A Danish old school regular, Ole Bonnichsen, played the Alpha 40 league in January. He was incautious enough to mention it, and I did my best to strong-arm him into writing a short report about his experiences. Enjoy the beautiful madness of Alpha-Only Magic!
By Ole Bonnichsen
Alpha 40 started in Sweden at n00bcon 2018 with the so-called Wizards Tournament. It was an all-Alpha tournament where you could use any number of any card from the Alpha set in your deck, meaning that you can fill it with 20 Black Lotus and 20 Ancestral Recall.
In an attempt to inject some more structure into the format, a group called the Northern Paladins came up with a set of rules known as the Alpha 40 League rules. These rules placed restrictions on certain cards and banned Mind Twist. Some cards are restricted to one copy per deck, others to three while some still have no restrictions. There are different groups of cards like a Fast Mana Group, Power Group, Draw Group and a Destruction Group. For more details, refer to the well-written rules from the Northern Paladins: http://northernpaladins.com/Alpha-40-League.pdf
When playing Alpha 40 you are playing Magic as if it were 1993. Games are played according to the original Alpha rulebook, cards are played as written on the card, there are no sideboards, no mulligans aside from ‘all land’ or ‘no land’ mulligans and when you’re on the play…you get to draw a card! Other than that, your deck should contain a minimum of 40 cards and they all have to be from Alpha.
My own Alpha 40 journey started two months ago. I have played Magic since 1995 and Old School for about a year and a half. I worked hard to stop myself from entering the Alpha 40 format, due to the enormous cost and lack of availability of Alpha cards, along with my dangerous taste for crisp near mint cards. In addition, there did not seem to be many Alpha 40 players in Denmark.
There was, however, the monthly webcam tournament on Facebook, the Alpha 40 Worldwide League, which attracted a healthy number of participants every month. I could not resist forever and started looking for a cheap(ish) way into the format via more heavily played condition commons and uncommons. As I did when I entered the Old School format, I made a clear plan of which deck to start with, how it would evolve and what the end goal was. I figured that a good entry-level deck would be Mono Green. I started looking for Llanowar Elves, Giant Spiders, Giant Growths and a Craw Wurm. My plan was to expand on this original pool of green cards and splash red for Fireball, which would allow me to pull off one of the coolest combos in Alpha, the Channel Fireball combo.
My initial test matches indicated that my Mono Green deck performed poorly, partly due to me not wanting to buy Berserks to keep costs down. I decided to skip the December 2020 monthly webcam tournament to finalize my deck with the red splash. Acquiring Alpha cards is not only expensive, it also takes time due to the lack of availability. In the end, I entered the January 2021 Alpha 40 Worldwide League with the following deck.
With six Llanowar Elves the chance of starting the game with one in your opening hand is quite high. I think it would be unwise in this type of deck to have less than six, particularly when I do not have a Sol Ring. Lightning Bolt is one of the better removal spells in Alpha, but is restricted to three according to Alpha 40 League rules. I would have liked a third Hurricane, but was waiting for it to be mailed. I would also have liked some more Juggernauts, but I only had one.
As I understand it, this is often the case in Alpha 40. You play with what you have.
The Shatters are there to deal with the artifact staples of the format like Sol Ring, Juggernaut, Jade Statue and Icy Manipulator. The deck is far from optimal. I am missing a Sol Ring, and the Giant Growths do not make much sense without Berserk and Juggernauts. The Giant Growths should probably just be more Llanowar Elves, Fireballs or some Disintegrates. I am still unsure if I want to include Regrowth, as it just feels too slow and my deck already has a lot of redundancy. Another route to take with the deck could be to add more control with Icy Manipulator, Jade Statue and a Disrupting Scepter. These three cards are unfortunately insanely expensive now.
I had no idea what to expect from the opposing decks in the league. My testing had been limited and the amount of information on the Alpha 40 meta is quite sparse. I guess this lack of information and the aforementioned card scarcity reflects what it must have been like to play Magic back in 1993.
Match 1 vs Mono Black
I won the die roll, which meant I got my first taste of drawing a card while on the play. A pretty big advantage.
I had the dream hand, consisting of a Llanowar Elves, Giant Growth, Lightning Bolt, Fireball, Channel, some Mountains and a Forest. I led with Forest into Llanowar Elves. My opponent played a Swamp. When you see a Swamp as the first land from your opponent, you should be prepared for a Dark Ritual into a Hypnotic Specter. A very strong play in Alpha 40, and exactly what my opponent played. Lucky for me I had Lightning Bolt to deal with the flying discarder.
On my turn, I played Mountain followed by Lightning Bolt on the Hypnotic Specter and then attacked with a Giant Growthed Llanowar Elves. This brought my opponent down to 16 and set me up for the Channel Fireball combo next turn. My opponent played a Sinkhole on my Mountain, but I had the backup Mountain in my hand. I drew for turn and then played my Mountain, followed by Channel and paid 16 life for a lethal Fireball.
The second game was a non-game as my opponent was forced to keep a hand with only one land and did not draw into more until it was too late. I won the game with beats from Llanowar Elves, Giant Spider and some Fireballs. The entire match lasted only fifteen minutes, but was a blast. I did not get to see much of his deck, but he was kind enough to share it.
Match 2 vs UW Control
In this match, I witnessed the casting of an Alpha Ancestral Recall. My opponent was on a UW control deck with many powerful cards like Ancestral Recall, Sol Ring, Icy Manipulator, Counterspell, Swords to Plowshares, Disenchant and the heart of his deck, Sleight of Mind with Circle of Protection.
I do not remember the exact plays from this match, but I remember that in both games my opponent played Circle of Protection: Red followed later by a Sleight of Mind on a Circle of Protection: White to change White to Green. I managed to get his life total to 4 in one of the games before being locked out. This was a tough match-up. Once his lock was in place, I could only win with my single Juggernaut. A difficult task as I would also need to get through Counterspell, Disenchant and Swords to Plowshares.
Match 3 vs Mono Blue
This was a beautiful deck, maxed out on as much blue power as the format allows, including the somewhat overpowered pairing of Ancestral Recall with Braingeyser. He also had some of the big blue flyers and Prodigal Sorcerer. Another bad match-up for my deck.
In one of the games I remember playing a Channel and then having the Fireball countered, thereby having to take all the damage for life spent via Channel, with no damage dealt to the opponent. Ouch. In one of the games, my opponent did not have a Counterspell, so I managed to take that one with the combo. The end the result was a 1-2 loss.
Match 4 vs Mono Black
This match was against a fellow Dane and teammate from the Copenhagen Juggernauts. We had already played some test matches before meeting in the League, so we knew each other’s decks quite well. My record was about 2-10 vs his Mono Black deck. I found that my best chance to beat his deck was pulling off my combo early.
If I do not combo early, then I have problems dealing with too many of the larger creatures in Sengir Vampire and Nightmare. There are also early problems like Hypnotic Specter and Sinkholes on my Mountains, cutting me off from playing red spells. In addition to all this, he plays with three copies of Pestilence, which is a nightmare for a deck like mine with many Llanowar Elves. This match ended like most of our test matches with a 0-2 loss for me.
Match 5 vs RG Channel Fireball
A mirror match! Funnily enough, we both pulled off the combo in game 1 and 2, while in game 3 I had three draw steps to top-deck a red mana source to make it a 3 for 3. Instead, I lost the match 1-2 as the Mountain came too late. His deck was also more optimised than mine was, with Sol Ring, Berserk and some more Juggernauts. Notice also that he has included a Regrowth. I think it makes more sense in his deck with more one-ofs.
Match 6 vs Mono Red
My opponent was playing a sub-optimal build of his usual deck, since some of his important cards were sent off to be signed. Most notably, he was missing Fireball, but had other sources of burn like Black Vise, Copper Tablet and Manabarbs. He also had another key card in Iron Star.
According to the Alpha rules, you can use Iron Star’s effect an infinite number of times each time a red spell is cast. At one point, my opponent gained six life via the artifact. Not what you want to see when you play my deck. My Shatters were key in this match-up and I was lucky enough to win 2-1.
I have no regrets. It has been an expensive couple of months, but I am extremely happy to be the proud owner of so many Alpha cards. My opponents in the Alpha 40 Worldwide League were all good sports and I love the casual nature of the format. I will be back next month!