Flow of Ideas – The Subgames of Magic

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Thursday, December 10th – Subgames are prevalent throughout games of Magic. No, not the kind of subgame created by Shahrazad, but mini-games within Magic that send the game down another path entirely. When you can set up a subgame you force your opponent to end it or lose, and when your opponent sets up a subgame you need to do the same.

Subgames are prevalent throughout games of Magic. No, not the kind of subgame created by Shahrazad, but mini-games within Magic that send the game down another path entirely. When you can set up a subgame you force your opponent to end it or lose, and when your opponent sets up a subgame you need to do the same.

A subgame occurs whenever a player casts, or has a plan involving, a particular card and getting that card’s functionality online. A subgame inducing strategy or card bends the entire game around it, so much so that it creates an (often) narrow focus within the game: a subgame.

On the surface, subgames may sound like a common threat and answer scenario. You play a Jackal Pup, initiating a 10 turn clock subgame, and I Lightning Bolt it, ending that subgame. While definitely a threat and answer exchange, that is not a subgame. A simple 2/1 does not present a sufficient threat; it alone is highly unlikely to end the game upon resolution. You can ignore that Jackal Pup for several turns and still be okay. You cannot do the same with a card that creates a subgame.

Let me give you an example.

Last Extended season, the Faeries mirror match was perhaps one of the most intricate in recent years. Certainly it was the one which required the most crafting of game state. Between the Ancestral Vision wars, Vendilion Cliques, Vensers, and permission targeted at cheap spells, the deck had the unique capacity to set the game into a position where a clever Faeries player could resolve any one spell they wanted. You would just get one spell which you would probably have to tap out for, then send the turn back ready for your opponent to do their worst.

If you could resolve any one card in a control mirror match, then let your opponent have free reign next turn, what would it be?

Genius deckbuilders and Faerie masterminds Alex West and Dan Hanson first innovated Simic Sky Swallower, but that wasn’t enough. The next week at Grand Prix: LA, they debuted their true trump: Future Sight.

If you resolved a Future Sight, the entire game swung in your favor. The advantage provided by the enchantment was often insurmountable. Furthermore, the opposing Faeries deck had no good way to remove it. What were they going to do, Venser it away so you could untap and cast it again? Tapping out for it was entirely worthwhile; there was nothing the other Faeries could do that was remotely as threatening as Future Sight.

Future Sight created a subgame.

Instead of playing a typical game of Magic — a control on control mirror match — one Faeries player was playing a subgame of “resolve Future Sight.” Every decision, every single choice, was not made for traditional value, but to serve the purpose of setting the game up to resolve a five mana enchantment.

Even better, our opponent’s didn’t know we had Future Sight. We were playing on an entirely different field than them. They were fighting a textbook control mirror match, focusing on long term advantage, countering card draw, controlling the flow of the game… then they ran into a 2UUU roadblock. When you can conceal your subgames, they are far easier to spring on your opponents.

Other times, both players know about a subgame and both players try and turn that subgame into their favor. A popular recent example is Cruel Ultimatum. With either the Five Color control decks of days past or today’s Grixis Control decks, the deck is essentially racing until it can hit seven mana and resolve an Ultimatum. While you can occasionally lose post-Ultimatum, those times are fewer than the number of times Ultimatum (and the subsequent cards it draws) just seal the game.

The Cruel Ultimatum plan is no secret, so the opposition attempts to counteract the subgame. Strategies like trying to kill the opponent before they hit seven mana, using cute, light permission on Cruel Ultimatum (Hindering Light,) or playing cards that allow that player to maintain a strong position post-Ultimatum are all ways to help cancel out the subgame. But unprepared, fighting without an answer or knowledge of what game is actually being played, the “resolve Cruel Ultimatum” subgame is crippling.

Sometimes cards like Cruel Ultimatum are just powerful enough on their own to warp a game around them on their own. Another card which warps game states around her is Baneslayer Angel. Baneslayer creates a subgame around her that is equivalent to, “prevent me from hitting you and/or blocking your creatures or you will lose.”

While the idea of subgames might sound like it only pertains to constructed, that’s far from accurate. In fact, subgames are a recurring facet of limited play due to the existence of powerful bomb rares and uncommons which outclass strategies built with commons.

There’s one subgame-inducing example which is particularly prevalent right now: Vampire Nighthawk.

I’m sure most of you have all had the pleasure of losing to Vampire Nighthawk in limited over the past couple of months. If you haven’t yet had your opponent play one, the reasons why he is so good are format based. Three toughness, evasion, difficulty to race, and the ability to trade with anything are all remarkable assets in Zendikar limited, and Nighthawk has them all. In such a fast, tempo-based format, you usually have to kill Nighthawk within three turns or lose.

Vampire Nighthawk creates a subgame.

When a Nighthawk comes down on turn three, you have to Magma Rift him right away. You can’t attack with your two drop, which essentially give the opponent life, and next turn he’s going to gain more life. Simultaneously, he’s beating down as well as two drops do. After three hits, it’s likely the Nighthawk has gained upwards of 8 life along with dealing six damage. In Ravnica Limited, the life wouldn’t be as big of a deal. In Zendikar it’s often insurmountable. If Nighthawk hits you repeatedly, your opponent’s subgame has succeeded.

The Nighthawk scenario is different than the Jackal Pup scenario because taking a couple of hits from a 2/1 in constructed isn’t a huge problem. You probably have built your deck in such a way that you can recoup from a 2/1. Taking a few hits from a Nighthawk in Zendikar Limited is disastrous.

So then, if creating subgames is so powerful, how can you go about creating them? Well, it’s a lot easier said than done. Subgames are by their nature very powerful; if a bevy of cards created subgames then there would be an overflow of subgame situations.

There are essentially two kinds of subgames: power subgames, and craft subgames. When looking to create a subgame, two classes of cards should draw your attention.

The class, power subgames, are simply created by powerful cards. They create subgames based on power, and are often fairly straightforward. Baneslayer Angel, Vampire Nighthawk, Cruel Ultimatum, and so on. These are pretty easy to identify.

When creating a subgame with the first class of cards, keep in mind that having protection for your subgame makes it even more likely to succeed. For example, a fourth turn Vampire Nighthawk leaving a Forest untapped for Vines of the Vastwood is often better than a third turn Nighthawk; it adds layers of difficulty to your subgame.

A lot harder to identify, though, are the second kind: cards that you can craft around to build a subgame. This class of cards, cards which craft subgames, often create a subgame that is more difficult to defeat. However, they are also harder to find in the first place.

Future Sight is one such example. Keep in mind, though, that Future Sight created a subgame in one particular matchup, at one particular point in Extended. You cannot simply slot Future Sight into any blue deck and expect it to have the same effect. It takes extensive knowledge of your deck, the opponent’s deck, and the format to be able to create an effective subgame

Another example would be a card like Glare of Subdual. Glare is a subgame inducing card in any creature matchup (and therefore always in limited), because your opponent has to remove it or your creature based strategy will inevitably trump theirs. However, you can not put it into your control deck and expect it to have the same effect. You have to know what your plan is and what influences each matchup for a card to craft a subgame.

When Billy Moreno unorthodoxly sideboarded Glare of Subdual in his Pro Tour Hawaii Zoo deck, it dominated the mirror match. It created a subgame of destroy Glare or lose. Billy blindsided the mirror match with Glare, putting himself into a position where he was able to play a subgame his opponents were unable to deal with.

There are plenty of other examples. When you’re playing affinity, there’s the Kataki subgame. They’re playing the subgame of doing everything they can to draw Kataki, War’s Wage while you’re trying to kill them or Kataki before it’s your upkeep with Kataki in play. When you’re playing Faeries, there’s the Great Sable Stag subgame. You have to deal with Stag or you’re going to lose.

Any creature which has a powerful tap effect, like Arcanis the Omnipotent or Valleymaker, fit into subgame categories. Cards like Quest for the Gemblades, which change the way both players play (and is devastating if it successfully becomes active) creates a significant subgame.

Subgames aren’t always permanents either. For example, take Ancestral Vision. In a control mirror match, a resolved Ancestral Vision usually equates with a game loss. Setting up to be able to deal with a suspend cards four turns away is a subgame in and of itself.

If you look across formats, both Constructed and Limited, from today back to tournament Magic’s beginning, you will always find cards which create subgames. There are so many layers to Magic, so many games within the game, so many subgames, that we’ve been creating them for years. By identifying their existence and understanding how to create subgames on our own, we can better evaluate cards, know which threats are most important to deal with, and craft intricate subgames to specifically deal with certain matchups. If you’re playing a different game than your opponent, if you have a plan that goes a level beyond a traditional plan, then you are better poised to win any matchup.

Before I bid you adieu until next week, I wanted to thank everybody who e-mailed or posted about the Up Down Dralnu deck I wrote about last week. A couple of people played it at States and reported success, including several X-2 states finishes and an unfortunate X-1-1 ninth place finish. I think the deck still has a lot of potential and is worth evolving further, and would love to hear any further thoughts you have about the deck. Standard has begun to fade into the clamor about the upcoming Extended season, but you can e-mail me at gavintriesagain at gmail dot com with any thoughts you have and I will definitely get back to you.

I’ll see you all in the forums, and I look forward to reading to what you have to say about subgames.

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