Each time a new block comes out, Wizards adds new dynamics, be it shadow, cycling, or even encouraging multi-color decks. Odyssey will be no different; its emphasis on graveyard management (via flashback and threshold) promises to open up new possibilities for decks. And it won’t be just in a Weatherlight-style, black-decks-only kind of way: Every color, in every deck, will have access to these new abilities, and will need to adjust strategy to use them.
When something like this happens, the entire field changes. This is not only true of tournament players – who, after all, need to keep pace with block and standard formats – but also of casual players, who want to play with the new toys. Since the decks your group plays are about to shift strongly in about a month, I thought it might be helpful to review some basic concepts and what you should be thinking of as you dismantle your old array of decks, and build a new set.
THE”FOREIGN LANGUAGE” OF DUEL
Harking back to duelist theory through the years with Rob Hahn, Eric Taylor, Mike Flores, and others, the Magic community has learned at least five basic concepts about the game in a duel setting:
1. Card Advantage. This is perhaps the most important one, and what I remember Rob Hahn most for. Well, that, and his world-famous chocolate chip pancakes. (Okay, I’ve never met Rob and I have no idea if the guy sports a griddle. But I’d like to think he would.) Cards in your hand represent resources you have. A resource you give up should net you another resource – preferably destroying one of your opponents, but at the very least getting you a replacement.
Example: Healing Salve nets you three life. You spend a card to get… Three life. Woo hoo! Reviving Dose also nets you three life… But you get a card! Wait, people don’t play that, either. Well, you just have to trust me. Card advantage is good.
2. Mana Efficiency. There are two forces at work, here. First, you find the best deal for the mana you’re willing to pay. Second, you time your spells so that they’re not all trying to come out at once (i.e., you set your mana curve correctly).
Examples: Suq’ata Lancer is strictly better than Grey Ogre. Therefore, in formats where both cards are legal, Grey Ogre will almost never get played. And before you try to stick both in the same deck, you need to consider cheaper cards like Ironclaw Orcs, or Goblin Legionnaires, or other efficient beatdown engines.
3. Tempo Comparison. Most famously rendered in Mike Flores“Who’s the Beatdown?” article from a couple years back, this concept reinforces the importance of paying attention to what your opponent is trying to do. Does their deck move faster than yours, or more slowly? Who is trying to hold off whom? Who is asking the”questions” and who is supplying the”answers”? What does that mean for how you play your own deck?
Example: Shortly after Apocalypse, Invasion Block Constructed saw a simple green-blue tempo deck emerge using”bears” like Gaea’s Skyfolk, Blurred Mongoose, and Kavu Titan. It used blue bounce to keep the opposition from blocking, or counterattacking. Against domain and most other decks, the U/G tempo deck was a beatdown deck: It tried to get in as much damage against the opponent as possible before Collective Restraint came down, and then used bounce to keep the path clear. Against red/green, however, U/G acted more like a control deck, seeking answers to threats like Yavimaya Barbarian and usually trying to survive to the point where a kicked Kavu Titan could rumble through for fatal damage.
4. Threat Assessment. In both Constructed and Limited formats, it is important to know what cards in your opponent’s deck can beat you, which spells on the stack are worth countering, and what permanents on the board are the linchpins to victory. In Constructed formats, this knowledge comes from extensive testing. In Limited, this knowledge comes from knowing the block and its colors, cold (and, where applicable, paying attention during the draft).
Example: You pass a Rout in a booster draft to take a Blood Pet. (Yes, I know it’s technically”improbable” that you’d get both cards in the first booster pack, or even the same print run. But look who’s talking – the guy who passed Rout! So what the heck do you know?) Later on, you’re matched up with the guy to your left, and during the first game you start beating down with your Blood Pet, your Soldevi Adnate, a Soldier of Fortune, and a bunch of other suboptimal black-red creatures whose appearance you didn’t think to question in an Invasion block draft. Anyhow, on the fifth turn, you see he has five mana open, including two white. You seem like a smart fellow, so you refrain from playing out three more creatures, until you absolutely have to. That way, you’re ready for the Rout in case it happens.
5. Metagaming. Usually a concept reserved for constructed formats, Kai Budde demonstrated”out-thinking the field” in limited tournaments when he decided to draft the good green-white cards earlier than the rest of his Pro Tour Barcelona competitors on day one – and then reversed course on day two, as news of his”tech” spread. Knowing what the field will do, and building an entire deck to squash the sheep, can have you winning before you even sit down to play the first match.
Example: At recent Grands Prix in IBC format (Denver and Kobe), some creatureless or near-creatureless decks sought to turn the highly-regarded Repulse and Exclude into”dead cards,” and thereby win the matchups through superior control.
So that’s it. I’ve summarized four years and a dozen web sites’ worth of articles into ten paragraphs — right?!? (No, I don’t honestly believe this…. But it’s enough to get us started for a 101 course.)
Now let’s go through those five principles, but with a multiplayer lens.
Card Advantage. This is the most difficult ground to make up, out of all five areas. One-for-one removal just doesn’t cut it, anymore. I’ve dealt with this topic recently, so I’ll leave it at this summary: You can get card advantage by blunt means (board sweeping”gorillas”) or artful means (decisive, game swinging”spiders”) – but man, you need card advantage in this game.
Mana Efficiency. Whereas card advantage becomes more important in multiplayer than in duel, mana efficiency gives up a lot of ground. It’s just not as important a concept in multiplayer format. This is the number one reason why casual formats get a bit of a bad name in some professional circles: We’re just not efficient enough for them. We slack off with spells like Reya, Dawnbringer and Plague Wind. And we get away with it, because we have a luxury of time that they just don’t have.
Tempo Comparison. This is where many casual gamers could improve their game easily, if they had the inclination. Tied very closely to the next concept, a good tempo comparison will give you clues about the game’s direction that aren’t immediately obvious. While most players can see that an elf deck will try to rush one or more players (the only question is, with or without Coat of Arms), it is more difficult to tell who the successors to the aggressive strategy will be – the guy with the Enchantress deck, or the guy with the Tombstone Stairwell? While your comrades are all fighting the primary threat on the board (and you should be helping them), you could also be calculating who will emerge next, and have your control – or beatdown – ready for them.
Threat Assessment. This happens now not just at the card level, but the player level. I appreciate both aspects; but I prefer to focus on the cards (and potential cards) that could beat me. Too much emphasis on cards on the table, of course, means you miss the quiet combo that’s about to lock into place. (Classic example here is playing Shield Sphere, then Goblin Bombardment… And then Enduring Renewal, as everyone then pays attention, half a stack too late.) Meanwhile, too much emphasis on players (“He always plays combo – let’s kill him!”) leads to the sort of politicking I despise. Right in the middle there, maybe a bit toward the right, is where most players should be: Looking carefully at the cards on the table, assessing the threats as quietly as a social game will allow, and acting in their own best interests.
Metagaming. Newer, smaller groups sometimes go through very clearly recognizable”phases”: A period of time when everyone is playing controlling artifacts, or multicolored creatures, or creatureless decks, or whatever. By picking spells that hose those specific strategies (e.g., Ertai’s Trickery in an age of kicker, or Viashio Heretic in an age of Draco), you can be just like Zvi Moshowitz in Tokyo, and dominate the table with”sub-standard” cards. Of course, you have to guess right. And in an established group with more than six regulars, these sorts of predictions are far more tenuous, and only really work with the introduction of a new block with new dynamics. (As I said above, that’s why I’m writing this article now.)
So let’s move right to it, shall we?
SPEAKING TO ODYSSEY
So what does all of this mean, with the new block? You don’t need to know the entire set to know that threshold and flashback will require extensive attention paid to graveyards. I’ll mash all five of the principles above into the analysis below. The threads should be pretty easy to pick out.
Start with that giant, squirrel-whatever thing (Krosan Beast, if memory serves…it’s on the official Wizards website). Threshold, meaning seven or more cards in your graveyard, turns a 1/1 for four mana into an 8/8 for four mana. That’s surprisingly efficient for a card in group games, where lots of cards quickly go to the graveyard in the wake of global sweepers, spiteful combat, and defensive fast effects.
But consider this: If you have seven cards in your graveyard when this thing comes out, at least one of which is a creature card, and you attack with it the following turn, and someone plays Repopulate (Yay ferrets! – The Ferrett), well… Something horrible just went wrong. Now you can call that”lucky” that someone happened to have that card for that point in time… Or you can realize that Repopulate (Yay ferrets! – The Ferrett) just became one of the best non-Odyssey cards to play for the next six months, put it in your own decks, and be lucky yourself. Repopulate is, in other words, a first-rate threat – and a first-rate threat-killer. (Yay ferrets! – The Ferrett)
Threshold, in many ways, promises to be like kicker in that many threshold cards will look better in the late game than they would early on – but unlike kicker cards, you as an opponent have more options to deal with the increased benefit. Most of those options lie in altering the contents of one or more graveyards. Here’s a short, not necessarily complete list for those of you considering a metagame:
At instant speed, either as spell or ability:
- Repopulate (Yay ferrets! – The Ferrett)
- Ebony Charm
- Tormod’s Crypt (artifact)
- Time Twister
- Honor the Fallen
- Phyrexian Furnace (artifact)
At sorcery/permanent speed:
- Living Death
- Ashen Powder
- Saprazzan Baliff
- Hymn of Rebirth
- Time Spiral
- Planar Birth
- Twilight’s Call
- Lobotomy (and related spells)
- All Hallow’s Eve
- Bazaar of Wonders
Of course, it’s not just what you do to other people’s graveyards – it’s what you do to your own. Oath of Druids, Tolarian Serpent, and Land’s Edge are all viable means to beef up your own graveyard… And it’s not even October yet!
If more recent cards are more your speed, you don’t have to leave a Standard tournament mindset to see one of the most disturbing improvements ever: Fact or Fiction, already the top IBC card, actually will get a bit better, since adding cards to your graveyard increases your chances of making threshold, and making 4-1 splits for your opponent(s) even tougher. This is true, no matter how many opponents you are playing. If you’re not playing Fact or Fiction in a multiplayer deck yet, try it after Odyssey comes out. I promise it won’t feel that dirty.
Flashback may have a smaller impact than threshold on multiplayer games initially – threshold abilities are rather tasty, after all – but I imagine that two or three years from now, casual groups will see more flashback cards than threshold cards still in their decks. That’s because flashback cards, especially instants, will have a”rattlesnake” effect to follow up on their first hit. Use flashback cards as if they were slightly higher-maintenance Seals. Unlike duel, where you won’t mind one bit if your opponent forgets that you can reuse that Shock, you will want to spread your graveyard out a bit in group so that everyone can see your recursive capabilities.
The ability to reuse these cards is a real boon to those mages worried about giving up so much card advantage in chaos. Since you can only reuse these cards once, you typically don’t make up the disadvantage completely (unless you’re in a three-player)… But at least you’re a bit closer to even. The”rattlesnake” effect, we hope, can take you the rest of the way.
The one piece of theory I haven’t really applied yet to Odyssey is threat assessment. I think some real intriguing possibilities lie here. All other things being equal, a player with seven cards in her graveyard now is more of a threat than a player with six. One can imagine strategies to pile up as many cards in a graveyard as possible, with very few permanents on the board, so that strong threshold spells can own the end-game.
As people see larger graveyards, in any color, as a threat, expect some strange things to happen. It would not surprise me if a few players out there found themselves struggling in the early game, losing cards to discard or destruction… Only to be gang-tackled in the mid-game, as opponents (rightly or wrongly) suspect them of stacking graveyards for threshold effects.
COMING SOON: I’ll start up a regular reader email feature next week. And if there are any locals going to the GP: Minneapolis Trial this weekend, feel free to stop me for a group game or two. I wouldn’t mind writing up something like that. A few weeks from now, as cards become public, I’ll give an overall impression of the set, and perhaps launch a new Break this Card contest. (Before I do that, though, I will have to mail off the prizes for the last one. I have learned something about myself from the Break this Card contest: I am really, really bad at mailing cards out. Thank goodness I never did an eBay trade with Deranged Dad!)