One of my all time favorite Magic articles — and one of the most influential on my play — is Chad Ellis “The Danger of Cool Things.” The article covers a simple, yet fundamental angle of Magic strategy. Ellis talks about how flashy plays, even ones which put a second copy of Verdant Force into play, are easy traps to fall into. Often, the flashy play which seems better must be foregone in favor of the traditional play. No matter how many opportunities I’ve had to Debtors’ Knell my opponent’s one-of Grozoth, no matter how many times I’ve been tempted to Cryptic Command back my Broodmate Dragon, no matter how many chances I’ve had to try and champion one Mistbind Clique in my hand with another Mistbind Clique in my hand on an empty board, my discipline against cool things keeps me from doing so.
The same kind of mistakes Ellis has outlined also resonate on another arena: deckbuilding. How many times have you seen somebody with an exciting one-of that’s just worse than the card they opted to cut for it? How about when somebody dilutes a popular deck with a cute, underplayed substrategy? I see this happen all the time, and it’s almost always wrong. There are no bonus points for creativity in competitive Magic.
Let me echo that again: there are no bonus points for creativity in competitive Magic.
If Magic tournaments were a contest of who had the largest warm fuzzy feeling at the end of the day, then cute, random, creative choices would be a strong strategy. In reality, Magic tournaments are mostly decided by deck strength and skill. If a seventy-five card netdeck ends up in first place and you end up in 29th with your Assault Swans splash Abundance deck, your creativity is not going to bolster you eighteen places.
Now, that’s not to say that innovation doesn’t have its advantages. You can catch your opponent off guard by not allowing their usual mental index of the seventy-five cards in your deck to operate, and often an opponent has no idea how to respond to a brand new strategy. However, poor innovation just for the sake of innovation is detrimental to success.
The most grotesque manifestations of innovation just for the sake of innovation often occur during the release period of a new set. Tons of brand new flashy cards are released into the pool of weaponry, and players quickly rush to exploit their new toys. As a result, people often end up slotting in unnecessary cards to their decks without adequate time to playtest with them. Doing so can be fatal, especially with regard to the release of the first and third set in each block.
The first set in each block heralds the looming presence of States/Champs, the quintessential “let’s play with new cards!” tournament. Players always, always, always, are looking for ways to abuse their brand new cards instead of sticking with the same ol’ boring ones they’ve been playing for the past year. There’s nothing wrong with that tendency on its own. Each block has its standout strategies which have to be discovered somehow. The problem, however, is the allure, obsession, and eventual stranglehold new cards put on your deckbuilding. When they capture your attention, it’s hard to let go.
Let’s flash back, no, dredge back to States 2005. Here are all of the Top 8 decklists. Mirrodin just rotated out, and Ravnica was a brand new world to explore. Today, we all recognize Ravnica block to be very powerful. We might think of cards such as Glare of Subdual, signets, bouncelands, and Dark Confidant as the ones which were later going to shape that format. So that’s what people played, right?
Wrong. Do you know what cards were the talk of the format everywhere in the time leading up to States? A lot of them were cards nobody even touches now, like Grave-Shell Scarab, Gleancrawler, and Searing Meditation. How about the new deck everybody was hyping? It was Fungus Fires. Fungus Fires! A deck which, more or less, ceased to exist after States.
In contrast with which cards and decks were most popular, let’s look at how States that year actually turned out. Some new strategies did well on playskill and sheer numbers, but decks which were holdovers from Kamigawa Block Constructed like Mono Blue, Critical Mass, White Weenie (many taking advantage of the addition of Lightning Helix and Char), and Gifts Ungiven outperformed a lot of the fresh strategies.
I could go through each year of States and find that this trend remains mostly the same. There are a few standouts over time, notably Time Spiral-Lorwyn Standard with its speedy tribal theme and Jonathon Loucks’s breakout U/B Mannequin deck, but even then a lot of very strong players made Top 8 with decks like Teachings and Pickles.
States doesn’t lead into any major competitive event, so often even the most serious players are just trying to have fun and want to use new cards. The real problem comes around the time of Regionals, when budding players want to try to earn a slot to Nationals only to have an influx of cards thrust upon then. Too many times have I seen players play some brand new strategy which just completely crumbles in the face of the format, whisking away their hopes of flying across the country to play among the country’s finest. Of course, there’s also the equally opposite danger that you’re going to miss out on some awesome technology because you didn’t stray from the confines of what you were used to. What is a Regionals competitor to do?
If you’re looking at switching to a fresh archetype for Regionals, it’s very unlikely that a majority of the cards you are using come from the new set because it’s a smaller set. In that case, what is it that’s suddenly pushing the deck over the top? Why wasn’t this deck good enough to play before the brand new additions? What I usually do is look at the decklist, remove all of the cards from the third set from it, and then ask myself: “why wasn’t this already a good deck?” If all a previously nonexistent beatdown deck receives from the third set is one good creature and a slightly upgraded burn spell, that’s probably not enough to magically move it from nonexistent to Tier 1. While a strong deck playing mostly in circulation cards can definitely spring up out of nowhere, more often than not there is a reason why a deck hasn’t been making laps on the tournament scene.
More common, and also much trickier, are individual cards. Should I be playing X or Y, can card A replace B in archetype Q, is M an effective sideboard card, and more, are all common questions. In these cases, nothing beats just putting in the time to playtest and find out. However, not every person has time to test twenty possible additions. To effectively figure out what is worth your time to test and what isn’t, there are two main processes I typically use.
The first is card comparison. You have to be careful when doing comparisons, especially when looking at contextual evidence from older formats, but it is a very easy way to quickly get a realistic judgment of a card. Card comparison works best when trying to evaluate scalable effects which have done in the past, such as removal, countermagic, pump spells, etc.
Now is probably a good time to note that I will be using Alara Reborn cards, both officially and unofficially spoiled, as examples below to ensure I keep my comments relevant to the present. If you do not want to view any spoilers, please ctrl-f “dissuade” to skip down eight paragraphs.
With that disclaimer out of the way, let’s look at Behemoth Sledge. Say you’re playing a Naya beatdown deck and the prospect of adding Behemoth Sledge to your deck occurs to you. The closest comparison is probably Loxodon Warhammer. If you wouldn’t be playing Warhammer, why play the Sledge?
Another example would be with something like Lavalanche. It’s a tempting card, but it’s far too expensive outside of Limited. For four mana you buy a one-sided Rain of Embers, at five a sorcery speed, counterable, one-sided Volcanic Fallout, at six a one-sided Firespout which also nugs them, and at seven you end up with Flame Wave. None of these effects are tournament playable at that cost, and if you wanted a sweeper you could just play their cheaper, non player-damaging variants.
Sometimes, you have to go further back in Magic’s history. In the case of Maelstrom Pulse, the closest comparison is probably Vindicate, followed by Putrefy. Judging by how good both of those cards were, you can extrapolate that Maelstrom Pulse is probably very good. Furthermore, context is also very important. Planeswalkers didn’t exist when Vindicate was printed, but now they are played quite prominently, making the ability to destroy a permanent even sweeter. Keep in mind, though, that context does work both ways. Sometimes a card will have been a staple previously because it filled a niche in the format, but, without that niche to exploit, a variant in a new format might not be good enough. (Think: Terror in Mirrodin block.)
Card comparison isn’t too difficult to grasp, but the harder method to understand seems to be gameplay comparison. Maybe I’m just strange, but I have the ability to play games of Magic in my head and see where a card would be useful. For this process, you have to do a something similar in an effort to mimic playtesting. Take the card in your deck that you would be cutting for the new card, and play the game in your mind up the point where either card matters. Then, figure out the situations where the new card is better than the old one.
For example, you’re playing Boat Brew with Incinerate (no, I don’t know why you’re playing Incinerate in your Boat Brew deck either) and are considering the newcomer “Bolt of Intimidation” (that name is a placeholder, so expect it to change before the pre-release) as a replacement. What you have to do, then, is figure out when each is better. Incinerate is one mana less, and can hit players. Therefore, the questions you have to ask are: how important is the ability to burn a player out, and how often am I going to have two mana open as opposed to three? You might run through some past games in your head, and common scenarios you’ve been in, and try to recall how many times either of those factors would have mattered. Then, you have to look at the Bolt’s upside of preventing creatures from attacking. Have there been a lot of games against something like Elves where you needed them to stop attacking for one turn? How often would it really matter? After running through all of the situations where Bolt’s side effect would be better, you average out your knowledge and have an idea of which is better. (Which, by the way, is almost certainly Incinerate).
Then, of course, you have the cards that are just impossible to compare to each other. The effect is just so brand new, so jolting, that you have to figure out how it would play all on your own. Such a card in Alara Reborn is Maelstrom Nexus. Let’s try to figure out how this doozy of a card plays out in Standard Five-Color Control. If you resolve it on turn 5 against beatdown, on turn six you can play Mulldrifter, Broodmate Dragon, or what have you, and end up with a decent chance of hitting a reasonable effect. (Keeping in mind there is always the chance you could hit something like Broken Ambitions.) Against control, you can’t really afford to cast the Nexus on turn 5 in a format full of Cryptic Commands and Broken Ambitions; you have to negotiate it into play via some sequencing similar to resolving Future Sight in Extended. If you accomplish the latter though, you are going to have an overwhelming amount of card advantage because of all your free spells.
The larger question, though, is what else could you be doing for five mana? In a way, you can compare Maelstrom Nexus to your other five mana options. Sure, if you untap with a Nexus against beatdown it has the potential to be very strong, but what if that Nexus was something immediately hammering, such as Wrath effect? In the control mirror, what if it was a Tidings? In a format with Cryptic Command, needing to untap with your gamebreaking permanent can be a liability. In reality, Maelstrom Nexus probably doesn’t fit into Five-Color Control maindecks, but this is the kind of thought process you’d use to think about it.
While I am certainly not trying to dissuade people from innovating, there are two sides to the path of innovation. Strong innovation can be the recipe to end up in first place, but a single misapplied innovation can be the bane of success. Every new archetype has to start somewhere, but sometimes the deck needs a lot of work to properly rise from its base ingredients. Established archetypes exist for a reason: they’re good decks, and they have won a lot of tournaments on the back of good players. Archetypes are not some kind of evil that corrupts you if you play them. Either way, I recommend to simply play what you think will give you the best chance of winning. Playing a strong, innovative deck you have playtested thoroughly will increase your chances of winning. Playing something creative just to show off how innovative you are does not.
Thank you for all of the e-mails so far, and I’m going to tentatively aim for next week to be the mailbag column. If you have any questions or comments regarding anything related to Magic or my column that you would like to have me discuss next week, please send me an e-mail to Gavintriesagain at gmail dot com.
Have fun at your pre-releases, everybody!
Team Unknown Stars
Rabon on Magic Online, Lesurgo everywhere else