Papal Bull: Interactivity and You

JP chimes in with his thoughts on Interactivity, the changing applications of Force of Will and Mana Drain, plus some words of advice for those of you attending all these giant, rocking Vintage tournaments coming up.

One of the most common themes during the most recent Extended season was the importance of playing an interactive deck. Extended was such a broad field that it was impossible to metagame against every deck that you might face. There just wasn’t enough room in your deck and your sideboard for answers. Similarly, because of the wide-open nature of the format, there were almost too many decks to even be able to test against. Therefore, one of the best strategies was to simply interact with your opponent. That way, you always had the ability to screw up your opponent’s gameplan and possibly earn wins by placing him into situations that he might not have tested against.

Before I go any further, I am using the Magic theory definition of “interactive” in this article, in the sense that “interactivity” is your deck’s capability to force the other deck to take its cards into account. I am not using it to mean “fun”, as is usually the way that most Type One players use it

Yeah, so interactivity?

While interactivity is king in Extended, Type One has one major difference that makes it so that pure interactivity is usually not enough: almost any deck has the potential to be able to win out of nowhere. This becomes highly relevant because as Flores stated in the original article, interactivity is only trump when combined with a sufficiently fast clock. This is part of the reason that Fish, one of the most interactive Type One decks, began to wane, while The Riddler had some 11th hour success before the restriction of Trinisphere.* Since Fish often times would need many turns to actually get the win, its attempts to force interaction after decks had adapted to it would look like this:

Fish: So if you want to win, you have to deal with the fact that you are down a dual land, you can’t use your Moxes, and you will have your spell countered if you tap out.

Opponent: okay.

*Yes, Trinisphere is an interactive card. It is nearly impossible to “just win” while it is in play. Therefore, while it is definitely not “fun”, it is most certainly forces interaction. [And if you cannot interact post-Trinisphere, you will die. – Knut]

Most of the attempts at Fish nowadays could scarcely be called Fish. Short Bus’ Ninja Sword deck, for instance, has some interactive elements in it (Withered Wretch being the best example), but the prominence of cards like Aether Vial, Ninja of the Deep Hours, and Mana Drain in the deck clearly demonstrate the essentialness of the ability to be non-interactive should the situation require it.

A Lengthy Example

There was a bit of debate about the matchup analysis in Steve Menendian’s most recent Psychatog article with regards to the Tog vs. Control Slaver matchup. Steve had said that the matchup was not particularly difficult for the Tog player while many of the Control Slaver proponents believed that Tog was actually Slaver’s best matchup. The difference in opinion came from a differing picture of how interactivity affects the match.

Steve’s testing bore out that Tog really only lost when Control Slaver was able to force out a Thirst for Knowledge (with Duress or Force of Will if necessary) before Tog could get two Islands up for Mana Drain. The Control Slaver players had plenty of counterexamples for games that Slaver would win, such as games where Tog casts its clunky Intuition and in response Slaver would cast Thirst for Knowledge or ones where Slaver would get an early Tinker through.

Both of them are actually correct. The key to understanding this matchup is in noticing that Tog is much more capable of forcing interaction than Control Slaver and furthermore, Control Slaver is more strongly affected by being forced to interact than Tog. However, left to its own devices, Control Slaver almost certainly has strategic superiority over Tog, as evidenced by the above example of casting Thirst in response to Intuition, most likely drawing the Force of Will among the three new cards.

First, we need to boil each down deck to its most basic gameplan. Tog’s most basic plan is to draw enough cards to be able to power up a lethal Psychatog. Slaver’s plan is to get one if its expensive artifacts (usually Mindslaver) into play, which will then win the game in short order. Looking at these plans in a more detailed way, it becomes easier to find the exact points to interact with them.** In order to draw cards, Tog has to cast draw spells. This opens up two different avenues where the opposing deck can interact: the opponent can counter or discard the draw spells, stopping them directly, or the opponent can deny Tog its mana, preventing them from being cast. Since Fish was capable of doing both of these, Fish was thus Tog’s worst matchup.

**Since both of these decks can kill in one turn, I’m making the assumption that they have the “sufficient clock” necessary to make the interactivity relevant.

Slaver is more complicated. It has two ways of using putting its expensive artifacts into play: it can cast them or it can return them to play with Goblin Welder. Returning them with Goblin Welder first requires you to deposit them into your graveyard, with Thirst for Knowledge the primary method and Intuition as a frequently-occurring secondary method. You are then required you to resolve and protect a Goblin Welder for at least one turn. Hardcasting the artifacts is the secondary method to get them into play, but because they are expensive, this generally requires you to use Mana Drain in order to generate enough mana.

Thus when looking at the different places where interaction can take place, it becomes clear that it is easier for Tog to interact with Slaver than for Slaver to interact with Tog. Slaver relies more on specific cards than Tog does, and in turn, if those cards are dealt with, Slaver is left with more dead or suboptimal cards. A countered Thirst for Knowledge also keeps the Welder in play from becoming active and strands an uncastable Mindslaver in the Slaver player’s hand. Even a Duress which forces the Slaver player to play Brainstorm when they wouldn’t want to forces interaction, since while you may not get to pluck the juicy spell that you were aiming for, you may have been able to keep them from using that Brainstorm to sculpt their hand by finding an artifact to discard and putting back dead or unnecessary cards which they can shuffle away.

If we look at Tog, it is clearly more capable of forcing Slaver to interact. Tog typically features a three or four copies of Duress and Cunning Wish, giving it more counters than Slaver as well as increased access to additional ones, which allows it to target the critical spells more easily. Tog also tends to run a copy or two of some combination of either Pernicious Deed, Engineered Explosives, or Lava Dart, all three of which are capable to prevent Slaver from utilizing Goblin Welder and thus forcing them to rely more on Mana Drain or Tinker to get out artifacts.

Similarly, the power of Boseiju in the two decks differs considerably. Boseiju is less powerful in Tog, as playing it early makes it more difficult to play Duress or Mana Drain, and as stated above, being able to push through draw spells early is less important than being able to interact with the opponent in this matchup. Once the game starts reaching its later stages, Tog should eventually be able to outdraw Slaver anyway even without Boseiju. It’s not like you need Boseiju to make your Deep Analysis worthwhile, for example.

In Slaver however, Boseiju allows the deck to prevent the main point of attack from the Tog player. Turn 1 Boseiju, turn 2 Island, Mox doesn’t allow the Slaver player to use Mana Drain to counter whatever the Tog player might play, but barring a very unlikely Mind Twist, there is little in Tog that is truly devastating on turn 2. You can then parlay that position into an end-of-turn Thirst for Knowledge, which, should your opponent play Intuition in response, will allow you draw your three cards before they get to draw their three cards from next turn’s Accumulated Knowledge.

The new face of Force and Drain.

More Interactivity: Force of Will and Mana Drain

For a long time, Force of Will and Mana Drain were used solely as interactive cards. Control decks needed counterspells, and those two were the best options available for blue mages. However nowadays, both of those cards are starting to remind of how Force of Will was being used at the tail end of its run in Extended. Some decks ran Force of Will because they wanted a counter for turn 1. That’s the interactive use, since Force of Will says “You need to win through me.” The best decks however ran Force of Will more or less just to have a way to counter the opponent’s Force of Will. That’s the non-interactive use, since now Force of Will says “I’m going to win through you.” In much the same way, Mana Drain isn’t being used primarily as a pure counter very much any more either. It’s getting used as an accelerant that you can play during your opponent’s turn so that you don’t have to spend mana on your own turn. Yes, there are plenty of times when you will want to use the countering part of Mana Drain and the mana generation is just gravy, but there are almost as many when someone will Drain something like an AK for one card just to get the two mana.

Looking at these two cards in the context of Tog and Slaver, it becomes clear how these cards can be either interactive or non-interactive. As stated above, going for an early Intuition is typically not correct in Tog because it ties up your mana and thus reduces your ability to interact. Even if you cast Intuition, they Force, and you Force back, that can just as easily give them a way to take a counter away from you (making it easier for them to further their gameplan of playing one of the specific spells that they need to play in order to get their deck to run properly) so that they can play Thirst with your Intuition still on the stack, furthering their gameplan of non-interactivity more than you furthered your gameplan of interactivity.

On the same note, Tog can’t do as much with the mana from Drain as Slaver can. Slaver has more expensive cards (Skeletal Scrying, Platinum Angel, etc.) at the top of its mana curve, and their expensive cost naturally makes it more difficult to force them through but should they get through, they are significantly more powerful. Just compare Mindslaver to Deep Analysis, which is usually the most expensive single card in Tog, unless of course you want to consider Yawgmoth’s Will. But again, much like how Tog can’t really use Drain, Duress, and Force in the same manner that Slaver does, Slaver also shouldn’t use them in the same way as Tog. Using a counter on Deep Analysis is usually pointless (unless of course you need the mana from Mana Drain and aren’t afraid of having your spell countered back) and using a counter on something like say, Cunning Wish (again assuming of course that it isn’t just being randomly thrown out) is dangerous as you are already are usually running a few fewer counters than the Tog player.

Interestingly, not casting a spell can be a way of forcing interactivity. Unlike Force of Will, which you’d prefer not to cast if you can avoid it, you typically want to cast Mana Drain. Most modern control decks rely heavily on the mana from Mana Drain and if they are deprived of it may lose the ability to cast expensive threats or a chain out a flurry of spells, thus giving your opponent one more thing to take into consideration on your side in order to achieve their goldfish.

Next time: combo-control decks!

JP Meyer

jpmeyer at gmail dot com

Bonus Public Service Announcement

SCG’s P9 tournies are held at REL III. Most Vintage tourneys play things somewhat loosely when it comes to the rules and penalty guidelines. Part of this comes from the fact that most Vintage tourneys have fewer people and a smaller prize payout than say, a PTQ, but most of it comes from the more laid-back and sportsmanlike reputation that Vintage players enjoy. Unfortunately, this also has encouraged somewhat sloppy play with respect to the rules.

Be a Mox.  Okay, now be a sad Mox.

The biggest problems that players had in Syracuse were with regards to proxies and slow play. I heard plenty of stories throughout the day about all sorts of problems that people had with their proxies. I heard about one player’s proxies where he had glued pictures to the front of a random card. This caused his proxies to be noticeably thicker and caused them to bend differently from the rest of his deck. Another instance was a player who had just enough power cards to be able to proxy up the remaining ones that he needed. Unfortunately, one of his Moxes was quite beat up and therefore was noticeable within his deck, resulting in him receiving a match loss for marked cards: major. I also believe that one person noticed that his opponent’s Mox proxies had a noticeable bend and was able to cut to them every time, mana flooding out his opponent.

Usually, marked cards are just caused by flecks of dirt on the table which cause a few random scratches on random cards and therefore aren’t that big of a problem, but in Vintage, it’s quite different. The most commonly proxied cards are by far power cards, although people often times do have to proxy obscure out-of-print ones as well. Therefore, if you notice a somewhat thicker card or a strangely bent card coming up, odds are it’s something really good like Black Lotus or Ancestral Recall rather than say, a deck’s 11th Mountain or 3rd copy of Sakura-Tribe Elder. That can definitely influence mulligan decisions. Similarly, if you’re playing Oath and you needed to proxy one of the creatures since it was something like Woodripper or Ancient Hydra, you might want to mulligan to six if you know that you’ll be drawing an uncastable creature next turn.

The other big problem was with slow play. Again, the common response is that Vintage decks are really complex, but quite frankly a lot of this slow play is unacceptable and would not be tolerated if your opponent actually called a judge over. Now, I do want to say that this slow play typically was not done malignantly. I didn’t notice people doing things like shuffling for the maximum amount of time possible while resolving a Mind’s Desire in order to burn ten minutes off the clock. What I saw was more along the lines of people were spending five minutes resolving cards like Demonic Tutor or Brainstorm. There were a very large number of unintentional draws at the tourney and from what I remember, people like Ray Robillard and Steve Houdlette could very likely have made the Top 8 if they hadn’t gotten an extra draw along the way.

Many players also didn’t even seem to notice if they were taking an unnecessary amount of time, nor did their opponents. While covering the Steve Houdlette vs. Justin Walters feature match, Justin had an Arcane Laboratory in play and during one of his turns, played a Sol Ring. At the end of his turn, Steve played Echoing Truth on the Lab. Justin thought for a minute (and Steve didn’t say anything) before I broke the silence by saying “seeing how you have nothing in play that you can activate and no spells that you can play because of Arcane Lab…” before both of them realized this. That match eventually ended in an unintentional draw.

And let’s not even get started on the Lee/Carp marathon during the Top 8 in Chicago. Oy vay!