The Princess Bride Conundrum Returns
While we were preparing for 2001 Regionals, Karl Allen came up with an interesting take on metagame analysis. At the time, there were basically two strategies. Play Fires of Yavimaya decks, or play to beat Fires decks. His analysis went like this:
Fires decks are very fast and very good. I could play Fires. Except that everyone will be gunning for that deck, because if you can beat Fires, you beat half of your potential opponents. Conversely, if you lose to Fires, you’ll lose to half of your opponents. Smart players will be ready for Fires. So, playing Fires will be as dangerous as two lingerie models walking into a biker bar and saying”We are soooooooo drunk!” (“I can clearly not choose the wine in front of me!”)
I could play an anti-Fires deck, instead. I mean, half the field’s gonna be Fires. If my deck beats all the Fires decks I face, I’m golden. Except that all of the Fires players will know that we’re gunning for them. Maybe they’ll be prepared for the hate! Or worse. What if the anti-Fires deck is only good against Fires and stinks against everything else? That won’t be too bad as long as half the field continues to be Fires deck. If the Fires players all decide that the anti-Fires deck is too strong, though, they might just play another strong deck like Blue Skies instead. If the anti-Fires deck can’t beat Blue Skies, and there aren’t many Fires decks, I shouldn’t play the anti-Fires deck because I’ll lose a lot. (“I can clearly not choose the wine in front of you!”)
Am I finished?”Not remotely!” If it turns out that the anti-Fires players decide not to play anti-Fires decks, it should be okay to play Fires again. Unless . . . .
And so on and so forth. Since Karl’s analysis mirrored the”intellectual” standoff between The Dread Pirate Roberts and Vizzini, I dubbed it The Princess Bride Conundrum.
The cycle runs like this throughout the Spring, as various Regionals are played throughout the world. (You see the same thing again during Block season in the Summer.) Take this year, for example. Affinity builds are this year’s Fires decks. In one Regionals, Affinity reigns supreme. So, the next week, everyone will be loaded up with anti-Affinity tech. The week after that, people will shy away from Affinity because the anti-Affinity hate at the last big tournament was so bad. So, the players playing anti-Affinity won’t find enough decks to beat. This will lead the next week’s players to play decks other than anti-Affinity. Making Affinity seem like a safe choice for the following week. Ad nauseum.
The trick is to figure out where you are in the cycle on the weekend of your Regionals without wasting so much time and energy that you never make a decision on which deck to play. You’re well-served to figure out what decks will be prevalent that day and what decks and sideboarding strategies exist that are gunning for yours, accidentally or on purpose. Even if your deck choice isn’t changed by this, your sideboard may be. The real trick is to figure out where you are in the ebb and flow of this tension.
Incidentally, Karl chose correctly in 2001. That was three years ago, though. I won’t go into that deck any more than I already have, even though it started my Magic writing, um,”career.” That deck, Ants in the Pants, is completely irrelevant to Regionals 2004.
Wait. Did I say it was completely irrelevant?”Inconceivable!”
Walking through the Fire Swamp
The Princess Bride Conundrum continues this year with Damping Matrix, Skullclamp, and Arcbound Ravager specifically, and artifacts in general. A lot of players have decided to run Damping Matrix in their maindeck because of the effect it will have on Skullclamp and Arcbound Ravager. In addition, we all know how popular and good Affinity decks are. Because of all of this, a lot of decks have decided to run artifact hate in the main deck, either to kill specific, harmful artifacts, like Skullclamp or the Matrix, or to hose up Affinity decks in general. Some even try to have it both ways. Take a look at Christopher Tong’s Anti-Affinity Affinity deck that got him third place at Hong Kong Regionals. It has both targeted and mass artifact removal.
I’m gonna go out on a limb here and say that he actually didn’t want to play that single Atog. In fact, I’m betting he wanted to play four Ravagers and just couldn’t find a fourth one. (They’re expensive and not easy to find right now, you know.) On the other hand, it could very well be that he found the single Atog to be huge. I could see a play where he casts the Furnace Dragon with that Atog already on board. In response to the Furnace Dragon’s triggered ability going on the stack, he could sac all of his artifacts to it and make one very large Atog for swinging that turn. That, however, isn’t the point of this. So, back to The Princess Bride Conundrum.
What if he faces a deck that doesn’t care? The Furnace Dragon is still a very large threat, but it’s easily dealt with by most of the other top-tier decks. Wrath of God, Akroma’s Vengeance, Dark Banishing, and even Shrapnel Blast blow it out of the sky. If he casts the Furnace Dragon and his non-artifact-playing opponent has an answer, all of a sudden, he’s without anything on the board. Ugh. Clearly, he can not choose to cast the Dragon against a non-Affinity deck.
However, the deck’s obviously very strong against a field full of artifacts. What if its success inspires people to play with a bunch of main deck artifact hate? Then, playing with that one slot of artifacts (e.g. Skullclamp) or even many slots of artifacts (e.g. Affinity) becomes very risky. You can clearly not choose to play the deck that will get beat by main deck artifact hate.
On the other hand, what if it pushes people completely away from artifacts? If that happens, the poor person playing with maindeck artifact hate has no targets and has a lot of dead cards in the deck. You can clearly not choose to play the deck that has an inordinate number of dead maindeck cards.
Of course, that would point people to decks like mono-White Control and Zombies/Clerics. Those decks won’t be hurt by Shatter or Furnace Dragon. In fact, given the lack of Disciple of the Vault in Mr. Tong’s anti-Affinity Affinity deck, I would expect those decks to be able to beat his.
If people start running more of those types of decks, a lot of people will think twice about playing a deck like Anti-Affinity Affinity, where the only artifacts that could be killed are their own. They can clearly not choose the deck in front of them. Instead, they might choose to play a classic Affinity deck (can we call it”classic” when it didn’t exist until October of 2003?) or a previous version of Ravager (i.e. one without maindeck Furnace Dragon). That would make it okay for other decks to play main deck Damping Matrices again.
So, what’s the right answer? I assert that there are two. First, play Damping Matrix. It feels right for a couple of reasons. For one, whether anyone looks at it that way or not, the Matrix is a threat. As someone once said – I think it was either David Price, Jamie Wakefield, or Heidi Klum – there are no wrong threats, just wrong answers. Play the Matrix. Make them deal with it. If they can’t get to their answer fast enough (if they even have one), it can simply shut them down and win you the game.
I also feel that the pendulum will be swinging back just in time for Regionals. A lot of people will see this deck and the ones with four maindeck Shatters and change their plans accordingly for the next round of Regionals. Maybe their strategy will be that they won’t run many artifacts. This will, in turn, inspire people to take out main deck artifact hate. By the time it gets to U.S. Regionals, you’ll be safe to play Damping Matrix in the main deck again.
Maybe. It’s just a gut feeling. I could be wrong. When you have a gut like this, though, you go with it.
As You Wish: The Dread Pirate Roberts Solution
The second”correct” answer is one I am becoming more fond, even though I’m one of the folks who keeps pimping the Matrix. I call it The Dread Pirate Roberts Solution. Do you remember how The Dread Pirate Roberts defeated Vizzini in that battle of wits?
(This is rhetorical. You either do remember because you’ve seen one of the greatest movies of all time and the scene is imprinted on your cerebrum like a tattoo, or you don’t remember because you’ve never seen it. If it’s the second, shame on you. Stop reading this right now, and go buy the movie. Don’t rent it. Buy it so that you can watch it for years to come.)
How did The Dread Pirate Roberts defeat Vizzini? Which glass of wine did Roberts put the poison in? It was in both. Westley had spent several years developing an immunity to Iocaine powder. So, it didn’t matter which one it was in. It wasn’t going to affect Roberts at all. No matter which one Vizzini chose, he was going to lose.
To find a deck that satisfies The Dread Pirate Roberts Solution in Spring of 2004, your deck must hate artifacts without falling prey to the artifact hate that other decks will be packing. How do you do that? Well, you’d either have to play no artifacts at all, or so many that your opponent is overwhelmed by the choices. If you choose the second option, though, you might be walking into a Furnace Dragon. Ewwwww.
Personally, I like the idea of the Furnace Dragon in the main deck. Think of it like this. Imagine that you’re playing a mono-Black deck. You have four copies Dark Banishing in your main deck. When you face another mono-Black deck, those Dark Banishings are dead in game one. Obviously, they have to come out for game two. So, Furnace Dragon is the Affinity player’s Dark Banishing. If you face a deck with no artifacts in it, you have a slot that you know you’ll be switching for game two.
I think the better answer, however, is to run a deck that is immune to the effects of Iocaine powder, I mean, artifact hate. Right now, that would be Blue-White Control, mono-White Control, Zombies/Clerics, R/G Beastly Land Destruction, and Astral Slide/Lighting Rift. (You could also throw in the Centaur Glade deck, Glade to Meet You, that I wrote about a few weeks ago. Who’s brave enough to play that one, though?)
Zombies/Clerics and Slide/Rift are not completely immune to the anti-artifact strategy, however. Zombies/Clerics often run Oversold Cemetery. The Astral Slide/Lightning Rift decks also run a couple of enchantments, too, but I can’t for the life of me remember the names of them. Now that Wizards has decided that Disenchant is Green, a lot of decks are running Naturalize as their artifact hate or as a complement to Shatter, upping the effective redundancy of Shatter by four. Naturalize just happens to also hit those three aforementioned enchantments. As with Damping Matrix, they are strong enchantments that are very threatening. If the Naturalize isn’t forthcoming, those enchantments can change the game immensely. Of course, if the opposing deck is running artifact removal that can’t double as enchantment removal, those Zombies/Clerics and Slide/Rift decks just don’t care.
These two decks have been flying under the radar and can make the biggest splash at Regionals this year. It’s tough for a writer to say that these are under the radar, given the huge number of successes that each has posted in the past year or so. Yet, neither one is seen as a serious contender this year. Why?
Because Magic players are like kids at Christmas. We like our new toys (i.e. Darksteel). Once we open those shiny new packages, the old toys (e.g. Astral Slide and Lightning Rift) seem to pale in comparison. The truth is that the old ones aren’t any worse than they were before Santa came down the chimney. We’re just more attracted to newness.
Think about the tools that these two decks have. Zombies/Clerics have Smother and Dark Banishing. Together, those two kill every creature in Ravager Affinity and Goblins/Goblin Bidding. Withered Wretch prevents Patriarch’s Bidding from being too nasty. Sometimes, it even makes it useless. Dark Banishing is the only card that can kill a Broodstar, but it’s an instant. So, Lightning Greaves isn’t a problem. You just cast the Banishing in response to the activation of the Greaves.
As for Slide/Rift, it can kill every creature in the Ravager Affinity and Goblins/Goblin Bidding deck before they even become a problem. A turn 1 Disciple can be answered by Spark Spray. Lightning Rift can kill any creature in the Ravager deck all by itself. Sure, the Ravager player can sac a bunch of artifacts to save a Ravager. Will they, though? Have you see the look on a Ravager player’s face when the Ravager gets cycled out of play and they realize that those counters don’t come back when the Ravager comes back into play? It’s kinda like this poor guy? (By the way, don’t ever put hats, scarves, bandanas, bunny ears, reindeer’s antlers, or pretty much anything on your dog. Dogs have way too much dignity for that silliness, regardless of the fact that they drink out of the toilet.)
A lot of people will dismiss these decks, though. Do so at your own peril. They have the power to win and win convincingly. It doesn’t matter that a Ravager or Goblin deck can win on turn three. That presumes the opponent does nothing to stop it. Zombies/Clerics and Slide/Rift can and will do a lot to stop it. In fact, they have the power to win the whole thing. Take the Cleric deck that got Dirk Richter third/fourth place at the German Regionals at Sachsen Anhalt, or the Slide/Rift deck that brought Kai Kammin the championship at Niedersachsen also in Germany.
Another option that satisfies The Dread Pirate Roberts Solution is to choose a deck to which everyone has been adding Skullclamp and simply not add Skullclamp. Sacrilege, I know. Look at Abe Masashi’s first-place deck from The Michinoku Open Tourney.
4 Goblin Sledder
4 Skirk Prospector
4 Slith Firewalker
4 Goblin Piledriver
3 Goblin Sharpshooter
4 Goblin Warchief
4 Goblin Goon
4 Siege-Gang Commander
6 Other Spells
4 Electrostatic Bolt
2 Chrome Mox
What the flock? No Skullclamps? How can this possibly win? It wins the same way Goblin decks have been winning for the past year: attacking with reckless abandon and tapping Sharpshooters. This version also makes some opponent’s cards almost completely dead. Playing with maindeck Shatters? You have two Chrome Moxes you can hit, and that’s it. By the time you get to those, they may have already done their job.
And They Lived Happily Ever After
What can you take from all of this? Whatever you want. Maybe to you, this means that I’m a rambling lunatic. You might take from this that your deck is going to do just fine as it is. It might mean that you need to make sure that there isn’t a strategy that will completely ruin your deck (accidentally or on purpose) when you face it. For instance, are you playing Affinity? If so, what do you do when your opponent drops a Furnace Dragon? Did you hold a Shrapnel Blast? What about Ensnaring Bridge? Do you have main deck artifact hate, or are you going to ride the Disciple the whole way? Do you have any hand destruction for the Pulse of the Fields that will show up?
In the end, The Princess Bride Conundrum is really a warning about wasting time overthinking the metagame. You can never be sure what anyone is going to bring to a come-one-come-all event like Regionals or States. Heck, last year, at the Southeast Regionals, someone started with a preposterous seven or eight match winning streak using, of all things, Elves. And that was before Scourge gave us Wirewood Symbiote. [The Heiss qualified for Nationals with Elves in Columbus of all places. – Knut]
Yes, you do need to figure out what’s likely to be there and how your deck can beat it. However, you can spend too much time running yourself in circles trying to figure out which deck will be best to play against every possible deck. A circle symbolizes eternity for a reason. It never ends. If deck A beats deck B, and deck B beats deck C, while deck C beats deck A, you’ll spend an eternity figuring out which is the best deck for you to play. You’ll never find the answer. You’ll waste a lot of time and energy and end up drinking the poison anyway. If you spend all of your time analyzing the situation, you’ll be left with no time to prepare. At some point, you have to make a decision and just go for it.
This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t analyze the metagame or look for a metagame deck. Just don’t waste too much time doing so. The more time you spend searching for a deck to play, the less time you’ll have to learn to play it. The best deck for you to play is one with which you’re comfortable. Find your deck, whether it’s Ravager Affinity, anti-Affinity, or something completely under the radar. Play it. Practice it against the other big decks. Know what you’re gonna sideboard in and take out for each of the most common match-ups. Then, go to Regionals, and do your best.
I’m not able to play in Regionals this year. I’m getting married less than two weeks after they’re held. I can’t afford the money. If I did play, though, I would play Glade to Meet You. Yes, I’m that confident in it. In fact, I’m so confident in that deck that if I did play in Regionals this year, that’s the deck I’d play.
You know what? I tell you guys that I put my money where my mouth is. Well, I’m really gonna show you that. I’m offering a reward to the person who plays this deck at Regionals and does the best with it. I’ll give you twenty-five dollars of my StarCityGames.com store credit if you finish with the best record using that deck. Obviously, there have to be some ground rules, though.
Rule #1) You must play the deck as it’s listed in the article or you may get wacky and go up to sixty-one cards by adding a fourth Centaur Glade. – Obviously, your deck list will have to be verified in some way. You can either point me toward the tourney operator’s web site or some other reputable site. For instance, were you to win your Region with the deck, I’ll probably read about it on StarCity. (The sideboard’s completely up to you. I’d suggest Scrabbling Claws and Altar’s Light at a minimum. You need to rip cards from the yard and to be able to deal with artifacts like Darksteel Colossus that just keep coming back. Ivory Mask for keeping Disciples and discard and direct damage away. Also, Rain of Blades if you think you might run into a Decree of Justice now and then.)
Rule #2) The winner will be the person with the best match winning percentage. – I debated on this for a while. If I chose the highest finish, I’m penalizing people who play in bigger Regions. In 2003, for instance, it was a whole lot more impressive to finish 100th in the Ohio Valley Region (674 players) than in Hawaii (113). On the flip side, I couldn’t very well just choose the number of matches won, because someone in the Southeast last year (558 players) could have finished a pathetic 5-6 while someone who won four matches in Alaska (37 players) would have been in contention for the top eight. So, we’ll be using match winning percentage. I will count draws as half of a loss. Not half a loss and half a win. Just half a loss. This will, hopefully, prevent anyone from taking an intentional draw. We here at From Right Field believe in playing the matches. I know that this will hurt people who draw in the regular course of playing against slow decks, but them’s the breaks.
Rule #3) You must play every round of your Regionals tournament. – No one’s gonna get my money by going 4-0 drop. I don’t know why anyone would start 4-0 and then drop, but somewhere out there is someone who would do that just to get a cheap prize from a writer. Yeah, I’m a cheeseball.
Rule #4) In the event of a tie, the prize will be split among all the persons with the best match winning percentages. – Sorry, folks. I don’t have enough money to give out a full prize to more than one winner. So, if someone goes 6-2 with the thing and another person goes 9-3, they will get $12.50 each in credit.
Rule #5) You have to tell me all about your experience. – This way I’ll get a cheap and easy column out of the thing. I’ll be needing one of those at that time because of the wedding. I’ll need names of opponents, what they played, interesting plays during the match, and any characteristics such as scars, exceedingly long nose hairs, or visible cleavage (not including plumber’s crack).
Rule #6) You have to have fun. – If you don’t have fun, why play?
As usual, you’ve been a great audience. Now, go get ’em, cowboy!