Force Of Will: Connections

I love that show Connections, where this bloke named Burke takes you all over through time and all over the world connecting things together that you never thought would be connected. If I’m good here, maybe I can pull that sort of idea off and tell you why The Ferrett’s comments on the metagame vanishing in OBC were right.

Of late, there has actually been a lot I’ve liked about net writing regarding this game we like. (There have been some things too that have given me more than a tad of nausea but that is another story…)

I love that show Connections, where this bloke named Burke takes you all over through time and all over the world connecting things together that you never thought would be connected. If I’m good here, maybe I can pull that sort of idea off.

Let’s lead off with our esteemed editor:

“One of the unexpected downsides to finally having a balanced environment is that the metagame has almost vanished.”

The Ferrett

Now, this statement brought some”issues” up from some of the Ferrett’s fans on a somewhat hidden mailing list. I had to do a little work – because if you look at this statement as it’s printed above, it’s a little crazy. That may be because in this case that the Ferrett was most specifically talking about Odyssey Block… And context always makes a difference.

Odyssey Block was that new and crazy time when Wizards decided to put out the sets unbalanced in their colors, with Torment generally having a whole lot more and better black cards than any other color. Now, when a lot of very good players played the Odyssey block format in Osaka, the game was just a tad skewed and the mono black deck rather unsurprisingly did very well.

Now, in the interim between that Osaka”black” period and the coming qualifying season we will be privileged to have the Judgement set – one reportedly skewed toward White and Green. We understand that this is supposed to”balance” the set; that may remain to be seen, but the idea is there. That things should become balanced could mean that things are just wide open in the metagame sense – and when any deck is viable, that means pretty much the same thing as”vanished” as far as the metagame is concerned.

So what we have here to get full understanding of the Ferrett’s ideas is both some context and some application. Others have had thoughts on general metagame theory and its application, but they weren’t quite as aware of the context. Let’s look shall we?

Darren Di Battista, noted Type One maven, had this interesting bit to say.

The metagame is and always will be as follows:

1) Is there a combo deck that is fast enough to outrun the best control deck available?

2) Of the existing control decks, which will always be based in blue, which one will win the control match most often? Which one makes use of the highest volume of broken spells? If countermagic and effective answers are equal or nearly so, the one with the most threats wins.

3) The aggro deck that can outrace control, and the aggro deck that can’t race control but can stomp on the faster aggro deck by having total dominance over the midgame.

So, when in doubt: If aggro deck #2 exists, then play the best control deck possible, unless combo exists and the best control deck can’t reliably stop it, because combo will always beat aggro.

Fabulous, wouldn’t you say? Really, this Di Battista fellow can crunch a lot of good stuff into a nutshell! And these Type One guys really know where this game has been, no doubt.

…But wait.

With Odyssey block, there seems to be a problem with the application of Darren’s theory: The control deck didn’t even have a pinch of blue – it was black! All black, all the time, with”Edict” this and”Mutilate” that and”Mind Sludge your hand away” being spouted left and right.

One might begin to wonder if we had a problem here; maybe, maybe not. This Di Battista fellow can’t be blamed for applying a blue bent to his rather snappy work; everyone knows that blue is the best color, and that that idea is even more warped when you throw on the word”control.” Blue controls – and it controls not only games, but also formats and theory and perhaps whatever else about Magic you want to talk about.

I guess to understand the metagame, we need to know what happened to blue.

So let’s check with another guy to see what he thinks about blue cards and theory and things. His name is Randy Buehler, and he’s a guy that should know a lot about both Type One and Odyssey Block and just about any other format because, well, he works for the company.

Now Randy of late is noted for saying a lot of stuff over at magicthegathering.com, much of it rather controversial and noteworthy. Take this little gem:

A lot of responses to last week’s column pointed out that Counterspell itself is fine as long as there aren’t a bunch of other versions of it running around. The potentially unhealthy thing, according to this line of thought, is when permission decks achieve a critical mass of countermagic and suddenly they can realistically counter every single threat the opponent plays. I think this is pretty much correct, as far as it goes, but I disagree with the conclusion most people seem to draw. I agree that our choices might boil down to a) leave Counterspell in print but don’t do any other good counters or b) phase out Counterspell itself, but print a steady stream of variants so it’s always possible to play control in Standard. I haven’t done enough thinking or playtesting to actually make this decision, but at first blush”b)” sounds better than”a)” to me. We know that each block is going to have new mechanics and we know we’re going to be tempted to try them out on a permission spell, but having Counterspell sitting in the base set, constantly constraining what we can do is kind of unfortunate.

Interesting eh? One might notice several things here. First Counterspell – the very specific card and not the generic old knock-offs – seems to have a sort of stranglehold on the game. This is in terms of tempo. Randy calls this specifically”unfortunate.” It means that to balance the game tempo wise that one would always have to flirt with ideas that get under the Counterspell like Jackal Pup, Pouncing Jaguar, Savannah Lions, or even Ritual-Negator.

And you wondered why Blue was in control?

Now if we take Randy’s statements and also look at Odyssey block, a format concurrent with the Counterspell packing Seventh Edition, we find that while although he favored plan”b,” he used plan”a” in Odyssey – making Odyssey’s counters weak. The counters are about as weak as they have ever been. Most are conditional – like Syncopate, Circular Logic, Grip of Amnesia, or Liquify – and the”hard” counters cost quite a bit, with Fervent Denial costing 3UU and Spelljack costing 3UUU. Not that any of these cards can’t be effective, but they are not quite of the snuff of Powersink, Thwart, Foil, or probably even Undermine and Absorb – not to mention any number of other older block counters.

Randy may have more to add:

Wizards has made life for the control player too easy in another way. Instant-speed card drawing has tremendous synergy with permission strategies. Whether for Fact or Fiction, Stroke of Genius, or Whispers of the Muse, control players have been able to just leave their mana untapped during the opponent’s turn, counter threats if necessary, and otherwise draw more cards. In the future, expect to see the really good card drawing cards be sorcery speed (like Concentrate) or at least require the blue player to tap out on her own turn once to get it into play (like Jayemdae Tome). That should force control players to make some interesting judgment calls and allow their opponents more opportunities to play spells.

Now in this Randy’s ideas seem to have taken root in Odyssey. Have you looked at the card drawing? When you limit your gaze to cards of the”instant” variety, you find little beside cantrips. Cantrips are nice but neither are they the heavy hitters like Randy mentioned above. Basically, you get Plagiarize, Words of Wisdom, and – gulpKeep Watch. Those aren’t drawing spells! Here’s a drawing spell.




Draw three cards

Now, I’m sure you’re going to remember back to when this spell”sucked” because it was a sorcery. But remember, the experienced guys who played in Osaka were taking a look at sorcery-speed drawing… Specifically, this card. And this card is going to be followed up by this soon to be popular one.

Deep Analysis



Target player draws two cards.

Flashback– 1U, Pay 3 life

Try and force the classic control-on-control issue at your opponents end-of-turn step with one of those.

What I’m trying to show you here is that the game is changing. Theory may be fine and dandy, but under these changes older ideas of application may get a little sticky. That may be why you didn’t get that blue based control deck in the block and why this guy –

Mystic Enforcer


Creature-Nomad Mystic

3/3 protection from black

Threshold. Mystic Enforcer gets +3/+3 and has flying.

– didn’t do quite as well in Osaka as many might have guessed.

Let’s review a tad, shall we? Ferrett talked about a metagame. Darren put forth a snappy concise metagame guide focused somewhat on blue. And Randy talked about counterspelling and card drawing, blue specialties.

To go on, and explain a little bit about why we’re interested in Mystic Enforcer, we’re going to draw a line through each of these Magic men… And land somewhere in northern California I think. Things get fuzzy when you travel that way – but for the sake of moving things along, let’s just say its Brian Weismann’s back yard.

We’re here because Weismann came up with”The Deck.” This was a pile of cards so good that that is simply what folks called it,”The Deck.” It, and the theory behind it, became a lasting cornerstone in building an approach to winning magic.

Looking at a format like Type One, a player will still find that the best control decks – and the best decks in general – work in the fashion of Weismann’s original”The Deck.” The basic strategy, boiled down, isn’t very hard: Don’t run out of life.

If you have life, you probably haven’t lost. That novel idea is pretty universally applicable. What Brian did first (and most fabulously) was take this to an extreme others hadn’t dared. He forwent the threat race that most early decks used, eschewing the usual slew of creatures, and instead concentrated on defense and disruption to gain a position of board superiority and resource advantage.

“The Deck” had counterspells, creature removal, and neutralizing cards, and was also notable because it first attempted to lock the game up before it presented its own threat. In this it was notable as well because its threats boiled down to only two Serra Angels. At the time, that seemed like and insane and risky gambit… But”The Deck” flabbergasted its opponents racking up win after win. So successful was this sort of build that”The Deck”‘s strategy has been mimicked and copied thoroughly since its inception: Stall the game, gain control, neutralize your opponent, and then bring out the superior threat.

The Deck descendants are always notably threat-light, sporting big cards in slim numbers – like two Mahamoti Djinns, or even one Morphling. Like Enforcer they are big, hard to kill, and evasive.

Lets look back at mister Mystic Enforcer: When he came out, a lot of players thought that since control decks usually play a prolonged game and put many cards in the graveyard, he could now be the efficient undercosted finisher and play the role of Serra Angel in a new twist on Weismann’s”The Deck” theory. And actually, for a period in Standard, some found success with this sort of deck – most using a version templated off of noted deckbuilder, player, and Dragon Lord Brian Kibler. And while the Counter Enforcer deck had a good moment, it soon swooned.

The reasons are generally related to what lies behind us here in this story – and are especially rooted in Odyssey block itself.

For one, the power of blue in the block, both in countering and drawing ability, aren’t nearly as comparable to what they were in”The Deck”s heyday – and really to any subsequent period in Magic’s history. The grouping of situational counters and sorcery-speed blue drawing spells make the application of older tried and true theory a much more difficult bargain.

Remember, the Control deck for Odyssey block wasn’t base blue… But black. One might think that an Enforcer deck might still fare well here because it had protection from black… But it turned out that a staple of the format was for black to have access to casting twelve sacrificial”Edict” effects, eight of those at two mana or less. The black player could simply stockpile these cheap”removal” effects to overwhelm the limited countermagic base and kill the late Enforcer – despite its cheap cost and pro black ability.

As a result, to protect their Enforcer, some players turned to running more creatures. The approach wasn’t very successful; it moved too far away from the basic application of”Deck” theory.

So here were are at perhaps our midpoint – with the powerful, tried, and true Weismann”Deck” theory failing because the Odyssey card pool can’t support it. And with that, the old tried-and-true ideas of countering ability and card drawing take on a very different look.

Let’s go back to Di Battista. Maybe I just like the name.

1) Is there a combo deck that is fast enough to outrun the best control deck available?

First of all, with this I think we have to find the relevant newer combo decks. In standard there are almost singularly the Rice Snack variations – the massive mana-producing Early Harvest Domain decks. The next stop probably sends us sailing backwards to the Urza’s era Bargain decks. Since we can’t use that in Standard, obviously, let’s ditch it.

(I would add, though, that I still believe that if the Urza’s era did one thing right, it had a robust metagame with a lot of viable choices of different types of decks. If you like metagame clock theory like I do, it had all the quadrants covered in numbers. The Bargain combo was good… But it wasn’t that good, and by the end it had faded away. People don’t like the solitary nature of combo, but I think when it appears as it did then it keeps the game balanced.

(Let me delve deeper into clock theory to illustrate this point. Basically, Leon Workman, the metagame clock theory creator, spelled out that beatdown loses to mid-game, which loses to combo, which loses to control, which loses to aggro control, which loses to beatdown. If you cut out any part of this circle, the game gets deformed. For a period, there was no combo deck and the game was skewed towards mid-game. Mid game decks sort of inch towards winning a game; they are characterized by stall mechanisms and big resets. In the recent past, we had both NetherHaups and Counter Rebels as mid game deck ideas. You can see that a combo deck would have to”go off” before a Haups player could actually Haups. Besides being speedy, one part of good combo decks is that they usually wind up containing very few parts to the combo. The fewer combo parts, the more room for deck manipulating search spells and perhaps more importantly disruption. In Extended, Trix is so good because it only takes two cards to work the combo. With a setup, like that it can still hope to”go off” in the face of a deck like CounterRebels – in part because the Rebels have so few counters themselves that the Trix deck has room to pack in disruption to ensure its two-card counter fires.

(Most combos, however, cannot generally”go off” against dedicated control decks that use many counters. Theory is always rather simplified to the practical application – and while metagame clock theory is very powerful, decks often pack in blocks of cards that fit more with another area and can change. Counter Rebels started with simply Powersink as their countering disruption card, but progressed to running more counters as time went on. Obviously, this would make them more resistant when facing combo decks, so they should still be placed as a mid-game deck. We’ll come back to this idea later.)

Back to Rice Snack.

R&D laid out an outline that they could allow combos if they were of the”slow” variety such as Rice Snack. In this, they took away the decks ability to play by sheer speed versus its cross-clock competitor: Beatdown. With Rice Snack what we saw was a deck that was packed with as many as eight disruption cards for beatdown decks: Collective Restraint and Pernicious Deed. Because it was slower and couldn’t go off before the mid-game deck took control, Rice Snack turned out not to be able to beat its most natural best matchup: I’m talking about Psychatog.

Think about it: Tog currently is running eight bounce spells and likes to win with Upheaval – a massive reset. That’s the definition of a mid-game deck. Now it wasn’t long ago that top players would deride someone for playing”bounce” spells as a stall mechanism.”That’s card disadvantage,” they would tell you – but here we are, with our best current Standard deck playing eight of them… And creature-specific ones, no less.

See how times change?

Tog carries a decent amount of countering ability, but not the amount that a dedicated open control deck would run. The deck has generally inched toward relying on Upheaval to win. If Rice Snack could come out and swap its anti-beatdown cards for more general disruption, it would have a much better presence… But it can’t, and doesn’t.

This is again how the game is changing in terms of applying what we know.

Did I mention that Leon Workman sent the metagame clock idea to one Mike Flores at the Dojo? Flores, besides editing the game’s most historically famous strategy site for a time, was also the man that asked that seemingly always pertinent question:”Who’s the Beatdown?” That article basically went about defining what happened when two similar decks meet. It postulated that when two similar decks met, the player who better defined whether they were to be the beatdown or control was in the driver seat to win.

We could check back with that Di Battista fella again:

3) The aggro deck that can outrace control, and the aggro deck that can’t race control but can stomp on the faster aggro deck by having total dominance over the midgame.

Ah, again I like it – but Darren isn’t enough. Let’s go see two other fellas, almost eternally entwined, to help us get started on getting a handle on this: Jay Schneider and Paul Sligh.

Jay is a legend of the game because he made a remarkable breakthrough in deck design – actually, he more formalized an idea that most people played with intuitively: The mana curve. But in doing so, he gained a great leap in his ability to build a better deck.

The mana curve idea was simply to have the right balance of land and the right balance of casting costs so that one could cast a good card every turn using all of their available mana. This idea was basically aligned with the fact that you can play only one land every turn. So what happens is that you want to play a land and play a one-casting-cost spell on turn 1, followed by a land and a two casting-cost spell on turn 2, and so on. Working with Sligh, they built a rather funny looking mono red deck that seemed to use more than a few sub-optimal cards. Paul, however, won a big tourney with it forever cementing his name to almost any mono red deck:”Sligh”.

The deck won in part because it was the epitome of both consistency and mana use efficiency. At the time the deck played out land, creatures, and spells so consistently that it overcame the idea that it had”sub-optimal” cards – an idea that was simply stuck in some folks’ minds.

Of late, the mono red mainstay that is”Sligh” has fallen on some hard times. In Extended, it is very much up against the wall when facing a field of many”Trix” decks, where a two-card combo that also happens to yield its caster twenty life gained against the beats and burn is almost more than”some good.” So, too, Sligh has trouble with another deck type – namely, the”Tinker” deck, which generally generates lots of mana, circumvents printed casting costs, or both. In short, Tinker decks take or try to take a shortcut to superior threats, and small red men and burn spells don’t like fat threats. The legend of our time, Jamie Wakefield, used Natural Order to bring out”The best fattie ever printed” and stomp across several rooms rife with mono-red decks.

In the recent times of the”Fires” deck, there was no weenie deck of note simply because Darren’s third axiom generally works well: The fatties beat the weenies. Fatties, however, have a problem setting up under countermagic and this is perhaps in part why blue is so good.


One might again mention the loss of good one drops as I’ve done previously.

Okay, I could remind you of it again.

Oh, I guess I’m doing that.

I will now move to my small part in this: Mentioning Quiet Speculation. By now, just about everyone knows about it and good minds think that it’s a mistake. But I’m going to take a small stab at it to point out in a little more detail why.

By now, the interaction that we see most described is that one will get a turn 2 Speculation that leads to turn 3 or 4 Roar of the Wurm tokens. This, of course, leads to a U/G deck. U/G decks are notorious for sitting in the aggro control region – and what we are going to get from the marriage of U/G aggro control and the Speculation-Wurms play is a deck with a dominance over both the beatdown quadrant and the open control quadrant. Small men will not stand up to our outrace cheap 6/6 Wurms; Control will have trouble with Wild Mongrel plus countermagic. The fact that both options will exist in one deck looms as a mistake.

So one more review.

Ferrett talked about a metagame. Darren put forth a snappy concise metagame guide focused somewhat on blue. And Randy talked about counterspelling and card drawing, blue specialties. Weismann built”The Deck” and with it the foundation of control theory. Workman gave us a metagame clock. Schneider came up with a mana curve idea and Sligh won with it. And Flores asked,”Who’s the Beatdown” and enlightened us to the power and ways of the”Tinker” archetype. And, oh yeah, Wakefield played”The best fattie ever printed.”

Plus, it’s quite likely that Quiet Speculation and Roar of the Wurm in U/G is probably a mistake…

And now for one final boomerang trip back to Buehler. He took it on the chin on Friday, but I’m going to say a few brief things – most of them repetitions of others.

Flying. Here’s the first cycle from back in the day. Serra Angel, Mahamoti Djinn, Sengir Vampire, Shivan Dragon. Scryb Sprites. Flying all around the circle and obviously only green got the shaft. Then, and now as these cards are all standard legal except for the Sprites, flying has been available in power to almost every color. Green gets the shaft. We have to ask,”Sprites were too much? Really?” Now, I know blue had more flyers with Phantom Monster and Illusionary Forces and all, but this doesn’t look very balanced.

In part one would note that flying is complementary to the whole counter control thing. Blue wants to race you… But only when it’s with its 5/6 unblockable guy against your ground pounding bear. It may make sense to make that harder to do in one color. Further, if white gets flying main, then both blue and green should get flying as an equal minor. It may offset things. Of course, they’d actually have to carry that part out. Red and Black should get the worst fliers, but that’s offset because they have the best removal.

I think there was another early mistake that lingers. If you think of green as simply having the best monsters, you get one picture: If you think of the green mage as the one best able to control creatures, you get another one. I’m not sure that Control Magic and its ilk were wrong to be in blue… But if the green mage were made into the Beastmaster or the Pied Piper at instant speed, I think that would go along way. In this they would get cards like this.

Animal Empathy



You control target non-green creature with casting cost x or less.

Again, green perhaps shouldn’t be about just casting green creatures but controlling them overall and in general. Removal of the sort like”Pacifism” I think shouldn’t be out of the question either.

Wild Heart


Enchant Creature

Target creature can’t attack or block unless its caster pays X, where X is that creatures casting cost.

Buehler was hit hard to for his statements about green being the strongest color. This whole article was in part to look again at the green versus blue idea. Blue, in my humble opinion, is waxing – and green has been getting stronger. Bennie Smith noted that what may be working in Randy’s statements is that R&D is testing by playing in the Future Future league and this opens the door to a near future where green is the best color – even if that isn’t the case with Standard now. Other formats have different parameters. High numbers of excellent countermagic cards build up in formats like Extended and Type One; a situation that is going to be hard to keep in check. This is almost unavoidable if countering is to be a part of the ever-changing standard pool and the futher limited pools in block play.

The game needs to be out of balance some to make it engaging. If every color were the same, then it would be boring. In this, some colors have to wax and others wane and the game has to change. This creates part of the difference in players, play styles, and gives us our Buddes and Finkels. What I still don’t agree with is the degree to which bad cards are churned out. If the idea is to create a space for such differences, then I think it makes more sense to shrink the difference where a player has to think harder about what is good with more interactions between more cards than to have really any really bad cards that see almost no play. Even as I say this, I’m feeling like it might be nitpicking.

I’m also wondering how Buehler, MaRo, and the crew over there are feeling about giving folks a look behind the scenes.

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