An Apology from the Author
Danny Rudolphus of Grover Cleveland Middle School has requested that I no longer include”those phony ‘Apology from the Author’ sections” in my”trash articles.” Of course. I swear, it will never happen again.
Major Deck Archetypes
It has traditionally been maintained that there are three major deck archetypes: Aggro, Combo, and Control. Though conventional wisdom holds that these archetypes differ from one another essentially, we can, nonetheless, make out a number of similarities between them.
For example, despite their varying win conditions, Aggro and Combo are both proactive. A Goblins player ignores his or her opponents just as surely as a Mind’s Desire player does. Reactive cards may be useful in Aggro and Combo decks, but they always dilute the archetypes’ strategies. Goblins might find Shatter necessary against Ravager Affinity, yet Shatter is not essential to Goblins in itself. By the same token, Proteus Belcher decks could include Shatter not because the artifact removal essentially strengthens the win condition but because, absent artifact removal, the win condition might never get a chance to materialize. Simply, Aggro wins as a result of packets of damage from creatures and non-creature spells while Combo (for the purposes of this article, Prison-type decks using cards like Stasis and Winter Orb will not be considered) wins as a result of a massive one-off effect (for instance, a super-charged Fireball, instantaneous decking via Brain Freeze, or an”Oops, I win” off of Battle of Wits). None of the foregoing is likely to provoke much disagreement.
Let us, however, now consider Control. It is often assumed that, unlike the proactive Aggro and Combo, Control is essentially reactive. Evidence for this conclusion can be found in Control decks’ primarily reactive compositions. But how does a Control deck win games? At the moment, the most popular control decks (MWC and R/W Slide) win with creatures like Exalted Angel and Eternal Dragon. That is to say, whatever the differences in deck make-up, MWC and Goblins share a common win condition (attacking with creatures). Alternatively, mass removal-filled Darksteel Reactor decks are, essentially, a diluted form of Combo. This is not, incidentally, limited to today’s Standard environment. Even many of the powerful Blue-based Control decks of Vintage and Type 1 win either like an Aggro deck (with Morphling) or like a Combo deck (with Psychatog). The point is, no matter how controlling a Control deck may be, it necessarily relies on either Aggro or Combo win conditions.
Indeed, unlike Aggro and Combo decks, most Control decks are stuffed with inessential cards. After all, in the MWC player’s ideal game, the opposing Goblins or Ravager Affinity player will, for whatever reason (perhaps lack of mana or poor playing), be unable to play any creatures, making Wrath of God and Akroma’s Vengeance unnecessary. In the perfect game, U/W Control will never cast a single counterspell and will, bypassing the vast majority of its cards, move on directly to attacking with Exalted Angel. Control decks exist precisely because such perfect games are extremely rare and, generally, mass removal and counterspells are useful.
From the preceding analysis, we can make the following, basic statement: Aggro, Combo, and Control decks all function best against either bad decks or good decks that, for whatever reason, do badly in a game. That all of the top decks can also win against decks that do well is beside the point; what matters is that all three major deck archetypes are geared toward punishing bad play.
From the start, this presents a problem. Unless a player knows that his or her competition will primarily be bad decks and/or bad players, it is illogical to use a deck that works best when other decks work poorly. Certainly, in major tournaments, it is worthwhile to assume that most of your opponents will both bring a good deck to table and play that deck well. It is a sign of Goblins’ strength that it can often beat even well-functioning MWC decks, yet Goblins might do even better if it could find a way of benefiting from playing MWC decks. It could be suggested that the inclusion of Patriarch’s Bidding is just such an attempt at improving against MWC, yet in reality, in that particular matchup, Patriarch’s Bidding is often little more than an expensive counterspell. True, Patriarch’s Bidding plays a different role against Ravager Affinity, but even here, it garners no real benefit from the opposing deck. Excepting the instances in which the spell is used to fuel the Goblin Sharpshooter pseudo-combo, Patriarch’s Bidding is not essential to Goblin Bidding’s strategy; ideally, Goblin Bidding will have no need to cast Patriarch’s Bidding at all.
We can confidently set forth a number of points:
1) Aggro and Combo decks have proactive win conditions.
2) Control decks are, essentially, impure Aggro or Combo decks.
3) Because Aggro, Combo, and Control decks all have proactive win conditions, they all benefit from being able to ignore their opponents.
4) Opponents are easiest to ignore when, for whatever reason, they do badly.
5) Conclusion: Even though the top decks of all three major archetypes are designed to work and to be played by good players, most of these same decks are also designed to work best against bad decks played by bad players. Therefore, the tops decks of all three major archetypes will rarely perform at their peak levels.
In response to this, we will examine how to construct decks that perform at their peak against other decks that perform at their peak. For simplicity’s sake, this will be termed Wicker Man deck theory.
The Wicker Man
Some readers might be familiar with my suggestion for Regionals, the Wicker Man build of Ravager Affinity. This deck is based on Wicker Man deck theory and took its name from it. Furthermore, Wicker Man deck theory is named after a 1973 British horror film entitled, appropriately, The Wicker Man. As a full synopsis of the movie would go beyond the realm of our investigation, it is sufficient to explain only a portion of it.
In the film, the modern-day inhabitants of Summerisle, a Scottish island, perform ancient pagan fertility rituals in order to assure the bounty of their all-important apple crop. One year, this crop fails, and the people of Summerisle offer the gods a sacrifice of vegetables, animals, and a naïve, foolish human. These sacrifices are burnt within a giant, anthropomorphic figure of straw, the Wicker Man.
Naturally, the importance of The Wicker Man to Wicker Man deck theory is merely symbolic. Like the people of Summerisle, Wicker Man deck theory says that a deck can best prevent bad things from happening in the course of a game if it finds a way of turning opposing attacks into boons. Though it might appear odd for the people of Summerisle to sacrifice vegetables to gods precisely when vegetables are scarce, by performing this apparently-wasteful ritual, they are buying themselves future gains. Rather than, like most decks, focusing on opponents’ weaknesses (a purely proactive approach to deck building), a Wicker Man instead seeks to exploit their strengths. The advantage to this is simple: The better an opposing deck does, the better the Wicker Man deck will do, and if an opposing deck fares poorly, then the Wicker Man deck ought to be able to win anyway.
Note that, so far, we have concerned ourselves with archetypically pure decks (though in the case of Control, this concept is rather blurred). In reality, however, pure Aggro and Combo decks are uncommon; no matter how thoroughly Goblins intends to ignore its opponents, it will still run maindecked Sparksmiths and artifact destruction. With this in mind, we see that many decks (not quite accidentally) run individual cards that find a place in Wicker Man deck theory. As John Matthew Upton discovered, Disciple of the Vault not only makes Affinity better, but also causes problems for MWC. Similarly, Skullclamp can (and sometimes is) used as a Wrath of God counter-threat. Nonetheless, to enhance the clarity of our position, we will try to envision how certain cards can serve a general Wicker Man strategy and not take too much note of the more incidental Wicker Man cards. Below are analyses of a number of sample cards which, while not uniformly good, delineate different aspects of Wicker Man deck theory.
Though Underworld Dreams is most likely unplayable, it is, possibly, the spell most illustrative of Wicker Man deck theory. To begin with, while all Wicker Man cards are, to a greater or lesser extent, metagame dependent, Underworld Dreams is theoretically viable in all environments. Not only does every deck draw cards, but card advantage is so well thought of that most decks make significant sacrifices in order to gain it. Underworld Dreams has the following effects on your opponent: 1) One damage is dealt during each draw step, 2) cycling deals one damage, and 3) drawing off of Skullclamp costs one mana + cost of sacrificed creature + two damage, 4) by itself, Promise of Power halves its caster’s life total, and 5) winning with Brain Freeze becomes considerably more difficult.
Importantly, Underworld Dreams creates dilemmas for your opponent. If the enchantment is in play, will an opponent try to draw cards with Skullclamp? If she is at twenty life (more likely, nineteen life), the answer is almost certainly”yes.” But what if an opponent stands at five life and has Naturalize in his her deck? Underworld Dreams does more that just give your opponent a twenty-turn clock; it gives that opponent the opportunity to wind the clock forward. Even though the enchantment cannot be relied upon to deal lethal damage, it makes decisions more difficult for opponents. Playing a draw spell with Underworld Dreams across the board is like breaking a Standstill; you know it is in your best interest to do so, but you feel bad about doing it anyway.
Caller of the Claw/Rotlung Reanimator
If you play creatures, your opponent has three options: 1) Ignore the creatures and win before they deal lethal damage, 2) destroy the creatures (in combat or with removal spells), or 3) lose. Even the first choice is complex. A Ravager Affinity player might want to ignore a B/G Cemetery player’s Wirewood Herald, but the B/G Cemetery player has the choice of putting the elf in the path of attackers. Excepting matchups against combo decks, a player using creatures can expect his or her creatures to either die or win the game. Caller of the Claw and Rotlung Reanimator, however, are, unlike Underworld Dreams, not universally Wicker Man cards. Although a Beasts deck might find the elf useful against MWC and although MWC will surely be disappointed to see it cast after Wrath of God has resolved, Caller of the Claw does not, in this case, create a dilemma for the MWC player. Sure, 2/2 bear tokens are dangerous, yet every MWC player would rather be threatened by bears than Baloths. On the other hand, when played in Elves or another deck with many small creatures, even the threat of Caller of Claw presents the MWC player with a problem. If your creatures are not removed, they will eventually win the game; if they are removed, bear tokens could possibly win the game more quickly.
The importance of dilemma-production goes beyond its basic psychological consequences for your opponent. Even though some proactive creatures like Fangren Firstborn, Platinum Angel, and Exalted Angel are undeniably powerful and force retroactive responses from opponents, by the very act of forcing a certain action, they remove the question of decision-making skills from the equation. Assuming you are more skilled than your opponent, it is a poor idea to tell her how to play the game. The situation occurs to opposite effect when you cast powerful creatures that are difficult to deal with. Darksteel Colossus can win the game in the course of two attack phases, but the very fact of its indestructibility informs your opponent that she must find a way of winning in two turns. Oftentimes, such a win is impossible, but goading your opponent into ignoring you and your actions forces her to play for the immediate kill. However, Wicker Man deck theory believes that the purpose of a deck ought to be to prevent opponents from ignoring you, to stop them from goldfishing into victory.
Both Confiscate and Duplicant, in classic Wicker Man style, punish opponents for doing well. Though some decks, like Ravager Affinity and Goblins, run few creatures that are truly worth stealing, nearly all include creatures of which you would like to deny your opponents. Against other decks, usually slower ones, these cards increase in value. It is against these slow decks that Confiscate and Duplicant are most interesting.
A recent example of the power of incidental Wicker Man cards is helpful here. As Regionals approached a few weeks ago, it became clear that Tooth and Nail would make up a larger proportion of the field than originally expected. This led some Tooth and Nail designers to metagame against Tooth and Nail by including Duplicant in the maindeck or sideboard. Interestingly, early on in Tooth and Nail’s development, Duplicant had been considered by most to be overcosted. With the rise of the deck, however, the card seemed to be one of the few playable methods of taking out an opposing Darksteel Colossus, a method which, as Wicker Man deck theory requires, itself represents a threat. As Tooth and Nail’s self-metagaming increased, so did the worries of some Duplicant-using players about the safety their own Darksteel Colossus. Previously, it had been thought most efficient to run just a single Darksteel Colossus, but considering the danger of Duplicant, meta-metagaming took place and, in some cases, extra copies of Darksteel Colossus were added to the sideboard. While this no doubt helped Tooth and Nail in the mirror match, it decreased its preparedness for other decks. The lesson here is that even if a metagame-dependent Wicker Man strategy causes meta-metagaming that appears to negate the usefulness of the original innovation, the net result is still favorable for the Wicker Man deck, because it has managed to distract an opposing deck from the central task of fulfilling its win condition.
Additionally, note that spells like Confiscate, Duplicant, and Bribery are more valuable in Control-heavy metagames not just because Control decks tend to run larger creatures, but also because they tend to run fewer threats over all, and the removal of one or two of their win conditions can be extremely damaging.
In large part, Mindslaver offers another form of the Duplicant-type dilemma-creation. Nonetheless, other aspects of the card deserve special analysis. Even though it allows you to steal your opponent’s power spells, Mindslaver-type cards are better suited for some environments than others. In the pre-banning 2003 Extended season, Mindslaver had a massive effect on the metagame by single-handedly making cards like Phyrexian Processor rather risky win conditions. Generally, if a metagame is heavy in decks that work self-destructively or even have the possibility of working self-destructively, there will be ways to turn this against your opponents. Mindslavering into a hand containing Arcbound Ravager, Carrion Feeder, or Spawning Pit is automatically great fun.
It is important to draw a line between Wicker Man decks and some self-destructive decks that they often resemble. There is a tremendous difference between an aggressive Suicide Black build and, say, a Nantuko Husk–Caller of the Claw deck built to answer Control. Although both decks can be equally mutilated by a card like Mindslaver, they function differently. In Suicide Black (or MBC for that matter), life is tradeÃ¤ for raw power; this power is excellent and often more valuable than life points, yet the loss of life is still fundamentally bad. The same is not true for a Wicker Man deck that aims to create a dilemma in all its actions. If a Wicker Man deck tolerates life loss, it will be for a reason that is problematic for opponents (for instance, Pulse of the Forge), not just because it gets something more valuable in return. This is not to say that a Wicker Man deck will necessarily be better than a Suicide Black deck, only that the two will have varying philosophies. There is a world of difference between a deck playing Dross Harvester for quick beats and one playing Dross Harvester for life gain.
The above card analyses are intended to outline the basics of Wicker Man deck theory. Recall, however, that a Wicker Man deck is composed not merely of numerous Wicker Man cards but of many cards that simply interact with each other to create dilemmas. Also, when viewed in isolation and outside of a particular metagame, Wicker Man spells are, in fact, rare; Underworld Dreams is the exception rather than the rule. Next week, we will explore the subject more thoroughly by moving away from individual card examination into card interactions within a Wicker Man deck.