For today’s article, I invite you to play this song while you read it:
This is “Finishing the Hat” from Stephen Sondheim’s Pulitzer Prize winning musical Sunday in the Park with George. Sunday in the Park with George is a landmark retelling of a real artist’s life and about the fancifully imagined struggles he goes through in order to produce something of quality in the face of often ignorant or misplaced criticism. Sondheim himself is of course one of America’s greatest living writers and the winner of the Oscar (Dick Tracy), aforementioned Pulitzer, and innumerable Tony awards. Because I’m such a baller, YT was invited to sit in Sondheim’s box at his Carnegie Hall birthday party last year… an honor for anyone, surely, but the master storyteller behind Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street has been a personal hero of mine for at least 18 years. The song’s performer is Mandy Patinkin of Homeland fame, or, for you fantasy aficionados, Inigo Montoya (“Prepare to die!”).
I sometimes like to listen to “Finishing the Hat” over and over while I am working on something creative but consciously mind-consuming or precise, like certain illustrations, or, you know, perfecting the ins and outs of a difficult sixty or seventy-five.
This article, also “Finishing the Hat,” is in many ways about putting different things together (like George in the song). It’s ultimately about a Restore Balance deck, but I thought I could also dovetail into that with an old PTQ story.
Back in 1996 or 1997, going into the Constructed PTQ season that echoed my first Pro Tour appearance, the very first deck I ever built that garnered any kind of large-scale attention was a White Weenie / midrange White Control deck called ‘Pile of B*tches. It was a “‘Pile” because of the somewhat unique inclusion of Aeolipile (which allowed the straight white deck to kill Order of Ebon Hand, Black Knight, and so on, much to the surprise of Necropotence mages like Necropotence PT Champion Randy Buehler or the much-decorated GP master Alex Shvartsman, both of whom I beat in early PTQs with this deck) and “b*tches” because all the creatures were “girls” … I chose the female picture on Order of Leitbur, and Order of the White Shield and Serra Angel were automatically girls.
Because this deck was the first one I had ever gotten a lot of attention over, I felt an ongoing pressure to play it in PTQ after PTQ because I didn’t really understand how to ride metagame movement or metagaming in general, yet; but I liked the attention. In the tournament report of his first-ever PTQ win, Andrew Cuneo commented on concern facing my 4x maindeck Kjeldoran Outposts (though he ended up beating me effortlessly anyway with Political Trickery and Balance). My best performance that season was a Top 4 finish in a two-slot PTQ where I only lost three games all day… Unfortunately two of those three were to Jon Finkel in the Top 4 for the Blue Envelope (Jon would obtain a ratings-based invitation in the mail later the same week).
In the first PTQ of the season I was X-1 going into the last round and paired with my roommate at the previous Pro Tour, Worth Wollpert. We had a brief discussion over what to do, but at that point Intentional Draws were not yet allowed by the rules. Worth joked that, as we were both playing slow decks, we might go to time, and in that case he would shake my hand, and we could both make Top 8. But we played it out, and Worth ended up beating me 2-1 on the back of Mystical Tutor + Balance.
Because this was a strange time with strange notions of honor (see the above), Worth left Divine Offering in his sideboard even though he knew my secret tech was to bring in Nevinyrral’s Disk against U/W Prison decks. In any case, he beat me with Mystical Tutor + Balance to make a star-studded Top 8 that included 3+ members of Team Deadguy (both of my losses being to Deadguys with Mystical Tutors into Balance). Dave Price ended up losing in the finals of that two-slot PTQ to another Red Deck, beating Worth and probably other U/W Deadguys along the way with his Mono-Red Sligh.
A refrain, over and over that PTQ season, was how I lost. I lost to Andrew. U/W. I lost to Worth’s U/W Prison. Mystical Tutor into Balance, over and over again. Jon, though, was playing an actual Balance-themed deck—all Mystical and Enlightened Tutors; no goal at all but to draw cards and Balance repeatedly. This was the second PTQ of the season, and Jon—after informing me that he had no bad matchups (mine, I said, was just U/W decks with Mystical Tutor and Balance)—offered me his decklist.
It has been more than 16 years now, and I have finally come to a realization that I think most tournament Magic players never come to. How good was my deck, really? I think it might have been as good as the second best deck, overall. Probably not, but let’s go with a full-on “maybe.” Not that many people played it; I did consistently well, playing to X-2 or Top 8 finishes, losing mostly to players who would go on to Pro Tour Top 8s like Worth, Top 4s like Andrew, or even more laurels, like Jon.
But you know what? Many times KK is the second-best hand at the table. You don’t hear a lot of “shoulda woulda coulda” when he loses to AA. Not from consistent winners, anyway.
At the time it seemed fun / appropriate to complain about losing only to these great players; but in actuality, I had not set myself up for the greatest chances of success. Certainly I was competitive or even dominating against a great many different kinds of decks that performed in these tournaments… I beat Red Decks, Necropotence decks, lots of control decks not played by PT Top 8 competitors… But then again, our understanding of metagaming was quite primitive in 1996 and 1997 (maybe not Jon’s).
One interesting thing was that in Week One I couldn’t draw with my friend into Top 8. We were honest players, and therefore I got penalized (if I had won, Worth would have been penalized). By the second PTQ, I double-drew the last two rounds so that I could eventually lose to Jon.
I think that is one of the great things about the new Organized Play rules. In the past, honest players were penalized whereas cheaters were given a very quiet opportunity to gain an advantage. Like broadening Intentional Draws so that everyone could take advantage of them (not just colluders who did not complete their matches within the time limit), the OP changes around mays and musts take unfair advantages out of the hands of the cheats to just normalize the battlefield.
So… back to Balance.
Initially I dismissed the question, but then I realized a couple of things:
- Balance itself was one of the most devastating cards, ever, to be on the wrong end of (see any of the preceding PTQ losses).
- The Powers That Be banned Hypergenesis, a similarly structured card, already. There is already precedent to cards like Hypergenesis and Living End coming off a cheap cascade.
- No one seems to be working on this kind of a deck yet; I checked the last 14 Daily and Premier Top 8 decklists and didn’t see any Restore Balance decks… I think there might be something here.
Here is my current build of Restore Balance Cascade:
The basic operation of a Restore Balance deck is to break the inherent symmetry of the card Restore Balance. In theory all the cheapie suspend / cascade target cards work on theoretical symmetries. Hypergenesis lets both players do whatever they want; the bet is simply that the Hypergenesis deck itself has bigger guys. Living End kills all the creatures—not just your opponent’s—and brings back all the creatures (not just yours); it just so happens that as you play Living End, you either have lots more creatures in your graveyard, or the opponent is miles ahead and you want to Wrath a little (a Wrath of God itself being a symmetrical effect).
Restore Balance is tricky because it isn’t set up to give you a massive advantage: Its name itself is telling you what is going on… We’re trying to make things equal.
…Equal as far as lands, cards in hand, and creatures go, anyway.
As with Jon’s Prison deck back from the 1996-1997 era, artifacts can be a key type of permanent unaffected by the “Balance” effect, and we even have cool ways around the lands symmetry using Borderposts (we put an artifact in play that proxies a land; we get to pick a land up from off the battlefield).
Because Restore Balance also potentially hammers the hand, bulk card drawing is less effective in this deck than it is in Magic as a whole. Since our goal is to spike a Balance in a consistent and redundant way, we need some way to break the symmetry of the hand as well. Part of that can be just having fewer cards than the opponent when Restore Balance resolves (the opponent has to discard), which can be especially useful if you can Armageddon the opponent (in which case most or all of his hand is worthless in the short term anyway). However the card Restore Balance has a substantial potential synergy with the suspend mechanic, as you can technically have the same number of cards as the opponent, but because Restore Balance doesn’t count the wherever-suspend-cards-live as a live zone, you can technically have a Greater Gargadon on bat without it counting as either a card in hand or a creature in play. You can also sandbag a future Restore Balance the same way.
That said, you don’t really want to wait for six turns even when you can suspend Restore Balance on the first turn. Obviously this is a spell that we are going to set up with cascade cards.
The reasonable cascade cards to play are:
Many previous Hypergenesis / Living End decks elected to play Demonic Dread, but if you have the option, Ardent Plea is really much better by far. Not only does it actually impact the battlefield (bringing a Greater Gargadon to ten power allows you to win the game in two swings), but the deck already wants to be white because of Flagstones of Trokair and just suspending Restore Balance. Additionally, you can just play Ardent Plea whenever whereas you can only play Demonic Dread sometimes.
Violent Outburst is the best of all of them on account of being an instant. Being an instant gives you quite a few tactical and opportunistic advantages. For instance, sometimes the opponent doesn’t really know what is going on and plays like a Vendilion Clique or a Mystical Teachings. You can smash him with Violent Outburst while his mana is tapped.
While Flagstones of Trokair gives you many opportunities to break symmetry with Restore Balance (for instance he has two lands; you have three; you sacrifice Flagstones of Trokair for no net loss of lands), one of the most common is with Greater Gargadon and Restore Balance. It can be tricky to set up all the stacking in this deck—suspend counters, regular old instant-speed stuff, triggered effects. When I have a Gargadon and a reasonable expectation I will be able to resolve Restore Balance, I typically sacrifice [all of] my lands, put Flagstones of Trokair’s trigger on the stack, and then play the instant-speed Violent Outburst. The Restore Balance will resolve, and then you will get your free Plains. Small trick, but useful given how challenging the many stacks can be.
First and foremost, this is a Restore Balance deck.
All of the card choices are made with deference to cascade cards feeding into Restore Balance. There is an enormous amount of mana—21 lands, 8 Borderposts, 8 Totems—that all technically cost three mana, chosen so as to stay out of the way of Ardent Plea and Violent Outburst. When you play three-mana artifact mana, you aren’t really accelerating the same way a two-mana artifact can give you four mana on turn three. However with these, we typically have lots of operating mana for mid-game (which you can use to power up a Red Totem or even hard-cast the Gargadon).
Ultimately, you really only want to play one card, but you absolutely have to have three mana on turn three to play it if you are under pressure, and you want to have the right colors to play whichever cascader you draw. Hitting a Restore Balance can be so devastating for the opponent—losing multiple creatures and often a Plow Under if not a one-sided Armageddon, plus often having to discard multiple cards from hand—that the average player just packs, and you can win later either by setting up another busted Restore Balance or just start slugging into an empty battlefield.
Because you have eight setup cards for Restore Balance, and the majority of decks (as far as I can see from perusing the surviving high finishers) have no good solution to the card, the deck has had an overwhelming Game One so far. Sure, you lose sometimes, but usually you are puzzling out what you could have done better… because there is usually something.
Losing typically goes hand-in-hand with hitting something specialized. Sometimes you can lose to a Teachings or Faeries deck that draws many counterspells, as a simple Remand can set your Restore Balance back in embarrassing fashion.
You can’t really ever lose a Game One to a midrange battlefield control deck or a non-burn-oriented non-permission-backed beatdown deck. They just make dudes, and you basically annihilate them on turn three into a position where they can come back only via an arduous process of rebuild (at which point you can just do it over again). Thus, most midrange or non-extreme beatdown decks have next to no chance without specialized solution cards.
For instance, early on in testing I lost to a White Weenie deck that sided in Nevermore. At the time, I had no solution to enchantments, and he aggressively mulliganed to Nevermore to win both sideboarded games [enter a series of cards that is currently Beast Within].
I eliminated my onetime Ancient Grudges (Restore Balance is the best Ancient Grudge ever, a lot of the time, and you really don’t want to accidentally hit Ancient Grudge even against Affinity). Many of the other sideboard cards are forgotten favorites that can (ironically like Beast Within) help you resolve your spells.
Boil! … Who knew?
Dismember is a concession to Splinter Twin. It turns out you don’t need it quite as much as I originally thought (you can just respond to a fast combo with Violent Outburst and kill any number of creatures). The trick, then, of course, is to never play Kitchen Finks against Splinter Twin unless you have a very good reason, instant-speed Balance being a very good defense against a million creatures. Yes, yes, they can slow play it… but if they decide to slow play, you can also sculpt, and your combo is cheaper to resolve whereas theirs is still open to Dismember opportunities.
Secondly, this is a Greater Gargadon deck.
Of the games you actually have to win (i.e. your opponent didn’t just pack in frustration at having no lands), you win by crashing in with a gigantic Beast. So some of the other cards in the deck (Flagstones of Trokair, Kitchen Finks, and its persist) were chosen to help out with the Gargadon. The mana is by and large based around the presence of Flagstones, Arid Mesa, and the Borderposts.
Originally I had an Island and a Forest, but those can’t be accessed by either Flagstones or Mesa, so I ultimately upped to four Sacred Foundries. Of course the very next match after I made the change, I got a Kitchen Finks Path to Exiled where I would win on the spot if I could search up an Island. I do think the deck probably needs one more basic land. If this deck pans out, I’ll probably transform one of the Sacred Foundries into another Plains.
The most recent change is the addition of Rhox War Monk to the sideboard. I lost to a Goblin Guide deck last night despite hitting two copies of Restore Balance in each game (and drawing three Kitchen Finks in the first), so I figured I might need a little more gas (and the deck can conveniently support the Bant mana). I played three more Goblin Guide decks in a row (including a rematch) and won all of them without drawing the War Monk, largely on being way more aggressive (I Apocalypse’d myself to get out fast Gargadons to kill the opponent or jammed turn three Restore Balance instead of sculpting and setting up more artifact mana [which gave the opponent a chance to empty his own hand and access lands he would lose a turn or two later]), so maybe War Monk isn’t necessary to beat Red.
But I have always respected a Red, as you know.
As Zvi always says, you can get a lot of things wrong as long as you get the big things right… and I think there is a lot going good with this strategy (especially if people are going to try to win with Proclamation of Rebirth, White Weenie, Zoo without Wild Nacatl, or slow midrange decks).
- Simian Spirit Guide — That is, even more mana, probably over Kitchen Finks. This lets you hit a second-turn Restore Balance while emptying another card from your hand.
- Ajani Vengeant — This goes with the theme of Detritivore, Boil, and Beast Within as a mana control subtheme that is appropriate against blue. Ajani Vengeant is also a great card for fighting Red aggression that doesn’t count against Restore Balance.
You don’t need a perfect hand to generate a massive advantage against most decks. However how is your beatdown deck going to contend with something like…
Turn 1: Mountain, Greater Gargadon
Turn 2: Tap Mountain, play Wildfield Borderpost, re-play Mountain, play Firewild Borderpost
Turn 3: Play Flagstones of Trokair, tap for GRW, sacrifice Flagstones of Trokair, put the trigger on the stack, respond with Violent Outburst, hitting Restore Balance.
If the opponent has any creatures, he doesn’t any more. Ditto on lands. If he has more than say four cards, he is discarding now. We lose… nothing. Our land from Flagstones of Trokair isn’t coming in until Restore Balance resolves, so some kind of Plow Under / Armageddon too. Unreal disgusting!
Note that this isn’t even some kind of super-draw. We can accomplish the same thing with basically any three primary mana sources (of which the deck has 29) and “drawing the Gargadon” [as we have an 8x redundancy on Restore Balance], i.e. “big deal.” This just happens to be the most dramatically flashy version. We can screw both of us and topdeck out of it on account of having 37 mana sources, Adrian Sullivan 1999-style (remember we have a Gargadon coming, too). If we want to wait a turn, we can even play a Totem in the meantime or something.
Certainly no evidence of that yet (plus it has green but very little blue).
Potentially insanely powerful?
There are lots of opening hands that more than half the decks in the Modern metagame can simply not race and never beat. Lots.