Chatter of the Squirrel – The Myth of Threats and Answers

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Monday, April 20th – I had a great conversation earlier this week about why certain types of people play certain decks. I myself will play anything that wins, of course, but I feel tremendously uncomfortable playing the style of midrange Green deck that a lot of people seem to enjoy immensely. I can theorize all day about why it is I don’t usually find those decks suitable, but much of the preference certainly comes down to ‘feel.’

What makes a threat a threat?

I had a great conversation earlier this week about why certain types of people play certain decks. I myself will play anything that wins, of course, but I feel tremendously uncomfortable playing the style of midrange Green deck that a lot of people seem to enjoy immensely. I can theorize all day about why it is I don’t usually find those decks suitable, but much of the preference certainly comes down to ‘feel’. I sort of opined aloud that I just didn’t understand what the appeal was about lumbering four-mana monsters, not really expecting anybody to say anything, but my friend’s response was actually quite poignant.

“When I play control,” he said, “my back is always against the wall. I feel like I’m always rushing to kill whatever threat people throw at me, only to be staring down another threat a turn later when I finally do manage to deal with it. It’s like, if I don’t draw the right answer at the right time, I’m just dead. When I’m beating down, though, I’m in the driver’s seat.”

I found his insight very interesting precisely because I feel the totally opposite way.

See, whenever I play aggro—and especially whenever I play midrange—I constantly feel like I’m just sitting around waiting for whatever animal I played to die. This is fine when I’m running one-and-two-mana creatures out there, because they tend to trade profitably with cards like Terror. But with bigger creatures I play a dude, it sits there, I hope and pray that it resolves and that I don’t get utterly blown out by a Broken Ambitions, then my opponent untaps, I hope my team doesn’t get Wrathed away, I raise my hands to the heavens in anticipation of Temptation being Sown by a particular Creature-Faerie—and then, if all of that goes my way, I get to attack a grand total of once before going through the motions yet again.

By contrast, when I’m playing control I feel like nothing can touch me. I don’t care about virtually any of the creature kill in my opponent’s deck, and I know it’s totally possible for him to draw a hand full of removal spells, think that hand is totally reasonable, keep it, and just have zero chance of winning before the game even begins. Hardly ever do I have to tap all of my mana and put something on the table just begging for something not to happen to it. The better my opponent’s spell is, the cheaper it is for me to neutralize with a card like Broken Ambitions. And because Everything Has Haste—if it’s a spell—I can anticipate exactly how the game state is going to change every single time I make a decision. The ball is always in my court.

Crucially, when I’m playing control, the burden is on my opponent to end the game. He has to take the initiative, eventually, or I’m going to start lobbing Ancestral Visions or Cruel Ultimatums and the game will just be over. My spells have a greater overall power level than his. For my opponent, time is always ticking down.

All of this is simply how I feel, though. Obviously, I lose some games when I’m playing control, and I win some games when I’m beating down. The game of Magic is much more complicated than ticking the opponent’s life total down before the Wrath hits. The ‘feelings’ are important not to articulate some kind of theory or strategy in and of themselves, but rather to illuminate the kind of mindset the other player takes when you’re sitting down across from him. How it feels, in essence, to be the opposition.

What I came to understand as I thought more and more about this conversation was that threats—questions—are simply of a much higher caliber than they used to be. If you look up Mike Turian Hall of Fame profile, you’ll see that as late as 2001, people played two-mana 2/2s with drawbacks and two-mana 2/1s with no abilities in top-performing Constructed decks. Yes, Krovikan Scoundrel in Red would have been a tournament-caliber creature. And heaven forbid we’d have been blessed with a straight-up Grizzly Bear! As a Goblin, even?? Red Deck Wins…and Wins and Wins and Wins!

Nowadays, of course, we have one-mana 3/3s, 2-mana 4/5s, and 3-mana 5/4s to cram in our decks virtually free of charge. What this means is that control decks have correspondingly adapted to decks’ increased capacity to present threats, and that there’s a certain threshold for what they’re capable of managing. Back in the day, when the most basic of stats and abilities—one power for one mana, two power for two—were still nevertheless capable of killing a control player in a given format, there really were (virtually) no wrong threats. Sure, you don’t want to be running Mons’ Goblin Raiders out there, but it’s not *an actual order of magnitude* inferior to your other options. Now, though, there really is a tremendous substantive difference between the card Wild Nacatl and every single one of your other options in the one-slot. This difference demands a corresponding adjustment of our existing notions of card valuation, and the requirements of a quality opening hand.

See, the famous quote about there being ‘no wrong threats, only wrong answers’ presumes that every threat needs to be answered. While this is true in some sense literally speaking, we also have to take into account the realities of a given format. If you give Five-Color Control two free turns, it’s going to drop something on the level of a Cruel or a Broodmate and the game is going to just be over. The threat was ‘answered’ in the sense that it was neutralized, I suppose, but I think it’s more accurate just to say it was outclassed. You have to assume that any deck’s inherent velocity is going to allow it to achieve an effective victory unless you push up against its limits continuously for a given set of turns.

What that means is that against Extended TEPS, for example, your hypothetical Mons’ Goblin Raiders is quite literally (and quite tremendously) a wrong threat.

What constitutes a wrong threat will certainly change depending on the format. In some formats—say something like Shards block, which contains the aforementioned Wild Nacatl in addition to an overall very high quality cycle of two-drops—a card like Rage Weaver is going to be a wrong threat. In other formats it might not be. It’s important to recognize, though, as a deck designer, what the minimal demands on threat-presentation are going to be.

This can manifest itself in-game, as well, to dramatic results. I won a match at Grand Prix Singapore because my opponent didn’t understand that his Mogg Fanatic was a wrong threat. I managed to neutralize some other creatures and had an Explosives set to one. My life total was at something like eleven or twelve, and I had a pair of Spell Snares in my hand to stop any hypothetical burn spells my opponent may have had. I knew, from an earlier Vendillion Clique, that he had at least one one-drop in his hand that he simply refused to cast because of the Engineered Explosives. Certainly getting two-for-oned was not going to be good for him, but what was even worse was simply settling for a single point of damage every turn while I got to draw more and more cards and deploy more and more lands. The threat simply did not match the class demanded of it by the overall power level of the decks in the format, and I mopped up without too much trouble after a few short turns.

The other very valuable asset an enhanced knowledge of the nature of threats and answers gives you is the ability to look at cards that would previously have been perceived as ‘answers’ as threats in and of themselves. Let’s take, again, a modified definition of ‘threat’ from the one I used above: A spell which, absent any action from the opponent, is realistically capable of ending the game. In the conversation I alluded to earlier, I believe the friend of mine who prefers to play creatures sees his spells as threats, and likes them just because he believes they demand action on the part of his opponent, putting the initiative in his hands.

But I also, as the control player, see my spells as threats.

If I’m playing a deck that possesses inevitability, and I Firespout your board, that’s going to be the game unless you very quickly get a permanent on the table or aim enough burn at my dome that I curl up and die right there. It’s a threat. If you can’t break through my Plumeveil, and it lets me keep drawing cards and playing lands, that Plumeveil is a threat. Or if the game has gone very long, I am at 4, you have exactly one Flame Javelin (or whatever) left in your deck, and I have a Cryptic Command in my hand—even that Cryptic Command is a threat, for as long as I can cast it. Until you deal with it, you can’t win. The game is over.

The most important thing I got out of the discussion, I realized, is that no deck operates in a vacuum. No one is sitting around totally unprepared to contend with the ‘threats’ you put on the table, and no deck is going to be totally floored when you recoup the initiative by managing to deal with its first wave. Even time, which we tend to assume is constantly ticking turn after turn in favor of the deck with inevitability, is measured in draw steps and land drops, and can be thwarted by certain inevitability-trumps like Obliterate, Banefire, Volcanic Fallout, Decree of Annihilation, or Quagnoth. What this helps us realize is that—for example—a card like Wooly Thoctar can at times be the right threat, and at times it can be wrong. If the format is such that everyone is packing 4 Remand 4 Mana Leak 2 Condescend, 0 Engineered Explosives, or something, Thoctar appears to be a pretty terrible, pretty inefficient, pretty inelegant threat when compared to more aggressive early drops. By contrast, in a format where neither Planeswalkers nor ‘one-man-army’-type cards aren’t heavily played, Wrath of God seems like one of the most superlative things you can do with four mana—or, in a format defined by Volcanic Fallout and featuring cards like Banefire in unknown quantities, that Wall of Reverence becomes the nut trump.

Nowadays, there are wrong threats, there are right threats, and there are cards that might be one or the other depending on whether it’s raining outside. Does Gaddock Teeg shut down half the format, or is it a Legendary Grizzly Bear that’s hard on the mana? Magic has grown more complex. We can’t settle for dropping whatever Bearl that comes by onto the table and hoping the opponent will let it be. We have to ask: “What makes a threat a threat?” What makes it wrong or right?

In the end, it comes down to what we are trying to do. Even regarding something as simple as our choice of two-drop, Ethersworn Canonist accomplishes a very different goal than does Keldon Marauders. Wooly Thoctar is a totally different card than Sulfuric Vortex, and yet as recently as three weeks ago those two cards vied for the same Zoo slot. How did one become ‘right’ while the other became ‘wrong’? It has to do with what the format needs.

Good deck designers just know where to look.