Feature Article - Sullivan Library: Forgiveness
It's been a hell of a long time since I've taken up the proverbial pen and thrown my thoughts about Magic out there to the world. There's a part of me that always struggles with writing articles, if only because I want what I'm going to be saying to be relevant to the larger Magic community. Every time I think about writing an article, I wonder how relevant it will be to the current metagame, the current PTQ format, and other such things. Our editor Craig assures me that the readers are hungry for articles about anything to do with Constructed, regardless of the season, but deep inside, I always have my doubts. This article is more about a general deckbuilding concept, but before I get to the meat of the matter, I want to ask you to think about format-based constructed articles.
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Only articles about the current PTQ format.
Any insights into current common formats (Block, Standard, Extended).
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Most of us have probably spent hundreds and hundreds of hours (at least!) hunkered over a table or at a computer working on a deck. Maybe it is a deck that you've been tinkering with yourself, or maybe it is a proven or semi-proven deck that you've picked up somewhere else. One thing is clear, though:
Some decks are just nicer to us than others.
It's like these decks just want you to win. You mulligan a million times and keep coming up spades. The deck simply won't let you lose. Sure, there are games that you do, but it is mystifying how it just seems to pull out victories from the jaws of defeat. You even make a few colossal mistakes, but the deck doesn't care! Here, win again!
And then there are those decks that you get really reasonable win percentages from. Buuut, the games are always really, really, really close, you feel like you're often on the edge of ruin, and at any moment a tiny little error could take away a “deserved” victory. On paper, your matchup looks great (36-14!), but it's full of moments that could have oh-so-easily gone the other way if you had tapped the wrong land or if your opponent had a single lucky draw. If the axiom that “PTQ players make three mistakes a turn” is true, you're going to be in for a rough day when you take that deck to the tourney.
This last PTQ season, I ran an update of my 1963 deck, Baron Harkonnen. For those of you not in the know, Baron Harkonnen (or, simply, “The Baron”) is a Blue/Green-based control deck that uses countermagic and board control to stop the opponent from winning, and then recurses its control elements until eventually it wins via an incidental finisher. The strength of the concept is that it doesn't particularly have much to grapple onto in terms of attacking it (or at least it didn't before Extirpate). Winning will happen at some point, just so long as your opponent doesn't win. I took my updated list to PTQs all over the greater Midwest, losing in the finals of one PTQ and sitting a match outside of Top 8 a couple of times as well. Here is the version I took to that finals (pre-Planar Chaos):
I smashed nearly everything on my trip to the finals, getting a draw versus a Rock / Junk cross played by the fantastically fun Akil Steele and narrowly losing to a Boros deck in the Swiss before defeating it in the Top 4.
I play Kyle Tracy, armed with Tenacious Tron in the untimed finals. I'm fairly confident, but he wins game 1 by outdrawing me overwhelmingly in card draw. That's just the way that the game goes sometimes. I board in a package of cards that has shown again and again to be quite damning to Tron in playtesting. In an early turn, he assembles Tron and cycles a Decree. I look at the Stifle in my hand and the Deed in play, and I let it resolve. I pop the Deed and he Trickbinds. The counters in my hand look silly, and the Stifle laughs at me. I dig for more Deeds, but he has Trickbinds to trump me.
Kyle played it great. He had a great deck, he sided in a great sideboard card, and he drew it in multiples. He deserved his victory. But that victory also shows another facet in the nature of our deck choices.
Forgiving and unforgiving.
I know from countless playtest matches that I'm a heavy favorite after Game 1, whereas Game 1 is much closer and varies wildly based on card content. But Kyle's deck has one huge advantage over mine: his is a very forgiving deck, whereas my deck, by its very nature, doesn't have many opportunities to give me back those games that have slipped completely into the danger zone.
Kyle can potential assemble Tron on turn 3 and have access to seven or eight mana. At this point, I'll be sitting on three. Kyle's deck can sneak out a Mindslaver and draw (or search) into an Academy Ruins and utterly lock me out. My strongest plays versus him, like Global Ruin, don't necessarily throw him out of the game. They just give me advantage.
I would take this deck (with slight modifications for metagame and card pool) to many other PTQs, but it would never quite get me there. One of the flaws of this deck is that it simply doesn't have many forgiving characteristics in it. Every single one of my losses that knocked me out of contention for Top 8 were as a result of this unforgiving nature. I would make a tiny error, and it would compound because my deck couldn't just save me. This doesn't make it a bad deck, but maybe it did make it a bad deck for me to play (especially as other players got better and better with their decks as the season progressed) simply because I didn't have what it took to not make the mistakes, to make the brilliant play when I needed it, and to just take the leap of faith that would put me on the winning path.
Forgiving decks don't ask you to work so hard for your wins. They just kinda shrug, smile, and let you have it. A deck doesn't have to be forgiving to be good (or even the right deck to play), but it sure helps.
How do you know forgiveness?
Forgiving decks, in general, can be identified by a few factors: the power of individual cards, the ability to mulligan well, its simplicity, and the power of the deck's interactions.
The forgiveness potential of individual cards is really clear when you look at those cards that eventually were banned or restricted in formats. Powerful cards forgive you your mistakes. You could mess up all over the place, but if you drew Balance at the right time or Yawgmoth's Will, it might not matter.
Take this list from my past:
Dread Panda Roberts (or SuperNaut) — 51st Place PT: Rome
Sullivan / Janoska / Maxwell
4 Demonic Consultation
4 Phyrexian Dreadnought
4 Mana Vault
4 Dark Ritual
4 Lotus Petal
3 Final Fortune
2 Vampiric Tutor
4 Sulfurous Springs
4 Gemstone Mine
3 City of Brass
Now, here was a forgiving deck, primarily because of the power of Necropotence. I very clearly remember one game where I mulliganed to four and won the game on turn 3. My draw? Swamp, Lotus Petal, Demonic Consultation, Swamp. On turn 1, I searched for Necropotence. One turn 2, I drew ten cards. And on turn 3, they died to the combo.
With Necropotence (and tutors to fetch it) the card draw was so powerful that you could win games that you really had no business in winning. Mulliganing (the next important trait) was something that you could do aggressively and not fear losing. I'm sure that again and again I made little mistakes on how much I made use of the Necropotence, but the deck didn't care. Necropotence (and Demonic Consultation) would take care of me all by itself, and as long as I didn't mess it up too badly, the games would be mine. The deck was a powerhouse, and it wasn't the deck itself that held me down to 51st place, but the actual theft of the deck that knocked me out of two-and-a-half rounds that kept me from a higher placing (Alan Comer is said to have expected me in the Top 8 that weekend).
Mulliganing well is another huge trait. Sometimes this doesn't even require incredibly powerful cards like Necropotence. Take this example from Ravnica Block.
- 4 Civic Wayfinder
- 4 Dryad Sophisticate
- 4 Giant Solifuge
- 4 Loxodon Hierarch
- 4 Selesnya Guildmage
- 4 Skarrgan Pit-Skulk
- 4 Vinelasher Kudzu
- 4 Watchwolf
Of any deck that I've ever made, this deck had an ability to routinely mulligan to five and beat strong decks. More than any deck I've made, this deck could win on mulligans to four (though that was a great deal harder). But why?
By having an exceedingly low curve compared to the rest of the field, it could potentially play out on just two lands. Even better, with five Karoo and four Civic Wayfinder, it could very easily find itself having four mana to work with despite the bad luck in mulliganing. An early creature might easily deal a lot of damage or get some help with a Moldervine Cloak, and by the time the opponent stabilized (or if they got a little cocky) a surprise Solifuge or a timely Bathe in Light or Glare of Subdual might be enough to just get in those last points of damage. Sometimes the opponent would do something as simple as stumble for a single turn on their mana, and that would be enough.
In this sense, one of the best things that aggressive decks have going for them. They can capitalize on a missed turn of mana and they require fewer actual cards to get going. Casting a Fact or Fiction requires two mana more than casting a Dark Confidant, so while a Fact or Fiction can “forgive” you for mulliganing, a Dark Confidant can do it a whole lot easier.
There is something to be said about being simple as well. Aggressive decks actual do require a whole heck of a lot of thought to squeeze out those last few points of damage to win the close games, but there are plenty of games where you don't have to really think. Let's compare one fantastically complex deck with my “Oops!”-Red deck for States way back in 2003.
Full English Breakfast
4 Birds of Paradise
4 Wall of Roots
2 Quirion Ranger
4 Volrath's Shapeshifter
3 Tradewind Rider
2 Phyrexian Dreadnought
1 Elvish Lyrist
1 Uktabi Orangutan
1 Bottle Gnomes
1 Gilded Drake
1 Sliver Queen
1 Reya Dawnbringer
1 Flowstone Hellion
1 Squee, Goblin Nabob
1 Pygmy Hippo
1 Recurring Nightmare
1 Seal of Cleansing
1 Gilded Drake
1 Spiketail Drake
1 Oath of Ghouls
1 Circle of Protection: Red
1 Carrion Beetle
1 Bottle Gnomes
1 Academy Rector
I watched player after player attempt to pilot this sucker to victory after Paul Barclay's well-publicized PTQ victory with it. Most of them didn't do so well. The problem? There were so many choices to mess up, oftentimes with many great, game-winning solutions just slipping through the fingers of the players that it simply took an incredible amount of practice and rules knowledge to massage the victories out of this deck that it was capable of. For example, do you even know what the game-winning combo is in this deck?
Now take my States deck from 2003:
Sullivan / Kugler / Dempsey
4 Raging Goblin
4 Goblin Sledder
4 Goblin Piledriver
4 Goblin Warchief
4 Slith Firewalker
4 Blistering Firecat
4 Pyrite Spellbomb
4 Shrapnel Blast
2 Volcanic Hammer
2 Hammer of Bogardan
3 Goblin Burrows
4 Great Furnace
4 Chrome Mox
2 Dwarven Blastminer
2 Stalking Stones
I'm not going to claim this is a devastatingly great deck, but I would say that it is at least a good one. I worked on this deck with Ben Dempsey (of Temporary Solution fame) and eventual Wisconsin State Champ (and Kooky Jooky co-designer) Adam Kugler. Again and again, I would play against decks that claimed that they couldn't lose to a Red deck if they had a good draw. I didn't really do much of anything in terms of play, but I generally beat them, at least in three games. A few points of damage would get in off little guys, and then hasters would finish them off. Shrapnel Blast and Blistering Firecat both have a fantastic ability to deal damage, and it really didn't take much to kill someone with them (again, more on this in a second).
Most of the decisions are fairly straightforward. As a long tournament progresses, you're likely to have the vast majority of your brainpower left by the end of the day when you're more likely to need it, rather than being drained to near empty by lunch.
Powerful card interactions abound in the deck as well, and they all pretty well fit together in the deck's ultimate goal of quickly reducing the life total of the opponent to zero. The deck runs enough Goblins to make the Piledriver a threat. It can drop a turn one Slith Firewalker off of a Mox. It can, if need be, play control quite well against a more aggressive deck, or in another matchup it can turn all of the burn in it onto the face of an opponent. Even the ever-crappy Raging Goblin has a home in a deck that can plan on trying to turn everything to the face if it needs to.
Unforgiving decks like my Five Color Baron or Paul Barclay's Full English Breakfast can be incredibly powerful, but they do tend to get weaker as card pools get bigger or as the opposition decks get more honed. Both Baron and FEB had the rogue's strength of surprise that allow them to steal a few games from people that aren't prepared for what the deck can do, but with familiarity, surprise will die out, and you'll be forced to deal with the deck on its own merits. In smaller card pools or less defined formats, you won't need to have as forgiving a deck because the relative punishment you might get for messing up or having a bad draw is less huge, but with each successive week or card set that goes by, you'll want to make your decks more and more forgiving.
How you make all of this work for you is simple. Find ways to improve your mana or your mana curve to make your deck able to mulligan more effectively. In general, select more powerful spells that can simply win you games or make an opponent effectively lose over cards that just “help you out”. Reduce the complexity of your decks, even your complex ones as much as you can without watering them down. Finally, include powerful combinations, even things as simple as “Groundbreaker + Stonewood Invocation” that might just outright win a game in an “unwinnable situation.”
It's not that unforgiving decks are bad, after all. But making your deck a little more forgiving will generally translate into more wins.