MBtB: The Precon Buyer’s Guide Concludes!
Today on Quiet Speculation, the final installment of the Precon Buyer’s Guide has been posted for this week’s Magic Beyond the Box. In today’s piece, I cover the Core Set precons from 7th Edition through Magic 2011, and other products ranging from Duel Decks to Archenemy to Duels of the Planeswalkers!
For those who haven’t been following the series, the Buyer’s Guide looks at a number of Magic’s top internet retailers and compares their pricing for every deck we cover, as well as offering suggestions and insights as to what you can expect to pay (or should pay) for any precon deck. The previous entries are:
The Vintage Era (Tempest through Judgment)
The Classic Era (Onslaught through Coldsnap)
The Modern Era (Time Spiral through Mirrodin Besieged)
Having read all of the reviews of the modern-era decks, I feel that one thing which is lacking is any mention of the booster pack that has been included since Shards. You often criticize the intro packs for having weak removal suites, disappointing rares, or obviously bad cards that are supposed to encourage the buyer to modify the deck, without recognizing the role the booster plays in helping to improve it.
I admit I don’t have a perfect solution for this problem, but I would like you to try opening the booster and using it to do a mini-meddling on the deck before you playtest it. Clearly this introduces variance into the scoring, but so does limiting yourself to just three (or four) games per test. It is not uncommon for a deck to outperform (especially in the championships) because it happens to get better draws. Including the booster in the mix would give the reader a better feel for what it is like to actually play with one of these things, because nobody just opens the precon portion and plays with that. It is not meant to stand on its own.
Otherwise, I really like what you’re doing, and hope you will continue exploring older precons, as many of them seem to be superior to what we are getting today.
Thanks for the comment! Although I can’t fault the logic of your suggestion, I have to respectfully disagree with some of your points. One of the things that we most enjoy about theme/intro decks are that they represent a set in a sort of “museum-piece” kind of way. Want to see what Mercadian Masques was like? Pull out a Masques deck! It’s much the same for any other set, be it 60 or 41 cards in the deck. What’s in the pack is random- what’s in the deck is not. It’s that ‘stock list’ that we’re most interested in seeing, because that’s Wizards put together to showcase the set, and while they certainly can be improved with the addition of cards, they stand just fine on their own. Indeed, for most of the Core Set precons history, they were standalone 40-card decks with no booster included.
You’re quite right in identifying some of the weaknesses inherent in the deck that additional cards are meant to remedy, but on this score we’re purists. If I open the pack and there’s two pieces of on-colour removal, greatly upping my deck’s ability to handle creatures, am we then to score it higher because of better threat management? If we throw in a couple of high-CMC critters because that’s all the pack offers us, must we then score it lower if it clogs our early hands with less playable options? In the absence of a categorically correct answer it comes down to preference.
It’s worth noting that while we include the scoring in the same article as the playtest, the playtest actually has less wight than many think on deriving a final score. Much of the assessment is done in the first half of the review, when we pick the deck apart. So there’s certainly variance, but it’s not as swingy as just what happens in three/four games.
I appreciate your insight, though, and it’s comments like these that really let us know that there are people out there who really are invested in the Precon Community! We’re definitely going to hit some older precons. Summer’s a bit tough because so much of our schedule is decided by Wizards. 8 days of NPH Event Decks leads right into 20 days of Commander coverage leads right into M12… only after M12 do we get to chart our own course for a bit before we’re right back in it with Duel Decks: Ajani vs Nicol Bolas, then Innistrad… and that’s assuming Wotc doesn’t issue another “Premium Deck Series” offering! And right about then we start looking at the next Precon Deck Championships for the past year!
So are there any particular sets you’d like to see covered?
Thanks for your thoughtful response. I agree that you shouldn’t allow the random contents of a booster to influence the score, but it seems to me that complaining about suboptimal card choices is a little unfair given that Tom LaPille has said that they do that deliberately. In the end, what I am suggesting is more focus on how well the deck provides the kind of “museum piece” experience you mention above. Your criticism of Totem Power for its poor job of showcasing the Totem Armor mechanic is a good example of what I mean; the deck doesn’t seem to exploit the innovative possibilities of the mechanic. You are left with a lackluster impression of the set. Would the addition of more Totem Armor cards have helped it, or was the mechanic just not worth building a deck around (I’m thinking of proliferate and Deadspread too, here)? Focusing on broader design issues like these is, to me, more interesting than yet another complaint about poor removal or suboptimal card choices.
That said, I would love to see more reviews of the classic precons from the Tempest and Urza’s Saga blocks. These are typically much more expensive and harder to acquire than modern precons, and it would be helpful have some guidance about which ones are worth seeking out.
I’m curious to see how you will review the Commander decks: with Planechase and Archenemy, you essentially ignored the multiplayer component, but with all the new cards that assume a multiplayer context, I wonder if that approach will work this time. In any case, keep up the excellent work, and good luck keeping up with all the new releases!
You’re put your foot right into one of the ongoing concerns we’ve had under consideration over here, and that is the proper assessment of decks in light of certain design constraints. When EL was begun, my experience with intro packs was based on my theme-deck background as much as anything- I’d come back to the game during Zendikar after a protracted absence. Over time, I started to learn certain things about deck design, and inclusion of cards of deliberate inferiority was something I had started to suspect. Tom’s intro deck article you’re referencing here wasn’t so much revelation as affirmation, and I was absolutely thrilled to read it!
From that point, knowing it for fact I started to challenge my own standards for deck review. How bad could a deck truly be if it was fulfilling its design mission, and that mission included bad cards or intended deficiencies. For now I’ve made the uneasy supposition that regardless of design intent, I have to play what’s in the deck, and if that means it’s got poor removal, then it’s worth mentioning. Joe Casual who’s looking to us for reviews doesn’t care what LaPille & The Gang have intended with the deck. He just wants to know if it’s worth buying and it has what he’s after- a fun gameplay experience. So complaints about poor removal and suboptimal card choices are here to stay. That said, like you I am much more interested in the overall design structure of the deck and how well it gets there. Things that are a given- like a few rubbish cards- aren’t massive strikes against the deck in the way unfun gameplay or unsustainable mana curves or negative synergy are. I’ll be the first to admit that I have reservations about our current system because it basically says, “here are some good things, here are some bad things, and here’s an arbitrary number,” without any indication of how that number was arrived.
It’s been a longstanding study in refinement. I appreciate your candour- this is something I’ll like to digest.
Tempest is coming up, and very soon. Of course, when it takes up to 3 weeks to review a set, “soon” is a relative term, but I’ve had my eyes on Tempest for awhile now. It’s my favourite set of all time, and we’ve unfinished business there (we reviewed one TRempest deck, back when we thought it a good idea to grab decks at random to review).
The Commander reviews are going to be a new thing for us. At first we’d figured I’d ignore multiplayer there as before, but when enough cards were spoiled that appeared to be utter crap in a 2-player game (I’m thinking of the one that makes everyone sac a critter and gives you 2/2 Zombie tokens… which is essentially a 5-or-6 mana 2/2 Zombie in a 2-player game- horrid and unfair), we’re going to try our hand at a 3-way attack left/defend right. Although this removes some of the politics from it, I suspect the focus will be needed to offer a decent narrative. Experience has instructed that 1250-1750 words per piece is the ‘sweet spot’ for depth and readability, and the length of multiplayer games compels us to caution. Regrettably, I also suspect we’ll be doing but the one game each time rather than our customary three. It will be a learning challenge for us as well, but certainly one we’re looking forward to!