I haven’t taken a history class since 1992, and my objective isn’t in the opening section of this article to give an accurate history lesson; instead the goal is to engage your imagination in order to make a point.
A Briefâ€”and somewhat joyful (if violent)â€”Refresher on Technology
Imagine Bronze Age dude walks up and decides to duel. Why he wants to duel is not more interesting to us than the actual fact that he does. He is decked out in Bronze Age gear, perhaps some kind of Bronze Age hat, ultimately complete with his offensive pinnacle of Bronze Age technology: the sword.
Bronze Age dude is the mightiest fighter in his entire village. He isn’t very tall but has big muscles honed by some combination of farm work / raping and pillaging / maybe hammering at, you know, bronze.
Bronze Age dude is very confident walking into this duel. He has never been defeated in Bronze Age battles, has a bunch of bronze, etc.
Now the problem for Bronze Age dude is that he has walked roughly one village too far to the west and is about to challenge Iron Age dude. Iron Age dude also has some armor, and his offensive weapon of choice is coincidentally identical to Bronze Age dude’s… the sword. That is, a layman could roughly identify both weapons in the sword family: handle, crossbar, longish blade. The styles are different, and they may do different things. The average Bronze Age sword is basically a bronze dagger but with superior length and therefore range. Up against a Bronze Age dagger, a Bronze Age short sword could potentially offer a reach advantage and be very exciting from the standpoint of a Bronze Age “fair fight” (assuming, of course, you see sword versus dagger as “fair”).
Now the varieties of iron sword orâ€”depending on how broadly you take this metaphorâ€”steel sword (steel being an iron alloy) can range from falchions to katana to two-handed greatswords like Ned Stark’s Ice. We don’t have to get all specific about it beyond the fact that iron kicks the living spit out of bronze. An iron sword can tear through Bronze Age armor. An iron / steel sword can (per popular media) hack off appendages various including, you know, heads. Blade against blade? Probably not going to be much of a contest, materials-wise.
Bronze, in case you didn’t know, is a copper alloy.
It would be a mistake to equate the difference in Bronze Age and Iron Age swords to solely differences in materials. The reason we differentiate technology by these two Ages is that the Iron Age offered not just a harder metal, but superior smelting technology. In the case of swords, one was very likely intended for stabbing, weighted to the grip; whereas the other could hold that iron-hard edge and extend to the technologies of slashing, slicing, and for you Stephenson fans out there, yesâ€”even hacking. A stabbing blade depends very much on the strength, reaction time, and recovery speed of its swordsman. A hacking sword lends its weight to the damage inflicted by the blow. This isn’t just bronze against iron (though that is not fair, either) it’s Bronze Age v. Iron Age technology.
Can a Bronze Age sword behead someone? Probably? I don’t really know the answer to that. Instead, let’s pose a different question: No matter how fit Bronze Age dude is, what do you think the chances are that a sword made out of beaten penny-pieces has of stabbing through a suit ofâ€”ahemâ€”lobstered steel plates?
That is, while the other guy is swinging back with, say, a razor-sharp longsword?
Sure, Bronze Age dude might be able to kill Iron Age dude some of the time. Maybe Iron Age dude is caught unawares. Maybe he is an old man who happens to have a big pile of iron at his house. Maybe it just isn’t Iron Age dude’s day. But here is the truth about technology: You can be the best Bronze Age dude in the whole village, with the biggest [short stature] biceps, a ton of practice with your Bronze Age short sword… But matched against the technology of the Iron Age, you are going to be facing a fist full of headaches. But not for very long.
If you are scratching your head at this point, see if you can more easily stomach a different Age jump.
In this corner, we still have Bronze Age dude with his Bronze Age sword. In this other, a Navy Seal packing an automatic rifle.
If you really want to stretch the old imagination, think Bronze Age sword in this corner; but lightsaber in that.
Can a Bronze Age fighter with a copper alloy overgrown dagger kill a Seal? Sure! Can he do so in a fair fight? I don’t know that very many people will consider automatic rifle versus pre-A.D. technology fair.
By the same token, what happens when we imagine that imaginary swordâ€”blue, green, red, or BMF-etched purple, it doesn’t matterâ€”laser-blade? If the prequel trilogy taught us to accurately imagine anything, it is that a lightsaber is going to slice through a metal parry every time; no regular sword is defense against a lightsaber!
Can you sneak up on a lightsaber-carrier? Kill her unawares? Obviously! We call that Episode Three. But in a fair fight? Once again, there is no fair fight where such disparities of technology are concerned.
Why did I spend so much time talking about wide disparities in technology?
Actually, let’s make this simpler: What is Technology?
Technology is simply a different way of doing things. Your goals don’t necessarily change (bronze daggers, steel longswords, automatic rifles, and red light sabers all have the same base purpose), but via technology, how you accomplish those things can have a profound impact on how well / quickly / effectively / efficiently they are done. For example, the absolute best accountant on the planet Earth in 1970 is unlikely to perform at even 3% the gross productivity of any random college kid with an accounting degree in 2011… provided the latter is armed with the technology of Microsoft Excel.
The earlier point was to illustrate that no matter how skilled the Bronze Age fighter is, he is at a long-term disadvantage to any fighter with superior Age of technology. An Iron Age fighter may have less of a leg up on him, but that leg is still very much there. When we start speculating on rifles or imaginary weapons, the disparities approach comical levels… but in a useful way, I hope.
I tried to find a good quote on this, but I fear that most of them are in podcast form rather than written articles. It was (probably not surprisingly) Patrick Chapin who got me thinking about this. He argues that the average player’s hunger for decklistsâ€”and consumption of even very good decklists (often via the MTGO “Hive Mind”)â€”skips over the technology contained in those decklists. To put it another way, it is generally thought that the last man to truly understand all the technology he used on a daily basis was Da Vinci. I certainly don’t understand how my laptop, iPad, or even toilet work in any kind of practical sense; the closest I have come in recent months is boring an extra hole in my favorite belt (still, after all these centuries, the technology of choice for holding up one’s Levi’s).
The very understandable concern on Patrick’s part is that our “widget” as Magic consumers remains “the decklist,” but that even individual decklists incorporate in some cases massive leaps in technology. Many or most of us are ultimately going to be missing what makes certain of these decklists special or important.
Before we continue, the card Traumatic Visions:
Our group jokes that Traumatic Visions is in a sense the perfect card; it does the only two things Jon Finkel is actually interested in ever doing, drawing a card (in service to a future land drop) or countering target spell.
Here are some twelve-year-old decklists from one of the most impressive Grand Prix Top 8s of all time.
High Tide in the abstract is simply the greatest control deck of all time. It took the things we like about controlâ€”drawing extra cards and countering target spellâ€”and did almost nothing else.
I remember the first time I ever played High Tide; it was in a “consolation” PTQ at Pro Tour Los Angeles in 1999. Some guy was pestering me about the addition of Thawing Glaciers, excitedly writing down every card I played… It turned out to be Frederico Dato, who had helped put High Tide on the map at Pro Tour Rome (the PT whose format informed the PTQ I was playing in)! Dato, an early innovator of this powerful deck, was madly interested in how his baby could appropriate the step in technology.
Think about the process advantage that playing Thawing Glaciers would have in, say, a mirror. Any of you who ever played the U/R Exarch Twin mirror when Jace, the Mind Sculptor was still legal know how important it was to hit your first six land drops. High Tide was even worse because the deck was about a turn faster (potentially), harder to disrupt, and both sides had Force of Will. Gaining that mana advantage was well and truly advantageous in setting up, and ultimately exhausting the opponent’s mana on, the perfect turn. In Thawing Glaciers you had a cardâ€”a landâ€”that would guarantee your next X land drops. Where an opponent might be burning Impulses to keep hitting his land drops, you could use yours to accumulate Turnabouts and FoWs, your lands hitting themselves… Plus you would be drawing an extra card every other turn.
(By the point of Finkel’s Top 8 in the format, “everyone” had Thawing Glaciers in some way, though.)
Thawing Glaciers gave players the open to go crazy on Brainstorm (much the same way Brainstorm has become the best card in Legacy). But more than anything else, Thawing Glaciers made the other cards do what a control deck really wanted to do… Frantic Search and Turnabout especially. Draw more cards. Play more lands. Weird for a third-turn kill deck, no?
High Tide was such a technologically advanced control deck that it whittled away every last vestige of the things control decks don’t actually like. There were no creatures to tap out for in Jonny’s list. No “way to win” exclusive to killing. When High Tide had had its fill of drawing extra cards, it would simply make you draw until your death. Very “Khal Drogo and the crown of gold” if you take my meaning.
Jonny had a Mountain in his sideboard that, along with Volcanic Island, would allow him to play the card Pyroblast. He had Wastelands for opposing Thawing Glaciers (and Volcanic Islands, should he meet them), and if that wasn’t enough mana advantage for him, a one-mana Counterspell was pretty good.
Could opposing Islands win in the face of one-mana counterspells and an overwhelming land advantage on High Tide’s part? I mean it was possible, I guess; but it is kind of hard to buy into. There was a time, relatively early on, when Turnabout was tech. Turnabout could help push an opposing blue deck’s scarce mana availability at the end of his turn (tap all your lands), defend against attackers (tap all your creatures), or even more awesome (I once tapped all my opponent’s copies of The Rack during upkeep prior to taking DI… which also tapped his Steel Golem and saved me approximately DI+3).
But the best thing about High Tide?
It was the perfect “control” deck that was faster than the fastest Red Deck.
Until Mark Gordon.
In the same Top 8 that included Hall of Famers Finkel, Maher, and Buehler; and famous Magicians like Lan D. Ho and future roomie Chris Pikula (seriously, is there any Magician who has a more impressive list of roommates than Lan D. Ho? Finkel, Schneider, Pikula, Chapin, Herberholz…); it was the then-unknown Gordon and his Goblins deck that ended up on top.
Mark’s deck wasâ€”believe it or notâ€”loaded with technology, too.
He made his deck much worse against other beatdown decks in the main, in order to push its speed with Goblin Lackey and Ball Lighting. But what was really special was the ability to add all eight Red Elemental Blasts and Pyroblasts after board. This allowed Gordon to reposition his deck as CounterSliver rather than beatdown when fighting High Tide and other blue decks. Where the typical Red Deck was going to be raced by the consistent and powerful High Tide, Gordon’s deck after sideboarding enjoyed significantly improved interaction and capabilities.
Technology in 2011
We enjoy similar massive leaps in technology today. Recognize this deck?
From the standpoint of a U/W Control, Paris Caw-Blade did everything a U/W Control wanted to do. The leap in technology wasâ€”echoing in some way Finkel’s High Tide from twelve years earlierâ€”a massive amount of functionality down to ten cards (Stoneforge Mystic, Squadron Hawk, and the two pieces of Equipment). The synergy between Stoneforge Mystic and Sword of Feast and Famine, in particular, was unanticipated by WotC.
Prior to Caw-Blade, B/U Control in Standard had the advantage over U/W Control heads up. The inclusion of these ten cards did what Gordon’s deck from 1999 did: Repositioned an unfavorable role into CounterSliver. All of a sudden U/W was threatening on turn two, drawing cards, and worse: was creating an offensive engine proof from black removal!
Where Can We Leap? What Should We Do?
The conversation, too often, is around resources.
In life, we have only one truly scarce resource: time. Everything else shifts, gaining and losing value like the price of Baneslayer Angels (I personally bought mine after Naya Lightsaber’s win at $55).
When we make the conversation about resources, we are doing ourselves a severe disservice. This is like focusing on the musculature of a Bronze Age swordsman, when in fact his glistening (likely hirsute) pectorals are going to fail in the face of hot lead or laser beams, just as his Bronze blade will.
What we should focus on, instead, is the level of technology we can command.
Who does the most, given how much time?
This is the question we should ask.
Ultimately this was the reason I thought Exarch Twin would eventually end the age of Caw-Blade. Caw-Blade is the finest, shiniest, most beauteous katana ever… But Exarch Twin is a literal and relative Gatling Gun. I probably should have predicted that the two would make babies in a triumph of deck eugenics… man how good was a TwinBlade? If you take Patrick’s definition of Caw-Blade (Seachrome Coast, Stoneforge Mystic, Sword of Feast and Famine, and big Jace), I would have been wrong; if you take a good faith definition (has Caws, primary strategy involving strapping Swords to them), we’ll never know now (I personally won most of my TwinBlade fights with the combo, after tapping them out with the Stoneforge half).
Today, you can see the technology that lumbering Bronze Age decks are working in, like Urabrask the Hidden to increase the speed of their Primeval Titans and to take the edge off of Exarch Twin. But if you ask me, our challenge should still be to seek our maximum level of technology. Who can do the most, and when, using what processes?
Valakut with Dismember looks kind of strange; like an illiterate White Supremacist Neanderthal trying to figure out the teleportation coordinates on the Starship Enterprise. It takes these wonderful resources and forces them to do this relatively low-tech thing. It takes Information Age tech and uses it to fight the actual bleeding edge of the emerging Age, so it can propel the agenda of its Bronze Age-ness… Like the last gasp of an aging empire, fighting foreign wars over widgets of sand or land or some other ultimately fungible resource when what it should be doing is using its existing massive resource advantage to propel us to the next Age of technology.
You know who is the opposite?
He starts out with a massive overflow in undervalued resources. Let’s call them “Wasteland” or “Candelabras.” If he concerned himself solely with the exchange of resources, he might have attempted the liquidation of these undervalued resources via further devaluation.
Instead, Pete elected to operate at a massively superior level of doing things differently. He changed the way we do thingsâ€”all of usâ€”and in so doing changed the tournament Magic world itself. In short, he created massive value in the form of a format many players now adore, an alternative to one thousands find dry, an opportunity to run cherished old cards that hold soft spots in our souls, and a heck of a something to do with those previously undervalued resources. In short, he resurrected Legacy, created a legitimate challenger to the Pro Tour, and made for triumphant marketing at the same time.
So to answer the Innovator, What is it that Makes the Rainmaker the Mightiest at Red Deck?
Just like Pete, rather than being concerned with constrained resources, the Rainmaker is resourceful.
This deck is a great example of the Innovator’s lament. Did you see, the first time around, the massive technological leaps [relative to Pre-March Red Decks] packed into Patrick Sullivan winning decklist? The previous default two-drop was Kargan Dragonlord. Kargan Dragonlord is the heavily muscled Neanderthal waiting to be extincted. Contrast with Ember Hauler.
Ember Hauler (who everyone knows about now) represents a massive improvement in technological capability. It is just a better way of doing things with the two-drop spot. It is the Red Mortarpod that actually attacks for two (Speaking of Mortarpod… Remember when the Caw-Blade arms race was about adding colors instead of adding Tectonic Edges? What process changed that?). With Ember Hauler in play, equipping a Sword of Feast and Famine to even a two-toughness Stoneforge Mystic was… challenging.
This isn’t just a different two-drop choice; it is a materials improvement that lets us stab and slash and decapitate… Instead of “just” thrust.
How about Ratchet Bomb? This is a card commonly thought of as anti-small attackers, not a tool of small attackers. But in context, it represents a different way of doing things. Previously the way of doing things was “losing on the spot to a Kor Firewalker,” but after Ratchet Bomb, it became “increasingly good for us especially when they play two of that guy.”
One thing to remember is that Red Decks are kind of the opposite of most other decks. Red operates at a fundamentally superior stratum to interactive creature strategies; heck, the original “over the top” is a lethal Blaze despite a fortress defending on the table. The historical frustration with losing to Red is that players were so invested in the resources they had put into their wigwams and were so proud of the raids where they sent their hunters and gatherers across the river to the other dude’s wigwams… And then some B52 flies by and ruins everything with some ultimately non-interactive attack on a completely different stratum, and it sucks / how lucky.
Red is already great tech: its problem historically has been comparatively weak individual cards. The Rainmaker is great because his way of doing things embraces and improves upon technology, rather than muddying his high tops with resource-focused land grabs.
So… Where, today, can we focus on driving the technology of the next great wave of innovations, rather than miring ourselves in the ultimately unsatisfying conflict over “cards?”