Flores Friday – A Case for Scissors, and Building the Anti-Deck

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Friday, May 23rd – In a follow-up to last week’s incredible “The Basic Test of Metagame Competence,” Mike sets out his case for avoiding decks that auto-lose to the most powerful deck in a metagame, even if they do crush the rest of the field. He also expands the theory of the Anti-Deck, and outlines some of the pleasures and pitfalls involved in running such a strategy.

“You know why we can’t play a deck that auto-loses to Faeries? Picture this: You’re 7-1, about to draw into Top 8, and you hit not a great player, but a competent player who knows what he is doing, with Faeries… And he can’t draw. That’s why you can’t play a deck that auto-loses to Faeries.”

Josh Ravitz

By the time you are reading this it is quite possible Pro Tour: Hollywood will already be underway. For most players, despite the fact that Pro Tour: Hollywood is Standard, the more relevant Standard tournament will not be the actual big show, but one’s local Regional Championships.

At the time of this writing, it looks like Faeries is going to be Public Enemy Number One (but that could change, of course, given this weekend’s outcome).

What does that mean?

At Perth Regionals, that meant that Faeries was the most played deck, but still nowhere near a predicted 40%.

Playing a purely anti-Faeries deck would have been a little bit silly. As with any targeting, a good anti-deck can beat other things besides its primary intended target, but still… Unless the format is presenting a compelling enough percentage of a particular opponent, the anti-deck is generally not justified unless it has some serious matchup merits.

Why is that?

Well, take one of the best anti-decks in recent memory, the G/W deck from Standard 2004:

G/W Control
Brian Kibler
Top 8 U.S. Nationals 2004

4 Elfhame Palace
3 Forest
12 Plains
4 Temple of the False God
4 Windswept Heath

4 Eternal Dragon

4 Akroma’s Vengeance
3 Decree of Justice
2 Gilded Light
4 Oxidize
4 Pulse of the Fields
4 Renewed Faith
4 Wing Shards
4 Wrath of God

2 Darksteel Colossus
2 Duplicant
2 Mindslaver
4 Purge
2 Reap and Sow
3 Tooth and Nail

This deck was built primarily to beat Ravager Affinity. It did that quite well, winning Game 1 over 90% of the time. As a good anti-deck, the G/W deck was able to do a couple of things. First and foremost, the G/W deck was able to remove Affinity’s fastest kills by destroying something with Oxidize quickly , reducing the artifacts count, or sometimes getting Ravager himself (the backbone of the fastest offense). It had card advantage, it could weather the opponent’s Skullclamp, and given time, it had the tools to completely bury Affinity with Akroma’s Vengeance (but believe it or not, Affinity could come back from even two or three Akroma’s Vengeances in a single game due to the constant reload afforded by Skullclamp and Thoughtcast).

As with most viable anti-decks, the G/W deck could beat things outside its most tightly characterized target. In the case of 2004 Standard, it got the next most relevant matchup: Mono-Red or G/R Goblins. That matchup was not a problem whatsoever.


Like almost all anti-decks, the G/W deck was a mess in even some of the other fairly common matchups of the era. Despite being very strong against Mono-Red or G/R Goblins decks, the Goblin Bidding matchup was next to hopeless. Tooth and Nail was very rough as well (Kibler confessed to me that he only beat an Elf and Nail deck at Nationals because he played some Forests in Game 1, and his opponent foolishly sideboarded out Vernal Bloom!). In both cases, the G/W deck, which was a defensive deck against Affinity, was pressed with a threat for which it had no defensive interactions.

In today’s Standard, we know that there is a foil — if not a full-blown anti-deck — for Faeries in the Red Deck. If you are in one of these loony tunes tournaments where you play six straight Faeries decks, huzzah, the Red Deck might make you look like a genius. However, even in a fifty percent Faeries tournament that is not a likely path… And playing the Red Deck has its own problems. For one thing, despite Patrick Chapin quote “I have been doing this for thirteen years. In that time I have come to the simple conclusion that Green sucks,” people still play Green. All the Green decks can play Kitchen Finks, and many play that card main deck; in fact, of the Green decks, G/W is one of the more popular versions right now… G/W is like a regular Green deck, but it will hit its Kitchen Finks with even more regularity without stumbling.

What’s a girl to do?

The problem is that most of the people not playing Faeries are playing something along the line of Elves (I have heard the present called a two- or three-deck format with Faeries, Elves, and possibly Red Deck Wins). In a double elimination tournament like Regionals, if you are playing against Faeries a large portion of the time but not all the time, the door is uncomfortably open to the Kitchen Finks decks… Not to mention that you might be a dog to certain White decks with Aven Riftwatcher, and we haven’t said anything about how you plan to win the mirror yet.

There are some interesting things that we know to be true:

1) Over the course of a tournament, the relative successes and failures of decks will change the actual archetype breakdown taking place in the tournament over time; that is, even though you start out with 50% Rock, at some point Paper will overtake Rock… Put another way, you will be more and more likely to play against six straight Faeries decks if the Faeries decks after round 2 keep eliminating G/W decks without themselves being eliminated.
2) Position in a tournament matters for the exact same reasons. Even if you are not favored to be playing against Faeries when you sit down for Round One, and you still aren’t favored the next round, and you still aren’t favored after that, at some point, if the Faeries decks are eliminating G/W decks (more-or-less) every round, you will inevitably find yourself in the position Ravitz wants to avoid: Up against Faeries with your back against the wall, piloting a deck that, you know, can’t beat Faeries.
3) Change or Die.

One of the more modern, relatively advanced, techniques that American players by and large ignore is to build decks and sideboards for different points in the tournament. You will sometimes peruse old Pro Tour coverage and read about how a team came armed with a certain graveyard deck but is blown out Day 2 by better graveyard decks better prepared for the mirror. Similarly, you may miss a subtle — and at the same time very un-subtle — technique that actually won the World Championships a couple of years back. Did you notice?

Going into the 2005 World Championships, the most popular Standard deck was Jushi Blue or some equivalent. Previous to the World Championships, Jushi Blue would have been properly characterized as Dynamite, beating both Boros and Gifts handily, but as with any successful rogue deck, Jushi Blue became absorbed by the center and everyone was playing it. It had become Rock.

Ghazi-Glare was played to less than half the popularity of Jushi Blue in the Swiss, but by the time the Top 8 rolled around… Well, there was only one copy of the most popular deck in the Top 8 whereas there were three copies of Paper (to be fair, Ghazi-Glare might itself have become Dynamite for purposes of Worlds 2005, beating both the most popular and second most popular decks… the analogy kind of bends with 20 unique archetypes).

The interesting thing is that Scissors made the Top 8 as well.

If you look at the deck played by eventual World Champion Katsuhiro Mori, you will probably remember what set his deck apart from some of the other G/W decks:

Green/White Ghaz- Glare
Katsuhiro Mori
Winner, Worlds 2005

4 Brushland
5 Forest
1 Okina, Temple to the Grandfathers
1 Plains
4 Selesnya Sanctuary
4 Temple Garden
4 Vitu-Ghazi, the City-Tree

3 Arashi, the Sky Asunder
1 Birds of Paradise
3 Kodama of the North Tree
3 Llanowar Elves
4 Loxodon Hierarch
4 Selesnya Guildmage
4 Wood Elves
2 Yosei, the Morning Star

2 Congregation at Dawn
3 Glare of Subdual
3 Pithing Needle
2 Seed Spark
3 Umezawa’s Jitte

2 Carven Caryatid
2 Greater Good
3 Hokori, Dust Drinker
1 Kodama of the North Tree
1 Kodama’s Reach
2 Naturalize
1 Seedborn Muse
1 Wrath of God
2 Yosei, the Morning Star

Katsu’s main decks that could be considered a kind of Paper, that is, effective against the popular “Rock” decks of the day. The difference was that Katsuhiro’s sideboard anticipated multiple things… On a practical level, he knew that the Japanese G/W deck was very good in the metagame, and that Japanese players would be eliminating everyone else, and his sideboard gave him a matchup appropriate “Scissors” transformation… When we looked at the progress of Rock, Paper, and Scissors over the course of a tournament (however many rounds) last week, we only looked at which of the three would progress; Rock versus Rock yields Rock… But when you are one of those two Rocks, you actually care which one wins!

Mori’s sideboard could, on a practical level, help dictate which Paper would pass… By temporarily switching to Scissors.

On another level, when he was up against Frank Karsten’s Scissors, Mori’s robust sideboard gave him something to do other than get his creatures destroyed or be dominated by what amounted to a non-interactive bulldozer.

So when Kibler’s Elf and Nail opponent removed his Vernal Blooms but Brian swapped in his semi-Tooth and Nail two creature Seth Burn transformation, what happened? The intended effect was a Mori swap, that is, a worse Scissors maybe, but still a working Scissors… The no-Bloom deck was actually the inferior Tooth and Nail deck in Game 2, as Kibler actually had some Reap and Sow action and Temple of the False God… Very convenient.

When you are planning to be the anti-deck, your most important task is to consistently beat your intended target. However, we know that the precision of your card choices for that purpose often leaves you vulnerable to whatever you didn’t directly prepare to beat (for example the Rith’s Charm / Biorhythm deck could not really lose to Enduring Ideal, or typical Blue decks but had serious problems with a simple Cabal Therapy). If you take a minute to think about this ahead of time — as Katsu Mori did — you will have a greater likelihood of preparing a sideboard that will help you to beat Rock when you’re Scissors, Scissors when you’re Paper, and so on.

One of the best decks I — or anyone else — ever played was Brian Schneider’s Suicide King. It was only ever played in four tournaments. Jon Becker made Top 8 but lost a tight match due to, um, forgetting to pay for Carnophage. The next week it qualified two of the three players that ran it! One of them was yours truly.

The Suicide King was designed primarily to beat High Tide, though like most good anti-decks, it was actually even better against Forbidian. It was atrocious against Red Decks in the main due to being a Suicide Black deck full of Carnophage, Sarcomancy, and even Flesh Reaver! This was somewhat inconvenient seeing that a Red Deck had just won the previous week’s Grand Prix besting an amazing Top 8 that included multiple Pro Tour Hall of Fame members.

The Suicide King

4 Cursed Scroll
4 Sphere of Resistance

4 Carnophage
4 Dark Ritual
4 Demonic Consultation
4 Duress
2 Flesh Reaver
4 Hymn to Tourach
4 Sarcomancy
4 Skittering Skirge

4 Mishra’s Factory
14 Swamp
4 Wasteland

4 Dystopia
4 Engineered Plague
4 Funeral Charm
3 Spinning Darkness

I initially didn’t understand the structure of the Suicide King, and a layman would probably look at the deck and see nothing but Swiss Cheese. What was a girl to do about Survival of the Fittest? The answer is that it really didn’t matter. High Tide was the it girl, and Suicide King beat High Tide to a sufficient percentage in the main that sideboarding wasn’t much needed despite High Tide being more popular then than Faeries will ever be (probably). The big problem was the Red Deck. In response, Suicide King would transform via sideboard from a superb Suicide Black beatdown deck to an admittedly poor anti-Red board control deck with fairly thin ways to win. The entire sideboard but for Dystopia would replace Flesh Reaver, Carnophage, and so on, and the deck would Charm Ball Lightning so as to Spin Jackal Pup. Engineered Plague would hold down Goblins primarily, but I’m sure I had games with multiple plagues on Hound, Goblin, and Elemental at some point or other.

I was about to write that “all sideboarding seeks to…” but the fact of the matter is, most people just throw a bunch of cards into their sideboards with vague potential matchups in mind when they do so. The Suicide King is a good example of how one can use 11/15 sideboard slots to transform somewhat, but more importantly to go to Scissors when paired with another beatdown (Paper) deck.

One of the interesting corollaries is that you simply don’t use your sideboard a lot of the time. Rather than having a spare Disenchant, you’ve got nothing but the power of your main deck. Later in the tournament, you come complete with kitchen sink when figuring out how to snuff out a two-timing, you know, Kitchen Finks.

In a queer way, it’s like you’re Resilience 1/3 of the time, Repositioning when you are up against someone likely to beat you main.