I've previously written about how Magic has changed and how I've struggled to figure out exactly what that means. Slowly but surely I'm beginning to understand.
In The Beginning
Back in the day, we were taught to build "decks," not just have a pile of cards. These decks would have a focus that it would execute well, but anything that distracted from that focus was often a liability because it meant that your deck wasn't performing its Plan A as well as it could be.
It's mostly a secret that I used to be known as a Limited expert. Well, maybe it was just "Limited player" because I'm sure some would say that I was hardly an expert, but my results were quite good. Regardless, I tended to do well in new Limited formats because I was able to figure out how to build the best versions of the archetypes instead of just taking cards. My Sealed decks had a plan, and I approached sideboarding methodically which varied matchup to matchup, giving me a strategic edge against any opponent.
However, when my Limited decks were a mish-mash of controlling and aggressive cards, I felt like I couldn't win. What I drew dictated my gameplan, and sometimes the cards I drew didn't have any synergy. I'd be trying to race with cheap evasion creatures while I drew a defensive card and wished it was anything that could help further my game plan. My real success in Limited typically happened when my drafts seemed to come together, but I wasn't able to make the "piles" work. Overall, it was a +EV strategy, but I needed a backup plan in case things went south and I never had one.
Oddly enough, Cube drafting was the first format that taught me your deck can be multi-faceted in certain formats. Your Cube decks will rarely be linear and will more often be piles of good stuff, Abzan-style. It might feel bad to never execute your Plan A, but your opponent will basically never know what you're up to. In a way, Cube taught me the value of fighting on an axis your opponent isn't prepared for, mostly by having wildly divergent gameplans.
For Constructed, I never really tried things that weren't linear because being linear meant you had a powerful, streamlined machine. All of that is about to change.
In The Present
These days, being linear in Constructed is almost actively bad. Being linear means you are the dead money in the tournament -- the person everyone knows how to beat. Sometimes you're able to tow that line because your deck is powerful enough, but most of the time it means you're easy to play against and easy to sideboard against.
There are few ways to gain a significant edge in a Magic tournament now. People are writing more, the articles are more informative, there are more people brewing decks; nearly every idea gets tested at some point, and the dearth of information allows people to be brought up to speed quickly, even if they haven't been playtesting as much as you have.
If that's the case, do you really want to be the person not forcing your opponent to think on their feet? I want my opponent to have to make difficult decisions, from mulliganning, to positioning, to sideboarding, and everything in between. This is where you should try to gain your edge.
Brad Nelson used that strategy to great effect by using cards like Hordeling Outburst when his opponents expected Goblin Rabblemaster, and sideboarding into Elspeth, Sun's Champion and a host of other "big" cards when they still expected him to be a Burn deck. The Jeskai and Mardu Standard decks have incorporated this strategy, and it's still incredibly powerful, even if your opponent knows you have it.
Mono-Red Aggro or U/B Control can never hope to have that type of impact. Of course, you could incorporate something else into your deck to not feel as linear, like this:
My point is that attacking on different angles might feel like it detracts from your Plan A, and that's true to an extent. However, your Plan A is never what you should want to be doing in every single matchup, and you need a contingency plan. Roles change, and the best decks can pivot fluidly.
Gareth's deck gives him a draw engine, removal for big creatures like Siege Rhino and Polukranos, World Eater, and counterspells out of the sideboard. His is not your typical red deck, and if you treat the matchup like such, you will likely lose.
On the other hand, Ali's deck is much more focused on stripping your hand of threats and constantly drawing new cards, which makes most of the matchups feel different than with normal U/B Control. Most opponents could actually draw up to eight cards before trying to make a move against U/B Control, and that was actually the correct strategy much of the time.
U/B would eventually miss some land drops and have to discard card drawing, removal, or counterspells while you stockpiled a hand of threats. "Deal with threats and draw cards" doesn't really work when your opponent refuses to play stuff and you don't have proactive things to play of your own.
However, that gameplan against Ali is completely unusable. If you try to stockpile stuff, Ali can make you discard your best card, cast a Treasure Cruise, and probably do it all over again. Given enough time, Ali will have a fist full of counterspells and removal while you have no hand. Against his deck, you are better off being hellbent as soon as possible in order to make his topdecked discard spells worse, but you might not know that unless you had actually playtested the matchup against his specific version of U/B Control.
If you were at the StarCityGames Open in Richmond where Ali finished 9th, you had probably never seen his deck before.
This is where we get to put all of this into practice.
From Patrick Dickmann's article on Tempo Twin:
"The journey towards Tempo Twin began in small steps. With an increasing amount of experience, I was less and less excited to end games as soon as possible and instead went for the long game. At that time, I was able to establish my own take on the traditional gameplan. I came to realize that constantly threatening a combo attempt was much more powerful than actually going for it most of the time.
It was simple. By delaying the combo by a turn, it was possible to restrain about three of your opponents' mana sources each and every single turn and to force an unpleasant decision upon them: "Do I trade a precious removal one for one with a Pestermite/Deceiver Exarch?" If the answer is "Yes!", just play another Exarch and once they run out of removal, you win. However, if the answer is "No!" you take a toll on their life total.
Back then all of my opponents had a tough time beating this strategy. The more I refined my new gameplan, the more I understood that the deck in its current form was not suited to playing the game I was looking for."
All told, "Tempo Twin" was probably a bad moniker for the deck, as it didn't truly explain what was going on with his take on the archetype or why he was winning so much. "Tempo" implies that the Snapcaster Mages, Lightning Bolts, and Remands allow you to play a different game if you can't find the combo. Instead, you should be actively avoiding going for the combo until they've exhausted their removal.
What makes Dickmann's deck so special?>
-It creates fear and is built to capitalize on that.
-It punishes expensive removal by forcing them to keep more mana open.
-It punishes expensive spells by not giving them the luxury of still playing threats while also holding up mana for removal.
-It punishes them for trying to wait you out and build up a hand you can't fight through.
-It punishes them for killing your combo creatures on sight by having a great long game.
-It punishes removal-heavy hands.
-It gives you reach. You are basically never drawing dead when the game isn't going well, when the board has stalemated, or when they have infinite life.
-It punishes them for playing things that are typically good against combo decks, such as Dark Confidant.
Overall, it is difficult to play against, especially if they're not used to playing against a deck like it. That type of deck is exactly where I want to be.
Enter The Boss
- 4 Akroan Crusader
- 4 Ash Zealot
- 4 Firedrinker Satyr
- 4 Foundry Street Denizen
- 4 Legion Loyalist
- 4 Rakdos Cackler
- 2 Rubblebelt Maaka
- 17 Mountain
- 4 Battlewise Hoplite
- 4 Favored Hoplite
- 3 Heliod's Pilgrim
- 4 Hero of Iroas
- 3 Seeker of the Way
- 2 Eidolon of Countless Battles
These decks are not "normal" by any stretch of the word. Jamming auras or pump spells on creatures was long thought to be a losing strategy unless it had built in protection like hexproof. Tom has since shown the world that not only can you win by doing that, but only if you're not needlessly jamming.
Tom's decks put the fear of God into people. Each of the three decks possesses the capability of killing quickly, although the best course of action is to do what Dickmann described above -- Nickel and dime your opponents, force their hand, and eventually push through for lethal. There are few archetypes that can deal with that type of pressure. Again, these decks force your opponents to make difficult decisions, and early in the game at that. If they mis-evaluate their role, they are probably going to lose.
In Magic, the term "Control" typically means an archetype with a bunch of answers. In reality, there is more than one way to control the game. By putting pressure on your opponents (or creating the illusion of pressure), you're forcing them to react in a certain way, and hopefully it's a thing you can capitalize on. Tom's decks do this beautifully.
Each week on the Open Series, Tom has looked like a genius. In reality, he's made life difficult for his opponents and they eventually chose the wrong path. It's hard to blame them really. When your opponent is capable of killing you on Turn 2, it's hard to resist that urge to turtle up and play defensively, even if you think your best chance of winning is to race.
After finding a deeper understanding of Tom's decks, I realized Tom was exploiting the Magic community by targeting not only their tendencies, but also their deckbuilding. It made me wonder about whether or not Tom was actually the first person to be playing these types of decks or if this archetype had been available forever, but we had just never found it. Dickmann's Tempo Twin is certainly one example, but there's also another that came to mind.
This deck was largely responsible for my ascension in the Magic community, especially as a deckbuilder. It threatened a potential Turn 2 kill while also playing the long game incredibly well. It attacked from various angles, each of which was difficult to attack with the same card. Some cards, like Damping Matrix and Bant Charm, saw a ton of play solely because of how effective they were at fighting both halves of the Thopter Depths deck.
I didn't think I was particularly skilled at playing combo decks (and truthfully still don't). When to "go for it" is not a spot I feel comfortable being put in the majority of the time, even if it's a position I feel comfortable navigating from time to time. Despite Dark Depths feeling like an "all-in" combo deck, it didn't actually play out that way. Because of that, I was able to do quite well with the deck, even if I didn't quite understand why.
Twinblade was a deck I had sleeved up and ready to go for the first Open Series event where New Phyrexia was legal. Previously, I was playing Darkblade to good success so I ended up sticking with that, but by the end of the season, Twinblade was the best deck. Had I understood how to build and play the deck a little bit better, I would have had a much higher opinion of the deck and would have been playing it since day one.
When I finally got around to playing the deck, I didn't even play Celestial Colonnade because I thought that if the games went long, eventually I'd find the combo and put them away. Considering the deck should be looking to close the game with damage first, that was likely a silly mistake. In the one tournament I got to play the deck, I lost to Jason Ford in the mirror match and to Josh Cho (who is very lucky) with Vampires. Any match against players not in the know felt comical, as the deck was so good against everything.
If there's one thing that Twinblade, Thopter Depths, and even Tempo Twin have in common, it's that at one point or another, they were considered the best decks in their respective formats. I don't think it's a matter of how powerful those decks were (although that certainly helps) as much as it was that the overall strategy of False Tempo is among the most strategically superior things you can be doing in Magic.
Not understanding certain archetypes has cost me several potentially high finishes in the past, and it likely won't be the last time. I'm working diligently to correct that, but it's a process. Let that be a valuable lesson to you -- If something doesn't quite make sense to you, try and figure out what you're missing. Don't just assume you're the one who is smart while everyone else has no idea what they're doing.