Obligatory Opening Dialogue:
[Person Who Will Remain Anonymous] HEEZY Red Fever? There is no way that you are calling my deck Heezy Red Fever!
[Our Hero] Well hello to you, too.
[PWWRA] The extent of Heezy’s contribution was playing Pickles against me two games and getting blown out of both of them, then having the good sense to switch and go 4-1 in Standard.
[OH] I dunno, I’ve heard the deck being called Heezy Red Fever. I’m just repeating what I’ve heard.
[PWWRA] Heard where?
[OH] Not sure… A Magic podcast, maybe?
[PWWRA] Look man, I expect a correction. I don’t care if you change it to Innovator Dragonstorm, or just plain Chapin Dragonstorm, but I expect that this goes into your next article. Friday.
[OH] Oh, I don’t think you have to worry about that…
Now that I’ve got that out of the way, where are we?
One of the things that I started to think about after publishing The Breakdown of Theory earlier this week was how to apply the model to certain “problem decks” of main line formats past. I have always maintained that I don’t like the Tier 2 model as much as the old one because I think that with too many archetypes it becomes impossible to metagame accurately for every tournament. However, anyone who was playing during the first part of this decade can probably recall the frustration of playing against certain of the juggernaut, Tier-1-filled Decks to Beat. Even when we had working “anti-” decks, the matchups could be hairy and inconsistent. Part of that was because of the vast card power disparity between top and non-top strategies, but upon closer inspection, I think that the greater part was the inability for non-top dawgs to deal with the Phase determination that the best decks could accomplish. To wit (again examples, not proclamations):
Problem Deck: Flunky Sligh
The Flunky deck in 1998 had essentially no Phase I. On just one mana, it could run out a variety of two power creatures or the best one mana creature of all time. That said, one of the real problems with this deck was that given its ability to deploy real threats quickly, the presence of Wasteland allowed it to keep other decks stuck in Phase I while it rocketed to Phase III.
The Flunky deck had a mediocre Phase II, which is part of the reason it had the poor reputation that it did as a no-skill “oops, I won” deck (contrast with Deadguy Red of the same era). Regionals 1998 was heralded around the country as a format where any moron who could rip two Fireblasts would be qualified for Nationals.
This was where the Flunky deck shined. It had a two-pronged Trump Mode, interactive and solitaire… kind of like a hybrid deck, which was part of the allure. The “interactive” Trump Mode was to simply get Cursed Scroll online. Cursed Scroll could lock down other creature decks while the 1/1, 2/1, 3/3, and 6/1 creatures finished the job, or it could just keep going to the face every turn. I distinctly remember the slow adoption of Cursed Scroll from the top of the theory chain; Dave Price didn’t like it initially, Andrew Cuneo railed against the fact that it was so difficult to beat on the first turn, when it did nothing but give up any potential to bluff, and I elected to splash Giant Growth rather than play it, early; by Regionals 1998 no one was naysaying Cursed Scroll. Alternately, Flunky Sligh could play a truncated Phase II and win immediately on turn 4. I think it was Jamie Wakefield who first identified its strategy as a kind of combo deck.
Turn 1 Mountain, Jackal Pup
Turn 2 Mountain, Mogg Flunkies (18)
Turn 3 Mountain, Ball Lighting (7)
Turn 4 Mountain and any number of different combinations… Incinerate / Fireblast; Fireblast Fireblast; Shock and five more from the creatures… You get it.
One of the best solutions to come out of this era was Jamie Wakefield. He chose a deck full of quick drops so that he could stay out of Phase I and compete with the Jackal Pups and so on, possibly just by blocking. However Jamie could pre-empt the Flunky Phase III with a combo-like swagger: Natural Order would set up Verdant Force, who was an absolute nightmare for a deck full of x/1 creatures.
Problem Deck: High Tide
While High Tide was not the fastest combo deck (I don’t think I personally ever went off before turn 4 in tournament play, and I don’t think I often pushed myself there), the post-Pro Tour Rome decks mostly played four copies of Thawing Glaciers, which allowed them to get out of Phase I very consistently.
The real problem with the deck was that while it could race basically any deck in the format at the time (save Broken Jar… which is not to say it was necessarily a poor matchup), High Tide was among the best Phase II decks of all time, let alone its era. Properly played, this deck could escape even a permission-laded “anti-” deck like Forbidian by using Thawing Glaciers as a kind of Mikokoro, Center of the Sea to counterbalance the opponent’s Ophidian card advantage. Careful play and sound strategy – not to mention Thawing up a lot of lands – allowed High Tide to dominate in Phase II on the metrics, and catapult to Phase III.
As we will see with ZevAtog later, one of the chief advantages to High Tide, besides its potential turn 3 goldfish, was the ability to quickly shift from control / card drawing mode to combo kill. It is arguable that High Tide is simply the greatest control deck ever devised; it is all mana, card drawing, and permission (even its kill is card drawing). With so many purely good cards in such a great strategy, High Tide almost necessarily had to play a combo kill… There just wasn’t room for anything else. Compare with Forbidian… Forbidian can seemingly bury the opponent in card advantage during a prolonged Phase II, but in fact, a deck like High Tide could out-last Ophidian, exploit mana or cards in hand inefficiencies, and win immediately rather than dragging out a Phase II where positions could potentially be reversed.
Problem Deck: Trix
The explosive mana of the original Trix – Mana Vault and Dark Ritual – made it unbelievably frustrating to play against. It often seemed like Trix was three or five turns ahead, even in the first three turns.
Necropotence is probably still the greatest card drawing engine of all time, and the able Trix player could use it to chain a sequence of thematic turns that were functionally trump on one or more metrics if not strictly trump in the sense of Phase III. The first turn was usually a light mana acceleration turn where it played a bunch of extra mana, then Trix typically ran a 1-2 turn “disruptive phase” window where it would destroy the opponent’s hand with Duress and Unmask before proceeding to Phase III.
In sideboarded games, Trix’s transformative sideboard which could include not just Phyrexian Negator and Skittering Horror but Masticore (Masticore + Necropotence gg) allowed it to dominate the latter stages of Phase II on the opponent’s terms (“I know you are trying to fight my combo, which I still have in, but keep in mind that I have more cards than you, and bigger creatures, and more mana”).
While Trix had a mediocre third Phase for a combo deck, dealing only 20, one of the big problems you would have playing against this deck is that by gaining 20 life in the middle, it would force out a Red Deck’s potential Phase III burn capabilities. So-called “Basic” Trix, a slightly less powerful version that ran lots of Swamps and Islands, was also highly resistant to Wasteland disruption, which could stave off the planned “manascrew them back to Phase I” plan many beatdown decks attempted with their early entries into Phase II.
Problem Deck: Fires
While it did not play Mana Vault and Dark Ritual, Fires ran the best 8-pack of mana acceleration that it could.
This is actually the part of the game that inspired me to write this article. The presence of Birds of Paradise and Llanowar Elves into Blastoderm was particularly troubling for Black. Interactive disruption, including disruption of mana acceleration, really only matters when you can alter the opponent’s immediate Phase. That is why Shocking a Birds of Paradise on the first turn is important (locks the opponent out of a potential Phase jump) but that same Birds of Paradise is largely irrelevant come turn 10. Black decks, B/R, etc had no good answer to that part of the game. Slay was a proposed solution but it, too, was too slow to deal with the first turn accelerators… and was also irrelevant against ‘Derm and ‘Burst.
Fires was an odd bird. I think that you can make the argument that it positioned itself as Phase III in at least mostmatchups from turn 3. With “the fix” (Fires / ‘Derm / ‘Burst) the deck challenged the opponent’s position and offensively controlled the tempo of the game, with turn 5 finishes routine, especially against missteps. Even against relevant resistance (Wrath of God), persistent Haste gave the deck the ability to consistently demand the field of battle, with every topdeck. While not the most powerful deck in recent years, there is a reason the
little big Green deck that almost could was such a format-defining monster for its year.
Random aside: Is there a reason why we can’t position a Fires-like deck in modern Extended? I suppose Bests is the closest we can come without completely ignoring the speed of the combo decks.
Problem Deck: Psychatog / ZevAtog
ZevAtog had good Phase I management with Aether Burst and quick, effective, and unspectacular sideboard cards. Its unique spell was Standstill, which allowed it to manage the opponent’s Phase very effectively. Especially on the play with a hand full of lands, Standstill could lock the opponent in Phase I in much the same way that a Sparksmith could in Onslaught Block Limited; that is, effectively if not strictly.
The balance was whether or not to break the Standstill. Elect not to break it and you allow ZevAtog to dictate the field of battle. For many games (especially early) there would be literally no Phase II with neither player taking action until ZevAtog moved directly to Phase III (Upheaval, Psychatog + Circular Logic). Break it and you generally gave ZevAtog a superior Phase II position.
Conventional wisdom at the time was that breaking Standstill was generally correct. Using Phase-based analysis we can see why. Even if you are down two cards in the short term, at least you are challenging the field of battle, and the card you use to break Standstill could marginalize the effectiveness of the ZevAtog plan. For instance answering a second turn Standstill with a second turn Yavimaya Barbarian wouldn’t be half bad; an end of turn Fact or Fiction or Mana Short would have very little negative impact, and Persecute might actually piggyback the Standstill in a positive way.
Unlike many modern Psychatog variants that play, say, a single Wonder, ZevAtog was heavily reliant on Upheaval. Our test group identified this early for Fact or Fiction splits, and Carlos Romao took the concept to its furthest possible point when winning the World Championships with his version of Psychatog (undefeated, undefeated in ‘Tog mirrors). Because of the presence in the format of cards like Chainer’s Edict, it was often very dicey to deploy Psychatog in non-desperate situations. As such, ZevAtog had a fairly do-nothing (though not pointless) Phase II. During Phase II it would mostly trade or manage the board with bounce spells, draw extra cards, and make scary faces. From the perspective of gaining value and making land drops while ruining the opponent’s ability to determine the field of battle in Phase II… The deck was aces from that perspective.
The vast majority of this deck’s games were abruptly decided in a 1-2 turn window shifting from a card drawing and control oriented Phase II to an Upheaval kill, preferably with Circular Logic backup. This is very similar to modern Loam decks, which spend a few turns in Phase II drawing more cards than the opponent, then thunder into a short Phase III with Seismic Assault or Devastating Dreams + Terravore.
The fault of the format was rooted in the lack of available tools. We can clearly see how two Tier 1 cards – the best creature of all time (except perhaps Tarmogoyf), paired with a powerful game-ending Tier 1 spell – could marginalize most other options. Add Fact or Fiction, and… It was very difficult to compete with ZevAtog.
Full-on Affinity (or even “mostly” full-on Affinity with Disciple of the Vault if not Skullclamp) is an echo of Fires of Yavimaya, an aggressive deck that gets out of Phase I quickly and then rockets into a Phase III finishing scenario over the course of just one or two turns.
Spice.dec (called by Ted Knutson a more dominant Block deck than Affinity!) was a more grinding Psychatog. Sakura-Tribe Elder was the Standstill, buying time and pushing the deck into Phase II more quickly; in Phase II Spice.dec would manage the board, usually doing nothing in particular, until Gifts Ungiven would allow it to completely lock out Phase III. The opponent, while not dead, could be unable to do anything proactive; certainly Spice.dec was dictating the field of battle (PTQ and GP versions actually won with Dragon combos, Godo, etc. due to time limitations).
In Magic, the Holy Grail of execution is the ability to determine the field of battle. The player who dictates what the game will be about, whether with [their] carefully selected cards (the Sliver Kids), what he considers strategically worthwhile (Carlos Romao), or his table demeanor (Jan-Moritz-Merkel). Conceding the field of battle will almost inevitably lead to failure.
The top decks, the frustrating decks to play against, executed at their best when dictating that field of battle in Phase III. Many also dominated the opponent in Phase II, suppressing his ability to execute on a Phase II plan. Most accelerated out of Phase I, or found a way to retard the opponent’s Phase progression.
One thing that I have started to do as a personal exercise is delineate the various Phases of any deck that I present to internal resources. In addition, something that I’ve always thought about, is how to beat a best deck even when he gets his cards. Examples: Float mana, Smother your Psychatog (assume it is countered); play Swamp and Innocent Blood.
Again, this new theory is not 100% fleshed out yet, but it seems to be a good framework for contextualizing decks. I anticipate that it will eventually become a tool for better deck design in the future, the same way mana curve and fundamental turn have been in the past.