You are playing Storm combo against Merfolk. They have three unknown cards in hand; you don't have a Duress or cantrip; and you can either pass the turn with their two guys and your reasonable life total or go for Ad Nauseam with two known mana floating. What do you do?
You are playing Sealed. It is your turn five on the draw and both players have hit all their lands. Your opponent is at 15 with a Mortis Dogs in play. You are at 16 with a Tangle Mantis in play. You are going to play Phyrexian Hydra this turn. Do you attack?
It's very frustrating to watch yourself play worse Magic and know you are doing it. I've not felt like I've been playing terribly over this past month of events but I've for sure been off my game. I even know why: it's fear.
Everyone knows what happens when the fear strikes. At first it's this little voice in the back of your head doubting what should be a natural decision to make. You start asking yourself “Wait what if they have card X and card Y?” or “What if they ripped that one card in the past three turns?”
Sometimes you are an innate master and this voice is an angelic sage that follows up with directions to the nearest supermarket where you can buy cottage cheese to dip your Doritos into. Sometimes you are enlightened and there is no voice but instead just total awareness of all existence and the true path of the universe. For the rest of us it's not so straightforward. I've definitely run the route of dodging these scenarios for years by playing decks that either just never cared like Jund or cards like Vendilion Clique to spill the beans but recently things haven't allowed this and I've become painfully aware of how awkward it is to just not know. What I've found is that way more often than you think that voice is just wrong.
The biggest issue is that people are completely clueless when it comes to actually understanding probability. This goes back to the whole results-oriented discussion many others have brought up in the past but it applies to losing as well. In most other games with imperfect information the set of cards in use is constant and anyone interested can memorize or look up the probabilities of victory in each scenario.
In Magic that's not even close to a reasonable thing. The general numbers for a couple basic scenarios are out there like the odds of drawing a land by turn three given how many are left in your deck but with most in-game decisions it is impossible to know the true odds of winning given each line of play. What usually ends up happening is that people make the play that seems right based on past experiences which is very easily skewed. You always remember the bad beats or big wins. Every time the game was a complete blowout due to your specific three tricks or rare is etched in but all the other games you play blur together and fade away. As a result decisions are often weighed towards emphasizing the corner cases and this will often result in incorrect play in a more likely scenario.
So there you sit looking at your hand about to send your giant monster into their irrelevant board and the thought occurs: What if they have the kill spell and the haste guy and the burn spell? You go back and you remember that time that the one guy did. If only you had left back your random guy you could have chumped and lived. So you don't attack. It's not as if the damage is super relevant; they are still at 18.
And that's where everything falls apart. They just play some solid guy stabilize and there's a game when you otherwise could have forced bad blocks. Or they play some flier and you lose the race. Or it's Sealed and they draw their bomb rare which you suddenly have no real way to beat without real pressure on board.
Another one: your opponent makes some average attack where a reasonable trade can occur. You almost snap block but decide against it because they could have the Giant Growth. Be real; it's not like you are going to get a better block around that trick next turn or even the turn after it. You probably can't keep playing around it all game. You may as well call now when they have had fewer draw steps to hit it.
It can happen in Constructed too. You are playing some variety White Weenie for some probably wrong reason and your opponent is on some generic control deck. You know they have Wrath effects but you have a couple guys applying the beats. One more puts them at dead on board but why throw another guy into their Wrath? Two spot removal spells and a generic finisher later and you are dead. Were you really going to beat their other five cards in hand if they swept your board with your two threats and the top of your deck? Things are probably turning out best for you if you force them to play their cards correctly or just have it as opposed to trying to out-react the reactive deck.
Fear doesn't just strike during game play. I definitely completely dismissed Tempered Steel in Nagoya due to it. All the games I took away from testing were the ones where I got my Tempered Steel Dispersed and my team died to a Marrow Shards. All the games I Slagstormed them and then followed up with Creeping Corrosion and a Karn for their Inkmoth Nexus were the ones I remembered with R/G. When it came time to register a deck all I could think of were those games where everything went wrong. It didn't matter how many times I had rolled people by curving into a Tempered Steel with Glint Hawk Idol in hand and Inkmoth Nexus in play; I was scared of the “hate” everyone was packing. In the actual event no matter how many maindeck Wraths my deck had I still only won 2 out of 5 matches against Tempered Steel. I definitely had games where everything went right but it only took one or two missteps before games would fall out of reach.
It happens during sideboard building. Richard Feldman's last article on this site talked about this in the context of Dredge. If your opponent actually has all the hate there really isn't much you can do. When they don't your maindeck is probably good enough as is. There's no reason to make your deck worse and try to play this subgame of matching up your three answers to their three hate cards to let you goldfish. Even if you can't stop the combo otherwise this Combust in your Red Deck sideboard is not going to actually stop Splinter Twin from beating you as they will just win with their secondary plan. If it were still a random creature or burn spell you would not have to basically mulligan every time you draw the card.
This is not to say that reckless haste is the goal. Quite the opposite. Automatically giving into the fear is reckless. The idea is actually thinking and being logical. Caution can be correct but the fear is almost always irrational. Sure they can have all three things but they could also have any one of three other things that capitalized on the fact you stuttered. Part of the issue is people want to feel smart because they start thinking of more and more possibilities and “considering” all of them but if you can't actually weight them appropriately your decision is going to be just as bad as if you didn't think of them at all.
If for some reason the scenario isn't one you can't logic out of the default rule I'm beginning to think may be right is to just man up and go for it unless playing around the thing costs you actually nothing. Sometimes you are so far ahead that you can still perfectly progress towards a win while considering all the possibilities but that's usually rare. I guess it's possible that someday I'll just know but until then this seems like a reasonable plan.
(Props to Matt McCullogh for not only helping me write this segment but having the idea almost a year ago.)
Legacy Combo Update:
Given that there aren't any major Legacy events in the near future for me I've decided to just try all of the good combo decks at local events over the next several weeks and evaluate them. I don't expect to get significant data as to whether they are good against the top tier of decks but instead a general idea of where they stand and which ones have potential when looking at future events. Here are the first two weeks of this:
Week One: Sneak and Show
I started off with a deck that has been on the fringes for a while. For those who are unaware the goal of the deck is to use Show and Tell or Sneak Attack to get an Emrakul the Aeons Torn or Progenitus into play which is presumably enough.
I ended up going 2-1 drop with the deck. I could have stayed in and probably won more but I decided I had no desire to continue playing the deck. The problem was that it was a combo deck that doesn't actually win when you go off.
Show and Tell has all sorts of possibly disaster scenarios especially given a lot more decks are running Karakas to go with their Knight of the Reliquaries due to Vendilion Clique giving it solid value outside of playing against Emrakuls. It also requires you to untap at least once after it resolves and especially with Progenitus have a reasonably stable board. If you are trying to assemble the combo and stumble a bit a Show and Tell a turn or two late isn't enough in the same way an Infernal Tutor is.
Sneak Attack avoids this but is very clunky. You can't really afford to run enough acceleration to support the card partly because the combo takes up a lot of slots already and partly because the deck has a lot of “dead” cards already and unlike Storm the dead cards don't all necessarily add up. Two Emrakuls and a Progenitus is a far cry from two Dark Rituals and a Lion's Eye Diamond. Rituals would make this worse allowing you to have hands that are along the lines of Show and Tell Sneak Attack and Seething Song.
If I were going to play this kind of deck I would probably fall back to something like what AJ Sacher played for a while or just a standard NO RUG or NO Bant deck. Even though Natural Order puts the worse of the two threats into play it means you are playing cards that give you some sort of board interaction and plan B like Tarmogoyf.
Week Two: Hive Mind
This deck on the other hand has steadily been receiving hype after it finished second at the Grand Prix. I had goldfished a slightly different version a while before and was reasonably impressed. My build didn't have the Emrakuls and instead of Force of Wills played a bit of black for Duress effects and Lim-Dul's Vault. It was averaging a bit less than a full turn slower than Storm when goldfishing but it was doing so with double disruption most of the time.
I ended up going 5-1 with the deck and was a fan. All of the things that were true about the deck when I first tried it held. You were pretty impervious to hate cards were reasonably fast and straight up won when you went off resulting in more live draw steps; the deck was very strong against the common heavy counter suite including Spell Snare and Mental Misstep. My loss was just my getting rolled by Reanimator which is to be expected when playing a slower less disruptive U/B combo deck.
One thing I noticed about the deck was that you wanted to sideboard even less than most combo decks do. There are so many cards you need for the deck to function that you actually don't have many redundant slots to shave. On top of that there aren't really cards you want answers to as the things that interact best with the deck are just generic cards like Daze or Thoughtseize. This means you can board a bunch of specific spite for things like Dredge that a lot of decks just don't have room for.
As for this build I played compared to the build from the Grand Prix I'm not actually sure which is better. Thoughtseize is definitely better than Force against the cards you care the most about as you can't Force a Daze post-Hive Mind and the deck didn't always have cards to pitch but Force is better against the other class of cards like Vindicate or Thoughtseize that make you stumble.
When you Thoughtseize one of these cards and they have another they just play it that turn whereas a Force of Will creates a bit of tempo in that situation. Lim-Dul's Vault was a solid Demonic Tutor and I'm not sure that up to four Intuitions alone is enough tutoring but it might just be a card that makes their Spell Snares live.
I also don't have any experience with the Emrakuls though I've heard from other people that they aren't too impressive. The Underground Seas being Wasteland vulnerable wasn't a huge issue but once or twice I drew them and it was awkward to cast an Intuition because of that interaction. I also can't see the full six double lands being correct either but the three I had was a little short. The exact list is something that would require a bit more trial and error but presumably anyone interested in doing so can make it work.
That all said this is still not a deck to play into a field of Merfolk. I won my match against it but it was close despite him not understanding how his cards interacted with the Pact copies. If he actually knew I would have had no chance. The card Hive Mind also results in some very messed up board states and takes a bit of thinking. It's not like Storm where you have to find the right decision tree; you actually have to figure out what happens when someone plays a spell. The main one I had to figure out is if double Hive Mind plus Pact of Negation actually works (it does) but I can see many more absurd things occurring.
Looking forward I plan on at least trying Painter's Servant and Elves. Reanimator also seems promising and Tom Raney's Aluren deck looks extremely fun at the least. Once I get to something like Spanish Inquisition I'll probably have to stop myself but until then I expect to have a blast doing this. I'm open to other ideas; if you have one let me know in the forums and I'll take a look.