A few years ago, I was at an Open Series event with Brian Braun-Duin and a number of other SCG players. Brian was lamenting the manner in which he'd lost all of his games--the vast majority, if not all, had been to a miracled Bonfire of the Damned when Brian was far ahead. I don't recall a ton of the specifics, but Brian was playing a slow deck with light permission and Sun Titan for an inexorable kill… but certainly not a quick one.
When you consider the nature of Bonfire in that Standard era, it didn't just seem plausible that he was losing this way--it made perfect sense. Many decks were running four copies of Bonfire of the Damned, and with Brian failing to kill them particularly quickly they'd get many, many turns to find a miracle and either reset the board or outright burn him to death. Multiple miracles certainly wouldn't be far-fetched, though they would be unfortunate. Like many decks during that Standard era, he needed to either make his peace with it or adapt his tactics, employing some significant defense or a more efficient offense.
Consider how you build a Magic deck. The goal, even if you don't consciously realize it, is often to play the same game over and over. For an example, let's look at Owen Turtenwald's decklist from Pro Tour Khans of Tarkir, an archetype designed by Andrew Cuneo and piloted by many members of Pantheon:
This is straightforward and to the point. Owen's trying to manage his opponent's threats with instant-speed removal or counterspells. On turns where the opponent is failing to present significant pressure--or just once Owen has seven mana and Dissolve--Owen can land Perilous Vault to punish any future attempts to deploy two threats in the same turn, one of the most common defenses against a pure attrition strategy that revolves around counterspells. And last, but certainly not least, he's running plenty of card drawing spells in order to ensure he keeps making land drops while also being able to trade with opposing threats as they come.
Eventually, he'll cast Pearl Lake Ancient and attack his opponent to death once they no longer have the resources to threaten him.
The names of the cards played in each game may change (well, except for Pearl Lake!), but the games will look startlingly similar. When Owen's able to trade in a timely fashion, his card drawing will put him way ahead in the lategame and draw it toward that inexorable conclusion. If the opponent is able to quickly stick a couple attackers and continue threatening Owen every turn, it'll take a strong Vault and the ability to weather the ensuing attacks in order to emerge victorious, but his failure rate here will be very real.
There are strengths and weaknesses to maintaining such a focused gameplan. One is that when something is good against you, it will always be good. For example, game 1 against a deck like Boss Sligh or something similarly hyper-aggressive is likely going to be a relatively one-sided slaughter. The casting cost comparison is going to have Owen casting his first spell while the opponent's likely casting their third, and too many of Owen's cards will trade one-for-one. A reduced land count will compensate for Owen's card advantage by giving Boss Sligh more spells--at least for the time it takes to win the game.
Sure, things change after sideboarding, but that's not the point I'm making. The point is that a focused gameplan is solid, dependable, and repeatable--but it's also predictable and can be exploitable. If you're a strict underdog to what your opponent is doing, you either need a new weapon or a new strategy.
Preparing for Versatile Opponents
Another contemporary example comes from the work I've been doing with Sultai.
- 3 Elvish Mystic
- 3 Rakshasa Deathdealer
- 4 Satyr Wayfinder
- 1 Soul of Innistrad
- 4 Sylvan Caryatid
- 4 Courser of Kruphix
- 2 Doomwake Giant
- 4 Sidisi, Brood Tyrant
- 2 Pharika, God of Affliction
I've been doing well with this deck, although I wouldn't recommend it in the wake of the Pro Tour. I've been a huge favorite against Abzan, but things like Duneblast and Mass Calcify are definitely going to complicate things in a big way, not to mention Perilous Vault being nearly unbeatable in game 1. The real trick, however, has been the Jeskai matchup.
Early iterations of my deck were just losing constantly. I started loading removal into the main deck, and the game 1 wins returned--but now control decks had a massive edge against me. So, I repositioned again, and began playing Thoughtseizes and Whips with Downfall over Cut and Treasure Cruise to keep the tank full.
Thoughtseize is decent but not spectacular against Jeskai, because the only way I was losing game 1s was to a Mantis Rider or Sarkhan going unchecked for two or more attacks. Taking one of those out of the opponent's hand, whether it cost me two life or two more mana, was always a profitable trade… and when they didn't have either in their hand, that was also a very good sign!
The Whips countered another issue. While my biggest issue was dying to the air force, I could lose games to Jeskai if they got stuck on three or four lands and just drew a ton of burn spells. With Dig Through Time and Magma Jet, that wasn't an implausible occurrence. One good smack with a Whip-fueled Sidisi hit squad would completely lock that win condition out, often whether they removed the Whip, the Sidisi, or both. It was just too big a swing to counteract.
This list is actually undefeated in game 1s against Jeskai, which was a confidence booster for me. However, I've lost several sideboard games. In most of those games, I was actually at parity or even ahead prior to dying over a small handful of turns. Normally, that's not necessarily a huge concern… but the common threads point toward an inherent flaw in the matchup.
The first is actually Narset, Enlightened Master. I've won incredibly few games in which Narset resolved and attacked, and her dominance on the battlefield was actually one of my primary motivations for adding Triton Tactics to the sideboard in the first place. Considering this card was most often a singleton bullet in the sideboard, sometimes a twosome, that might not seem problematic… but look at my decklist again! I'm not clubbing anybody to death on turn 6 over here, especially not an opponent packing burn spells, lifelinking two-drops, vigilant attackers, and card draw to keep it coming.
As I've said, I'm a favorite against that gameplan--but I'm not a favorite to win quickly. If the game goes long, and if they're able to Dig once or twice, it won't be tough to locate Narset. Failing to prepare against her is a strategic error, because my tactics assure I'll be playing a game in which she's likely to appear!
The second issue is more complicated. See, these Jeskai decks aren't focused and predictable animals. While they might share many cards, there's a huge range of diversity between main decks and sideboards. The Pro Tour Top 8 alone has three significantly different lists! This variation makes the deck difficult to prepare for specifically, but even if you know the enemy perfectly it can be tough because the deck is so versatile.
I've experienced a wide range of Jeskai sideboarding strategies: opponents who leave in creatures, opponents who take all the ground creatures out, opponents who take out all the non-planeswalker and non-Narset attackers, opponents who bring in Anger of the Gods, opponents who don't, opponents who have Banishing Light, opponents who don't, opponents with permission, opponents without… Their deck can range from an aggressive machine to a counter-burn strategy, and preparing a sideboard capable of warding off both is difficult.
In an ideal world, I'd pack a third Whip, a playset of Triton Tactics, quad Downfall, some Negates, Disdainful Strokes, couple Bile Blights, and call it a day… but there are other decks to prepare against. I need my cards to overlap more than that, or my remaining matchups will suffer. Instead, I find myself hedging against the sort of strategy I expect my opponent to present and getting punished for guessing wrong.
Of course, this flexibility is one of the selling points of Jeskai in the first place. Just take a look at Shaun Mclaren's willingness to sideboard completely differently on the play and on the draw against Ari Lax during the Pro Tour Khans of Tarkir finals. While it ultimately didn't work out for him, I doubt Shaun adopted the strategy without actually, you know, trying it out and gaining some confidence in it. From Ari's seat, that knowledge would've been incredibly valuable to have. It could've let him sideboard better and certainly would've improved his tactical capacity. One of the boons of Thoughtseize (and other effects that reveal players' hands or libraries) that doesn't often get discussed is the leg up it gives you in actual knowledge. It can vary from a small to massive edge, depending upon exactly what's learned.
So how do you beat an opponent who can adapt so fluidly? The answer is actually very simple--you stop trying to react to what they're doing. My Sultai deck struggles because Seeker of the Way, Goblin Rabblemaster, and Mantis Rider are all big-time stealers of initiative from me. If they don't have these creatures, their burn spells can still kill most of my guys before letting them untap into a planeswalker. My strategy has to first keep them in check, and second build a game-winning offensive with my more expensive cards.
By being proactive and going on the offensive, you force your opponent to adopt one strategy and stick to it, in turn purchasing the level of predictability that you need to operate against them. Ari played it safe against Shaun--you can see him declining to cast threats several times just to ensure he keeps open removal, because every time he keeps a card from translating into damage he's gaining real ground. However, that same patience and care means that Shaun can adapt as he chooses because Ari's so reactive. Yes, he needs to be able to handle Siege Rhino and Sorin and so on, but if he can use the openings created by their casting to get in damage, he can regain lost ground.
I'm sure you'll hear plenty from Brad about his deck in his article, but one of the reasons he played it in the first place was its strength against Jeskai.
You can hear Brad discuss the deck here!
That strength starts with its ability to steal the initiative, and it continues with its cards matching theirs quite efficiently. If they can't race, they've only got one choice: defend! And their defense is, to put it politely, porous. With plenty of removal spells that handle Rider or Seeker and creatures capable of bashing straight through them while simultaneously ignoring Rabblemaster, the matchup looks good on paper and probably plays out even better.
Of course, Brad's sideboard features a fairly large capacity for juking the opponent as well, but that's a tale for him to tell. I'm sure you'll get to hear all about it this week or next, and I'll be in a similar boat with Grand Prix Los Angeles on the horizon! Here's hoping he's persuasive--ah, who am I kidding, I'm an easy mark and Brad's an enthusiastic salesman. Odds are good I'm sleeving up some Hordeling Outbursts this weekend, one way or another!