Deconstructing Constructed – On Flash and Winning

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Tuesday, April 15th – At the moment, things are a little weird for writing, Standard is waiting for the Shadowmoor release, and with Magic Online down, there’s nothing to talk about in the short term about any interesting designs. Meanwhile, in Vintage there’s the age-old debate about some card that should or shouldn’t be restricted. This time Flash is the card on which everyone has their sights.

At the moment, things are a little weird for writing, Standard is waiting for the Shadowmoor release and with Magic Online down, there’s nothing to talk about in the short term about any interesting designs. Meanwhile, in Vintage there’s the age-old debate about some card that should or shouldn’t be restricted. This time Flash is the card on which everyone has their sights.

A few weeks ago, Richard Mattiuzzo (Shockwave on TMD) sent me a private message asking if I had any thoughts on Flash in Vintage. This was my response to him, cleaned up a bit for readability and a few additions to put certain sentences in context. These are my general thoughts on Flash.

A. Flash is ridiculously powerful and is probably the best unrestricted combo enabler (surpassing Oath and Academy Rector). It takes advantage of the fact that it gets to benefit from both of the best unrestricted tutors (Merchant Scroll and Summoner’s Pact). It’s probably the sickest combo deck I’ve played with since Extended legal 4 Consult Trix* and Academy/High Tide.

* I consider this the best deck of all time in the context of the format it was in. A good player with the deck had a huge edge on all his non-Trix opponents.

B. There’s actually a really good parallel between this deck and the issues with Dredge in the current Extended format. We’ve had a boatload of complaints from players about Dredge, because it’s literally the ultimate linear deck in the format. You had something like an 80% game 1 win rate which dropped to 20-40% depending on the exact deck and what/quantity of sideboard hate they brought on. This caused a rift in players and created a major warp in the format once people recognized the threat of Dredge. Unfortunately the timeline isn’t perfect, because unlike current Flash, Dredge’s first week of PTQ play was very successful, winning half or more of the PTQs and sparking an immediate thought pattern in tournament players. Instead of letting the deck have a chance to fester in the metagame, there were immediate steps taken to deal with the deck and in large in didn’t leave the public consciousness for the rest of the season.

Anyway, the basic point is the deck was very good and had the clear potential to win every single tournament if at least a few Dredge players showed up. It continued to do well throughout the entire season with a mixture of bad players / bad to mediocre players realizing this was their best shot to win the tournament / good players knowing they could beat the hate; all playing the deck in varying amounts. Although the 3rd was probably the least amount of Dredge players, there was still enough to be a significant presence. This leads me too…

C. Part of the problem with coming to a consensus on a deck with Flash is purely percentages and player population.

Practically every week for the past 2 1/2 months we’ve had 100-200 man tournaments to gather data from, in addition to three Grand Prix tournaments (including one with 1100 players). That’s a huge amount of data to show empirically how the deck has been doing, and also increases the odds of the deck being played in the first place since it takes a certain mindset to play such a linear deck by choice.

Ultimately, I think Flash would be a bigger issue and easier to dissect rather than guessing at its impact if we had a bigger pool to work with. I think (and here comes the OMG real formats bias!!! if maybe 80% entering Vintage tournaments had the pure intention of winning (or at least making top 8), the lower end players would realize they could succeed with linear strategies and should be practicing with those. I think within a few months Vintage tournaments would all have 20-30% of these players. That isn’t to say people don’t enter Vintage tournaments to win, but rather you’ll commonly see even good players on TMD mention that they enter Vintage tournaments to have fun. Recently I’ve seen this moreso along the lines of, “if they don’t enjoy the deck they play, then what’s the point?” Flash, by and, large isn’t that fun or tricky to play. It isn’t even all that interesting by normal storm combo ‘Puzzle solving’ standards once you understand the timing intimacies of the deck.

The other problem is anytime Vintage players don’t see something succeed right away or get a preconceived notion based on small testing/tournament sizes, they immediately move to degrade or dismiss it entirely. I mean if semi-pros or pros are willing to roll a dice with a deck that has major issues G2/3 against any opponent willing to challenge Dredge, then I can’t see how you can make an argument Flash is somehow a bad tournament choice without a lot of statistical manipulation.

Going back to Dredge again, at the first Grand Prix of the year it was hated out completely and utterly. One whole Dredge deck out of just under 400 players made the cut to Day 2. Flash-forward a month. At GP: Vienna there was a sea of Dredge that made Day 2, and four Dredge decks made Top 8. In the pilots included a few high-level pros and the current leader for Player of the Year.

Do we ever see this in Vintage unless a team collectively decides to run a gambit? Not really. We’ll see single good players run linear decks like Flash, but they largely get ignored no matter how well they do. Outlaw has been getting reasonably good results with Flash for a while now, but by in large it just gets written off. Most recently Reflection ran Tyrant Oath and smashed Stratfordbury, however had Shay not won the tournament, would everyone really be gushing* over Oath? Doubtful.

I think if you could get at least 100+ competitive players with infinite card access and decent testing time, there would be a decent amount (I’d guess around 10%) that would drift toward the Flash deck as a linear plan. People would get an idea of how much it wins in general and how many hands are practically unbeatable (Since most of the opponents only seem to count ‘unbeatable’ as hands you win on t1 with) and how many ‘fair games’ get decided because your opponent boarded in the wrong hate for whichever Flash kill / transformational sideboard / general answer plan you decided on ahead of time. Trying to solve the Flash deck purely with sideboard cards is a rough proposal at best, as even bringing in a horde of different answers could be sub-optimal against one build while destroying another.

The Flash deck was really strong before and with Reveillark kill I definitely think the warp effect is starting to take place in the minds of players. I think if it follows the Dredge example at all, it’ll end up severely warping the format and people will have to come to at least have a grudging respect for the deck. Of course on that note nothing was banned in Dredge for Extended toward the end of the season….

Then again Flash is better in context. Heh.

Now that’s the end of the original private message I shipped to Rich. Expanding on these thoughts, I think part of my main problem with the typical arguments which you can find here. I think the biggest issue is whenever you get into a real debate about if Flash should or shouldn’t exist in its current form is it gets dragged into arguing the validity of the Flash deck itself. Flash is a very good deck win percentage wise, but unlike Dredge it isn’t so obviously lopsided in one part of the game in that anyone could see it after watching a few games. Due to the power of the other Vintage decks, I also think you can’t really pull more than a 65-70% win rate against any powered Vintage deck which limits just how ridiculous Flash can actually be.

The other problem is the win percentage argument gets even more jumbled when you start getting people talking about ‘normal decks’ and decks with maindeck hate. Then trying to judge the results as to how fair the Flash deck is makes this kind of data gathering only a little more reliable than pointing to a random tournament and asking how well the deck did. Which people actually enjoy doing and then declaring I AM THE WINNER, for about as much blasted sense as that makes in the grand scheme of things. Oh and making it sound like the entire format either hates or doesn’t mind the deck is probably a bad thing on the whole.

I chatted with Andy Probasco about Flash for a bit, and we ended up exchanging thoughts on the debate. My idea of the deck? It sucks*, but my deck isn’t awful against it so I accept it.

* By “sucks,” I mean that I never want to play against the deck; just like I never wanted to play against Dredge in Extended, even though I had a winning record against it, because it was such a seemingly luck-dependent match.

I think the deck is unfair in the sense that it pushes the extreme of power to a level with which I’m personally uncomfortable. It rewards people too much for simply playing the deck itself rather than playing the cards within the deck. You get a billion more points for messing around playing Flash than you do with any other deck save Dredge. I won’t claim to know what the majority wants for Flash though, just that I can safely say very few people like playing against the deck. Almost as many that plays the deck in the first place!

Last week Chapin wrote an article in which he interviewed Zvi about getting to the next level. In the forum, there was a post which I found interesting.

Chapin’s forum post (cleaned up a little):

In all seriousness, let’s say you have two decks, let’s just call them Dredge and Next Level Blue.

Dredge has 65% or better against everything (for the most part). A great player with dredge against opponents that are not as good as him can get it up to 70%. (These actual numbers are irrelevant…) Now, let’s say we have a next Level Blue Player posting some good match ups, some bad, but on the whole about a 55-60% against the field (dredge being one of the bad match-ups).

Now let’s imagine that a great player with NLU against opponents that are not as good as himself gets it up to 80% or better (still only winning 35% against dredge, but preying on the rest of the field)

What deck should he play?

If few people play dredge, he should play NLU for sure. But if ever a critical mass of dredge players exist, then everyone has to play dredge.

Obviously this scenario is highly over-simplified and with actual dredge and NLU there are other tactical applications, however the point of this was to demonstrate a scenario where a deck could have positive EV against EVERYONE and still not be the best deck to play.

If I was going to play Kenji in a $1,000 money match, I might want a deck like dredge. However, if I was gonna play in a tournament where I thought that I was one of the best in the room, I might be more inclined to NLU, unless everyone else was dredging.

My strategy is to just play Flash against tournament players, 1-on-1, they have a normal deck. My deck isn’t fair. I am better than 50-50, so EV is positive, however if I play in a tournament, I am just rolling dice (even if dice are loaded). This is why I don’t play in Vintage tournaments. It is dumb to me that the best deck beats everything but doesn’t pay enough to provide the EV I need to be able to game the tournament.

I also think Narcomoeba should have been banned, even though I didn’t play it, is undesirable to have that sort of environment. The only thing holding it together is that most people agreed not to resort to dredge. As a result “skilled players” won (skill having to do with in game skills), where if enough people sold out to dredge, the “skilled players” would win, it would just be the test of deck picking skill (with a lot more coin flips)…

This provides an interesting viewpoint and articulates the idea of picking a hypothetical low skill-cap deck due to the limits of interaction and trickiness you can actually accomplish with it. I find the bolded section to probably be the most interesting as I’ve tried (unsuccessfully) to get that point across when talking about dredge in both Extended and Vintage as to why a certain subtype of player would benefit by just playing a linear non-interactive deck. However this provides an interesting counter-point to how is a deck like dredge or Flash isn’t dominating its somehow fair. Especially in Vintage tournaments where, as I previously mentioned, deck choice is partially influenced by what people ‘feel like’ or trends moreso than in other formats

It seems like there is a previous example though in Trinisphere decks pre-restriction. At one point every tournament was loaded with 3-Sphere decks and many matches came down to coin-flipping skills and that deck didn’t actually end the game on turn one or two, merely severely retarded the opponent’s ability to play the game. However the format became warped at one point and there were literally all 3-Sphere decks and ‘other stuff’, because a scenario occurred where there was a critical mass of Trinisphere floating around. Now this deck wasn’t as overpowering as dredge or Flash is, but it probably is the clearest Vintage example other than GAT (except GAT was really popular when Vintage magic was still much smaller).

So are arguments against cards like Flash and Narcomoeba (or the Dredge mechanic, etc) skewed because not enough people are willing to play them? At some point there’s an issue due to disconnect between what everyone should play for the best EV based on particular skill-sets and what actually happens in the real world. People come up with excuses not to play these types of decks based on what could go wrong or because they aren’t having enough fun with them or they hit a bad streak so the deck is obviously terrible. Looking at the Chapin post again, obviously he’s simplified down the field to a few specific examples, but it gives you an idea of why environments aren’t overflowing with broken ‘Might get you there’ decks.

If we look at another example of common tournament environments, you’d likely add a 3rd choice to the initial two choice spectrums and that is to bank on playing a specific hate deck to combat the non-interactive I beat the field deck. We saw this happen at the Flash Grand Prix when a deck is good enough that it has a high winning percentage against ‘everything’ and it hit the critical mass of players necessary to flood the tournament. At that point there were three decks, the Flash decks, the anti-Flash decks and the normal decks.

For almost everyone, the best move was just to play Flash because you coin-flipped the mirror, beat the normal decks, and usually weren’t that much of a dog to the anti-decks. On the other hand, depending on pairings it could be vastly more profitable to take a chance on playing an anti-deck if you were confident in your skills and your selection in the first place (since you needed a legitimately good game against the deck), as you were almost assuredly going to see your target opponent more often than not every round. Playing a normal deck was probably the worst choice possible since you were picking on a lower portion of the field than the anti-decks, were usually 50/50 or worse against the omni-present deck and weren’t necessarily at an advantage against other normal decks. At some point there’s a lower initiative put on player skill and rather just placement on deck selection and pairings. The upside of playing a normal deck was that you could typically leverage skill moreso than with the other two which could raise your overall winning percentage (Goblins came in 2nd at the Grand Prix after all).

At a Vintage tournament I think using this example you could switch this into Flash (being the linear ‘loaded dice’ deck), Gush decks (normal decks), and everything else (anti Flash and Gush), if you assumed some sort of optimal field. By and large, I don’t think we’d ever see this except maybe in Europe, but this is the paradigm that seemingly would occur at the end of exploration of the Flash deck. The best players would likely play non-Flash decks and simply sideboard heavily to try to have non-horrible matches against it (or ignore it and simply hope to get very good draws), while the rest would play anti (hate) decks and then finally Flash. Why? Because of the reasons stated earlier, which is why you’d almost always see more ‘anti’ decks against the field compared to the previous example where the best deck was the most popular.

I think Flash is the best deck all things considered, but I don’t think it’ll ever see the number of players necessary to make it be dealt with via DCI action. Merchant Scroll should probably leave the format to weaken Flash and Gush decks, but since I don’t think we’ll ever see the tournament make-up necessary (outside of a few specific spots in NorCal and Canada) to add enough randomness to get consensus on this. Basically I don’t think you’ll ever see enough data, unlike the issue with dredge in Extended, to get a clear picture of how much damage the deck really does or how many people truly should be playing it.

But hey, feel free to keep arguing past one another until the end of time on the subject. It isn’t like Vintage players have ever actually read an entire argument since the beginning of the format.

Josh Silvestri
Team Reflection
Email me at: joshDOTsilvestriATgmailDOTcom

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