Part I: It's 2011, and "Cool Things" are still Dangerous
I have it locked up. Obviously.
DI cards. DI cards exactly. If you turn infinity (i.e. the "I" in DI) on its side, what do you get? That's right: Eight. Just so many that I have to discard my second copy of Phantasmal Image. I have already counterspelled two copies of Green Sun's Zenith, and a quick perusal of his graveyard (thanks to Nephalia Drownyard) indicates that he will not be drawing two copies of Thrun, the Last Troll.
In addition to Drownyard beatdown, there are two Snapcaster Mages in play, clocking him by twos and fours. No, Snapcaster Mages are not the fastest clock, but he has basically nothing, nada, and zilch; and because of Drownyard, his chances are getting slimmer by the turn. Trusty Druidic Satchel mises YT another basic Swamp. Now a Drowned Catacomb. How have people not picked up on this yet? A couple of little guys and a couple of Dungrove Elders are all gone the way of the Dodo (I actually typed "Dojo" there the first time; equally applicable I guess). Counter this, Edict that.
Most of the watchers have started to fade, realizing this game is a foregone conclusion; just him and me and a fair stretch of life.
Whatever spell. Mana Leak that.
Larry Swasey—multiple-time Open Top 8 competitor and Glass Cannon progenitor—logs onto the match. Watch this Larry, I think to myself. Am I calling myself Larry now?
I can stop the Titan several different ways but decide to let it stick. Ooh, I joyously rock in my chair. I am going to have a Primeval Titan.
What were you thinking? This is atrocious. Even if you get a Primeval Titan... What then? You can't even attack this turn, the way the board is.
Yeah yeah yeah. We were going to copy that... And then what? Get our 6/6 Phantasmal Image killed for free by a Wolf Run drive-by? Get raced by a Titan and the Inkmoth Nexus (and the inevitable next Nexus) anyway? What lands were we even going to get? I mean Ghost Quarter is nice (-ish), but we have to answer both of his special lands, and he can Wolf Run our Illusion before we can use it.
Not much choice any more. I am certainly not going to get attacked by that thing. I have to play Phantasmal Image to copy Snapcaster Mage to re-buy Tribute to Hunger in order to get rid of the Titan while leaving up counterspell mana. I could have picked Geth's Verdict or one of the Doom Blades, but Druidic Satchel has ensured mana is plentiful, and I might as well pick up the extra life. I have a fist full of Think Twice and Dissipate, but we both know what is going to happen next.
He plays the DIth land, taps the bejeezus out of them, and puts seven or eight poison on me.
I draw some cards.
I draw some more cards.
Brother, can you spare a Wring Flesh?
At least Fortuna doesn't spite me with a Go for the Throat or something.
What did Wortho bring me up learning? Any game you lose with a counterspell in your hand was probably your own fault. Brother, I gots three.
Failure. Jaws of victory. Extend the virtual hand: GG.
What the hell just happened?
Part II: Visualization Introduction
My favorite part of
Magic life is the concept of visualization in goal-setting.
I talked about it quite a bit some years ago on the Top 8 Magic Podcast, and some of that stuck; it stuck so well with young Gavin Verhey that he used the concept (as part of a bigger bag of tricks, I'm sure) to get himself to ostensibly his destiny's best end game: mising a job in R&D at Wizards of the Coast. The cool thing about back-then is that I didn't know 1% of what I know today about how to utilize this skill, back then, and it was still powerful.
We can talk about visualization a lot of different ways and apply it to different in-game (and like Gavin did, out-of-game) situations, but for our purposes I will summarize it like this:
Basically what you want to do is create a clear picture of what the universe is going to look like at the end of the game (in a game of Magic you can substitute "the board" with "the universe").
Now go do whatever you have to to make the board look like that.
Part of the success of combo decks for players of various levels is that they come pre-visualized. Individual players don't have to stretch too many brain-muscles to "make the board look like that" because they know exactly what the board is going to look like in the games they should win... Therefore even weaker players can often get where they need to get with a combo deck.
Fast combo decks, especially, get all kinds of extra percentage by coming pre-visualization-loaded. For example I can evaluate a hand of a superfast combo deck like Cephalid Breakfast and determine exactly which decisions I need to make to make the board look exactly the way I want it to on the last turn of the game; you know, like turn three on a slow draw.
Back in the late 1990s, at the dawn of the first real competitive combo decks (ProsBloom in this case), Bloom was in fact one of my group's favorite decks to test. Every game was so tense. It was "will he or won't he" ... every single time. And while we knew what the conclusion of a successful game would be, how we got to that place was often such a rewarding journey.
There were the freebie games where you would just hit your correct lands, play an uncontested Squandered Resources, then Natural Order into Cadaverous Bloom on the third turn, and that would be that. And then there were other games—the games where you used every Impulse like a control player might, to hit land drops... Until the other guy's flaccid Spike Feeder beatdown might actually become relevant. Now your Natural Balances were like quadruple Stone Rains. You didn't even necessarily care if they resolved. Did you have three for the Mana Leak? Did the opponent really understand what was happening if the board looked even?
Part of the problem that players who "like blue" or "like control"—but don't actually do that well with blue / control at a high level—have is that it can be very difficult to imagine that ideal universe into play. They can't necessarily evaluate opening hands very well because they don't necessarily know where they are going or how to get there. The path is muddy, and it can be unclear if certain cards are even good.
The same control deck can spit out a hand that is both an auto-win and an auto-lose if kept, depending on who you are playing. It is much less pronounced for the folks in beatdown or combo to register this kind of uncertainty; a first-turn Stromkirk Noble is pretty much always where you want to be for Red Deck.
On balance, one of the things I have always liked about tap-out control decks—or at least utilized in my development of them (and generally greater success when contrasted with Draw-Go type control decks)—is that I always knew what path my opponent was going to take, meaning I could park a great big body in the middle of that path, simultaneously advancing my own route to the imagined end game. I always felt like the opponent was rushing in a very straight line. Yes, sometimes he could be going very quickly or had the potential to collide with tremendous force... But I could either do something annoying (Boomerang his Jitte or its proposed carrier while he had four tapped), or just put something gigantic in the way.
Tap-out control decks have Magical Christmaslands easier to visualize, because we all know what a tapped Dragon in the Red Zone looks like, or a battlefield cluttered with angry —if willingly defensive—1/1 Illusions looks like.
Counterspell / removal ones... Perhaps a bit less so (especially now that beatdown creatures have gotten so much better). Am I supposed to let that in? If I ignore that, what is the implication on my poor little Snapcaster Mage? Do I have to find another way to win, or just use a removal spell, or...
Part III: Who Wins?
Great visionaries are masters of this skill. At the risk of not-humble-bragging, the former CEO of Apple wrote a nice blurb for / recommendation of my second book, claiming it should be "on every marketer's bookshelf" ... Admittedly that CEO was John Sculley, not Steve Jobs, but to be fair, Sculley invented The Pepsi Challenge and took Apple from $800,000,000 to $8,000,000,000 (so he probably knows what he is talking about).
Now obviously I was alluding to Jobs (top-of-mind to me even if he weren't on every taxicab in New York or so much in the news these days), who was the visionary's visionary. He imagined a world where computers were beautiful, and ultimately without buttons. The first idea essentially saved Apple (as loads of incoming college girls flocked to blue iMac computers in the mid-1990s), and the latter gave us generation after generation of increasingly aesthetic iPods until the grown-up, maximally functional version that will ultimately supplant the laptop computer.
Now if you look at a ten-year-old iPod, it is pretty clear that even in 2001 (an age when we already had the technology of ID19, Trix, Tinker, and Napster) that we didn't have the technology required for an iPad. But so clear was his vision—despite so many competitors encouraging him to sell out to Michael Dell or some other mainline computer manufacturer—Steve's vision was so clear and powerful that he 1) actually forced the universe to bend around that vision, in order to produce the requisite technology, and 2) won.
In 2009 (or 2008 when it was probably scripted), this was kind of a joke.
Lots of people keyed on the fact that Steve didn't like buttons, and the above Onion video is one implementation of that nudge-nudge wink-wink... Until you get to the real punch line of "Ha ha, he actually figured it out, and it is cooler than any of us could have imagined." *
So here's the lesson: Whoever can visualize the clearer, more real, picture of the universe will typically get it. In Magic—as in war—that usually means winning.
You ever play one of those games where you kind of play the cards you draw, maybe Trish a little, dither here and there, maybe off the top? The game kind of stretches for a while, and sometimes you win but often you don't? The reason you don't (you usually don't) is that these give-and-go games rarely come with some kind of picture of how you want the world to look at the end of the game. If you aren't dictating the picture of the universe, you are usually ceding that to the opponent... and guess what? Then he gets to pick what your reality is going to be. Or if he doesn't [either], then it is really up to the cards. You're not playing the cards; they're playing you.
Remember the line I talked about a week or two ago, Brian Kibler versus Edgar Flores? Brimstone Volley versus Mana Leak? One line—ultimately unsuccessful—was to go with the baseline operations of the RUG deck, respecting Liliana, and playing to jockey for control against a deck that probably had stronger control capabilities. The other was to craft an end state with one's own hands, to change the course of a mighty river to get us to a specific spot... Where Brimstone Volley would be lethal. (This line, if you recall, would have been more successful.)
Now before you think I've gone all New Age-y or something, visualization as a tool to affect the formation of reality still has to obey the rules of our physical universe. If you need to draw a certain sequence of cards in a limited amount of time and the top of your deck isn't agreeing with you, you almost necessarily lose the ability to craft a particular outcome (though you can make the argument that certain cheaters can put themselves into the positions they imagine while obeying the rules of the physical universe... if not the game). On balance, you might have the $16,000 Lightning Helix. Reasonable men can differ on which line to pick; for that game, the Professor picked the right one.
Part IV: So What Happened?
One of the really cool things about playing this way is collaboration with your opponent. When you get it right, it's really like you are playing on the same team instead of opposing teams.
You ever get in "the zone" and almost literally see what is about to happen, right before it happens? You know what is coming down, where, and have the exact right card, play, whatever to anticipate and exploit whatever that is?
When you are dictating the march toward an imagined eventual picture of the universe, your opponent really will do what you want. Some of you know exactly what I am talking about right now. The other guy is tapping for some ineffectual two-for-one while you are spending your mana and cards to take control (even if you are playing a beatdown deck) and paint the picture of Stage Three. It's uncanny.
What happened in that Primeval Titan game is that I successfully imagined the situation and steered the game into a spot where I was copying Primeval Titan with Phantasmal Image... I just imagined one where I wasn't going to win. I think that I got an inkling of how cool it would be to copy a Primeval Titan (I had never done that), so when the Primeval Titan came up, I didn't counterspell it so I could copy it. (Which we now know ended in disaster.)
Dial it back just one or two paragraphs. Remember when we were talking about how the opponent sometimes seems to be working with you? Often that is because he is working towards the exact same end state that you are... He just doesn't realize that such a state would result in his losing.
When I was doing commentary at the Open Series event in Nashville, I made no bones about being most impressed by Brian Sondag's Wolf Run Ramp deck... But I was most impressed by Christian Valenti's play against that deck. Where most Solar Flare players kind of sat there and waited ineffectually for Sondag to kill them, Christian figured out what he had to do to be in the right place at the right time to win games, even if he wasn't ultimately the Open Champion.
In one game, Valenti successfully defended himself against all four copies of Inkmoth Nexus... Which is pretty impressive for a deck that has only three Doom Blades. He had to visualize what Sondag was going to do and put himself in a position to exploit those plays. Sondag cooperated by attacking with one Inkmoth Nexus each turn and attempting to go lethal with Wolf Run, turn after turn. Valenti therefore had time—and to be fair, the luck—to draw into enough Doom Blades and Snapcaster Mages to parry each of the near-lethal attacks, attack after attack after attack after solo attack. From my perspective watching, it was something like this (albeit to a lesser degree):
For those of you who don't know, Daigo Umehara is one of the world's most successful Street Fighter players. The above clip is one of the most famous—and impressive—comebacks in the history of competitive Street Fighter. Umehara (Ken) was knocked down to one pixel of health; at this point any special move by his opponent's Chun-Li would have knocked him out (as even a blocked special move deals "chip" damage).
Daigo's opponent, Justin Wong, commanded Chun-Li to attempt a vicious fifteen-hit combo; remember, any special move hit—even blocked—would prove lethal for Daigo's Ken.
So instead—in a brilliant combination of strategy (identifying the inevitability—and not in a good way—of blocking) and execution (again, the most impressive sequence, ever for that game)—Daigo chose instead to "Parry" each of Chun-Li's strikes, timing the Parrying counterstrike within four of thirty frames of animation each time, fifteen times in a row. Did you see he had to jump and Parry in the middle?
Valenti's defense was—to me—quite parallel to this. Christian had to conserve Doom Blades and wait for the right spots to use them. Due to his deck configuration, he also had to draw Snapcaster Mage and leave up the right amount of mana on the right turns! About three Inkmoth Nexuses in, with Sondag basically out of gas, I made the comment that "this would be a great time to topdeck Sun Titan" ... And I think that the vast majority of players, if they topdecked Sun Titan, would have slapped it down, re-bought Phantasmal Image, copied Sun Titan, and covered their side of the battlefield with big monsters and, you know, card advantage.
Because that is Solar Flare's big play.
That is the illustration at the end of the Solar Flare "how-to" manual.
That is the picture of the battlefield that everyone is going for. That is the one that kids write home about. "Isn't it cool that..." is how all their scribblings to Mommy start.
Remember what I said about how sometimes it seems like the opponent is working with you?
Christian had enough mana to make that play, but not enough to do that and hang back for the Snapcaster Mage duo. Ergo, the vast majority of Solar Flare players would have then lost the game on the spot to the fourth Inkmoth Nexus.
It's 2011, and "Cool Things" are still dangerous. Be careful what you wish for, because you just might get it.
* I wrote most of this article sitting in a cubicle at 100 Centre Street, NYC, while serving jury duty, on my iPad2.