“Good? Great! Let's do this.”
First turn Celestial Colonnade. Check.
Thought balloon: “Good matchup.”
Ho-hum. Do I Preordain now? What the hell? Why not? Probably need some Jace backup. Might have to trade Jaces. Also, might need a land.
“Preordain? Good? Great.” Everything's coming together. Check.
Stoneforge Mystic? What the!?!
Gulp. “It resolves.”
Sword of Feast and Famine? What the!?!
So... What makes a deck?
This seems like kind of a ridiculous question eighteen years into the history of Magic: The Gathering... yet I think that the answer may surprise you.
There are two forces at work here... Those of generalization and specificity. From a “general” standpoint, it is generally desirable to identify the “pillars” or limits or even “semi-soft locks” of a format's metagame. For example, there are decks with Jace, the Mind Sculptor; decks with Primeval Titan; decks that kill with Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle; and others that can combo you out on the second turn with Quest for the Holy Relic.
When you know which big banger you are playing against, these guidelines can be very helpful. For example, basic identification will give you the decision-making power to...
Sideboard in Memoricide, and recognize that while it might be fundamentally faster than a hard-cast Primeval Titan, you actually need to resolve it before the Primeval Titan is cast, or it is terrible (see Ten Rules of Reaction)
Evaluate opening hands, and make decisions based on the speed of the opponent's potential offense... There are hands that you might keep against a goldfish or an unknown opponent that you would never consider keeping against the Signal Pest-empowered Kuldotha Red, or against a G/W Quest for the Holy Relic deck. I remember being surprised when John Shuler won the US Open with Malka Death that he would never keep a hand against a combo deck that did not include either Duress or Vampiric Tutor, even when he had both Survival of the Fittest and Recurring Nightmare access.
Mete your reactive cards based on your general assumptions of the opponent's semi-soft lock capability; salient case in point for those Four-Color Control mirror matches in Extended: Spend your Cryptic Commands on a meaningless two-for-one in Stage Two, lose to Cruel Ultimatum... basically all of the time.
But most of you know all this.
Most of you – I would guess by the audience, all of you – will typically see a first-turn Terramorphic Expanse into a Forest, into a Mountain, both being tapped on the second turn and know that you are probably facing a Rampant Growth; Khalni Heart Expedition; or Explore for Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle then and there.
So... no problem, right?
The problem – or potential problem – is that as useful as it can be to create general rules and snap-identifications around the high end, many formats end up evolving at lower points in the curve as well. More than that, some decks diverge even at Stage Three finisher selection, meaning that an overly myopic model of the metagame [universe] can cost you as many games as your identification tools win.
“18. Hence the saying: If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat.”
-Sun Tzu, "Attack by Stratagem"; The Art of War
We are at – and for years have often come to – a point where misidentification of sub-archetype becomes as great a sin as misidentification of role. For who can even say if he is meant to be the beatdown if he doesn't know – doesn't really know – if the opponent is trying to be the control.
I knew I wanted to write about this even before I read the first couple of rounds of feature match coverage for Pro Tour Paris, but it just seemed so damn topical. The inclusion of Stoneforge Mystic for Sword of Feast and Famine in Caw-Go (and to further complicate matters, the coverage keeps calling the deck “U/W Control”) seems like a perfect example. One of the problems that Caw-Go challenges other control players with as its fundamental move from “traditional” late game-oriented U/W Control decks is the ability to make proactive plays from turn 2. The Squadron Hawks are one thing; you can attack the opponent's Jace, the Mind Sculptor with them, or reposition yourself as aggro-control ( check). But what about the inclusion of Stoneforge Mystic?
This is a move as fundamental as the first set of 1/x card advantage creatures for 1W. Stoneforge Mystic gives a deck easy access to spells like Sword of Feast and Famine, which can potentially wreak havoc on B/U Control.
I got a jab in there in the hypothetical, with the imaginary B/U player shuffling away a Disfigure... but the threat remains. With Into the Roil generally out of favor, how is a B/U Control deck meant to deal with a persistent source of protection from black? A persistent, nearly irresistible source of both damage and discard-based card advantage? How about the mana boost? That might be the most profound effect of the three! Tap for my planeswalker or other threat pre-combat, make you answer me (or kill my creatures) then; give myself time to move equipment if need be; get in there; pass the turn with Counterspell mana open?
Drew Levin's deck was the highest placing Valakut Ramp at the Open Series event in Indianapolis last week.
What do you immediately notice about this deck?
I'll be honest with you... I wouldn't have noticed it myself without the GIANT MONO-GREEN PIE CHART aka NEON GREEN OVAL OFF TO THE RIGHT.
I've always thought of Valakut Ramp as a red deck that had to get GG into play to run out Primeval Titan, so it could go and red you to death. Levin's deck transforms the notion of what makes a Valakut in my mind.
Your endgame strategy might be the same, but your consideration for each individual play? I mean Levin has Lotus Cobra! Lotus Cobra is one of the scariest possible animals on turn 2 in Standard. Whether or not to apply a Counterspell to one is often an agonizing decision (“What if he Traps into Primeval Titan?”) … Did I mention there is no Primeval Titan?
Credit where credit is due: Patrick Chapin pointed this particular paradigm change out to me... Valakut decks with Lotus Cobra must be considered as a completely different archetype from Valakut decks with Cultivate. Their capabilities are just too different to look at them the same way. It would almost be like assessing all Suicide Black decks as if they had (or didn't have) Hatred. There is just a difference in capabilities that, if not acknowledged, will gravely affect the potential of your play.
This, I think, is the crux of what it means to be a deck.
There are big things (“U/W Control is now viable in Standard”), and specific things (“The U/W Control decks in Standard play no counterspells”); there are limits (“When you have both Jace, the Mind Sculptor and Gideon Jura out, it feels impossible to lose against pretty much any deck”) and rule-breakers (“All Is Dust... you.”)
The creation of general rules has for at least the last five or six years been an extremely useful tool in the deckbuilding, deck selection, and playtesting arenas... but the extent of customization is what dictates a deck.
Only one rule today:
Part I: The Rule
“In order to be considered a discrete deck, customization must offer an advantage in either capability or speed.”
That is, Caw-Go can be legitimately differentiated from “regular” U/W Control in that it can dictate the pace of play on turn 2, start attacking planeswalkers on turn 3, and grudgingly bedevil the opponent's decisions around using creature removal on seemingly irrelevant 1/1 Birds, whenever. I would argue that the Sanchez /
Soorani (previous *) school of “not playing Preordain” would not rise to “new and different deck” status. There is a clear fork in the tuning, land count (probably), and number of copies of Day of Judgment (maybe)... but the deck's speed and capabilities are not changed. Is Wall of Omens a card? Maybe. Often! The no-Preordain builds will certainly gain percentage against beatdown, but any customizations come with trade-offs. They lose something somewhere else.
The opposite also merits comment.
Some designers hack off customization for I-don't-know-why.
The most egregious I've ever seen was the removal of Wayfarer's Bauble for Fire Diamond in the Kuroda-style Red deck with no Culling Scales in the sideboard (Flashfires instead). In a word: atrocious.
The build had no incremental functionality and the barest of speed advantages... almost not a speed advantage at all.
Who cares if you blow up all their stupid Plains?
They are still going to kill you with their second-turn Auriok Champion!
Changes that actually remove functionality from decks don't so much as spawn new decks but just end up being violations of the Prime Rule ( cf.).
Violating the Prime Rule can be seductive to a certain kind of deck designer. For example, I have played for many years, and my roots – like, say, a Jamie Wakefield – come from a time when we didn't have unbelievable dual lands in Standard. My initial bias – something I can overcome but still something I have to overcome, each time – is to cut colors. Really!
Early on in 2008, I was focusing on playing Esper-based control decks for “the mana consistency” when in fact I would have lost nothing by going four or even five colors. Initially, like other elite deck designers like Gerry Thompson, I was apprehensive about playing an inflexible seven (Cruel Ultimatum)... But the problem was I wasn't getting a lot out of not playing it, other than not having it in my deck.
What does that get you?
The ability to not draw an “I win” card.”
I didn't get to play more Mulldrifters because I didn't play Cruel Ultimatum. Both of us were constrained by four Cryptic Commands. I failed, initially, to identify that the Vivid lands + Reflecting Pools engine was so good that I didn't need 1997-era “mana consistency” by leaning on Arcane Sanctum only.
I myself was a violator of the Prime Rule (but not in a real tournament, gladly).
Aside: For fun (and laughs):
Breakdown in Phase III, part 1 (note I hadn't even adopted “Stages” yet)
Breakdown in Phase III, part 2 (includes first ever Five With Flores replay video!)
Part II: The Challenge
“I Edict a Birds of Paradise and start serving with two shadows and a Skittering Skirge. Randy draws into, and plays, a Circle of Protection: Black. I attack again, and he taps out. Oh wait, is that Winter Orb in my hand? Good thing I threw that Bird off the Predator.
“Sideboard cards won me the game!
-YT, from "bschneid.dec"
As with many of the powerful technologies that I have identified and shared with readers over the years, the idea of customization – and the birth of new decks – based on capabilities for differentiation is one that I cribbed from the mighty mental giants of Team CMU.
It was at Ohio Valley Regionals, when I was playing what was seemingly the only Suicide Black deck to be doing well in the tournament, and Randy Buehler explained what was right about my deck (actually mostly Brian Schneider's deck) that was differentiating it: mana control!
At the time, most Suicide Black decks were hyper-focused on the combo (4 Culling the Weak, 4 City of Traitors, 4 Priest of Gix, 4 Hatred, 0 Wasteland, 0 Cursed Scroll), whereas the version designed by Brian Schneider and developed by YT and Worth Wollpert (above) could play more, different games. For example, in the Circle of Protection: Black scenario, I had an auto-win rather than an auto-loss. Over and over, the inclusion of Wasteland and especially Winter Orb (neither one was stock in Standard Suicide Black of that era) won games and matches where other black beatdown decks would have had no plays.
But what was most important than the immediate tournament success (which was quite nice!) was the knowledge that Randy and Mike Donais helped me take away from the event, the understanding that because I had something different, my opponents would follow lines that were supposed to win but instead would fall desperately to their dooms.
Isn't that what we see when a “U/W Control” can first find, then make uncounterable a Sword of Feast and Famine? What does it do to the priority of countering a Squadron Hawk when you know that all future creatures are going to have “protection from your removal color” while doubling the opponent's operating mana?
This is the challenge: Identifying sub-archetypes – “new decks” if you will – to ensure that we don't make plays where we can never win.
Last Section: The Trade-Offs
Any** customizations inevitably come with disadvantages, as well as capabilities.
Jonathan Rubin won one of the first PTQs in Extended this season. I remember playing him in his “comeback” tournament, which was New York States 2006, where he triumphantly blazed to the Top 4. We were playing a U/R/W mirror, and he showed me Remand, Think Twice, and Whispers of the Muse in Game One. I wasn't sure if he had all four of all three, but I was pretty sure he would not be able to play four Demonfires if he played any at all (as I didn't have room for any in
my Brian Kowal's list). Jonathan had me covered on cards the entire game... until I decked him by holding my Compulsive Researches all game. I figured out I wanted to deck him around turn three and ran a plan of deception for the next forty or so turns! Did he have way more card advantages than I did? Absotively! Did he draw so many cards that I could just deck him to death? Also true.
Let's look back at Drew Levin's list.
“Mono-Green” Valakut... check.
When you have no red cards, what are you missing?
You can no longer defend as well against the beatdown with no Pyroclasm and Lightning Bolt. You have to evaluate how much that matters to you (and, again, Drew was the highest placing Valakut deck in the Open)... But he did lose to Vampires in the finals. It's all a question of what you think you are going to play against and how many opponents you think you can fool.
The first time around, anyway.
** Not necessarily the case with Prime Rule violations