A Focus on What Matters: Finding the Tipping Point

Today’s Flores Friday article deals with the noble art of Templating. What, specifically, is the difference between a great deck designer improving on an existing deck, and a buffoon taking a perfectly good deck and making it worse? Through detailed examination of superior builds, Mike shows us how to strengthen our decks in tiny increments. This is a fantastic read for anyone who is serious about improving their deckbuilding prowess.

"Ideas are easy, it’s the writing that’s hard."
-Nick Hornby, The Polysyllabic Spree

"The labour of his body, and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his. Whatsoever then he removes out of the state that nature hath provided, and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property."
-John Locke, The Second Treatise of Civil Government

In 2000, Malcolm Gladwell published one of the most widely read and enjoyable economics texts ever released, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make A Big Difference. Although the tipping point as a concept is generally applied to social systems, as a buzzword, it has gained new life – not strictly related to its theoretical underpinnings – applied to a point in any process (not necessarily sociological) beyond which that process increases dramatically. This loose application of the tipping point can be used, strategically, by deck designers to correctly template existing decks for purpose of archetype improvement – whether in terms of speed, development, or ability to approach key matchups.

In my 2000 Building Broken Decks series, I characterized former Canadian National Champion Eric Tam’s notion of the templating concept as the following:

"Not the invention or discovery of a new deck, but the modification of an existing design to alter its matchups in some way. For our White Skyes example, the theory here is that White Skyes begins with a natural advantage against all decks except for Black control. If we maintain the advantage against all decks except for Black control, but modify the deck in order to beat itself more often, we come up with, by definition, a better deck."

Six years of reflection, understanding of more advanced economics and design principles, and actually building better decks than I did (gasp) in the summer of 2000, has given me new insights on templating. That is, what, specifically, is the difference between a great deck designer improving on an existing deck, and a buffoon taking a perfectly good deck and making it worse? Ultimately, I think that there are three core questions that must be addressed:

1. Why template?
2. What are the strategic implications of templating?
3. What are the spoils of templating?

1. Why Template?

An easier question may be "why netdeck?" My friend Joshua Randall, an old school Ohio player, and Usenet and original Magic Dojo contributor, may have said it best… when you play your own deck, your primary limiting factor is how much testing you can put into an idea (we are assuming you have a sound "idea" here). When you netdeck, you have a body of thousands of players, with thousands of hours of tournament trials and playtesting, upon which you can call. When you either don’t have – or are unwilling to spend – a certain amount of time testing for a tournament (or series of tournaments), netdecking allows for a massive shortcut in process. Mike Clair, a player who enjoyed a meteoric rise in success at the amateur level, never for even one second aspired to the creation of a new deck idea: he saw playing existing decks as an opportunity to focus on the tightest possible play, rather than investing his time in process.

Templating shares the roots of netdecking, but enjoys numerous strategic, tactical, and operational advantages. It is no secret that I have utilized templating over the course of many designs that bear my name (whether or not I put that name there). Kuroda-style Red, Critical Mass, "Flores" Blue, and most recently URzaTron, – as opposed to, say, Finkel’s Napster, Kibler’s G/W Deck, and Josh’s Wild Gifts (sorry Stuart) – were all templated existing decks. This is to say that they are not original ideas for decks, or merely new implementations of existing decks… but they utilized unique elements that set them apart and gave them important capabilities and advantages previously unavailable.

The most common reason I use templating is to cheat on manabases. Correctly building the mana base of a new deck is the most difficult thing you can do as a deck designer; the difference between a perfect manabase and a glob of inconsistent lands that will fail you under the tiniest pressure can be a variance of two cards… maybe one. For Critical Mass, for instance, I borrowed the “eight shuffler, four Sensei’s Divining Top, twenty-three lands” of many Kamigawa block Tribe Elder decks, and pared the spells; my initial manabase was better than the U/G Legends archetype with Overwhelming Intellect, and by the time Gerard was off the phone with me before Mexico City, it had been further developed… but the count never changed.

The other main thing that I use templating to do is measure relative speed. For instance, when building my Red Deck last year, I started by realizing that the version of Go Anan Deck that Masashiro Kuroda used to win PT Kobe was fast enough to beat full on Ravager Affinity with Arcbound Ravager, Disciple of the Vault, Aether Vialand Skullclamp! Surely mortal Standard decks would be easy prey! Moreover, Kuroda proved he could beat a resolved Tooth and Nail; his deck was by definition a superb starting point for the format… even if, left unchanged, it would not have been able to compete in the larger Standard a year removed.

Here is where templating kicks in: The inclusion of Sensei’s Divining Top was the single most important change. The short version is that Red Burn Decks can’t inherently regulate their ability to draw land versus burn spells. Historically they have been inconsistent, because they either drew not enough fire or insufficient mana to play all their burn before the opponent hit his fundamental turn. The long version is that tuning into Sensei’s Divining Top with Wayfarer’s Bauble, Beacon of Destruction, Magma Jet, and Culling Scales created a fundamental strategic shift in the burn strategy, giving the Kuroda-style deck a platform by which it could fight on different fronts.

First of all, the deck Josh played to the Top 8 of US Nationals was in every way a better deck than the deck that Kuroda played to his Kobe win. This shouldn’t be a surprise, given that Josh had four or five more sets feeding his list. However, unlike most increases in available set size, from, say, Block Affinity to Extended Affinity, the improvements function on multiple levels. From the standpoint of "a burn deck," Josh’s is simply better at utilizing its mana to deal twenty points than Kuroda’s: Sensei’s Divining Top makes everything, up to and including Shrapnel Blast, smoother. Look at Wayfarer’s Bauble over the Talismans… a natural shift given the inclusion of Divining Top, sure, but one that also allows the deck to play Cranial Extraction, giving it a wholly different sort of threat plan. Interactively, Sensei’s Divining Top allows the Kuroda-style Red (as opposed to the deck that Kuroda actually played) to dominate opponents with Culling Scales. Josh leaned heavily on Culling Scales for the last two or three rounds of US Nationals to beat White Weenie opponents, many of whom curved out with Auriok Champions and even Worship!

How depressed should a White Weenie player be? He draws into Champion and Worship on the play, with four lands in his opening grip. That’s the hard lock against most Red Decks, right? Against Culling Scales, that team isn’t even a speed bump for the long game Slogger kill.

The greatest advantage that the templated deck can yield is that of Reductive Thinking… on the part of an especially short-sighted or self-deluding enemy. In the summer of 2000, I beat tons of opponents who scoffed at the lack of creativity of my "Rebels" deck. "Well, I guess that’s what happens in this format… You just play Rebels every round." Opponents who think in very generic terms, without understanding the unique elements that strong templating can give a deck, put themselves at a decided disadvantage.

Consider this PTQ deck:

4 Chimeric Idol
4 Afterlife
4 Cho-Manno’s Blessing
4 Disenchant
1 Jeweled Spirit
4 Mageta the Lion
4 Parallax Wave
4 Ramosian Sergeant
1 Seal of Cleansing
4 Steadfast Guard

1 Dust Bowl
1 Kor Haven
2 Rath’s Edge
22 Plains

4 Defender en-Vec
3 Seal of Cleansing
4 Story Circle
4 Voice of Truth

In a sea of Defiant Falcons, I made consecutive PTQ Top 8s with essentially the above. The interesting thing was that I sideboarded the same way against both the common (opposing) Rebel decks and the Black Control decks that were designed to prey on Rebels. Why?

Both styles of decks tried to do the same thing: trump Rebels. They sided in Rebel Informer or Massacre. They assumed that the critical point in the matchup was Ramosian Sergeant control. After all, wasn’t the guy who started on Sergeant favored to win? In the absence of the Defiant Hero, wasn’t the Sergeant the key point in the Rebel chain?

Look at this deck. There is no Rebel chain. The "chain" is eight cards. I played Sergeant because Rebels was clearly the most powerful mechanic, and the easiest source of card advantage. In the mirror, it was easy to Afterlife the other guy’s Sergeant and mop him up with mine (who plays Afterlife?), so I won a lot of Game 1s with the short chain… but not sideboarded games. Most of the time, we took all the Rebels out. The opponent would be on this crazy "recruit into Informer" plan, not realizing that Mageta was trump. Black players brought in Massacres that didn’t kill anything. When the Rebels came out, all the remaining creatures were 3/3 or 2/4. Most importantly, neither style of deck was particularly good at fighting the focus on enchantments plan… my deck was all Parallax Waves and Story Circles; in the pseudo-mirror, I was essentially trying to win a "Jitte" war… all eight of my Disenchants were in to fight the opponent’s Cho-Manno’s Blessings (if he had them) and Parallax Waves, because I had Afterlife and literally the only thing that mattered was who controlled Mageta the Lion in the late game. Black players with their creature kill would usually be completely unable to deal a point of damage through Story Circle. A player who was focusing on the elements of stock Rebels would consistently fall to the shift in focus that this deck espoused, even if the differences between it and the more commonly played versions – including White Skyes – seemed superficial.

Jon Sonne, back when he was a lowly PTQ player had an even keener eye on seizing these tiny advantages than I did. He played four Fresh Volunteers in his mono-White deck. "In games where I didn’t have Ramosian Sergeant, I wanted to play first turn Rath’s Edge [a Legendary Land under pre-Kamigawa rules], so I wouldn’t be able to cast Steadfast Guard on turn two. The few points of damage that I could get with Rath’s Edge were important in similar deck matchups, and sometimes I would just manascrew the opponent." Completely locked out by Story Circle, Jon used Rath’s Edge to beat me for a slot in Neutral Ground with one card left in his deck.

Conclusion: Templating differs from netdecking in its use of relevant (usually strategic) card choice and operational Plan differences (hopefully improvements). Generally speaking, strategic templating decisions are not made top-down, but by approaching expected matchups and scripted oppositional plays from unusual angles, often interactively.

2. What are the Strategic Implications of Templating?

People bandy around the word "strategy" the same way they use the term "metagame;" that is, incorrectly. Most Magic "strategy" articles have very little to do with actual strategy, and don’t focus on strategic elements, even when they include them. As such, when players generally criticize the ingenuity of templated decks, they are being reductive (as above) and notoriously non-strategic in their "analysis" (comments). "He only changed four cards" is about the most idiotic thing that someone can say when he is not looking at the manabase (again, the most difficult part of a deck to tune), or actually looking at what cards were "changed" to what, or why.

An recent and on point example is the transition of Werner Cloete’s Hattori-Hanzo Tron to the URzaTron that Osyp played to an 8-0 Day One and eventual Top 8 finish at last week’s Pro Tour Honolulu.

Fundamentally, the changes have two bases:

1) Implications of mana.
2) Implications on time. First, the mana:

It is obvious that Cloete’s innovative original deck is a three-color Dimir deck, whereas Osyp’s deck is a two-color Izzet deck. That change is less superficial than it might seem: The mana in ‘Tron decks is necessarily less optimal than in other control decks, because a minimum of twelve lands is necessarily devoted to colorless mana production. In moving from three colors to two in the initial version, I just wanted to make a more consistent deck in the early game, figuring that Guildpact would give me enough tools that I could forgive the loss of Black.

Cloete’s deck can definitely do more things than Osyp’s deck. He can bring in the feared Cranial Extraction. He can defend on Ribbons of Night. He has a hard counter in Hinder. After a lot of testing, I didn’t figure any of those things as particularly strategic, and therefore didn’t really sweat the loss of the Black.

Cranial Extraction – Between Annex (a key innovation for both the mirror and Gifts Ungiven decks) and Giant Solifuge (Osyp’s most important and impressive late tuning addition), the deck wouldn’t have wanted Cranial Extraction, even if it had the mana. How much better is "Annex your land, untap, Dragon" (imagine if it is a Karoo) or "Solifuge you" with two counters in hand, than tapping four mana for a card that doesn’t even affect the board? Frank Karsten said that Cranial Extraction was like a four mana Cabal Therapy with no Flashback, but then revised his position to say it was even worse because of Sensei’s Divining Top. Definitely we built to be able to beat Cranial Extraction, but we didn’t want it.

Ribbons of Night – This is a great card, and supremely powerful. The main thing I disliked about our sideboard was the lack of life gain (the Repeals were two Bottle Gnomes up until the tournament), but Ribbons was too slow in testing. Look at how many decks played Flames of the Blood Hand. Best-case scenario: this would have been a poor Tidings (a card you don’t usually cast when you are winning), and embarrassing against Heezy’s Scorched Rusalkas.

Hinder – The most important thing I think we did was to take out cards like Hinder. My superficial change was to swap two Hinder for two Remand (helps establish the ‘Tron early game), which the masterful Andrew Cuneo changed to four Remand, two Telling Time. Beyond the fact that Remand is just a higher quality card than Hinder (witness the number of Hinders in the Top 8, with 50% of decks playing four copies of Remand), the reason I made the swap to begin with was that I didn’t think that given the manabase, Hinder was a consistent play. Remand, on the other hand, was not just an annoying permission spell, but a faux Impulse that greatly assisted the deck’s development.

More important than a permission spell swap was the URzaTron deck’s attitude towards time. URzaTron is hands down the most powerful deck in the current Standard. Part of the reason Osyp wanted to play it was that there was almost nothing that an opponent could reasonably do that was better than Keiga, the Tide Star… so he didn’t mind tapping out. A couple of hits and a little deck manipulation would yield a Blaze or Firemind kill, and the two mana permission spells, while not "hard" counters, were more than sufficient for controlling the ability of another late game deck to deploy its sixes and sevens. Without taking anything away from Cloete’s deck, consider the first two and three turns that URzaTron can play. Remembering that it is essentially trump on inevitability, this is a deck that is most likely to lose by being overwhelmed before it can muster a significant response. Therefore – just as with the Champs deck and its tuning specifically to fight off second turn Hypnotic Specters – this one plays a double up on the two mana counterspell slot, even if it looks a little ugly. As such, even if Osyp had a proactive Izzet Signet to play, he might not have necessarily wanted to do so.

Turn 2, Osyp could leave open 1U for the Remand or Mana Leak.
Turn 3, he could tap two for Izzet Signet and still have Remand or Mana Leak open.

In sideboarded games, the rush to four for Annex or Solifuge was a powerful option, but not necessarily the kind of play that would be rewarded against aggressive decks, especially given the color-color mana consistency issues addressed above.

Focusing on early game plays, specifically the ability to play answer or tempo cards before the opponent can overwhelm a more powerful deck, is what sets this version apart. Over and over in the tournament, I saw players keep hands because they had two Threads of Disloyalty (a card we dismissed due to its UU mana cost and lack of utility late game)… and lose to two or three of Craig Jones Watchwolves because the colors didn’t show up in time.

Is losing to "color screw" without missing a drop a case of bad luck? Some might say it’s a case of bad templating.

Templating, poorly executed, can yield a violation of the Prime Rule. Notice how this version of Kuroda-style Red for Regionals last year, tuned by one of Magic’s most well known deck designers yields a deck that is strictly worse than the publicly known version (LCQ or Invitational era):

3 Sensei’s Divining Top
4 Solemn Simulacrum
2 Talisman of Impulse
2 Talisman of Indulgence
4 Arc-Slogger
3 Beacon of Destruction
1 Fireball
1 Hammer of Bogardan
4 Magma Jet
4 Shrapnel Blast
4 Molten Rain
3 Forge[/author]“]Pulse of the [author name="Forge"]Forge[/author]
1 Two-Headed Dragon

4 Blinkmoth Nexus
20 Mountain

3 Boil
2 Flashfires
3 Ghost-Lit Raider
4 Hearth Kami
2 Shatter

We noted earlier that Sensei’s Divining Top is the card that allowed Kuroda-style Red to play as almost a different deck than it could play, both actively and interactively, than in that card’s absence. It was that card that allowed for a more consistent burn plan and to shrug off a Persecute as if it never happened, not to mention the deck’s greatest incentive: Culling Scales lock. Why not just play three?

The Talismans are actually slower than Wayfarer’s Bauble in almost every way (you can play third turn Solemn Simulacrum without wasting a mana with a Bauble), and have significantly less synergy with Culling Scales and the absent Cranial Extraction (to be fair, the Regionals era deck did not publicize Cranial Extraction).

The really obtuse decisions are made in the sideboard, where There. Are. No. Culling. Scales. Instead this version plays Flashfires – that can’t stop a much faster Auriok Champion – and it wastes room on irrelevant copies of Shatter and Hearth Kami. Boil is particularly embarrassing… the reason that the innovative Boseiju sideboard Fireball plan came about at all was because there was no way to force a test spell Boil to resolve, and even if it did, Kuroda-style Red was highly vulnerable to Bribery.

I’d say you wouldn’t believe who templated this deck – which superficially looks quite similar to the one I have been writing about for the last year – only you would.

Conclusion: Strategic templating is less about preference or exercising inconsistent capability in a deck than it is about understanding the strengths and weaknesses of a deck, in order to give it a long-term strategic advantage over the course of a tournament or series of tournaments.

3. What Are the Spoils?

The best templating innovations borrow consistent manabases or operating decks and improve on them by innovating at a different rate relative to the rest of the environment, such that the alteration of a single card can yield telling differences. For example, on the way to his match against Dirk Baberowski’s U/G Oath deck, Bob Maher said that he expected an easy road (Bob defeated Dirk in dramatic fashion). I didn’t understand this because he had previously said that a U/G Oath deck was the deck he feared the most. "If Dirk played one Dust Bowl or Trade Routes, he’d probably have the advantage," Bob said. "But as it stands, he has nothing to do with those Thawing Glaciers but to draw more lands."

Dirk’s deck, and Bob’s, can be found here.

Had Dirk played Dust Bowl, his deck would have had the ability to lock Bob completely out of any game long term. Essentially the only card that would have mattered in Bob’s deck would have been his one Trade Routes, and even that would have been a stretch. Because of the presence of Oath of Druids in both control builds, neither deck could reliably play out non-Legacy land threats, and Bob’s would have been outnumbered by not just Dirk’s Wastelands, but however many Dust Bowls he chose to run. Dirk could have used his Impulses and Brainstorms to find Dust Bowl and Thawing Glaciers, to just eat all of Bob’s lands, and then use Gaea’s Blessing to reload. Even if he had had something like Stifle, Bob would have had no long game resistance to the Thawing Glaciers/Dust Bowl plan. In the very long game, it would have come down to Morphlings, and Dirk’s would have just beaten the crap out of Bob’s given that Dirk would have had twelve or more land in play when it came down to it. Bob’s Superman would have been hard pressed to Jump into a fight, let alone win one.

Conclusion: In the most extreme case, perfect templating yields Strategy Superiority in a key matchup. In the case of U/G Oath, it seems like the inclusion of a single land in return for a near-automatic matchup with one of the most expected archetypes, not to mention the one that won it all, would have been a fine inclusion.

Elsewhere, templating can allow a deck to control time at its weakest points. Both Critical Mass and URzaTron have trump in the late game with Keiga and eight counters; issues include not being run over by bears before the late game hits. Sometimes the answer is to play cheaper, if less obviously powerful, permission spells for the early game; at other times the answer is to tap out for a 3/3 for three mana so that the opponent won’t have tempo advantage, and may therefore elect not to run out the Dust Drinker before Blue Legend mana hits. Asking "what can beat me," and answering that question without giving up the powerhouse reasons to play a deck in the first place, is a highly strategic branch of templating that is sometimes difficult to identify via superficial examination.

Probably the most impressive implementations of deck templating are those that lower the fundamental turn of an otherwise excellent deck (though I can’t recall ever having accomplished one of these myself). Dan Paskins killed the Goblin deck’s darlings by removing Gempalm Incinerator for Shrapnel Blast, a decision that was as fundamentally maverick as it was dismissed by idiots. The mere inclusion of Aether Vial in the obvious Ravager Affinity deck is another example of templating in service to fundamental turn. Do you realize that there were decks as late as Champs 2004 that didn’t play a card that not only sped up, but also turned 75% of its action into uncounterable instants? Would you consider such an oversight subsequent to the summer 2004 Grand Prix season a violation of the Prime Rule or no?

Identifying these or other strategic considerations, and building to tip a deck’s performance or matchup percentages around such points, is often the difference between a good, if known, deck and the kind that makes a lasting change in the perceptions and builds of decks subsequent to its release.


Deckade, a collection of the first ten years of Michael’s decks, thoughts, and theory regarding Magic: The Gathering is available at Top8Magic.com.