Feature Article – Sullivan Library: Reach, and Explaining the Demise of White/Green

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The Time Spiral Block Constructed metagame is constantly evolving. Early in the season, it seemed that White/Green Tarmogoyf would conquer all — it certainly relegated Mono-Red to the “Where Are They Now” pile. However, the control decks reacted to the beatdown threat and ascended to the top of then heap once more. So why did the beatdown die? Adrian examines the necessity of reach in an Aggro deck, and offers some solutions to those determined to swing for the win.

There are a lot of things that have been said about beatdown. One of my favorites is from poet/magician Dave Price:

“While there are wrong answers, there are no wrong threats.”

This statement has been debated over the years since it was originally stated, but its essential essence rings true. Even if the threat is a weak threat (a Magus of the Scroll, for example, when you never get to a third mana), the fact remains that it can kill you.

For blank, Magic is a game of blank blank blank. There are a lot of things that have been said to fill in the blank, and often the things that authors and theorists place in that hole is absolutely correct. The thing about Magic is that its complexity makes many of the answers we’d place in that hole correct. One of the Magic Lib answers is: “For aggressive decks, Magic is a game of inches, oftentimes.”

In the famous answers and threats quote from Price, he was initially talking about the difficulty, play-wise, of the beatdown deck. Many good players discount the amount of playskill and deckbuilding skill that it can take to bring a player from twenty to zero life. You can read tournament reports, match reports from big events, and watch (or play) match after match in which an aggressive deck only just barely squeaked off the kill. Usually, for the aggressive deck, this means that the game was a short one. This also means that the stakes for the aggressive deck are often much higher.

I misclicked on MTGO recently, hastily putting into play a Temple Garden instead of a Llanowar Reborn. On the following turn, I dropped a Watchwolf, and in the next I finally dropped the Llanowar Reborn and a Tarmogoyf. Other than that turn 1 land drop, I don’t think that I made any other mistakes (though it is possible that I did). On turn 5, when I had my opponent at one life, they started their road to recovery, and eventually won that game.

Playing in another match, going second, I was debating between a turn 1 play of Rift Bolt and a turn 1 play of 1/1 Kird Ape. We were sideboarded into game 3, and I knew that my opponent had access to at least 3 Darkblast and ran both Wall of Roots and Dark Confidant. Their board was an untapped Swamp. My hand had Scab Clan Mauler. Which would be the right play? The Ape or the Bolt?

Matches are won or lost for beatdown decks at nearly every turn, starting on turn 1.

Obviously, those two examples leave out a lot of details, but they still illustrate that in games of abbreviated length, choices matter a lot.

This is a different phenomenon from the protracted game. Speaking as a control player, one of the things that control players love is to have a game progress for enough turns that the subtle tactical and strategic decisions that we make can force skill-testing on the opponent. I love, for example, playing near-mirror matches in control matches, because I expect that I’m going to know how to win the control mirror against any opponent that I might play in a PTQ, and most opponents that I might face in a GP event or higher. Brian Kowal and I have talked a lot about how disappointing it was when the inevitable happened, and Masques Block rotated out of its various formats. Why? Because as control players, we knew how to use Accumulated Knowledge in a control war, and most of our opponents did not, and so they would just outright lose matchups that they probably should have won, given the actual contents of our decks.

In terms of skill-testing, a slow deck can ask the opponent, in many situations, “Hey, do you understand what is going on?”

The fast deck, on the other hand, is asking, “Hey, are you going to stumble, even slightly?”

The thing is, they are both asking this question of themselves, too.

In asking this question of itself, this is where the beatdown deck has to shine. They have only a few turns to win. As it moves beyond that, just as Mike Flores wrote oh-so-long-ago in Threat Theory, Answer Theory, the control deck gets to begin to ask the beatdown deck to answer it. And that’s a bad place for the beatdown to be.

In the best matchups for a particular beatdown deck, the matchup can be so overwhelming that it is okay for the beatdown deck to stumble a little bit. Like the Juggernaut tripping down the stairs at you, he’s still the Juggernaut, and it’s going to hurt a lot when he lands on you.

In the close matchups though, that little stumble is the game.

Let’s look at two examples of beatdown decks that understand how to squeeze that last little bit out of a deck, from the Professor and newly-minted Great British Champion, Craig Jones. (As an aside, is anyone else annoyed that as of Monday and Tuesday of this week, there was no actual direct link to this event from the main Wizards site? I thought so… (To find it, click on that link right over there, or go to the Wizards page, then click on the Tournament Center, and then go to the coverage. Grr.))

Both of these decks have something that I love to see in a beatdown deck: the ability to get some reach. This is why, historically, most of the best beatdown decks of all time have included Red. Red is the color of burn, one of the finest spell types in the game, if not the finest.

Burn isn’t just creature elimination, it is player elimination.

If we look at Craig Jones’s Nationals deck, we can see that it is actually possible for him to take an opponent from 56 to 0 without ever attacking. Now clearly, it is pretty unrealistic to be able to expect that Craig would ever have to, or be able to actually draw every damage dealing spell in his deck and be able to point them all at his opponents head. On the other hand, he also usually gets to attack.

What this affords Craig, though, is the ability to push through that moment where he is “stuck”. Look at the example of his quarter-final opponent at Nationals, Eduardo Sajgalik. In game 3, Aven Riftwatcher had netted 16 life for his opponent (plus the Incinerate that one Riftwatcher was a lightning rod for, making plus 19 life), but his burn enabled him to win that game. In game 5, an Incinerate and Seal of Fire were punched directly at Eduardo’s head to help enable a total of seven extra damage when the Tarmogoyf attacked, but those burn cards were simply a lost cause in terms of card advantage. As Craig used them, he was just extending his reach.

Four Fanatic, two Marauder, four Char, Incinerate, Seal of Fire, and Rift Bolt. If need be, any of these cards can be used to go to the dome. Craig’s list runs a very small actual number of “beatdown” creatures (Tarmogoyf and Troll Ascetic), but on the back of all of that burn, he doesn’t need to run that much.

In contrast, his Honolulu list runs a huge amount of truly aggressive early drops (16 or 19, depending on your opinion of Kami of Ancient Law). His cards that enable “reach” is a little less (16 here, versus 22 at Nationals), but he doesn’t need quite as much given his heavier early creature beatdown that he has available.

Compare this to my own Time Spiral Block Red deck:

Here is a deck with, essentially, zero fast beatdown, and arguable 26 reach cards, including land. Without the beatdown cards, this deck isn’t about giving the quick race to zero. Sure, it is as concerned as any other “aggressive” deck in getting the opponent to zero, but it goes about it by nickel-and-diming the opponent to death, and winning on the back of repeatable damage sources.

In a format like Time Spiral Block, there is a much-mourned death of the Red deck. A great deal of this is based upon the various Black/Blue/(x) decks that are able to prey upon these decks, largely based on the squeeze between Damnation, Tendrils of Corruption, and card drawing. Into this void of aggression stepped the White/Green deck.

Here, we have an interesting phenomenon: these initial White/Green beatdown decks were very clearly about putting on the clock, but these were not decks with reach. They were designed to be resistant to the Damnation/Tendrils of Corruption power of Black/Blue, and yet also be quick enough to render the card draw nearly meaningless.

Let’s take a look at Grand Prix: Montreal champion Celso Zampere, Jr.’s, deck:

Where is the reach in this deck? Some people might point to Thrill of the Hunt as reach, but it is conditional reach. Conditional upon the existence of a living, attacking creature.

No, this is a deck that does not have reach. It is a deck of beatdown creatures, and resilient late-game threats.

In the weeks after the Grand Prix, you’d have this argument happen.

“This Black/Blue deck beats White/Green.”
“Well, I play White/Green because it beats Black/Blue. You must be wrong.”
“Actually, no, I beat White/Green.”
“Not in my testing.”

And on, and on.

What is playing out here is a war between different levels of evolution on the technology curve. The initial White/Green lists preyed upon the weaknesses of the Black/Blue/x decks. Glancing at the other two White/Green/x lists in the Top 8 of that first Grand Prix, we can see that between the three lists, there are no pure reach spells, and only five total semi-reach spells (four total Thrill of the Hunt and one Stonewood Invocation).

As Black/Blue evolved, though, in the next weeks, we see that only one ostensibly traditional White/Green/x deck has made a Top 8 in the PTQs of last week (at least from the four reported on this website as of this moment). A G/U/w deck made Top 8, but essentially, the White/Green decks have been brushed aside by the Black/Blue decks’ response to them. Look at these solutions:

Jim Davis, 1st: 2 Triskelavus, 1 Temporal Isolation, 1 Venser, plus siding Spin into Myth and another Venser.

Sebastian Denno, 2nd: 2 Triskelavus, 1 Bogardan Hellkite, 2 Void, and siding 3 Take Possession and 2 more Void.
Ian Kerr, 4th: 1 Triskelavus, 2 Take Possession, 1 Temporal Isolation, 1 Venser, siding Pickles-lock, Take Possession, and another Venser.

Laurence Adams, 6th: 1 Triskelavus, 1 Temporal Isolation, siding 3 Porphyry Nodes, 2 Take Possession, 1 Snapback, 1 Venser

Lubbock, TX:
Brian Heine, 5th: 3 Take Possession, 1 Temporal Isolation, 3 Void, siding 3 Temporal Isolation

And, for fun, my own win, given that I was already deciding to take an active role in beating a White/Green deck.

Adrian Sullivan, 1st: Pickles lock, 1 Venser, siding 4 Porphyry Nodes, more Pickles, 1 Venser, and access to 2 Take Possession (though I found I never needed them to win that matchup)

As a beatdown deck, you can be punished for not actually having access to reach. One of the big reasons for the success of many of the new Blue/Green Tarmogoyf decks is access to Psionic Blast and Delay. While Delay is a fantastic card which gives the Tarmogoyf the ability to actually be an aggro-control deck and potentially set up a matchup advantage from an archetype perspective, it is the Psionic Blast which allows the Blue/Green deck to have an alternate path to victory which can sneak past being locked out by Academy Ruins/Triskelavus, or any of the other multitudes of answers to beatdown that the Black/Blue decks have moved to.

For an aggressive deck to drive a more controlling deck down to zero life without reach, they really have to be exploiting a loophole. My own White/Green deck for 10th Standard or for Ravnica Block both feel incredibly strong for their respective formats. They also include a few Bathe in Light as a means of semi-reach to actual reach, depending on the opponent. But as strong as I believe that those decks are, in a format that actually would expect to see them, they would crumble quickly (so long as the card pool exists to answer them). Beatdown without reach has to realize the limits of their ability.

For White/Green to survive, at this point in time in Time Spiral Block, one of two things will need to happen. Either the metagame will have to shift to such a point that Black/Blue no longer runs the answers that it has found to answer the White/Green threat (and this is beginning to become a real possibility), or White/Green is going to have to actually splash into more reach, or at least more semi-reach. Patrick Chapin offers another potential solution to the problem for White/Green, by maindecking Disenchant in his version (trumping the Black/Blue trumps, in theory), but this does come at the cost of watering down the beatdown.

I’m going to guess that the better solution for the White/Green lover in Time Spiral Block is to abandon the deck, and come back to it later, when the time is right (if you’re lucky).

Good luck, everyone, in this next weekends round of PTQs!