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Alpine Houndmaster and a Little Bit of Gamesmanship

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The first dozen or so turns of the game, as the often are, were a bloody exchange of cardboard, 187 effects, and competing attempts at card advantage.

You knew. Oh, you knew. When everyone else abandoned the Companions, you knew - just knew - it was time for Gyruda to shine.

Gyruda, Doom of Depths

Three in the main, one in the sideboard like normal. Sure you have to pay three more mana instead of just going off on a miracle turn four or whatever... But the power! Six mana and eight writhing tentacles of pure punch in the face.

And yet...

He's scrapped you good. He got out early with this Alpine Houndmaster from Core Set 2021. Got a little three-for-one action and kept pace. In your private moments, reflecting on this game later, staring at the ceiling, you'll admit you missed the second clause on the Human Warrior. And that Igneous Cur ended up being able to punch up all right! The other one... The-Steadfast Guard-for-the-price-of-a-Fresh Volunteers didn't do much more than trade for your Charming Prince... But that it did.

Steadfast Guard
Fresh Volunteers
Alpine Watchdog

And he did it again!

And you did it again and again and again, too.

Sparks from Spark Doubles flew, and Thassa got her trigger on, and now... Turns and turns later, you've been staring at each other, drawing lands and putting them down. You've got one card that matters. He knows what it is because after all that nonsense you spent three to put it into your hand: Your one last copy of Gyruda, Doom of Depths.

He's got one. He's been flooding out, no small help from Gyrudas numero uno, dos, and tres, messing up his library along the way. It's probably not a big card, given that his deck doesn't seem to have big cards. But you're down to your last Doom of Depths, you know? No reason to throw it - and probably the game - away willy nilly.

For a while you wondered what he even had Blue for; but you'll admit when he peeled that Teferi to bounce his Houndmaster that was pretty cute. But Teferi's dead, now, too. Still, that Blue mana and one card are bothering you. No reason to throw your last Gyruda - and probably the game - away willy nilly.

Another land for you.

He peels... Apparently not a land.

The opponent reads his card, scans the graveyard, reads his card again. He taps... rw. It's his last Alpine Houndmaster. He looks through his graveyard one more time before picking up his library and rifling through it. Presents:

Igneous Cur

"Just the Igneous Cur?" you ask.

He shrugs and waves toward his graveyard. There are two other Igneous Curs and two Alpine Watchdogs in the bin. You don't remember all the details of all the exchanges, but some must have been combat and others just Gyruda mills.

Excellent, you think; channeling the whisper of your inner Monty Burns.

Numbers of the Beasts

Let's think a moment about how many slots one would reasonably devote to Alpine Houndmaster and its associated engine pieces. My original assumption was that you would just play twelve copies, or four of all three 2-drops.

Twelve is the right number if we want to maximize the upper limit of Alpine Houndmaster card advantage. Which may or may not be reasonable (unless, of course, we're already metagaming against Gyruda on the bonus).

My fellow author here, Jim Davis, already presented a potential Alpine Houndmaster deck:


While Jim said the deck in its original configuration was not very effective, his thought process was light years ahead of my initial read on the cards. To extrapolate, let's look at a "Stoneforge Mystic" deck from the Pro Tour where it debuted:


While arguably the best Swiss deck in the history of the Pro Tour, its implementation of the card Stoneforge Mystic was not yet refined. LSV played two copies of Stoneforge Mystic main deck to go with - you guessed it - two equipment cards. When the deck wanted to build a Baneslayer Angel (you know, in addition to the two actual Baneslayer Angels) it could do so with a bullet Behemoth Sledge and a third Stoneforge Mystic to help. Or when it wanted to get Cunning Sparkmage machine gun action, that third Stoneforge Mystic would be there to help set up a second Basilisk Collar.

We see here basically two "tutors" for two targets.


By the next Standard Pro Tour the following year, the top of the Tour had a much better understanding of how to leverage the card advantage of a Stoneforge Mystic. Rather than two copies to support two equipment Ben Stark and company came to understand that getting their money from the first Stoneforge Mystic was so good that it didn't matter if the third - or fourth - one didn't have much text.

I think Jim had this intuition with his four-Houndmasters-six-total-payoffs Winota build.

Or put another way, Patrick Chapin recently asked me which was better:

Alpine Houndmaster
Alpine Houndmaster
Alpine Houndmaster
Alpine Houndmaster
Alpine Watchdog

Or:

Alpine Houndmaster
Alpine Watchdog
Alpine Watchdog
Alpine Watchdog
Alpine Watchdog

If you're going to play an extreme setup with exactly five total copies, four Houndmasters and one Watchdog is probably better than one Houndmaster and four Watchdogs. In the former case you're much more likely to get card advantage if you draw one copy than the second.

Okay, back to our interlude:

To recap: He's got an Alpine Houndmaster he just drew, the Igneous Cur it searched up, one card in hand (that he has been nursing forever) and lands.

You've got a Gyruda, Doom of Depths that he's known about for several turns, and lands.

He passes. You draw yet another land. No problem you almost cackle to yourself. Drawing so many lands has basically been thinning the top of your deck. This Gyruda is...

... Going to get countered.

You play your big six. He plays the Essence Scatter he's been saving the entire topdeck war.

WHAT JUST HAPPENED?

Gamesmanship

noun

the art of winning games by using various ploys and tactics to gain a psychological advantage.

Magic boss Aaron Forsythe once said that improving in the game came from un-learning general rules, or at least knowing when to break them.

The myths and legends of our community are littered with examples.

"The time was Regionals 2001; the matchup was the worst possible for Junk, with Becker somehow able to split the first two games. The opponent had sided in Scorching Lava, usually there for Nether Spirit, but equally effective against Ramosian Sergeant and that annoying snake, River Boa.

"I remember glancing over Jon's shoulder and wondering why when he passed his first turn, there was still a Sergeant in his hand... It was only after his second turn, when the opponent untapped, and gleefully sent a main-phase Scorching Lava at the "helpless" 1/1, did Becker's plan become obvious. He responded with Wax // Wane, and had just gone a long way in winning a difficult matchup."

-me, from "The Ten Greatest Battles of All Time"

The general rule in Magic is to tap all your mana every turn, or as much of it as you can, all other things held equal. So, for a deck with 1-drops and many 2-drops, that usually meant casting a Ramosian Sergeant on turn one, playing one of your beaters on turn two, and then chaining up Rebels starting on turn three.

Becker had to know the rule to break the rule. He broke it by playing nothing on turn one and Sergeant on turn two. So when his opponent very predictably went to remove the Sergeant with Scorching Lava, Becker had mana open to Wax // Wane, save his Sergeant, and ride the little Necropotence to victory.

The Sergeant was an irresistible target... But one played with a backup plan.

In this week's interludes your imaginary Jeskai Houndmaster opponent uses a mite of gamesmanship to win a difficult exchange of powerhouse 187 creatures. He has been nursing a card for several turns - which turns out to be the Essence Scatter for your last Gyruda; but he plays in a way to make you think it is an Alpine Watchdog.

Why else would he only search up "only" the Igneous Cur?

Alpine Houndmaster

Make no mistake. This is a powerful Magic: The Gathering card.

If your deck is properly Constructed, the first Alpine Houndmaster is essentially an Ancestral Recall - a mythical three-for-one in uncommon form. There are some complications to this. You have to pay a deck-building cost: You need at least one Alpine Watchdog and one Igneous Cur in your starting sixty to get three-for-one one time; and you can't have drawn either. To get the most out of the most Houndmasters, you have to - as we said - play as many as twelve total copies.

You get three-for-one... But none of your cards are platinum hits (unless you count the card advantage of the Houndmaster itself). You have inherent dependencies. Not only do you need to play Alpine Watchdog and Igneous Cur, but if something happens to the ones in your library, your engine will start to clunk. Moreover, you give your opponent information. You might have just drawn two... But the opponent always knows what they are!

That said, as with "tapping all your mana every turn" there is a general rule: Presumably if you play Alpine Houndmaster, and there are both an Alpine Watchdog and an Igneous Cur in your deck... You'll search up both.

Breaking that rule requires a reason. Not only did not searching up the Watchdog in our example cost us a card (the Watchdog)... At some point in the future we might draw the stupid Watchdog. But not taking it tricked you (in the interlude) into believing the opponent was holding the last Watchdog, presuming the coast was clear... And costing you your last big whammy.

Got all that?

What I like about Alpine Houndmaster is that it is the rare card these days that lets you play at a bit of an angle. So many cards are so powerful - so obvious - that the right course of action kind of hits you over the head. Any card that lets you touch - let alone search through - your library gives you the opportunity to play a little better. This one does so times 3000.

LOVE

MIKE

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