Ideas Unbound – Boarding out Force of Will?

Wednesday, February 2 – Max McCall considers the implications of boarding out Force of Will in Legacy – when you’d want to, when you wouldn’t, and why.

There was recently a thread on www.mtgthesource.com that featured a heated debate over whether or not Force
of Will should be boarded out of control decks when playing against beatdown. Opinions were mixed, and tensions were high; the anti-Force crowd pointed
out how detrimental the loss of a card was for most control decks, and the pro-Force crowd generally thought that even considering boarding out Force
of Will was flagrantly wrong.

In Magic, there’s typically one right way to do something and a bunch of wrong ways to do that same thing that may or may not be almost as effective.
There’s a best decklist for attacking a given metagame, and so on. Unfortunately, there’s no hard and fast answer to whether or not you should be
boarding out Force of Will against aggressive decks.

But it’s a question you should be considering.

I’ve noticed that people are almost never willing to kill their darlings. Whenever someone writes an article about “How To Go Rogue,”
there’s always a cautionary paragraph about how you have to be sure that you’re going rogue for a reason and that you’re not just being stubborn and
playing a pet deck, Gavin Verhey.* People should apply the same reasoning to their sideboarding. Just because a card is usually
“good” doesn’t mean that it’s not “bad” in certain situations. You need to be able to recognize those. In Extended a few years
ago, people were boarding out Tarmogoyf and Tribal Flames against Faeries because having your Tarmogoyf hit by Threads of Disloyalty was a huge
gigantic beating and because Tribal Flames didn’t do anything when your opponent went for an Umezawa’s Jitte turn. But until Gerry Thompson popularized
cutting Tarmogoyf and Flames, no one was willing to do it. Goyf and Flames were “too good” to cut.

So, what is Force of Will really doing? Force is a zero-mana counterspell that costs one life and one blue card. Okay. Why do I want a zero-mana
counterspell? Because interacting in the early game is frequently important. When you desperately need a counterspell, e.g. against Tendrils, the extra
card is a negligible cost. When you only sort of need a counterspell, e.g. against a random two-drop, the extra card costs considerably more.

I want to emphasize that Force costs a blue spell. Many people value a “card” in the abstract as having the same value as any other card.
Cards have different values. Remember how often you lament your opponent drawing all of his Tarmogoyfs? This is similar. Being down a Brainstorm or a
Jace or a Counterbalance is much different from being down a land. It’s also worth noting that you need about sixteen to eighteen blue spells to
support the alternate casting cost on Force of Will, so if you’re cutting non-Force cards to make room for sideboard cards, ensure that you still have
enough blue cards to pitch to Force.

Force of Will is one of the most widely played cards in Legacy for a reason. Presenting interactions in the first few turns is very important,
particularly against combo. Interacting for zero mana is important in most control mirrors. Using Force to get Wild Nacatl on turn 1 is important when
you only have a few removal spells main. Essentially, Force is great in some matchups but a stopgap in others, where it can fill in to fight whatever
threat you can’t handle with your game one configuration.

After sideboarding, though, how good Force of Will is depends on the threats in your opponent’s deck and how you intend to answer them while fighting
back with your own cards. If you don’t plan to tap out a lot and thus won’t need to answer any huge threats with Force, and if you don’t need Force to
power a particular spell through opposing countermagic, Force might need to hit the bench.

For example: Until Conflux came out, it was safe to board out Force of Will in the Counterbalance mirror. At that point in time, people were playing
decks that looked similar to what Gabriel Nassif and Andy Probasco played at Grand Prix Chicago 2009; that is to say, three- or four-color
Counterbalance with a lot of value cards but no real trumps. In game one, Force was important for protecting Counterbalance, but when Krosan Grips came
in after sideboarding, you didn’t need to lean on Force to protect you from anything, and losing the extra spell in the long control mirrors was very

Then Conflux was printed, and the Soul of the World returned. It didn’t take long for people to find the synergy between Natural Order and Progenitus,
and Counterbalance variants built around Natural Order came into the limelight. At that point, Force of Will was necessary in Counterbalance mirrors;
without it, countering Natural Order was nearly impossible, and you’d lose to Progenitus.

These days, Natural Order has largely fallen out of favor so that people can make room for Jace, the Mind Sculptor. And while an in-play Jace isn’t
quite the threat that Progenitus is, Force of Will is still one of the only cards in the mirror that can keep Jace out of play. Accordingly, people
still keep Force in for the mirror.

This is an example of a cycle where, for some time, Force was a good candidate to sideboard out in a given matchup but then became crucial in
post-board games because of the nature of the threat that needed answering. When you’re fighting against spells rather than creatures, you’ll usually
need Force to help out.

One of the biggest problems with talking about Legacy is that not everyone is on the same page when they talk about control decks and aggro decks.
There are slow, ponderous Landstill decks with loads of removal;
there are a bunch of versions of Counterbalance; there are U/W/G aggro-control decks, and so on and so on. All of these
decks approach their beatdown matchups differently.

Along the same lines, there are many different beatdown decks. Goblins, Merfolk, Zoo, G/W beatdown with Mangara of Corondor, Affinity, and Junk. These are all wildly different decks with wildly different
plans, and the efficacy of Force of Will needs to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.

First, what is the strategy for the control deck after sideboarding? Are you trying to grind out a long war of attrition with some combination of
Pernicious Deed, Firespout, Counterbalance, and Jace, the Mind Sculptor? The card disadvantage is going to be relevant. Are you playing a very
tempo-based game, trying to get control just long enough to close a game out with Tarmogoyf or Phyrexian Dreadnought? A zero-mana counterspell might be
important. If you’re playing Counterbalance, does your opponent have Aether Vial? Do you have ways to counter or remove Vial if you bench Force? Are
there any particularly strong spells that your opponent might try to spring on you that you can’t handle without Force?

Even if you’re trying to get your value by overloading on removal, it’s important to look at which removal spells you’re bringing in and decide whether
or not you’ll need Force of Will to cover any gaps. A U/G/W/R Counterbalance deck might decide that having four Firespouts after sideboarding is just
the thing against Zoo.

Then your opponent plays a 3/4 Tarmogoyf on turn 2 and plays a 4/4 Knight of the Reliquary on turn 3. Nice sideboard card. You probably need Force of
Will to cover your bases against threats that you can’t Firespout away.

If, on the other hand, you were a U/B/G Landstill deck and were using Pernicious Deed, Innocent Blood, and Smother instead of damage-based removal
spells, you wouldn’t need to worry about big creatures slipping through the cracks, and boarding out Force would probably be safe.

Similarly, some tempo decks are still going to want Force of Will in game two. If you’ve got a big plan of playing Tarmogoyf or Dreadnought on turn 2
and riding it to victory backed with some removal, you might need Force of Will to be ready for turns where your opponent plays two spells in one turn
or to fight off Qasali Pridemage once you have Dreadnought in play. For these tempo decks, their plan is for the game to be over before the card from
Force becomes relevant.

Other tempo decks might not. These tempo decks, such as New Horizons, play very similarly to aggro decks. Therefore, their beatdown matchups play
similarly to aggro mirrors. One of the best strategies in aggro mirrors is to be the guy with the biggest creature in play. The corollary to this is
that you want a bunch of removal spells to, you know, kill his big creatures. With Swords to Plowshares and Path to Exile, New Horizons can go to war
with Tarmogoyfs and Knights of the Reliquary and use white removal instead of blue permission to fight off beatdown threats. These games can go very
long, and the cantrips that might fuel Force are vital for finding more huge creatures and removal.

What about particular spells that the beatdown decks might have? Umezawa’s Jitte is a breaker in many aggro-control mirrors; if you bench Force, can
you answer a Jitte? Do you need to answer the Jitte, or can you overload on removal spells and never give your opponent a creature to equip the pointy
stick to?

Or maybe you’ve built a mana base that only a mother could love, and Price of Progress is good for twelve damage against you every single time. You
could use Force of Will to fight Price, but you’d probably be better off with a mana base consisting of eight to ten fetchlands, five to seven duals,
and enough basics such that you can operate off two or three basics and a dual for most of your spells.

It’s perfectly valid to consider all of these factors and come to the conclusion that “I need Force of Will in my deck because without it, I have
a hell of a time beating Elspeth, Knight-Errant.” I believe that, more often, Force of Will conflicts with the attrition-based plan that most
control decks adopt against beatdown decks.

The claim that “Force of Will is bad against beatdown decks” isn’t accurate in every situation. Rather, I posit that Force of Will is bad
in attrition fights. Because most control decks seek to bring in more removal spells and get into an attrition fight against beatdown decks, Force of
Will should usually be boarded out against beatdown. When I was recently asked about whether or not I board Force out against aggro, my initial
reaction was “yes, obviously” because Force of Will doesn’t mesh with the way that I personally configure Legacy control decks to beat

When I started writing this article, I realized that the question was much more nuanced. I typically build my control decks to have a lot of removal
spells after sideboarding, and I close out games with Jace. Killing creatures is really easy in Legacy, and I’ve had a lot of success with that

It’s not, however, the only valid plan for those matchups. You should carefully consider what your post-board plan against aggressive decks is after
sideboarding, and you should evaluate whether or not Force of Will helps execute that strategy. Sometimes it will. Other times it won’t. The important
part is thinking critically about how every card in your deck adheres to your plan.

Max McCall

max dot mccall at gmail dot com

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