Michaelj Monday – The Breakdown of Theory

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Last week, Flores Friday made way for the return of Zvi Mowshowitz. In this Michaelj Monday, Flores presents a bold new framework to redefining and understanding Magic theory. Is everything we’ve read and learned to this point wrong? It’s not the Grand Unified Theory of Magic: The Gathering, but it’s the closest thing we’ve got.

This is a framework for Magic theory that I have been working on for a little over a year. It isn’t perfect (meaning that it isn’t exhaustive at present), but I believe it to be better at describing the progression to duels than any other working theory at this point. I currently believe the game to be broken down into three broad, progressive phases, each with its particular traits and rules: Phase I, when you are basically manascrewed; Phase II, which is mostly defined by errors; and Phase III, the so-called Trump Mode (I will explain each in greater detail). Most if not all decks begin a game in Phase I, and many – though enlighteningly, not all – would progress to Phase III if they were not pre-empted and defeated by their opponents, given sufficient draw steps and land drops. Briefly…

Phase I (Basically Manascrewed)

Phase I is defined by any point(s) in the game that exist before crossing the Minimum Game Threshold. For our purposes, the Minimum Game Threshold is a mana point where a deck can reasonably operate (interact, make plays, “play Magic,” etc, though not necessarily dictate the field of battle). Though it obviously varies from format to format and deck to deck, the Minimum Game Threshold for most beatdown decks is two mana, and for most control decks is four mana (you will generally see bigger mana requirements the smaller the format). Think about it: Even in big and diverse formats, the Boros-Zoo school needs at least two lands to make use of its best cards (Tarmogoyf, Lightning Helix, etc), and even 12-16 “Jackal Pup” decks can’t really get by on one mana (Kird Ape is quite unplayable without Forest, and if you choose Stomping Ground, you can’t play Isamaru or Savannah Lions). Conversely, such a deck will benefit from four mana (Jitte + equip, certain functional trumps such as Flametongue Kavu, Loxodon Hierarch, or Fledgling Dragon), but it’s really two mana where these decks can spend most of their hands… even if that doesn’t necessarily mean dropping an entire hand in one turn. Four mana has been the universal mana flashpoint for Standard control decks for as long as I’ve been playing: Less than four mana and a control deck can realistically counter more than once per turn only against a sloppy, blind, or wildly inexperienced pressure player; it is conveniently also the mana cost of Wrath of God, Mutilate, Damnation, Nevinyrral’s Disk, etc.

For most of the last decade, control decks have lowered a large portion of their curves in order to stay in the game at least somewhat before they have four mana. If both decks are slow on drops early (assuming beatdown versus control) it is easy to see why beatdown should be advantaged. Beatdown only needs two mana to do most of what it has to do whereas control is a scatterbrained wreck before four; as such, control has added Force Spike, Spell Snare, etc, as well as numerous two mana response cards of varying efficacy, joined only by the fact that they are cheap and sometimes effective (and sometimes not… like Mana Leak in the late game).

What will be obvious to some readers is that allotting for this part of the game necessarily makes participating control decks more draw dependant and less consistent in the early game, and in fact throughout the game. Because some cards exist for no other reason that the control deck needs to be able to play something before it can cast Wrath of God makes many of those pulls dead, later on. Consider topdecking Force Spike on turn 15.

Phase III: The Trump Mode

Phase III is a special point that exists for some decks where that deck is actively dictating the field of battle and only a small subset of the opponent’s cards still matter. For those decks, getting to Phase III is really what they are all about; if left unchecked for a turn or so (again, varies format-to-format… some decks will continue to dictate the field of battle for seven to ten turns after establishing Phase III), they basically win.

I first encountered Phase III Magic in the summer of 2000, playing Masques Block Constructed. Keep in mind that the format was initially (and in large part, ultimately) defined by Rebel decks. The first and second weeks of the PTQ season, I played with Rebel Informer, which was kind of a false trump, initially effective but not best. Rebel Informer was good enough for most opponents, but was itself trumped by Mageta the Lion. “Card advantage” as I understood it at that point broke down. All the raw cards I had stockpiled with Rebel Informer washed away under the potential / ostensible “card disadvantage” of Mageta. Mageta would sometimes drop two cards to deal with nothing more than a Chimeric Idol… It took me a while to understand it, but card advantage and most card interactions simply ceased in the Mageta-defined Trump Mode. The reason, to reiterate, is that Mageta was dictating the field of battle; its limit was simply the number of cards in hand (specifically having two cards in hand at any time versus whatever the upper limit of the opponent’s board was). Until Mageta was removed, the opponent White deck simply could not win; therefore, only cards that removed Mageta (or theoretically against a sloppy player) out-lasting Mageta, were the only viable paths.

The next PTQ builds sought to play four copies of Mageta (obviously) to try to outnumber the initial 0-2 Mageta builds; the next after that sought to maximize the number of cards that mattered in the last zone of the game. In went Story Circle (to buy time, plus Mageta sometimes attacked), Afterlife (kill your Mageta, drop my own), etc, and ultimately cards to supplement Mageta in the Trump Mode (Blinding Angel) or protect one or both (Cho-Manno’s Blessing).

The Trump Mode differs from the imprecise “end game” specifically in that the trumping player is actively defining the field of battle and only a few cards matter on the opponent’s part… If you want to succeed in a particular format, special attention must be paid to specifically those cards. Masashiro Kuroda was able to win a Pro Tour specifically because he played a kind of deck that could win after his opponent functionally won (Nassif resolving Tooth and Nail)… not easy. Kami of Ancient Law is a prime example of a card that fills this kind of position in modern Extended; not only is the Kami functional even after the Enduring Ideal opponent has already “gotten there,” it works even when locked under Dovescape! You may remember some old Pro Tour coverage from Onslaught Block Venice when one Slide player asks Zvi Mowshowitz (who was playing a Slide) how to beat the unexpected Beasts-Bidding deck, and Zvi dismisses him, saying that he simply does not have the tools (more on this later).

The most impressive Standard deck in recent memory is Heezy Red Fever (the Herberholz / Chapin / Nassif Dragonstorm combo deck). Note that when this deck “goes for it,” it is pretty difficult to beat for multiple reasons, the most compelling being that the number of tools the opponent has to interact are pretty narrow. Dragonstorm is a powerful multi-pronged assault that attacks the opponent from several disparate angles simultaneously. The method for activating the game-ending Spinerock Knoll is both mana efficient and proactive (a Red Deck wants to deal seven to the face, the cheaper the better), and even if all else fails, the opponent is going to be put precariously into a multiple must-counter scenario against the Dragonstorm deck’s burn (not dissimilar to the Zoo Phase III, discussed below); when the Knoll itself fires, it will ideally do so with Storm of three or greater, so that even most reactive Blue spells are unimpressive or completely ineffective. However, not all Blue spells fall under this umbrella. Numerous good players have brainstormed about what kinds of cards, specifically, would function even as Dragonstorm approaches its unique Trump Mode. Note that they are very specific: That’s how this point in the game works.

1. Pestermite – Tap Spinerock Knoll just before the seventh damage resolves. Usually the opponent won’t have enough mana to make up the lost damage and activate the Knoll. This is a subtly card advantageous play.

2. Mistbind Clique – As above.

3. Trickbind – You can actually Trickbind the Knoll, pocketing the good will of the critical mass the opponent spent to get there. You can also Trickbind the spell under the Knoll, working under the assumption that it is a Dragonstorm or other Storm spell… but it might be a Hellkite or something other than a Storm spell, so be careful.

For some decks, Phase III is a state of mind as much as a specific subset of cards (or phase in the game). Remember two years ago when Josh Ravitz created a general rule for beatdown versus control in Standard: The more burn a deck played, the better it was against control (and, theoretically, the worse against creatures). Half the equation was that less reliance on creatures mean that a deck was less specifically vulnerable to Wrath of God (control’s best ace); however, for purpose of Phase III, the beatdown decks could narrow the number of relevant cards in the opposing deck with each play. Why? Superficially, it is easier to deal with a creature in the short term than a burn spell: You can stiffly counter it; you can Wrath it dead; you can Remand or Repeal it for velocity and tempo, then and decide to deal with it later (if you wish); you can profit from it with a Faith’s Fetters; you can put a Dragon in front of it and laugh it off later. However, a burn spell… You can only counter it. Now of course there is nothing that says that you have to deal with every threat the opposing deck presents, one at a time. However, the structure of the burn heavy beatdown decks of that era was to try to get 10 in with creatures and win with burn. At some point every burn spell becomes a must-counter because it is going to kill you… Remember, you can only stop these cards with counters, so if you run out of counters, you lose. Additionally, certain classes of counters get worse and worse as the game progresses. Remand is a poor answer to Shock or Lightning Helix, and Rewind is a dangerous response if the opponent has any additional cards in hand. The successful Blue decks of the Honolulu Standard era therefore chose not to interact on this level, specifically, at all. The various permission decks used their counters in Phase II (see below) for tempo and tried to go Trump Mode themselves… Niv-Mizzet + untap for the kill (Wafo-Tapa), Keiga / Meloku + untap into Blaze (Lebedowicz), or Heartbeat combo kill (Bracht).

Less superficially, beatdown played with Flames of the Blood Hand. This card was specifically a slam dunk against Loxodon Hierarch, Faith’s Fetters, and similar measures designed to interact defensively and functionally delay the beatdown opponent’s Trump Mode (c.f. Herberholz crapping all over the typical Beach House strategies).

Phase II: Mostly Errors

Think about it. If Phase I is largely draw-dependant and defined by not having sufficient mana, and Phase III is a special point in the game where the player in Trump Mode is increasingly if not automatically likely to win (and the receiving player has precious few options to stay alive, let alone win), where and when are most of the decisions in a game made? Where is skill?

The answer is Phase II, which is “mostly defined by errors.” Phase II is typically the longest part of the game. It encompasses everything in between first not being manascrewed, then actually winning, that is, a lot. Have you ever mis-tapped your mana? You probably did that in Phase II (in Phase I you might not have had the option to tap much better; Phase III you have so much mana that even if you erred, it probably didn’t cost you much flexibility). Have you ever made a bad attack or block? Phase II. The best Magic players are defined by three characteristics: They 1) preserve their options as the game progresses, 2) make better short term decisions (that is, they tend not to toss away games in hand so as to consistently “win the games they are supposed to”), and 3) (historically) have better mental games and can steal value or games with bluffs, intimidation, and pre-emptively dictating the field of battle. Because you can’t actually play any better than the natural limit dictated by the boundaries of the game, that means that the scale goes down, not up.

Out-playing an opponent is mostly making fewer errors than he does, and secondarily not falling for traps. There aren’t any outstanding, superhuman, plays in Magic. There are only the right plays (and not falling for the bait). As with taste, there is consistency and deviation. Sometimes the right plays can be made with a bit of acting behind them, and the opponent walks into a trap or otherwise fumbles. That interplay, to a degree, describes a good part of the mental game… But we are all still bound by the cards we draw, among the cards in our decks. Good – or more importantly, bad – play is dictated by how we use those cards. And mostly, during the second Phase of duel progression, we mostly screw up.

In Phase I we are bound by inherent scarcity; we don’t have a lot of room to wiggle around, to err. In Phase III, our plays are largely dictated to us by circumstance (and from the other side of the table, we might not have a lot of options… we’re just as much on autopilot). Therefore the majority of our bad reads, bad taps, and bad tutor decisions occur in Phase II. Phase II is also the best part of the game. Card advantage matters most in Phase II. Everything we’ve learned about trading for value, stealing cards, and forcing down key permanents against resistance only matter in Phase II. It is where we win all of our attrition fights. It is where we slam down fatties to effectively Moat the onrushing swarm of the opposing beatdown deck. It is where we figure out our margins, attack, hope for the best, and that we might see a little patch of daylight in Phase III.

I would guess that most of the disdain non-Eternal players have for, say, Vintage is that so little of the format exists in Phase II (whereas the vast majority of important decisions in Magic elsewhere occur in Phase II). “Degenerate” formats can jump from a minimum resource base directly to the end game. For many of these, the entirety of Phase II sometimes occurs over half of one turn. Therefore the Planeswalker-a-Planeswalker interplay between champion and challenger is radically truncated. With fewer opportunities to meaningfully err, the window to out-play the opponent can become essentially meaningless.

Does this mean there is no player interaction?


That’s the point of interaction, and why it is so meaningless in many Eternal matchups.

The essential core of interaction is not turn suppression as it has been historically characterized, but Phase suppression. There are two basic goals in Magic, interactively to push the opponent into a lower Phase (where he has fewer if any relevant interactions), or to rocket to later Phases. In Vintage or Legacy, because Phase II is so short (as little as half a turn), skill becomes less specifically important when one player is in Phase III and the other is in Phase I. Remember, only very few cards matter interactively in Phase III… How can likely is it for a player who is essentially manascrewed to meaningfully interact?

Bob Maher is a good model for Legacy play. Last week, at the World Championships, he played a two land Belcher deck that sought to essentially win on the first turn. Bob would just mulligan until he had a hand that could win on the first turn… If he couldn’t get there (or at least de facto get there) he just wouldn’t win. Maher won eight games, not one of which consisted of action beyond the second turn. Bob’s less impressive wins were all 14 Goblins on the first turn!

Think about this: As early as the first turn, Bob goes from being completely manascrewed (0-1 land) to an explosive sequence of events culminating in Empty the Warrens or a lethal Goblin Charbelcher. With essentially no bluff coming from his side of the table, the extent of The Great One’s skill was counting whether or not he had it, the extent of the opponent’s interaction – remember the opponent would almost always be stuck in Phase I in games this short – would be whether or not he had Force of Will (less than 50% raw, provided he was meaningfully Blue); even with Force of Will, that card would have had to be correctly placed, and might be meaningless if the finisher was Empty the Warrens rather than Goblin Charbelcher. To my knowledge there was only one game where the opponent had a relevant choice… and he blew it. This opponent, playing a B/G/W Pikula-Junk variant had the option of playing second turn Gaddock Teeg, which would have been a soft lock against Bob’s critical fours… But he instead went for Dark Confidant. Who hasn’t dreamed of cracking Bob Maher with Bob Maher? The Hall of Famer showed him what happens on a mis-step the next turn.

Some Eternal proponents will say that this is simply a different test of skill, that that one legitimate decision (which realistically occurs only once out of a certain number of games depending on the relative speed and degeneracy of a format) is much more important than most if not all of the innumerable small decisions that Standard and Limited players make each game, and that there is an added pressure to that one decision, that it has to be right whereas players in smaller formats can enjoy a buffet of small errors with no short term consequences. I would counter that there is a richness to being able to play out of mistakes and that a consistent finality to having only one decision can cut off a whole, and largely unexplored, branch of execution. Gabriel Nassif, who many pundits put as the #3 player of all time, ahead of Maher, has essentially made a career playing as Magic’s response to poker sensation Daniel Negreanu. Nassif has supplemented a very real position as one of the best deck designers of the modern era (and almost unquestionably the best during his most active term as the Player of the Year) with a rare ability to play out of errors that would crack the frames and sink the games of mentally less talented Pros. While pundits with a little knowledge are quick to point out Nassif’s high profile errors, few remember that unlike most people in his position, Papa Hat almost uniquely pulls out to win from these mistakes, more often than not.

Some Phase-specific Analyses of Existing Techniques:

The most important broad applications of Phase-specific theory are that 1) successful interaction is largely based in suppressing the opponent’s ability to reach the next Phase, 2) most “broken” strategies are based on accelerating “prematurely” to a supernormal Phase, and 3) most interactive cards are effective only during one or two phases. Consider…


I am a big proponent of “consistency” as a deck design trait, which is something that I got from Jon Finkel and Dave Price, sometimes to a fault. I will generally err on the consistency side of the consistency/power equation, especially mana consistency. Why would I do that? What is the core of this ideal?

Consistency, specifically mana consistency, is about one thing: breaching the Minimum Game Threshold. Think about a five-color Sunburst Domain deck. It is very powerful in Phase II, and given cards like Global Ruin or big basher bombs like Bringer of the Blue Dawn armored up with Sword of Fire and Ice or Umezawa’s Jitte (that Blue bastard has Trample!) can probably dictate the direction of the game come Phase III. However, one of the potential failings of a deck based on playing one Swamp, one Plains, etc, is its ability to get out of Phase I! Imagine, in Phase II, your power level is probably unchallenged in a format. You can Mana Leak for five with two lands, you can play any kind of foe hammering interactive cards from Pernicious Deed to Destructive Flow, you can halt all attacks with Collective Restraint (effectively locking a beatdown deck in Phase II where you are golden) and all your drops can be Etched Oracles and Loxodon Hierarchs into Bringers or Mindslavers… But you can also look at an ostensibly “good” two- or three-land hand – with a Sakura-Tribe Elder – and still be completely unable to make a meaningful play inside of ten cards.

Mana consistency is about getting to the point where you can make reasonably effective plays. For most beatdown decks, that is two carefully selected lands; for most control decks, it can be a pretty average four. For some kind of profligate bombs deck… who knows? This axis of Magic design is largely a balance between Phase I and Phase III. The reason I prefer to err on Phase I is that at the level where I usually play, given room to choose, bluff, trade, and interact, I tend to have the tools to out-play the competition. However, because win percentages in Magic are dictated by decks and not players (players, mistakes, manascrew, luck and so on act on the exterior win percentages dictated by a matchup), this can cost me in the later stages of Phase II going into the last, if I come up short on power.

Recently I advocated a Gold deck that had very solid matchups against the best decks in the current Extended environment. I knew how I could lose, and that was to be “out mid-ranged” by other Rock-reminiscent decks (a common theme for some of my Extended strategies, beating the top and the bottom but potentially collapsing against slower decks with better attrition capabilities near the middle). I ended up going 0-2 at the Worlds Extended PTQ losing to a Loam deck (last year’s best deck that I didn’t consider viable any more, but was probably my worst matchup) that simply out-drew me, and an Aggro Rock deck that was able to pluck the last Putrefy against my Spiritmonger while holding off the ground with a Troll Ascetic. It is important to note that my deck had no natural Phase III capability.

Life Gain:

Life gain has gone from completely unplayable to thought of as a kind of card advantage to some kind of strange bullet capacity tossed in as an afterthought in modern mid-range decks.

I was at the forefront of calling life gain a kind of card advantage, cribbing the theory from Mike Donais about nine years ago and fitting it into my pet theories such as the Philosophy of Fire subsequent to that. I now think that a more precise framework is this:

Life gain is largely irrelevant (not far from the original assessment), the same as taking lots of damage from your lands is largely irrelevant. That is because most matchups are strategic blowouts. If you win, you can win by 50 given sufficient turns. When life gain matters (I mean outside of mattering in the sense that we always want to preserve clean play and minimize mistakes), it is 1) in a thin margin matchup, probably mid-range versus mid-range, that threatens to be decided in the latter stages of Phase II rather than proceeding to Phase III; or 2) as a measure to keep a beatdown / burn deck out of Phase III.

Beatdown / burn decks want to get into Phase II and get out while the opponent is trying to win short term card advantage exchanges, move to Phase III to the face while the opponent is tapped. The advantage that the beatdown typically has in Phase II is that it gets there two turns or more much quicker than the other guy… The beatdown’s goal is not to stay in Phase II, where it can lose on card advantage and wrong-sided attrition exchanges. Particularly precarious is the potential for a life gain loss at this stage, never getting to Phase III (We actually had an inkling of the truth, even ten years ago; in playtesting, Dan Bridy used to say “Time Walk your graveyard,” when he played Gerrard’s Wisdom against Deadguy Red).

Obviously, persistent life gain from a Firemane in Phase II is frustrating to play against for a beatdown deck from a card advantage perspective. The Boros / Zoo / victim opponent has to constantly recalculate his game plan with the concentration of Jon Finkel at the blackjack table in order to eke out a win… But the concrete value is how the Firemane Angel keeps the opponent stuck in Phase II while the control can advance his position to a superior Phase II where it can define the field of battle, or even move to Phase III. The whole “deal ‘ten‘ with creatures” goes to 12 to 15 to 30 against a Firemane Angel and some Lightning Helixes, until the burn damage horizon threatens to disappear altogether.

I recall my one loss at New York States 2006 was to a Solar Flare variant played by eventual Grand Prix semifinalist Max Tietze. I missed a couple of Firemane Angel points and he pushed, winning on exactly lethal damage. Had I bought as much as two turns with my binned Angel, I would have been able to halt a good deal of Max’s tempo with a sweeper, and punished his Phyrexian Totem with a pair of Lightning Helixes (I know the timing). Max’s deck had no legitimate Phase III offense, but mine did. He got me before I could get there; the low margin Firemane Angel was a tool, not unlike a Remand or Repeal, to hold the ground while I advanced Phases.


I lost a key matchup at the beginning of Day 2 of Bob Maher’s PT: Chicago to Jay Elarar. Jay was playing Replenish and I was playing PT Junk. In Game 3 I was a bit mana shy and couldn’t do more than one thing per turn, but I had enough disruption to keep him from killing me while I tried to figure out what to do next. Jay actually countered my Tithe, so I was stuck on one Scrubland[/author]“][author name="Scrubland"]Scrubland[/author] for Black. I had to decide whether to Duress him or sit back on Ebony Charm, supposing he was going to topdeck Replenish. I went for the consistent play and Duressed him.

Obviously Jay topdecked the Replenish. While he didn’t get me that turn, the advantage he generated was enough to eke it out over the course of the next couple of turns.

What went wrong?

Discard (and the ill-defined “disruption” in general) is the most important place where theory can break down when not examined with a Phase-specific lens. You see, I had been trained by Chris Pikula to believe that aggression and discard was the best possible strategy for beating combo. There are numerous problems with this blanket concept that I didn’t understand in 1999-2000.

1. Discard is only worthwhile in Phases I and II.

Our typical play, especially on the play in Game 1 situations, is to play Duress on the first turn. This is the autopilot play that can dictate the remainder of the match, but it isn’t actually correct, strategically, especially in non-Game 1 situations. We do it because Duress costs one, which is how much mana we have on turn 1. When I was winning a lot of tournaments with Napster and The Rock, I trained myself not to blow my Duresses too early so that I could break Energy Field or actually pre-empt combo on a turn that it would matter instead of just taking a tutor like I would on turn 1. Discard has a couple of unique properties as a disruptive strategy. The most important one is that discard actually gets better as the game progresses (the opponent has a better chance of drawing the card you actually want to pull), but it also has a steep dropoff in effectiveness. It is completely useless in Phase III situations; while it gets progressively better throughout Phase II, if you let the opponent actually get to Phase III you’ll probably just lose.

2. Discard can’t actually stop the opponent from topdecking.

Alan Comer tried to explain this to me after my loss to Elarar, but I mis-read his statement and tried to explain why his ripping Replenish there was low percentage; Alan actually made no judgment as to whether the play was right, he was trying to say that the play was not going to save me from a specific topdeck, whereas Ebony Charm might have.

This feeds into a very important sequence of theories regarding the maximization of Phase I and Phase II interactive play. Discard – and to a lesser degreeany Phase I and Phase II attrition or disruption – is only valuable insofar that it can keep the opponent in Phase II (or less) while you actually set up to win the game. It’s not discard that is great against combo, it’s discard and aggression. You need to actually kill the opponent, not just set him back a card. I think this is the second most lethal strategic problem players make beyond not realizing the Phase-specific efficacy of discard in general.

As a corollary, I would illustrate with two different games I had against Julian Levin in 2005-2006. The first one was in the finals of New York States, Jushi Blue 74-card mirror. Julian got me on turn 2 with Jushi Apprentice or Boomerang on the play, and buried me in Relentless Card Advantage (see below). He won the game and won the State Championship. We met in a preliminary match at the NAC, White Wafo-Tapa 75-card mirror (trying to block Paul Jordan into a slot). Once again, Julian got me with the turn 2 Boomerang and turn 3 Boomerang, but this time I was able to out-play him and eventually decked him via a brilliantly executed Phase II trap. Julian drew extra and tried to lock me with Debtors’ Knell, essentially Phase III in this matchup. I Hindered his Yosei to the bottom and “let him win,” which resulted in an infinite Keiga loop (Debtors’ Knell is not optional) so that he could never get power in play. At that point I just saved all my counters for his two remaining Boomerangs. This matchup lacked the Jushi Apprentices of our previous Blue mirror, meaning that while we had strong draw cards, there was no Relentless Card Advantage per se.

In one case, Julian was able to completely dominate Phase II, using short term card and mana advantages to jockey into a nearly inviolate position. In the second case, there was no such dominating Phase II strategy, and he was unable to execute Phase III despite a similar opening on the play. To put it another way, while he assaulted my Phase short term, he had to threat of force to follow it up – discard without the appropriate aggression.

This is something that I have experienced too many times over the years due to inaccurate application of theory, and I’m sure you have experienced the same frustrations with your forays into Black decks: Attrition, in and of itself, is a poor strategy for dealing with broken cards.

Trading at value only works while you are not being trumped. You can be ahead on all metrics, cards, mana, life, board position… And it can all fall apart with one topdeck. I remember the G/W deck from Regionals and Nationals 2004 (where it did great)… and how soft the Goblin Bidding matchup was (and to a lesser extent Tooth and Nail and just Decree of Justice). The G/W deck could be burying a Goblins deck… But the worse it seemed for the Goblins, the worse the resulting Patriarch’s Bidding was going to be for G/W! Think about it. This is going to be homework for me because so much of my design strategies are based on winning attrition fights. You gotta keep those bastards out of Phase III.

The Nature of Interactivity

I have hinted throughout this article that the nature of interactivity is to suppress the opponent’s Phase. There are matchups where one deck is stronger than the other in Phase II. For those, it is often enough to keep the opponent in Phase II while out-classing him in Phase II (how Firemane Control realizes its life gain advantage against Zoo). In other matchups, especially against combo decks, it is important to keep the opponent out of Phase III. As these sorts of opponents often have no Phase II, your Phase II is essentially trump (such as how the Gold deck keeps broken decks locked down with Gaddock Teeg while attacking with 3/3s and 0/5s).

Interactivity fails, and theory as a whole tends to fail, when Phase suppression fails (or fails to yield an exploitable delta). Think about Suicide Black strategies against Sligh strategies. What is the nature of the Suicide Black interaction? Duress? Huzzah! Can Black firebomb Red into the stone age of Phase I? Duress ends up being terrible because Red is aces when both decks are in Phase II. Black historically gets its ass kicked.

There tend to be three sweeping schools of disruptive interactive strategies that are any good (following are examples rather than archetypes):

1. 8StoneRain.dec / KarstenBot BabyKiller (first turn accelerator into second turn Stone Rain):

This is a double whammy. Subtly, the active light land destruction deck moves directly into deep Phase II play from the second and third turns while firebombing the opponent below Phase I. A follow-up of Ohran Viper or Giant Solifuge is often just it (especially against control). The control is hopeless to reach Phase II competition whereas the active deck might get all the way to Phase III Demonfire.

2. Napster / silver bullet (monolithic Phase III suppression backed up by threat of force):

As above, the Gold deck as a fine modern example (in particular matchups). Gaddock Teeg keeps Dread Return, Balancing Act, or Enduring Ideal from resolving (or Gifts Ungiven, Fact or Fiction, Wrath of God, or simply Repeal for some particularly sad Phase II suppression). The active deck rules Phase II with 5/5s while continually hassling with Duress, Unmask, Gerrard’s Verdict, manipulation, and a little card drawing. The real bullet is the fact that the opponent can’t get to a Phase of the game that matters, the discard and tutoring in Phase II just keep the opponent from assembling the tools he needs to undo the initial bullet.

3. Trix (Aggression and Disruption):

Probably the Suicide Black strategy taken to its furthest possible extreme, Trix was the best deck because it could spend Phase II shelling the opponent into the fetal position and then win in a 1-2 turn window (often with Phase III defense like Force of Will as well). Full-on Trix was the complete and utter master of Phase-based Magic. It advanced its own Phase prematurely with false land drops via Mana Vault, Dark Ritual, and Mox Diamond; it fought other decks at any Phase with Duress, Unmask, and Force of Will, and its life gain kept beatdown decks hopelessly out of their planned end games. I think we all understood at some level that Trix was the model. Phase-based Magic allows us to isolate the reasons why.

When Zvi said that his Slide-brother didn’t have the cards to beat Beasts-Bidding, the sideboard option he was referring to was Stoic Champion. This card didn’t seek to suppress Beasts-Bidding’s Phase III… Zvi thought the best option was to strategically end the game before it got to that point.

Some Phase-specific Takeaways based on this framework:

Theory is only as valuable as is applicability to real-life Magic, and bad theory can be worse for players than bad plays. I hope that you have already identified some chinks in your theoretical framework, your specific card decisions, and maybe why you lost some key games recently just from reading thus far. I have to thank you for giving me the opportunity to write this article. I have had this framework tucked into the back of my head for more than a year, but actually putting even this preliminary article to [digital] paper has made so many things more clear to me, including decisions that are not even a week old.

Phase I:

Defensive Deck Speed: I consider this principle one of the cornerstones of my arsenal as a deck developer. I try to make control decks faster, early, so that they can get to the difficult work of defining the field of battle against beatdown in Phase II rather than being overrun in the early parts of Phase II, before they’ve even gotten there. Example: I put Volcanic Hammer in Pat Chapin’s Korlash sideboard.

As I said earlier in this article, I concentrate most in the templating process on bridging Phase I to Phase II for control.

Phase II:

Relentless Card Advantage: This is a special case of Phase II Magic that acts like Phase III Magic in some matchups. A classic example is a resolved Jushi Apprentice in the Jushi Blue mirror. The Jushi Apprentice isn’t killing you. You can probably make some kind of headway in terms of the field of battle, but your ability to define much of anything erodes as the Jushi Apprentice continues to draw cards. The Ohran Viper in KarstenBot BabyKiller bridges Relentless Card Advantage and active misdirection. The Viper makes most opponents go completely apespit with worry (he draws into more Skreds and more land destruction) but the real Phase III is Demonfire. I suppose murdering every permanent to keep the opponent in the dregs of Phase II (if not Phase I) while ruling the board is pretty lethal, too.

The Mannequin deck is a Relentless Card Advantage deck. It never really gets to Phase III on sheer threat quality, but Mannequin, when operating properly (especially the Grim Harvest versions) with infinite Mournwhelks against control, Bottle Gnomes against beatdown, and Mulldrifters against everybody outnumbers the opponent in Phase II to an oppressive degree.

Phase III:

I used to roll my eyes when I read or heard someone make a comment detracting a deck based on “card power.” Card power is such a meaningless thing to talk about. A deck whose main claim to fame is that it is “broken” is meaningless. I actually think these are stupid things to think about, let alone arguments to make. Brian Kowal and I used to wink at each other over how our not-broken decks beat “their” broken decks so easily.

I still think that making assessments on card power and “brokenness” are pretty stupid because they don’t mean anything. Decks like The Rock can be right because they are powerful enough while keeping the opponent out of Phase III with a Spike Feeder and a Duress, maybe a well-placed Emerald Charm, or just leaving a Pernicious Deed in play with four open. Decks like the Gold deck are not themselves broken – some would say “under-powered” – but they spit all over broken decks with their four mana spells.

I believe that there is a best deck to play for every tournament, and that it is almost never the deck that most people, even people “in the know” think is the best to play. Look at Worlds last week: It’s pretty obvious which the best Standard deck to play was, and 96+% of the tournament, including all the Japanese superstars and most of the high q-rating deck building gurus in the world, would have given you the wrong answer. In this case, it was one of the most powerful decks, but that is not usually the case. Dredge is one of the most powerful strategies, consistently, in formats where it is legal; it has basically never been the right deck to play, statistically (I think even Sti’s second place at his Nationals required a lot of things to go right for him). [Orcish bloody Librarian. — Craig, still bitter.]

All that said, I decided to re-think some of the broad strategies that I have embraced over the past couple of years. Most of my Green Extended decks have something in common: Even when they have solid Phase III suppression, basically none of them have real Phase III power (unless you count Eternal Dragon trumping Aggro-Flow, which happened basically every time). By contrast, when I was one of the more successful Standard deck designers, my decks had both rich Defensive Deck Speed and legitimate Phase III play. Threads of Disloyalty and Remand were supplemented by tapping out for Keiga. Lightning Helix and Firemane Angel bought time for Hellbent Demonfire.

There is still a balance to be hand, but this last part is homework for me.


PS – Only now do I realize that “Phase” was a terrible word to use for this theoretical framework given that we already have “phases” in Magic. Sorry about that. —MJLaMoAHS