Flores Friday – Revisiting The Schools of Magic

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Friday, May 9th – Today’s Flores Friday sees Mike hop into his Wayback Machine to revisit some of the classic strategic modeling from some of the top players and thinkers in the game. He casts his modernist eye over the various Schools of Magic, and updates them with a nod toward their importance in the current metagames. What can the strategies of the past teach us about the formats of the future?

Part I. Why I Hate Anselm

Not long ago, I shared a technique that I sometimes use to try to improve my prose writing, that of copying the work of better writers by hand, over and over again, in the attempt to more closely read and observe, and ultimately internalize, style and technique. In an article modeling Grand Prix excellence (where one of my exemplars finished undefeated after Day 1 and another a game out of Top 8), I showed some scribbled pages or paragraphs from Super Folks and The Confusion, both great examples of great writing.

As is wont to happen in these cases, forums discussion centered mostly around the handwritten part of the article and not the genuinely groundbreaking (for Magic, anyway) modeling work that was the bulk of its corpus, but… well… That’s how I (we all?) roll.

The last forum response, provocative, from the heretofore unknown Anselm was:


Who is this Thomas Pynchon?

I knew – if you can even say “knew” – him only as a jaundiced literati cartoon character with a paper bag over his head from a wry snippet from The Simpsons. In researching this allegedly-better-than-Stephenson recluse I learned about his “difficult” book, Gravity’s Rainbow. Gravity’s Rainbow was unanimously selected by the three person team in charge of handing out the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1974… but their decision was overturned by, shall we say, The Man, lambasting Gravity’s Rainbow as “unreadable, turgid, overwritten, and obscene[.]”

That four-pointed thumbs-down might as well have said that it was a newly discovered pop ballad according to John, Paul, George, and Ringo. Of course I had to read it.

I am a medium fast reader, but I don’t always have the best comprehension. I had to read Quicksilver (part the first, also being Quicksilver) twice, in a row, because it was pretty dense (the rest of the Baroque Cycle was much easier); Gravity’s Rainbow I am progressing at a clip of about two pages per hour, with almost no comprehension.

No. It is very readable. Difficult but not unreadable at all. Comprehensible is another question.

I had to look that up. Don’t lie; you don’t know what it means, either. Turgid means (can mean) “excessively embellished in style or language.” Yes. Turgid it is.

In this case, that is basically the same as turgid, so yeah.

I wish! Speaking of which (“which” being “obscene,” rather than “wish”), I am making a conscious effort to have more fun in my writing so I am considering starting a blog, not about myself, but from the perspective of a fictional New York professional in her late 20s based on every girl I ever dated, plus whatever juice I get out of the actual twentysomething girls I know (and whatever goes on during their whippersnapper weekends). I envision it as Sons of Innocence meets Sex in the City, but dirtier, less preachy, and more motivationally complex… and with product endorsements! What do you think? I think my wife sees this as yet another manifestation of my increasingly tenuous association with reality (whatever that is), but really I am in it for the combination of cheap thrills, marketing, and the opportunity to quash enemies whom I have never met. Plus the far less mature twentysomething girls I know seem to think it is a great idea. Did I mention the cheap thrills? I feel like I am twelve again, maybe fourteen.

Anyway, I have no idea what is going on with Gravity’s Rainbow, probably how you feel about this article right about now… Yet you are still reading. What does that say about either of us? I am less than 100 pages into it, having re-read the same first ten or twenty pages three times now, but while I don’t see Pynchon as being a better wordsmith than Neal, he really can compose quite a furious sentence. Consider:

Posh words in nice order

Sorry about wrapping the last part of that up the left margin. That is so cheap seats. It’s as bush league as a coin on top of your library to remind you not to lose to your own Summoner’s Pact, and just about as aesthetic. This is an interesting thing that you can only learn when doing strange things like hand copying wonderful paragraphs about banana breakfast out by hand… That bastard Pynchon… that is all one sentence (pretty much). He tricks you because there are six periods, but they are all in ellipses, not a proper period anywhere in it! Long story short, Gravity’s Rainbow is the hardest book I have ever tried to read. Ravitz works for me now and I made him try to read it, but I turn around and he is lugging about this copy of Lolita (talk about an “obscene” work of literature). Josh suggests we tag-team Gravity’s Rainbow because this one might be too tough to go solo. Imagine Neal Stephenson writing A Song Of Ice And Fire, giant cast, huge imagination, and never-ending backstory… but remove any kind of an anchored plot, and replace that with distractions RE: bananas, and you have Gravity’s Rainbow.

Part II, Why Weissman Hates Me

In late 1999 I wrote an article called We All Learned to Break the Rule of Four, which was in part a critique of the Kim School, but also an exploration of redundancy. It was a smash-hit (for me) because I got that rare response that actually moved me; nearly a Deckade later, I still think about it almost every month (at least). The great Brian Weissman emailed me, cursing that I had not written the article sooner, so that he wouldn’t have wasted so much time [presumably on forcing his already dated Type I strategies into then-“modern” Magic strategy].

At the time, it had been less than five years since the initial publishing of Schools of Magic, but the shift from what Rob Hahn had set down as the de facto most reasonable way to approach strategy and the layers upon layers of focus, precision, and in many cases Dead Weight, of “modern” Magic had already declared themselves to be at sharp perpendiculars. Elsewhen that summer, Fire God Dave Price wrote an article querying if a deck like “Monkey May I?” would still be feasible “now” that the world had changed so drastically.

Briefly, the Schools* (from April of 1996)…

The best known of the Schools of Magic, Weissman principle was that defense wins games. Brian and his friends, early on, decided that 20 life was not sufficient, and played with 50 life… His defense-first strategy was rooted in that identity. The classic Weissman deck hid behind The Moat, and won with a pair of Serra Angels only after eliminating the opponent’s hand with Disrupting Scepter. Every control deck since is either a legitimate heir, or a bastard descendent fathered on some Mono-Blue harlot by the side of the road away from the Schools.

Rob based this strategy on the kind of deck that a New York Magic Champion from that era was wont to play (New York Magic was a predecessor to Gray Matter and Neutral Ground), and outlines the principles that Hahn would lay down as the seminal Principles of Deckbuilding:

1. Every card must be maximally useful. This means that it can’t be just useful, or useful against certain type of decks, but be the MOST useful card against MOST types of decks. For example, Shatter is a useful card, but Disenchant is maximally useful. Spirit Link is useful in many situations, but Swords to Plowshares is maximally useful as Time Elementals don’t hurt you by attacking you.

2. No reliance on combinations. You want to build in the possibility of a combination (as you do with Rasputin Dreamweaver plus BIG Fireball, or Mana Drain into a Jade Statue or something like that) but you don’t ever want to be in a position to be relying upon it. E.g., Initiates plus Drain Life is a wonderful idea and a great combo if you could pull it off, but heaven forbid someone should kill the Initiate.

3. Minimize mana requirements. That means that as many of your spells should be the lowest casting cost possible, and that as little colored mana should be required. E.g., sometimes a Flash Counter is better than a Counterspell (for example, against a pure Red blaster deck) simply because it costs one less Blue mana.

We All Learned to Break the Rule of Four was in large part a negative (and in hindsight, somewhat obnoxious) response to Rob’s interpretation of Kim deckbuilding (really Rob’s deckbuilding based on Kim’s tournament success), but that is not to say that the three Kim principles are always wrong, or that we can’t learn from them.

“1. Every card does not have to be maximally useful. Today redundancy outweighs playing the best of the best in almost every modern deck; Kim would have frowned on Incinerate, I think, given the opportunity to play Lightning Bolt… We would just run both and not slow ourselves down with Disenchant, which is one of Rob’s precise examples. In fact, there are many times that we will choose a card that is not the maximally useful because it has some other bonus; for example, every time you go with Ancient Grudge over Krosan Grip in Extended (especially given what Krosan Grip can do to Counterbalance) you are breaking this one.

“2. Roughly 1/3 of modern Magic, and a disproportionate number of actual tournament wins would disagree with this one. I think that part of the disconnect between points one, two, and today are that there just weren’t the opportunities for redundancy that allow us to build either with redundancy over maximum efficiency or straight combo decks available. For example, if you can play with cards like Mystical Tutor or Tolaria West that greatly shift the deck tuning landscape.

“3. Even if we choose not to follow this principle in polychromatic decks (it doesn’t really matter that much in most single color decks), this is actually a great principle for reining yourself in and making the tightest, most efficient version of a deck. For example, I had this principle very close in mind when I worked on the URzaTron deck from PT: Honolulu; if you go back you will probably notice that there are no double colored mana costs at all (unlike most players, we did not play Hinder or Wildfire, or any UU or RR cards but for Giant Solifuge and Annex, and those in the sideboard). This is just good practice provided you can pull it off… It basically increases your virtual card advantage over a career, and probably significantly so.”

The closest “modern” equivalent, albeit probably not exact, is The Rock, etc.

Handelman (“offensive overkill”)
Offensive Overkill Theory posits that if every defensive card takes out one offensive card, then the defensive player has not advanced towards winning as the game goes on but the offensive player will reduce the number of defensive cards available to the opponent. By playing active card advantage, counterspelling of the global defensive cards, and outnumbering the defensive cards, the Offense Overkill hopes to eventually get out a creature which will not be destroyed or cannot be destroyed in time.”

The original Handelman was B/U with Hypnotic Specter, Hymn to Tourach, and Juzam Djinn to win quickly.

As a modern critic I think that I object to the notion that Hymn to Tourach, however proactive, is the same as offensive (why isn’t it defensive?), but the sentiment is consistent, at least. I think that decks as far flung as Tsuyoshi Fujita’s Red Deck Wins and Gabriel Nassif The Clock owe a tip of the yellow hat to this School.

However, you wouldn’t have known this in 1996. Rob was extremely biased away from aggro and in favor of the unique outlook of Weissman or the executive sexiness of Kim. Consider:

“Reports from the Net and my own playtesting show that the Handelman deck lacks the consistency and the reliability that distinguishes the top-level designs. Its brute strength in offense is undeniable, and its ability to disrupt the opponent with the Hymns (and thereby drawing countermagic) is also undeniable. However, with a poor draw, it often takes too much time to get up to speed for the Handelman offense and the defending deck can have countermeasures out.”

As a disciple of Rob’s writing from the time, my own trajectory – and therefore the outlooks of the thousands of games I went on to shape – are undoubtedly colored with this fundamental bias.

“The guiding principle is that the best defense is a good offense, but structured in such a way that the offense forces the opponent to change his game.”

Basically LD.

I had forgotten that either of these Schools existed. Rob later confessed to me that once he started publishing, everyone and their kid sisters were founding Schools of Magic, sending him deck lists and explaining their unique takes on Magic strategy. Chang’s brain was pretty advanced for 1996 (or earlier); however, his signature deck was just a bunch of burn cards.

“My basic philosophy in most of my decks is not only that the best defense is a good offense, but that multiple threats should be employed to force your opponent to play your game. That is the key, I believe to winning tournament magic. There are generally two types of decks, reactive, and proactive. If I’m playing a reactive deck, I will basically adopt a more defensive strategy, reacting to what my opponent does, and trying to prevent it or minimize its impact. The best example of a reactive deck is the Weissman deck, which stops offensive decks until it can lock the game. A proactive deck is generally offensive. It forces an opponent to react to your threats, to become reactive. If you’re playing a proactive deck and force another offensive deck to respond to your threats (double bolt a Juzam, toss to get under Vise, etc…) then you’re halfway to your goal, you’ve disrupted your opponent’s game plan.”

It’s medium sad that I forgot about the very existence of Chang because that paragraph could have… well, I’ve probably stolen it and attributed it to myself at least once. Probably at least twice in the last year. Probably.

… And yet his deck was a bunch of burn cards and Mana Drain

Basically Weissman with Jester’s Cap.

The existence of Maysonet was important for my development as a Magic thinker for a couple of reasons. First of all, it is interesting to look back and see just how mind altering it can be for someone with absolutely no credentials (won one New York Magic event) to speak from a position of authority and just reinvent an entire generation’s notion of what is good in Magic (and you can translate this to anything). I was convinced that Weissman was Steve Nash and Maysonet was Chris Paul, and they were going to run and dish and had an offense via their defense that just couldn’t be beat. I actively collected every possible $25 Jester’s Cap.

The really interesting thing is that I assume still that everyone started by playing creatures or some crude Jonny deck (mine were Circle of Protection: Red plus Orcish Artillery and alternately Orcish Spy plus Millstone) and then progresses to Weissman and Kim decks viz. U/W Control and The Rock… Because I did.

Anyway, I think it was my first tournament ever and I was playing a horrible 66-card U/W with Karma plus Magical Hack for the kill (main deck Circle of Protection: Black and Circle of Protection: Red and main deck Sleight of Mind… which was actually pretty good, even after I had qualified for the Pro Tour).

Sidebar: Part IIa, Focus Only on What Matters

The tournament was a Gray Matter $1000 tournament; I was playing in the Type II portion (you could make the Top 8 as a Top 2 competitor in PTQ, Sealed Deck, Type I, or Type II… I had already won a PTQ that season); my deck of choice was actually my long-running deck of choice during that era, which I will attempt to approximate here:

1 Feldon’s Cane
1 Ivory Tower
4 Howling Mine
1 Jester’s Cap
1 Zuran Orb

4 Arcane Denial
4 Counterspell
4 Force of Will
1 Recall
3 Sleight of Mind

1 Balance
2 Circle of Protection: Black
2 Circle of Protection: Red
4 Disenchant
2 Divine Offering
3 Wrath of God

4 Adarkar Wastes
9 Island
10 Plains
1 Strip Mine

Well, it was something like this; I am probably missing some Restricted List card… but not Black Vise, sadly. The main way to win was Howling Mine. You might as well substitute my earlier Regionals version, which won with Millstone instead, but played the same “lock.”

I basically always won with this deck, including winning an equivalent of local FNM. It tested very well but we didn’t keep fastidious numbers the way we do today (yes Paul, we should start testing). Anyway, I had massive problems with focusing on what mattered, and cost myself a Top 2 slot and a shot at $1,000 as well as Top 16 at Regionals and a likely Nationals qualification making essentially the same mistakes.

At Regionals I was grinding with Millstone and had my U/W opponent under Circle of Protection: White (for Blinking Spirit) so I obviously wasn’t going to lose. I had already Jester’s Capped his Disenchants, but I didn’t know his exact list. Either I knew he had one in hand because there weren’t enough in his deck, or I just didn’t know if he only played three, but he had one. I was Milling and probably going to win, but he played Feldon’s Cane. I am a deck exhaustion deck, I thought. I used my only Counterspell on it… He had the Disenchant and I lose to his Blinking Spirit after I had already “won”. Embarrassing.

In that $1,000 tournament, I had won Game 1 versus the Red Deck. I had him locked again in Game 2, with enough mana to Counterspell Mana Barbs and defend myself with the Circle… But I just had to play my favourite card, Jester’s Cap. That cost me a million mana (I think I knew better than to activate it, but he had Shatter, good lord)… I tapped down and lost to his infinite flurry of Goblin Grenades (I had been sculpting his perfect win with Howling Mine, hadn’t I?).

At the end of the day, all I had to do was win two games I had actually already won. I had finished first in the short term races, and had plenty of mana.

Still lost.

Due to not focusing on what mattered. I moved to be proactive in a spot where my reactive deck didn’t have to, to defend against something that I already had beat. Once I was watching Makeup play Type I and I told him to counter some stupid card. He leered at me, saying that you are meant to counter only what matters; my thinking was that he had Tithe in hand and could just go back to seven at will. I was probably wrong on that suggestion.

Oh, end Sidebar.

On the subject of Maysonet and Jester’s Cap, I learned, only many years later, quite a bit from the existence of this strategy. I sculpted my U/W deck to use Jester’s Cap to remove my opponent’s Disenchants so that I could more easily win with my “lock” combination. What was really telling, though, was the attitude a local player, a Mister Suitcase, an old guy with a job – the modern equivalent would be an old guy with a job and sixteen Tarmogoyfs – had towards Weissman versus Maysonet.

I liked Weissman even though I chose to play Karma kill because Serra Angel can block, making her synergistic with the declared defensive nature of the deck; Mister Suitcase liked the “purity” of the creatureless Maysonet. Purity. Did he not have words for what he meant? I didn’t understand then the possibility of blanking an opponent’s removal cards… and apparently neither did he. It took me years to figure out why creatureless might be good; at the time I just thought it was sexy because you had to have a pretty good collection to play that way.

That wasn’t brief at all! Who knew that I would accidentally do commentary on the Schools as well?

Part III. D-I Re-buy

I am going to try to get that Gravity’s Rainbow paragraph cleanly on one page (my fictional girl is going to fill blog post after blog post with these exercises, so I am going to practice my girl hand script)…

Ogg like bananananas

Got there!

Do you realize that Pynchon’s paragraph is one run-on sentence, at the end of which he doesn’t even position a damnable period? That is not just good writing, but, ultimately, good handwriting.

Apologies in advance if this article was not sufficiently turgid or obscene.


* You can read the April 1996 version here. I really looked forward to new editions back before they had websites; you might enjoy it.