Battle Royale Round 2: Snakes Off A Plane

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We’ve had Ben’s take on affairs… now it’s the turn of the gallant loser, Richard. He takes the beats in his stride, and analyses his deck and performance with an accute eye. An excellent report detailing some of the pitfalls we face in both our play and our deck design.

The battle is over, and Ben Goodman is victorious. There’s much to discuss, but a lot of it depends on knowing what happened over the course of the match, so I’ll start off with a quick recap.

Game 1, Ben opens with Scout and multiple lands to accelerate with. I have a decent amount of acceleration myself, but I keep drawing lands. Ben starts playing out more Snakes, and tries Seshiro to get in a fat attack. I Remand it, then topdeck a Seshiro of my own. At this point he has nine snakes to my two (yes, I’ve really been drawing that much land) and so I play my Seshiro solely in order to stop him from playing his own and attacking with seven more large Ophidians than I can block. It doesn’t matter, as he has Coat of Arms instead for the win.

Game 2, we trade tons of snakes back and forth, as we both have Sosuke’s Summons and Patagia Vipers aplenty. I break the stalemate wide open with Congregation for two copies of Seshiro and Patagia Viper, prompting a concession from Ben.

Game 3, neither of us has any action in the early turns. I am holding multiple Mana Leaks and Remands, and only a pair of Tidings and a Glare for action. This is a fine draw if Ben has a normal Snakes hand of threats and finishers – I can Remand some early guys, cantrip my way into more lands and some action of my own, and have Mana Leaks to spare for his finishers. Sadly, Ben does not have a normal Snakes hand. What Ben has is a strictly superior version of my oddball hand: his seems to be all counters and land, meaning I get stuck on four lands while Ben plows ahead with land drop after land drop. Eventually I draw an Azorius Chancery and play it (leaving me with only three mana open), so Ben is able to force a Seshiro in by Remanding my counter. With an immediately dangerous 3/4 Ophidian on the board, I have to start putting up some kind of defense. Unfortunately I have no defense to speak of, and the game gets out of control very quickly when he starts attacking and drawing cards with his Legendary Snake.

Game 4 is the critical point in the match. I accelerate out an early Glare of Subdual and play a few snakes to go with it. Then I make a mistake.

As a reflex, I put a stop on Ben’s combat step, just as I would in any draft situation on MTGO where I have a creature-tapping effect. In Limited, I would almost always prefer to tap my opponent’s guys at the last minute, just before he can declare them as attackers. If I were to tap them, say, during his upkeep, I might miss out on some first-main-phase action that could have altered my decision. (He might play an Aura or Equipment on one of his guys, cast a Haste guy, etc.)

However, in this particular case, I knew my opponent’s entire list. I knew Ben did not have any Auras, Equipment, or Haste guys. As such, it might have been a good idea to use my ample supply of Minister of Impediments clones to tap down, say, his mana-producing Orochi Sustainer during his upkeep. I realized this about two seconds after I had passed the turn without having set the Upkeep stop, as Ben tapped out (including the Sustainer I could have Ported) exactly six mana for a game-breaking Seshiro.

I was down a Snake at this point, so he got to come in and draw a card. And now I was stuck once again with a handful of countermagic and an inferior board position – an unenviable state, to say the least. Within a turn my only hope was resolving a topdecked Meloku, but Ben had the Remand, and a Mana Leak when I Remanded back, and that was the game and the match.

Here, I could end this tournament report by going back and pointing out all the times where Ben savagely outdrew me throughout the match, or…

… I could focus in on the fact that I missed the opportunity to win it.

How differently could this have ended if I had remembered to put in the Upkeep stop in game 4? What if I tap down his Sustainer, he can’t cast Seshiro, and I untap with counters in hand, a Glare of Subdual in play, and a Meloku about to jump off the library and into my hand when Ben has not gotten the Ophidian-fueled lands and counters necessary to stop it this time?

One might be quick to blame my whiff on MTGO’s user interface, but the fact of the matter is that I just plain forgot. Had I said, “go” in a real-life tournament and failed to blurt out “on your upkeep…” before my opponent had drawn his card and begun tapping for Seshiro, I would have been equally out of luck.

This is why Magic is a skill-intensive game. Yeah, Ben was outdrawing me left and right, but at the end of the day, the simple fact is that I screwed up and lost. With one fewer misplay in the match, I could have taken game 4, and then maybe gotten a karmic nuts draw of my own in game 5 to take home the match. I’m not saying I would have won had I put in the Upkeep stop, but I certainly wouldn’t have lost the way I did.

Mike Flores wrote that Anonino DeRosa once said the pros don’t usually win because they make spectacular plays so much as they do because their opponents give away more games due to screwups. That’s exactly what happened here. Ben didn’t have to do anything fancy to beat me; I handed him the match by making a mistake. In competitive Magic, one mistake is all it takes.

And who knows? It’s entirely possible – nay, entirely likely – that we each made numerous other misplays in each of the games we played. Maybe none of them were big enough to alter the outcome of the game in question, but all it takes is one game-changing misplay to alter the outcome of a match, even in a best-of-five set. Or even the outcome of a tournament, as I recall discussing awhile back.

In fact, I’m almost positive I made at least one more misplay in my sideboarding strategy. I brought in Tidings and Mana Leaks for a couple of different cards (which I’ll discuss below), a strategy which I now believe was incorrect… though I’m not exactly sure how.

I suppose it’s only fair to mention that I didn’t test the matchup at all prior to our battle. I would have been more than happy to under normal circumstances, as I am one of those freaks of nature who just really likes playing Constructed Magic, but see, my girlfriend drove 27 hours to be with me for this week, and I mean… you know… I meeeean….

I didn’t test. But like I said, although I’m pretty sure my boarding was incorrect, I’m not exactly sure what I should have done instead.

I took out Coat of Arms without thinking twice about it, as it’s only going to be useful about half the time against another Snakes deck. If I have more Snakes than Ben does, and neither of us has Seshiro, then yay! Each time one of my guys connects, Ben loses a fat chunk of life. However, if Ben has more guys than I do – or ends up with more sometime after I’ve played the Coat – then the Coat will actually hurt me, meaning it will be a blank card in my hand at best, and a waste of mana that actively ends my life if I have already played it when Ben’s snake count overtakes mine. Looking at our two lists, I don’t see myself outproducing him on snakes so often that the Coat will consistently be a game-ender in my favor, so I took it out.

Then I thought I’d want both Mana Leak and Tidings in, but in retrospect I’m not so sure. I think that by sideboarding in this way, I may have been trying to bolster the wrong parts of my game against Ben.

See, the reason I lost games 1 and 3 was that I drew the wrong mix of support cards, lands, and threats.

In game 1, I drew tons of mana producers and nothing else. Ben had turn 1 Scout into a bounceland, and ample threats from there on out, plus counters in hand and two separate finishers. He had the right mix.

In game 2, we were both heavy on threats but low on game-breakers, so we hit a relative stalemate until I drew Congregation and ended the game. Although we both had a good mix here, I had superior game-breaking power to end this one in my favor.

In game 3, I had tons of support cards – Mana Leaks, Remands, Glare, and Tidings – but no threats or lands. Ben also had counters, but plenty of lands, so he was eventually able to force through Seshiro and just beat me. Again we both had a bad mix of lands, threats, and support cards, but Ben’s bad mix had a serious advantage on my own.

Once again in game 4, I was behind on land. I had four to Ben’s six, and he was able to get Seshiro down and defend it with countermagic while I was backpedaling and trying a desperation Meloku to save myself. (Yes, he only resolved Seshiro because of my misplay – but keep in mind that even if he had been limited to five mana, he could have snuck in a Patagia Viper and used his counters to defend his superior board position.) Again, Ben had a good mix and I was stuck with a bad one.

Distilling what happened in each game down to these key elements allows us to observe a few things.

  • Countermagic in this matchup is only good when you’re ahead on the board. If you’re behind, you have to start tapping out in your main phase to keep from slipping even further behind, at which point you fall victim to your opponent’s countermagic. In games 3 and 4, Ben always deployed his lands faster and in greater numbers than I did, and his counters were always good. Mine said Mana Leak and Remand across the top just like his did, but they mostly stayed in my hand and did nothing because I almost never had good opportunities to play them.
  • Mana production and acceleration is key, because of the previous point. The faster you get your lands and snakes out, the sooner you can defend against your opponent’s game-breakers with countermagic. However, the caveat to this is that you can’t draw too many mana-producers or too many accelerants (as I did in game 1) or you will lose due to a lack of action.
  • Game breakers are key. I won game 2 because we bashed our snakes against one another until I played Congregation, and then mine were suddenly huge. In fact, neither player ever won one a game without playing a game-breaker that pumped his snakes into unfair powerhouses.
  • Countermagic is the cheapest way to stop the opponent’s game-breakers, but again, it is only effective at doing so when you are ahead on the board.

Bearing all this in mind, let’s look at my sideboarding strategy after game one.

+4 Mana Leak
+3 Tidings
-3 Coat of Arms
-2 Faith’s Fetters
-2 Sakura-Tribe Scout

Having not practiced the matchup, and having just gotten obliterated due to an abundance of mana accelerants and a lack of action in game 1, it seemed right at the time to trim my Scout count. Looking back, this was a bad idea. The first thing each player has to do in the snakes mirror is to get ahead on the board so that he can enable his countermagic, and Scout is one of the three creatures (the other two being Elder and Sustainer) that allow me to do that. I also think taking out Fetters was right, as it doesn’t do much in this matchup, but I’m still not sold on Tidings.

I think a better plan might have been something like this:

+4 Mana Leak
+1 Tidings
-3 Coat of arms
-2 Faith’s Fetters

Is this right? I’m still not convinced. It could be that the Kami of Ancient Law and/or the Viridian Shaman should be in simply because they block unpumped Snakes all day. Ben was constantly knocking down my life total in the early game because he had more 1/1s than I had blockers, forcing me to tap out for more and more expensive snake-producers in order to defend. This opened me up to his countermagic, and so on and so forth… might I have been better off just playing a cheap 2/2 defender or two and being able to keep countermagic mana of my own open?

I’m not going to dive any deeper into the intricacies of this budget snakes mirror match – since… um… who cares besides Ben and me, two days ago? – but I would like, very much, to impress upon you the difference between looking at the results of this match as “I drew too much acceleration in game 1 and not enough in games 3 and 4” and “I sideboarded wrong and made a misplay in game 4.” Both statements are true, but one of them I could have done something about. Being a consistently successful competitive Magician is all about limiting your losses to the things you can’t control, which is exactly what I failed to do here.

So congratulations, Ben! Good luck in the next round, and see you at Nationals.

To everyone else, hope you’ve enjoyed my contributions to this series. It’s been an absolute blast diving into budget Magic for a bit, and I hope to have the chance to return to the series at some point down the line. (Seriously, all it takes to get us competitive players involved is to make the challenge official.)

Until next time!

Richard Feldman
Team Check Minus
[email protected]

Bonus Section: More About The Deck

Snakes on a Plane is a blast to play in general. It’s got tons of big, scary threats against control (Coat of Arms, Seshiro, Meloku), multiple ways to reload (Sosuke’s Summons, Congregation at Dawn, Meloku), the ability to quickly and decisively outclass the offense of aggro decks (Glare of Subdual, Coat of Arms), and more raw power than most midrange decks thanks to Seshiro and Coat.

The sideboarding plan against board control decks was as follows:

+4 Mana Leak
+3 Tidings
-4 Sakura-Tribe Scout
-3 Glare of Subdual

The plan was basically to set myself up with a few early beaters and then either defend them from mass removal with countermagic, or simply to refill with Tidings if they were swept away. Tidings would draw me into copies of Sosuke’s Summons, which was the key card that let me put control decks’ backs to the wall when they were trying to win on card advantage.

Against fast aggro I went like this.

+3 Condemn
-2 Congregation at Dawn
-1 Meloku the Clouded Mirror

I would bring in the third Faith’s Fetters here, as well, if the aggro deck in question were sporting either Umezawa’s Jitte or an excess of burn, and would probably cut a Patagia Viper for it.

If you weren’t playing on a budget, I’d say cut the Fetters and a Patagia Viper or a Sakura-Tribe Scout (I’m honestly not sure which would be more important in a non-budget environment) for three copies of Jitte and then re-tool the sideboard.

If anyone has any other questions about the deck, feel free to email me!