Miracles And Archetypes

Check out Ari Lax’s opinion of miracle, a new mechanic in the upcoming set Avacyn Restored. He also answers key questions in the ongoing definitions of archetypes (e.g., aggro-control) debate. Get ready for Avacyn Restored!

My checklists of formats to write about has been dwindling lately. Modern, the format I’ve spent the most time on as of late, is now out of season. Legacy, well, everyone knows my thoughts on most of Legacy. When I can find a playset of Candelabras and the willpower to not set my hands on fire while playing with them, I might have more opinions on High Tide, but that’s about it. Larry already wrote about the Frites list I like for Standard (now featuring the post-board plan of play all the good cards and figure out colors later), and Draft is a lame duck format.

(Aside 1: Played the last Modern PTQ of the year in Chicago with Faeries. The loss of Bitterblossom takes a lot of the sting out of your four-drop Time Walks, and you’re now an extremely fair deck. You can no longer just steal games off midrange engine decks with a slew of tempo. You can still beat up on linear decks and control, but good luck with Birthing Pods and Life from the Loams.)

What does that leave? A good time for a rant or two!

Miracles: How Do They Work?

Preemptive Reminder: Everyone is always all “OMG the sky is falling” about every new card or twist. Take this and all similar rants with a grain of salt.

Next year is supposed to be a Return to Ravnica, but it seems like design is drifting away from what made for what is probably the most beloved block of all time.

Sure, some of the big trends Ravnica started have been carried on to great success. The general boost in creature power level that a lot of people date back to Watchwolf was a huge breakthrough in making permanents the card types that actually mattered. Innistrad also has a huge spiritual resemblance to Ravnica. With a slew of minor subthemes and no overarching linear mechanic, cards from this block are very modal.

You have some examples of raw power like Snapcaster Mage do exactly what you expect them to, but you also have a lot of nice bridging interactions between less powerful cards (the Champion of the ParishIntangible Virtue link through Gather the Townsfolk comes to mind), cards that are hard to place at first glance but turn out to be great (Runechanter’s Pike), and obviously good cards that play vastly different roles in different decks (Lingering Souls).

That said, there’s one thing that this format has that Ravnica Standard did not that is a cause for concern. The common description for this would be “pure variance,” or cards that are either tens or zeros based entirely on game-to-game, turn-to-turn scenarios and only minimally on deckbuilding or matchup.

Let’s take a trip back in time to Innistrad and one card in particular that has received a lot of criticism: Invisible Stalker.

People have complained a lot about how hexproof is a bad mechanic. It might be. That said, if it is, the reason isn’t the fact it reduces interaction. Shroud did that, and people rarely complained. The actual reason hexproof is a polarizing mechanic is how it can create cards like Invisible Stalker.

Imagine a world where Invisible Stalker was just a 1/1 shroud unblockable for 1U. Imagine how mediocre that would be. They actually printed almost the same card in Innistrad: Curse of the Pierced Heart. One damage a turn is not a legitimate clock, and Invisible Stalker would just turn into one of those skill tester cards that looks really good to people who don’t understand why it isn’t.

(Aside 2: To finish the hexproof point, look at Geist of Saint Traft or Troll Ascetic. These guys get really wild with an equipment, but they put in solid work on the front end without any help and aren’t completely impossible to interact with unless their weapon of choice makes them so. On both sides of the coin, they feel much more like a “normal” Magic card.)

Every game where Stalker doesn’t get to pick up an equipment or aura, this is the world we live in. Of course, we all know what happens when things go according to plan. Nothing you do matters, you can never win; all the usual frustrations of someone taking a Sword of War and Peace or a Butcher’s Cleaver to the face every combat step.

Whenever Stalker becomes involved in a game, one of the parties walks away disappointed. Either someone is embarrassed because they showed up with a bunch of 1/1s for two or someone ends up tilting because nothing they could do would’ve mattered. The worst part of this is that the loser comes away feeling that the outcome that occurred was out of the control of either player. If your deck is full of Eager Cadets, you know it’s your fault you lost.

If a player with 43 lands loses to a combo deck, they know that they made this decision before the event started. They made a measured choice that led to this point, as opposed to a deck being randomized in such a way that this occurred. I’m not saying there might not have been subtle things someone could do to avoid these fates, but it’s a lot harder to separate these games where these edges would swing from those decided by natural variance.

These are the games that miracle is going to create.

The closest example from recent formats is Bloodbraid Elf. There was a lot of nuance to the card Bloodbraid Elf that wasn’t immediately obvious. The first lists with the card were littered with blanks to cascade into like Borderposts and Lavalanches. By the end of its reign, the worst things you could cascade into from the average Jund deck were Putrid Leeches, and people had designed elaborate board plans to allow the card to shift from Shriekmaw against aggro to Hellhole Rats against control.

Even with all this effort, people were constantly infuriated by the card. The issue was that while it always was very good, sometimes it just became the nut perfect based on what card was flipped. If they hit a Sprouting Thrinax, you were behind but could fight out easily if you lined up your spells right. If they hit a Blightning, you went hellbent, lost your planeswalker, and were facing down lethal in two turns. Huge difference in outcomes, but little difference in what you could’ve done to make one into the other.

This is a less extreme example of what miracle represents. Sometimes, they’ll start the game off with a mulligan. Other times, they’ll have four Time Walks to top deck.

Yes, you can do things to manipulate the odds in your favor as people did with cascade. Ponder, Brainstorm, Jace the Mind Sculptor. People will argue back that this is no different than past synergistic cards. Mistbind Clique was a blank without a Faerie in play but game ending when you had an active Bitterblossom. Tendrils of Agony does nothing unless you have all these Dark Rituals.

The difference between these cases is that past cards never had these stumble upon moments that miracle will create. Putting in work for a reward almost always feels reasonable. Just flipping the top card and randomly getting there when the game is still developing doesn’t. When you Tendrils someone for twenty, there’s a whole show. When you Time Walk someone twice with a Mistbind Clique, you started it all by landing a Faerie and keeping it in play. People naturally like to see cause and effect, and often the only cause when someone miracles a Temporal Mastery on turn 4 is going to be, “I shuffled fairly well this game.”

There’s also the argument that these cards aren’t good enough to support the dream cases. Maybe they are; maybe they aren’t. It’s more a matter of the principle behind them. Why print cards that result in these swingy game states? MaRo touched on this in a recent article: every game needs a catch up feature. It’s miserable to keep playing a game where you know you’ve lost. This is why people preemptively scoop when there’s in theory a sequence that brings them back into a game. But everyone loves a comeback. When a baseball game is decided by a seven-point comeback in the bottom of the ninth, people take notice even if they normally wouldn’t care whether that team wins or loses. See fateful hour.

(Aside 3: Also, fateful hour allows for opponents to make measured decisions about attacks to manage your life total, but that was already covered above.)

That’s just not what this mechanic does. Imagine all the times you’re knocking the top of your deck, using your one time, or just blind flipping it Lightning Helix style. How often does your Lava Axe costing one instead of five actually matter here? Top deck scenarios are usually late game, and you either draw the card or not. It’s just an extra rub-in that you paid one instead of the suggested retail value for your effect.

Where miracle is going to come into play is early or midgame scenarios. Either you are ahead or jockeying for position, and suddenly the game is far in your favor. I don’t know about you, but the word miracle has never meant “the rich get richer” to me. Maybe “run goods” or “nail in the coffin,” but never “miracle.” To line up analogies and use baseball again, how exciting is that seven point swing when instead of the big comeback the team that is up by two goes to being up by nine?

It seems to me like these cards have missed the mark. Swingy cards aren’t necessarily bad, but these cards don’t create exciting swings.

An alternate universe miracle card that would create these swings:

Archangel’s Light is a Name that Deserves a Cooler Card
Prevent all combat damage that would be dealt this turn. If you played this card for its miracle cost, destroy all creatures instead.
Miracle 1W

This is far from optimal design. There are cases where this will push you ahead when it shouldn’t. If your control deck draws this on turn 4 and gets to Wrath with counter magic up, it’s probably as bad as the current designs. But this has that Hail Mary feel to it still. It creates scenarios where someone will slam the top of card their deck onto the table and groan or cheer. That’s the excitement you want from your random effects: one shot hit or misses, not the long-range tension of, “If they rip card X from turns 4 to 7, I just die.”

(Aside 4/End note: Now that I think about the issue, it’s very hard to make something with a top deck trigger that’s an end game pullback without giving it midgame blow out potential or adding conditions and stepping on the toes of fateful hour. It’s possible this was a major concern in designing these cards the way they did.)

Rounding Out the Archetypes

Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa and Drew Levin have drawn their lines in the sand about whether Fish/Tempo is an aggro deck or something different entirely, but I think there’s more to the subject than that. I was originally going to try and break down the rest of the major archetypes, but rather than steal topics from those who have laid claim to them I’m going to ask and try to answer some of the major questions I’ve run into along the way.

1. Why even bother with this whole fundamental archetype thing in the first place?

Role assignment or maybe something a little more in depth than that. Understanding the base goal of what your deck is trying to do each game lays the groundwork for where to start each matchup. Sometimes you play the same general archetype and have to switch things up, but when an aggro deck plays a control deck you know which one is the beatdown.

Also, because the people who play Magic are probably likely to enjoy semi-irrelevant discourse as a way to sound smart and be more right than other people.

2. So is something like RUG Delver an aggro deck?

Well, I think there’s another issue or two that needs to be resolved here that Drew brought up as well.

2a. What is an aggro deck?

If you’re an aggro deck, your goal is to exchange cards as directly as possible for damage. Let’s look at the main archetypes PV laid out and see how they do that:

Reach Aggro (e.g., Red Deck Wins): This is fairly obvious and direct. My Bolt, your face. Done deal.

Non-Reach Aggro (e.g., White Weenie): Your cards in hand convert to board state, which is then exchanged for damage over time.

So we have this RUG Delver deck with cards like Daze, Wasteland, and sometimes Stifle.

What’s the point of these cards? We’re trading our cards for time in the form of turns that our opponent doesn’t do anything, either by countering their relevant spells or attacking the mana they use for them.

What does this time translate into? Well, there are three main things you gain from an extra turn: mana (untap + main phase), a card (your draw step), and damage (from combat).

Well, one card isn’t putting us up anywhere, as your opponents are still taking a turn and drawing a card. We aren’t really gaining mana advantage when we’re spending our land drops on Wastelands and Daze bounces. That leaves one option: damage.

What these “tempo” decks are trying to do is fundamentally aggressive. You rarely are trying to run them out of answers. Most of the time, you’re trying to extend the number of combat phases your threat has on board, which translates to damage.

Question 3: What about this Hybrid Control thing? Is Faeries an aggro deck?

The issue here is that the use of Aggro-Control over the years has spread beyond what it actually means. The original Aggro-Control decks also were known by the Fish moniker, which is currently used much more accurately. The term spread to any blue deck that could apply pressure, and it definitely doesn’t always apply.

Faeries is something else: Hybrid Control.

The concept that defines Hybrid Control is picking your fights. Control in general is about lining up answers to an end goal, but Hybrid Control’s goal is less clear than the other kinds. You have control decks aiming to live to a single threat that swings the game by expending answers to save the most damage and time (e.g., Cruel Ultimatum decks) and those trying to get the best exchange rate on their cards for their opponents and run them out of options while you still have answers in reserve (e.g., Cuneo’s Blue/White from Worlds).

Hybrid Control just makes up the end game on the fly. Your cards want have maximum aggressive and defensive utility so that no matter what you’re trying to do you can set up a blowout. They might not be as big game as something like Damnation, but if you’ve played a turn where they Agony Warp your guys in combat, Spellstutter Sprite your second main play, and crack back for four next turn you’ll know they don’t need to be.

This ability to push forward when presented with no pressure is why Hybrid Control has been lumped with Tempo. It’s hard to distinguish between a deck which is trying to play a threat and counter the answers every game from a deck that just did it today because it sounded good.

Question 4: What’s the difference between midrange and control?

This is where we get into shades of gray. Midrange is pretty much about running your opponent out of things, which is the same as control. Sometimes you bash people and sometimes you don’t, like Hybrid Control.

So what makes midrange different?

It’s all about proactive versus reactive, or if you’re more biased, finesse against brute force.

Midrange plays its cards, and they do what they do. Your two-for-ones are up front value, and what you see is usually what you get. You have removal, but it’s mostly to clear the things that fall through the cracks. Jund is the most midrange of midrange decks. You just slug forward and generate card and board advantage until the game is just over.

Control plays cards that are about timing. Your Wrath has to take out as many guys as possible, but you can’t wait too long or you die. Your counterspell wants to hit something relevant, but waiting for the perfect spell might leave it stranded.

This isn’t to say that control is inherently better if you “play right” or are “smart.” I’ve said this before, but there’s something to say about not having conditionals on all your cards. Control can just die if they have specific cards at the wrong times for you and your opponent can play you right back and maximize their cards. Midrange just jams if your opponent wants to slow roll things.

Of course, midrange can mean a ton of things. It isn’t just The Rock. Maverick is a midrange deck. Midrange just has a bad rap. People are reminded of all the bad midrange decks of years past, but that isn’t always how it is.

Question 5: Is combo an actual archetype?

I have no real answer here.

Drew tried to pitch me on the idea that combo is just a hyper efficient version of each other archetype, and I can easily see the framework that exists in. Take for example three combo decks based on the same win condition: Spanish Inquisition, The Epic Storm, and U/B/(w) Ad Nauseam Tendrils. If you played all three of these the same, you’ll lose.

Ad Nauseam isn’t usually a deck you just go for it with. You game for a position where you know they have nothing and you have the kill and end it. It plays like a Hybrid Control deck where you evaluate end games, piece around for positioning, and then end things.

T.E.S. you don’t wait. Things don’t get better as the games go longer (usually). You just lay it on the table most of the time and see what happens. You can often just have some piece of disruption to break through their spell or spells that matters. The play style is closest to a tempo deck, where you’re pressuring them with a couple ways to break their relevant cards.

SI is all in. You shove your cards and try to sequence properly to dodge as much interaction as possible. This is the optimized version of a traditional reach aggro deck in many senses.

Of course, there’s bleed the other way too. Cruel Control and something like Enduring Ideal are often very similar, where all you’re doing is setting up for one key card. One just uses counters and removal to build up to seven mana instead of Rituals.

Also, how do you categorize something like Glimpse Elves? You’re shoving your cards at them to run them out of answers, but you’re positioning your threats to break their answers, but you’re also building engine advantage with Wirewood Symbiote and Elvish Visionary.

With that thought, I’ll bring this to a close. Let me know what you think on this one. Is combo functionally unique, or is your game plan still transferable to aggro/midrange/control lines?