Deep Analysis – Deck Evaluation and the Expected Case

Read Richard Feldman every Thursday... at StarCityGames.com!
Building decks is easy. Building competitive decks, on the other hand, is hard. We’ve all been there, sat with our sixty hand-chosen cards, thrashing away despite accumulating loss after loss after loss. In today’s Deep Analysis, Richard Feldman offers the opinion that the building itself if not the tricky part; it’s knowing when to walk away that’s the true key to success…

It all started with Tim Galbiati. I was on the phone with him around the time the MTGSalvation spoiler for Time Spiral had just come out, and I mentioned Reiterate for the Standard U/R Tron mirror match, as something that could be used to steal victories off uncounterable Demonfires from the opponent.

“What’s that card do again?” he asked.
“Instant, one and two Red, copy target instant or sorcery, choose new targets, buyback three,” I replied.
“No, that can’t be right,” he said. Remember, at this point, the card was still on unofficial spoiler lists and had not been released by Wizards. “If that were what it did, you could just copy Early Harvest forever and generate infinite mana.”

Turns out that was what it did, and you could use it to generate infinite mana with Early Harvest.

If you have out two Mountains and five other basic lands (all untapped), and an Early Harvest on the stack, you can tap all of them and Reiterate the Early Harvest with Buyback, netting a mana in the process. Repeat a couple million times and you have a sizeable mana pool. Even better, if three of the basics you have out are Mountains, you get not only infinite mana, but infinite Reiterates – meaning just about any cantrip in your hand leads to drawing your entire deck.

Best of all, this entire process can happen at instant speed. You cast Thirst for Knowledge on my end step? I have a response. Early Harvest, Reiterate it three billion times to float a billion each of Red, Blue, and Green mana, Remand Early Harvest, re-cast Early Harvest, respond by Reiterating Remand with buyback, targeting the Early Harvest, do that another couple dozen times to draw my deck, Cunning Wish for Fire/Ice, Fire you, in response, Reiterate it a million times, resolve all the copies, deal you two million. It’s such a simple idea.

Zac Hill and I spent many a phone conversation trying to break this deck. Here’s roughly where we ended up.

The deck was so named because the entire combo can be executed at instant speed; the opponent can be in the middle of executing his game plan and “suddenly have a heart attack and die” in response.

Although you “only” need seven untapped lands in play to start going off, you also need to have an Early Harvest on the stack – not just in your hand. If you are holding the Early Harvest, the Reiterate, and have seven untapped lands out, all you can really do is cast Early Harvest, tap three of your remaining four lands to Reiterate it without buyback, and dive off a bridge in dismay. That’s no good.

Fortunately, this can be solved by redundant copies of either Reiterate or Early Harvest. If I have two Reiterates and a Harvest, I just cast one Harvest, Reiterate it, and now I’m sitting pretty with a Harvest on the stack, seven untapped lands, and the other Reiterate in hand. If I have two Harvests and a Reiterate, it’s even easier. Just cast Harvest, respond with Harvest, and Bob’s your uncle.

Adding Seething Songs to the deck would help with this. You really only need to get to nine mana – enough to cast Harvest and Reiterate it with Buyback once – to get going, and seven basics plus Seething Song will get you there easily. The final version didn’t have room, as the New Frontiers were too important and you still needed a critical mass of draw spells to finish going off, but given enough time, you could just get nine basics out and go from there.

Now stop and notice something. I’ve just spent three paragraphs coming up with ways to go off with this deck with only seven basic lands out instead of nine. There is a fundamental question I have omitted.

Isn’t seven too many?

I mean, this is Extended we’re talking about here. Not Standard, certainly not Block Constructed, and not a terribly slow Extended format, either. Even if you accelerate basic lands out twice, and don’t miss any land drops, you’re going off on turn 5. That’s incredibly slow. So how did we solve this?

We didn’t. Not all deck ideas make it to the big leagues, and there comes a time when you have to jump ship and figure out what you’re actually going to play. I’m bringing this up now because – and I’m sure this will come as a shock to you – Morningtide will be Extended-legal soon.

Whenever a new set comes out, there is a lot of buzz about the new decks and strategies it will create, and about which existing decks will be the most impacted by it. Fair enough; that’s exactly the way it should be. Most PTQers are a bit behind the times, and only some (such as StarCityGames.com readers) actually keep abreast of the absolute latest in cardboard technology. Playing cards and decks that uninformed players aren’t even aware of is a fantastic way to get an edge.

But there’s another side to the release of a new set, one that doesn’t get as much press as the “sweet, new cards!” side. I’m as guilty as the next deckbuilder of scoffing at the naysayers, so wrapped up in my excitement for the opportunities knocking at my doorstep that I don’t see I’m diving face-first into a pile of badgers instead of a pile of gold… but over the years, I’ve learned when to move on.

Tragically, some of the people I talk to about these things simply haven’t. It’s a sad thing when a deck idea doesn’t work out, but even sadder when it doesn’t work out after you’ve assembled the cards for the deck, sleeved them up, paid your registration fee, and gotten manhandled in the first two rounds because you were so dead-set on pursuing a flawed idea.

Zac tells me that Marijn Lybaert has an uncanny knack for weeding out bad ideas on sight. That’s a valuable skill to have; it lets you move on to other, more fruitful projects, and I wish I were better at it than I am. More often than not, it takes a good bit of testing before I’ll actually give up on an idea, but some people – especially when a new set is involved – don’t even put in the effort to cull their bad ideas, instead focusing on ways they might “fix” the deck when a more honest look at their results would show them that it’s a fundamental problem that will not go away with tuning.

Yet whenever you start to reach for the shelf, the vault, the bucket – wherever you keep your “I’ll revisit this when the environment changes” decks – you always get that nagging feeling that you’re missing something. That there’s one last puzzle piece, and if only you could find it, you’d have a deck that would take the field by storm. I’ve been there. Don’t worry about it. Trust me, you’ll keep thinking about that last piece in the back of your mind long after you start testing something else. If the answer does come to you, you’ll pick right up where you left off with the original idea.

The Expected Case

Thinking about the expected case is the most important tool I’ve learned for separating the wheat from the chaff. When Zac mentioned New Frontiers in Heart Attack, I was initially unsure about it… but the more I thought about it, the more I realized it solved a ton of problems for the deck. An accelerated-out New Frontiers on turn 3 with X=3 meant seven basics on turn four even if you missed the fourth-turn land drop. That’s a turn 4 combo kill from a deck that kills at instant speed! Wow!

… Of course, that’s the best case. What are all the pieces that have to come together to win like that? First, you need a first-turn Search for Tomorrow or second-turn Sakura-Tribe Elder. Second, you need to have three lands in hand. Third, you need to resolve New Frontiers for 3. Finally, once you have your seven lands, you need to have naturally drawn Reiterate, Early Harvest, a draw spell, and another Reiterate or Early Harvest.

I’m no Math major, but… saying this deck has a turn 4 kill is like saying Goblins has a turn 2 kill. I mean, yeah, if you go turn 1 Mountain, Rite of Flame, Rite of Flame, Warchief and then turn 2 Rite, Piledriver, Piledriver, Piledriver, you get there, but let’s be real here. How useful is it to talk about the most rose-colored draw you can invent?

Games of Magic are won and lost by skill and chance, but tournaments and careers are made and broken by the probabilities. You might be able to pick a deck on its best-case merits and lucksack those draws in your first game with it, but a match is two out of three games, and a tournament is a whole lot more than that. You need the probabilities on your side to have a realistic shot at winning.

Looking at how a deck performs in the expected case – in other words, what its “average” draw looks like, how often it usually deviates from that, and how often those deviations occur – can tell you pretty quickly if a new deck is headed for the shelf or not.

Consider Heart Attack again. Zac and I went through the motions of turning the deck from a concept to an actual list, tested and tuned that list a bit, and ended up with a set of results. Looking at those results, I realized that in the expected case, I was going off around turn 6, but hitting the opponent with very minimal disruption in the meantime.

For a combo deck, each of those is extremely bad. Sure, there were some games where I got the double-Remand, Ice your important thing draw, but usually it was like a Remand or a Moment’s Peace and that had to tide me over until turn 6 against the opponent’s entire deck. It wasn’t enough.

I tried to plug the gaps. I tried adding Seething Song, I brainstormed cards that both fetched basics and cantripped, but ultimately the realization crept up on me that it just wasn’t a winning idea. The game state required to “go off” took too many dedicated turns of land-fetching to set up, and the deck couldn’t fit enough disruptive cards to stop the opponent from just out-goldfishing it in most games. I had to face facts, and move on to the next idea.

This is the grain of salt with which you should take every new Morningtide idea you come up with. By all means, give all of them a chance – after all, new decks are my favorite part of Magic – but once you start to get a feel for how an abstract concept is shaping up as a real, competitive deck, you owe it to yourself to do an honest analysis. Is the deck’s performance in the expected case close enough to the level of competition it will face in the environment that you should take the time to keep tuning it?

Whatever deck you decide to play, make sure you know the answer to that question before you commit your time to it. Trust me, you’ll be glad you did when you look back on the decision later.

See you next week!

Richard Feldman
Team :S
[email protected]