Innovations – Thermodynamics in Magic

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One of the most important questions players are forced to answer during a game of Magic is “What is my role?” Mike Flores tells us that Misassignment of Role = Game Loss, and while that is certainly true, there is more to the theory behind that statement than meets the eye. Today, in a contender for Article of the Year, Patrick “The Innovator” Chapin explores the novel concept of Thermodynamics in Magic. One deck is warm, the other is cool… just where do the boundaries lie?

One of the most important questions players are forced to answer during a game of Magic is “What is my role?” Though most never realize they are doing so, both players inevitably answer this question through their actions. The unfortunate thing, for many players, is that they misassign the role of beatdown player or control player to themselves when they should actually be acting as the other.

See, many players, writers or not, will tell you all about combo, control, agro, mid-range, linear, cluster, combo-control, or whatever. This is actually just a model for describing where one’s strategy is relative to other decks of its format and era. A much more accurate model would be a thermometer.

No matter if you are attacking with little Green men, burning your opponents face, countering all his spells, or assembling a three card combo that will win the game for you, you are actually either playing beatdown or control. Sometimes a deck will be beatdown versus some opponents and control versus others, but that just means that it falls closer to the middle of the thermometer than those other decks.

The more aggressive your deck is, the more it “wants to be the beatdown,” the warmer it is. Conversely, the more defensive or inevitable your deck is, the more it “wants to be control,” the cooler it is. Every deck ever can be viewed from the framework of this model. Then by examining where your deck lies in relation to the deck you are facing, it can help uncover subtleties in strategy that you may want to pursue.

In general, the cooler deck wants to act as the control deck in any given match-up. Obviously this means the warmer deck is the beatdown (glad we answered that question…) There are exceptions to this, driven by peculiarities in match-ups caused by unintended card interactions or secondary abilities of cards included for some other purpose.

For example, Goblins is actually the control deck versus Flash in Vintage, on account of a lot of its cards incidentally disrupting the Flash player, such as Mogg Fanatic, or blocking in general.

In general, the cooler deck functions as the control deck, even if it is not a control deck per se, and the warmer deck functions as a beatdown deck, even if it doesn’t have a single creature in it.

What does it mean to be cooler? Well, the coldest strategy in a given format is never going to actually reach absolute zero. After all, even if your deck is 61 cards and can only win by natural decking, you can still be controlled by a 62 card deck of the same. A 600 card control deck, however, may be cooler than a 599 card one, but it would probably not be as controlling as a 60 card version if forced to battle an R/G aggro deck. Basically, there is no point you can reach where you are actually ABSOLUTELY defensive, as you inherently must make some statement about your capacity to win, even if it is by decking.

The way a cold deck wins is by expending its resources taking control of a game. Then, once the game is “under control,” the cold deck wins however it sees fit, whether it is by a Serra Angel, a Millstone, a Fireball, or a Stroke of Genius. The actual victory condition is not as important as is the positioning on the thermometer a strategy aims for.

For instance, The Deck was a five color U/W deck that sought to take complete control of the game by stripping an opponent’s hand, filling its own to seven cards, making non-flying creatures unable to attack, removing flying ones from the game, and destroying any dangerous enemy permanents, be they artifacts, enchantments, or lands. Finally, once the game was completely locked up so as to ensure that absolutely no combination of cards could break the lock, Weissman would switch life via Mirror Universe with his opponent, which using a rules loophole at the time could be lethal, or just drop a Serra Angel that would kill in five (even providing more defense while doing so).

Keep in mind, not all decks are this cold. Countersliver would play control against aggro strategies, creating an army of large unkillable creatures that would hold off enemy forces, backed by removal and permission. Finally, when a lethal army was assembled, the team would take to the air via Wing Sliver and kill in one fell swoop. Sometimes Worship was even involved to completely lock some opponents out of the game.

While cool compared to some strategies, this strategy is clearly warmer than The Deck. When Countersliver would be paired with traditional control decks, it would actually adopt an aggressive position. It would use its permission to try to buy time for its forces to break through opponents’ defenses.

Decks near the middle of the thermometer, that are warm compared to some and cool compared to others, are often typified by a tendency to “not lose long enough to win.” For instance, without Worship, Countersliver usually cannot completely lock up a game. If it were forced to play long enough against a Red deck, it is possible that it would just be overwhelmed by direct damage. However, the Countersliver deck doesn’t aim to always lock up the game. It just needs to “not lose long enough to win.”

“Not losing long enough to win” is a somewhat maligned tactic, as some theorists on both the aggro and control sides do not view it as pure. The real issue is that too many people try to build aggro or control decks but don’t make their decks extreme enough. If you are trying to take complete control of a game, you’d better mean it. Cards that speed up your win are out of place most of the time. Likewise, if you are building a Red Deck Wins, defensive cards that help you not lose are out of place, most of the time.

That said, there is certainly a place for so called “mid-range decks.” The key is to be able to play the cooler role against Hot decks and the warmer role versus Cold decks. “Misassignment of role = game loss” is probably the most important and useful piece of magic theory Michael Flores has ever put to print, as talked about in Who’s the Beatdown. It is imperative to know your role, especially when piloting a deck that’s role frequently shifts, depending on the match-up.

I think the term mid-range is a little bit of a misnomer, as it is not actually the decks range that is “mid.” It is the deck’s temperature. I mean, a “mid-range deck” could very well kill on turn 4 or turn 24 depending on the format and deck, and often plans to take longer than many control decks. This so-called range, is it inevitability? No, surely not, as some aggro decks have inevitability over mid-range decks and some control decks do not.

In reality, “mid-range decks” are actually closer to room-temperature (which is admittedly not as sexy a term). Perhaps ambient is the best way to describe them. I predict the term ambient probably won’t catch on in relation to deck building strategy, but who knows?

How do cold decks take control? Well, one way or another, it invariably involves some sort of card advantage, whether virtual or real (which are the same in my book, but that is another article for another day).

Some decks seek to take control by answering opposing threats with efficient answers and drawing extra cards to ensure that they always have answers to every relevant problem. A current example of this strategy would be Skred-Red, although The Deck mentioned above also fits this grouping perfectly.

A similar strategy may be employed by a control player, though card advantage is realized by a serious of two-for-ones, cards that are effectively two cards worth of action, such as Shriekmaw and Cryptic Command. An excellent example of this sort of deck would be Grim Teachings.

Other decks take control through some sort of resource denial or lock. Is Brine Elemental plus Vesuvan Shapeshifter card advantage? It is clearly a tremendous amount of “virtual” card advantage, as the Pickles player is typically able to ensure that she can play most of her spells, where as her opponent typically reaches a point of not being able to play almost any.

Even a card like Armageddon can be deceptive. Although it is a very powerful offensive weapon in a deck like Erhnam-Geddon or WW decks of yore, it can also be a powerful defensive tool, denying the opponent the ability to play threatening spells. Decks such as “Prison” (Winter Orb control decks, etc) would play Armageddon, often losing just as many lands as their opponent. However, a tremendous amount of virtual card advantage can be realized, as the “Prison” mage typically would have artifact mana in play to continue playing her own spells. The opponent, however would be left with many cards that, while he still held them in hand, was effectively down as he couldn’t actually cast them in a reasonable time frame.

Finally, there are combo control decks, which I will get to in a moment. First, a look at warmer strategies.

What makes a strategy hot? A hot strategy is “The Beatdown.” A hot strategy wants the game to end faster. A hot strategy wants to attack, even if it means leaving itself open to a counter attack. A hot strategy is often willing to take loses of board position, card economy, or card quality to move the game towards completion.

At its heart, a hot strategy is actually just another control deck. It is just that the means by which it controls the game are the opposite end of the spectrum as a cold deck. It is still the same thermometer (which is a thermometer measuring the amount of offensive action a deck utilizes in its pursuit of victory, i.e. control over the game).

See, some mages may try to control the game with Cryptic Command or Wrath of God, but others take control a little differently. If Dan Paskins Lightning Bolted me on the first turn, I would be very nervous. He is wasting no time at all taking control of the game. It is the very first turn of the game and already he has already laid down the ground rules of how our game is going to be. He has taken a sort of control that will allow him to have a great deal of control over my plays for the entire game.

When a skilled Red mage actually Bolts you turn 1, it is a reliable sign of strength. Once my life reaches a critical point, the Red mage obtains an incredible amount of virtual card advantage, as well as card quality. When your life total is 6, every Incinerate and every Rift Bolt is a powerful card. In addition, the control player has to go to great lengths to not lose to a flurry of burn spells, such as by leaving mana open to counter spells.

I do not want to get too far off on this tangent, though Adrian Sullivan told me that the article I should have written was “Every deck is a control deck.” I see it as a self-evident truth, but I guess it may be because I define it as such. Regardless, let’s return to hot strategies.

Hot strategies win the game directly, usually racing the opponent’s game plan. The hot player is, in essence saying “let’s see which of us can execute our plan faster.”

Hot strategies such as Red Deck Wins, Elves, and Kithkin are usually fairly easy to identify in general, but remember, as with control decks, it is important to correctly determine what your role is with relation to your opponent. You may normally play your Elf deck very aggressively, but if you are facing an R/g Aggro deck you have to figure some things out. For instance, if the R/g deck is full of burn, haste creatures, and weenies, it is very probable that they are hotter than you. As such, you would do best to adopt the cooler position, despite playing a normally aggressive deck.

Against such an R/g deck, you may keep pace with them early and try to ensure that your life total never drops so low that you are at risk of being burnt out. Then, as the game progresses, you can take control with powerful bombs like Masked Admirers and Wren’s Run Packmaster.

However, if your opponent is piloting an R/G deck featuring Call of the Herd, Garruk Wildspeaker, Siege-Gang Commander, and Disintegrate, you may be up against a hot strategy that is actually cooler than yours. Against such an opponent, it may behoove you to take the offensive, ensuring that the opponent doesn’t have time to decimate your board with Siege-Gang Commander, etc. It could very well be that against one R/G deck it is right to block a turn 3 Flame-Kin Zealot with your Wren’s Run Vanquisher and against another you may actually want to let it through. The key is to correctly assign to yourself the role of beatdown or control, hot or cold.

Misassignment of Role = Game Loss

He wasn’t lying. But how can you determine who’s strategy is cooler? (The one with Liliana Vess, she is just the COOLEST!)

In similar strategy versus similar strategy matchups, there are a lot of things that you want to look for to figure out what role to play. Here are a few:

1. Who has more ways to deal damage? Usually a good indicator of warmth.

2. Who has more creatures? Not always, but often a sign of warmth. The creature choices themselves can be revealing. Timbermare is a very hot card, whereas Loxodon Hierarch is a very cool card.

3. Who has more removal? Needs context, but if the removal is very defensive, like Damnation, that is usually a cold strategy. Tempo based? Could be either, though usually the more dedicated removal a deck has, the cooler it is.

4. Who has more permission? A measure of coolness, though remember, a card like Delay lets you know that the player wanted permission but values tempo more than quality, often a sign of warmth.

5. Who has the most card drawing? Almost always he has to be the cooler deck, except of course if the card is just so powerful that an aggressive deck would use it despite not reaping full benefits (i.e. Necropotence, etc). The primary exception to this is with a combo deck.

6. Who has inevitability? If it appears that the game will favor one player more and more as the game progresses, that player is surely the cooler of the two. This one is the most important. Whichever player has inevitability can afford to play cooler. If you will lose going long, DON’T GO LONG!

So what about combo decks?

Combo decks can be hot or cold. There are both beatdown combo decks and combo control decks.

For example, Tolarian Academy decks of yesteryear were an excellent example of a beatdown combo deck. They just tried to race you. They usually featured little if anything outside of more card drawing and mana production, eventually ending in a Stroke of Genius for 60 on their opponent.

Their answer to Jackal Pup and Cursed Scroll was to outrace them. In fact, the most successful Red mages of that era were the ones that realized that they were the control deck against the Blue decks. The Blue decks were just faster, that is all there was to it. The Red decks adopted disruptive and defensive elements ranging from Meltdown to Red Elemental Blast. If they would have just tried burning the Academy player before they could go off, they would lose.

Misassignment of Role = Game Loss

In modern times, Flash is a fine example of a beatdown combo deck. One of the more powerful strategies in Vintage involves killing your opponent with a Flash as soon as possible. Every card in the deck is involved in the process of producing mana, getting Flash, and making it resolve. The only other cards in the deck are the bare minimum combo pieces and usually one or two lonely bounce spells to deal with WHATEVER the opponent may throw at them.

When a player playing ScrollTPS (or Long or whatever) faces a Flash player, it is tempting to turn the game into a race. This is a poor move on the part of the ScrollTPS player. The Flash player is warmer for sure. His deck features Pact of Negation instead of Duress. His deck is faster. To succeed, the ScrollTPS player has to be willing to adopt the cooler position and maintain control long enough to go off in the late game (turn 3 or 4, right? Heh).

That said, if the ScrollTPS player can make an early move, it may very well be correct to. One does not always adopt the same role every time. You have to play what the board demands. Sometimes you must be the beatdown. Sometimes the control. Even if the match-up remains the same, the roles may reverse.

A topdecked Damnation may change everything. As any Blue mage that has tried to beatdown with Teferi before getting burnt out knows, just because you are control at one point in a game, does not mean you must maintain that position throughout.

On the flipside, some combo decks can very easily be cold. For example, High Tide was a control deck that tried to control the game long as long as it could. Then, usually the turn before it would die, it would “go for it” and try to combo off. High Tide could be looked at as a bit of a mid-range deck, but as it played out, that format was so fast and offensive that High Tide was actually the most controlling deck that achieved wide-spread success.

A modern example of a combo control deck could be some of these Gush decks that disrupt the daylights out of their opponents with Force of Will, Misdirection, Mana Drain, Thoughtseize, Duress, Red Elemental Blast, etc, eventually combing off with Yawgmoth’s Will (The term “combo” is thrown around loosely in Magic, but in this case, I suppose the combo is Will + Tendrils or Will + Empty the Warrens + perhaps Time Walk).

In closing, the next time you’re piloting an aggro deck versus an aggro deck, or a control deck versus a control deck, take a moment to determine where the opponent’s deck lies temperature-wise, and consequentially what role you should play with relation to your opponent. This exercise will improve your game more than any article I’ve ever written, that is for sure.

Many control players have won more games as a result of realizing that they would lose going long against a certain combo deck. As a result, they switch into beatdown mode and give themselves a fighting chance. They may not be designed to beatdown, but if you are the warmer deck in a given board state and match-up, one way or another, that is what you must do.

A key part of my success at Regionals this year was Mark Herberholz advice that I should sideboard my Chroniclers out against Gruul and keep the Rise/Falls in. After all, I was clearly the cooler deck, so I needed to use every weapon available to me to contain the aggressive R/g decks. Rise/Fall was two fewer cards I had to worry about, where as Aeon Chronicler was another victory condition, a victory condition I didn’t need, as Korlash would be sufficient once I took control.

Likewise, many a Red mage has improved their win percentage upon realizing that they have inevitability against a certain control deck. Then, instead of just attacking all out, they play to win the long game, whether it is by building up a fist full of burn or by a Molten Disaster for ten.

Whatever you do, make sure you are at least conscious of what role you are playing. It is completely fine to shift mid-game, but have a plan.

Who has inevitability?

Who is the beatdown?

Patrick Chapin
“The Innovator”