Flow of Ideas - Magic MythBusters: Mike Long, Mythic Rares, Mulligans, And More
One of the most visited repositories of revealing information is Wikipedia's list of commonly misunderstood facts. One of the most popular shows in the past five years is MythBusters. In today's day and age there are a lot of holdover facts from earlier times that are finally being investigated – and plenty of new misinformation is being spread faster than ever thanks to current media.
This article is Magic's version of a fact-checker.
Part Wikipedia part MythBusters part the opinion of top Magic players this series aims to look into Magic myths and point out when something just isn't true. Sometimes I'll be able to back it up with pure facts. Other times I'll use personal and anecdotal evidence to make my points.
Ready? Let's go!
Myth #1 – Always sideboard out spells that deal you damage against aggressive decks
Few things seem as natural in Magic as this law. Once you gain a basic concept of Magic strategy and archetypes this is one of the first artificially constructed rules a player creates. If you're in a war you want to eliminate any traitors and if you're playing against burn you don't want to keep in your Thoughtseize.
While this can apply in some cases this “rule” isn't even close to always true.
Sure the two damage from Thoughtseize might not be ideal… But it's actually acting as a Healing Salve if you nab a Beacon of Destruction. Not to mention how much work it saves you if you take down a Boggart Ram-Gang or Bloodbraid Elf!
I think the archetypical mistake is made with Dark Confidant.
Players ritually remove The Great One from their decks against beatdown because they don't want to take damage. However most decks actually need their Dark Confidants against aggressive decks more than ever!
With beatdown's ability to quickly deploy a ton of threats you need to dig to your removal/life gain/trump spells. In last year's Dark Depths deck Dark Confidant was often the key to victory against Zoo decks. Gerry Thompson and numerous other notable Dark Depths alumni were actively hoping for a Dark Confidant in their opening hand after sideboarding.
One more anecdote. Way back in the early days when Necropotence was reigning supreme the finals of a long PTQ pitted evil genius Erik Lauer against a formidable red deck opponent who had already sliced through multiple Necro decks that day.
Much to the red player's surprise Erik left his Necropotences in after sideboarding… and handily took the match on the back of them. Afterwards Erik's opponent commented on how Erik was the only player to leave in his Necros against him all day. I don't know what Erik's response was but in my head it can only be “clearly!”
Myth #2 – Red Decks are highly favored against Faeries
Somewhere along the line someone looked at a Red decklist and then looked at a Faeries decklist and said “Yeah there's no way Faeries can ever win.” Then they played ten games against what amounted to a stuffed teddy bear playing Faeries won all ten times and decreed it to be true for all time.
The truth is that sometimes Red Decks beat Faeries. The truth is that some Red players beat some Faeries players. But always? Nope. In fact several top-tier Faeries players such as Sam Black have even told me they have a 60% or higher win rate against Mountains and burn spells. I know in my Faeries playing experience I definitely have an above .500 average against the red decks.
You might look at the cards and feel it's a bad matchup for Faeries but in reality it doesn't always turn out that way. Spellstutter Sprite is often a very live card; Mistbind Clique can close out games fast; the Faeries deck has plenty of removal against creature-based Red decks and (going back to Myth #1) Bitterblossom can actually be very potent in saving you life against the red decks.
Some builds of Red do well against Faeries. Others don't. Some pilots know how to play with/against Faeries well. Others don't. Tell me who's playing the matchup and what decklists they're using and then we can talk about who has the upper hand.
Myth #3 – Beatdown decks are easy to play
Early on it seems to get drilled into players' heads that beatdown decks are for simpletons and control decks are reserved for the best mages. Not only is this not true but this mistaken belief leads to players playing decks far outside of their skill range.
Here's what's true: control decks want to play more turns than beatdown decks do. More turns gives you more opportunities to make a sequence of correct plays and take over control of the game. Beatdown decks run out of resources faster.
Here's what isn't talked about as much: the sequence of plays the beatdown player makes in the first few turns can make or break the entire game. Knowing when to cast or hold threats when facing mass removal and/or countermagic can decide everything. Knowing when to go aggressive and when to hold back in a beatdown mirror can make a huge difference. Knowing when and where to cast burn/removal spells when to activate manlands when to equip when to use your disruption how to mulligan properly and so on are all crucial aspects of a beatdown player's game.
It's true some beatdown players play at the easiest level of play. I guarantee you that players like Mike with Mono Red the year he won Nationals Kai with White Weenie in the Top 8 of Amsterdam and Rietzl with Boros in the Top 8 of Paris (not to mention his Pro Tour victory with White Weenie!) won several games an average player in their position wouldn't have been able to thanks to their keen prowess.
I'm not going to go so far to say that Mono-Red Burn is more skill intensive than Psychatog or anything – but there are definitely many beatdown decks that are more skill intensive than the control decks of the format.
Myth #4 – Mike Long exiled his only Drain Life to Cadaverous Bloom then won
When rumblings of this article began to surface I made this claim to a few people and it drew a number of reactions ranging from disbelief to agreement.
Here's the background story for those not in the know. One of Mark Rosewater's favorite stories about the much-ballyhooed Mike Long is from Pro Tour Paris 1997. Long was playing the breakout combo deck of the tournament Prosbloom. It used Cadaverous Bloom and Squandered Resources along with Nature's Balance and Prosperity to generate a ton of mana then cast Drain Life for lethal damage in one big turn. Long's big secret is that while most other players were packing two or three copies of Drain Life he went the minimalist route and only played a single copy. Back then the players didn't swap decklists in the Top 8; the secret was still Mike's to use in his favor.
The story goes that in game two of the finals of the tournament against Mark Justice Mike was comboing out and figuring out his options. Eventually he figured out that he needed to pitch his only Drain Life to have enough mana to start up his combo. The problem of course was that by doing that he voided his only way to victory. Still Long ever the master of mind tricks fearlessly exiled his Drain Life and then revealed two copies of Prosperity and prompted Justice to concede when Long had no way to win.
The story was all well and good and still holds quite nicely as a testament to Long's ability and character. The only problem? With the advent of YouTube the videos of the match were eventually posted online – and the bluff was nowhere to be found!
Game three is not available online but we know Justice won that one because the match goes to game five and Long wins games four and five.
Game four and five start with Mike comboing out and the Drain Life can clearly be seen while doing so. To confuse things even further Mike makes a big theatric show in game five of going off in such a manner that he draws his whole deck and shows Justice that he only has one Drain Life.
What is going on here!?
Pundits like Paulo Vitor and Richard Feldman have relentlessly argued that the bluff clearly did not happen and was just a stretch of the truth by Rosewater. Others who want the bluff to be real point to the mysterious display at the end of game five and claim something must be missing from the video somewhere.
I was firmly in the PV and Feldman camp and was planning to put it into the public eye that this never happened. And it's true: the myth as described never happened. Better yet along the way Patrick Chapin heard about my claim and gave me a phone call to fill me in on the truth of the situation and settle things once and for all.
This hasn't been written anywhere else. Are you ready for the true mastery that Long ran?
Long sideboarded out his Drain Life!
Granted Long ended up losing that game – but the play itself was amazing. Long boarded his Drain back in for game four because his back was against the wall but in game three it wasn't even in his deck.
And that's just the first part.
In game five Justice cast Coercion on Long and saw the Drain Life in his hand. If Justice just took the Drain Life Long would instantly lose. However since Long carefully set up the bluff in game one Justice took another card and Long was able to pull out the win.
Let's walk through the masterful setup here.
In game four Long boarded the Drain Life back in.
Then in game five the reason why Long made a show out of revealing he only had one Drain Life was to show Justice how he mind-tricked him in the first game which caused a ripple effect in the subsequent games. By carefully maintaining the illusion that there were two in his deck by not being able to draw it Long knew he could change Justice's play.
So while the actual story isn't true Long still pulled off a pretty crazy bluff. Love him or hate him you have to admit that Long pulled off one of the most daring mind tricks to ever grace the Pro Tour tables.
And that's the truth of the Mike Long situation.
Myth #5 – Signals define drafting
Signals are a concept people hold onto far too strongly. With the power level of packs today they're difficult to always make work and much less rewarding to follow as they used to be. In a close decision they can be the tipping factor and they're worth keeping in mind while drafting but they shouldn't be used as a basis for every single pick.
I wrote an entire article on this topic which you can find here. Rather than just copy and paste the entire article if you'd like to read my argument in depth and with plenty of illustrations check out that link.
Myth #6 – Mythic rares make Standard significantly more expensive
People like to grip onto the argument that mythic rares make decks cost more money. It's become a scapegoat for all cost problems within decks. After all when cards like Jace the Mind Sculptor toe the $100 line surely decks must be more expensive!
What mythic rares have done for most decks is to change the cost of a deck from being evenly distributed to being focused on just a couple of cards. Now this can be both good and bad. Some people don't want all their eggs in one basket. Others have the mentality that owning one playset of Jaces which will always hold some value is much better than owning six expensive playsets of rares that will be worthless when they leave Standard. (Especially true now that Extended is just double Standard.) Whichever way you feel the fact is that most decks are comparably priced to the Lorwyn pre-mythic era.
I began to do a ton of research on old card prices and carefully began assembling the costs from numerous decks long past. Fortunately on the way I found this excellent article by Sean Morgan which does something similar to what I was trying to do. Instead of my just copy/pasting his analysis I encourage you to look over his deck pricing.
For those who don't want to read Sean's look at the issue the short version is that many decks of today are priced similarly to decks pre-Mythic rares. The major difference is that once again the majority of the value is tied up in one or two playsets of cards as opposed to several different playsets.
The great side effect of this? The price of everything non-mythic is drastically lowered! Decks like Boros which are comprised of good but not mythic rares are priced significantly lower than they could have been before. Cards that used to be extremely expensive – say rare lands – now sit at reasonable prices. We live in a world where dual lands that are also manlands that are played in every deck can hold steady at under $10 and the awesome Scars of Mirrodin fastlands can be bought for even less. There's no way this would be the case if the mythic rarity did not exist.
Of course yes there are outliers. There are a couple of decks that use incredible amounts of mythic rares (RUG for example) and those decks are more expensive than decks pre-mythic rares. There's no denying that. However when you consider that decks that don't overload on mythic rares can be less – as much as $200 less as Sean's comparison of Boros vs. Ravnica Zoo points out – Standard as a whole has remained along the same baseline: the two outliers balance each other out.
Now this doesn't mean I agree with all aspects of mythic rare pricing. It's completely ridiculous that a Standard legal card (Jace the Mind Sculptor) is worth $100. However Jace is the major outlier here and I don't think we'll be seeing another card like Jace anytime soon. Nobody – R&D included – could have foreseen his price tag. Once he's gone the upper limit on the price of mythic rares should be around $50 which is much more reasonable considering how much lower the prices of everything else has become. Additionally the high outliers will drop down even further.
With all that said considering that even with Jace around the prices of decks still go toe to toe with the prices on decks of the past the numbers support that mythic rares are not driving the cost of Standard decks significantly higher.
Myth #7 – Always kill the mana accelerator
And an easy mistake to make.
Whether or not killing the mana accelerator is correct depends entirely on the cards in your hand and what you perceive the matchup to be. If tempo plays a huge role in the matchup for example I'd be more tempted to kill the Birds. However if the game is going to go longer anyway I'd rather just Bolt something that's going to kill me.
A great example of this is Scars of Mirrodin Limited. Tons and tons of players fire off a Galvanic Blast on my turn 2 mana Myr then end up losing to a threatening creature several turns later because they didn't have a piece of removal for it. The tempo didn't end up mattering so my opponent was just down a piece of removal. The better players figured out that Blasting a Myr was incorrect most of the time in this format and are usually content letting that Myr live. That's not to say it's always wrong to Blast a Myr but that in the majority of circumstances the removal spell can be better used.
Now let's look at this in the light of Constructed.
Let's say your opponent's opening hand is something along the lines of three lands a one-drop mana accelerant a two-drop and two three-drops. If you Bolt that Birds they're just going to play the two-drop on turn 2 and follow it up with a three-drop anyway. Your situation is barely better than just leaving the Birds alive would be. On the flip side if you just let them play a three-drop on turn 2 then you can just Bolt that and you end up facing the same dilemma before except they're down a threat instead of just a Birds.
Let's imagine a situation where they don't have that two-drop and just have accelerators into three-drops instead. In that case killing the Birds is way better right? Actually many of the same lines of thinking as before apply. If you let them deploy a turn 2 three-drop and just Bolt that instead then you end up in the same situation except they're down a threat instead of just a Birds.
Now clearly the nature of the situation changes your play. If the card they're going to accelerate into is a Leatherback Baloth suddenly that Bolt doesn't look so good. (On the flip side if the removal is universal you should usually save it; there's a reason you almost never see Birds be the target of Swords to Plowshares.) If you have other things to do on those turns you might not want to invest the mana into Bolting at a later time. On the other hand if you're holding a sweeper it's more tempting to leave the Birds alive since you're just going to wipe the board anyway.
There's a lot that goes into this decision and it should almost never be a snap decision one way or another. It can certainly be right – but often I find myself happier leaving that Bird alive.
Myth #8 – Some hands you can mulligan on the play but would keep on the draw
You know the hands I'm talking about. You happily win the dice roll pick up your seven cards and then see some hand that you really feel needs that extra card from going second to pick up steam. The most common kinds of hands like these are probably two-landers that need a third land to start rolling but there are plenty of others. You might stare down at that hand and wish that you were drawing first.
Now what if I told you that at that very moment you could choose to go on the draw and keep. Would you take that offer? Some of the time you definitely would.
Well the way it actually plays out you can already do something even better.
Let's say you keep that two-land hand. You play a land and say go. You draw… Aw still no land. You play your second land and say go. If you end up missing on your second draw step (third turn) and don't find a land what happens is you essentially end up switching from being on the play to being on the draw. Your opponent will take their third turn then pass back to you at which point you'll draw your third card – a nearly identical situation to if you were on the draw.
The one obvious change is that your opponent ends up a card. However considering you didn't have to mulligan and go down a card as you would have otherwise you actually stay equal on card parity. Additionally there's the chance your hand will develop properly and you just draw the piece that you need in which case you're still on the play and have a great hand for the job.
A lot of people mulligan hands like this on the play but would keep them on the draw. However it's seldom correct to do so. There are some situations that come up where it's the right call but for the most part you're either going to end up with a great hand in the best case or switch to being on the draw in the worst case. That seems like a fine tradeoff to me.
Myth #9 – Magic Online is analogous to the real-life metagame
Magic Online is an awesome program for many things. Playtesting refining decks booster drafting and other crucial elements of Magic take place in the program. It can tell you a lot about how your deck will perform at a PTQ and can showcase new deck technology before it's widespread. However the one thing you must absolutely not transpose onto a real-life setting is the online metagame.
The way Magic Online works you have to continually win against the best decks or you cannot afford to keep playing. Therefore if a deck like say U/W Stoneforge becomes dominant you absolutely must either start playing it or play a deck that beats it. Since online metagame shifts like this can happen as fast as twelve hours essentially what happens is you end up with a hyper-compressed metagame. For example if I were to model the decks I expect to play at a real-life Extended PTQ in nine Swiss rounds based on what I currently face online it would look something like this:
5 U/W Stoneforge
1 Stoneforge Bant
This is probably the ratio of what I face online. However it's pretty unrealistic for a real-life PTQ! Why? Because the offline metagame doesn't compress in the same way.
Instead of just running against U/W Stoneforge over and over and over again and being forced to tune your deck as though you were online in real life U/W Mystic doesn't become the deck to beat until after a PTQ happens and everyone in the area loses to it. By that time it's too late; the event is over. Even then that kind of situation only crops up if it's a gigantic force at the PTQ. Until that occurs all of the decks that can't beat it have no reason to be sifted out of the metagame; the real-life metagame compresses at a far slower speed.
For example you're going to face people who haven't playtested since U/W Stoneforge's advent; you're going to face people who are running a metagame call and have decided to just forfeit the Stoneforge matchup (something that you cannot do online since that would be consistently losing packs as opposed to losing playtest matches with no value on them) and you're going to face people who tested against a gauntlet of several decks (not just Stoneforge over half of the time) and came to the conclusion that something else was the deck to play. Unlike online where you absolutely must beat the deck or you cannot keep playing to a profit in real life that's not the case.
The only time you see an online-like backlash begin to occur is in the instance of something like Faeries at the beginning of this PTQ season where it relentlessly took down several events and suddenly everybody knew you had to beat Faeries or go home. Even then there were plenty of decks that just folded to Faeries. Online the metagame adapted to Faeries much faster where in real life that only occurred because Faeries' dominance was a clear trend in PTQs and GPs.
In short the offline metagame doesn't have the ability to evolve fast enough for online results to match it. Unlike online where you have to beat the metagame or stop playing offline the stakes are just a single seven-to-nine-round tournament that won't define the metagame at nearly the same rate. The number of rounds played in an entire region's PTQs over three or four seasons is the same amount played on Magic Online in two or three days. You're likely going to face U/W Stoneforge at some point in the tournament – but not five times.
The online metagame has different stakes reasons for deck selection and speed of evolution from those in real life. Grabbing decks that show up online and bringing them into real life is one thing but there's little to be gained by comparing the two different metagames.
Myth #10 – Sealed is mostly luck
I think every single Limited block as far as I can remember has been in a cycle similar to this.
Everybody the Prerelease: “This new block seems pretty skill intensive. Look at how hard it is to build your Sealed decks! Think of all the possibilities in draft! It's a great upgrade over the last Limited format.”
Everybody two weeks after release : “Some dominant archetypes seem to be emerging as we play more but the decks still seem pretty skill intensive to build. It's frustrating how good some of the bombs are though. When my opponent plays one it often feels as though there's nothing I can do outside of a few answers.”
Everybody beginning of Sealed PTQ season: “I'm sick of this format. It's so bomb-oriented. You basically open a good pool or lose and losing to bombs is getting real old.”
Everybody end of Sealed PTQ season: “I'm so glad that Sealed format is over. It was one of the worse I've ever played. This format was so bomb-oriented! I really hope they do better with the next block.”
Everybody Prerelease of the second set: “I really like the changes this set added. It changed the pace of the format and made different things from the first set matter. It seems to address a lot of the problems I had with the block before. This is fun to play!”
Everybody one month after release: “Man that expansion really messed up the format. I liked it so much more before that came out…”
Add the Prerelease of the third set pepper with people waiting in anticipation for the next Limited format then repeat. It's comical how this process has happened so many times and people still say the exact same things over and over only changing the script slightly here and there.
Yes there are bomb rares. Yes they are good. No they're not all that matter.
It's gotten to the point where people say your opens are all that matter for Sealed. I'd say that about 5 to 10 percent of Sealed pools are actually unplayable. The rest of them have plenty of potential builds that can catapult you to success – it's just knowing where to look.
If all you know is how to do is build R/W metalcraft because you think that's the only good archetype then yeah maybe there are only a handful of Sealed pools in the room you can win with. However it's far more likely there are a ton of great builds of your deck that you just missed in the process.
There are so many great rares for Limited these days that it's very unlikely you'll have no good ones to work with. Even in the unlikely case that happens you still have a lot of different options to consider. In almost every Sealed pool there's an aggressive build. In almost every Sealed pool there's a controlling build. There are always ways you can build your deck to be more or less greedy. You can play your games in different ways. There's a reason so many great players make Day Two of Limited Grand Prix and it's not just because of bombs and byes. There is just so much you can do!
Do you go into a Constructed PTQ without knowing what else is in the format and expect to play perfectly? No. Well how then can you go into a Sealed PTQ with minor experience building a range of Sealed decks and expect to build your deck perfectly? You can't. Just like everything else practice is crucial. Working on your Sealed skills just like any other part of Magic will let you win even when things don't go perfectly your way.
Sealed certainly has some luck elements – but Magic always does. Overall there's a lot of skill involved. It's certainly not the rare-fest that everyone makes it out to be and it's definitely not luck-based.
And with that this list is wrapped up!
These are only ten of the myths I wrote down and there are still more left so perhaps I'll revisit this Magic MythBusters series again sometime! If you liked it let me know and I'll come back to it. I'd also love to hear about any myths you feel pervade the Magic world. Tell me what you think by either posting in the forums sending me an e-mail at Gavintriesagain at gmail dot com or tweeting me @GavinVerhey.
Talk with you soon!
I wrote this section up as a myth originally but I ended up cutting it because it didn't feel like the myth was really being dispelled just altered. Though it didn't end up fitting the bill I still wanted to share this tip. Here's a little bit of bonus content for all of you. Enjoy!
Bonus – Always hold one excess land
It makes sense right? When you're down to one card in your hand and it's just a land that enters the battlefield untapped it's just better to hold it presuming you have no abilities to activate. If you draw a spell that requires it you can just play the land anyway. If you draw a land.
Like so many other myths here it's correct to do this sometimes. However it's correct far less often than people make it out to be.
First of all there are plenty of reasons why holding excess lands can be bad in the current Magic world. Maybe you end up drawing a Raging Ravine draw a land the turn afterward and end up being one land drop short of activating it twice. Maybe you draw two lands keep them in your hand and then end up being one mana short of casting a spell and paying for Mana Leak. Maybe you have Jace's Ingenuity and can draw three cards you might want to cast in one turn making every land drop crucial. Obviously it's matchup dependent – having lands to cushion a Blightning for example can be important – but there are a lot of situations where you want that land out.
However most importantly it has to do with bluffing. Oddly keeping lands in your hand can often lead to a worse bluffing situation than just playing them!
Imagine this. You have plenty of lands in play. You have a Forest left in your hand and opt to not play it. Then you draw another Forest the next turn and play one of them. Then you draw a spell and play it. In the opponent's eyes they probably have a good feeling your last card is a land. Even if they don't they're most likely going to play as though you have a land simply based on odds and your willingness to play your spells.
Now imagine this situation instead.
You play that first Forest instead of holding it. Then you play that second Forest instead of holding it. You draw and play your spell and then in your fourth draw step you draw another Forest… But you hold it this time. Your opponent has clearly seen you play all of your lands so why are you holding this card? It clearly must be a spell!
Now this won't always work and I understand it's still the same theoretical principle of bluffing by holding a land but it plays out very differently than the general consensus of “hold your last land if it's all you have.” It's just one more small edge to consider that could turn a game around.