Deep Analysis – Is the Field of Battle the Real Deal?

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Thursday, February 14th – Last Friday, Mike Flores wrote an article on Dictating the Field of Battle. Towards the end, he stated that dictating the Field of Battle was the “Holy Grail of Magic.” Richard Feldman disagrees. In today’s Deep Analysis, he suggests that there are other potent approaches which must be considered when building your deck for a PTQ…

Last Friday, Mike Flores wrote an article on Dictating the Field of Battle. Towards the end, he stated the following.

“So why exactly is dictating the field of battle so important? The simple answer is that it is the holy grail of Magic: The Gathering, the single shining light in strategy that (barring an overload to your linear) you can aspire to that will help you win more games than literally anything else.”

This is wrong.

I am writing this article because, if that article’s forums are any indication, no one noticed just how wrong it was.

The Definition

Although Mike’s article was all about this concept, there was unfortunately no single point at which he defined what he meant by the Field of Battle. In the first draft of this article, I had a couple hundred words that went through Mike’s article, picking out paragraphs of examples and categorically showing how they made it no more clear exactly what Mike meant by the Field; I deleted them from the final draft because, frankly, they were tedious to read and ultimately not constructive.

Sam Chun, former CEO, Harvard University faculty member, consultant to the U.S. Department of Labor, and perhaps the most brilliant professor I have ever had, once asked me a simple question.

“Who is your customer?”

“That depends,” I said, and got about two sentences into what was clearly to be a protracted series of examples when he cut me off.

“So you don’t know.”

After re-reading Mike’s article on Friday several times in search of a coherent definition of the Field of Battle, I remain empty-handed. Sam Chun would say Mike himself doesn’t know; as such, the only way I can rebut the article is to put forth a definition myself and proceed to explain why it is not the Holy Grail of Magic. That’s not entirely fair, but then again, neither is calling something the Holy Grail and declining to explain what it is.

As I see it, “dictating the Field of Battle” means proposing an effective win condition and having the opponent agree that satisfying this condition will result in your actually winning the game.

If you say, “If I go off with Enduring Ideal before you kill me, I will win the game,” and the opponent agrees, then you have dictated the field of battle. On these terms, the game is a race; the opponent must kill you before you Ideal, or else you win.

On the other hand, if you propose this effective win condition and the opponent says, “Nope, I’ve got Martyr of Sands recursion; you’ll never Form of the Dragon me to death, so Ideal is not an automatic win for you,” you have failed to dictate the field of battle. In this particular case, I wouldn’t say the opponent has dictated the field of battle either; rather, he’s insisting that you stick with the default field of battle, where the only win conditions are the regular ones in Magic (decking, zero life, poison, and so on), and there are no shortcuts to victory such as “going off with Ideal is essentially the same as winning.”

The Upsides

If dictating the Field of Battle means proposing an effective win condition that the opponent agrees is a shortcut to victory, then deriving value from having dictated the Field is as simple as satisfying the effective win condition you proposed.

In the Enduring Ideal example, all you have to do is go off. In the case of a post-board Dredge matchup, it’s often the case that keeping a Leyline of the Void in play is a proxy for actual victory. As the Dredge player, then, what do you do when an opponent brings in Leylines against you? In terms of Fields of Battle, you have two options: either agree that an in-play Leyline ruins you (in other words, agree to that Field of Battle) or decline, instead creating a scenario where you can win even when the opponent has a Leyline out.

Let’s say you believe that dictating the Field of Battle is, say, “the Holy Grail of Magic,” and that it is, for example, “the single shining light in strategy that you can aspire to that will help you win more games than literally anything else.” If you buy that and you are the Dredge player here, you don’t want to surrender the Grail to the opponent by letting him dictate the Field of Battle…so what do you do? Leyline wrecks your usual path to victory, so you have to adopt another one if you are to decline the opponent his Field of Battle terms. In other words, you have to make the following statement true: “If my opponent makes a Leyline stick, he does not effectively win the game.”

That’s a pretty tall order. Say the opponent is Doran, and I’m trying to win through his Leylines. How do I do that? I could try a transformational sideboard, but the most common “bring in fatties” transformational sideboard is a tad unrealistic when I play sixteenish lands and the opponent’s deck is full of fatties and Vindicates. I only have 15 sideboard slots (3-4 of which I need to devote to the mirror match), and not a whole lot of card draw in my deck, so I can’t very well board into a different combo. So what do I do?

Most likely I run a miserable transformational board and lose. Horribly. Ah, but I learn from this experience! Don’t play Dredge, I learn. With Dredge, my opponent dictates the Field of Battle and I lose.

End of story?

The Downsides

In the very last paragraph of his article, Mike offers the following disclaimer to his Holy Grail proposition. “The one big thing to think about as you strive to dictate the field of battle is that the other guy can agree… and win.”

What if you are Dredge and you accept the field of battle? Have you lost already?

“If I stick a Leyline, I win. Agreed?” Fine. Now bounce your Leyline. You have failed to stick it; pardon me while I win.

The theory that “dictating the Field of Battle is the single shining light in strategy” is built on a house of cards that assumes that if your opponent agrees on a shortcut win condition for you, you will actually satisfy that win condition. If you fail to make good on your end of the bargain, there is no advantage to having defined the Field on your own terms, and if you have put all your eggs into that one basket, the result is horrific failure.

In fact, believing that defining the Field of Battle is of the utmost strategic importance – as opposed to accepting any Field of Battle on which you have the best chance of winning, regardless of who proposed it – is a trap. Whenever I find someone who believes the opposite, I tell the same story: the Extended PTQ at which I laid just such a trap and devastated three out of three opponents who thought they had the upper hand by dictating the Field of Battle and walked right into disaster.

I was playing Tenacious Tron, a deck heavily reliant on its artifacts. The field was full of Ancient Grudges, a very strong card against Tron’s Chrome Moxen and Signets, critical artifacts such as Chalice of the Void (which was most effective against these decks when set at one), Crucible of Worlds, and sideboard cards such as Razormane Masticore. Worse, Dwarven Blastminer against a deck full of nonbasics (we had one total basic land) and which could not kill the 1/1 for less than four mana (short of boarding Piracy Charm) provided an alternate auto-win scenario for Red players.

In short, Tron’s opponents proposed the following alternate victory conditions: “If I Ancient Grudge two of your artifacts, or if I get Dwarven Blastminer going, I will win the game.”

What would it take to fight these matchups “on my own terms?” Well, either I have to make it so that if they blow up two artifacts, I still win the game, or I have to be okay with their getting Dwarven Blastminer going. I’ll save you the suspense – there is no way to make either of these things true without contorting the deck into an unplayable mess.

So… abandon Tron? That’s one conclusion you could draw from this.

I took the opposite view. I said to these Red players, “sure, if you Ancient Grudge two of my artifacts, and sure, if you get Dwarven Blastminer going, you will win the game.” But you won’t get Dwarven Blastminer going. And you won’t Ancient Grudge two of my artifacts.

The term for this is Resilience, a strategy that Mike dismissed (and continues to dismiss) as “actively bad Magic” on the grounds that “you are agreeing to play according to the opponent’s rules.” Nevertheless, I resolved to take Tron to my next PTQ. I followed Tomoharu Saito’s Tenacious Tron deckbuilding example of reducing the deck’s post-board artifact count (fewer Moxen in the main and more non-artifact cards to board in for supporting artifact cards in the maindeck that would become unreliable due to Grudge) and found that most Ancient Grudge decks would have a total of nine artifacts to blow up against me post-board, one of which was Sundering Titan.

While a hardcast and Flashbacked Ancient Grudge that destroyed two artifacts was a backbreaking tempo and card advantage swing, a Shatter that took out one was no more than a speed bump. By trimming my artifact count to the point where I presented no more than one target per game, I denied my opponent access to the victory condition we had agreed upon: “If you Ancient Grudge two of my artifacts, you will win.”

Likewise, I handled Dwarven Blastminer by loading up on Engineered Explosives and mulliganing carefully. If my opening hand could not handle an early Blastminer (via Engineered Explosives, Remand or Condescend on the play, Signet into Wrath on the play with an extra White source in case he Grudges it, substituting a Mox for “on the play” in any of these, and so on), I often shipped it back against Red decks, even if it looked “fine” otherwise.

I tested the post-board games in these configurations and found, to my surprise, that I consistently emerged victorious. As it turned out, these Red decks – especially the midrange ones – were not just seeking a shortcut to victory, they were leaning on it. Without the shortcut, they could hardly win at all. They’d play a Blastminer, I’d Explosives it away, and a few turns down the road they’d have a Baloth and a depleted hand while I had Sundering Titan and a grip full of countermagic.

So I took the deck to a PTQ. I walked in completely confident in my decision to concede the Field of Battle to the Ancient Grudge decks… because doing so put me as the heavy favorite to win.

Sure enough, in round 2 of that tournament, I paired against a Psychatog player who splashed for Ancient Grudge and Dwarven Blastminer. He drew both of them, early. I boarded out a bunch of artifacts and won.

In round 4 of that tournament, I paired a Beasts player who splashed Trygon Predator, Ancient Grudge, and Dwarven Blastminer. He also drew them early in the games we played. Again I boarded out a bunch of artifacts, and again I won.

In round 5 of that tournament, I paired against another Psychatog player who also splashed for Ancient Grudge and Dwarven Blastminer. Yet again he drew both of them, early. Yet again, I boarded out a bunch of artifacts and won.

Every single opponent who thought they had it all figured out, who thought that dictating the Field of Battle – the so-called “Holy Grail of Magic” was the critical element – missed out on what really mattered: their chances of winning the match on that Field. Shortcut or no, you have to actually achieve the win condition that the Field provides you in order to translate the opponent’s acceptance of your terms into a victory.


Maximizing your overall chances of achieving victory, not dictating the terms upon which it may or may not be achieved, is the most important thing in Magic. The idea that there exists a metric that is more strategically relevant than your overall chance of winning the match is absurd. If you test a matchup and find that the opponent’s terrifying, well-positioned battle plan still leaves him winning the minority of the games due to a power imbalance between the two decks, it’s ludicrous to scrap that plan (or the deck as a whole) for a strategic Hail Mary that makes him the actual favorite in testing, despite the fact that the battle is now fought on your terms.

Never decline the opponent’s proposed Field of Battle on principle. If he is foolish enough to propose terms that will lead to his demise, I suggest you accept them with a smile and a warm handshake. You’ll be glad you did when you’re filling out the results slip.

See you next week.

Richard Feldman
Team :S
[email protected]