Blood in the Water Go GO GO!
The film Intacto depicts a secret society of fortunate rogues whose primary motivation in the world - and interaction with one another - involves besting, then stealing the luck, from their lessers. Since that sentence probably doesn't make any sense to you right now, consider a universe where certain special people are to some degree preternaturally lucky and everyone else falls into a big pile of nobody, working and toiling for their meager scraps in life (more or less how it is in the real world). In this universe if you are truly lucky, you can survive a massacre of a car crash, cross a busy strip of highway blindfolded, or consistently win at games of dice; you are therefore sometimes quite wealthy. Intacto's luck masters wield their fortune as coolers or seek one another out in a circuit of challenges yielding greater and greater risk... but also ultimate glory. Intacto's End Boss owns a casino and plays Russian Roulette with those lucky enough to challenge him; he has never been beaten (obviously), and, as such, wields a considerable reservoir of the film's slippery commodity.
If you've never heard of Intacto, don't worry about it. It is a foreign film that had very limited distribution here in the U.S. I live in the most cosmopolitan city in the country, and to the best of my knowledge, Intacto screened in one little theater for rather a narrow window. I bring the movie up only because today's topic reminds me of one of the luck challenges on Intacto's brutal ladder towards that game of Russian Roulette... Picture a copse of tall, skinny, trees. At one end is a cadre of lucky ducks; at the other, open space, the goal. The players in this challenge are blindfolded, their hands bound to their backs, and told to GO. That's it. The winner of the challenge is the guy who, running straight ahead at full speed, makes it to the other side, or in the alternative, doesn't brain himself to death before all the other idiots go down. The losers, i.e. everyone else in the competition, crashes full clip into a birch somewhere along the way and ends up with a face-first skull fracture.
Have you ever noticed that there are decks that do the exact same thing? These decks have a quality of velocity, of cards moving from place to place... It's not accurate to call what these decks do card drawing per se; their focus, or advantage if that is the element in question, is not based on bulk or even necessarily qualitative card advantage. Like sharks, these decks need to move in order to live... Should they stop, they don't typically get up again.
The archetype shark deck would be Cadaverous Bloom. Here's are Mike Long's deck from Paris in 1997:
If you're not familiar with this style of deck, it is probably accurate to say that Cadaverous Bloom was the first really viable tournament combo deck. The sequence typically started with Squandered Resources. This card allowed the Bloom player to generate enough mana - while destroying lands - to make use of Natural Balance and force down Cadaverous Bloom even in the face of permission. Once Bloom was in play, cards translated into mana either by pitch or play + sacrifice at a 1:2 ratio. Bloom's engine was primarily a mana engine, constantly fed by Prosperity or just an Impulse to "keep going" until it had a minimum of 22 mana and a Drain Life. Like Trix, Bloom was the beneficiary of changes in life total. In this deck's era, going to 0 life didn't mean an immediate loss, so Infernal Contract became a powerful tool. The Drain Life at the end would stave off beatdown, helping the Bloom player to win many games at 20+.
Notice how, despite the fact that the deck is stacked with deck manipulation and bulk card drawing, it's not about "card advantage" per se. Natural Balance and Prosperity are essentially symmetrical cards. Though Bloom can break Natural Balance with Squandered Resources and the opponent doesn't typically have sufficient mana to take advantage of Prosperity, especially mid-combo, the cards themselves are there to ramp up a mana engine, not generate card advantage. Impulse is necessary not just to assemble the component pieces to this intricate mana engine, but to ensure that the engine keeps going once it gets going. In Bloom, cards are constantly jumping from library to play, to graveyard, in a sequence of deck-thinning to help make Prosperity stick; once a big Prosperity occurs, the cards that have come to hand jump into the grave at twice the rate in order to fuel even more mana, when near the end of the cycle, Elven Cache is there to finish the job. This deck is all about motion. It is about pushing the limits of mana and what a card can do, jumping from zone to zone, all but the red one.
Lest you think that the system of velocity is exclusive to combo decks, let me present some creature decks that work the same way:
BDM says that this is his favorite deck. Zev Gurwitz said that it was the best beatdown deck that he'd ever seen. If you've ever seen Black Thumb in action, you'd know that, just like Cadaverous Bloom, the deck is all about motion, all about squeezing, twisting, and wringing every ounce out of every card. It's not enough to tap a land for mana, you have to sacrifice it too; it's not enough to sacrifice that land, you have to set up a Natty Balance on the way. It's not enough to kill a creature, draw a card, or a dozen cards... you have to put a +1/+1 counter on your threat at the same time: The reason Zev liked the deck so much was because of how its cards snowballed. Turn 2 Quirion Dryad was often followed by turn three Vampiric Tutor for Duress or Cabal Therapy, Duress, and Cabal Therapy, for a 4/4 swing. Then the next turn, it would go 5/5 as Faceless Butcher removed the opponent's relevant blocker. Its tempo was so irresistible that it could win the game with a combination of a huge Dryad and a blank board before it eventually ran out of steam.
The secret? Via Quirion Dryad, Black Thumb could use the same spells to advance its card drawing and its win condition or to establish board control and win the game, or both. Particularly sick were turns where the opponent attacked with two relevant creatures into a small Dryad, only to be met by Vampiric Tutor + Tainted Pact + Terror (and, obviously, a block). Each spell fulfilled its own small task while making every other little card better at the same time.
Besides its vulnerability to certain Red Decks (despite having strong matchups overall), the component nature of Black Thumb kept it from ever being truly Tier One. As many players before and since have learned, Quirion Dryad is the most exciting creature in all of Magic when the cantrips are fueling it and a glass-fragile 1/1 for two when you topdeck it without an advantage on the board. Once the Tainted Pacts and Edicts or massive disruption package got going, the opponent would be pinned to the wall at at least two different angles, but against just a Dryad, or if the clock were Faceless Butcher against a combo or true control deck, the Black Thumb was far less exciting.
By the way, BDM says that this is also his favorite deck. U/G Threshold has a lot of similar elements to Black Thumb. Its Mental Notes grow its Threshold creatures, marrying drawing and threat enhancement. Its cards move from library to graveyard, or hand to graveyard with Wild Mongrel, only to reload via Deep Analysis, Genesis, or Roar of the Wurm. It shuffles with Onslaught lands and Krosan Reclamation, and most of all Intuition, and whether or not Wonder is in the graveyard is an important question.
I remember testing the Type Two version from Single Forest, Double Island with Josh Ravitz a few years ago (testing a G/R deck). Josh was sure that G/R beat U/G, but my deck, with its stronger early game creatures and four copies of Roar of the Wurm, took the vast majority of game ones. When we went to boards, Josh had what he believed to be the ultimate trump in Ensnaring Bridge (I played no Naturalizes). In one game Josh stabilized with two Bridges in play... but two cards in hand, too. I had Threshold and my threats didn't want to come over. Slowly, Josh worked me with Grim Lavamancer, a little light on land, but knowing I couldn't come over with the big beaters. In order to win, I had to Krosan Reclamation myself, flash, draw up with Genesis, attack with everything, discard Wonder prior to blocks, and re-establish Threshold and a giant Wild Mongrel all in one turn. Clearly the U/G deck is not as extreme a case as Black Thumb or certainly Cadaverous Bloom, but the velocity elements are there.
When I wrote about this archetype a few months ago_, at the dawn of the Extended format that is ending only this weekend, two days from the publication of this article, I said:
"... I ONLY like beatdown decks (like Dan only likes Red Decks), and Threshold has a turn 4 goldfish... but it also has a ton of tutoring. I LOVE TUTORING! Threshold might not be Napster, but it has Careful Study, Mental Note, Intuition, and Genesis. I love cards. I love attacking."
After working on this new branch of theory, I want to revise that statement. It's not that I specifically love beatdown decks that tutor. I love decks with high velocity. I love Black Thumb as I love Threshold; I loved Miracle Grow, and baaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaack in the day, I dueled with Cadaverous Bloom and High Tide, announced every stack as I untapped my lands, Thawed, and shuffled after Spirals. The elements that make U/G Threshold lovable aren't its beatdown elements... It just so happens that Nimble Mongoose is a house against most opponents. I was overjoyed playing the G/W deck last year. I really liked moving Eternal Dragon from my hand to fondle my library; it just so happened that Dragon advantage was awesome against a lot of decks... but what I really loved was rebounding that Pulse of the Fields from the stack back to my hand. Why is it that I make decks that are so different, dedicated aggro decks like Threshold and fraidycat sit-there decks like the G/B Deck? [which if you have any brains at all, you will play on Sunday. -Knut] What do they have in common? Mental Note and Undead Gladiator. Careful Study and Vampiric Tutor. Roar of the Wurm and Volrath's Stronghold. Their cards work and move around and do a lot of work. Velocity.
In today's Constructed, I think the principle of Velocity is best exemplified by the Splice decks. I have a new Type Two Splice deck inspired by Nick West that I will unveil soon. It's not Tier One, at least not yet, but its cards work harder than Boxer from Animal Farm (and don't smell like horses). Every Ethereal Haze does two, every creature dead on the other side of the table helps dig for that next land. It is constantly pushing up against its limiting factors of available mana and cards in hand, and it cheats.
Lastly, I just want to thank my friends Brian David-Marshall and Zvi Mowshowitz for this topic. I don't know if I've done velocity justice in this first outing. As a concept, it reminds me a lot of light: our limitation in our understanding of light comes in large part from our not having sufficient language to understand exactly what light is, exactly. At present, the only language we have for velocity talks about card drawing or tempo and doesn't really address the real issues of movement and work. I hope this article changes that a little bit, and am pretty sure BDM and Zvi will have something to say on the topic as well.
Thanks for reading,