Magic is a game filled with thousands of individual cards. Each is unique in its own way, and each is good at doing particular jobs. Serra Angel attacks and blocks. Lightning Bolt can kill your opponent, or your opponent’s creatures. Mind Rot removes your opponent’s options. Furthermore, for every action there is an equal opposite reaction: for every Serra, a Dark Banishing; for every Bolt, a Healing Salve; for every Mind Rot, a Divination.
On the surface, you can look at Magic strategy as a battle of actions and reactions where each mage tries to negate the other’s card in turn. Theoretically, if you can negate each opposing card with one of your own, you will emerge victorious. However, that’s not how Magic actually works. In fact, it’s about as far from the truth as you can get. Battling your opponent card for card is one of the greatest mistakes players consistently make on the PTQ level.
The reason? Games of Magic are not played with individual cards, but with decks which contain the coalesced power of solitary pieces. To try and negate your opponent card for card is folly. In some ways, this all harkens back to the Dave Price theory of “there are no wrong threats, only wrong answers.” But mostly, it has to do with fighting your opponent’s plan instead of their individual cards.
Let me ask you a question.
Why doesn’t this deck always beat Jund?
4 Glacial Fortress
4 Sejiri Refuge
4 Gargoyle Castle
4 Baneslayer Angel
4 Wall of Denial
2 Sphinx of Jwar Isle
4 Celestial Purge
4 Essence Scatter
4 Path to Exile
4 Courier’s Capsule
4 Jace Beleren
On the surface, it seems as though this deck should crush Jund. It has eight Jund hate cards maindeck, additional countermagic, strong removal, must-kill creatures, card draw, etc. In reality, the deck harbors about a 60% Jund matchup.
Why is this?
While you’re pondering that, let me show you two decks which do consistently beat Jund:
- 4 Ball Lightning
- 4 Hell's Thunder
- 4 Hellspark Elemental
- 4 Goblin Guide
- 1 Obsidian Fireheart
- 4 Plated Geopede
- 4 Llanowar Elves
- 4 Elvish Visionary
- 2 Noble Hierarch
- 3 Ant Queen
- 4 Elvish Archdruid
- 3 Great Sable Stag
- 2 Master of the Wild Hunt
- 4 Nissa's Chosen
Neither of those decks have Flashfreezes or Celestial Purges. In fact, they pack nary a narrow Jund-hating card. What are they doing right that Flashpurge deck wasn’t?
The answer: they’re attacking Jund’s strategy instead of its cards.
Yes, Jund is a deck with powerful creatures to kill and strong spells to counter. But look at what the deck is actually doing as opposed to merely what its cards are doing. In reality, the deck is generating an endless string of two-for-one’s while applying pressure and attacking your resources starting around turn 3 to 4.
Why does the Red Deck beat Jund? It simply doesn’t care. “You want to make me discard cards?” the Red Deck screams across the landscape of Jund. “You can have them! P.S., take six. Are you dead yet?” While Jund is trying to set up for a game plan where it surmounts card advantage, the Red Deck shrugs and sends another Ball Lightning into the red zone.
Everything the Jund deck uses to typically increment an advantage doesn’t hurt the Red Deck, simply because there is little advantage left to increment: the Red Deck is an endless stream of 0-for-1’s in the first place. The Red Deck’s strategy flies in the face of Jund’s strategy, and even has unearth creatures to render the attack on its resources (Blightning) less effective.
Why does the Eldrazi Green deck beat Jund? It attacks Jund’s primary way to get an advantage. The Jund deck aims to two-for-one beatdown decks by cascading into removal spells to clear the way for their large creatures, which simultaneously are large for their cost and do a great job of hindering the offense of traditional beatdown decks. Eldrazi Monument negates some of that strategy by providing evasion and indestructibility, but even without Monument in play the Green deck simply spits out so many creatures that Jund cannot rely on its traditional plan.
Using a two-for-one on an Elvish Visionary, Nissa’s Chosen generated by Nissa Revane, or even an Ant Queen, is significantly less effective because the card has already provided card advantage/parity or is the product of card advantage/parity. Furthermore, the swarm of creatures the Green deck quickly procures allows it to effectively attack through and/or defend against the Jund deck.
So then, why doesn’t Flashpurge always beat Jund? The reason is that Flashpurge does nothing to attack Jund’s core strategy. Yes, it has individual cards that are good against what Jund does, and occasionally that is enough to steal a game. You can counter their Blightnings, remove their creatures, and play untargetable and/or highly dangerous threats… assuming you draw the right cards at the right time. However, over the course of a match, you will not always have the exact answer when you need it; and thusly, you can draw several of your “Jund hate” cards and still lose.
If you cannot attack Jund’s ability to two-for-one you, then your strategy against the tricolored menace is not sound. If your plan is to one-for-one their threats, and their plan is to two-for-one you, the two-for-one player will inevitably end up on the top of that battle assuming they receive an average draw. Your plan has to supersede theirs: attacking their strategy with your strategy, not your individual cards, is what allows certain decks to dominate matchups.
This problem is particularly prevalent in PTQ level sideboards. One of the all time favorite, yet mediocre, sideboards of an average PTQ player looks something like this:
4 Kitchen Finks — Beats Red Aggro
4 Thoughtseize — Beats control and combo
4 Tormod’s Crypt — Beats Dredge
3 Ethersworn Canonist — Beats combo
This is a thoroughly average sideboard. Can you see why?
Every card is there to live on its lonesome. In the context of the matchup, you are relying on a single card to foil their entire strategy. You have no plan. You have no concept of how you’re going to win. You simply have the ability to cast your sideboard card, and pray. That’s not nearly good enough. How can you expect to win when you’re not even sure what your route to victory is?
Good sideboards are full of plans.
Let me show you what was, until recently, my favorite sideboard I had ever worked on designing.
4 Blood Crypt
3 Graven Cairns
3 Keldon Megaliths
3 Rakdos Carnarium
5 Snow-Covered Mountain
2 Snow-Covered Swamp
2 Sulfurous Springs
1 Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth
4 Dark Confidant
3 Gathan Raiders
4 Rakdos Augermage
4 Withered Wretch
3 Hit / Run
4 Rift Bolt
4 Rise / Fall
4 Seal of Fire
4 Volcanic Hammer
3 Yixlid Jailer
The sideboard of this deck, which Mike Flores and I designed together for Regionals, looks so strange at first glance. Why does a beatdown deck have Tombstalker and Epochrasite in its sideboard? If you were simply making a list of cards that were good in certain matchups, you would have never included those two choices.
However, Mike and I knew Tombstalker and Epochrasite were exactly what we wanted. The beatdown matchups — notably Gruul — were gigantic attrition wars. Whoever had the last creature standing won, and our creatures and removal were so similar to Gruul’s that all too often the match was a coinflip.
However, by adding Tombstalker and Epochrasite, you would always have the last creature in play. They had to minimum two-for-one themselves to kill a Tombstalker, and Epochrasite was the master of attrition wars. The individual cards looked strange, but our plan was phenomenal. I didn’t drop a single postboard game to Gruul after switching to this configuration.
The sideboard that supplanted Rakdos as my favorite was a recent one, built out of much toil and innovation. If you’ve been reading my articles for more than a month, I’m sure you recognize this decklist:
4 Glacial Fortress
4 Mystic Gate
4 Gargoyle Castle
4 Sower of Temptation
4 Meddling Mage
3 Vendilion Clique
4 Kitchen Finks
4 Cryptic Command
3 Broken Ambitions
4 Path to Exile
4 Harm’s Way
3 Essence Scatter
3 Celestial Purge
1 Hallowed Burial
Each card in the sideboard is there for a reason: to support a specific plan in a specific matchup. Against Five Color, your game plan was to contain their early card draw with Negates. Against Faeries, all that mattered was Bitterblossom and Mistbind Clique, which Celestial Purge, Essence Scatter, and Negate contained. Against Merfolk, Harm’s Way (along with a tricky sideboarding configuration) allowed you to fight them at their own strategy and be a better deck than them. Yes, against Jund Celestial Purge was just a removal spell, but even then it supplemented your plan of survive the first four turns and then bury Jund in card advantage with your own two-for-ones.
Instead of just sideboarding cards with titles and game text, this build of Reveillark sideboarded in entire plans which could severely alter the paradigm of the matchup. The plan-based sideboard of Reveillark was, by far, one of its largest strengths as a deck, and a primary reason why it was so successful.
Both of those sideboards benefit greatly from being constructed with a plan in mind. With a more “traditional” PTQ sideboard, you don’t have that ability. Going into any given matchup with the foreknowledge of what your strategy is from start to finish, and how you plan to beat their strategy, is an unbelievable asset to have.
Despite their lack of use at the PTQ level, plans, either in the maindeck or in the sideboard, are not difficult to formulate. The first step you have to take is to understand how the opposing deck works, and what the greater sum of its parts is equal to. Once you do that, there are three different tactics you can employ.
1. The Attack Plan
The goal of an attack plan is to figure out what the strengths of the opposing deck are, and then fight those strengths head on. Eldrazi Green versus Jund is a good example of this. Jund’s strengths are to two-for-one you into oblivion and to be able to send solitary creatures through. Eldrazi Green counteracts that strategy by playing creatures that make Jund’s two-for-ones less effective and by putting so many creatures into play that Jund has a hard time coping. Eldrazi Monument also neutralizes Jund’s primary plan, making it difficult for Jund to effectively mobilize its strengths.
Eldrazi Green’s plan exploits the gaps in Jund’s plan (no way to deal with large numbers of creatures; reliance on two-for-ones and cheap, large creatures to gain an advantage) and wins by fighting through the holes in Jund’s strategy.
Another great example of the attack plan is Reveillark. Five color’s plan was to draw cards early and then overwhelm you late game. Cut off the early game draw, and you actively attack its late game plan. Faeries’ plan beat Reveillark’s plan because it attacked Reveillark’s powerful, but sorcery speed based, strategy, with instant speed and perpetual threads, but after sideboarding Reveillark altercated itself to attack the plan faeries used to cement itself on top in the first place. Reveillark used the attack plan in almost all of its sideboarding strategies.
2. The Avoidance Plan
The goal of the avoidance plan is to simply shrug off the opposing plan, and execute a plan of your own that isn’t effected (or is effected less) by their plan. Note that this is entirely different from you having a plan, and them having a plan, and then ramming both into each other and seeing which comes out on top. That is planless Magic at its finest. When your plan is avoidance, you recognize that their strategy is actively unimportant to your strategy, and so you can execute your strategy unhindered.
A good example of this is the Mono Red versus Jund matchup. As detailed earlier, Mono Red just doesn’t care that Jund keeps throwing glorified Mind Rots at its head. Mono Red is just going to discard an unearth card and a land, and continue its barrage of burn next turn. Maelstrom Pulse can only hit one and two drops against Mono Red, making Jund’s three mana expenditure a highly inefficient trade.
3. The Exceed Plan
The exceed, or “trump,” plan is to find the angle the other deck attacks you from, and then fight them on their own battlefield (metaphorically) with more powerful weapons. If you opponent’s plan is to play the permission deck in the Blue mirror, sideboard in more permission and overload them at their own game. If their plan in the matchup is to control the early game and beat you in the long game, then craft your own, more powerful long game. Why bother fighting a battle your opponent is prepared for when you can topple them in the part of the fight they thought would be easy?
By trumping your opponent at their own strategy, you can catch them unprepared and without any way to recover.
Understanding each deck’s plan and how they interact is fundamental to identifying the intricacies of a matchup. When you can figure out what the whole of a deck is equal to, what a deck actually does as opposed to just what its cards do, it is much easier to understand what decks, strategies, and, yes, plans defeat that particular archetype. This way of thinking, when properly applied, can revolutionize your deck preparation, building, and choice, and is one of the most important stratagems any player who aspires to play on the Pro Tour can adopt. I hope you can put it to use. I’d be happy to answer any questions in the forums, or via e-mail at gavintriesagain at gmail dot com. I look forward to talking with you soon!
Team Unknown Stars
Rabon on Magic Online, Lesurgo everywhere else