This Fire: Momentum and Inevitability
"I forgot that it can only block fliers. Oh well it wouldn't have mattered - he was at six when the game ended." -Me
"Momentum you know!" -Tim
The above exchange of words happened at GP: Oakland where I lost in the last round to make Top 8 (even though I hadn't realized I was playing for Top 8 - I thought I was playing for Top 16) to Ben Rubin. I failed to attack with a lone Skyhunter Cub that was unequipped against Ben's freshly-cast Hoverguard Observer which was mainly due to my unfamiliarity with the Darksteel cards at the time. (You can read more about that trip here.)
While Tim was half-joking with his comment it's something I've been considering over the past few days as StarCityGames.com has been publishing more and more "fundamentals" articles (which I think is great) written by freelance and staff writers alike.
What is momentum? Dictionary.com defines it as such:
n. pl. momenta or momentums
1. Physics. A measure of the motion of a body equal to the product of its mass and velocity. Also called linear momentum.
a. Impetus of a physical object in motion.
b. Impetus of a nonphysical process such as an idea or a course of events.
We are most concerned with definition 2b as it relates here as far as textbook definitions go. However how can we convert the theory of momentum into Magic-related terms? I've been thinking about this for quite some time (which explains the delay in this article) and I think you can best express the fundamental concept of momentum in Magic as such:
1. The impetus of the gamestate as controlled by one player in the game.
2. Often driven by other fundamentals such as tempo and card advantage.
It's pretty basic but let's delve into some of the specifics of it. On Tuesday I was at Matrix Games in Oberlin playing in their Standard tournament. Sitting at 3-1 after suffering a loss to a Tooth and Nail deck I was paired up against Will who was 4-0. We were both playing similar builds of Affinity and we decided to play it out rather than draw for the prize split. I won the die roll and kicked off the first game with a turn 1 Aether Vial turn 2 Arcbound Worker Chromatic Sphere and Frogmite with a Disciple of the Vault coming from the Vial during his end step and followed that up with a Blinkmoth Nexus Arcbound Ravager Atog and Cranial Plating.
Most people would say "Nice draw dude" and leave it at that. Sure it was an amazing draw but I could have easily lost the game because Will's turns while less explosive provided plenty of defense and possible alpha-striking capability with his own Cranial Plating and Atog. To further analyze the situation we have to look further into the game theory behind the cards. When I started off with such an explosive start many people would probably look at the board and say "Wow Kyle is really controlling the tempo of the game" and they'd be right - I was pouring permanents into play and refilling my hand with Thoughtcast and Chromatic Sphere on turn 4 to add to my threat count. However the tempo I was driving by abusing the Affinity for Artifacts mechanic wasn't the only key buzzword that won me that game. By accelerating quickly and casting several undercosted threats I used tempo to drive momentum through for the win. I was forcing Will to react to my threats and play my game which many people mistake as pure tempo. It's not.
The feeling of being on your heels and always reacting to your opponent's game rather than developing your own game is the idea that you are on the bad end of momentum. As stated above in the definition this can take many forms. Tempo is one as we saw that can drive the mechanic of momentum and is quite easy to understand (and consequently fail to see). Card advantage is another.
In an Extended PTQ in Columbus a few weeks ago I was playing against Adam Yurchick (who recently won the Cleveland PTQ with a Blue/White Mind's Desire deck - congratulations Adam) in the Blue-White Mind's Desire mirror. The difference was that he had Deep Analysis and I did not. He won the die roll mulliganed twice and kept his hand. We both resolved cost reducers and during one of my end steps he cast Intuition for three Accumulated Knowledge (having already burnt one). He untaps draws four casts some spells and I cast Intuition for Accumulated Knowledge drawing seven and then eight. Fifteen cards total. In this case I wasn't using tempo to control the momentum rather card advantage. By drawing so many cards it was clear that I had momentum on my side forcing him to play my game and speed up his kill by casting a hasty Mind's Desire for three.
Let's take a look at another topic that ties into momentum: Inevitability.
"Not impossible. Inevitable." -Agent Smith Matrix Revolutions
Inevitability is another intangible in Magic that we often feel but cannot put our collective finger on what it actually is or how it relates to the matches we play. Inevitability is defined by dictionary.com as such:
1. Impossible to avoid or prevent.
2. Invariably occurring or appearing; predictable: the inevitable changes of the seasons.
inev itably adv.
In the context of Magic inevitability means this:
1. There is a threat on the table that will kill you if not dealt with in an expedient manner.
2. An unseen win condition that when drawn causes a collapse of one opponent's game. "As soon as he draws Tooth and Nail it's inevitable that I will lose."
Definition 1 is pretty obvious. If you leave a Darksteel Colossus on the table without dealing with it quickly it's going to kill you. I don't think we need to waste time going over that particular aspect of inevitability...
Definition 2 is a little hazier. Joe Gagliardi Stephen Glaeser Peter Rollenhagen and I were discussing the differences between tempo inevitability and card advantage and how they all intertwined. Decks that pack one massive card (Tooth and Nail or Obliterate for example) often contain the inevitability factor as compared to most matchups. Let us consider the Affinity vs. Tooth and Nail matchup. Affinity is seeking to take away the inevitability of Tooth and Nail resolving - which will certainly result in a win for the Tooth and Nail deck - by killing the Tooth and Nail player as quickly as possible using cheap threats backed up by Cranial Plating. After sideboard the Affinity player will often bring in Mana Leaks and Shrapnel Blasts to both disrupt and speed up the rate at which they will kill the Tooth and Nail player while the Tooth and Nail player often brings in Oxidize and/or Viridian Shaman to get to the point of inevitability. Make no mistake - four Mana Leaks does not take the inevitability away from the Tooth and Nail player in any way whatsoever even if it does counter a Tooth and Nail. It merely slows down inevitability due to Eternal Witness and Sensei's Divining Top.
Confused? Here are a few more matchups where inevitability belongs to a given deck. See if you can allocate it correctly:
Classic Extended: Trix vs. Three-Deuce
Current Extended: Life vs. Mind's Desire
Standard: Mono-blue vs. Tooth and Nail (this is a tough one)
Vintage: Meandeck Tendrils vs. Control Slaver
Take some time to figure it out and then scroll down to see my opinion on each matchup listed.
Classic Extended: Trix has the inevitability.
Trix has the inevitability because when it resolves the Donate/Illusions combo the opponent will lose 20 life and die. However Three-Deuce plans to do it's best to stop inevitability from happening by using mana denial strategies such as Wasteland and Dwarven Miner direct damage in the form of Price of Progress and cheap threats like Hunted Wumpus and Phyrexian Negator.
Current Extended: Life has the inevitability.
This one might surprise you! The Life deck has the inevitability in this case because after it gains an arbitrarily large amount of life it can resolve Test of Endurance (the inevitable card) to win immediately should it resolve and stick around until the Life player's next upkeep. Serra Avatar is a form of inevitability but not as much as Test of Endurance is in this case. Mind's Desire seeks to cut down the inevitability by rendering the infinite life irrelevant (which it does rather well with Brain Freeze) and beating the Life deck before it assembles the Test of Endurance win. As you could imagine most Desire decks have a favorable matchup against standard Life decks (Green/White). Just because one deck has inevitability doesn't mean it's the favorite to win.
Standard: Tooth and Nail has the inevitability (but barely).
I originally wanted to say that mono-Blue has the inevitability due to the critical mass of counterspells it will eventually build up in its hand but I do believe that is wrong. Tooth and Nail has the one inevitable card (Tooth and Nail) and while resolving it doesn't even mean that mono-Blue loses mono-Blue lacks any real card or combination of cards that provides inevitability. I would go so far to argue that mono-Blue is never the inevitable deck - rather it seeks to delay whatever inevitability the opponent has in their deck and then win at their leisure.
Vintage: Control Slaver has the inevitability.
This one also may surprise you. Meandeck Tendrils has the inevitability card (Tendrils of Agony) but the entire goal of the deck is to win quickly and take away whatever win condition the opponent has by rendering it invalid through tempo and speed. Control Slaver has the real inevitability card in this matchup - Mindslaver. Meandeck Tendrils is trying to defeat the Control Slaver deck before it can get Welder + Mindslaver online which is a fully inevitable gamestate. [Spoils of the Vault for Tooth and Nail anyone? - Knut who doesn't agree with everything said above but finds this discussion interesting enough to stir up debate and generally correct]
Momentum is closely related to the "Who's the Beatdown" principle. The deck driving the beatdown often is trying to escape inevitability - typically an unwinnable boardstate by the control player.
Now I'd like to list the top five songs that I've been listening to as of late since it's oh-so-trendy to do on this site in some form (lyrics quotes etc). They are listed in no particular order.
1. The Strokes - Reptilia
2. The Killers - Mr. Brightside
3. Incubus - Calgone
4. The Bravery - Honest Mistake
5. Atreyu - Someone's Standing on My Chest
As always comments and questions are welcomed in the forums and via email - kyle dot boddy at gmail dot com.
I'd like to take this opportunity to congratulate my brother Kevin Boddy at the young age of 15 for placing 2nd at the Cleveland JSS qualifier held by Compendium Collectibles in Rocky River. He and his teammates (Travis playing mono-Green beatdown and Chris playing mono-Blue) all went undefeated in the swiss portion of the event. Kevin played well all day to eventually lose in the finals to the mirror match (Affinity) due to some great draws by his opponent Ethan. I wish the both of them luck in Baltimore at JSS Nationals this year. Here is Kevin's decklist for all those who might be interested: