Feature Article – Sullivan Library: Power, Resilience, and Fragility

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Throughout the years, Adrian Sullivan has designed his fair share of powerful decks. His latest creation of note qualified him for Pro Tour: Valencia early in the season. Looking back at his creations, Adrian concludes that while all his successful decks achieved their goal, some of them were fragile or underpowered. Today, he offers the theory that fragile decks have a place in the metagame… and he shows us how to position ourselves to take advantage of an evolving metagame.

I’m becoming more and more pleased with the fact that I qualified in the first week of qualifiers as this season progresses. Make no mistake, this is a difficult metagame nut to crack.

Black/Blue/X control decks of all stripes have this nasty habit of squeezing other good decks between their card drawing, Tendrils, and Damnation. Properly built and played, these decks are a complete nightmare for most of the poor aggressive decks out there. Then, set against that on the control side, we have the dedicated Pickles deck. For the most part, the consensus seems to be that this deck smacks the Tendrils-based decks around on the side of the head. Finally, from the aggro-control side, Blue/Green Tarmogoyf decks put a huge amount of pressure on these control decks. If you’re looking for an advantage from your deck itself, it can be very, very hard to find something that can easily go into a field full of these three decks and claim to anyone that your deck has the advantage in every one of these cases. Usually, you can build a deck to beat two of them, but all three is a special feat indeed. For most people, then, this metagame demands that you get lucky. Look at the path Josh Ravitz took to qualify with his version of Kavu Justice, designed to beat Mono-Blue Pickles and Blue/Green — he played against these decks most of the day, but didn’t face Black/Blue once!

This isn’t to say that playing other decks than those three is a bad idea, but rather that the existence of these decks puts a harsh squeeze on your chances to qualify. Each of these three decks is incredibly powerful. What’s more, they’re incredibly resilient. What does that mean, exactly? Each of these three decks, while absolutely beatable, doesn’t simply fold the game to a single, easily played card.

If I were to take a critical eye to my own successes at events, there are a number of things I could critique. A lot of it has to do with the timing of my success. As any of you who’ve paid attention to my decks in the past might know that in Constructed I often qualify at the very beginning of a season, or not at all. Nearly every deck that qualifies for a Pro Tour can be considered powerful. I feel that I’ve had a lot of decks that I’ve designed over the years that can easily be said to be incredibly powerful. A big part of the problem with them is that they are often fragile.

My decks often exploit something. There is an opening that I notice, and I go after it. Sometimes this is an underutilized card or combo, or sometimes it is just the nature of the metagame in question. Often, this means that the deck is not expecting anyone to be prepared for the way that the deck works. When people become aware of these decks, then, or even if the world shifts into something new, the opening closes to be something either quite small, or sometimes non-existent.

Take a look at this Ponza deck that I made infinite years ago to qualify the first weekend in Masques’ Block Constructed.

Two-Bit Ponza
Adrian Sullivan and Ben Kidwell

4 Lava Runner
4 Chimeric Idol
3 Veteran Brawler
2 Scoria Cat
3 Task Mage Assembly
4 Seal of Fire
4 Thunderclap
3 Cave-In
2 Flowstone Slide
3 Tectonic Break
4 Kyren Toy
2 Dust Bowl
2 Rath’s Edge
20 Mountain

2 Heart of Ramos
2 Scoria Cat
4 Stone Rain
3 Mogg Salvage
2 Ancient Hydra
1 Flowstone Slide
1 Cave-In

I’ll bet that there are a large number of cards that you don’t know in the list. That’s okay. It’s often like that for me — my opponents reaching over to read my cards — so you’re in fine company.

Chimeric Idol was not a card that was seeing play that day, even though it would become a mainstay in the format very shortly. I knew the card was good. I’d also played Wildfire decks enough to know that Tectonic Break should be pretty insane. Here was a deck that could be expected to smash the versions of Rebels and Rising Waters that were typical of the time. Seth Burn, one of the loudest voices in Magic at the time, had not yet introduced the world to Skies, and none of the Rising Waters decks had included Chimeric Idol yet. Joel Priest, the Cabal Rogue member, and occasional deckbuilding guru, had not yet created Snuff-O-Derm.

The time was right for the deck. No one was running the Idol, and two decks that would later be discovered did not yet exist (both of which, like most decks, would run the Idol). The deck cruised through.

What was the problem later on? I simply no longer had Chimeric Idol advantage. Everyone had it. Aggro-Waters (Skies) actually put you on a clock so that you couldn’t count on your big spells to save the day. Scoria Cat, which was an utter beating versus certain elements of the field before, was not that much of a match against Blastoderms backed up by Snuff Out.

The window had closed. The environment, once it knew more about the cards that were out there to be exploited, simply was too good for this deck.

Occasionally, though, it isn’t the environment that needs to shift. It’s simply awareness of a deck that needs to shift.

Let’s look at my groundbreaking deck from States a few years back, Eminent Domain. Eminent Domain had a few innovations that I’m particularly proud of. First of all, the ramping up to a fast Wildfire via Annex is something that I think is just awesome. If you’ve ever been on the receiving end of it, you know just how devastating it is, often leaving the other player, either on turn 4 or 5, with no permanents, while the Eminent Domain player still has several. The other thing I’m quite proud of is my recognition of the power of both Remand and the Karoos in the format (like Dimir Aqueduct). Remand has since proven itself to be a great card, but at the time wasn’t widely accepted as one of the good cards. Karoos were both a fantastic way to cheat the mana counts, but also really wonderful in a post-Wildfire game. All of my testing had shown again and again that running more simple lands to sufficiently pay for all of my expensive spells would consistently make me flood, but the Dimir Aqueduct let me fit in more spells and only very rarely flood. They also had that nice bonus of helping me to splash Kokusho. It was a great tournament, and if you’d like to read more about it, you can read it here.

Here’s the list that I ran:

Eminent Domain
1st Place, Wisconsin State Championships, 2005

4 Dimir Signet
4 Icy Manipulator
3 Spectral Searchlight
4 Annex
4 Dream Leash
4 Remand
4 Shock
3 Keiga, The Tide Star
3 Kokusho, The Evening Star
4 Wildfire
1 Island
2 Mountain
4 Dimir Aqueduct
4 Shivan Reef
4 Tendo Ice Bridge
2 Mikokoro, Center Of The Sea
1 Minamo, School At Water’s Edge
2 Miren, The Moaning Well
1 Oboro, Palace In The Clouds
1 Shinka, The Bloodsoaked Keep
1 Shizo, Death’s Storehouse

3 Soratami Savant
3 Execute
2 Overwhelming Intellect
3 Shadow Of Doubt
4 Pyroclasm

There’s no doubt about it, from a pure power level perspective, Eminent Domain definitely proved itself. Three people played it at States that year, and all three of us made Top 4, while I won the whole shebang. It would later be adapted by Matsuhiro Kuroda to win the Finals, probably one of the most prestigious Standard tournaments in the world, with Dai Satou placing 4th with a different version of the deck.

That doesn’t take away from its huge weakness.

If you wanted to beat Eminent Domain, you could do it. In fact, nearly any deck could do it. You just had to want to.

I wrote about a part of the problem in my report.

The thing about States weekend, however, was that it was a Putrefy field. Most people weren’t particularly concerned with Enchantments and so Eminent Domain was able to get away with this glaring weakness. Cards like Plague Boiler were a definite risk, but you can always try to play around cards like Nevinyrral’s Disk, and Boiler is still a card that you don’t have to expect coming out from a lot of decks. If you are really concerned, try to fit a few Demolish or Smash into the board.

This deck really thrived on its enchantments and its artifacts. Chop those out, and the deck would flounder. Take Annex. Annex (and, to a lesser extent, Dream Leash or Confiscate) could really tear a person open. Each unanswered Annex is essentially a two-for-one moment of card advantage. An answered Annex (let alone the more expensive versions), on the other hand, is generally a moment of huge tempo advantage for your opponent. What is worse is that a prepared opponent could actually expect to not only get tempo advantage, but actually get card advantage as well, whether with Leave No Trace, Tempest of Light, or even Tranquility.

Worse yet, attacking the enchantments isn’t the only way to go about attacking the deck. Even a simple decision to run a card like Shattering Spree could be fantastically devastating. Simply running a number of Disenchant/Naturalize effects would do the trick too. Wildfire isn’t a great card if you have to be fair about it. This leaves you with Dragons. Even simple knowledge of the weak control base (only running Remand to actually stop anything) makes a huge difference. I would have probably lost to several opponents if they had realized all I had had was Remand. Kuroda switched over to the weaker Mana Leak, I’m guessing, because it actually really stopped something, an important thing to do from someone that actually knew the decklist.

What is the difference between these two decklists and their more resilient, robust counterparts?

None of the Time Spiral Block decks that I mentioned earlier are stronger simply because they are playing cards no one knows about. At this point, everyone knows that Tarmogoyf is good, or that Tendrils is good, or that Pickles is good. Furthermore, their cards are going to be good against pretty much anyone, even their worst matchups, and they aren’t reliant on a particular card that can simply be answered in one fell swoop by a sideboarding decision.

For comparison of a similarly resilient deck, let’s look at another of my decks, Kooky Jooky, from the 2004 States. Five people played the deck, getting a 1st, 4th, 6th, 12th, and bad-th place. Brian Kowal and I used our “divide and conquer” deckbuilding plan, and got a ton of help from deckbuilder extraordinaire Ben Dempsey, ending with this list:

Kooky Jooky
Adrian Sullivan, Brian Kowal, and Ben Dempsey.

4 Birds of Paradise
4 Sakura-Tribe Elder
4 Eternal Witness
4 Viridian Shaman
3 Hearth Kami
2 Duplicant
3 Rootrunner
4 Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker

4 Commune with Nature
4 Magma Jet
2 Sensei’s Divining Top

7 Mountain
11 Forest
2 City of Brass
1 Okina, Temple to the Grandfathers
1 Pinecrest Ridge

3 Plow Under
1 Rootrunner
1 Swamp
3 Cranial Extraction
1 Duplicant
3 Electrostatic Bolt
3 Arc-Slogger

If you’re interested in how it all worked in more detail, I go into it in this article. In short, though, the deck was maybe one of the only decks at the time that could claim a ridiculously good matchup versus Affinity.

But you had to do more than that. From the article:

Essentially the deck had been designed with the ability to both beat a lot of different styles of Affinity, and keep the ability to fight against nearly anything else. The Spirits are a great example of this. Without a card like Hearth Kami, it would have been completely necessary to include much more dedicated anti-artifact hatred. Unfortunately, not only would this cut down on the numbers of creatures in the deck for Kiki to take advantage of, but it would also narrow the deck down against other decks. Rootrunner was efficient enough on its own against a lot of matchups, but it could combine with Kiki to simply lock someone out of the game if unchecked. Every creature in the first game served a purpose against the unknown opponent (or at least as many unknowns as could be hit easily).

The big key: nothing would be completely dead.

The deck dodges being fragile by simply being powerful at what it does. The unknown opponent would still have to answer threats like a Kiki and a friend, and could easily be locked out. Simply having creature kill wasn’t enough to ensure that you’d stop it either, as a timely Eternal Witness or Kiki-Jiki off the top could set that back entirely. There were some clearly bad matchups (Mono-Blue springs to mind), but thankfully most of those could be squelched by the power of Affinity.

Sometimes people think that a deck is fragile, but in reality it is anything but fragile. Take my favorite deck from Extended many seasons ago, Stasis. I made several Top 8s and a 2nd place with this list, but no cigar…

Sullivan Stasis

4 Stasis
2 Back to Basics
2 Spellbook
2 Claw of Gix
2 Boomerang
4 Gush
4 Impulse
4 Force of Will
4 Thwart
2 Daze
2 Foil
1 Misdirection
3 Propaganda
2 Stroke of Genius
22 Island

4 Dandan
2 Back to Basics
3 Hibernation
1 Propaganda
1 Misdirection
4 Masticore

I built this Stasis deck upon the back of the Stasis deck that I gave to Gary Wise and Tony Dobson for the Masters in New York City way back in the day (which was in turn built on the back of the Pro Tour: Chicago Stasis decks played, I believe, by some of the Finns and the Japanese). It seems like I might be the only control player in my circle that can play my decks quickly enough to finish matches, but that’s fine by me. I don’t think I ever managed to time out with the deck, though other people have continuously had that problem with this deck, as they have had with many of my decks.

So, the argument would go, this deck is incredibly fragile (unplayable according to some) because of the huge amount of Trix in the format. It was generally widely agreed that this deck would smash Trix. The problem was that most people believed that it couldn’t withstand the hate that other decks had intended to smack around Trix with, but was incidentally hateful to this deck as well. Sideboards of the time (or even main decks) were full of Illusions of Grandeur-killing cards. These cards all, to a tee, could also completely smash a Stasis. Essentially, the argument was that this deck wasn’t, on its own merit, capable of holding off that incidental hate.

Here’s where the argument falls flat, though. While that argument may have been appropriate to many builds of Stasis, that was, I think, a function of those lists. The incidental hate could generally be categorized into two camps: Pyroblasts and Disenchants (of which you could expect Seal of Cleansing and Emerald Charm, generally). This put the expected decks that would run these cards as Three-Deuce, Sligh, and, occasionally, Junk. A smaller smattering of pure control decks like Oath of Druids might have similar weapons, but winning a protracted control war was always easy for Stasis, given its natural advantages (manaless spells, etc.).

For these aggressive decks, they expected their cheap answers to Stasis to win the day. The answer, in this case, was simply to overwhelm them. Junk and Three-Deuce might as well call a Back to Basics copies five through eight of Stasis. All of the decks were not excited to see Propaganda, which would either force them to eat up their Stasis answers, or slow down to a Syrups crawl. Then, on top of all of that, a Masticore could suddenly dominate the table or an annoying 4/1 Dandan could hop into the way.

Stasis, much like Pickles, was threatening enough to end any game because the other deck needed its untap phase. A deck so reliant on its key card like that sticking around can move from fragile to resilient simply by overwhelming the answers that are thrown at it. In all of the times that I played against Red, Three-Deuce, and Junk, I only remember losing once, in a match versus a very good Three-Deuce player. The deck that was definitely scarier was Miracle Grow (and to a lesser extent, Super Grow), and they didn’t generally win their games by “hating me out.” They did it the good old-fashioned way, with aggro-control’s natural edges versus a slow, control deck.

When it comes to playing any powerful deck, it is always best to try to play the deck that is resilient as opposed to the deck that is fragile. Fragile decks definitely have their place, if, for example, you can see some kind of loophole in an environment that isn’t being exploited. In these cases, be on the lookout for ways to address the fragility of your own deck. If you continue to play a particular deck in an area, or if the metagame becomes aware of a fragile deck, you can no longer expect to run off of the strength of the edges that come naturally to your deck from its surprise factor. Examine it and ask yourself how people will plan to attack the deck and if there is anything that you can do to answer these attacks. Sometimes the answer is to streamline your deck so that it isn’t simply a novelty deck, whereas other times, there can be very sensible answers that can hopefully be useful outside of the realm of merely addressing other decks’ answers to your own.

Remember, it’s okay to have a somewhat fragile deck if no one knows what you’re going to be doing, but you’d better toughen that deck up if you’re playing against someone who is in the know.