For your entertainment and delectation, here are ten short snippets of strategy or stories, from fire magic, to summoning Elves, to the strongest deck in Standard, to a new (and banned) deck for Legacy.
ONE: A NEW SERVANT
Before the Great British Nationals, I had a weird dream:
I was sitting on top of a Mountain, surveying my Red minions, from the smallest goblin to the Greatest Gargadon. All was well in the world, when first I saw it coming out of the Forest… a puny little creature.
There was a bang as a Mogg Fanatic collided with it.
Undeterred, the creature, now a little bigger, picked itself up, wiped off the remaining pieces of the Fanatic, and continued climbing. It reached the Seal of Fire, ringed with Elvish corpses, and its fur caught fire as it crossed.
Slightly singed, but otherwise unharmed, it waited for the Seal to burn itself out before setting off once more. Intrigued, I waved my hand and Incinerated it.
To my surprise, the Incinerate didn’t kill it but seemed just to have somehow strengthened it. Alarmed, I hurled a Char at it, and closed my eyes as the pain hit me.
When I opened my eyes, the beast had reached the summit, and was towering over me. It began to speak:
“My name is Tarmogoyf. I serve the Mountains. Summon me, and I shall defeat your foes…”
It paused, and thoughtfully started to chew on the head of a passing Mogg War Marshal.
“… I have been misled,” it finally declared. “You are not the one I seek. Can you direct me to Craig Jones?”
TWO: WHICH RED DECK?
Before Great British Nationals, Craig Jones and I spent ages agonizing about the Gruul Deck (actually, to be strictly accurate, Craig spent ages agonizing, and I spent ages worrying that he would end up with Elves in his deck).
What we found is that it is quite hard to go wrong with your Red Deck at the moment – whichever option you choose is likely to be powerful. Look at just the one-drops available – Mogg Fanatic (welcome back), Scorched Rusalka, Martyr of Ashes, and Frenzied Goblin.
(Side note – Of these, Frenzied Goblin is the one that people seem to forget. I know Ravnica was a long time ago, but the Pro-Tour-winning Goblin shouldn’t be forgotten. Most of the control decks plan to use early blockers, like Wall of Roots or Court Hussar, to soak up damage in the early game, and after sideboard, Aven Riftwatcher or Epochrasite play a similar role. The Goblin lets your army run on past.)
Superficially, our decks ended up rather different. We both had the core ingredients of 16 burn spells, Fanatic, War Marshal, and Tarmogoyf. I had 4 Frenzied Goblin, 4 Greater Gargadon, 4 Keldon Marauders, where Craig had 4 Troll Ascetic, 2 Gargadon, 2 Marauders, and 4 Treetop Village, as well as a slightly different mix of land including basic Forest. But the similarities are much more important than the differences. In particular, there was no matchup where the differences between the decks would suggest using a different strategy.
In this age, where there are lots of good cards but few broken ones, it is very hard to say that choosing one card over another similar is definitely “right” or “wrong.” What is much more important is that the cards that you pick are the ones with which you are comfortable, you evaluate correctly, and let you implement the correct plan for your deck.
For example, Craig Jones, like many players, is totally obsessed with Troll Ascetic in Red/Green decks, whereas I think it is weird to play with a creature which has not one, but two Green mana symbols in its casting cost. That’s absolutely fine – neither is right or wrong, and the difference is down to play style. Where there gets to be a problem is when people start to play badly because they have Trolls in their deck. Gruul decks often, for example, have to tap out to cast spells every turn. But people who have a Troll in play will often overvalue it and not be prepared to cast spells if it means that they can’t regenerate their Troll, even if leaving 1G open every turn is actually detrimental to their overall game plan.
If you find that when you are playing a deck that one of the cards is one that you don’t really seem to be getting the most out of, it is worth trying alternatives which might fit your style better.
THREE: THE ELVISH TRAP
None of the above should be seen as an excuse to put Llanowar Elves in your Gruul deck.
There are times (he says through gritted teeth), when Green/Red decks have needed Elves. If the game plan is to get an advantage by casting a three-mana spell on turn 2, and a four-mana spell on turn 3, then Elves, Birds of Paradise, etc. are great. For example, if most decks folded to a quick Burning Tree Shaman backed up by a Rumbling Slum, then clearly any way of accelerating your mana would be good.
But the Elvish Trap runs as follows. To get the benefit from having Elves in your deck, you need to have more expensive spells. There is no point playing a deck with sixteen one-drops and twenty two-drops and including Elves, because you might as well have a different one-drop with a more useful ability, particularly when the Elves are in the color that you are splashing for. To justify having Elves in your deck, you might have fewer two drops, and more three or four (or even more!) mana spells. If, however, you never get to tap your Elves for mana, then you end up playing a deck with more expensive spells which are slower against the control decks, and which mean you are at a disadvantage against quicker decks with more one-and two-drops. So you end up taking out things like Mogg War Marshal and Keldon Marauders, and putting in Burning Tree Shaman and Call of the Herd, and weakening your deck against both the aggro decks and control decks.
The problem is that this current Standard environment is exactly the one most hostile to the Elves (yay!). Cheap ways to destroy them – principally Mogg Fanatic and Seal of Fire, but even things like Darkblast – abound. As for accelerating out big creatures, the control decks tend to run bounce spells like Riftwing Cloudskate, and countermagic like Remand, which discourage the use of spells that cost more than two mana.
If you must play Elves, then look at something like Michael Jacob mono-Green deck, which has its untargetable creatures and things to do with extra mana. But stick to the Goblins, Martyrs, and Rusalkas for one-drops in the Red/Green deck.
FOUR: GRUUL VERSUS RAKDOS
I like the Rakdos decks that won the Australian Nationals. What I don’t understand is the thought-process that goes “Gruul is probably the strongest deck once Tenth Edition rotates in, so I’ll play a deck which loses to Gruul.”
I looked on the Internet to find an explanation of the Rakdos plan against Gruul, and the most I could find was the following (from another strategy site) – “If Rakdos ever establishes a superior or equal board position during a game, that game tends to topple in its direction in this matchup, due to the higher volume of burn and removal.” But as anyone who has played the matchup will know, this simply isn’t the case. It is still better, however, than trying to assign an arbitrary percentage to the matchup, as in “Rakdos wins 45% of game 1s, and then 50% after sideboarding” – more on that later.
Looking at the options available to the Rakdos deck versus Gruul, none hold great appeal. It can’t try to dominate the board, because it has fewer creatures… and, with the exception of Solifuge, its creatures die easily. It doesn’t have any evasion, again with the exception of Solifuge’s Shroud ability. None of its cards disrupt the Gruul deck. It finds it hard to burn the opponent, because it has to burn the opponent’s creatures, and it has to try to defend and prevent the Gruul deck from dominating the board. Cards like Greater Gargadon, Mogg War Marshal, Tarmogoyf, Troll Ascetic, and Call of the Herd will usually take multiple cards to handle, and the Gruul deck often plays less land than Rakdos anyway, so is likely to draw more burn spells and creatures. The end result is that the Rakdos deck ends up running out of cards when the Gruul deck still has a couple of creatures or burn spells left in hand, and gets worn down (or attacked by a Gargadon).
The way that Rakdos decks can win are either by burning the Gruul deck’s creatures and attacking with a Solifuge; or casting Hit/Run when the Gruul deck only has Greater Gargadon in play; or by casting Dark Confidant and drawing several extra cards (without either getting burned or losing the Rakdos deck enough damage for Gruul to finish it off); or, most commonly, by the Gruul deck drawing a lot more land than the Rakdos deck.
Of these different options, the only one that is under the control of the Rakdos deck is to try to burn the Gruul creatures and cast one or more Solifuges. Its not a great plan, but it is the one that at least offers some prospect of success. At Nationals, in every Rakdos versus Gruul matchup I saw, the Rakdos player boarded out his Solifuges for stuff like Martyr of the Ashes and Terror.
Compare to Antonino de Rosa’s deck from U.S. Nationals. With Mogg War Marshal, Epochrasite and Greater Gargadon, de Rosa’s deck has a reasonable chance of summoning creatures faster than the Gruul deck can kill them. This puts the Gruul deck on the defensive, which in turn makes Threaten better (if they have one Tarmogoyf holding off three of your creatures, casting Threaten can deal a lot of damage, especially if you then sac the ‘goyf to the Gargadon). De Rosa’s deck doesn’t crush Gruul, by any means, but at least he has a plan.
FIVE: WHEN TO KILL BOB?
One poster in the forums asked recently when it is correct to remove Dark Confidant, and when it is best to leave it there and aim burn at the head. The way to work this out is as follows. If you have the advantage on the board, or a lot of creatures in hand, then burn the Confidant. If you have a lot of burn spells in hand, let the Confidant live.
For example, if both players are on 20, and you have a Mogg War Marshal plus Goblin in play, three more creatures and a Seal of Fire in hand, and the Rakdos player has a Dark Confidant in play and four cards in hand, then Seal the Confidant. The War Marshal will take multiple cards to remove, and you will be attacking for damage each turn and forcing the Rakdos deck to remove your creatures. The Confidant is a danger because it lets the Rakdos deck trade cards one for one and still come out on top in 3-4 turns time.
In contrast, if both players are on 17, there are no creatures except the Confidant in play, and your hand is Char, Char, Incinerate, with your opponent having three cards in hand, then it is worth letting the Confidant live. If you draw one more burn spell, it only takes 3-4 damage from the Confidant for you to be able to burn your opponent out. If you use a burn spell on the Confidant, you are in a difficult position and victory is by no means certain.
SIX: KEEP OR MULLIGAN?
Steve Sadin Red Deck is really, really good. When testing it against the Editor’s White/Green/Black deck, he summoned 4 Loxodon Hierarchs, and I still won. I won four matches at Nationals in a total of about 50 minutes. Worrying about the mirror doesn’t seem to be so much a problem, as for some reason many Gruul players are still playing with slower cards like Burning Tree Shaman, Call of the Herd, or Giant Solifuge, and don’t have the amazing Mogg War Marshal or Greater Gargadon. Playing just 20 land can cause problems, though…
Game 1, round 1 of Nationals, I drew my first hand to find the following:
Mountain, Mogg Fanatic, Greater Gargadon, Seal of Fire, Rift Bolt, Keldon Marauders, Incinerate
How many of you would mulligan that? I kept, because I was on the draw, as if I draw just one land I can cast everything in my hand and all but four cards in my whole deck, and there’s plenty to do even with one land.
I drew my second land on turn 6.
Same happened game 1 of round 2.
Thing is, I don’t see how it can be right to mulligan any and all one-land hands with this deck. This is a small sample size, and it seemed to work out okay in testing, so I’d be interested in other people’s views of whether this was just bad luck or whether it would have been better to mulligan.
SEVEN: DON’T TELL ME HOW MUCH, TELL ME HOW AND WHY
What do the following statements have in common?
“Game 1 has been around a coin-flip so far from the games we’ve played. I’d say 55-45 in favor of the Bridge deck, as you can get the double Dread Return on turn 4 draw and they just lose to that.”
“Even if you have a 55% favorable matchup over 10 games, in a short match of two-in-three, the edge almost has to go back to GAT.”
I wrote about the (mis)use of percentages in describing matchups ages ago, and nothing has happened to change my mind that describing something as a 55% matchup is at best meaningless and can be actively harmful. In both quotes, the writers are making mathematical claims, but using decidedly non-mathematical evidence to support their claims.
It might be an interesting mathematical exercise to work out how many games of Magic you would need to play between two decks to get an estimate accurate to within, say, 5% of how often deck A would be expected to win, given the players playing it. It would be a useless exercise for any practical purposes, because changing the players involved, or changing some of the cards in the deck, would change the win percentage.
If you are testing a matchup and all you record is who won each game, it is a missed opportunity. The really valuable data is not whether your Blue/Green deck went 55-38 in testing against Blue/Black control, but the qualitative evidence, what the key cards were, what mistakes tended to be crucial, noting the best plan to follow, and so on. There is a danger, as in the first quote above, of over-valuing games where victory was crushing (“you can get the double Dread Return draw”) – every game counts equally whether you win in devastating fashion or lose because of mana problems.
If a writer tells you that their deck has a 55% favorable matchup against one of the most popular decks, but doesn’t tell you how or why, then they are not giving you relevant or useful information that will help you when you are sitting down to play the deck in a tournament. I feel fine about picking the two quotes that I did, because the authors (Stephen Menendian and Nick Eisel) are two of StarCityGames.com best at giving exhaustive and relevant qualitative information about matchups.
EIGHT: BONUS DECK NUMBER ONE
I think that the Gruul deck is currently the strongest deck in Standard. It won British Nationals and the MSS, and was first and second amongst Standard decks at U.S. Nationals in the Swiss portion (Dusty Ochoa went 7-0 and Thomas Huteson went 6-0-1, no one else did better than 6-1). I looked at Zac Hill R/B/g deck, which is interesting, but as he says, finds it really hard to beat Mogg War Marshal.
Here’s the updated version I would recommend:
The main idea behind the sideboard is to take on the multi-color control decks (U/W/B; U/W/R; U/W/G). Particularly after sideboarding, you need to be able to deal more than twenty damage, as they have Riftwatchers and either Hierarchs or Lightning Helixs. This suggests that the best strategy is to try to control their mana, with both Cryoclasm and Magus of the Moon backed up with artifact kill (Cryoclasm goes after their basic lands, Magus turns the rest into Mountains, and Ancient Grudge mops up the Signets). This gives you a chance both of quick wins by denying them the mana they need (with Cryoclasm and Ancient Grudge screwing their mana), or by winning a longer game with Magus making their deck awkward, and therefore being able to keep on attacking and deal 32-36 damage over the course of the game as required. I added an extra land to the main deck to help with casting these extra three-mana spells.
This strategy is possible because you don’t really need much of a sideboard against any of the other decks. Magus of the Moon is obviously great against Dredge, and Threaten is probably better than Char against other Red decks, but the control decks are the only ones at the moment that are worth changing the basic strategy against after sideboarding, and the ones where sideboarding can make most of a difference.
Incidentally, I think that Blue/White/Red decks would do better to sideboard Mogg Fanatic and/or Incinerate against Rakdos rather than (or in addition to!) Aven Riftwatcher. The main way that these decks seem to get beat is by Dark Confidant, and Fanatic and Incinerate plug that gap, as well as helping out against Magus of the Moon.
NINE: SECOND BONUS DECK
I’ll finish up with something completely different.
This deck is not, in fact, legal for any Constructed format at the moment, but is prompted by Christopher Coppola article about how Land Tax ought to be unbanned because card advantage is less important in Legacy than tempo, and any Land Tax deck would not be as good as the current big three Goblins/Threshold/Belcher. He supported this with a write-up of matchups between a hypothetical mono-White Land Tax deck and the top decks.
I thought this was a pretty dubious rationale (and for the sake of Legacy players, Land Tax should be banned because it is not worth the risk of the crushing tedium involved in playing against it).
Christopher offered an “open challenge” to deckbuilders to come up with a Land Tax deck that is good. I’d have thought that rather than a mono-White deck, the place to start would be with some kind of Blue/White deck, as per the following:
4 Enlightened Tutor
4 Force of Will
4 Thirst for Knowledge
4 Swords to Plowshares
3 Land Tax
3 Scroll Rack
1 Engineered Explosives
1 Sphere of Law
1 Phyrexian Furnace
1 Pithing Needle
1 Porphyry Nodes
2 Gaea’s Blessing
2 Chrome Mox
2 Mox Diamond
4 Flooded Strand
This is just version 1.0, and I’m not claiming it is unfair or anything. But if you look at Christopher’s examples of how games between a Tax deck and the top decks play out, compared to how this deck would operate, the difference is striking (basically, in his scenario, the Tax deck does nothing except use Land Tax or play Orim’s Chant before turn 3. It certainly doesn’t use Force of Will or Daze or tutor for a Sphere of Law or Phyrexian Furnace). If you can imagine how tedious a mirror match between two tuned versions of the deck above would be, I think you’ll agree that Land Tax should be left well alone.
That’s been quite a wide-ranging stroll round Constructed Magic. The common theme is the need to get the most out of testing and building decks, by focusing on identifying what is important in constructing and playing a deck. This can be very specific things – like which one-drop to put in your deck (sections two and three), what to do in a particular situation (section five and six), or more general things like how to make the best of a bad matchup (section four), or how to customize a deck so that you get the most out of it (section two). But it isn’t about just playing games to find which deck wins most often (section seven).
As ever, see you in the forums to answer any questions or comments, and ’til next time remember – it may look like a Green card, but Tarmogoyf is actually Red.