritual and Hypnotic Specter. After he blocked with the Wisp, I cast Drain Life for 1 on it, on turn 3, so that it would go away for good.
I don’t recall exactly how the rest of the game played out, but I do recall that he resolved a Bad Moon and several Black Knights, and I think we traded Hippies. The Knights made short work of my Juggernaut, but had a great deal of difficulty with Jade Statue. He Paralyzed my flying creatures, so I couldn’t take over the game until I had enough mana to both untap the Paralyze every turn, animate multiple Jade Statue, and use Icy Manipulator. But once I did hit that point, Reed was knocked out. I think I finished him off with Psionic Blast.
Game 2: I drew the silliest opening hand of the pod, and it took me a moment to figure out that the hand played itself. After my first turn draw step, my hand was Swamp, Swamp, Dark Ritual, Dark Ritual, Dark Ritual, Sol Ring, Juggernaut, and Icy Manipulator. It seemed like a gangbusters sequence, but, once again, Juggernaut was easily answered after perhaps getting in 5 or maybe 10 damage. My Jade Statue joined the fray, and went the distance after Reed missed a Chaos Orb flip.
Reed assumed that, based upon the Alpha text, Chaos Orb is not destroyed if it fails to hit a target. After reading the text myself, I suspected Reed might be right. But was asked an authoritative voice in our pod, and confirmed that it was, indeed, discarded, despite the miss.
I requested a third game, just for kicks, and Reed gladly agreed. This time, Reed opened with an early Hippie, and I thought I was doomed. But I cast a second turn Dark Ritual fueled Drain Life, which allowed me to stabilize and turn take the advantage. Reed’s threats were real, but he had a difficult time with my Jade Statues. This game went probably 20 turns, and I drew two of my three Terrors, but he just couldn’t punch through my defenses of Jade Statues and Hippies. Turn after turn, I tapped down the critical threats and presented a Moat-like barrier of Statues. Eventually, I took over with larger threats. It didn’t seem like a fluke – I think my deck was advantaged in this match.
Match 7: Akos Schiberske playing Red/Black Good Stuff
At this point I was already a lock for first place in my pod. Reed was now 5-2, after I defeated him. Akos could finish 5-2, at best, by defeating me. This made me excited because the final standings were not at stake, but also sad because the league would be over.
Akos greeted me at 6PM promptly. We exchanged pleasantries, shuffled up, and began.
Game 1: I had seen so many different decks in this league, so I was excited to see what he was playing. I won the die roll, and elected to play first.
I vaguely recall that my opening hand seemed slow. I had two lands, a Dark Ritual, a Juggernaut, a Sengir Vampire, Terror, and I believe a Power Sink. By the second turn, I hadn’t drawn a third land, so I decided to Ritual out the Juggernaut, rather than wait a turn, and hope to hit another land and cast Sengir (which is a much better, and more resilient card).
I was astonished when he played a second land on his turn, and cast Shatter on my Juggernaut. This was the first time I had seen Shatter in the league, a card that could be incredibly dead in some matchups. He remarked that Shatter was quite good in this pod so far, and upon reflection I could see how that could be the case. Drat!
On my third turn, I drew Sol Ring. I tapped my Swamp to cast Sol Ring, leaving up Island, with a Power Sink and Terror in hand. I felt that holding up Power Sink would be better than Terror here, and I was not wrong. He played another Shatter on his third turn, targeting Sol Ring. I Power Sinked it.
Then I drew a third land, and cast Sengir. Hazzah! I thought.
Then he played a Royal Assassin, and suddenly I didn’t feel quite as cocky. I was holding a Jade Statue and a Terror, but I had also drawn a Psionic Blast. I blasted the Assassin out of the game, and then attacked with Sengir Vampire. Life totals: 16 to 18.
He played a Badlands and then paused. He decided the Vampire was too menacing and directed two Bolts on it. A worthy, but not advantageous, use of his turn.
On my turn, I cast Jade Statue, and offered some commentary that I thought it was probably the best or second best creature in the format. In defiance, he cast a Sedge Troll with a mana up. I untapped, activated the Statue, and then Terrorized the Sedge Troll, as Terror says that the creature cannot regenerate. His life total fell to 13 with the attack.
He played a Juggernaut, which was fine with me. I was now drawing plenty of lands, so I cast a second Jade Statue, and then an Icy Manipulator. Do you know what happens in this situation?
His Juggernaut ran into one of my Statues, but then he played an Icy Manipulator of his own, and two more Sedge Trolls over the next few turns.
Unfortunately, I already had the advantage. I used my cards to keep him pinned, and in the final turn, tapped down a single blocker and then attacked with two Jade Statues, dropping him from 4 to 0 life.
Game 2: My hand felt middling again, but loosely viable. He came storming out of the gates. He opened with Swamp, Sol Ring, which is bad enough, and then cast Chaos Orb.
My opening hand had two Swamps and an Island, and expensive spells with no acceleration. I played a Swamp and passed the turn.
On his second turn, he cast Juggernaut. Yikes. I had very few answers at this speed.
I played a second land, and passed. He Orbed my Swamp, and cast Sedge Troll.
I played my second Swamp and cast Terror, but sucked up 5 more damage, sending myself to 10.
He played another Sedge Troll, which I Terrored again. In addition to attacking me with Juggernaut, he Bolted me down to 2. I had the mana to Psionic Blast it, but then I’d be dead. Alternatively, I could Demonic Tutor for Ancestral, but then I’d be dead. My only out was to Dark Ritual, Dark Ritual, and Drain Life the Juggernaut, but I lacked most of those cards. I scooped.
Game 3: I was excited to see that my first four cards had a Sol Ring, but then drew no further land. No land mulligan! My next hand was less exciting to begin with, but ended up having Dark Ritual and Hypnotic Specter. That seemed strong.
On my first turn, I played Ritual into Hippie, and prayed he didn’t have a Bolt. He played a Mountain, and passed the turn.
I quickly attacked, and he discarded a Swamp, a card he apparently desperately needed, as he missed his next land drop.
I attacked again, and he discarded a Juggernaut. I cast Demonic Tutor on turn 3, finding and casting Ancestral Recall to refill my hand entirely. He did find a second Mountain on turn 3, but could do nothing about it.
The Hippie just wrecked him, taking him down to 10 life before he found a Bolt, and stripping almost all of his hand. Instead of playing threats, I decided to lean in to the control role, playing a pair of Icy’s to keep his mana tied up, and used a Counterspell on his Wheel of Fortune. That was his last out, and I quickly took over the game after that with some other threat, a Sengir and a Juggernaut, as I recall.
And that was that.
Here’s what Akos played:
Here are the final pod records and standings:
|Final Pod Standings||Player||Match Record|
Jeremy’s deck was the biggest hurdle, and I honestly feel that my deck is a dog there. I felt like I had to get a bit lucky to win that match. My only ace was Jade Statue. His deck was the best 1-6 deck I can imagine. I honestly am not sure which deck I felt was the next scariest, but I really enjoyed the incredible strategic diversity I faced.
The top seeds from each pod were then put into an 8-person playoff, and I was paired against Brian Limbacher in the first round.
Quarterfinals vs. Brian Limbacher with Red White Burn
Game 1: I won the die roll, which is a psychological boost, if not a tangible advantage. I landed a turn 2 Juggernaut, which ran into a Lightning Bolt, and then a turn 3 Hippie, which was Fireballed. I Terrorized his Orcish Artillery, and played my Sengir Vampire, but that was Disintegrated.
It turns out that Brian has 8 Fireballs and 2 Disintegrates in his deck! If the game goes long enough, silly things start to happen. I Terrorized a Dragon Whelp, and then finally got a Sengir and a Jade Statue to stick. He got me down to 2 life, but I had a Power Sink waiting for his final Fireball, and my Jade Statue and Sengir finished him off.
Game 2: I had the wrong configuration of mana this game, flooded with Islands and no Swamps in sight. This forced me into an awkward situation where I had to waste a Counterspell on Dragon Whelp, and a Psionic Blast on an Orcish Artillery. Still, I hung on for a bit, using an Icy Manipulator to tap down his Sol Ring, until it was finally inevitable that a big Fireball would kill me, no matter how much pressure I applied.
Game 3: My opening hand gave me heartburn. It was slow and plodding, with neither Ritual, Sol Ring, Ancestral, nor Demonic. Both of us just played lands on our first three turns. On my fourth, I had a pick of Juggernaut, Jade Statue, or Icy. I think I ran an Icy into a Disenchant, and then a Juggernaut into a Bolt. My Sengir was hit by a Fireball. My life fell from 17 to 10. I played all of my creatures out, and was about to mount a major offensive strike. Then, on the final turn, he Fireballed me for 7, saving just a red mana behind to finish me with Bolt, inflicting the final ten in one fell stroke. I think I would have won the game had I gotten another turn, or drawn a single counterspell.
I think my deck could, at a minimum, split a set of 10 against Brian, but I had variance go my way in the league, so it was only fair for things to go the other way as well.
I’ve already spent more than I should have acquiring several dozen more Alpha 40 League staples to give myself more deck options, and I’m excited to try them out. But more than that, I’m excited to see what boundaries can be pushed, what interactions can be exploited, and what edges can be gained against the league rules to learn, not just about the original Magic set, but more about the game itself. It isn’t every day that such gloriously ludicrous format rules and amusing set of constraints and possibilities are pursued with such a wicked combination of entertainment and strategy.
Until next time,