Attacking Formats

Everyone wants to break a format… but we can’t all be John F Rizzo. For every Friggorid, there’s a thousand aborted deck ideas lounging in Bad Build Limbo. Today, Mike examines the skills one must possess in order to achieve the Holy Grail of Deckbuilding, with particular reference to formats past. Is breaking a format possible when playing fair? Is solving a format more lucrative than breaking it? Click here to find out…

Our intrepid editor Craig Stevenson recently sent me a number of potential article topics, among which was “how to break a format.” Unfortunately I don’t think that I’ve ever broken a format, so I wouldn’t know the first thing about breaking one. I decided to look back and examine formats broken by friends and collaborators, in order to figure out the trappings of a format ripe for breaking.

The first example that came to mind was Grand Prix Detroit in 2003. Coming off his win at Pro Tour Venice, Osyp Lebedowicz updated his R/W Astral Slide deck for the PTQ season, and initiated what teammate Josh Ravitz described as “a clear break.” Osyp’s Detroit deck produced the following finishes:

Eugene Harvey – 2
Joshua Ravitz –3
Tony Tsai – 11
Osyp Lebedowicz – 29

I don’t know if that was all of them, but to my best recollection, those players – two of whom basically only lost to eventual champion Bob Maher – were most of them. So what was up with this deck?

The Top 8 decks are here. For ease of reference, here’s Eugene Harvey’s second-place decklist:

The thing is, this deck doesn’t really look all that different from, say, Mark Herberholz deck, or even Bob’s deck (which was designed by “the American Go Anan,” QP Brian Kowal). Osyp’s deck had one more basic Plains than Heezy’s, its Jareths in the sideboard instead of one main deck, and the eclectically different mix of business spells – only two Astral Slides and no Renewed Faiths, but half its Wing Shards main. Osyp’s number of Astral Slides eventually became the default for the format, so there was definitely something to Detroit’s “clear break.”

“Man! Wing Shards! Do you know what kind of deck I could have made if Wing Shards were legal for Venice?”

“Uh, Osyp… You won Venice.”

Having won the relevant Block Pro Tour, Osyp already had the best deck. The Goblins (the other big deck of the Onslaught Block Pro Tour) decks improved, but they didn’t really improve to the point that they were ahead of Slide (the inclusion of Goblin Warchief and Siege-Gang Commander did, however, spell the end for G/W Vegetation and Beasts, dangerous opponents for the R/W cycling). The really scary threat for Slide was Akroma, Angel of Wrath. Billy Jensen respected Akroma to the point that he was willing to send Oblation at her; the presence of Wing Shards decreased the popularity of Akroma… and playing Wing Shards maindeck was fine against Goblins anyway (you would often get a two-for-one on the Warchief turn). As I noted above, a key difference between Osyp’s clear break and a stock R/W was the position of at least some of the Shards.

It’s sort of working backwards (historically), but consider perfectly-good-and-Pro Tour-winning deck U/R Trick… and add Necropotence and some broken mana engines. You go from a deck that was possibly the best of its era and possibly not (Trick had to contend with a full-on The Rock, Turbo-Land, Tinker, and at least eventually, Miracle Grow), to a deck that was unconditionally the best, if not the most fearsome combination deck in the history of competitive Magic. Possibly you can create a break, therefore, by taking a perfectly good deck and taking it to the next level by some inclusion that changes its worst matchups, or makes it fundamentally unbeatable or some such. Note how taking out Astral Slide was probably not that big a deal on defense (it would, of course, slow down the quick flips for Exalted Angel) because the decks that had Akroma would also have had Akroma’s Vengeance (and when that got cast, the Angel of Wrath would be hiding out of game for a moment).

Anyway, I don’t really think of myself as an expert on breaking formats, but I think I do understand how to solve a format. Here is something that old flatterer Zvi Mowshowitz wrote about some guy named “Mike”:

“… Unlike my philosophy of deck building, where I try to take the unfair and make it as unfair as possible, Mike finds a way to make inherently fair cards and strategies win. Often what he’s working with looks so fair that no one even thinks there’s a viable deck to be built, only to discover when he’s done that they have a new addition to their gauntlet. The better he knows his enemy, the better he can tune his strategies to beat it. To me, that’s an even bigger accomplishment (when it works) than finding powerful cards that work well together. I only have to consider my own deck; he has to consider everything.”

The closest I ever came to breaking a format was probably Napster, but even that wasn’t a true break. At Regionals I had the best deck on the numbers, but Don Lim’s deck was actually broken whereas mine just played a bunch of cards that would eventually become banned. At Nationals it was even better, but the fact that essentially the same cards pool would later produce Tinker kind of invalidates any potential brokenness claim that Napster may have had.

This is the quintessential “solved format” deck. Basically we had one of everything so that if we ever played Vampiric Tutor, we’d pretty much automatically win – Perish was there for StOmPy, Stromgald Cabal beat Replenish, and Yawgmoth’s Will got everybody. The difference between Napster – a deck that just happened to beat every deck other than Accelerated Blue more-or-less automatically – and a really broken deck like Replenish, Tinker, or Trix is its twofold 1) relationship to the rest of the metagame, and 2) kill. Notice that we tested against all the stock decks – White Weenie, Magpie, Trinity, Bargain, what have you – and dominated them, figured out how to turn a coin flip against Replenish into a 75% matchup via Stromgald Cabal, and decided that no one in his right mind was going to play Accelerated Blue in this particular metagame (Mike Long made Top 8 but not the National Team); the deck was much weaker against Aaron Forsythe deck for which we had no Silver Bullet. Generally speaking a format-breaking deck – generally by nature of its kill – will not tend to care about these deck-to-deck distinctions, whereas Napster had to pay attention to everything and also accommodate all the different decks with a variety of bullets.

By contrast, consider the other best decks of the summer of 2000. Replenish was so good because it was disgustingly unfair. Everybody needs lands, and Parallax Tide makes them all go away. Moreover, due to Opalescence, it just had the most efficient guys, countless 4/4s for four mana. Tinker was an explosive deck that fired off its Metalworker and Grim Monolith hands regardless of what deck the opponent was.

Solving formats is a heck of a lot easier than breaking them. Usually my mindset for known formats is to test against all the known decks and try to create a shape that is 2% better than every other deck in the room. I have a lot of rules for playing decks that most other players don’t hold themselves to. For example, I value consistency over card power, and I like drawing and playing lands. The reason is that at the PTQ level, if you have some percentage of games you are going to lose, almost all of those (assuming you are ahead of your opponents in general) are going to come from being manascrewed (or at least color screwed). So the obvious solution is to play a deck that is less likely to fall prey to those games.

One of the strategies to gain popularity in late Kamigawa Block was to play a deck like Critical Mass, but with Godo, Bandit Warlord, cheating on Jittes. I tested that but decided that was dumb for a couple of reasons: First of all, I was only losing when I tapped out and the White Weenie on the other side deployed a Dust Drinker. So I cut all the Overwhelming Intellects and quickly eliminated the possibility of playing Godo. On a more simple level, the U/G version was quite good… Why tempt fate with a third color? Also, why was it a good idea to cheat on Jittes? I basically wanted to draw Jitte and didn’t care if I had a redundant Jitte. The format was mostly about Jitte. If I had a Jitte online I was probably winning, and if I had a redundant Jitte, it would probably cease being redundant fairly quickly, or my opponent was just going to lose anyway.

Gifts Ungiven wasn’t a very interesting matchup (Critical Mass never lost), but Mono-Blue Control was (Critical Mass also never lost, but it was actually interesting). Gifts and Critical Mass were sort of evenly matched on the guys, but Critical Mass had Jitte and counters, so winning was difficult for Gifts. Mono-Blue was a sequential tempo fight. Critical Mass had the initiative early with any three drop, or even just Sakura-Tribe Elders (sometimes with Jitte). The trick was to just attack in the early game, and Mono-Blue would have to play something expensive (i.e. a Meloku). Then Critical Mass would counter and play a Kodama, or one of its Blue Legends, and that would be game boys. In a three-game match, Critical Mass was just better than Mono-Blue in every way. They had many of the same cards, but Critical Mass had mana acceleration to make them better whereas Mono-Blue had these uncastable counters that would not usually be online in one of Critical Mass’s typical – that is “winning” – games.

Here is what I eventually thought was the best deck for Masques Block Constructed:

1 Predator, Flagship

4 Afterlife
4 Blinding Angel
3 Cho-Manno’s Blessing
2 Disenchant
4 Mageta, the Lion
4 Parallax Wave
4 Seal of Cleansing
4 Story Circle
4 Wave of Reckoning

2 Dust Bowl
2 Kor Haven
21 Plains
2 Rath’s Edge

1 Rishadan Pawnshop
“14 other cards”

The process that went into creating this deck was an odd one. I started off with a Black deck, but got screwed out of a Top 8 with seven Rebel decks via an illegal play (that a couple of my friends saw, if you can believe it). In Week Two I decided to side out all my Rebels against Justin Polin, and eventually figured out that the strategy was essential. After a couple more Top 8s, I decided to just not play any Rebels… Why play mono-Black to beat Rebels if I could beat them just as much but with better cards (in many cases, their best cards)!


1) This deck has a ton of lands, and
2) This deck has a tremendous plan against Blue Skies. Blue Skies loses to a resolved Story Circle but for a Rising Waters, and this deck can certainly answer one of those.

Oh, and for once the 61 cards was a conscious decision. I figured that by the end of the season, other players in contention might be trying White Control decks, so I wanted a way to win (I figured that both of us would have plenty to aim at the other’s thin number of threats). Along with the Pawnshop in the sideboard, my plan there was deck exhaustion.

Note that the strategy of figuring out and anticipating all of the opponent’s possible plays and choices really only works in small formats, which is why so many of the decks in this article are Block, or to a lesser degree, Standard.

A good example of this is States 2005 Jushi Blue. When I built that deck, the metagame was small, with just some badly built post-Kamigawa decks and Fungus Fire to deal with. By the time Regionals rolled around a couple of weeks ago, that was no longer true. At States the counter, counter, counter, Meloku strategy was more or less trump, usually because the opponents cards didn’t matter, and if there is one thing you want to do, it’s play a deck where the opponent’s cards don’t mean anything. For example, imagine you are playing a U/W control mirror. One of you draws the Blue cards and one of you draws the White cards; ergo, the one drawing all the Blue cards gets to draw even more cards and the one with all the White cards just has a hand full of blanks. In certain small set formats (like States past), you can play a deck that gets virtually unlimited card advantage because the opponent is essentially the White mage in the U/W mirror described a moment ago. Jushi Blue never got into Jitte fights, and had Boomerangs and Remands to control the tempo of the game. Rather than just ignoring him for the most part, once you hit five or six mana, you would play cards that he couldn’t deal with.

You can tell that Jushi Blue, while tremendously consistent, wasn’t broken, because by the time Regionals rolled around all manner of players were figuring out ways to control its card advantage (Seal of Fire and so on). Players knew about Tinker, but added one-for-one removal after boards; Replenish was worse, because even when players figured out how vulnerable that deck was to Rishadan Port strategies, it came back with Frantic Search. By contrast, a simple Ring of Gix, annoyingly costed three, would do the number on Napster.

Breaking a format is hard. In order to succeed at such a lofty goal – and by success, I mean success by design – one needs an uncommon overview of the metagame as a whole. Perhaps the most intuitive path to success lies in Zvi’s comment above: take the unfair things, and extend them to their natural, unbalanced conclusion. Me, I take the balanced view… breaking a format is a secondary goal, while understanding and solving a format is where the gold lies: the tools for breakage will likely disappear when the format rotates, but the skills for solving such puzzles are eternal.