I got up semi-early on Sunday morning, giving Katherine a spell.
Basically all summer she got up early every day with the kids; but Sunday I let her sleep in (allegedly until 9 am, but she actually got up before 8 am). I slept on the couch and pretended to parent while B + C played among themselves; did the dishes; went out to pick up laundry and get Dunkin Donuts for the chillens.
While nursing a surprisingly good cuppa, I went back and checked out some of the tweets I had missed over the past couple of days and came upon this one:
Basically forever, but in particular over the last several months I have been working on improving my algorithm. Not just my deck design algorithm… Just my algorithm. Sometimes people ask me how come I said such-and-such at one point and then I said so-and-so later (or maybe I said something that seemingly conflicts with something that Patrick or Zvi said, and ostensibly, we all respect one another’s opinions).
So what gives?
Many of us have moved to a model of synergy in Magic theory rather than the more traditional, but much less useful pseudo-scientific one.
Science can mostly prove someone wrong rather than right; but in Magic theory, the question should mostly be “is this thing [someone said] useful to me” rather than “is this thing [someone claims] objectively â€˜true'”…
One of the wonderful things about Magic is that what is good or bad, contextually, can change very much on what is going on around a concept. So in the first part of 2011 it can be very funny for us (and in particular for my daughter Bella) to make fun of Steve Sadin for making his Hawkward deck, and it is all the more so because he tricked Hall of Famers like Zvi Mowshowitz and Kai Budde to go along with him at the eleventh hour. But six months later, the banning of Jace, the Mind Sculptor and Stoneforge Mystic put Hawkward into a position where it was in fact one of the best decks in the format, at least for a time.
- Was it a very “good” decision to play Hawkward when you could have played, say, Caw-Blade ahead of the curve?
- Was it useful to have a leg up in knowing about a Standard Tempered Steel deck after Caw-Blade was the dominant strategy?
… Pretty different frames… and quite different answers despite having many of the same factors.
So taking it back to Patrick’s tweet… We know what kind of context Patrick is not favored in (lots of “Belcher” decks, not a lot of viability, seemingly, for Control). But what kind of context is he most effective?
But Patrick’s tweet gave me a catalyst to ask the question of myself (being the ninth greatest deck designer of all time, and all that).
I thought of a couple of different time periods (that were not driven by Kamigawa block cards) where I was successful. What were the contexts where I was able to gain value or edge? Ultimately, what are the commonalities that I can use to draw useful, synergistic conclusions? I decided to look at four very different, very time-disparate eras.
- Extended 1999 (player)
- Extended 2001 (player and picker)
- Standard 2004 (designer)
- Standard 2011 (designer and player)
Extended 1999 was the middle of the so-called Combo Winter of Magic: The Gathering. We were coming off a Pro Tour where an unprecedented number of cards had to be banned after the success of Academy decks (Tolarian Academy, Windfall, and so on), and in the middle of the Extended 1999 PTQ season, we had, if memory serves, the only mid-season banning, ever (Memory Jar).
Sometimes players criticize my positions on formats, saying things like “I bet you thought [so-and-so format] was a good format, too!”
Um, often I thought/think they were/are just fine.
Extended 1999 was among the most important, theory-driving times ever in Magic.
The profile of the Rogue deck designer really came into relief during this time period. Arguably Brian Kowal, that Boat Brew icon of Cabal Rogue and Team Rogue, may have been Magic’s most forward thinker.
Here are some of the things that I learned from BK during this time period (I am paraphrasing in both cases BTW):
- The combo decks may be powerful, but they are ridiculously poor at interacting. If you set them up with [Duress] and put them on a clock [Brian’s signature deck at the time was CounterSliver], they often cannot win.
- I would be much more liable to buy into the broken-ness of this format and “their decks” if we didn’t beat them so consistently with our “fair” decks.
I had been on more-or-less a PTQ tear at the time.
I won a PTQ for Pro Tour LA 1999, and under the tutelage of Randy Buehler and Chris Pikula (both of whom made Top 8 of the last GP of the Extended season, by the way), I elected to focus on the “32-player PTQ” of the Pro Tour rather than a one- or two-slot PTQ PTQ.
I didn’t make Day Two of the Pro Tour but was pretty successful in various PTQs, primarily with High Tide.
I practiced a lot of High Tide and probably would have been in the category of an elite PTQ grinder who picks “the best deck.” I could consistently beat whatever kind of deck, even anti-decks, with High Tide; though my best finish was a mere Top 8.
The galvanizing event was the second-to-last PTQ of the season, when Jamie Wakefield won with Secret Force, once of his most well-known accomplishments.
Especially as well as I had been performing at PTQ-level Magic that year, I wasn’t going to “let” Jamie Qâ€”and with Secret Forceâ€”and not qualify myself.
At the 11th hour I elected to switch to a deck designed by my friend Brian Schneider (I have bschneid no lower than 2nd on my list of greatest deck designers of all time, BTW). It was this:
Suicide King was unambiguously a deck built to beat High Tide. It was all hand disruptionâ€”Hymn to Tourach and Duress and even Funeral Charmâ€”and fast beaters. The card Sphere of Resistance existed to counteract the extra mana of High Tide.
The punch line is that I never even got to play High Tide until the Top 4 of the PTQ (I think I had to win twelve times that day).
Over the course of the day, I beat multiple Red decks, withstood multiple Pox decks, two Secret Force decks, and a hand full of Forbids. In the finals I had to take out a multiple Grand Prix Champion and PT Top 8 competitor, again not playing the deck I was designed to beat.
This first format is going to help us set up the synergies of Granny Panties. If I was aiming to beat a particular deck (High Tide) or even kind of deck (fast combo that was vulnerable to disruption + a clock), how is it that I was able to beat so many different decks that existed on so many different points of the metagame clock, where, consistently, I should not have had positional advantages?
- To begin with, it had to be true that my deck was a lock against High Tide. If it weren’t a lock against High Tide, I would have a hard time justifying such potential liabilities as Flesh Reaver and the symmetrical Sphere of Resistance. Luckily, it was a lock.
- The deck was, at least when looked at from particular angles, a “powerful” one. The card Duress is pretty good, or at least relevant, almost everywhere. I remember discussing Black-versus-Red sideboarding; it was his argument that a Suicide-style deck might still want to keep Duress despite its having essentially no effect on the battlefield because it was important to chop up the opponent’s flexibility around burning little guys or me.
If you can do math (I can do math), a 4/4 for two mana can be a very powerful tool. For that matter a 3/2 for two manaâ€”even with Skittering Skirge’s significant drawbackâ€”puts the opponent on quite the clock. For all its ostensible shortcomings against beatdown, the power and flexibility of cards like Cursed Scroll gave me significant opportunities for card advantage, and again, tools that could help me out-play even opponents who “should have been” advantaged.
- Monocolor decks rarely have great sideboards, but the presence of Demonic Consultation changed matters somewhat, and the wide card format gave me sufficient room to figure out sequential strategies that I could execute to win. For example, how do you beat a resolved Verdant Force with a Dystopia? Verdant Force out-does Dystopia card advantage every turn, and you have to pay through the nose to keep it around? Well what about if you combine Engineered Plague to restrict Elves and / or Saprolingsâ€”remember Demonic Consultation and Dark Ritual can get you to a place where you can have two different ones in play, regardless of your natural drawâ€”so that Dystopia is taking out real cards. Sound complicated? It is. A deck like Suicide King was more rewarding to players who were good at math than it would have been to the average player. Like many things I have liked in life, Suicide King scratched my particular itch, by making me feel smart.
As you will see as we Granny Panties through a number of supposedly “broken” formats, a highly specific format with established speeds and known threats can lend you the certainty you need in order to accomplish surprising results.
Suicide King was ultimately one of the highest batting average decks of all time. To the best of my recollection, it was played in four tournaments, ever (two of which were the final week). It produced a Top 8 for Jon Becker (poor Becker would have won the PTQ if he hadn’t fast-played through his upkeep, forgetting to pay for a Carnophageâ€”ouch) and won both of the final week PTQs where it was played by YT and Francis Keyes.
Similar to the previously discussed Extended, the context in 2001 was a format that, especially early on, was defined by one strategy: U/R Donate. I was going to say “Trix,” but colloquially, Trix really refers to the Necropotence-driven version. The later U/R version (which Kai Budde used to continue driving his reputation with a PT win) was much less plural if you grok.
Here is the deck Kai used to win Pro Tour New Orleans:
Here is the iconic basis for the deck we call The Rock:
- 2 Spike Weaver
- 4 Birds of Paradise
- 4 Spike Feeder
- 1 Phyrexian Plaguelord
- 4 Yavimaya Elder
- 4 Wall of Roots
- 4 Spiritmonger
As critical as I have been of The Rock in the last half dozen years, that is mostly because I love it and the kind of deck it is so much and need to bounce myself the other direction.
What was going on here?
- The Rock wasn’t the most powerful… But it was pretty powerful. At this point in Magic, Pernicious Deed was a pretty good something to hide behind, and Spike Feeder, Yavimaya Elder, and especially Spiritmonger were pretty good ways to beat someone up. A couple of the threats in the deck even crossed game play strata.
- The Rock was clever. I had learned a trick from Sol Malka (who had built this version of the deck to a money PT finish). I could satisfy my desire to be smarter than the other guy by baiting with a Vampiric Tutor. Counterspells were pretty good back then, and a blue mage who thought he was clever-er than I was could think to himself (“I am going to let that Vampiric Tutor resolve and Counterspell whatever comes next”)… But unfortunately for him, the “whatever comes next” was usually a Dust Bowl that I would use to demolish his land base, powered up by my Yavimaya Elders.
- The Rock offered distinct strategies that gave it potential, especially contextual, advantages against the dominant deck. An example was the mere presence of maindeck Phyrexian Furnace. You could sit there and Scrabble with the Furnace, and it could substantively reduce a Donate player’s ability to draw extra cards; all of a sudden instead of drawing three or four cards, he might draw only one or two.
Spike Feeder was just a pretty good card… But when fighting Donate, the opponent could be forced to build his combo more than once in order to win the game. Remember, in 2001, a Donate player didn’t have the Necropotence ability to use his extra twenty life points to immediately draw into a second copy of the combo!
Lastly was Pernicious Deed just sitting there on the battlefield. You could just leave four mana open with Pernicious Deed in play, and the opponent would have to find a way to answer the Deed before going off. Kai’s baseline has how many ways to answer in Game One? What are the chances you have to see the answer coming? Pernicious Deed even deals with a sideboarded Morphling. All of these are great examples of being able to reduce the operational flexibility of an ostensibly more powerful opponent while you can clock him for two or four a turn. Strategy.
The Rock was both pretty good against Donate [the dominant deck] and one of the more powerful overall choices.
When I played the deck, I ran it in three tournaments: a GP Trial win (earning me three byes), X-2 in the ensuing Grand Prix (failed to make Day Two despite opening on three byes), and a PTQ win on the second day of the Grand Prix. Pretty good!
My playtest partner for the Grand Prix was Dr. Michael Pustilnik; I impressed Mike by beating him in the Grand Prix Trial. We played the same 75 in the Grand Prix, and though I “only” won the PTQ on the second day, he won the Grand Prix itself!
I didn’t design The Rock, but my superpower of Granny Panties allowed me to exercise deck-picking criteria with greater success than I might have been able to in other format types.
In a previous section you learned that I thinkâ€”and many of the game’s greatest thinkers thinkâ€”that the Combo Winter was one of the most fertile points for Magic theory.
An example of another format where some players say “I bet you think Mirrodin Standard was just fine, too!” … was Mirrodin Standard, the home of full-on Affinity: Arcbound Ravager, Disciple of the Vault, Skullclamp, and so on.
I actually chuckle whenever players reference the dominance of Affinity in Standard.
Not only do I remember Affinity as being an easy deck to beat, many of the other “Top 10 deck designers of all time” made their chops at the same time.
What was bad about Mirrodin Standard?
Were there overpowered cards like Skullclamp and the Fairy Godmother? Sure. Not a huge problem in my opinion. Do you know what happened during Combo Winter? Kai Budde emerged as Kai Budde. Jon Finkel traveled to international Grand Prix to burn his High Tide performances into the landscape of Europe. Erik Lauer, arguably the greatest deck designer of all time, produced a deck that immediately drove Top 8 Grand Prix performances for himself and Hall of Famer Randy Buehler, precipitating the first and only mid-season ban in the history of an Extended PTQ format.
And despite the nickname “Combo” Winter, the context offered by that Extended allowed Brian Kowal to innovate a whole new CounterSliver, while Lan D. Ho proved that Dwarven Miners maindeck were not too slow in that deck style, plus Bob Maher, Jr. pulled his first major Oath of Druids finish out of his hat; the first of many.
None of those were combo decks.
So what was wrong with Mirrodin Standard, again?
Player attendance in tournaments was down, similar to the more recent height of the age of Caw-Blade. Something about the format did not appeal to the average player, which challenged the health of the format.
It is difficult for me to think of these as “bad” formats when awesome players are so consistently able to produce finishes, especially when they can do so with decks that are neither The Deck to Beat nor even a strict anti-deck.
Mirrodin Standard is arguably even a better example than the height of Caw-Blade. Let’s look at the deck that Tsuyoshi Fujita used to win the 2004 Japan National Championship:
- 4 Goblin Warchief
- 4 Sparksmith
- 4 Goblin Sharpshooter
- 3 Goblin Goon
- 3 Clickslither
- 4 Siege-Gang Commander
- 3 Skirk Prospector
- 4 Goblin Sledder
What is different about this deck? What is “the difference that makes the difference” here?
Goblins with Starstorm?
Goblins with City of Brass?
Skullclamp… In the sideboard?
None of these things are one whit as significant as this fact: Tsuyoshi cut Goblin Piledriver.
Goblin Piledriver is one of the true icons of the Onslaught block-driven Goblins strategy. It was the lynchpin that allowed the fastest Goblins kill draws even in Block Constructed play (turn one Skirk Prospector; turn two sacrifice Skirk Prospector for Goblin Warchief, in for two; turn three triple Goblin Piledrivers, in for lethal)… and Fujita didn’t play them.
Tsuyoshi figured out that the most common opponents would be Affinity or other Goblins decks (whether straight Red or Goblin Bidding)… and Goblin Piledriver didn’t get in against either kind of deck. So this playerâ€”who is maybe the finest beatdown deck designer of all timeâ€”played the metagame and replaced the contextually underperforming 1/2s with big and busty (if generally speaking less explosive) 6/6s.
For the same time period, I solved for the same format going a completely different way:
Brian Kibler made Top 8 of the US National Championships with this deck.
The super coolest part of this deck was the sideboard; Seth Burn figured out that if we were beating Red Decks consistently and Affinity ALL THE TIME (I mean, really, all the time), the main enemy was a Tooth and Nail deck going over the top of us… So why not become a Tooth and Nail deck ourselves?
Our Temple of the False God engine was a bit less explosive than an Urzatron mana base, or even a TwelvePost mana base, but our deck was designed to be a very good deck that couldÂ effectively mimic big mana… It was not a narrow big mana deck all on its lonesome.
Important factors for success (and Granny Panties):
- This deck crushed Affinity.
- This deck crushed straight Goblins and Red Decks. It was actually kind of bad against Goblin Bidding, but by Nationals that version’s popularity had fallen off.
- As Kibler pointed out at the time, most rogue decksâ€”even effective onesâ€”tend to be underpowered. The G/W deck was actually one of the most powerful decks in the format, and it crushed the decks that most people played.
- There was significant play available. I screwed up and listed to Seth the morning of Regionals and took Sacred Ground out of my sideboard. So of course I was eliminated by a Red Deck when I started up 1-0; he got me with Flashfires in each of the sideboard games (nothing much I could do about it given the choice). On balance, our combination of flexible options and slightly off-model positioning gave us amazing opportunities to out-play opponents. My favorite example is during US Nationals one of Kibler’s Elf and Nail opponents sided out Verdant Bloom because Brian showed him basic Forest. So basically Kiblerâ€”with Reap and Sow powering into Temple of the False Godâ€”was actually the faster Tooth and Nail deck!
Finally, I wanted to end these explorations with the most recent Caw-Blade-dominant Standard format.
Like the preceding three environments, Standard 2011 was one with a known Deck to Beat: U/W Caw-Blade.
The Solution: Exarch Twin
By now, the Granny Panties elements should be more-or-less rote:
- We have a clearly defined Deck to Beat in Caw-Blade.
- Our deck is powerful, despite being a rogue deck. In this case our deck is actually infinitely more powerful than Caw-Blade, and that’s saying something.
- As such, we [can] beat other stuff, too… Even when we aren’t aiming for it. We can out-Jace control decks; we can out-attrition grinding decks. We can go infinite with Trinket Mages and Elixir of Immortality, and we can annihilate a number of infinite/infinite Ajani’s Pridemates with no upper limit via Inferno Titan + Basilisk Collar. The bases? They are covered.
- Our deck is very fast.
So what is Granny Panties?
I was thinking back to these different time periodsâ€”all different, and with different solutionsâ€”and how I or other smart people like Brian Schneider, Sol Malka, or Tsuyoshi Fujita chose to solve problems.
Remember the opening illustration?
Granny Panties cover your ass.
The first thing that matters when applying this technique is to make sure you actually beat the deck to beat. I don’t know if this is a requirement for every format, but it is a requirement for attacking particular formats with a dominant deck. There are all kinds of failure paradigms you can choose from…
Do you know there are people who pick decks that are “60% against the field” or even “50% against the field?” My EV on deck is between 5-5 and 6-4? That sounds to me like a recipe for staying home and sleeping in (BTW for most non-Caw-Blade non-High Tide formats, that’s what picking The Deck to Beat is).
It is much better (statistically and otherwise) to pick a deck that dominates the decks most likely to show up than to be moderately competitive against a large number of decks.
AKA: “cover your ass.”
Additionally, there are different ways to either fail or succeed in less predictable or dramatic fashion; for example you can play an anti-deck that is not particularly fast or powerful. Players around the country were able to win PTQs with various Haterator or Beasts decks that I designed for the Extended PTQ season of 2006… But those are not the anti-decks that have really become legend.
This technique isn’t best all the time. When there isn’t a defined Deck to Beat, attempting to play a Granny Panties strategy against a perceived-to-be-popular (but not popular enough) deck canâ€”and probably willâ€”steer you in the wrong direction.
When you are super good against a deck to beat, but aren’t overall super powerful, your success or failure becomes much more matchup-dependent. When I played Haterator the first time I lost only to one archetypeâ€”Scepter-Chantâ€”beating every midrange creature deck, Affinity, Zoo, and real combo I faced. We actually had some out-on-breakers finishes, and there was in fact a Haterator PTQ win that week.
The problem was that Scepter-Chant was unwinnable the way I had things set up. If I had figured out how to splash Ancient Grudge Week One, I might have just won (I never lost to Scepter-Chant again that PTQ season)… But I had put such a focus on how I was going to win the Storm and Zoo matchups that I lacked the basic tools necessary to beat what ended up the actual Deck to Beat that weekend (and ultimately the PTQ-winning deck).
My ass, it was not covered.
This is not to say that the not-powerful anti-deck should not be part of your repertoire; I think that the most successful mages probably have any number of different tools they can draw upon to produce successful results in different formats, given different opportunities.
In conclusion, here are three traits that will help you identify when toâ€”and then how toâ€”pull on an ass-covering pair of Granny Panties:
- Cover your ass: Your deck must consistently beat the Deck to Beat. Not “after sideboard” … You win. That’s it.
- Your deck is still powerful and / or fast (or both): This gives you more, better, chances to perform against otherwise unanticipated kinds of opponents (i.e. it reduces your dependency on favorable matchups). Depending on the maturity of a format, your deck may in fact be more powerful than the Deck to Beat.
- Your deck can operate flexibly: Note how in four different eras, four different formats were successfully overcome with suicide beatdown, midrange creature-based control, board control, and combo… A wide range of different strategies. All of them, however, could operate using multiple modalities (even the super beatdown black deck could become a creature-hostile deck) or use cards that were good anyway to severely limit the opponent’s operating flexibility. You could make the opponent play off the top of his deck, figure out how to combo you through a Pernicious Deed, deal you 55 damage in order to win, or grind him out with Jace, the Mind Sculptor.
- Your deck lets you out-play the opponent. You can craft situations where, if you predict the opponent’s sequence of plays, he is playing into a position where he is certain to lose. Lots of stuff around Demonic Consultation here; or the “Vampiric Tutor for Dust Bowl” play; or Kibler’s Elf and Nail opponent sideboarded frightened of Forest of all cards… or any of those times you stole the opponent’s big fourth turn with a well-placed, combat-commandeering Deceiver Exarch. Not only have you covered your own ass; their flimsy thong? It has been de-pantsed.
So… How do you pick a deck?