Degree of Difficulty

Some years ago, there was a Sideboard Ask the Pros question that asked, “What is the most difficult deck to play?” In order to correctly answer that question, we must first describe certain elements of Magic skill. What does it mean for a deck to be “difficult to play”? What does it mean for a format to be skill-intensive or skill-testing? Is Type One, a blisteringly-fast format, one of the toughest… And what is the most difficult deck of all-time?

This topic is something I have thought about for some time – but this article was spurred on by something I read in, ironically enough, a Type I forum:

“Many people say that T1 is the least skill-intensive format because you can just cast a card and win. However In T1 more than anything, deck construction is an important skill. Every single card in the deck and sideboard is critical to success. Type 1 also tests the skill of survival when your opponent is trying to go broken and you are trying to stay alive. No other format tests the skills of players who are trying to survive until turn 2.

“Type 1 also has the most complicated and complex deck ever designed: Meandeath. The one that comes closest is Wild Research Maher Oath from years ago – but Meandeath is harder and requires more decision making that even that.”

In order to correctly answer the questions that this post asks, we must first describe certain elements of Magic skill. What does it mean for a deck to be “difficult to play”? What does it mean for a format to be skill-intensive or skill-testing?

Some years ago, there was a Sideboard Ask the Pros question that asked, “What is the most difficult deck to play?”

Many respondents – including Star City’s own Ken Krouner, if I recall = answered “Zvi Bargain.” For those of you who don’t know what Zvi Bargain was, it was the ID19 deck that Mr. Mowshowitz used to make Top 8 of the 1999 US National Championships. Upon seeing the card Yawgmoth’s Bargain, Zvi declared he was going to break the card, and came up with this:

4 Grim Monolith

4 Mox Diamond

4 Scroll Rack

4 Voltaic Key

4 Dark Ritual

4 Vampiric Tutor

4 Yawgmoth’s Bargain

1 Yawgmoth’s Will

3 Delusions of Mediocrity

1 Intuition

3 Show and Tell

3 Turnabout

1 Blaze

4 City of Brass

4 City of Traitors

3 Crystal Vein

2 Rootwater Depths

3 Swamp

4 Underground River

This deck actually pre-dated Trix. Grim Monolith, Show and Tell, and of course Dark Ritual all conspired to put Yawgmoth’s Bargain into play – and though it didn’t run a Donate compliment, ID19 used Delusions of Mediocrity to repeatedly abuse the Bargain’s card drawing ability. With Bargain in play, Zvi used Turnabout to set up a ton of mana and eventually win with Blaze.

Those of you looking at the deck for the first time probably see a very complicated deck, and surely it is difficult to play. But I can’t see this as being the most difficult deck to play in the game’s history. It has a very focused plan, played in specific stages. Priority One is to get Yawgmoth’s Bargain down. After the Bargain is in play, it becomes arithmetic to figure out how many cards you can afford to draw in order to facilitate future draws, set up mana, and so on. Against beatdown, it was sometimes sticky to figure out whether or not you should pass the turn – but the main dangers were from red (reach) and white (Disenchant and Erase). Against a tapped-out opponent, the deck might require a good deal of math, but never asked a player to deviate from a specific path.

My opinion at the time that the Ask the Pros question was asked is that some sort of Survival of the Fittest deck had to be the correct answer. Recently, during the PT Columbus Video Coverage, Osyp Lebedowicz said that playing a deck with a lot of instants generally allows a player to out-play his opponent more than a deck without a lot of instants. That is why there is a general idea that control decks are the Weapons of Choice ™ of the strongest players. Instants allow for a lot of decision-making, and playing instants proactively force the opponents into decisions themselves.

This is a dual-edged sword, of course. Think about a Survival of the Fittest deck. Once Survival of the Fittest is in play, that card not only allows for, but demands, a specific chain of decisions. When Zvi won his last qualifier, way back in the Extended 1999 PTQ season, he called Survival the most skill-intensive and the most flexible of deck choices. Theoretically, a Survival deck should have not only an answer to most long-term threats, but possess the immediate means to get that answer. The problem is that with not just every stack, but every pass of priority, Survival demands an answer from its player. It is not enough to merely get the right creature, pitching the right creature. If there are “dead” or even sub-optimal creatures in a matchup, correct play demands that they be pitched in order to increase the quality of the deck’s natural draws… And demands that they be pitched in the correct sequence.

For reference on this sort of confusing decision-making, here is the deck Zvi qualified with:

4 Survival of the Fittest

4 Recurring Nightmare

4 Birds of Paradise

2 Wood Elves

4 Wall of Roots

1 Wall of Blossoms

1 Spike Feeder

2 Thrull Surgeon

1 Monk Realist

1 Monk Idealist

1 Triskelion

1 Great Whale

1 Priest of Gix

4 Duress

1 Krovikan Horror

3 Ashen Ghoul

1 Uktabi Orangutan

3 Hermit Druid

2 City of Brass

2 Mountain Valley

1 Badlands

4 Bayou

4 Savannah

1 Tropical Island

4 Taiga

1 Swamp

1 Forest

1 Volrath’s Stronghold

You are limited by your mana – but mana can be a tricky thing. Novice players sometimes forget little things like that Wall of Roots generates G on your turn and on his. You want to max out your mana, but leave enough mana behind to make sure that you don’t miss a Krovikan Horror activation. Zvi’s deck cheats a bit because it is also a combo deck – but that added “free win” can cover up how difficult correct play is. When you win in dramatic fashion on turn 4, it is sometimes difficult to isolate the fact that you screwed up along the way.

Now look at this version of Survival of the Fittest, Paul Barclay’s Full English Breakfast:

(This is my personal vote for the most difficult deck – The Ferrett, who hasn’t read to the end of the article yet and is curious to see whether Mike pulls something even more complex than this out of his archives)

4 Forest

6 Island

4 Tropical Island

1 Taiga

1 Savannah

2 Undiscovered Paradise

3 City of Brass

4 Birds of Paradise

4 Wall of Roots

2 Quirion Ranger

4 Volrath’s Shapeshifter

3 Tradewind Rider

2 Phyrexian Dreadnought

1 Elvish Lyrist

1 Uktabi Orangutan

1 Bottle Gnomes

1 Gilded Drake

1 Sliver Queen

1 Morphling

1 Reya, Dawnbringer

1 Flowstone Hellion

1 Squee, Goblin Nabob

4 Survival of the Fittest

4 Force of Will

3 Counterspell

The name Full English Breakfast is a play on the “cereal” names that combo decks of the time were all plying – Trix, Wheaties, and so on. This deck is probably the actual most difficult deck to play. (I win! – The Ferrett) It’s a Survival deck, demanding correct search priority after priority. It’s a combination deck as well… But it’s a really easy combination deck to screw up.

For those of you who don’t know how this deck works, you get Volrath’s Shapeshifter in play. You attack with it. Before damage goes on the stack, you discard so that Flowstone Hellion is the top card of your graveyard. You activate Flowstone Hellion several times, giving the Volrath’s Shapeshifter +1/-1, all in response to one another. Before any of the pumps resolve, you discard again, this time putting Phyrexian Dreadnought on top of your deck. By the time the opponent gets hit by the ever-active Volrath’s Shapeshifter, he is facing down a lethal 23/1.

But of course, the deck has all kinds of other cards demanding precise play. Tradewind Rider: More instants, interactive even. Quirion Ranger: Resource management, stack, and timing questions. Reya, Dawnbringer? Free handicap for your opponent.

Dialing it back to our initial question about Type I, I recall some sessions between some of the best Type I players of Magic’s past. Even though they were successful in serious tournament Magic, with many Pro Tours and Grand Prix Top 8s between them, guys like Pat Chapin, Mike Pustilnik, and Brian Weissman innovated Type I and gave it the same cerebral attentions that they did the more mainstream tournament formats.

At one time, Weissman had a deck with only three Force of Wills in his control deck, dying consistently to Chapin’s combination deck in the early game. The poster claims that deck construction is an essential part of Type I, but it is not particularly skill-intensive to figure out that one should play the maximum number of Force of Wills in order to survive when the limiting factor of one’s survival is whether or not he draws Force of Will inside a relevant window.

Chapin and Weissman further found that, at least between these two players during this particular session, victory was 100% contingent on which player resolved Ancestral Recall. Think about that.

As to how skill-testing a format is, the length of games must be considered. Chris Pikula used to say that the best way to assess the skill level of two players was to have them play hours and hours of mono-blue on mono-blue, either Draw-Go on Draw-Go or Draw-Go on Forbidian (preferably against Jon Finkel), and in the latter case, exchanging decks after set periods. Why is this the best way to assess skill level? These kinds of decks are full of instants and instant-speed effects. They are short on win conditions and demand decisions and resource management, turn after turn. Winning the blue mirror often asks that a player discard at the end of his turn rather than making a play, and victory is many times contingent on intentionally losing an instant war at the end of the opponent’s turn. Correctly picking your spot over the course of many grueling turns will be the difference between winning and not.

One of the reasons Carlos Romao’s World Championship win was so amazing was that he went undefeated in Standard and ran through the Top 8 with a very straightforward Psychatog deck: he won every mirror with no deck tech. All of Carlos’s advantage came from understanding how to play his matchups in an interactive manner.

When a format is chock full of turn 2 kills, it is inherently less skill-intensive than a format that demands long games with many decisions. This is not directly an indictment of Type I… Just think about it. Alan “eeyoo” Webter once complained about getting killed in Standard. His opponent played a first-turn Sarcomancy. “Great,” thought Alan, “Great matchup!” He laid down a Jackal Pup. The opponent played a Crystal Vein and attacked.

What is Alan supposed to do in this situation? Whether he blocks or not is irrelevant to a Hatred kill, which is what his opponent had on turn 2. He didn’t have the Shock, so his scripted Jackal Pup play was probably the right one. It’s possible he could have bluffed the Shock – but if his opponent called the bluff, he would have gotten killed anyway. Alternately, his opponent might have just played another guy and either gone for a swarm kill or turn 3 or 4 Hatred kill after Alan was forced to commit mana.

While you can argue that he played incorrect Magic, that he should have gone for the Catachresis, Alan still had the opportunity to make only one decision the entire game. While playing for two turn duels might be a test of guts and grit, it cannot correctly be held up against resource management over several turns.

Randy Buehler once told me that he considered it good that there is a lot of luck in Magic. If we wanted to play a game decided solely on the basis of skill, we would play chess. We like overcoming bad matchups. We like topdecking. We love when our opponents are manascrewed. We just hate being on the wrong end of Lady Luck.

Randy also said that he considered Magic to be a much more skill-intensive game than poker. In No Limit Texas Hold ’em, you often risk your entire stack on a coin flip, whereas in Magic – all factors considered – the better player can be favored something like 90% of the time. The better player probably chooses a better deck to begin with in Constructed, and can make better use of worse cards and oblique synergies even in Sealed deck.

For example: At a recent Champions of Kamigawa Sealed Deck PTQ, two of my good friends (who will remain nameless) played in an undefeated round. One was playing a G/x deck with combat tricks and the other had a powerful W/x deck splashing red for Ryusei, the Falling Star and two Yamabushi’s Flames. They found themselves in a race position so that the W/x player would lose to the G/x player’s evasion creatures in two turns, and possibly would lose immediately if his opponent had some sort of pump spell. He had to get through with both of his attackers this turn in order to edge out the race.

The W player played a pre-combat Mountain – a clear mistake given the Sokenzan Bruiser on the other side of the table. He swung and put his opponent at two with a slight advantage on the board, a clear signal that he was looking at a lethal from the Bruiser.

So he Stone Rained his own Mountain.

What a Catachresis! The pre-combat Mountain forced through his attackers like a Falter, because his opponent thought that this mistake was going to buy him an immediate win. The W/x player ended up representing the G/x player’s only losses, once in the Swiss, and again in the Top 4 of the PTQ.

And something to think about:

I worked with Gary Wise at PT Columbus. Gary told me something really enlightening about high level Magic. “Your ability to succeed in Magic,” he said “is limited by your ability to control your tells.”

edt talked for a long time about how he thought Mike Turian was about as good as they get at beatdown Magic. Mike bluff-attacked at exactly the right ratio, and held back when he thought he would get blocked. He would pick up random points to win close games, but not lose key creatures for little profit when he thought his bluffs were going to get called. One of the best players I know at specifically getting into his opponent’s head with his decisions is New York State Champion Mike Clair (who has, incidentally, written an article on racing and combat today, so you should probably go read him right now). Mike isn’t at Finkel/Maher level with his reads yet, and isn’t the tightest player on the planet (even though he strives to improve his technical play more than anyone else I know) but he pulls wins out of the air like a stage magician produces rabbits out of a hat. He is the kind of guy who can weather a twelve-card sideboard in the Affinity mirror by convincing an opponent with a four-permanent advantage he has the Electrostatic Bolt but just doesn’t feel like using it.

And though we have spent the bulk of this article talking about correct decision making, what makes for testing skill, and so on, let us never forget that Magic is also a game where fortune’s smile is rather an important factor. In that spirit, I give you THE STORY OF 0-2 BYES.

Somehow Paul Jordan lucksacked onto the team of Steve Sadin and Mike Clair. I think that Sadin and Clair is a top-notch PTQ duo, and all Paul had to do was x-0 every draft one day to impress them enough to pick him up (forget about the fact that he has co-led Pro Tour Team events, has a Top 10 Teams finish, and has made money on the Tour more than once).

So Paul, Steve, and Mike played in a Chicago GP Trial at Neutral Ground a few weeks back.

Round One, they played against a team featuring a Small Child ™ so annoying he almost drove Osyp to leaving the site. They lost.


Round Two, they played against Brook North, Zev Gurwitz, and “some Asian guy I have literally never seen before.” Brook and Zev wanted to draft, and conceded immediately to play with different forty-card decks.

1-1 (but actually 0-1, scoop)

Round Three was supposed to be the last round of the trial, cutting to two, but that is only because there was some sort of bookkeeping error using old rules. By the time it was confirmed that there would be four rounds of Swiss cutting to four, their opponents had left the site, believing that they could not actually advance.

2-1 (but actually 0-1, scoop, no opponents)

Round Four, they played some combination of National Champ Craig Krempels, GP Austin Champ Jon Sonne, PT Champ Osyp Lebedowicz, PCQ Champ John Fiorello, former NJ State Champ Adam Horvath, and Gerard Fabiano.

They drew into the Top 4.

2-1-1 (but actually 0-1, scoop, no opponents, draw)

In the round of four, they played against whoever the other three TOGIT players were from the pool of Krempels, Sonne, Lebedowicz, Fiorello, Horvath, and Fabiano. They lost.

2-2-1 (but actually 0-2, scoop, no opponents, draw)

The two TOGIT powerhouse teams met in the finals. Because both teams had so many Pro Tour Points that they would automatically mise byes, said byes passed down to Clair/Jordan/Sadin, a team that had won a total of four games of Magic and no matches – even individual matches – over five rounds of play.

So yes, there is hope for you, too.