Well, I figured it out.
After thinking about what makes a deck “forgiving,” it came down to the same metric that we have been talking about since Weissman: Card advantage.
For some decks, a raw number of cards becomes the measure of how forgiving it can be. Take a Necropotence or Bargain or even Land Tax deck… You don’t necessarily have to play perfectly because you have so much room for error. You can screw up by a card, or three cards – but since you drew ten more cards than your opponent did, you don’t even notice. It’s like the opposite of Overload Damage… When you win the game with three relevant answer cards in your hand, you know that you could have screwed up at least twice and your deck would have still pulled you out.
But how does that speak to a deck like Ravager Affinity? Sure, Ravager has Thoughtcast (and used to have Skullclamp – talk about a Necropotence-level card drawing engine that made up for a lot of mistakes), but today’s Affinity isn’t known for its card advantage… But that’s just because we don’t look at Ravager’s card advantage the right way.
Look back to our last couple of articles about The Philosophy of Fire, especially the Hybrid Strategies sequel. The Philosophy of Fire teaches us that, rather than just thinking of card economy in relation to other cards, we can measure against the objective twenty life that the opponent gets, and divide our cards by how many of those twenty life points they can chip away. Because this school of theory comes from Urza’s Block Red Decks, we have chosen two life as the arbitrary unit of the Philosophy of Fire (essentially “a Shock”), with ten units equal to the opponent’s base life total.
When you play a deck with Arcbound Ravager, several things fall into place:
Because the average Ravager Affinity deck starts beating the opponent down as early as turn 2, the opponent will typically have less than twenty life come the midgame. If we were talking about an older aggressive deck also getting its beat on from turn 2, like Deadguy Red, the worst thing that we could topdeck would be Ball Lightning at three units, or the even more fearsome Fireblast at… Two units. In theory, Ravager might have Shrapnel Blast at 2.5 units of damage (drawing all four is a kill), but Arcbound Ravager can be even worse. Remember Osyp’s quote:
“Arcbound Ravager is like a fairy godmother. It sits on your shoulder and says ‘You play badly, but I don’t care. I still love you.'”
With a Blinkmoth Nexus in play in the midgame, Arcbound Ravager can serve as the beatdown deck’s equivalent to Time Spiral. It doesn’t actually put seven cards in your hand, but it can surely sacrifice enough lands to set up a lethal Nexus strike, even if you had just been wiped by a Wrath of God or Oblivion Stone. The problem? Arcbound Ravager isn’t just good when you have 4UU ready to untap – it’s good on turn 2. The bigger problem? Arcbound Ravager isn’t alone. In the midgame, a Cranial Plating, Atog, or even Disciple of the Vault can functionally generate the equivalent card advantage via Philosophy of Fire counting. There is nothing more distressing for a control white player than to have an Akroma’s Vengeance in hand and the mana to play it, but be unable to do so just because the opponent controls a lowly one-drop.
Ultimately, this means that the most forgiving decks are either those that set up the most card advantage, or those that can generate a huge swing in some other related metric. It should be no surprise that the most fearsome decks of all-time are also among the most forgiving. Even worse than the “I came back but he drew the second Fireblast” sob story are former Extended powerhouses High Tide and especially Trix. Both decks could come back from massive disruption with a single card-drawing engine – and Trix in particular set up a forty-point life differential, both countering beatdown and killing the opponent with a single effect. (Darwin Kastle is probably still reeling from his Pro Tour: New Orleans Top 8 match against Kai… and that was three years ago.)
You have probably noticed that alongside “forgiveness” for the mistakes that you have made in a game, I tacked on general “comeback” potential for a deck. Old tournament reports are riddled with Deadguy Red players coming back from fifty-life differentials to take games away from white mages. I remember the finals of one mock tournament practicing for an Extended Pro Tour a few years ago where I played a B/U/W Tradewind Rider deck into the finals – and Stalking Tiger, Hidden Gibbons standout Paul Jordan met me with a simple mono-red beatdown deck. In the deciding game, I set up turn 2 Warmth against Paul, and drew Powder Keg after Powder Keg against his Jackal Pups and Mogg Fanatics. Paul dutifully gave me thirty life or so, Cursed Scrolling my Sunscape Familiars, Ophidians, and Tradewind Riders, barely staying in it with minor beats. He eventually won after many turns of patient attack.
Among other things, this taught me the same lesson that Paul’s TOGIT teammates had to apply to their Scepter-Tog deck this year: Ya gotta play with a Morphling. Had I found a Shapeshifter, the outcome of that game might have been different. I thought that drawing a ton of cards and having a consistent lifegain effect would be good enough. I was wrong… Maybe I shouldn’t have sided the ‘phing out.
What is interesting about this branch of forgiveness theory is that Paul had Inevitability. He had it from the start, and I don’t think that my sideboard plan ever took it away. The game was about Paul’s beatdown. Despite the fact that I had many three- and four-toughness creatures as solid blockers, and Warmth to really slow down his Cursed Scrolls, I had no real answer to Paul’s long term plan. He might have to do fifty damage instead of twenty – but I couldn’t stop fifty damage, so it didn’t matter. Warmth and blockers might have slowed down his attacks, but with Cursed Scroll online, my blockers were never long for the world, and as I said, Paul was going to beat me to death at some point anyway. He essentially dictated the field of battle, and I was forced to play on his terms, even though I thought I had a what seemed like a relevant sideboard.
Dictating the field of battle is a vitally important goal, yet it’s somehow ignored by almost all Magic theoreticians. In the Top 8 of this past Pro Tour Columbus, I picked every single match correctly, all the way to eventual champion Pierre Canali… Except for one match, Nakamura v. West. I mistakenly thought that West’s deck (which had been tuned against beatdown) would be favored against Nakamura’s deck, which (unlike a Goblin Death or Goblin Bidding deck) has access to a pretty finite amount of damage. Red Deck Wins can do twenty pretty consistently, but it can’t do the easy forty like Goblin Death.
What I missed about this matchup is the exact same objection that I had to U/W decks in the current Standard metagame. Nakamura might not have had enough burn to deal a hundred damage to West after the latter hit him with Exalted Angel a few times – but he had more than enough burn to just kill the Angels! In any game where West doesn’t get Exalted Angel, his cards are pretty irrelevant, and Nakamura just buries him Dave Price-style; his only real plan is Isochron Scepter + Fire / Ice, and even then racing Cursed Scroll is difficult, just because Nakamura has a head start, and West has to spend his mana killing creatures. Meanwhile, Nakamura can just go to the face. Nakamura dictates the matchup as “about damage” and West’s main response costs six mana and a turn just to get started.
As you can see, a huge advantage goes to the player who is able to dictate the field of battle, even when it seems like the other player has more card advantage. Warmth and Exalted Angel compared to Mogg Fanatic and Firebolt? Surely, the white cards make the red ones seem a bit foolish… But the white cards only generate card advantage, and only buy life. If the Red Deck still dictates the field of battle, all that happens is that victory comes a few turns later. This is the exact opposite of a situation like Nakamura vs. Szleifer in the same Top 8.
Everyone, from the rest of the coverage staff to the Japanese (to Gadiel himself, I am sure), had Szleifer winning this Top 8 matchup; I correctly picked Nakamura in 4. The reason is that after watching Nakamura play several rounds on Day Two, I realized that he was not just siding in Ensnaring Bridge to protect himself from being beaten down, but he was playing that card to dictate the field of battle. Rather than saying “this game is about Ensnaring Bridge, answer it to get your beatdown back,” Nakamura was saying, “let’s race.”
Now, Szleifer made a very good point in his tournament report, and clearly we got some faulty information – because straight up, Nakamura can’t race Szleifer’s deck, and certainly he can’t face his best draws. But what happens when we combine a few factors? What happens when Szleifer’s Akroma, Angel of Wrath is just one turn late? Nakamura probably picks up something like four unopposed damage. What happens if Gadiel has to Reanimate it? Nakamura gets eight free damage delivered on a silver platter and half his work is done. When Nakamura gets Ensnaring Bridge, you can probably assume that Szleifer is going to have the right response card, and might even have it quickly enough… But the majority of the time, setting up the bounce costs him two (if not three) life and another precious turn.
All of a sudden, racing doesn’t seem so favorable to Reanimator. No draw in Nakamura’s deck can beat Gadiel’s best draws – but Nakamura’s solid draw against Gabriel’s solid draw? It’s a much closer match. (Though to be fair, Gadiel didn’t even mise the solid draws.)
The Columbus Top 8 Decks
A clever response by many top players after they saw Canali’s deck was City of Traitors. These players all knew that their opponents would try to dictate the field of battle by being “about Energy Flux.” “Fine – it’s about Energy Flux,” the Salsa instructor wannabes should say. “Now that you’ve got your absolute best card, tell me again how you are going to beat my giant Ravager kept around by City of Traitors.”
Successfully dictating a different field of battle than one where your opponent can function can not only yield an advantage, but also remove the forgiveness of his own deck. Consider the mono-blue Draw-Go player with tons of card drawing, a hand full of counters, and no way to win. He can be defeated by a simple Aether Vial – all of his resources are rendered meaningless by a single play. Now, instead of counters that counter nothing, the mono-blue player has to find cards that control the board; with a hand full of essentially blank cards, the Aether Vial generates massive virtual card advantage that affects not only the cards already in the game, but the relevance of successive draws – and more importantly, the decisions driving the rest of the game. What commonly occurs is that the mono-blue player, lacking knowledge of interactive plans, thinks that he is sandbagging a long-game win with all these counters, never realizing that his last Thirst for Knowledge decision probably just cost him the game.
Ultimately, dictating the field of battle may be as important as understanding Who’s the Beatdown? Back in Necessary Evils and the Death of the Last Rogue Deck, we said:
“The advantages of this build over Affinity are many. First of all, it has Pulse of the Fields. Affinity is amazing at dealing twenty. In fact, it can deal twenty in three turns sometimes. It is a lot worse at dealing twenty-four. Worse yet at dealing twenty-eight. Forty? Good luck with that, especially if a Wrath and a Vengeance resolve.”
Though I didn’t realize it explicitly at the time, 2004 Regionals-era Affinity was saying, “this matchup is about twenty.” Even with four Skullclamps and four Thoughtcasts, they were all about the Shrapnel Blasts and Disciple of the Vault combo kills. They weren’t even saying, “this matchup is about damage,” really… Just that twenty. They may have facilitated that twenty with the best card drawing engine since Necropotence, they may have tended to have sufficient overload damage to counterbalance any mistakes… But ultimately, their goal was pretty single-minded (and luckily, they were very good at achieving it).
In giving the Affinity opponent his card advantage, but beating him on the field of battle that he chose, the G/W deck had Strategy Superiority. This held through Regionals, all the way to Brian Kibler loss to infinite Skullclamps in the Top 8 of US Nationals. But this topic started with Affinity being the most forgiving deck – even without Skullclamp – so that shouldn’t be surprising. Billy didn’t have to Mana Leak the Coffin Purge, simply because Brian didn’t draw the right land the last turn to make him regret it.
When asked about the lack of Nevinyrral’s Disks in his 1996 US Nationals deck, eventual Champ Dennis Bentley said:
“If I draw ten more cards than my opponent and lose anyway, I don’t deserve to win.”
And don’t forget:
“Arcbound Ravager is like a fairy godmother. It sits on your shoulder and says ‘You play badly, but I don’t care. I still love you.'”
Kibler – G/W Deck
4 Akroma’s Vengeance
3 Decree of Justice
4 Eternal Dragon
2 Gilded Light
4 Pulse of the Fields
4 Renewed Faith
4 Wing Shards
4 Wrath of God
4 Elfhame Palace
4 Temple of the False God
4 Windswept Heath
2 Darksteel Colossus
2 Reap and Sow
3 Tooth and Nail
Bentley – B/R Necro
1 Black Vise
1 Zuran Orb
1 Ivory Tower
4 Black Knight
4 Dark Ritual
4 Hymn to Tourach
4 Hypnotic Specter
4 Order of the Ebon Hand
4 Lightning Bolt
2 City of Brass
4 Strip Mine
4 Sulfurous Springs
1 Jester’s Cap
2 Serrated Arrows
2 Dance of the Dead
2 Dark Banishing
1 Infernal Darkness
2 Stromgald Cabal
Next Time: The Story of 0-2, Byes