Deep Analysis – Implementing Strategies

Read Richard Feldman every Thursday... at StarCityGames.com!Thursday, March 20th – In Magic, there exists a gap in results between a strategy that you come up with in theory and the way you implement it in practice. In today’s Deep Analysis, Richard Feldman looks at some of the more off-the-wall strategies in the modern Extended metagame, and explains why they work even if they look rather strange on paper…

In Magic, there exists a gap in results between a strategy that you come up with in theory and the way you implement it in practice. If you go with a sideboard strategy of transforming your combo deck to beatdown, for example, the implementation choice between picking Tarmogoyf or Tombstalker as your hitter of choice can have a huge impact on the strategy’s success.

As the Extended season winds down, but the results of one last weekend of GP results just came in, PTQers have one last chance to shake things up with a good metagame call. In Philadelphia, the Top 8 saw Doran, Death Cloud, Next Level Blue, Spirit Stompy, Rock, Domain Zoo, TEPS, and U/W Tron. Eight different decks. Vienna, on the other hand, was vastly more lopsided: Dredge, Dredge, Dredge, Dredge, Doran, U/G Tron, Next Level Blue, Enduring Ideal.

The Top 8 scorecard for the weekend was Dredge 4, Next Level Blue 2, Doran 2, Everything Else 1. Given that – and especially that Dredge was Saito’s weapon of choice – I think it’s safe to say that certain Dredge players who had abandoned the deck may return to it with renewed interest in the upcoming PTQs. If that happens, I can immediately think of one critical strategic decision that you will have to make in the upcoming PTQs, which may be influenced more by implementation details than you might think.

Sideboarding Against Dredge

“My strategy is to bring in hate cards!”

… Okay, but which hate cards? How do you implement that strategy?

Some players will tell you to focus on the Extirpates, some will suggest Offalsnout. Some will recommend Leyline, even if your deck is not packing Black sources, and some will back Tormod’s Crypt. What’s best? Are they all about the same, or is one better than the others?

Generally speaking, successfully answering your implementation questions involves putting yourself in the opponent’s shoes. If you bring in four Leylines and Dredge brings in four Chains of Vapor (give or take a Ray of Revelation or two), all he has to do to beat you is to mulligan into a solid Dredge draw that has a Chain in it. Then, unless you’ve drawn two Leylines, he just bounces your hate card and crushes you like it was game 1 all over again.

Now say you have Tormod’s Crypt instead. If he has Chain of Vapor, that’s his ass… but what if he brings in Pithing Needle instead of Chain of Vapor? Same situation all over again. The Dredge player will usually have that shell game to play in game 2, but once he sees that you’ve got Crypts or Leylines, he’ll know how to board for game 3.

Extirpate and Offalsnout have varying degrees of effectiveness in comparison to Crypt and Leyline, as they require a constant mana commitment and can often be played around more easily if the Dredge player does not have an immediate answer (usually Cabal Therapy).

As a Dredge player, facing an opponent who has devoted only four slots to graveyard hate, do you know which four cards I am most terrified of facing?

One Offalsnout, one Extirpate, one Leyline of the Void, one Tormod’s Crypt.

How the hell do I sideboard against that?

Say I bring in Pithing Needle for game 2, and you Leyline me. So I board out the Needles for Chains, and then in game 3 you hit me with Extirpate. Or, I bring in Chalice of the Void or additional Therapies for Extirpate and then you Leyline me. Hell, I don’t even know what to name with Cabal Therapy – are you playing more Offalsnout or Extirpate? Or the same amount of each?

For most players, the choice to run a sideboard strategy of bringing in hateful, anti-Dredge graveyard hosers will be correct, but I submit that the grab-bag implementation of that strategy is the most effective, because that implementation sidesteps Dredge’s variety of countermeasures to hate-based strategies as a whole.

Of course, you may be playing anti-graveyard cards for different reasons. Maybe you really want Leylines and Crypts because you find Offalsnout and Extirpate less effective against Loam, for example. However, when it comes to Dredge alone, maxing out on one hate card to the exclusion of the others will give Dredge a better shot at outmaneuvering you post-board.

Venser in Previous Level Blue

Looking at things from another side, how can you look at the decks that did well this weekend and allow their implementation choices to inform your own? Let’s look at Mateusz Kopec’s winning deck in Vienna, which sported the interesting choice of a singleton Venser.

In a deck that features the full complement of Cryptic Commands, Venser has two explanations. One is that it is the “fifth” Cryptic Command, but it seems unlikely that he would be chosen for that simple reason when a third Repeal could have served much the same function. More likely, the inclusion has to do with Venser’s not-quite¬-Remand ability. In case you weren’t around for the PT: Valencia Top 8, Venser’s “counterspell” effect works on an Enduring Ideal that has been cast off a Boseiju. Since Enduring Ideal often has to expend quite a few resources – sacrificing lands, exhausting Pentad Prisms, throwing down Seething Songs, and so forth – to cast its namesake, casting it and having it Remanded can be quite a blow to an Ideal player.

Enduring Ideal generally maindecks two Boseiju in order to give itself a long game against countermagic. A simple strategy – don’t let them counter my game-winning spell – with a simple implementation: sit there ‘til I draw the land that says they can’t counter my game-winning spell. The deck doesn’t offer much in the way of digging power, but just by playing two Boseiju, you can sit and wait to draw one, while the Blue deck tries to finish you with its small suite of damage-dealers. When neither player is doing anything but laying permanents, Tarmogoyf’s size becomes largely dependent on fetchlands and Thirst for Knowledge alone, which can lead the mighty beast to take a long string of turns to actually kill an opponent.

As the Blue player, Venser lets you gum up the works of the Boseiju route. At his best, he buys you a turn worth of attacks; if you Repeal or Command him, he can buy several. If you get really lucky, casting Venser once or twice will exhaust the opponent’s sacrificial mana reserves, making him wait to topdeck another seventh mana source before attempting another Ideal.

However, this strategy is unremarkable. Remi Fortier used it to win the Pro Tour, though he did it with more copies of the Shaper Savant. Back to the original question: what can we learn from the implementation that Kopec chose of playing only one Venser to achieve his goals?

In other words, why is it okay to play Venser as a one-of? Will the strategy still work with so few cards dedicated to its success? Simply put, when the opponent is running the Turtle With Boseiju strategy, you have time to dig. Use the Top, use Thirst for Knowledge, use Ponder or Ancestral Visions, use whatever it takes… just find that one Venser in case Boseiju shows up. As I mentioned before, Ideal doesn’t have many tools to dig to its pair of Boseiju, but the Blue player has lots with which to dig to Venser.

Why, then, should you play Venser as only a one-of, as Kopec did? Why not just play multiple copies, as Fortier did, and assure that you have access to him when you need him? Again, the answer is simple: you flat-out don’t want to draw him most of the time. In this one situation, he does a fantastic job – but the rest of the time, he’s unexciting. You’d usually rather have a Cryptic Command or a Repeal or something. By playing one copy in a Divining Top deck, you give yourself the option to keep him buried while he’s unhelpful, but dig for him if you really need that specific effect.

Paul Cheon mentioned that Previous Level Blue, his (and probably Luis Scott-Vargas) Vancouver-winning deck, was not as good against combo as was its cousin, Next Level Blue. By changing a single card slot, Kopec opened the door to an entire trump strategy against Enduring Ideal’s long-term game plan, and by implementing that strategy with such a minor alteration to the deck, he was able to retain the deck’s consistency while accomplishing his strategic goals.

Rude Awakening in Previous Level Blue

One last example. This time I’m going to look at an offensive implementation choice, rather than a defensive one as in the case of the previous two examples.

There are a lot – and I mean a lot – of decks in Extended that use tutor packages. Spirit Stompy has Tallowisp targets and Eladamri’s Call targets. Trinket Mage decks have Crypts, Explosives, and the like. Goblins has Matron targets. Enduring Ideal features one-of enchantments aplenty to search up. TEPS and Miser Rock have Wish-boards. Dredge has one-of reanimation targets, which aren’t quite for tutoring, but which function similarly.

… but one Rude Awakening in a deck with no way to tutor it up? That’s even weirder than Venser!

For Previous Level Blue, there are some matchups where Goyfs and Shackles will simply not get it done in time. Rock is likely one of these matchups; with their barrage of hand disruption and creature removal, plus Vindicates and Deeds for Shackles, it can probably be a legitimate challenge to actually finish a game against Rock.

In this case, your long-game strategy becomes to use Divining Top to float an Awakening on top of your deck – safe from the opponent’s discard – until the coast is clear, any lingering Deeds have been bounced, and it can be cast for a lethal attack even if the other guy Smothers one of the lands.

But why Rude Awakening over something else? Indeed, Rock decks themselves have often used Genesis or Gigapede for long-game inevitability. For NLB, Rude Awakening has far superior qualities. Genesis requires considerably more mana to act as an agent of inevitability, and disrupts a sequence of turns (play him, counter a Vindicate or let him die and re-buy him next turn, trade him for a Hierarch and re-buy him next turn) in order to secure victory. Rock might also have a Genesis of its own – fetchable via Living Wish – which could put you in a stalemate that you could not dig yourself out of in time, once the match clock starts winding down.

Compare all this to Rude Awakening. The Sorcery lets you use all your mana for controlling the field, every turn, until bam. You win the game in one fell swoop, and it doesn’t matter one bit that you are tapped out.

One could look at the Rock matchup and conclude that a recurring finisher would yield inevitability, but this solution would be superficial and incomplete. Looking a bit more closely leads you to realize that while inevitability is critical to the strategy you plan to adopt for the matchup, implementing that inevitability with a recurring beat stick like Genesis does not quite maximize your chances of victory. Figuring out what’s wrong with the Genesis as an implementation choice – such as the recurring mana investment or the possibility that the opponent can counter-trump with a Genesis of his own – can lead you to a superior, if less well-accepted, card choice.


As with all theory, the first step to getting results out of a simple principle is starting to consciously think about it. Conceptually, the idea of implementing a strategy is trivial. You know what you want to get done, so you just pick a card (or a set of cards) that does it. In practice, of course, what you get out of that strategy will vary hugely based on the exact choices you make to implement that strategy.

If you want a long-game trump plan against Rock’s removal and fatties, how much more successful will you be with Rude Awakening than with Genesis? Fighting against Boseiju, how much better off are you for choosing Venser than Creeping Mold, which can leave you tapped too low to counter, and will be a far worse topdeck in a matchup where you don’t want it? How much more mileage can you get out of a varied anti-Dredge sideboard than one that leans mostly on one card?

Put yourself in the opponent’s shoes. You know Dredge won’t like your hateful boarding strategy, but what answers will he come up with to thwart it? What implementation choices can you make to retain the same strategy, but dodge his answers? Think about it. Pick the right cards, and you might get more mileage out of a strategy than you thought you could.

See you next week, and good luck at these last PTQs!

Richard Feldman

Team :S
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