Any Given Sunday – Part I

I’m thinking Magic, and I’m thinking football, and I can’t seem to divorce the two of them from my mind. I’ve been working on my rogue Standard deck, which has performed quite well in playtesting and, if not for foolish idiocy on my part, would have been 5-1 at a tournament Saturday. Wouldacouldashoulda means nothing,…

I’m thinking Magic, and I’m thinking football, and I can’t seem to divorce the two of them from my mind. I’ve been working on my rogue Standard deck, which has performed quite well in playtesting and, if not for foolish idiocy on my part, would have been 5-1 at a tournament Saturday. Wouldacouldashoulda means nothing, however, and what matters is performance, in both sports. Speaking of which:

Go, Saints.

As I sit here, I’m amazed by the fact that the New Orleans Saints, one of football’s most hexed franchises, have won their division, while the 9-6 St. Louis Rams -Super Bowl Champions, and just weeks ago recipients of such statements as, "They could go undefeated! Who’s going to stop them?" – look as if they may be staying at home knitting sweaters. Who would have thought? When the season began, there were a handful of teams that were "givens." They were locks; they were the ones who were the glitzy, glamorous, bandwagonesque choices to go all the way.

It’s always surprised me how many people seem to prefer it when there are only a few quality teams. You hear a lot of traditionalists complaining about parity in the NFL; here it is, Week 17, and the playoff picture is still clouded. There are still teams at 9-6 who can control their own destiny and fight into the playoffs. This isn’t your mother’s NFL, where everything is decided by Week 6. Tragedy! Chaos! The sky is falling! Hasbro’s firing everyone!


Parity in a competitive environment has long been surprisingly controversial. Human nature seems to indicate some sort of genetic obsession with "the best," with the propensity to look for "all-time greats," and to compare and contrast individuals from different eras and engage in endless arguments about who was really the best ever, Top 50 lists and HBO specials and endless conversation that fills up the quiet moments in bars and barber shops. This applies to Magic, to sports, to theater, to music. I’m certain that there’s some credence to our sense of mortality… but this isn’t a philosophy class and I ain’t preachin’.

What am I doing, then? Just rambling, all, just rambling, because the current Standard environment has introduced parity, and a lot of people either vehemently oppose it or deny that it exists. The others say that it’s bad for the game because it means there aren’t enough powerful cards. Anti-parity parties complain about watered-down talent, and say that parity equals mediocrity. It doesn’t bother me; maybe I’m a closet socialist and haven’t realized it yet.

How long is this going to last? I don’t know. If you follow rumors on mtgnews, the balance of power is going to shift towards U/W even further. If so, c’est la vie – enjoy the parity while it lasts.

In Magic, the parity argument crops up as much as anywhere, and the Standard environment reeks of the NFL to me. The preseason favorites were (and still are) Rebels, Fires, and U/W Control. For those football-minded out there, call them the Redskins, Rams, and Bucs. The teams are the favored, they’re going to go all the way, and no other teams stand a chance. How can you withstand the Rams’ offense or the Buccaneers’ defense? Why should you even bother showing up? Yeah, sure, some teams are going to give them fits, but when playoff time comes, they’re the ones that are going to be in the playoffs while your team’s going to be sitting at home, munching on Doritos and wishing that you’d developed your team the way that they did. Spend as much money on free agents as you want, but having those expensive rares isn’t going to guarantee a winning year.

People lock themselves into the preseason favorites and they stick with their picks long beyond the point of validity, when reality raises its hand and says, "Hmm…Didn’t you lose to Carolina in week 3? Didn’t you get beaten by a poor Cowboys team by 27 points?" They’re so determined to classify The Best, or The Ones to Beat, that they limit their ability to flex and adjust (and wax and wane?) and adjust their stand once they see how the environment – in Magic OR in sports – has modified itself to meet the predominant decks.

Those predominant decks are such because they are good decks – VERY good decks – and so many people played them at Chicago that there’s been a rash of commentary on the subject. The success of those decks seems to have become the basis of people believing there aren’t viable alternatives, as if you were given the answer "4" and automatically assume the answer is 2 plus 2 instead of 1.7 plus 2.3.

I still maintain there are plenty of decks out there. Plenty of rogue decks, if you will. And if you don’t will, then call it something else.

I’ve noticed an increasing tendency for rogues and netdeckers to go at each other; it’s normal, it’s part of the game, and I generally ignore it or read it bemusedly. They’re arguing the same thing, much like the ages-old Christianity vs. Atheism discussion. No, trust me, I’m not going to get into that. (::hitting self: not a philosophy class, not a philosophy class::) That rogue vs. netdecker theology, however, fits into my discussion here, so I’m going to run with it.

Gotta go to work.

In 1979, the NFL experienced something it had never seen before. Bill Walsh, new head coach of the San Francisco 49ers, developed a new system; it didn’t have a name. It was just "his way." The team had long been mired in mediocrity and needed new life. Well, the 49ers had no running game, and everyone knew it; thus, he developed an offense based upon quick, short passes and timing that mimicked a running game without actually being one.

Three years later, they won the Super Bowl, and the 49ers were on their way to being the NFL’s most dominant franchise of the 80s (and, some might argue, most of the 90s as well). Bill Walsh’s offense garnered a name for itself, becoming known as the "West Coast Offense." People weren’t sure WHY it worked, but it DID work… despite the slowness of announcers and strategists to embrace the change in offensive philosophy.

The team went through some personnel shakeups, of course; but they featured the power of Joe Montana, Jerry Rice, Ronnie Lott; names that even most casual football fans recognize as Hall-of-Fame material. As the victories piled up and the 49ers made appearance after appearance in the playoffs, people wondered how they could possibly be stopped.

People NOTICED this. I have a suspicion that if the NFL were Magic, then people would say that Montana and Rice were a broken combo deck – many argued that you could throw any other players in the mix because the two of them alone beat virtually any opponent.

It wasn’t merely those two that beat them; it was the system within which they worked, the strategies that they used, and the way they utilized the resources available to them. Walsh didn’t try to create something out of nothing; he used what talent was there and maximized it. Sure, throwing a Montana or a Rice into the mix helps, but the philosophy lives on to this day.

Right now there are thirteen head coaches in the NFL that utilize the West Coast offense, or derivations of the same philosophy (anecdote for the interested: That’s Holmgren, Shanahan, Seifert, Mariucci, Green, Dungy, Coslett, Rhodes, Billick, Gruden, Carroll, Fisher and Reid.)

That’s 13 out of 31, which is a healthy 42%.

I’m thinking that about now, you’re starting to figure out where this allegory is headed. Application time, folks.

I’ve read the rogue/netdeck arguments for what seems like millennia, and for the most part figure it’s as much part of the game as a 20-sider. What I never fail to understand is why either side feels the need to clarify their position as The Better Position, or to take potshots at the other side in some vainglorious attempt to subjugate them once and for all. It makes no sense.

I consider myself a rogue player in many ways. I’m a tweaker, first and foremost. There are great ideas out there, and I’m better at taking a neat idea and making it work or improving upon it than creating something completely from scratch. Perhaps I’m the BASF of deckbuilders.

(::fade in, voiceover:: "I don’t make all of the decks I see. I make all of the decks I see better." ::fade out::)

I always want to play something non-mainstream. I always seek for alternatives; I build decks to beat the metagame, not to join it. I’d rather build a deck that has a chance against 90% of the predominant decks; it’s my preference, and my skill, for I don’t think I’m going to create too many broken combos on my own. My boycott on blue for the current Extended season is because of my desire to be different, not because I feel I would be selling out by playing Trix or CounterSliver. While I think Illusion’s tricks are ridiculous, and that the concept of 21 is vulgar and wrong, the existing archetypes are there for a reason, and that is because they are good, and it is no more foolish to play one of them than it is NOT to play one of them.

All players may play what they want. Each player has an opportunity to win, regardless of deck built. Neither player is better than the other.

Too bad that won’t be printed.

My leanings are toward rogue simply because I like originality and being able to beat the best; I like the underdogs (Saints fan rallying cry), and the challenge of creating something to matchup against anything. But when people play the net decks, why are they frowned upon? First of all, most net decks start out as rogue decks; it’s sort of like the concept of not liking your favorite band simply because they become popular. Secondly, there is normally a synergistic and simultaneous development across the Magic community of certain decks. I know that Scott Forster had his "How to Make Blastoderm Do 20" deck two weeks before we saw Fires as an archetype. It happens – good cards fit together in good ways, and people pick up on that. I was the first in St. Louis to put Ankh and Tide together. So be it.

Likewise, the West Coast Offense was innovative and new – but it was bound to happen eventually. It swept through the NFL with tremendous success. Teams were ill-equipped to stop it; they had neither the tactics nor the personnel to deal with it. Powerful defenses built to stop the lumbering running attacks of the late 70s were too slow and unathletic to contain the quick, sure passes.

Now, thirteen teams run the West Coast Offense. It’s a great offense – it’s a high-percentage system that has evolved into various permutations of the same base system. Defenses have evolved to the point where they can match up with it; defenses are quicker, faster, they recognize it more easily, they know how to disrupt it. It’s prevalent, and not as unstoppable, but make no mistake – it’s also still highly successful.

So, I ask you: is the West Coast offense broken? Everyone’s running it, and most of the teams that are doing so are having tremendous success. There are twelve playoff spots in the NFL. Out of the twelve teams, seven of them are running the West Coast offense, with two others potentially making it into the playoffs as well.

Nine out of twelve teams running one offense, winding up in the playoffs? That DEFINITELY seems broken.

And, I guarantee there isn’t an outcry against the coaches running it. I doubt Jon Gruden of the Raiders is going to field accusations that he is unoriginal for using the West Coast offense, that he should have been inventive and tried something new, that he had sold out by using an offensive philosophy that was hard to stop in many ways, that it shows that he doesn’t have a mind of his own.

You see this happening in other sports as well. People try to emulate the triangle offense in basketball or the neutral-zone trap philosophy in hockey (or the left-wing lock). Another football example is the Cover-2 defense, which a number of teams have adopted as their base style of pass defense because of the uprising of passing offenses like the Rams. Punch, counterpunch.

For every successful philosophy, there’s one that runs wild and fails utterly. Football, because of its schemes, is the easiest sport to analogize, obviously – remember the Run-and-Shoot? The defunct Houston Oilers looked good doing it (though since they’re now defunct, perhaps that says something), but the five or six other teams who tried to duplicate it failed utterly, and its fall in popularity and practice was as meteoric as its rise.

Folks, that’s the NFL, that’s sports, that’s Magic.

Archetypes will appear and disappear, but the successful ones will make themselves evident, and they will remain until the parts do not exist any more. (However, that’s the DIFFERENCE between sports and Magic, and between Magic and other games. Magic evolves, Magic changes, and that is the primary reason that I am addicted to the game so much. Because change is guaranteed to come.)

Is Sligh the Run-and-Shoot of Magic? Are Survival decks the West Coast offenses? Is Stompy the ball-control offense that rams it down your throat until you’re exhausted from tackling them? Who knows? Classify them however you wish. But in any game of strategy, there are going to be strategies that prove themselves over the course of time, and I think that people would be foolish NOT to consider using them.

I boycotted blue in Extended out of choice, but I gave a long look at Oath, and Stasis (yes, really), and Counter-Survival. I’m not a combo player, and thus those decks usually don’t appeal to me. But it wasn’t out of some sort of disregard for the validity of existing archetypes, and it certainly wasn’t because I had any less respect for people running those archetypes.

People run Trix for a reason: It wins. People run Sligh for a reason: It wins.

People use what works, in Magic, sports, and life.

My complaint about Extended has been, and will be, that there is a lack of parity because of the prevalence of imbalanced cards. I’m at the point where San Francisco has won the division for seven straight years and I’m tired of it and want a change, because while the standings seem to shift beneath ol’ San Fran, they always wind up on top, and because what I enjoy most is parity.

Say what you will about parity, but it keeps me interested in Magic. Fresh cards, fresh decks, fresh faces. I’m thrilled with the current Standard environment when so many others are willing to write it off – because, as I mentioned above, they’re sticking to their preseason favorites and refusing to acknowledge the holes in each team.

Give me 4-2 Black/Red, 4-2 Ankh-Tide, 4-1-1 ‘Geddon or B/U Discard. Give me something different. But please, don’t give me Rebels, Fires, and UW all the time. See the holes, attack the holes, and take ’em out. They don’t look to suffer any season-ending injuries anytime soon (like poor Lin-Sivvi in ’99), but they’re vulnerable. Rebels doesn’t have a passing game, Fires has a shoddy defense, and UW relies too much on waiting for the other team to make mistakes.

Other articles on the Net point to these three as the only decks worth playing, when all evidence points to the contrary. The Big Three dominated Chicago, but also represented 80% of the field – how could they not do well? Saturation usually has the desired effect on statistics.

I’ve been working on decks that beat all three of those consistently while being virtually nothing like any of them. In other words, I’m not going to take Rebels and turn it into "Rebels with Burn" and consider it new and original.

As such, I developed the "God deck" – that’s a theme, not an ego. And after very successful test runs, I attended a local Premiere Event this past weekend with the rest of Team Binary 21 (the name has such a fun ring to it). Will ran Ankh-Tide (::handing out smelling salts to everyone who fainted in shock::) and Scott ran Bookshelf.dec, an interesting deck that has a story all its own that’s not mine to tell, primarily because it involves all of my decks getting stomped.

I knew that the deck was untuned, and needed to see it perform competitively, and was quite pleased with the results. In fact, it was rather dominant, with my draw coming because I forgot that Withdraw requires two targets (long story). I had a loss against a Fires deck when I had horrible mana draws two games in a row ("Um, mulligan to four?"), after beating a virtually identical deck into the ground two matches before.

(I was eaten up, however, by a white-blue Nether-Go variant, and when Rith awakened from her slumber and was Bribed into being a beatstick for the wrong team, I took the experience as valuable and quickly set about tuning the deck so that wouldn’t happen again. Forget her and her cute little Saprolings. Rith, go home. End of story.)

I saw the counter-responses I’ve written about being utilized, which thrilled me (simultaneous development by many, does that mean they’re rogue? Nah.) I saw people Addling Blastoderms out of hands, I saw people (though still too few – c’mon, with Tangle Wire and Idol so prevalent?) packing artifact removal, I saw Bursts sprouting cases of Creeping Mold. I saw waves of Rebels die to Massacres. Two Blue Skies archetype with Waters in it made Top 8 by slowing down the acceleration massively with quick fliers and free counterspells. And, yes, Armadillo Cloak DOES make a difference against Fires.

These decks weren’t merely showing up and working, they were winning, and they were winning good games against good opponents.

These decks are the ones that were downplayed or thought inferior. They’re the New Orleans Saints and Philadelphia Eagles AFTER they lost top offensive players and everyone counted them out. The population was enamored with the amazing talents of the Rams, Bucs, and Redskins. Look at them now, scrambling for their postseason lives. The ‘Skins are already out, and the Rams may follow them.

Now, I don’t believe that Rebels, Fires, and U/W are going to fail miserably. Not at all – it’s the preseason, and these are the teams to beat on everyone’s charts. The holes exist, however. Rebels takes awhile to set up. Fires can burn out or be shut down if you eliminate their acceleration or have removal of your own. U/W can’t handle too many threats at once, and it lacks a variety of win conditions.

I don’t profess to be the best metagamer out there; I think I’m fairly realistic, however. Who looks more foolish now? Those who predicted there are only three teams with a chance to win the Super Bowl, or those who said that they have weaknesses that other teams will exploit and that they won’t perform as well as everyone thinks?

I’m in the latter camp. For the record, I picked Tennessee and Tampa in the Super Bowl. When it comes to Magic, I’m predicting that there are holes, and that people can find them, and that I’m going to keep tweaking my deck.

Next time I write, I hope to examine that deck, barring some out-of-this-world occurrence that demands I espouse my views on it ("What? Lightning Bolt is legal again?")

Disclaimer: That’s not true, for the gullible among us, and was only used as an example.

For now, however, let the metaphors settle in. If you don’t like football, I apologize – I love sports, and competition, and frequently throw sports metaphors into conversation for no other reason than self-amusement. You should be able to catch what I’m throwing to you, which boils down to this:

There is no dominant team out there, and on any given Sunday, you can win.


P.S: One last thing – apparently I’m a Featured Writer now, for which I’d like to thank Pete and Ferrett, for giving me a chance, and for those of you who’ve been considerate enough to drop me a line, for your support. I don’t know where I’m going with this, but I love writing, and consider myself fortunate to have latched on at Star City.

The God Deck is comin’, baby.