Flow of Ideas – The Application of Close Reading in Magic

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Thursday, February 26th – I’m sure you’re wondering what exactly close reading has to do with tournament level Magic. Close reading is an excellent way to analyze cards in a new archetype and why they are important, along with their strengths and weaknesses. This method is easiest to understand when you see it applied, so I’m going to jump in with an example…

Every word in a sentence has a purpose. Each one is selected by its author and has a particular intent behind it. In the process of reading, we often forget about individual word choice and focus on the idea a sentence conveys. However, by looking at the meaning of each individual word, you receive a much greater insight into the mind of the author and can derive subtle themes, foreshadowing, and, most importantly, intent. In the English discipline, we call this technique close reading.

Close reading is the foundation which literary understanding is perched upon. By analyzing what a word means at the fundamental level you can better understand how it relates to the whole sentence, the whole paragraph, and on a larger scale, the whole text. Instead of analyzing something like a paragraph from Joseph Conrad’s seminal novella and the horror of students everywhere, Heart of Darkness, let’s take a look at the equally seminal and crucial literary work that is the flavor text of Gutless Ghoul.

“Make sure those wretches feed only upon the plagued. The blood of the healthy is reserved for me alone.”
Garza Zol, plague queen.

Okay, now in taking a look at this flavor text — and bear with me for just one more paragraph, I swear I haven’t been contracted by your English professor, nor is this an article on the merits of your cards having flavor text in competitive Magic — the obvious implication is that Garza Zol is trying to contain Gutless Ghoul’s feeding. There’s a lot more to it than just that, though. If we were to analyze this further, you might begin to see things like the fact that Garza feels the Gutless Ghouls are below her (she calls them wretches) and that she is some kind of persnickety queen because she only wants to drink healthy blood. Furthermore, the use of the word plagued indicates intent of talking about a plague of some sort. Has there been some kind of epidemic launched on the living that was created by the plague queen? And who exactly is Garza talking to that is going to carry out her commands?

Okay, enough of my inner Doug Beyer. By now I’m sure you’re wondering what exactly close reading has to do with tournament level Magic. The key to using this concept in Magic falls in looking at decklists. People often run through decklists, quickly make judgments, and begin swapping cards based on what they think without thinking through that card’s role first. Just like how every word in a sentence has a purpose, every card in a deck is included for a reason. You wouldn’t typically add the word “banana” to the phrase “how was your day?” without a good reason for doing so, and you wouldn’t add a Breeding Pool to your Death Cloud deck unless you had a reason for its inclusion. You can extrapolate a card’s purpose and what it means about a deck’s matchups by the number of copies present in the archetype.

This method is an excellent way to analyze cards in a new archetype and why they are important, along with their strengths and weaknesses. This method is easiest to understand when you see it applied, so I’m going to jump in with an example. This is Mike Magby’s second place Bant deck from February fourteenth’s Pittsburg PTQ:

The Manabase

The manabase, especially an Extended manabase, is a part of the deck which you have to look at together to understand the inner workings of. The first thing to note is that the deck has 22 lands. Although this deck has some midrange components, the amount of lands clearly indicates a deck which does not intend to out-resource the opponent in the endgame.

This manabase has a very high basic count and only three Ravnica block dual lands, giving Magby resilience against Blood Moon effects and preventing too much bleeding from his manabase. Instead of dual lands, he has four of the Shadowmoor block filter lands. Filter Lands are a risk when you have six one-drops in your deck, so this clearly shows that Magby believes the risk is worth the reward. The mana on some of his spells is tricky, notably Rhox War Monk and Bant Charm, which the filter lands help with. The filter lands also make his nine basic lands better. Most notably he takes less damage this way, perhaps indicating Magby found in testing that he couldn’t afford to take too much damage from dual lands against beatdown. Finally, his five Forests are a small concession to his filter lands. He still wants to be able to play Noble Hierarch on turn 1, but has to run enough Forests to ensure that can still happen.

4 Ethersworn Canonist, 3 Gaddock Teeg

These cards are very similar, and so I want to group them together to discuss their role. Four maindeck Canonists and three maindeck Teegs in a deck which is mostly midrange indicate a severe weakness to TEPS and Elves. This much maindeck hate for combo is nearly unprecedented. In order to do well in a PTQ, which would likely pit you against combo twice in the tournament, Magby had to take a chance and roll with all of these maindeck. Canonist is significantly better than Teeg against Storm, Elves, and B/G Loam, whereas Teeg is better than Canonist only against Faeries and less popular decks like ‘Tron and Death Cloud. Teeg is also a legend, prompting the clearest reason for his three-of status.

Teeg and Canonist are weak against beatdown because they are just pithy 2/2s, so Magby has to have enough other cards which are good against beatdown to ensure he can fend off an early assault even if he draws a combination of two or three Teegs and Canonists. Finally, a very noticeable facet of maindecking Canonist and Teeg is that it frees up significant sideboard space and allows Magby’s sideboard to ignore combo entirely.

4 Noble Hierarch

Magby always wants Noble Hierarch in his opening hand. It allows him to pump out three-drops on turn 2 and fix his mana. Noble Hierarch also allows him to run twenty-two lands and be able to play fifteen maindeck spells which cost three. The exalted ability is also awesome for a deck like this. Unless Magby wants to splash a color, Noble Hierarch is an upgrade from Birds of Paradise and pretty clearly fits in this deck.

4 Rhox War Monk

Rhox War Monk is the force trying to push this deck ahead of Zoo and Mono Red Burn. As we saw in Magby’s manabase, he’s very careful to not take excess damage against beatdown and it’s because he needs to try and make sure multiple Rhox War Monk connections keep him far above burn range.

While a necessity for the zoo matchup, Rhox War Monk is just passable against a deck like Faeries or G/B Loam. While its four toughness is a nice buffer against Kitchen Finks and Vendilion Clique, and the three power still provides a clock, the Rhino Monk is not your primary tool against control. Rhox War Monk is especially mediocre against combo, but ideally your seven anti-combo cards can help it get in enough swings to quickly end the game.

4 Tarmogoyf

Tarmogoyf is one of the best creatures you can play in Extended. It provides a clock versus TEPS and a huge, threatening body against control or beatdown. It is at its weakest against Elves, but that is no excuse to not play this excellent card. You can’t really learn a lot from a deck by dwelling on Tarmogoyf, so we’ll move on.

3 Trygon Predator

Unlike the obvious inclusiveness of Tarmogoyf, Trygon Predator is an interesting and oft-unexpected addition to this deck. It’s not a card Magby would be maindecking unless he wanted to plug particular holes in his strategy. First of all, it gives the deck a flier to ensure Magby can punch through damage. More importantly, the card has uses ranging from munching on ‘Tron’s signets to dispelling G/B Loam’s Bitterblossoms.

Mostly though, Trygon Predator is a card which does three crucial things: trump their Umezawa’s Jitte, destroy Sulfuric Vortex, and help the Affinity matchup. The extra ammo against Affinity is extremely important for a deck like this, which can quickly find itself outclassed by the creatures presented by the merciless robot army, and destroying Vortex is crucial so your War Monk’s can continue to gain you copious amounts of life. This deck only has two Jittes of its own, so Trygon Predator is extremely important for winning Jitte fights. Trygon Predator is the ideal creature for shutting down a Jitte, because even if they give it -2/-2 every turn the Predator will still live and the Jitte will accomplish nothing.

The one artifact Trygon Predator is notably not very good against is Vedalken Shackles because they can just insurrect the Predator. However, with the lessening of Shackles in the format, that’s not as much of a worry.

Another angle to look at is what Trygon Predator replaces in the three-drop-plus slot. Because Magby had relatively painless mana, he opted to not play a card like Kitchen Finks to recoup his lost life. He has less equipment, making Troll Ascetic less attractive, and likely doesn’t feel the deck has the time to set up Glen Elendra Archmage. Trygon Predator is a nice catch-all answer against many of the problem cards he expected to play against.

2 Vendilion Clique

Two copies of a card is always an interesting number. It usually means its owner never wants to see the card in multiples and prefers to see one late in the game, that the card is rarely spectacular but always useable, or that it’s only good in certain matchups and its owner wants to have access to the card in game one of those matchups without worrying about drawing it too often against other decks. The two Vendilion Cliques in this deck are good against combo and control, but they’re just average against beatdown.

So why two Cliques instead of playing a fourth Trygon Predator? As we’ve already seen, Magby was afraid of combo and Vendilion Clique is an excellent vitamin supplement to the balanced breakfast of Canonist and Teeg. But instead of being as one-dimensional as Canonist and Teeg, Vendilion Clique is good against control and allows Magby’s playskill to play a factor. He gets to make a decision, and anytime you get to make more decisions in a game of Magic you receive more of a handhold on fate. Clique is also a 3/1 that can come in and create a clock out of nowhere.

So why not more Cliques? Magby only had a certain threshold of cards he could modify beyond the obligatory four-ofs. This is not so much a case of only wanting to have two Cliques, but wanting to make sure he had access to three Trygon Predators, three Bant Charms, and so on, leaving room for only two Cliques. Additionally, Magby has been trying to make sure he can withstand the beatdown matchup. He didn’t want to play an anti-beatdown card like Kitchen Finks; he was looking to add a card that was better versus combo and control but couldn’t dedicate three slots to it. Vendilion Clique fit the role Magby was looking for in his last few inclusions.

4 Mana Leak

To keep the tempo of the deck up and to deny your opponent threats when you have a slower draw, Mana Leak is essential. This cornerstone two-cost counter of the format allows you to sit behind one of your creatures with a counter in hand, forcing your opponent to make a move that is not going to be effective. The presence of Noble Hierarch allows you to quickly obtain a threatening board presence, and Mana Leak will often let you get in an extra hit when they try and muddle in your affairs. It also denies many of the more costly trumps decks may have against you. Mana Leak is good when you have to play as the beatdown deck and when you have to play the control deck, and, unlike Remand, it prevents the crucial lynchpin of a deck from resolving. The mere presence of it in your deck causes your opponent to play differently.

3 Bant Charm

While Bant Charm doesn’t deal with Sulfuric Vortex like Trygon Predator does, it’s another card which is good against Umezawa’s Jitte. Unlike Trygon Predator, Bant Charm deals with Vedalken Shackles and a fresh Lotus Bloom, and as a removal spell it’s useful against beatdown. The ability to counter an instant can cause a lot of problems for both combo and control. Denying a Peer Through Depths can sometimes buy you the one turn you need, and having the potential to send a counter back when they try a Spell Snare or making sure your creature avoids a Putrefy are both worthwhile.

Bant Charm is another in the line of versatile cards played in this deck which gives Magby access to more decisions during a game. So why only three? The problem is it’s at the top of your curve, color intensive, and is often good but never superb. While seeing two over the course of the game is okay, you don’t want your opening hand to contain two Bant Charms which makes it an excellent three-of but an iffy four-of.

3 Oblivion Ring

With so much efficient creature removal in the format, Magby continues to opt for cards which deal with non-creatures. His card selection shows a determination to not lose to Umezawa’s Jitte and Sulfuric Vortex. Oblivion Ring is another catch-all answer and versatile card that fits into the same kind of slot Bant Charm does. So why the 3/3 split? Oblivion Ring is easier on his mana; with nine basic lands it’s more difficult for him to set up the GWU for Bant Charm. Oblivion Ring also complements Trygon Predator to deal with prominent enchantments like Sulfuric Vortex and Bitterblossom and takes care of any Garruks still floating around. It’d be easy to look at this deck and configure the numbers on Bant Charm and Oblivion Ring to 4/2, but there’s a reason behind the way Magby built it.

2 Spell Snare

Spell Snare is an interesting choice to be a two-of. On one hand, it’s the kind of card you usually want in your opening hand. On the other, it can be extremely poor if drawn in multiples versus the wrong decks. What would have led Magby to come to the conclusion that two copies of Spell Snare was the correct number? It’s not the same catch-all answer that Mana Leak is, and in a deck that wants to tap out for the first few turns you lose the opportunity to Snare their two-drop. Two Spell Snares almost serve as extra one-drops on the draw so you can counter their two-drop when you don’t open on Noble Hierarch. It could also be because Magby didn’t want to draw too many, but was usually okay when he drew one. There are enough good spells which cost two in the format that Spell Snare is still potent late in the game; he didn’t want his opening hand to be clogged with them and hurt his development.

Another reason for two Spell Snares is one of the most powerful features of any counterspell. Once your opponent knows it’s in your deck, they’re forced to consider it every time they try to play a spell. The omnipresence of it can hinder your opponent’s game. Conversely, if they didn’t see it in the first game it’s likely you’ll see one at some point in games 2 or 3 and be able to Snare an off-guard opponent who didn’t think you had it in your deck.

2 Umezawa’s Jitte

Out of all the two-ofs, Jitte is likely the most controversial. The normal number of Jittes in a midrange deck is usually three. Jitte controls games like no other card can. What would prompt Magby to play only two of the terrifying equipment?

Magby probably did not feel like he needed to have Jitte to win the game. He wasn’t going to lose to his opponent’s Jittes because Magby built several ways into his deck to attack that angle of advantage. Between Bant Charm, Oblivion Ring, and Trygon Predator, Magby has a plethora of answers to an opposing Jitte. He will rarely have to use his Jitte to destroy their Jitte, allowing the Jitte he has to be the only one he needs.

Jitte is not very good against combo, which Magby clearly expected a lot of based on the numbers of Teegs and Canonists, so maybe that’s why he only played two main. This point is reinforced when you see that he has the third one in his the sideboard, presumably to be brought in against beatdown. After sideboarding the opponent is also more likely to have pinpoint removal for your Jitte, making a third copy preferable for the matchups in which you need it.

Moving onto the sideboard…

4 Choke

The four copies of Choke are undoubtedly targeted at Faeries. Although people are moving toward non-Island Blue sources to make Choke less effective, when you Choke somebody who is still playing a heavy Island version it can quickly spiral into a game win. Choke is the only Faeries hate card in his sideboard, meaning Magby feels Choke is enough to make that matchup favorable. Although he is sideboarding four cards for Faeries, his sideboarding plan is indicative that his maindeck is either even or advantaged against Faeries. If the matchup was poor, four Chokes are unlikely to change it around on their own.

4 Wilt-Leaf Liege

Although possibly for any beatdown or midrange matchup where Magby wants an additional large body, Wilt-Leaf Liege is mostly targeted at B/G Loam. Discarding one to a Raven’s Crime puts a very large amount of pressure on the opponent extremely early. If you can back a turn 1 or 2 Wilt-Leaf Liege up with a counterspell for their Putrefy or Bitterblossom, the G/B Loam player is going to quickly find themselves in a position from which it is difficult to recover.

It’s also worth noting the angle of attack Magby chose to use. Instead of a more defensive Relic of Progenitus route which tries to gain an advantage in the long game, Magby recognized that his deck was not built to endure a drawn-out conflict and tried to use the Liege to end things as early as possible.

3 Condemn

Magby notably chose Condemn over Path to Exile for his beatdown and All-In-Red matchups. He only has three Condemns, so all of the maindeck precautions against Zoo are beginning to reflect in his sideboard choices. His maindeck is prepared enough for beatdown that Magby just wants to use his sideboard to pad his removal count against a creature onslaught.

3 Kataki, War’s Wage

Affinity is quickly picking up popularity and, knowing his weakness to the robotic legion, Magby opted for Kataki over Hurkyl’s Recall or a Red splash for Ancient Grudge. Even in a format where Affinity is picking up Path to Exile, the innocuous 2/1 is often game over for Affinity if unanswered. Even with the removal for cards like Cranial Plating maindeck, Magby is certain Affinity is a poor matchup for this deck and he has enlisted Condemn and Kataki to try and turn that around after sideboarding.

1 Umezawa’s Jitte

See the third paragraph of the maindeck entry for Umezawa’s Jitte.

Just as interesting as the cards which Magby did sideboard are the cards he didn’t. His maindeck was set up well enough for combo that he knew he didn’t need to sideboard any Trickbinds, and he didn’t feel like he needed any Circle of Protection: Red’s for the Mono Red Burn deck or additional lifegain which indicates that matchup is probably okay.

Close reading decks can seem tedious, but you can learn a lot about a deck by analyzing each individual piece. I have never played with or against the Bant control deck, but from this analysis alone I’ve begun to understand its matchups, how the deck plays, and why the deck plays the cards it does. Discerning the details behind a deck and the intent behind its choices is extraordinarily useful when trying to figure out how to build the best version — or how or how to combat it.

The one place where close reading falls short is that sometimes you don’t know the skill level of the pilot of the deck you’re analyzing. You don’t know if they just couldn’t find the sideboard card they wanted to play, or if they had to build the sideboard the morning of the tournament without any playtesting. Looking at Pro Tour decklists usually avoids this problem, and allows you to peer into the thought processes the best players in the game go through when choosing a deck. If only there was a Pro Tour with a brand new set that we could close read decklists from sometime soon…

Gavin Verhey
Team Unknown Stars
Rabon on Magic Online, Lesurgo everywhere else.