Interaction 101

Apparently some Internet writers don’t know the difference between interactive and non-interactive cards. Looks like it’s time for Professor Mike to teach another lesson.

What The?!

Apparently some Internet writers don’t know the difference between interactive and non-interactive cards. Let’s look at a real deck for a moment and examine a specific subset of its cards:

Dump Truck

Ben Rubin, GP Anaheim 2003

1 Tsabo’s Web

3 Diabolic Edict

4 Duress

1 Smother

4 Brainstorm

3 Deep Analysis

2 Peek

4 Meddling Mage

4 Shadowmage Infiltrator

4 Vindicate

1 Disenchant

3 Exalted Angel

3 Seal of Cleansing

2 Underground River

2 Skycloud Expanse

4 Flooded Strand

4 Polluted Delta

3 Island

2 Plains

2 Swamp

4 Caves of Koilos


3 Chrome Mox

1 Damping Matrix

1 Sphere of Resistance

3 Vampiric Tutor

4 Chill

1 Energy Flux

1 Upheaval

1 Lobotomy

This deck, which Ben used to win an Extended Grand Prix last year, plays the cards Duress (pretty commonly played in every format where it is legal) and Peek (echoing the above “what the!?!”). Eric Taylor went through a phase where he talked about every new Magic theory in the context of symmetry. I am going to talk about these two cards using a pretty basic paradigm, that of card economy.

Is this really the smae card?


Target opponent reveals his or her hand. Choose a noncreature, nonland card from it. That player discards that card.


Look at target player’s hand. Draw a card.

These cards, strictly read from a card economy standpoint, do the almost the exact same thing. Both cards give the Duress/Peek player perfect instantaneous knowledge of the opponent’s hand. Both cards can be used to generate incidental virtual card advantage via Meddling Mage. Usually (at least in the case of Duress), both of these spells trade for a card, Duress with a card in the opponent’s hand and Peek with whatever is on top. Despite the fact that we know Duress to be not just better than Peek but one of the finest and most widely adopted spells of all time, taken only in the context of card economy, Peek is the vastly superior: it is an instant instead of a sorcery, and unlike the card we are comparing it to, it doesn’t whiff against Goblins. What differentiates these cards is the interactive element. Peek can inform tactical or strategic game play and works well with Meddling Mage, but Duress, on top of doing almost everything else Peek does, directly affects the Opponent’s tactical and strategic game play as well.

At the most recent Grand Prix: Boston, Jeff Garza beat Josh Ravitz entirely on the back of a whiffed Duress (i.e. the world’s worst Peek). Garza had three more life than Josh and a Pernicious Deed in play against Josh’s Sulfuric Vortex. His Duress showed… a Fledgling Dragon (the only card in Josh’s hand). A Peek would have equally told Jeff not to pop the Deed, no matter how dangerous the Vortex would be long-term against a Red Deck Wins deck. As it happened, Josh drew all lands and was never in a position to play his Fledgling Dragon as Jeff rode out his life advantage to a long game win. Yes I know the feature match didn’t say any of this but, really, who are you going to believe?

Conversely, look back at “The Limit of Skill” two weeks ago. Duress toppled the average Fujita hand; it could take away a mana accelerator that would otherwise pump out a Through the Breach or took away a Sneak Attack that turned an otherwise powerhouse hand into a clump of blanks. The difference between these two fundamentally similar cards, interactive v. non-interactive, should be obvious.

Ben’s Dump Truck also plays the card Deep Analysis. Deep Analysis took a little while to catch on, and many of the decks that play it best rely on this sorcery’s Flashback (Intuition, Psychatog, Wild Mongrel). Especially early on, Deep Analysis was in direct competition with Fact or Fiction.

Front-siding a Deep Analysis is almost strictly worse than playing a Fact or Fiction. Deep Analysis is a sorcery whereas Fact or Fiction is an instant. Deep Analysis gives you two cards off the top whereas Fact or Fiction gives you an expected value of 2.5 cards. As long as you don’t care what they are, Fact or Fiction will give you three if not four cards every time; if you only get two cards – Or Even Just One — that means that Fact or Fiction probably played Demonic Tutor or thereabouts… and that is the interactive beauty of this card.

When to cast Fact or Fiction was a big deal. Rich Frangiosa was the first person to point out the biasing potential of playing Fact or Fiction with a “must counter” threat on the stack (at least to me). With sufficient mana and a counter in his hand, Rich would often play Fact or Fiction hoping to turn over a permission spell. His theory was that if there were, indeed, a counter in the top five, the opponent would be more likely to make poor piles (thinking that he could force Rich into taking a Counterspell pile in favor of a three- or even four-card stack). Frangiosa’s close friend John Shuler played his Fact or Fictions on his own turn much of the time, just to make sure they resolved against other Blue players.

But the most important element of this card was the split-making process itself. The example with Rich touches on this a little bit, but the interaction goes so much further.

The Darwin Kastle

While bulk drawing off the top is generally a non-interactive way to generate card advantage (what is the interactivity of a Concentrate?), during the Invasion Block Constructed tournaments of the summer of 2001, the Solomon element of Fact or Fiction allowed Darwin Kastle to breeze into one of his many Grand Prix Top 8s. Kastle innovated a technique that I have stolen, borrowed, and otherwise tried to use since I first heard of it. Basically the idea is to give your opponent a ridiculously juicy pile… in the hopes that he will take it. If you have a board advantage, especially with a beatdown deck, you can split Fact or Fiction 2 v. 3 [spells] or even 1 v. 4 or so such that an inferior opponent will take his three spell or four card pile… and put the Wrath of God he needs to win in the graveyard.

Fact or Fiction like Zvi!

The Psychology of Fact or Fiction: the Terry Soh

A [predecessor] corollary to the Kastle technique, Zvi once used a gorgeous double-bluff split to win a pivotal match at PT Chicago: 2000 on the way to one of his memorable PT Top 8s. At the first major event to feature Fact or Fiction, Zvi found himself ahead on the board, but up against a U/W control deck, generally a bad matchup for his G/R “My” Fires of Yavimaya. Worse yet, his opponent played Fact or Fiction and got the dreaded five spell FoF. Worst of all, these were the five spells:


Fact or Fiction


Story Circle

Wrath of God

Zvi’s opponent was pretty low – maybe at five or thereabouts, facing a Blastoderm. Zvi had a Jade Leech and another 1-2 threats in his hand. Given this information, how would you split if you were Zvi?







Zvi made an interesting split:



Story Circle


Fact or Fiction

Wrath of God

What does this split “say”? Typically, we run 2-3 splits with Fact or Fiction biasing the more powerful cards in the smaller pile. Zvi put the more devastating cards in the bigger pile.

Zvi says that U/W players over-value card drawing. Moreover, faced with a potentially lethal board, he wanted to make sure the opponent would notice that Wrath of God. He was pretty sure he could win if his opponent untapped and played Wrath of God, but if the opponent got Story Circle, all of his green creatures were meaningless. Zvi would need to actually resolve one of his two Reverent Silences or draw and resolve his Two-Headed Dragon (neither of which was high percentage).

The opponent did as he was bid and wiped Zvi’s board. The right play would have been to just take the bigger pile. Story Circle was bad enough, but Absorb’s life gain would also pull his opponent out of close range. It was only via superior psychology that Zvi was able to beat the mighty five spell FoF.

Connotative and Denotative Interaction

In the otherwise poorly thought out You CAN Play Type I #148: Trinisphere, and Does Fun in Type I Mean Interactivity?, Oscar Tan raises an important question regarding the interactivity of Counterspells. He actually quotes a previous article of mine, where I said “Counters are generally highly interactive cards (involving decisions based around the other player’s cards and predictions about what he might [be able to] do next), but in Rome, the ‘free’ nature of Force of Will made it perfect for forcing through a combo (in a room full of Force of Will). In certain decks, even Cabal Therapy is used in essentially the same manner as Grim Monolith, Dark Ritual, or: a cheap catalyst that facilitates an essentially non-interactive game plan down the line.”

Basically, here’s the short answer:

Counters are almost always interactive. That’s it. No matter what deck. Counters typically involve both players and almost always involve both players’ cards (it’s been eight years since someone countered his own Urza’s Bauble with an Arcane Denial).

The larger question regards the connotative interactivity of protecting a plan. Back at Dallas 1996, my first Pro Tour, I tested with a bunch of New Jersey pros for the first time. Before that point, I had only tested with Worth Wollpert or the kids from my local Ohio or Philadelphia stores. At Dallas, “Crazy” Mike Lucarello criticized me for countering his Wildfire Emissary. “You don’t counter creatures, you don’t sideboard into more counters.” The notion was that you had other cards to protect yourself from creatures in U/W, so when you burned your counters for that purpose, your own long game suffered. Whether or not the specific play was right, the idea came out of the oldest major text in Magic itself – Schools of Magic. In other words, using Counterspells to defend your plan (in my case a lock) was good, but using Counterspells to directly stop a threat was bad (contrast with Draw-Go).

Way back in Schools, Rob Hahn talked about the Weissman deck’s low counter count, which were properly used to supplement the Disrupting Scepter lock and to protect the fortress strategy’s many vital permanents. This is not a fundamentally different use than protecting a colony of rampaging Slivers or even Illusions of Grandeur + Donate. Fortress Control, Aggro-Control, and Combo can all use permission towards the same goals. This doesn’t speak at all to the nature of counters themselves.

Consider television. Just as permission is a subset of all Magic cards that can be used to promote a certain plan, television is a method of delivering media with audio and/or video components. Television can be used to indoctrinate via political propaganda, teach children how to spell, promote popular music, or deliver box scores. That a car commercial happens to be playing on my television while I write this sentence does not allow us to create a general rule that “television is about car commercials.”

Armed with this knowledge, let’s look at the examples from the previous paragraph:

The Deck:

The Deck was interactive. Besides its copious mana sources, The Deck’s card components were almost entirely reactive spells used to defend itself from hostile artifacts or creatures: Disenchant, Moat, Swords to Plowshares… Even The Deck’s win conditions – Serra Angel and Mirror Universe – had the defensive applications of blocking or life gain. That counters were used to protect the intricate puzzle of Weissman’s long game fortress from the opponent’s potentially interactive cards does not change the nature of this deck.

A modern application is Mike Clair’s Psychatog deck from last week’s PTQ report. Against Goblins, Mike was at the mercy of this terrible card Aether Vial. His precious Psychatog counters were not effective at defending his life. However he had the very hateful Engineered Plague. If he could set up double Engineered Plague, Mike was in good shape. Some unsportsmanlike Goblins players splashed Green in an effort to break out of Engineered Plague. Mike’s counters were very saucy against these individuals. Consider:

Engineered Plague – Interactive v. all Goblins

Naturalize – Interactive v. Engineered Plague

Counterspell – Interactive v. Naturalize


This deck was highly interactive. The deck had fewer interactive board control elements than The Deck, but its main plan was all about creating the right attacks and blocks. The deck was about penetrating with Winged Sliver, slugging it out with Acidic Sliver, and ultimately surviving with Hibernation Sliver. Creature Combat is highly interactive. The best limited players define themselves by correctly attacking and losing as little as possible with their blocks. Selection of attackers, how many creatures to leave back, how many to voluntarily lift via Hibernation Sliver, are all questions that feed into the greater battle for dominance of the Red Zone. Does the fact that the deck uses Duress, Counterspell, or Force of Will to interact favorably with the opponent’s Wrath of God change the fundamental nature of this deck?


The deck was almost entirely non-interactive. That it used counters (highly interactive) to force through its non-interactive game plan did not change the net interactivity of this deck.

Who’s the Beatdown 2K5?

1. Count your deck’s fundamental turn and your opponent’s deck’s fundamental turn.

2. If your deck goldfishes faster than your opponent’s, you must generally be the Beatdown and move to win while ignoring your slower opponent.

3. If your deck goldfishes slower than your opponent’s, you must generally be the Control and move to disrupt your faster opponent’s tempo.

The whole point of the original Who’s the Beatdown was to explain how to pick the right plan in similar deck fights. How can the above points teach you anything? One of the examples in Who’s the Beatdown contrasted Deadguy Red v. Pacifico Sligh.

Andrew Pacifico

4 Ball Lightning

1 Goblin Vandal

4 Jackal Pup

4 Mogg Fanatic

4 Mogg Flunkies

3 Suq’ata Lancer

2 Viashino Sandstalker

3 Cursed Scroll

4 Fireblast

4 Incinerate

4 Shock

2 Sonic Burst

17 Mountain

4 Wasteland


3 Mogg Maniac

3 Nevinyrral’s Disk

3 Price of Progress

3 Pyroblast

3 Spellshock

David Price

4 Ball Lightning

4 Fireslinger

4 Ironclaw Orcs

4 Jackal Pup

4 Mogg Fanatic

4 Cursed Scroll

4 Fireblast

2 Hammer of Bogardan

4 Incinerate

4 Shock

1 Sonic Burst

17 Mountain

4 Wasteland


4 Bottle Gnomes

3 Dwarven Miners

1 Dwarven Thaumaturgist

1 Firestorm

4 Pyroblast

1 Torture Chamber

1 Shattering Pulse

(It is important to note that the idea of a Fundamental Turn did not appear for almost a year after Who’s the Beatdown.) But anyway, how can the Tan bullets teach you anything when These Decks Have The Same Fundamental Turn? Basically Dave, with more burn, more Cursed Scrolls, and less short term explosive damage, correctly played for a long game in beating Pacifico.

An even clearer example, drawn from the days of the article’s first publication, is Maher era Draw-Go v. Counter-Oath. Can we even talk about these decks in relation to one another in terms of Fundamental Turn? It’s obvious to anyone who knows the matchup that Maher Oath has to play beatdown, but that role is not directly related to its usual fundamental turn of two. When Bob Maher took game one from Jon Finkel at Grand Prix: Philadelphia, it was all about resolving Sylvan Library and Abundance exactly one turn before Jon had all his answers on-line… almost like a combo deck would. In a typical game, Draw-Go would feed Dust Bowl with Thawing Glaciers and eventually win a Morphling shootout (even if Oath had previously resolved) just because it had more lands in play. This had nothing to do with who had the faster goldfish. In fact, Oath, an infinite deck due to Gaea’s Blessing and life gain, could be said to have had a longer long game than Draw-Go. That didn’t stop it from correctly assuming the beatdown.



Bonus Section: Interacting with Math

In his most recent article, Mike Clair started a message board grassfire talking about the technique of picking random cards and whether to stay on track or switch.

Let me start by saying that Mike misrepresented what I said by a pretty wide margin.

From my perspective in returning from Boston, I was interested in figuring out the proper technique from the side of the person who is playing the card with the random element, specifically Cursed Scroll. Two incidents brought this up, and one sort of solves the other. The more important one was a series of three card Cursed Scroll activations in the Josh Ravitz v. Ben Dempsey matchup. The game state had Dempsey on six life for quite a while and Josh sitting on a Cursed Scroll and two Seals of Fire. Josh had a minimum of three turns to hit with his Cursed Scroll before he died to a Meddling Mage (and had he played slightly differently, could have had a fourth look, albeit with four cards in hand). As it happened, Josh missed all three three card Cursed Scrolls. Josh wanted to buy another turn and used one of the Seals on the Mage one turn before topdecking a potentially lethal Volcanic Hammer; he subsequently died to a Silver Knight.

Josh switched his card on activations two and three; after missing all three shots, he asked me if this was right. Personally, I think that it’s right to always name the same card. The reason is that you give away less information (I also made a math objection but it wasn’t actually based on changing probabilities and was quite possibly wrong… I need McKenna to explain it to me better and I’m pretty sure I didn’t describe it well enough to Mike, Steve, and Zev).

But I was definitely not saying anything about what someone from the “guessing” side should do, which is where Clair’s misrepresentation comes in. After the weekend of Grand Prix: Boston, I am sure you should always use dice and not let the opponent guess anyway (Josh used dice)… It’s like shuffling your opponents every time or changing sleeves every day. Not everybody does it, but it’s just good form. In a match I lost, I missed with a two-card Cursed Scroll where I definitely signaled my opponent with my eyes. He wasn’t very good but I think he was able to read me the game when I held one card in each hand, looked directly at the one in my right, and mouthed “Sulfuric Vortex.” Not surprisingly, his eyes brightened as he pointed at the card in my left hand. If I had run dice, I might not have won the tournament, but if I had hit with the Scroll, I would have won that game.