Red Herrings And What Feels Right
Last time, I learned about all the variety of flavors at my favorite ice cream store and the variety of deck choices in Innistrad Standard. Knowing the options available to you is the first step to being successful at Magic. The trickier part, however, is knowing how to choose from among those options.
Not every option is equal. Having too many choices can be overwhelming and can increase your chances of making a mistake. A “red herring” is an extra option that distracts you from your best play or decision. The particularly dangerous red herrings are the choices that “feel right,” but aren't. There are many reasons why your instincts can mislead you.
Red Herrings in Card Evaluation and Gameplay
By way of example, let me show you a card I made, which the good people at Wizards of the Coast have promised me “may or may not be in Dark Ascension.”
Reider's Exarch WW5
When Reider's Exarch enters the battlefield, choose one—Destroy all lands target opponent controls; or destroy target Aura.
What a nice card! It has raw power in its ability to Armageddon the opponent. It also has versatility in the sense that it can free one of your creatures from a Pacifism or take out a Curiosity on an opposing Invisible Stalker…
Hopefully you were appalled by that evaluation of Reider's Exarch. If you weren't, then your nose is contaminated with the fishy smell of a red herring. When you decide whether or not to put this card in your deck, you should ignore that last bit of text. If anything, this Exarch is worse because of the option to destroy an Aura because it gives its controller the possibility of making a mistake and not using the more powerful ability.
Reading this card here, you know that I'm simply offering a silly example to illustrate a point. However, someone who came across Reider's Exarch for the first time during a booster draft would have a very different reaction: “I must be missing something.” These days, Magic cards tend to be balanced, so when they aren't, it can be off-putting. Two options that appear next to one another on a card like Exarch “ought to be”relatively equal. You may put Reider's Exarch in your deck because of its ability to destroy all the opponent's lands, but in that rare case when you draw it and a powerful Aura is in play, it's going to “feel right” to use the second ability. It will take self-discipline and a clear head to make the right choice in spite of this red herring.
My extreme example was inspired by a real card: Brutalizer Exarch. The other day, I cast Brutalizer Exarch and stopped for a minute to consider my options. I could get rid of one of my opponent's lands or his Sword of Feast and Famine, or I could stack my deck with a juicy creature like a Titan, or an Acidic Slime which could get rid one of his lands or his Sword of Feast and Famine… “Will somebody please take out that garbage! It smells like fish in here!”
It's good practice to weigh every option available to you, but let's be realistic. Brutalizer Exarch's ability to get rid of a noncreature permanent is simply so much better than the other option. One choice provides card advantage while the other doesn't. One choice has an immediate impact on the board while the other doesn't. I could tutor for a good creature, or I could blow up my opponent's permanent and maybe draw something good next turn anyway!
Similar decisions come up all the time with planeswalkers. Planeswalkers are some of the most carefully designed cards in MTG, but that doesn't mean that every planeswalker ability is equally useful for an everyday situation. In most decks, you can feel free to put a piece of masking tape over Sorin Markov's second ability. In any game that's relatively close, Liliana Vess should make your opponent discard. The choice is similar to the one with Brutalizer Exarch, except that Liliana's discard ability adds a loyalty while her tutor subtracts two!
My goal this week is to help us all get over the feeling that we're doing something wrong if we aren't using all of the options available to us. From playing MTG for so long, we develop ideas, conscious or subconscious, about how the game is “supposed to be,” and those ideas are dangerous when they interfere with cool, logical thinking.
One such idea that I've fallen victim to personally relates to the phrase “attacks each turn if able.” In reality, this line of text is a strict downfall and can never add to a card's value. However, I consciously know that, from a design standpoint, it's a downfall that's often added in order to balance an otherwise powerful or efficient creature. It's subconsciously more appealing for me to put a creature with “attacks each turn if able” into an aggressive deck where I want to be attacking anyway.
The fact is that Bloodcrazed Neonate is bad in both Constructed and Limited, even in an aggressive red deck. Innistrad is full of first strikers and three-toughness creatures that come down in the first three turns. Suiciding into an Armored Skaab is completely unacceptable, and going out of your way to attack past one is a chore. Even when everything goes according to plan, the Neonate isn't even game-breaking. A 4/3 on turn 5? That's pretty good, but I can still trade a four-drop or a removal spell for it.
I fell victim to the Bloodcrazed Neonate red herring when I was learning the format, and I was distracted from building good decks in red because of it. Similar to my subconscious attraction to “attacks each turn if able” is the subconscious attraction many of us have totribal cards. It only comes up once in a while that you can draft a B/R deck with lots of Vampires. When you do, it might “feel right” to play with Vampiric Fury, but it's a red herring! The card is comparable to Guardian's Pledge, which was pretty good if you had about eleven or more white creatures in your deck. You'll never have close to that many Vampires (especially if you agree that Bloodcrazed Neonate is mediocre), even in a B/R Innistrad draft deck, so don't be distracted by Vampiric Fury.
Red Herrings in Constructed
Listen to the tragic tale of Timmy Try-Hard. Timmy loved his R/G Standard deck. With it, he could beat any opponent with any deck. Any deck, that is, besides Solar Flare. Timmy was sick and tired of having his opponents Unburial Rites Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite against him, and he was determined to find the answer. He scoured Gatherer for red and green cards that could help him, but he found nothing. Imagine how he felt, though, just as he was ready to give up, when he found an artifact that could interfere with graveyard strategies: Nihil Spellbomb. It was perfect! He had found the single card available to him that could remove Elesh Norn from the graveyard. It “felt right.”
The big tournament rolled around and sure enough, Timmy drew his opening hand in game three against Solar Flare and happily looked at two of the four Nihil Spellbombs he had sideboarded in. Timmy dropped a Spellbomb and counted himself safe, but down two cards, his R/G deck didn't have the potency it needed to dispatch the opposing control deck. While in game one Liliana of the Veil had discarded the dreaded Elesh Norn, this time she made Timmy sacrifice a creature and bought enough time for the Solar Flare player to cast Elesh Norn from his hand!
Timmy had found a red herring on Gatherer. He thought the Spellbomb was what he was looking for, but what he didn't realize was that it's simply a weak card for a nonblack deck, and Solar Flare isn't dependent enough on the graveyard to make it good. I wish I could tell you that that's the end of the story and that Timmy learned his lesson, but I can't.
Seeing that the Spellbomb had been bad, Timmy wisely decided that he would cut it for next tournament. However, this tournament was not over, and he had to play the rest of the day with a red herring right in his sideboard! He faced Solar Flare three more times that day and lost each time. Two of them he could have won if he had simply declined to sideboard in his Spellbombs.
Timmy's first mistake was letting one aspect of the matchup distract him from his main game plan. His second mistake was to continue bringing in the Spellbombs after he knew they were bad because it “felt right” to do so. After all, only a noobie wouldn't use his sideboard cards, right?
Red Herrings in Sealed Deck
There are likely to be a thousand red herrings swimming in a thousand murky pools whenever you play Sealed Deck. Sealed Deck is defined by dangerous distractions that can lead you astray. If you can avoid them and think logically, you're well on your way to winning a PTQ or making day two of a GP.
The biggest and most damaging trap is an unnecessary splash. If you're like me, then the first thing you think when you see a Clifftop Retreat or a Shimmering Grotto is “what can I splash!?” Discipline is important in sealed deck, and logic is indispensible. Don't get overexcited if you see mana fixing or a splashable card.
Here are the things you should consider, in order, before you decide about a splash:
What cards you have to splash: Some cards will be fine to draw even when you don't have your splash color. Daybreak Ranger goes in any green deck but gets better if you have access to red mana. It's not worth a red splash on its own, but if you decide on the splash, at least you don't have to worry about it being a dead draw. Similarly, there's a big difference between splashing white for Unburial Rites and splashing black for Unburial Rites. You're taking a big risk if black is your splash color because if you don't draw your black mana, you can't cast either side.
Some cards are so game-breaking that you can wait all game to cast them, like Devil's Play and Blasphemous Act. Those make good splashes, but cards that are simply efficient in the early game like Geistflame and Dead Weight don't. Don't hesitate to have a light splash of red and leave Geistflame on the bench, even if it “feels wrong” to do so. You won't be able to play it and flash it back in the same turn, even in the very late game.
What fixing you have: What are the costs of adding three sources (or two, or four, or whatever you need) of your splash color to your deck? A dual land has basically no cost. I wouldn't play Shimmering Grotto in a two-color deck, but it also has a relatively low cost unless you're particularly aggressive and need to hit Spectral Rider on turn 2 or something like that. Caravan Vigil and Traveler's Amulet are a little more questionable. They force you to play with a basic land of your splash color, which is essentially a colorless land. Also, they can't be counted as full sources of each color because they require you to choose only one land when you cash them in. What if you have to Caravan Vigil for a Plains of turn 1, and then you draw your splashed Blasphemous Act? You're now drawing thinner than you had planned to be for your red mana. There's also an extra risk in the equation if your basic land can get milled into your graveyard.
Gavony Township, Moorland Haunt, Kessig Wolf Run, and to a lesser extent Nephalia Drownyard and Stensia Bloodhall are first-pick bombs, but generally shouldn't be splashed. They represent a special case because a large part of their appeal in normal circumstances is that they're “free”; they only take up one of your land slots and give you extra value that your opponent doesn't have access to. However, a three-color deck cannot afford the extra colorless land. If you're playing an Island to activate your Moorland Haunt, you now have two colorless lands, and you only get value if you draw them both, which would make your draw painfully awkward!
How aggressive your deck is: Slow decks with card draw see a larger portion of their deck and can therefore find their mana and splash card more easily. They also need the additional power in the late game, as dragging things out is their primary game plan. What may be less obvious, though, is that slow decks can afford to draw out of mana screw while aggressive decks cannot. A Claustrophobia that comes down on turn 6 still has a large impact on the game, while a Spectral Rider that comes down on turn 6 does not. Aggressive decks need to cast their cards on time, so splashes are more risky and should be avoided.
How good your deck is: When you're handed a great deck, don't screw it up! If you have faith that you can win with your two-color build, keep it consistent and don't increase your risk of mana screw. Don't consider how powerful your splash card is; consider how powerful it is relative to what it's replacing. Evaluating a black splash black for Olivia Voldaren, it's one thing if she replaces a Riot Devils and gives your weak deck some late-game power. It's quite another if she replaces the already-excellent Ulvenwald Mystics and adds variance to your otherwise awesome deck.
Getting Past What “Feels Right”
Brian Kibler won extended Pro Tour Austin with a Zoo deck that contained three Baneslayer Angels. It was completely unprecedented at the time. History isn't made by people who stick to what “feels right.” Who plays a five-drop in Zoo? Who plays a lifelink creature in an aggressive deck? Somebody who recognizes good cards and thinks about things with a clear head, that's who.
Following Mr. Kibler's win, though, countless other players had success with Zoo, many with decks that didn't resemble his in the slightest. Those people determined that that PT first-place decklist was a red herring and went on to win by doing things their own way.
Always make your decisions carefully. Once in a while, you'll have to use Reider's Exarch to destroy an Angelic Destiny and save your skin. When you do it, though, make sure it's because it's the right call and not because it “feels right.” Red herrings are everywhere to distract you from what's best. Your instincts will sell you short if you let them. Don't let them!