Conceptual theory for choosing a deck has gotten rather advanced in the past year or so; comparing any Magic deck from nowadays to the decks of yesteryear shows just how far deck technology has come. “Back in the day,” the Great Old Ones played a mere three copies of Necropotence and may or may not have had “just” two Demonic Consultations, while if the tools were available everyone would play four... except for a notable minority, who would try and play five and not get caught. In the absence of such overpowering cards to lord it over an environment, and sometimes even in the presence of such domineering cardboard masters (such as in the GP: Flash metagame), picking the right deck involves a decision based on not just what you think the ideal 60 or even 75 cards are, but a decision based on what is happening in the environment around you and how the environment trends over time. Gone are the days of caveman Magic, when you could pick up The Skull and bash somebody's brains in just by drawing twice as many cards as them for the low price of a Dark Ritual's worth of investment and some paltry life. Now we live in a time of well-crafted weapons, and picking the right deck is a matter of tactics and strategy as well as picking the right cards.
Mike Flores posited last week that he sees "choosing the right deck" as a spatial analogy. He offered a vector-analysis diagram to bemuse the audience with Kyle Sanchez-esque drawings in MS Paint, while attempting to express why “the most powerful deck” is not always “the best deck to play”. For about a year now, we've heard the phrase “Glass Cannon” used to describe a related concept; Richard Feldman brought us that particular little term to describe a deck that has an incredibly potent impact (the “cannon” part of the reference) but which is fragile and vulnerable to the right attack (and thus shatters under force, the “glass” part). Both of these concepts are quite important to the trained mage, and if they have failed in any capacity so far it is simply due to the esoteric or even downright weird analogies they make. That's not how vectors work, Mike, but even describing something as a “vector” is going to lose all but the most educated portion of your audience, as vectors are a concept that aren't even discussed until we hit higher-level math. And why would you make a cannon out of glass, Rich? Wouldn't it break the first time you tried to fire it?
Let us step away from the esoteric and amorphous analogies that have been presented in the past, to drive at the heart of the lesson. Picking the right deck for a tournament is essentially a matter of tactics, and as such can be analyzed carefully to determine what the most effective tactic might be, based upon a set of criteria. Let us leave these previous analogies and pick up an easily-understood analogy that is quite fitting: military warfare. Choosing the right weapon for military warfare requires an understanding of what you are attempting to accomplish and the challenges that must be faced; choosing the right weapon for a Magic tournament... surprise, surprise... requires an understanding of what you are attempting to accomplish and the challenges that must be faced. Vectors can exist in a vacuum... tournament preparations, however, cannot. Choose the wrong weapon for a beach landing and you end up dead; choose the wrong weapon for Regionals and you'll be drafting by lunchtime. Maybe you like drafting, and can accept failure... but whether you'll have alternate fun doesn't mean you've miraculously succeeded; as far as the tournament is concerned, you're dead. If you just wanted to have fun, you'd play Battle of Wits; if you wanted to have a nice morning, you'd sleep in. Ultimately there should be some drive to succeed, or else you wouldn't put your time into attending or your resources into playing: either paying the entry fee, or getting the right cards.
If you aren't playing at the level where you'd be willing to pay a sizable entry fee, such as $25 for a PTQ or Regionals event, then frankly this article may have ultimately very little effect upon your life. “Playing for fun” is not a matter of tactics, and thus stands outside of the analogy that we are building here. I won't say that this will bore you, per se, but be warned that “because it's fun” or “because I like it” are emotionally-invested decisions that bias a decision away from the absolute and singular goal of succeeding. I won't say you shouldn't have fun, because fun is good... but please, be aware that this obvious criticism of what is to follow has been addressed, and I don't think your friendly Friday Night Magic games have to be tournament-cutthroat or else you're idiots. And I didn't kick your puppy, either.
Presume that you can rate any deck on a scale of one to ten on any number of different factors: aggressive beatdown, diversity of threats, absolute speed, whatever. The fastest / strongest / best always gets a 10, and the utterly incompetent get an ignominious 1. Each of these factors becomes an axis, and this is part of the basis for choosing your deck's vector. Your vector is the direction your deck travels well in, and the magnitude of the vector gives you your “10” when it comes to comparing, say, Gruul beatdown decks for Regionals against Blue/White Skies... both are aggressive decks, but not all aggressive decks are created equal. Mike's example of vectors fails for two reasons: one, it's just too abstract and esoteric... after all, I'm sure when I started talking about deck axes and vectors your eyes glazed over and perhaps your jaw went a little slack. I know mine did. Craig? [What was that, Sean? I wasn't paying attention... - Craig.]
But the meat of thinking of a deck in spatial terms comes from this little gem, which is decidedly not a “vector”.
Look at the nice push this has... a lot of “power numbers”, giving a firm push up and to the left where it's hitting good numbers, a solid 8 or 9 “up and to the left”, or if it helps you to think of it on some cardinal axis, “northwest.” Anything answering it on the same axis, be it traveling northwest or aiming for a head-on collision by driving into it in a southeasterly fashion, is going to have to compare “power numbers,” and the bigger number wins more or less every time, play the cards if you want to but unless you run into a bigger, meaner and nastier “northwest” or “southeast” your 8 or 9 or whatever imaginary magnitude you want to apply there should carry the day. If everyone just wants to pull it out and get a ruler, well, your “8” will get you to Nationals if everyone else at Regionals is only packing the standard “6.”
If instead you do not agree to travel in this direction, you get certain advantages: Mr. “8” (... or is it “9”? He keeps lying about it during playtesting...) cannot effectively apply his strength, while perhaps your strength can be applied to his weakness. See that exposed 4 on the lower right? It is that 4, rather than the powerful 9, that Flores likes to aim at when he is picking a deck... if he's facing a werewolf, he wants his magic silver bullets in a well-aimed rifle, not an AK-47 that sprays a hail of merely ordinary bullets everywhere and you just kind of hope that you plug enough holes in the other guy so that he doesn't "do unto you" in a similarly lethal fashion. Unfortunately, his vector analysis does not explain this as succinctly as it might, so we leave the concept of vectors and three-dimensional space aside from here on in.
Change the rules of engagement, and you change the opponent's ability to apply their force effectively. Changing the rules of engagement is a matter of tactics, and thinking of this not in spatial terms but as a matter of tactics is where things start to be informative and actually make sense. Let's load up Feldman's “glass cannon,” and have a look at the potentially most powerful deck in the format:
- 3 Drowned Rusalka
- 2 Flame-Kin Zealot
- 4 Golgari Grave-Troll
- 4 Lore Broker
- 4 Magus of the Bazaar
- 4 Narcomoeba
- 4 Simian Spirit Guide
- 4 Stinkweed Imp
- 4 Thought Courier
Left entirely to its lonesome, this deck will repeatedly fire off a very powerful turn 3 or turn 4 kill. It's definitely at least an 8 in its chosen direction, so we have a powerful vector that wins in a head-on contest in many cases; set this up head-to-head against Dragonstorm and you have a truly non-interactive matchup where two decks are ignoring the other side of the table other than to estimate their necessary speed and beat the clock, but Dragonstorm is only a 7 to the Dredge deck's 8, so at the end of the round it's signing the match slip with a check in the “drop” box next to the zero by their name... or maybe a one, if they're lucky. Using those nifty “webs” I'd showed up above, however, you'll see for the most part this deck has like a two or maybe a three at its exposed flank, against decks that can present a reasonable and credible threat (thus covering their “Plan B” speed of getting dredged Trolls online miraculously somehow) while laying down suppressing fire on the discard outlets to prevent the Glass Cannon from firing.
Instead of this “what does a glass cannon mean” analogy, let's look instead at this as a matter of military tactics. Let's say instead of being a deck, this is a fortification: we have a very large gun pointed in one direction, out onto the beach where the incoming invasion is washing up to storm the defensive trenchworks. This very large gun is fired by a well-trained corps of engineers, who quickly load, aim and fire, turning landing troops into munched-up meat... and it's protected from the assault by its own barricades, which are in turn protected by mounted machine guns that are belt-fed and swing far to the left and to the right to chew up any troops or sappers who might try to get inside of the range of the big gun to destroy it. Anything that comes at it head-on is murdered, we're not even talking “acceptable losses” in a military sense because coming at it from its position of strength is asking to die. If you try and play the game it's prepared to fight, you get chewed to grist and it doesn't care because there are more targets and it's going to be a long day of death, death, death, death, lunch, death, death, death, afternoon tea... all that killing can be exhausting work.
If instead you attack its flank, change your tactics to go from “something that doesn't work” to “attack the point of weakness, not the point of strength” then you'll see that the "chain" of a deck is only as strong as its weakest link... it just happens to be that in many cases the weak point is not what is put under strain. If you get a single sniper behind enemy lines, they can take out this big gun in a matter of mere minutes at the loss of a couple of shots fired, while sending platoon after platoon of marines up against the big guns will get you absolutely nowhere over a matter of hours at the loss of untold numbers of troops being converted from “person” into “hamburger.” War is not pretty... and neither is attacking the best deck in the format from its positions of strength. The glass cannon is powerful indeed... but the gun only turns so many degrees, it cannot cover all possible angles of attack. (Unless it can, in which case you think about banning Necropotence... but Trix is another story.)
But to truly pick the right tool for the job, you have to have a complete understanding of the total picture. Sure, there's this one big gun that'll totally destroy any frontal assaults, and if you can get someone behind it you can pick off the operators and silence the cannon. Your sniper can do this in his sleep from a kilometer away, picking off the targets one at a time, one shot — one kill... but if all you're giving him is a sniper rifle, any soldier with a handgun is going to be able to take out your sniper as he creeps behind enemy lines. A sniper is well-aimed and powerful at disabling the right targets, but slow to fire and requiring the ability to set up before taking his shots... generally underpowered when out of his specifically-chosen element and thus prone to facing difficulty against situations that might develop on the battlefield outside of what they were deployed to face. If the entire battleground is a metaphor for the metagame as a whole, playing a “sniper” deck that looks to come in from the weak point and apply their strength to the opponent's weakness is great for silencing the big guns but not necessarily a good plan if most of your opponents are going to be “some guy with a dog, a flashlight, and a gun.”
For an excellent example of exactly this, we have Mark Young's Regionals experience, playing the current iteration of a “sniper” deck:
- 4 Dark Confidant
- 2 Jotun Grunt
- 3 Martyr of Sands
- 4 Paladin en-Vec
- 4 Withered Wretch
- 1 Crovax, Ascendant Hero
- 3 Ghost Council of Orzhova
This is a deck that is all about determining and exploiting weakness... be it to pro-Red creatures, graveyard disruption, or pinpoint discard forcing the clutch Dragonstorm out of your hand, all while clearing Bridges from Below with Martyr of Sands or maybe just gaining ten life against a beatdown deck. However, except for a few notable legendary monsters, this deck is full of 2/2s. As Mark Young found out, no matter how well-tuned you are to beat the target your reconnaissance aimed at, some guy with a flashlight, a dog, and a gun can still shoot you, because you are not presenting strength in that situation. Inexcusably, at least in Magical terms, you're playing to capitalize by applying your strength to their weakness by aiming at the weaknesses of a limited subset of decks... but your own weaknesses are just being underpowered, meaning you'll have a hard time beating any deck that isn't already in your sights and/or vulnerable to the exact same tools you are already bringing to the table.
Let us return again temporarily to the world of vectors and dimensional space, and mix our two metaphors. Imagine the mirror match of our nice powerful webby deck, with its strong magnitude pushing northwest. Its force is applied from the southeast to the northwest, and it is aiming for a head-on collision with its mirror image applying an equal and opposite force from the northwest to the southeast... and in this bloody battle of the titans we can expect these two forces to cancel each other out completely; no one has an advantage (any remaining magnitude after “adding” the two vectors, which in this case cancels them because one plus negative-one equals zero) and for all intents and purposes the outcome is either a draw (...unlikely, given enough time to battle to the death) or due to random chance (so win the die roll / draw better / don't mulligan). We'll call Player A “Hatfield” and Player B “McCoy”. It doesn't really matter who gets the first shot off, what matters is that as these two battle there is a withering hail of deadly fire going in a northwesterly and southeasterly direction across the battlefield. People are getting shot and dying, innocent bystanders are trapped in the crossfire, cats and dogs are living together... mass hysteria.
Whatever you do, you do not cross this northwest-southeast hail of destruction. It doesn't matter what the decks are, or even really what the battle is... it'll change from tournament to tournament, and can even change over the course of the same tournament as the rounds progress, as you'd note in Yokohama where the Day 1 battlefield was the repeated White Weenie drive-by shootings leading to a lot of dead White creatures and Red men being the aggressive critters of choice on the second day only to find that everyone else who'd survived to the second day was doing the shooting and stayed out of those particular crossfires. Taking a sniper to apply strength to another deck's weaknesses is a wonderful plan... so long as you don't incidentally cross the killing fields to get there.
Mike Flores isn't looking for a sniper, who has to apply strength in a careful and exact way but who has no strength himself, i.e. “gets shot by a guy with a flashlight, a dog, and a gun while he's trying to secure a location for sniping.” Richard Feldman's Orzhov Suicide Squad can apply strength to weakness when it has the right target, but is just someone who's badly equipped and slow-shooting against said dog / flashlight / gun “combos,” as Mark Young found out when he got beaten to a pulp by Unstable Mutation and Daybreak Coronet on some embarrassing White weenies. Flores recognized this fact and told his close associates to stay away from it, not because he thinks Richard Feldman is a bad guy and/or he hates lumberjack beards... but because Flores doesn't stay up nights dreaming up ways to be a sniper. Mike Flores wants to be a ninja. Imagine, instead of shooting from a kilometer away if you can obtain a secure shooting position, you just poof in (you're a ninja, the exact physics don't really matter) and just cut the opponent to ribbons with your mercilessly fast ninja sword, only to disappear in a burst of smoke — ninja vanish!
The proper tactic instead is to look for decks that don't interact on the chosen battlegrounds, that never have to suffer accidental fire because it's crossing the Hatfields-versus-McCoys battle-line, and never has to worry about getting overpowered because it's not trying to get into a head-on fight with either of them and trying to overpower the most overpowering thing in the room and then try it again next round. If you can choose your own lines of battle, you can consistently outflank and outwit the metagame... but in order to do that, you have to know what the format is about so you can identify the different battlegrounds. If you can't identify the battlegrounds, you're just going to end up as more dead meat on the cutting-room floor, and for most people that's not why we plop down $25 and our entire Saturday.
In Standard right now, there are a few battlegrounds worth noting... or if you're so inclined, you can think of these as vectors in one direction or another as you look at different ways to fight on new fronts in your quest to apply strength to weakness and keeping your own flanks protected. (And you thought this esoteric flim-flamming wasn't going to tie into current events! Shows you!) The key components of the metagame drive the metagame, because once a reasonably large population have dedicated themselves to a particular vector or angle of attack or picked their field of battle then the format is committed to including them on the battleground — just because you don't think Ghost Dad is good doesn't mean you can neglect to accept the fact that there's a lackluster, anemic army on the field and they're pointed due east, because they have guns. A few key strengths in any format help give us a field map of the coming battle, and it's important to acknowledge and account for all of the individual pieces rather than relegate anything to the scrap heap before its time... willful blindness just means you're covering your eyes when somebody shoots you. You still got shot. Thus my confusion over MichaelJ dismissing and ignoring the Dredge deck entirely working up to this year's Regionals. Just because you think it's a bad deck doesn't mean it can't beat you if you are unprepared, and leaving yourself specifically unprepared for that matchup and ignoring the ramifications of everyone else paying attention to it leaves an entire battlefield left completely unknown to you as you go out for a brisk morning stroll. You might just get shot when you think you're just out enjoying the sunlight on your face.
In the current Standard metagame, the early drivers were easy to spot — Dragonstorm is clearly one of the top choices, and growing fear of the powerful Dredge deck meant that decks were now going to be built around beating the ever-living snot out of it. Both are combo decks, though remarkably different in how they work, and have little enough in common that you can't find the exact same single tactic for beating both of them. Discard is great against Dragonstorm but literally works against you in the Dredge matchup, because letting them discard a card of their choice just sets up another Dredge, since discarding a card is what they're investing their resources in obtaining the right to do anyway. Countering spells likewise is an ineffective choice, because one is resilient to individual counters and sets up with Gigadrowse, while the other might just cast Dread Return a second time or just settle for twelve power in Zombies even if you Remand the spell in question. Combo was reigning as the early leader, and it was in particular the kind of combo that is somewhat resilient to most control strategies.
Enter the beatdown. The second driver for the Standard metagame is a reactionary driver, not fighting over abusable resources (cards in hand for Storm, cards in graveyard for Dredge) but instead fighting over your life totals while also providing incidental responses to the first drivers. Gruul decks with Scorched Rusalka or Greater Gargadon or both seemed key, as they perform their vital beatdown services while also incidentally destroying Bridge from Below while it's in the graveyard... and as time passed more Martyrs (like Feldman's Martyr of Sands) and Rusalkas (like, even the Green one might have been playable maybe) made it into decks as they fill a spot in the curve and do something while providing a sacrifice outlet. Red decks that are properly prepared to fight over Blue 1/1's are about the worst matchup a Dredge deck can expect without game 1 Leylines in play, and Red decks require Dragonstorm to have the nuts each and every time, without being able to drop more than one game a match in the race. If playing Gruul against Dragonstorm, an individual Gruul deck might lose to Dragonstorm... but over the course of a tournament the Gruul decks will catch up with and murder the Hellkite-summoners.
The third driver for the Standard metagame was to ignore the first driver as much as possible and aim at the second driver, presuming there would be a much larger reactionary response aiming for combo-beating aggressive decks like Gruul and Orzhov Suicide Squad than there would be Dredge and Dragonstorm decks, aiming to control the board and prey upon the beatdown while (perhaps) bringing their own tools for beating the combo decks in the format. The companion to this is that some people were just going to play what they wanted anyway, and for a sizable number of those people that meant some flavor of slow and ponderous control deck... some would stick with the prior format's best, Dralnu du Louvre, despite the fact that the post-Future Sight metagame is wildly different than the pre-Future Sight metagame, while others would just say “I like Angelfire” (I for one played it three times in eight rounds) or “Korlash is sweet” (lies... ninjas are sweet, and everyone on the Internet knows this) and play some control deck they assume beats aggro.
Looking at this from the perspective of tactics, we're picking a fight over a few key resources:
1. Time. The combo decks are reasonably fast, and internally consistent enough to function if left undisrupted. You must interact quickly or win quickly if you are going to survive.
2. Life. A lot of beatdown decks are out there in the format, so protecting your life total early and often is important... or just “be the better beatdown deck,” because the best defense is a good offense. If your opponent is the one who has to start thinking about blocking with his aggressive deck, he's the one reacting to your plan, i.e. “getting shot.”
3. Critical Resources. The hand is a known potential source of ‘critical mass' for a combo deck, thanks to there being two different good Storm-based combo decks in the format, including the starting "best deck," Dragonstorm. The graveyard is the new "critical mass" resource, and one that everyone is gunning for in some capacity, whether it's just pinpointed at a specific problem (Rusalkas for Bridge from Below) or actual specific hate (Leyline, Crypt, Extirpate)... and it's a resource many decks are prepared to fight over.
We now have three battle-lines to consider, thus allowing you to be aware of where the key fights need to be picked and also know what fights to avoid if you don't want to get gunned down in a crossfire. Looking at this as the rules of engagement for the format, it's no great wonder that so many people chose Tarmogoyf-powered Zoo or Gruul (... there is no Dana, only Zuul?) decks as their weapon of choice. In “blunt object” power they met the standard for accepting a fight on the Life / Beatdown front, because it had two mana 4/5s and one mana 9/7s if the situation warranted it... and thus my Gruul lists all had Gargadon in the sideboard, while Grand Prix Champion Steve Sadin went even cleverer and threw his ‘Dons in the main to make Top 8 at his Regionals. Picking the best blunt weapon was a good means for fighting over time, because you're significantly threatening very early on in the game, and ignoring “the hand” as a Storm resource as a corollary of time (they have it or they don't, by the specified time) while including the still-aggressive "pinpoint" options for fighting the graveyard (sacrificing creatures to kill Bridges, filling the graveyard with opposing 1/1s before they lose summoning sickness).
But facing Gruul on the beatdown front and expecting to win would be a mistake... thus Flores' deck-choice of the other Red deck as of the day before Regionals, picking the right fight ninja-like and winning the “Big Man” war with not Tarmogoyf but Tombstalker. He got all the extra credit on time and resources for playing a Red deck, picked up a bit of disruption with his Black spells on Critical Resources as he gains access to discard and the nastier graveyard-hate spells if he wanted them, and picked a different angle of attack than “head on” when fighting on the second field of battle. Forget his arguments of little green three tipping over top-heavy 10!, and the entire confusing vector thing, he looked at a deck that picked its battlegrounds and didn't expose weakness to the known strengths shooting northwest-southeast as the Hatfields and McCoys shoot it out once again. I picked Solar Flare, and was one win out of the Top 8 at the end of play, because I was likewise making a choice that could fight over Critical Resources and do so in time, while containing the “life” fight with a dedicated anti-aggro package that included the backbreaking Smallpox against first-turn plays... merely by correctly assigning myself the control role in the “life” fight, and being effective at it. Lawrence Creech played the same deck, give or take a few copies of Foresee, and finished a soul-crushing ninth at his Regionals, again going to show that picking your field of battle and building an effective deck for the role you have chosen can help you to navigate the wide-open morass of metagaming because you understand the tactics of choosing your deck... the ballistics of glass cannons and magic bullets.
For any given metagame, identifying the battleground and choosing to apply strength to opposing weakness while not exposing your weaknesses to the known strengths, and having enough overall “fight” to duke it out with whatever else is out there is the key tactical decision one must make for choosing a deck. For this particular metagame, I put together a “short list” of decks I would consider to be respectable choices... Dragonstorm, Dredge, Gruul and Solar Pox. Of those four, I opted out of the two combo decks because I felt they were least prepared to fight both graveyard hate / discard (whichever disruption is their particular weakness) and the “life” race every game, and between Gruul and Solar Pox I ended up running with Solar Pox... because I lent Steve Sadin my Tarmogoyfs, as I was more comfortable in the controlling role than in the beatdown role overall when facing off the “whatever I felt like playing anyway” constituent of the metagame.
Other choices could be described as specifically awful, such as Project X... which exposes itself to many of the same anti-graveyard cards for its key win condition, while falling to many of the same tools that will be brought to bear in the “life” fight such as say an untimely Seal of Fire while the infinite-life loop is beginning to churn, or the Last Gasps starting to show up in many Black players' sideboards to stop Kird Ape and Scab-Clan Mauler. It also loses the “time” and “life” fights against many combo or aggro matchups, regardless of the number of Stupid Elephants they may have access to. On each and every key battlefront, Project X is walking into bullets and limping away, trying to be macho and pretend they didn't just get shot; random Tormod's Crypts might defeat carefully-planned turns, and stray removal might cause their deck to collapse like a ton of bricks, all while being generally bad against the “good” beatdown decks and “good” anti-beatdown control cards.
So before you pack the Glass Cannon or start loading silver bullets into your revolver to take down the red-eyed drooling werewolves, look at the format as a whole and determine which fights are going to happen over and over, round after round, then decide how you'll fight those fights or whether you can choose not to, measuring your strength or your ability to deflect an opponent's strength from landing fully upon you. Some may see this as a vector, or a battlefield populated with booming cannons and platoons of soldiers dug into their trenches that will be an absolute nightmare to overpower with a direct assault... and some may just see this as good Magic, and pick the right deck.
smckeown @ livejournal.com
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If everyone loved and nobody lied
If everyone shared and swallowed their pride
We'd see the day when nobody died...
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