Innovation Is Misunderstood

Wednesday, April 27 – Jon Agley feels that “innovation” is a misunderstood concept in Magic and explains why! He also provides a few new New Phyrexia decklists, including one with Bloodchief Ascension + Mindcrank!

AJ Sacher article
about playing the best deck was amazingly well-received when it was published (with nearly 100 Facebook “likes” as I write this), but it has spawned a
number of articles disagreeing with his premises, including an
excellent piece by
Shaheen Soorani. For the record, this article isn’t a counterargument to AJ’s original article or support for the other side of the debate—I tend to fall somewhere in
the middle. There are contexts in which innovation is both overrated and underrated. More important, from my perspective, is the fact that the debate
thus far has excluded some key issues it could have addressed.

Are playing the best deck in a given tournament and innovating mutually exclusive? Almost all of the authors who have written on the issue base their
opinions on the premise that a person who spends a lot of time on innovating can’t—not won’t, but can’t—play the best deck at a
tournament. At the same time, we intuitively understand that this isn’t true. We never hear statements like, “Man, it really sucks that I worked
so hard on that Shape Anew deck because now every time I try to put Squadron Hawks in sleeves, I go blind and am stricken by convulsions.” I’ve spent a
lot of time working on the Furnace Celebration archetype in Standard, but when it came time to play in a Nationals Qualifier, I sleeved up Caw-Blade
without a second thought (for those of you who are interested, it was Kellyn’s list from the Magic Online PTQ on April 17, and I came
in third place, losing in a close third game to the Caw-Blade mirror largely because his list had a second Sun Titan in the board—which, for the
record, seems like an excellent call).

What interests me most about the ‘debate,’ though, is the idea that attempting to break a format is unprofitable. Specifically, AJ writes,

“Even if you are the first to play a deck that has an unbelievable technological edge over the field (which we’ve established is very unlikely, and
it will still be untuned, and you’ll be ill-practiced), you could still just run bad at a tournament and never know that you had broken it. Or you
could do semi-well, and then the deck is known, and there was no point in doing all of that pioneering in the first place, since everyone plugged
in to the hive mind catches up immediately. So why are you trying so hard to be the first to do something when it is so extremely unprofitable?”

Even if a deck has an unbelievable edge over the field, we worry that it will be unpracticed and untuned. Sure, such a list, if we want to keep it
under wraps, will not have benefited from exposure to other Magic players (e.g., Kibler’s original Caw-Go list, which became Caw-Blade after more
tuning), but that doesn’t mean that it hasn’t been tested. There are plenty of opportunities to practice on Magic Online without exposing the list to
the larger population of Magic players—specifically, the two-man and eight-man queues, which run fairly frequently and do not report decklists (unlike
Daily Events and Premier Events). Generally, opponents who lose to a rogue deck in such an event will discount it and assume they’re ‘running bad’ and
won’t give the deck a second thought. This form of testing, of course, is in addition to traditional ‘paper testing’ with friends and local players who
can be trusted to keep a list under wraps.

In that situation however, we assume that we’ve created a rogue list that’s strikingly better than the rest of the decks in the field. I agree with AJ
when he says that most rogue decks simply don’t meet this criterion. In fact, the vast majority of Magic decks simply are not Tier 1 contenders in
their given metagame.

So why bother spending a lot of time brewing? If we assume that winning a specific tournament is our goal, then playing the best deck may give
us the best chance of winning. However, if our goal is to win more tournaments more frequently, then placing a more substantial focus on
innovation might be better, even if we still play the ‘best deck’ in the majority of tournaments.

The principles of deck development and testing are valuable

The debate is led by the idea that deck development requires, at the very least, a thorough understanding of (a) the core principles of Magic; (b) how
the cards you select interact with each other; and (c) how the deck interacts with the metagame.

Let’s approach this idea as a case study of Magic Player X. We all know this guy. He plays interesting decks at FNM and usually goes 4-1 or 3-2.
He’s played in States/Champs a few times and usually finishes in the middle of the pack with a deck that generates a lot of audience interest. Maybe he
played in a PTQ once, but he’s not dedicated enough to test his ideas. He’s not a Johnny because he doesn’t only want to win on his terms—rather, he’s
a Spike who doesn’t perform very well and who believes that the best way to win is to develop and understand his own list.

If he begins to play more frequently and to test his ideas, he should, theoretically, improve in all of these areas, particularly (b). This category
involves the smallest amount of information, and the outcomes tend to be very obvious. Take the following portion of an imaginary decklist (obviously
awful but used to illustrate a point):

4 Bloodbraid Elf
4 Captured Sunlight
4 Mana Leak
4 Hypergenesis

When Player X “designed” this deck, he decided that the combo was weak to countermagic and disruption, so he decided to include Mana Leak to protect
his combo. Of course, the first time he played Bloodbraid Elf, he cascaded into Hypergenesis, but the second time, he cascaded into Mana Leak and lost
the game.

Lesson learned! Not only does he know how to fix a portion of this decklist, he now is wiser in terms of examining his own decisions. A specific rule
like “If your deck needs to cascade into a combo piece, don’t include cards that cost less than the combo piece unless they also have cascade” quickly
translates into a broader lesson: “Examine your decklist for unfavorable card interactions. Your deck should be run synergistically.” Sure, if he
played his “improved” Hypergenesis list at a real tournament, he wouldn’t have performed well (“should have played the best deck”), but simply playing
the best deck might not have given him that important, empirical lesson. That lesson may improve his results over time, creating aggregate progress.

Concept (c)—understanding how a deck interacts within the metagame—is slightly harder to grasp because it increases the number of relevant variables,
but it’s still reasonably simple. Let’s say that Player X fancies himself a control player, and he wants to develop a control deck to play in Standard
for his local Nationals Qualifier. He’s heard all of the hype about Standard and has decided that his primary enemies are Primeval Titan, Jace, the
Mind Sculptor, and Sword of Feast and Famine. He decides to start with a shell that reactively “addresses” each of those cards:

4 Mana Leak
4 Cancel
4 Fuel for the Cause
4 Jace Beleren
4 Condemn
4 Preordain
2 Divine Offering

His plan is to counter all of the expensive threats and to use Condemn on the creatures that make it past his countermagic. By using Jace Beleren, he
intends to preempt Jace, the Mind Sculptor and to draw more countermagic. Those of us who are actually familiar with Standard right now recognize the
numerous flaws with this thinking—for example, several of the more potent threats in Standard (Squadron Hawk and Stoneforge Mystic) often will be
resolved before Cancel and Fuel for the Cause are online, and Caw-Blade has access to Spell Pierce to win the “resource war.”

So what is the purpose of discussing a “shell” that obviously won’t work well in the current format?

Simply picking up a copy of Caw-Blade will give Player X experience with Standard, and, on many levels, simply playing the deck that one intends to
bring to a tournament is extremely important. However, for a player without the same level of understanding as an AJ Sacher or Shaheen Soorani,
magnifying the workings of the metagame is valuable. Witnessing a complicated exchange between Squadron Hawks and Stoneforge Mystics may leave the
player more confused than enlightened on the key aspects of something like the Caw-Blade mirror match.

On the other hand, if Player X were to play Bad U/W Control in a tournament, he quickly would realize things like: “Oh, they don’t actually have to cast Sword of Feast and Famine” and “If they have a creature like Squadron Hawk, having a cheaper Jace won’t necessarily prevent them from
resolving Jace, the Mind Sculptor.” As Plato wrote in The Republic:

Failed innovation can act as a magnifying glass.

Failure helps us examine abstract principles more clearly and without confounding or ambiguous variables.

Finally, in working to innovate, we improve our understanding of component (a): the core principles of Magic. This is the area where we tend to leave
Player X behind and actually discuss “higher-leveled” Magic players.

An individual reading this article might think, “Okay, fair enough. Maybe there is value in a lesser-skilled player working to innovate as long as he
still picks up the ‘best deck’ when it’s time to play in a tournament. Maybe. But what about good players, then? Shouldn’t they just pick up the best
deck? They already understand the metagame and they already understand the basic principles of deck construction without needing to go through all of
those exercises.”

In many cases, they probably should just pick up something like “Caw-Blade,” test some games, and proceed to the nearest tournament. Do not pass “Go,”
do not collect $200 unless you get an appearance fee.

By innovating, though, we modify and reinforce key ideas about core principles. For example, when Brian Kibler developed Caw-Go, I heard a number of
local players deriding it—”It only worked because he’s good, and the rest of the deck is powerful.” When a number of players modified it into
Caw-Blade for PT Paris

to tremendous levels of success, I heard the same—”It’s not even a control deck anymore!” Those players did not understand key principles. They did not
understand why Squadron Hawk in a U/W Control build was powerful. They did not understand why taking a control shell and adding Sword of Feast and
Famine was such a tremendous improvement. Those players may play Caw-Blade now that it has established itself as the best deck, and they may even win
with it, but, at a fundamental level, they don’t understand it. And when the Pro Tour rolls around, they may not have a sufficient grasp of the core
principles of Magic to play “the next logical step.” That longitudinal advantage is, I think, the most important benefit of innovation.

Innovation is neither overrated nor underrated. It is misunderstood.

And Now…

In an article explicitly discussing innovation, I would be remiss in failing to include a few of the ideas that I have been batter(skull)ing around in
my head. With the imminent release of New Phyrexia (NPH), or, as the forum trolls would have us believe, Mirrodin Pure because the NPH spoiler was an
elaborate hoax, Standard looks like it will change—perhaps dramatically. The reintroduction of combo to the Standard metagame will likely be the
catalyst (Valakut is kind of a combo deck… but not quite the same).

are two obvious directions in which the set might take us (regarding combo). The first involves the card Mindcrank. By itself, or in a traditional
“mill” deck, this card is very weak. However, if it triggers with an active Bloodchief Ascension on the board, our opponent quickly loses. My first
inclination was to somehow cram these cards into a basic B/r Vampires shell, but that approach had some weaknesses. I ran it by CW Colglazier, who had
this to say:

“Mindcrank + Ascension is a sweet combo that is sadly rough to jam into vamps. Vamps wants to curve 1, 2, 2+1, 2+2. Ascension can’t be the first
1-drop, or you don’t provide enough pressure, so you are dropping it ideally on turn 3, with the hopes that it is active on turn 5. By then, if the
rest of the game plan has gone accordingly, a regular burn spell is just as good as Mindcrank. “

He suggested increasing the amount of burn in the deck and reducing the extent to which the deck functions as a traditional “Vampires” deck. By
increasing the deck’s proportion of one- and two-drops and by cutting all of the more expensive cards except Staggershock (which nearly charges
Bloodchief Ascension by itself), we put the combo in a better position.

“Now the curve is 1, 1+1, 1+2, 1+3. This allows not only for easier turn 2 Ascensions (the best Ascensions), but also means you have better “nut”
hands (turn 1 Vampire Lacerator, turn 2 Bloodchief Ascension bash/Bolt on your turn, turn 3 bash Mindcrank/Burst your turn for the win).”

CW also pointed out—and I agree—that even before NPH, Standard is a format in which a number of larger creatures (e.g., Primeval Titan) can hit the
board fairly quickly, and so this deck may need a reactive component like Go for the Throat, even though it’s not entirely consistent with the
‘Mindcrank Plan.’

The second direction in which NPH might take us (regarding combo) is the ‘Deceiver Exarch’ deck. All of us who delight in the Pestermite/Kiki-Jiki,
Mirror Breaker interaction in Extended no doubt are excited by the potential presented by Deceiver Exarch/Splinter Twin. It’s a powerful, game-ending
combo that can happen at near-instant speed. And, to be honest, a Horned Turtle with flash that can block a Stoneforge Mystic with a Sword of Feast and
Famine attached isn’t the worst card in the world.

At first, I really liked the idea of a creature-heavy RUG-style list that abuses the combo because we have so many targets for Splinter Twin that it
rarely is a dead card. I started with the shell below, but it appeared underpowered.

4 Lotus Cobra
3 Acidic Slime
2 Inferno Titan
2 Precursor Golem
4 Deceiver Exarch

4 Preordain
4 Jace, the Mind Sculptor
4 Splinter Twin
4 Explore
3 Mana Leak

CW suggested that Deceiver Exarch is a much better card in the ‘other’ Standard all-star: Caw-Blade (which, with the addition of the combo, loses its
trademark Caw).

Rather than attempting to abuse Splinter Twin with a variety of creatures with powerful effects, CW opts to attempt to beat up on traditional Caw-Blade
builds, which probably will not disappear with NPH’s release. He writes,

“The real problem this deck presents against other Caw decks is how tapping out at any point becomes even more precarious. If they try to force
through a Jace with their counters, they might find themselves facing an end-of-turn Exarch that combos out on the next turn. Gideon can be a
legitimate threat to lay down against Exarch/Twin, as they can force 300 River Kaijins to attack him instead of their life total, but without a
follow-up Day/Oust, they’ll still be back at square one.”

These lists obviously are intended to be ‘shells’ rather than complete decklists, but they are a few of the directions in which the additions from NPH
might take us (regarding combo). We also have other options revolving around interactions like Batterskull and the format, and Sword of War and Peace
and Mirran Crusader, but those are best left for another article.

P.S. A Bonus Decklist

The Standard format isn’t dead yet, and if you’re looking for a fun brew to play at your local FNM, I recommend the deck that Stef Oi played at a
Nationals Qualifier. Though she didn’t Top 8 with the list, it seems to have a decent matchup against Caw-Blade, and it looks like a lot of fun to
play, though it loses pretty hard to red-based decks.

This deck’s most satisfying line of play is something along the lines of:

Turn 1: Preordain

Turn 2: Pyromancer Ascension

Turn 3: Preordain (add a counter), another spell.

Turn 4: Any spell that adds a counter.

Thereafter, any time an opponent searches his/her library with a fetchland, Cultivate, Primeval Titan, Stoneforge Mystic, Squadron Hawk, etc… we can
cast Trapmaker’s Snare for two Archive Traps and cast those traps to mill 52 cards. Of course, it also can win fairly quickly against an opponent who
can’t answer a turn 1 Hedron Crab.