Chatter of the Squirrel – How to Break a Format with Two Easy Questions

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Wednesday, June 24th – I feel like most Constructed decks are terrible. This is not meant in the same way that a lot of articles repeatedly emphasize that most players are terrible. Nor is the point to make some objective like declaration about power-level by saying that people play too many ‘bad cards’ or that most decks do ‘bad things.’

I feel like most Constructed decks are terrible.

This is not meant in the same way that a lot of articles repeatedly emphasize that most players are terrible. Nor – I see Patrick eyeing my ‘I-feel’ all warily even as we speak – is the point to make some objective like declaration about power-level by saying that people play too many ‘bad cards’ or that most decks do ‘bad things.’ As I think y’all have observed over the years, I am not one to get scared away by a quote unquote bad card. The point is that, across almost every format I can remember, most players show up to a tournament with a deck that I personally would not only never consider playing, but one that appears to exhibit a basic, gaping flaw that until recently I haven’t been able to put my finger on.

At first I thought I simply hated ‘midrange’ decks, but I came to realize that what I actually hated was a class of decks belonging to a certain definition of midrange that I was never going to consider playing because the definition itself sculpted the term ‘midrange’ into a straw man. That is – and a certain balcony-conversation with Patrick cemented my understanding of this – ‘midrange’ really only applies to the role a deck assumes in a given matchup. Whether it tries to be control versus aggro and aggro versus control. Other distinctions regarding the choice to interface with the board as opposed to other zones like the hand or with spells themselves are important, but are not important to archetype-classification broadly speaking because you will not win games with midrange unless you first properly understand your role. And the type of midrange I despised – and still despised – was the type of deck that you could beat easily if you chose to interact along an axis other than the axis of what is now called the ‘Battlefield.’

The type of deck against which even a terrible card like Broken Ambitions feels unfair.

The type of deck that can only sit and look at a Cruel Ultimatum.

Recently, though, I recognized that the reason I thought this huge swath of decks were terrible had nothing to do with the composition of the decks themselves. Rather, the issue was with the choice of archetype. I came to realize that the decks I disliked failed to ask one of the two questions I feel are vitally important for a person who wants to break a format.

I’ve got a pretty good record when it comes to deck development*. Across the last three Constructed formats in which I’ve played – Pro Tour: Berlin, the most recent Extended PTQ season, and Pro Tour: Honolulu – a reasonable argument can be made for our team having the most optimal decklist for the tournament or format, and the results clearly indicate that. In two more formats (Pro Tour: Valencia Extended, and Pro Tour: Columbus Legacy) it’s tough to say by virtue of results alone that we came up with the best deck for the format – but I felt like we had, if not the best, than at least a very high-EV 75, and so I’ll use examples from my decks in those formats as well to prove my point. At any rate, the issue is not which designer deserves the most bonus points. It’s about how to play an excellent deck. And every one of these decks, in retrospect, provides a very good response to one of the two questions I’ve been teasing.

Those questions, the questions I now ask when considering whether a deck looks like a good choice to play for a given event, the questions that when applied allow a solid deck to evolve into a great one, are as follows:

1) What’s the most powerful thing you can do in this format?
2) What’s the best way to stop the most powerful thing you can do in this format?

Notice that each of these questions doesn’t apply to a specific deck. That’s because, when you’re looking at a given format, most of the time you shouldn’t be approaching it with a certain deck in mind. Certainly if you’re someone like PV who can win with Faeries against literally anything, or someone like Cedric who really knows how to swing with the little short White men, then it’s appropriate to come to the table with a certain lens in mind. But in general, pre-emptive rallying behind a certain archetype causes you to ignore some often very obvious loopholes a format has to offer.

“There is always a greater power.”

In all but the narrowest formats, there is usually something totally, totally ridiculous you can be doing. What is important is that this totally totally ridiculous thing will usually require the format to revolve around certain narrowly-defined conditions, or will require you to bend over backwards very far to make it work. Still, if something really is just sick, it’s usually worth the sacrifice.

Think about Swans at GP: Barcelona. I am not saying that Swans is now the best choice for Standard, largely because of the second question, but I’ve yet to get to that. But at that time, well. You’ve got a two-card combo for seven total mana that is all but assured to win you the game. The two cards even sequence nicely into each other, three into four, and both cards are largely immune to different forms of commonly-played removal. Then, lo and behold, Wizards sees fit to print an entire mechanic that conveniently plops alternatively one or both of your combo pieces into play for free. Seems good, right?

Sure, if you realize you might just have to play forty lands.

Similarly, in Berlin, the most ridiculous thing you could do in the format was cast a card that could win you the game for a single Green mana virtually every time you cast it. The difficult part was building a deck to take advantage of that card. In this case, the question didn’t make the deck – but it sure helped us see how valuable it would be to make it work, that it would be worth the sacrifice of some serious playtesting-time to get it right. Who would have thought that a little kiddie Elf deck would take the format by storm?

Well, the seventy-or-so people who got the memo definitely did. But in order to make the choice to play the deck at all – not to discount it at first because it played these terrible Twinblade Slashers – they had to give credence to the power of the deck as a whole.

In a format like PT: Honolulu Shards Block, you may not be able to outright win the game with some ridiculous combo, but there still might be a strategy that could stand head-and-shoulders above the rest if you could make it work. The advantage of smaller card pools is that what is good is usually really good relative to everything else. And for Honolulu, what was really good was Cruel Ultimatum. Now, it’s no question that Bloodbraid Elf is the best card in the format – but a lot of decks can play Bloodbraid Elf, and as good as Bloodbraid Elf is, it’s usually just a really, really cost-effective two-for-one. Cruel Ultimatum, though, exhibits a power that is virtually unparalleled. If you’re not specifically preparing to beat Cruel Ultimatum – and here I take a look at many of the G/W decks that received their heaps of praise in the coverage – there is just nothing you can do that remotely approaches the level of that particular card. There is no clean work-around when the axis of interaction is exclusively the stack and the format possesses few strong pieces of Countermagic. You just have to sit there and take it.

Of course, it’s not always that simple. We know that in the PTQ season following Berlin, Elves did not achieve total dominance. It was always a solid deck, sure, but it fell vulnerable to some pretty universal hate. This is due, of course, to the need to ask the second question: What’s the best way to stop the most powerful thing you can do in this format?

The second question is unique because it’s not always going to lead you right away to the strategy you should be playing. But ignites a vital train of thought. See, once you discover The Enemy, you want to figure out The Enemy’s worst nightmare. For the most recent PT: Honolulu, the nature of The Enemy progressed in stages. The best way to stop Cruel Ultimatum is of course to kill someone before he or she casts it. It turned out that this was relatively easy to do, because not only was there a tremendous proliferation of hasty Jund cards, there was this mechanic called Cascade, or GushTutorLotus**, that enabled incredibly quick starts if you designed your deck well. Moreover, basically every deck wanted to Cascade if it could. Therefore, the most powerful thing that the format (and not, crucially, a specific deck within a format) was going to throw at you was going to be Cascade. Cascade became The Enemy. One of the best ways to stop The Enemy was Ethersworn Canonist, which several members of our team came close to playing, and which Neil Reeves incorporated into another one of the best decks in the tournament. The other way to stop The Enemy, of course, is to do The Enemy’s job better than The Enemy does. That’s what we decided upon, and it worked out pretty well.

In the PTQ season following Berlin, The Enemy’s worst nightmare would probably be something like Chalice of the Void. But that answer’s pretty easy to stop with the by-then-standard maindeck Viridian Shaman, and was also difficult to implement within the confines of a legitimate deck. Lo and behold, though, a pretty effective means of stopping The Enemy involved a bunch of ways to trade for the opponent’s one-and-two-cost spells with value, while playing cheap effective board sweepers like Engineered Explosives that utterly wrecked the opponent’s only possible gameplan. It turned out, though, that the best ways to beat The Enemy were also the best ways to beat the format – particularly when you can also Capsize with Buyback, or neutralize any creature for an up-front investment of 3 and a re-buy of 2 at your earliest convenience. When this happens – when the best ways of beating the best strategy are also the best ways to beat a broad array of strategies, you have probably found yourself the format’s best deck. This is particularly true when the deck you’re looking at employs cards that themselves are up there with the most ridiculous things you can do in a given format – the Thopter Foundry/Glaze Fiend plan, for example, or Billy’s Counterbalance/Flash deck from Columbus that probably stands as the greatest deck ever designed.

Finally, you have yourselves the decks that, in beating The Enemy, become The Enemy themselves. I would put both Rock and Nail and Columbus-era Squirrels! in this category. A common misconception about the Rock and Nail deck was that it found a way to incorporate pieces of your normal midrange disruption deck with an effective combo, and that this blend was the deck’s central strength. It accomplished both of these things, sure, but what was ridiculous about Rock and Nail was its sheer number of turn-three wins. Like. Against any deck that wanted to attack you, you could drop a turn 3 Moat (Collective Restraint) and just completely lock the combat phase. This is up there with one of the most powerful conceivable things you could do in the format. Against Dredge – the supposed Enemy – you had a turn 3 ‘kill’ with Living Wish into Yixlid Jailer. Against Affinity, you had a turn 3 ‘kill’ with Living Wish into Kataki. Against Enduring Ideal, you had a turn 3 ‘kill’ with Living Wish into Aven Mindcensor. So against basically 85 percent of the format, you had the potential for turn 3 wins, and against the rest of the format you had a ludicrous late-game of unanswerable tutorable recurring Sundering Titans, or nigh-unkillable (at that time) Platinum Angels. Finally, you played the card that eventually in a less ridiculous format would become The Enemy, Sensei’s Divining Top, with something like seventeen shuffling effects. It was a way to ‘have it all,’ especially when combined with Duress, the card most likely to stop quickly all the myriad broken plans the format would see fit to throw at you.

Similarly, Columbus-era Squirrels! decided to stop Flash by casting turn 1 or turn 2 Chalices of the Void. Unsurprisingly, it turns out that a two-mana spell that locks out over half the relevant spells in the format quickly could become The Enemy itself, and we attempted to parlay the power of Chalice into a format-crushing machine. Of course, the consensus best answer to Flash was the Fish deck, but the Fish deck was utterly cold to our eleven-some Masticores and Deranged Hermits. A web of hand disruption tied everything together, and suddenly we were able to sleeve up a deck that had all these free turn 1 game-wins while still managing to play Magic without the utter God-draw.

Most often, the most powerful deck in the format does not necessarily contain the format’s most powerful cards. I am speaking here purely in terms of power, too, when I say ‘the most powerful deck’. Often you have to make sacrifices to do something totally ridiculous, like deciding to play 16 nonbasic lands in a format packed to the brim with Anathemancers. But the alternative, playing something more ‘fair,’ more ‘reasonable,’ is to do something that I absolutely absolutely hate doing when I can possibly avoid it. It is to play a deck that people can choose to beat if they want to beat it, and they can choose to beat it without jumping through hoops.

I’ve noticed that throughout my Magic career I have rarely complained about getting bad matchups. Every deck has bad matchups, of course, but when you play a deck like for example Mono-Blue Wizards last Extended season you just don’t care about the matchups very much. With Cascade in Honolulu, you are able to beat anything, even very bad matchups, because you can always just cast Cruel Ultimatum against an opponent who cannot. With Tenacious Tron or Trinity Green you’d land a turn 1 Chalice and your opponent would just sit and look at you. With Elves in Berlin, they’d land their Rules of Law and you would just make your Insect tokens into 4/4s with Mirror Entity and smash. With Heartbeat or Psychatog in 2005-2006, there was always a way to win, if you could find it, because decks that draw enough cards or counter enough spells don’t really care about what their opponent does, but rather about how much it costs.

Any deck that is scared of something is usually terrible, especially if it’s scared of something that happens rather frequently. By contrast, if a deck is good enough, it always has a plan. And whenever there’s a plan, there’s usually a way to win.


* It’s interesting, to me, that the same divisions WoTC incorporates into R&D are the most important divisions in Pro Tour deck construction. You have ‘Designers,’ who create or conceptualize entire archetypes, like PV did with Swans Combo in Standard or like Jonathon Loucks did with Mannequin. Then you have ‘Developers’ who take raw lists of certain archetypes and tune them until they are savage. Different players have different skills, but I do believe that most Pros’ skillsets fall squarely into one camp or the other.

** First Windbrisk Heights and now Cascade…