“Well, it’s obvious that Doran is just the best deck in the format…”
That is the kind of thing that you could overhear late in the afternoon at the New York PTQ. Forget about the fact that it’s a ridiculous thing to say… It was probably understandable, at least a little understandable, at the time. After all, six copies of an archetype in the Top 8 is pretty impressive. Doran certainly did the job of exceeding its statistical expectation at this one tournament, but the “Best Deck” award? In the format? I’m not ready to shell that one out yet, not even with two wins out of two tries in the Greatest City in the World.
The troubling thing about Doran doing so well, early, in my area at least, is how confusing it is. No no, of course there is going to be a good archetype deck. It took me a few weeks to concede to Loam last year, despite the fact that it won our season opening mock tournament (since when has that been wrong?) in the hands of superstar-to-be Steve Sadin. In the unlikely case that Doran is (ends up being) the best deck in some sustainable way, I actually think of that as a vindication. I think that the possibility that a flexible / mid-range / do-everything / non-linear creature deck could be the best deck is just fantastic, or at least more than a little ticklish; I am a person who prides himself on trying to play “the best deck” (as I see it) in every tournament I enter, and during last year’s Extended season I spent two out of three attempts with Windswept Heath, Temple Garden, and Loxodon Hierarch in front of me. If that kind of a deck – admittedly with some Black disruption and removal tossed into the picture – rather than a super powerful linear combo deck… That’s just good Magic well played, as far as I’m concerned.
So what’s the topic?
I was talking to aspiring statistician Paul Jordan this week and he posed an interesting question. Let’s say that Doran is (actually ends up being) The Deck to Beat. How do you fight it? It doesn’t piggyback any linear mechanics. You can’t Hurkyl’s Recall it during combat, or overload your sideboard with Extirpate and Tormod’s Crypt, or just fold your arms and smile behind a second turn Gaddock Teeg. If anything, Doran can itself play Gaddock Teeg and Tormod’s Crypt and Extirpate; at the New York PTQ, I was on the other side of all three of those cards out of Doran, in fact.
Here’s the thing: This isn’t actually a difficult question to answer. If we weren’t talking about Extended, it might not even be an issue. It’s just that when fighting in the countryside of Extended, we are used to bringing in Ancient Grudge and Dwarven Blastminer simultaneously, or smashing the graveyard from three different angles simultanously, or eradicating any and every artifact three times over. The presence of a possible non-linear Deck to Beat is jarring in the sense that we aren’t used to fighting that kind of opponent in this format.
The fact is, this question has an old school answer. So velcro up the tops of your white Reebok high tops… We present three street ball ways to skin a cat:
1. Front Side a Deep Analysis
I knew that I wanted to develop a secondary plan against discard strategies that would complement the Martyr plan, but also thrive even if I was forced to discard my hand. I studied Nassif’s Martyr-Tron deck and noticed that he employed Compulsive Research. While it is not White, it usually increases the White count just fine.
I suggested Fact or Fiction to Flores, but he was on top of things and reminded me that Deep Analysis would do what I am looking for but would be even stronger against these Thoughtseize/Cabal Therapy people. I added Deep Analysis and the results were as different as light and day.
Innovations – Martyr of Sands in Extended, by Patrick Chapin
My principle playtest partner at the beginning of the process this year was Chris Pikula, who was all about The Rock and beating The Rock. As such, I simply got used to playing both sides of The Rock, fast and slow versions, and was constantly developing subtle ways to beat it in the back of my head. Deep Analysis has been my catch-all anti-The Rock card since we started testing this season. Basically every deck I made capable of producing even one Blue mana has had two plus two copies of Deep Analysis, save Mishra decks (which are naturally effective against mid-range one-for-one discard strategies); even most of the Mishra decks sideboarded two copies of Deep Analysis.
Why is Deep Analysis basically the best possible card against especially slow versions of The Rock (but still pretty good against Doran and company)?
These decks essentially make you discard one-for-one, sometimes Vindicate your land (also one-for-one), but otherwise just make a bunch of dorks and hope to pull you close enough to the pale rider that they can end it on a Profane Command. Even though Dark Confidant can punish control decks, it’s actually quite common for these decks to pull absolutely nothing relevant. Think about it: They’ve got one-for-one disruption and dorks or conditional Phase III finishers. Which part of that equation is frightening? In isolation, only the disruption is scary. Good decks capable of producing a Blue (the ones I tested anyway) are optimized to beat Kird Ape, Tarmogoyf, Molten Rain, Blistering Firecat curves. Even the “fast” Doran draws are not particularly fast, not without the Cabal Therapies turning the control response side to mud.
Deep Analysis is the perfect foil to exactly the part of the Doran attack plan that is hurting the control side. At this level of play, most cards are of similar value. Doran loves Dark Confidant the most here, followed by the one-for-ones; control needs its Wrath of God (or whatever) for the big equalizer. Everything else stares at everything else and matters as the dominoes line up, but much less than the one-for-ones, Confidants, Wraths. Sure, you can lose to Loxodon Hierarch beatdown (I have) but you’re probably not going to if things fall into place the way they are supposed to or you don’t play too tentatively or too greedily. Deep Analysis is so much better than Fact or Fiction here! Doran isn’t stupid: They can hit the FoF and roll you with Lhurgoyfs and Treefolk and Elephants. But Deep Analysis? It’s almost better for the control if that gets hit (depending on the point in the game)!
I learned Deep Analysis tech more than four years ago, working on U/G in Extended, from the great Osyp Lebedowicz. His mantra was that if you front sided a Deep Analysis, The Rock could never win. The issue was that they always thought they were winning, especially when they drew their “trump” cards, never realizing that they were actually always behind on the metrics that mattered. While this rule is not precisely true now that The Rock has morphed, largely, into the much quicker Doran decks, the card is still surprisingly effective. When Doran gets the really awkward draws, all disruption, or a bunch of creature removal with only one or two threats (and you’ve got a removal spell), Deep Analysis is going to shine like no other card in Extended. It suppresses the most important point in their triangle offense (for control) and allows you to draw into your matchup dominators, whatever they are.
2. Meet Fast with Slow.
I’ve actually been on the wrong side of the Who’s the Beatdown equation more than anyone else, ever, in the history of Extended PTQs. The reason is that I used to play a deck called Black Thumb when The Rock was the most popular deck, which eventually morphed into the deck from Playing Fair… I never really learned my lesson and got out mid-ranged at the first PTQ this year, losing to Loam with the Gold deck (a legitimate predecessor to Doran?), then another version of The Rock with a bunch of Putrefies.
What’s the problem?
“Fast Rock” decks try to convert their one-for-one disruption into tempo, whereas “slow” or more traditional versions of The Rock are based on progressive card advantage, often using their disruption to simply buy time. The problem in the heads-up fast versus slow matchup is that the fast Rock threats are notoriously fragile when pitted against typical slow Rock cards, and slow versions of The Rock can completely dominate the latter parts of Phase II with Spiritmonger, Visara the Dreadful, Genesis recursion, whatever you want to slot there.
This was one of the main matchups that Pikula and I played before the New York PTQ, and the results were consistent: Slow beat fast over and over again. Our slow deck was just Barra Rock; Chris said the most important cards were Eternal Witness and Pernicious Deed, but it was really everything. When I lost to Sayan Bhattacharyya was back in initial Gold deck testing, it really was everything… Deeds, Witnesses, even Chainer’s Edict. Doran doesn’t typically have enough of a combination of mana ramp and direct damage to close on a decent life points advantage as the game starts to get longer; on balance, slow versions of The Rock can advance their board positions with Sakura-Tribe Elder (what a beating!) while really minimizing the effectiveness of the hand destruction. So long as the slow deck can stall with Hierarchs and chump blocking, Eternal Witness can always recoup the Deed, and that is the first in a long line of dominoes. From the other side of the table, Dark Confidant is just so unimpressive… he never seems to do anything.
- 4 Birds of Paradise
- 3 Eternal Witness
- 4 Dark Confidant
- 3 Loxodon Hierarch
- 4 Tarmogoyf
- 4 Doran, the Siege Tower
I know Tom said not to copy his sideboard due to the extreme number of mirror match cards, but the numerosity of these said is not what I am commenting on presently. Say, for some reason, you wanted to sideboard seven or so cards targeted specifically for the mirror… Why would you play ones, like these, that conceded the field of battle?
I know that from some perspective, since you guys are playing the mirror, you aren’t really conceding the field of battle so much as playing within your own perceived comfort zone… except you are. I still have nightmares about dropping a Faceless Butcher onto his Visara, putting a +1/+1 counter on my Quirion Dryad, getting in, and losing both of them to a Deed or Living Death such that he got the damn Visara back the next damn turn. Damn! I just don’t see any reason, if you are going to devote that much space to the mirror, not to engage in some measure of repositioning. There is so much value to be had without conceding one iota of speed or consistency. Tom’s main deck has a decent amount of land, and he is already packing Eternal Witness, a key card in my group’s fast versus slow Rock testing; half-way there.
Why not instead play in such a way that if the opponent wants to spend half his sideboard to beat you that you still win (textbook strategy superiority)? If it were me, I would play cards like Pernicious Deed (passable to actually good against Counterbalance and Dredge) which annihilate “untargetable” Mystic Enforcers and gobble up alleged trumps like Sword of Light and Shadow. You’ve already got Eternal Witness! In fact, I’d probably play a fourth, and add the fourth Loxodon Hierarch. If I were going to play more four drops, I’d probably go with Ravenous Baloth over Mystic Enforcer for two reasons: 1) Ravenous Baloth is a teeny weenie (but quite measurably) better than numerous main deck cards against Dredge, and 2) if you aren’t intentionally getting into Smother versus Sword of Light and Shadow fights, it’s just more consistent than Mystic Enforcer, which ends up being a 3/3 Protection from Vindicate Hill Giant (but still embarrassingly dominated by Loxodon Hierarch and so on) more often than you’d like. Ravenous Baloth even plays nicely with the Indrik Stomphowlers Tom chose to sideboard.
The secret to winning a lot of sideboarded games, believe it or not, was siding out Tarmogoyf.
I saw over and over again that fights were coming down to Deed. My Tarmogoyfs were dying with his Tarmogoyfs. Even though 4/4s are smaller than Tarmogoyfs during a good portion of the game, the fact that the most important cards are Witness and Deed meant that I just wanted to maximize my ability to win with specifically those cards.
If I were going to devote seven cards to this matchup (and I know Tom criticized himself for doing just that), they would be…
4 Pernicious Deed
1 Loxodon Hierarch
1 Eternal Witness
1 Ravenous Baloth
I might actually consider playing two Baloths rather than the fourth Hierarch (they aren’t too far off in power level when considering only the mirror), just for that tiny bit of value against Dredge, plus the potential synergy with Indrik Stomphowler (as you recall, I am not above playing that “combo” main deck).
And you know what? Not one of those cards is actually purely devoted to the mirror. In fact, many of them can directly address the problems that Tom identified in other matchups (Counterbalance and Vedalken Shackles, fast beatdown/burn strategies, and even Dredge combo kills).
The main downside with this repositioning is that Tom’s Doran deck is stuck on Birds of Paradise whereas most of the slow Rock decks have the vastly superior Sakura-Tribe Elder. This is obviously weaker when you are trying to play a second turn Doran but much better with Pernicious Deed and 4/4 creatures for four mana on curve, and when chump blocking or fighting Dredge.
If you were going to go this direction, I think you would probably cut the lone Chrome Mox. I know, I know… I’ve lost to the Chrome Mox a bunch of times (first turn Maher and all that), but it’s not very consistent to begin with, and the Mox is so much worse with this particular repositioning that I think that minor change is more than worth it.
3. Play Monopoly
A lot of people forget that The Rock used to actually be called The Rock And His Millions. Sol Malka is a rasslin’ fanatic, and when I was on my pioneering 14-0 tear with The Rock six years ago, he even suggested I rename “my” deck Goldberg (you know, “G/B”) because of my long undefeated streak (Bill Goldberg’s gimmick, besides the fact that he was basically WCW’s answer to Stone Cold, was that he had a long undefeated streak). The truncation of “And His Millions” from the deck’s name actually mirrors its movement from an innovative rogue strategy that I was at one point more than happy to bogart from the innovative Sol to a [now] long-standing staple of inconsistent mainstream performance.
You see, “And His Millions” evokes a sense of plenty, of wealth; practically speaking, The Rock is a deck that evokes the opposite of wealth, a tool of mere economics and the discipline of scarcity.
At its essence, what is The Rock? It has always been some sort of mid-range progressive card advantage deck. Unlike a deck with powerful card drawing like Fact or Fiction or even Mind’s Desire, The Rock is a deck constantly jockeying for position, setting up trades, ideally trading at value, picking up a two-for-one hither and thither, wherever it can.
The specific movement from slower versions of The Rock to Macey or modern Doran decks has addressed a principle weakness; while The Rock can trade at value, it has always been vulnerable to decks that simply refused to trade. A relatively slow clock (say three 4/4s in total) gave the opponent time to initiate some completely monopolistic play off the top, ruining the position that The Rock worked so hard to acheive with its play-by-play and turn-to-turn exchanges.
What happens when you have no cards in hand (Doran was doing his job) and just a bunch of lands (for argument’s sake six) and you are getting completely dominated on the board by creatures, and your opponent is on the verge of cackling madly, planning to kill you with, say, a Profane Command in two turns, when you damn it rip an Upheaval?
Are you kidding me?
It’s not quite Phase III when you don’t have a Tarmogoyf, Tombstalker, or Psychatog to follow it up, but it ain’t bad in that spot. Your opponent will be discarding, you’ve basically gone first, you are unlikely to miss a land drop, um, ever for the rest of the game… Quite the get out of jail free card, eh? The fact is, there are a dozen cards that can without having to jack storm count or anything will do basically the same thing off the top. Add Sensei’s Divining Top for greater resistance to discard and, you know, three times the topdeck.
We are so entrenched in our anti-linear sideboarding strategies, have culled our playables to such an acute palette of spells, that we forget that we can dial it backwards just a little bit and punish this mid-range-come lately with simple and effective spells that have always been good against at least aspects of its game.
So if the question is how to metagame against the middle cards, here are three tools that you might not have had yesterday. My answer is the same that it always is: Forget about their deck, forget about their specific cards if you can. Invalidate their strategy, because if you can do that, their cards don’t matter. Change the rules of the game, don’t let them determine the field of battle, even if you think you can win on that field. It’s like “resilience” … Ultimately bad Magic because you still need things to go for you. Much better to win when everything is going for the other guy. Never forget that mid-range, even the best mid-range decks, are still mortal. Take them out of their comfort zones, live long enough against their not-quite-fastest offenses, and they are subject to the old rules of card advantage and time management.