Chatter of the Squirrel – Rethinking Investment Theory: Everything Has Haste

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Tuesday, January 6th – I remember cracking the first Onslaught pack I ever opened, only to see this awe-inspiring Blue guy staring right back at me. His eyes flashed with energy; his hands melded into an inferno of like ectoplasm that seemingly wanted to engulf him, swallow him fully. And then I looked at the text box: Draw three cards.

The cycle of Onslaught Pit Fighter Legends. Man. I remember cracking a pack, the first Onslaught pack I ever opened, only to see this awe-inspiring Blue guy staring right back at me. His eyes flashed with energy; his hands melded into an inferno of like ectoplasm that seemingly wanted to engulf him, swallow him fully. He skirted above the sand-swept Coliseum floor, sure, but it was as if his very existence transcended the dirt and dust upon which he fought. And then I looked at the text box: Draw three cards.



Eventually I saw the Black one: Kill a guy every turn? Then Jareth: Invincible. Silvos? Eight whole power? And he never dies?

Rorix, somehow, was less impressive on the surface. Big dragon, sure. I mean 6/5 was a good deal for six, but there wasn’t that much awe. Yeah, he flew, big deal. Seen this before. And haste? Well, don’t most Red monsters have haste?

Fast forward a little, now the set is legal and Rorix is far and away the most heavily played of the bunch. In fact, the consensus best plan for Goblin decks’ sideboards is basically to say “Screw being a Goblin deck” and bring in not only big hasty dragons, but certain gambling-prone big hasty Ogres just because summoning giant monsters with haste is unbelievably powerful. But the fact remains: beyond killing guys every turn, beyond casting a zero-mana Ancestral Recall until the cows come home, what ended up being best was simply to hurry up and smash for six without bothering to wait for your monster to calm down.

It’s interesting I mentioned Goblins, because do you know what transformed that deck from mild cute kiddie-themed aggro deck to format-warping format-dominating machine? Goblin Warchief. Whose effects were so widespread and whose big green nose was so globally-loathed that Wizards intentionally neutered the Goblin tribe it would print in Lorwyn five whole years later. Whose combination of Medallion and haste enabled what was already a potent aggressive archetype to accidentally play combo and kill the opponent on turn three every once in awhile. Whose sheer power let the deck shrug in the face of Wraths and Pyroclasms as the opponent sat there holding them in his hand, facing down eight, ten, twelve points of damage on the attack before he would ever even have priority to cast those spells.

The examples could go on. Basically every format there is some massive Red haste creature that is totally insane in Limited, but people kind of forget it exists until they get beat by it, and then it gets called a Dragon. For awhile it was the Iron-Barb Hellion; now it’s Bull Cerodon. If people don’t want to wait until turn 6 or so to cast their fatties, the reanimation targets of choice have overwhelmingly been the Spirits of the Night, the Akromas, and now the Hellkite Overlords that smack the opponent upside the head before he has the chance to react. And even before all of that, it was Suq’Ata Lancers, Viashino Sandstalkers, Lava Hounds, and Viashino Cutthroats getting in the three and four slots of early Sligh and Red Deck Wins lists – to say nothing of the mighty Ball Lightning, but we all know that he’s only pretending to be a creature. Even Green, never known for being in a hurry, made a small splash in Torment with the tremendously underappreciated Centaur Chieftain.

The bottom line is this: haste is one of the most powerful, underrated, game-altering abilities a creature can have. In essence, it attaches a Time Walk to your animal at very little extra cost. It thwarts the opponent’s carefully-plotted plans and throws combat math right out the window. Clearly, if we all had our way, every creature would have haste.

Furthermore, we understand that playing a creature without haste is, typically, to make a tremendous investment. You’re spending mana and deploying a card to the table. Then, it doesn’t do anything for the remainder of the turn. You ship it back to the opponent, he untaps, draws a card. The creature still hasn’t done anything. Sometimes, he may think about attacking, in which case your creature may potentially do something if there’s any way it can meaningfully block, but other times your opponent’s playing a control game and your guy just sits there even longer. Thumbs twiddle, suns rise and set, and finally the opponent passes the turn back. Untap, upkeep, draw, main, and lo and behold finally your creature – your investment – has the chance to do something.

I have realized for a long time that I really, really dislike playing aggressive creature-based strategies, and I keenly dislike midrange-aggro strategies that rely on comparatively under-costed phase-2 threats backed usually by a minimalist disruption package. Rather, I’m almost always playing Red aggressive decks with a very light creature base, True or Big Finisher Control decks, or combo. What I realized last weekend was that I liked to do this because, in a deck like the Five-Color Control list I posted two weeks back, everything actually does have haste.

What you absolutely have to realize is that a creature really isn’t some like metaphysical concept drifting out there in space. Rather, it’s a combination of variables that represent potentials for interaction depending on how you or the opponent choose to interact. Against a creatureless deck, a creature’s value is represented in a very straightforward fashion by a combination of its cost, damage-per-turn value, and disruptive potential (either directly or indirectly, causally or by virtue of for example the cards it draws or spells it enables). When the opponent has creatures, all of a sudden a creature’s value multiples in complexity relative to the potential of relevant blocks, its contribution to an entire attack, its ability to add value to other cards in the deck (e.g. Ensnare effects), etc. Still, any way you look at it it’s simply a combination of calculable variables. The point is not to calculate those variables. Rather, it is to recognize that any time you play a creature you’re making an investment to generate value along terms X,Y, and Z over expected number of turns N.

Again: Every creature without haste, or without a comes-into-play ability, is a kind of long-term investment.

Contrast this with a spell, which does something right now, right when you cast it, and typically the effect it has is measurable, definite, and conclusive. In essence, it has haste, because you don’t sit around waiting for something to happen. When you play a creature with haste, it deals damage now; you either act on your own terms or force your opponent to act on your terms. Similarly, when you (for example) Terror a guy, you are making things happen right away.

Now, your first inclination is to say something along the lines of “Well, the tradeoff is that in making an investment you’re creating a permanent effect, whereas with an instant or sorcery you do something once and it’s done.” That’s false, though, because just as playing a Tarmogoyf adds a creature to the board “permanently” until something happens to it, casting Terror also removes a creature from the board “permanently” until something brings it back.

The issue is that, historically, investments have the burden of proof to demonstrate that they are “worth it.” It’s not that any time you make an investment it’s bad; clearly, creatures are an integral part of the game. It’s that you really need to justify why your investment is worth the time it takes to generate returns. This was the whole genesis of the Treasure Trove/Whispers of the Muse example when these concepts were first discussed; Whispers costs a whole lot more, but it does something right away and it does it without making itself vulnerable.

The thing to take away from this is not simply that spells are better than creatures; that’s not a valid claim, and it would be too broad to be of any use. Rather, viewing games in terms of “what has haste” allows you to recognize ways to create “virtual haste” not only in terms of the cards you employ, but also how you utilize the cards that are already in your deck.

For one: every single creature you play has “virtual haste” if the opponent intends to interact with you through the combat phase. This is because you get to block, and blocking doesn’t care about summoning sickness. When you block and successfully trade, your ‘creature’ has effectively become a removal spell, and it’s just the same as you had killed his creature on your turn. What this allows you to do is evaluate every creature you play, especially in Limited, as a kind of ‘split card’ with an equivalent casting cost and additional text that says “destroy target creature this card could trade with in combat.” Often, especially when you are behind on tempo, this equivalent card would be superior to the printed text of the creature you just deployed, and when you recognize those situations you should immediately trade, depriving your opponent of the opportunity to interact with your creature as a creature, and eliminating the inherent investment-problem with most creature spells. Similarly, it allows you to understand why, for example, Five-color Control’s Broodmate Dragons are better than Jund Mana Ramp’s exact same Broodmate Dragons. Frequently, Jund has the burden of actually trying to kill the opponent with his pair of 4/4s, which deprives them of value until the following turn. With Five-Color Control, you usually just care about blocking their two biggest guys, giving them immediate (well, semi-immediate) value. I frequently block Rip-Clan Crashers with Goblin Deathraiders for this reason; usually, a deck that is Crashing wants to kill me quickly, and I am fine paying RB to kill a Crasher while I still can. This is despite my creature ‘winning’ in a pure race. I have simply gained multiple turns on him by nullifying what would have previously been his haste-advantage.

Also, your creatures have an ability similar to Haste if they are, for whatever reason, hard to kill. This includes creatures like Reveillark that do something when they are removed, because in this case the opportunity cost for the opponent to “do something” about the permanent you just played results in card-or-tempo disadvantage that functions just as if you had played a spell that manipulated game zones in and of itself. But take Doran, for example. Doran doesn’t have proper haste, but it does almost guarantee combat initiative if you play it early in the game, and (in Block especially) it’s very likely to get a couple of cracks in because it’s so difficult for the opponent to deal with it once it’s on the table. Recall that, apart from increased damage output, one of the primary benefits of haste is that by the time the opponent can respond to the threat, the card you’ve played has already done its job. This assumption works because it assumes the opponent is either tapped out or possesses of insufficient instants to do anything about, say, your Boggart Ram-Gang – but there’s nothing inherent about it working the turn you cast the spell that makes this benefit into a positive. With something like Doran in Lorwyn Block, the assumption about him being able to have an effect on the game before he is dealt with is still valid, just simply for a different reason.

Finally, creatures can have ‘haste’ if they come into play on a turn the opponent has underutilized. Recall that having haste is similar to having a kind of free Time Walk, because you essentially play a creature, untap, and attack without having to expend any extra cost to do so. In Magic – specifically, in most Limited formats and in Standard – the most frequently underutilized turn in terms of development is the first turn. Often, control or midrange decks will use this turn to invest a land that yields marginal returns later in the game, either because it can attack or because it diversifies the manabase. Other times, there are simply not very many quality plays that can be made on turn 1, and decks either do not draw or do not include things to do on this turn, on the risk that they will draw them after the opening seven and thereby be underpowered in the midgame. Therefore something like an Isamaru or a Figure of Destiny possesses ‘virtual-haste’ because the turn that the opponent would normally use to combat this threat – turn 1 – does not functionally exist.

These are some of the ways that creatures can, in essence, “gain” the haste ability even though there’s no such keyword anywhere in the text box. I’ve also stated that spells inherently have “haste” because of the nature of the way they function. What I haven’t stated directly is why this is important.

Some of the benefits should be obvious. You’re quicker, for one, and you (as opposed to your opponent) dictate the terms under which interaction can take place. But the most significant benefits, I think, are as follows:

Many formats possess, or effectively possess, a fundamental turn upon which most decks typically win or lose. This is particularly relevant in formats dominated or defined by combo decks. If you’re pretty much guaranteed to die on turn 4, a smaller number of cards that effectively possess haste equates to a larger amount of variance in the game-state. This is because your draw step on the fourth turn is extremely likely not to matter – because what’s one more Wild Nacatl, for example, when you’ve got eight damage on the board already and the opponent’s at six life – meaning you’re relying on a smaller average number of draw steps than other decks. You are thereby more dependent upon your opening hand, which also makes mulliganing more difficult and subject to variance.

Having more cards with effective-‘haste’ makes it easier to gain initiative, to create strategic moments that necessitate or enable constructive role-reversals* for a particular archetype. This is both because they happen more immediately—and a key attribute to effective exploitation of initiative is minimize the opponent’s ability to react—and more decisively. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been on the back burner the entire game, only to Pyroclasm my opponent’s board and Esper Charm them on their draw step, and all of a sudden it’s over. You don’t have to wait for an entire turn to elapse and for exponentially more variables to enter the equation.

You also minimize the value of your opponent’s reactive spells, because the only kinds of cards that meaningfully interact with creatures or spells with ‘haste’ are instants. In the case of a card like Cruel Ultimatum, which is probably the most effective ‘hasty’ effect in Standard, the only thing your opponent can do to avoid getting wrecked is to try and deploy countermagic – and most decks don’t even function along that interactive trajectory. Against every single non-Blue deck, Cruel Ultimatum is going to be an absolute face smashing, and there’s not a single thing they can actively do about it other than hope the game state is such that they can still push through a critical amount of damage. There is no waiting around to see if your opponent rips the Smother, the Wrath of God, the lethal burn spell, the bigger creature that renders your 2/2 moot. The effect simply happens.

Finally, and maybe most importantly, possessing more cards with “haste” minimizes the importance of the coin flip. If your opponent plays a Tarmogoyf, and you play a Tarmogoyf, you’re way behind if he untaps first, and you’re about to take a huge chunk of damage. If you simply kill his creature – or attack first – all of a sudden the half-a-turn advantage he gained in the die roll it mitigated by the fact that you’re ahead, strategically, by half a turn, anyway.

I realize that this theory doesn’t apply to everything. Some ‘investment’ cards are too good not to play – Tarmogoyf, Bitterblossom, etc. Other times, you’re playing a spell (like Cryptic Command) not just because it does something right away, but because it’s remarkably powerful regardless. A lot of it simply comes down to personal preference, personal style. Still, I believe evaluating games along this metric opens up the possibility both for innovative play and innovative deck construction, and also can help you realize when and when not to focus on investment-oriented strategies. I also think it helps us understand why some cards are as “good” as we believe them to be.

Until next week, may you do what you want to do, when you want to do it.


* I’ve tried to calm down the footnotes, but for what it’s worth I think my articulation of Initiative and Adrian Sullivan discussion of Strategic Moments are some of the most important developments in Magic theory over the last two years, and you really should check them out if you haven’t already.