What You Already Know About Magic Theory
I presume no such thing. I expect you probably are a pretty good Magic player, for all I know better than me. All I aim to do is to tell you what you already know.
Why tell you what you already know?
It's one thing to know something, but another to fully understand it, to be able generalize and extrapolate from your understanding, to be able to express it is terms someone else can read and actually grasp.
Those of you alive back in the early 80s will remember Rubik's Cube (http://www.rubiks.com). Some people could, after weeks of puzzling, solve the cube for themselves. Far fewer could explain how they solved it in terms others could follow.
But those few who could, who fully understood how to solve the cube, were able to write bestselling books explaining that secret, and turn a fast profit.
Substitute StarCityGames.com articles for books, and a shot at fifty dollars for millions in royalties, and you have the justification for this article.
Strategy, tactics and the Cube
Solving the Cube always involved thinking ahead, to work out the results of twisting it in a particular combination of ways. If you couldn't think ahead in this way, all you could do is twist the cube at random, a process that would take many times longer than the lifetime of the universe to find the correct solution.
In Magic terms, this thinking ahead is tactics. At the most basic level, it means being able to predict the results of a combat before committing to an attack, at a more advanced level predicting how the next turn, or even more, will work out, with consideration for all the different cards in hand your opponent might hold or draw. Nothing but knowledge of the rules and environment can help with this, every detail of card rulings, the stack and your opponents likely hand can potentially determine what happens. Any simplification will turn around and bite you sooner or later, any assumption may well be wrong.
But thinking ahead, by itself, is not enough. It can take a sequence of fifty or more rotations to unscramble a cube. No normal person can hold that all in their head at once, any more than anyone could reliably predict how a Magic game will play out after the first few moves. What is needed is a way of testing a sequence of moves to see if they are leading you forwards, backwards or sideways.
Cube-solving books provided this, in the form of techniques to partially solve a cube, one face at a time, gradually reducing the amount of misplaced facets until everything was correct.
The Magic equivalent is a strategy. You can use tactics to predict the likely outcome of a short sequence of moves, but unless that outcome is winning or losing the game, only a grasp of strategy will tell you whether that outcome is desirable or not, whether it is a step forwards, backwards or sideways.
Example of a Strategy
A strategy is always based on one or more simplifying assumptions, when compared to the full rules of Magic. This is because if the strategy wasn't simpler to apply than the full rules, you could just use your knowledge of tactics in its place, and win the game without its help. Of course, if you had a brain the size of a planet, you might be able to correctly predict that casting this Skirk Prospector on turn 1 will inevitably lead to your victory on turn 8 when your second Patriarch's Bidding resolves. The rest of us have to make do with imperfect prediction backed up by a strategy (and if that fails, brutal top-decking).
Some strategies have very specific assumptions - for example, the Wake deck in Odyssey Block Constructed/Type 2 was based on the assumption"if you untap with Mirari's Wake in play, you win." With that assumption stated, the deck's author was able to devote all their deck design efforts into ensuring that that had the maximum chance to happen.
This is typical of a pure combo strategy - the simplifying assumption is"if the combo resolves, I win." So when playing a combo deck, you can ignore vast swathes of the game rules, and your opponent's deck, and just think about"how can I get this combo to resolve before I lose?"
This means staying alive, gathering sufficient mana, and assembling all the pieces of the combo.
Any possible play can be tested against that strategy. Does it take it forward, or is it a step backwards or sideways? You don't need to know everything that could possibly happen in the rest of the game, you just need to confirm that a play is in accordance with your strategy, that it advances you towards your current goal.
This example also shows that strategies are not universal - trying to play a Goblin deck as if it were a Wake deck will result in a puzzled opponent and an automatic loss.
The Four Resource model of Magic
Not every strategy is deck specific - there are a wide range of decks, across all known formats, that share the same basic simplifying assumptions about how they can move towards a winning position.
These strategies can all be described using the Four Resource model, which uses eight simple numbers to describe the current state of a game of Magic (each resource is counted twice, once for you and once for your opponent).
I make no claim that this system is the best or most universal, only that it is good enough to describe some of the most common and well-known strategies.
The four resources are:
- Life total: No counting required, you should know this anyway.
- Available mana: easy to calculate, just add up the maximum mana you could spend without losing any cards (e.g. Dark Ritual) or permanents (e.g. Black Lotus).
- Castable cards: count one for each card in hand, flashback card in the yard, spellbomb on the board, and anything else you feel is equivalent to those examples.
- Threats: the most complicated to count. Score one for each permanent that, if nothing were done, would result in one player or another directly winning the game. The most common threats are creatures, but damage dealing (or decking, etc) artefacts, enchantments and lands count too.
Most game effects can be described adequately as providing a chance to perform a specific trade between these four resources. For example:
- a normal creature card trades one card and some mana for one potential threat.
- a cycled Decree of Justice trades mana for multiple potential threats.
- a basic land trades one card for one available mana
- a Venerable Monk trades one card and some mana for one potential threat and some life.
- a Shock trades mana and a card for either: a) a reduction in your opponent's life total, b) a reduction in their threat count, or c) an increase in your threat count (by removing a blocker).
Creature threats and blocking deserves a little more discussion - a creature only counts as a true threat if it can freely attack without any cost in cards or other threats. So a Suntail Hawk facing a Grizzly Bear is a threat, but two facing a Giant Spider are only potential threats. This particular case provides you with the opportunity to trade potential threats for damage.
Other combat interactions can trade threats for potential threats (Phantom Warrior blocks Grizzly Bears), cards for threats (Giant Growth on an attacker), threats for life (chump block with a flier), life for life (let an attacker through so your creature can attack in return), and so on.
Cards which don't have a immediate trading effect usually change the terms of the trades implied by other cards. For example, Pyrostatic Pillar adds a life cost to playing cheap spells, Chill increases the mana cost of Red spells, etc.
The essence of a strategy is it tells you what trades you want to make, and which ones you want to avoid. In turn, this determines what types of cards you want in your deck - focused decks contain only cards that advance their chosen strategy.
Aggro:"play enough threats, one will get through"
Of the eight numbers in the four-resource model, an aggro strategy cares about five:
- opponent's life total, which it wants to get to 0
- its threat count, which it wants to have as high as it safely can.
- its available mana, which it wants to increase.
- Number of castable cards it has in hand, which it needs to keep above zero.
- Number of castable cards its opponent has in hand.
It makes the simplifying assumption that the others don't matter.
An aggro deck is happy to trade one of its cards for one threat (e.g. play a creature), and very happy when it achieves better than that (e.g. play and flashback Call of the Herd). While some of those threats may be dealt with by a one-for-one trade with opponent's cards in hand, if the threats are numerous and cheap enough, some will get through and win the game. So trading one threat for an opponent's card is not a problem, and doing better than is very good.
An aggro strategy, by definition, doesn't care about the number of threats an opponent has, or its life total. So it will not, by preference, trade one of its creatures for an attacker, or chump block (trade threats for life). Of course, as with any strategy, tactics can override it. If you can predict you need to chump block in order to survive beyond next turn, then do so. If a suicidal attack will win the game, it's a good play.
What an aggro strategy hates are board clearers, which reset the number of threats it has back to zero. This is why it is important not to overextend, because otherwise the board sweeper will represent a very bad trade, as opposed to a merely poor one.
When playing aggro and looking at a choice of plays, you should choose the one that involves the set of trades that fits that strategy best. For example:
Attacking with two 2/2 creatures into a single 3/3, and casting a Giant Growth on the blocked creature, is a good play in terms of your strategy, as for the price of one card and one mana you now have two threats that you didn't have before. This is a better trade than the baseline expectation of 1 card = 1 threat, so should be considered good.
Cycling a Gempalm Incinerator targeting a Black Knight while you have two Goblins in play is an even better move, as for a net expenditure of two mana you have enabled two threats.
Some decks (e.g. Stompy, White Weenie) try to win the game using this strategy alone, others (e.g. Sligh) plan to switch to a backup strategy of trading cards directly for damage (i.e. burn) if the initial offensive stalls.
Aggro Control:"one threat, well protected, is enough"
The plan of an aggro-control deck is similar to that of an aggro deck, except that it has the ability to trade cards in hand directly for those cast by an opponent (e.g. counter their creature-kill spells).
This gives it the ability to deal with board clearers at an even trade, usually at the cost of consistency (as the control spells cannot be used as threats).
Consequently, cards in hand are slightly more valuable than additional threats on the board (after the first). It is usually better to hold back mana to protect threats on the board than cast additional threats. This is particularly true if the threat is a 12/12 Broodstar that needs no help in order to win the game.
Control:"If I don't lose, I win"
There are many types of control deck, but they all share the common strategy of keeping your opponent's threat count low, until they build up enough mana to play game-winning cards.
Consequently, of the eight numbers in the four-resource model, a pure control strategy primarily cares about only three:
- Opponent's threat count, which it wants to keep close to zero.
- Number of castable cards it has in hand, which it needs to keep as high as practicable
- its available mana, which (like every other strategy), it wants to increase.
Against decks with burn spells, it also cares about its life total, which it needs to keep above the point at which any burn cards the opponent has would count as threats.
As with aggro, this is a big simplification of the game, instead of eight factorial (40320) possible trades to make between resources, there are now only three factorial (6). When looking at cards to put into your deck, you can ignore any that don't affect those resources, and evaluate the rest on how favourable the implied trade is.
Using a traditional control strategy usually involves trading threats one for one (as with creature kill and counterspells), in which case it is important to use card drawing spells to ensure that you don't run out of castable cards before your opponent.
Prison:"lock them up and throw away the key"
The final common strategy is to reduce the opponent's threat and available mana to close to zero, by land destruction, mana denial, spell cost increasers, tappers, and so on. The helpless opponent can then be easily finished off.
Again using the eight numbers, a prison strategy primarily cares about only three:
- Opponent's threat count, which it wants to keep close to zero.
- Opponent's available mana, which it want to drive to zero
- its available mana, which (like every other strategy), it wants to increase.
Tempo:"how come both sides don't win?"
When someone is plugging the strategy of a particular deck, it often seems that the deck's victory is all but inevitable. It plays the cards it wants to, overcomes all obstacles, and cruises in for the win, with only the occasional mana screw to get in the way.
Of course, in a tournament, you will almost always be playing a deck that's equally good, and you can't both win. So how come one side does and one doesn't?
Given two good decks with sound strategies, the winner is almost always decided by tempo. Tempo is a measure not of what your strategy is, but of how fast you can execute it.
If trading cards for threats is your current strategy, trading two cards for two threats is better tempo than merely trading one card for one threat. So two cheap creatures are often better than one expensive one.
If eliminating threats is your current strategy, blowing up three creatures with a Wrath of God is better tempo than killing one with a Wing Shards (it's also intrinsically a three threats for one card trade, which is one reason Wrath of God is such a good card).
When trading cards for damage, cards like Rorix Bladewing are good tempo (if they can be cast successfully cast), as they give a bigger and faster life loss for the same resource cost. One card for twelve life over two turns is better than one card for two life next turn.
The classic signature move of a control deck is to counter an opponent's expensive creature with a cheaper spell, and use the leftover mana to cast a card drawing spell. This is a pure tempo move, making two plays in line with your strategy when your opponent can only make one. Moving twice as fast, it is very likely you will get to your goal before they do.
Mana screw usually causes loss of tempo - instead of making a trade, you do nothing, or do a smaller trade than your non-mana-screwed opponent. Meanwhile, your opponent is busy making trades in accordance with their strategy, so if your decks are comparable in strength, you are very likely to lose.
Example:"something simple enough to understand"
Real decks are usually complicated, and issues of strategy inevitably get tangled up with those of tactics. The best way around this, to allow focusing on how the elements of strategy actually work, is to look at decks with virtually no tactics involved in play. We can do this by looking at"degenerate" decks , each with twenty lands and forty of one particular spell. If all the spells are the same, there are no decisions to be made on which spells to play, and so no significant tactics.
The first deck has the Type One staple Lightning Bolt as its burn spell. This deck can perform a trade of one card for three damage, meaning that as soon as it can cast seven spells, it wins This deck will almost always kill on turn 4, and there is very little that any deck can do to stop it, except win earlier or play a dedicated hoser card (e.g. Chill or COP:Red). If this deck was legal, it would be competitive (in Extended and T2 at least).
The second deck uses the Type Two card Shock in place of Lightning Bolt. This deck is intrinsically inferior, it can only trade one card for two damage. Consequently, it needs to cast ten spells in order to win, which it is unlikely to be able to do before the game is over.
The third deck uses the Type Two sorcery Volcanic Hammer. On the surface, this deck can make the same trades as the Lightning Bolt deck. However, because it can cast at least one less spell a turn due to mana limitations, again the game will likely be over before twenty damage is done.
Both of these decks are examples of decks with naturally poor tempo. They show that the viability of a strategy is dependant on the cards available in the current environment. The cards available govern the trades that can be made, and if you can't make the right trades fast enough, you lose.
Another related deck uses the Torment instant Sonic Seizure. Like the Lightning Bolt deck, it can deal three damage the first turn, and probably six on its second. But for it to win, it needs to draw a total of fifteen cards, and as it has no card drawing power, this can't happen before turn 8. Again, with no defense, this is not competitive in any environment. This is an example of a deck that always runs out of a critical resource, in this case cards, before it can win.
Finally, consider a deck with forty Life Bursts. This deck can trade one card for four or more life. This will soon outrace the damage dealt by any of the other decks, so on the face of it the better trades it can make would seem to give it better tempo. However, what it lacks is, of course, is a strategy - it has no way to win. It may move fast, but it goes nowhere.
Tempo is not just about making good trades, but trades that advance you towards your victory condition.
Until Next Time
All of the above applies to the decks that are built around the well-known strategies of combo, aggro, aggro-control, control and prison. Of course, plenty of decks are built differently, and suck as a result. But there are some decks that somehow manage to break all these rules and still prosper.
Of course, if I told you about those, then I would be breaking my promise not to tell you anything you didn't know...