Peace of Mind: The Questions

Zvi Mowshowitz once asked ten questions that every deck had to answer. Mike revamps those questions for Invasion Block, and goes Zvi one better.

Okay, I think I’m the only person I know who’s been completely unable to generate even a slightly interesting deck for the Auction of the People. I’ve tried Snakes, Giants, Avatars, Angels, Clerics, Pegasi, Spirits, Elements, Shapeshifters, Atogs, Insects, Minions, Ships, Gargoyles, Crabs, Illusions, and Townsfolk (which I thought was clever).

When I failed with”Clamfolk,” I knew I should just stop. Hopefully, by the time I’m done typing this up, something will have spontaneously generated. If so, I promise to write about it. Excited yet?

I am. No, really — it’s an interesting experiment, and I’m looking forward to seeing the seventeen winning decks. I can’t imagine the selection committee is going to have too easy a time of it. I’m curious if a lot of submissions will disregard the obvious (elf, beast, saproling, etc.) and result in only a handful of those decks being submitted — which, of course, would increase their chance of selection. I want to know how many people will ignore the”theme” request and focus on trying to create broken critter decks.

“No, really, Force of Will fits a Snake deck. Um, because, you know, snakes have a lot of willpower.”

“What do you mean, Swords to Plowshares doesn’t fit my Angel deck? They’re both white, dammit!”

Time will tell.

There’s that time thing again. At least I’m consistent.

I wanted to thank the readers who expressed condolences for my friend, and also send a shout-out (raise your hands in the air) to Ko Ransom, who sometime during the long, drawn-out demise of The Dojo found his way to archiving the entire strategy section onto his hard drive. Within a handful of hours after my article went up, he had traced the exact article I was looking for, and it was with no small measure of glee that I scoured Zvi Mowshowitz ancient wisdom and found exactly what I was looking for:

The questions.

November 17, 1998, was the date of the deck clinic article that Ko forwarded to me, and as Zvi delineated so efficiently the whys and wherefores of deck construction, at the end he summed up with this:

“Numbers to Keep in Mind:

1. Number of cards useless against a creatureless deck

2. Number of cards a counter deck has to stop to break up your deck

3. Number of turns you need for the goldfish kill

4. Number of cards useful if you can’t attack

5. Number of ways to break up Worship or Pariah

6. Number of ways to break up a Spike Weaver, Wall of Blossoms and Tradewind Rider

7. Number of lands you need to operate properly

8. Number of cards your deck effectively has (not counting cheap cantrips)

9. Number of first turn plays

10. Number of Tolarian Academy decks you’ll be playing in the next tournament”

In the intervening three years, these numbers became questions in my head, and those questions inspired my deckbuilding efforts and began the grand metamorphosis. Farewell, Gaea’s Touch! Farewell, Smokestack! Hello, Glittering Lynx! Hello, Blurred Mongoose!

Hey, wait a second, that Smokestack deck was pretty fun to play, and when it started with its god draw….


Heard that one before?

That’s the problem right there. How many times have you built a deck because it has the potential to goldfish in four turns? If you’re smart, not too many times, but I’ll be the first to confess that the lure of the quick kill drew me in too many times.

Or, better yet, the Golden Ticket syndrome, where you focus on intricate combinations of cards that produce game-winning, dominant, kick-ass effects. I felt inspired and original when my Smokestack/Rancor/Argothian Wurm deck would run people over like Christine, and frequently was the recipient of”Hey, cool deck!” from fellow players.

Unfortunately, those compliments usually came from the other people gathered around me in the 0-3 bracket.

The one circulating right now that amuses me is the”Sunken Hope/Mystic Snake” combination, because more people than you would think are giving it a shot.

You didn’t win, please try again!

You didn’t win, please try again!

You didn’t win, please try again!

You’ve just won! Redeem this Golden Ticket for a free Royale with Cheese!

Was that really worth it?

Nah. Yet we ignore the inconsistencies of decks. Magic is randomness, but it can be controlled randomness, and the players with the most consistent decks have the most long-term success. Doing it with consistency and speed usually equates to a Netdeck to Beat — and by speed I don’t mean turn 4 win, but being able to set up you the bomb relatively quickly. Take the God deck, which was geared towards laying down an early Cat and an early Cursed Totem. No, I wasn’t going to ever win on turn 4 with that deck, nor did I delude myself into thinking I would — but the deck’s success was due in no small part to its ability to consistently drop a turn 2 Totem.

That deck came much later, however, and for years I was stuck in Goldfish and the Golden Ticket mode. When I started reading Zvi’s questions, I realized how utterly I failed to meet the majority of the requirements. The fragility of my decks, the lack of speed, the inefficient plays, the poor mana distribution; all of these slowly were revealed as I began to pass my decks through mental gauntlets, until over the course of years my deckbuilding went from cute to efficient to occasionally shocking.

The decks were tuned, but moreso, I was tuned.

I’d always had a way of making my cards work together smoothly, but there was a distinct lack of focus on the other person’s deck, which is sort of like making a batch of cookie dough and forgetting to put it in the oven. Yeah, sure, you can gorge yourself on the dough and it tastes damn good, but you’re also going to give yourself a miserable freakin’ stomachache.

No, I’m not speaking from experience.

Mmmm… Cookie dough..


Solitaire magic would have been fine if I was playing combo decks, but these were midgame and control decks — and as a result, my decks would fail miserably in actual competitive play. I learned to refine my talent at finding synergies between cards so that I was able to disrupt my opponent, and thereby win.

That’s metagaming. Zvi metagamed. Zvi still metagames. The most recent example of it is The Solution, which has mutated into an archetype for the IBC season as people allemande to either black or red and tweak it into a highly efficient and aggressive control deck – a perfect choice against the high number of control decks that had been sweeping the field.

(Case in point: Will, Top 8. Thank you, your witness.)

Some people have criticized Zvi’s tendency to be long-winded in his deck discussions, but that thoroughness, which has always been a component of his analyses, focused my thoughts. The moment I said,”Hmmm, you know, I do need to make sure that I can beat Orim’s Prayer/Humility,” I had begun thinking in terms of”Questions that Must Be Answered.”

I’m sure I’ve frustrated my teammates by consistently attempting to drill these questions into their lovable head tenaciously. After Ko provided me with Zvi’s article again, I thought that it would be helpful to update them for the IBC environment and help you hop, skip, and jump into the upcoming qualifiers.

One by one, let’s examine these to find out what they mean, at least from my perspective. Ironically, for all I know I’ve misinterpreted things for years and somehow scratched and clawed my way to respectability by sheer (force of) will alone.

Or accident.


1. Number of cards useless against a creatureless deck?

We all know dead cards are bad and that versatile cards are good. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t run maindeck creature removal, but if you’re running four Terminates and four Order/Chaos in an attempt to metagame IBC, you have to realize that means about 22% of your spells are going to have no effect — which means that against creatureless decks, which are control-oriented, you’re already slowing down your ability to generate any sort of threat that will overwhelm their control mechanisms.

Now, if that were four Terminates and four Fire/Ice, you accomplish similar goals, but with the added versatility of being able to use the latter as an overpriced Shock — and often a surprising finisher.

Be aware that this number isn’t necessarily representative of what sort of deck you are running; a lot of people may make the mistake of typifying this matchup as”beatdown vs. control.” Don’t. Take B/U/R creatureless vs. Domain; Domain has four dead Collective Restraints that are so much fodder, and while B/U/R creatureless decks may find that Jilt is tres sweet against green/red, when Domain resolves Legacy Weapon they’re going to be wishing it were Rushing River instead.

A lot of control decks in recent years have attempted transformational sideboards, often bringing in creatures from the sideboard in anticipation of opponents sideboarding out their removal. Hence, the value of versatility.

2. Number of cards a counter deck has to stop to break up your deck?

How do you win? Name your threats, and figure out how many answers the deck has to have. If you’re running a deck with twelve creatures and a bunch of boosters, then, that’s twelve cards they need to stop. If you’re running Trix, there are four cards they need to stop (and, if you’re running Trix in IBC, then the judges need to stop you).

Why were the PandemoniumReplenish decks so fragile? Because counter decks could sit and wait for their opponents to kill themselves trying to go off. Likewise with Trix, which would have a rough time Donating with Force backup against a deck with one Morphling and a whole lot of”Lay an island. Go.”

This is actually an interesting mini-study. Trix becomes dominant, and Sligh rises to meet it — and as a result, counter-heavy decks find themselves caught between opposing dynamics.

Why is Sligh successful? Because it can’t be broken up by counterspells due to its redundancy of threat. Can you stop 36-40 cards that do nothing but cause pain?

Now, every environment will likely have a Draw-Go style deck. Blue is always a factor, because there are few things as powerful as just saying”No.” The IBC variant is blue/black, shading towards white or red. Who likes dying to Undermine?

Oh, c’mon, I do. It rocks.

Every environment has one; every environment, therefore, has its converse, a Sligh deck. Yes, I’m using the term loosely; the important thing to take from this is that the polar of draw-go is threat-go.

Threats are good. Intricate three-card combos are not, unless you’re expecting to see very few counter-heavy decks.

3. Number of turns you need for the goldfish kill?

Everyone knows the goldfish, right? My favorite is certainly the pizza-flavored variety, as I could nibble on those crunchy bastards for weeks.

People often refer to decks that”punish bad mana draws,” or”Will kill you in four turns or do nothing.” That’s the goldfish we’re talking about; the presumption that your opponent can do nothing to withstand you.

“At my signal… Unleash hell.”

Goldfishing is a valuable component to playtesting. So is strategic goldfishing. Pretend you’re playing a Fires deck that every game plays Forest, Birds; Karplusan, Fires; Forest, Blastoderm; Elf, Saproling Burst. Every game. Because, you know, sometimes it feels like you actually do face that, and having an answer to a Fired Burst on turn 4 is something that’s fairly critical.

At least until November.

Meanwhile, back in IBC, you can measure your goldfishing and then, if smart, measure your goldfishing with the assumption that 60% of the decks are going to also be packing creatures nearly identical to yours. Try it. No, really. How happy is your deck full of bears when you realize that everyone else has 2/2 guys as well?

Goldfishing tests your mana consistency, your opening plays, and helps you tune the deck before it’s ready for competition.

Know your speed.

4. Your Fundamental Turn (sometimes, but not always, the same as #3)?

Points if you can name the author who created The Fundamental Turn. That’s right: Mr. Mowshowitz. I won’t reproduce the article, but consider the Fundamental Turn as the point at which your deck starts facilitating its win condition and makes up for any early disadvantage. This isn’t the same as goldfishing. Beatdown and combo strategies often have one number; the turn you win. Control decks have a mutable FT, depending on the aspect of your strategy being presented.

Take my God deck. It goldfished slowly because it was a controlling, reactive deck. The best bet for me would be early beatdown and topped off with a God effect like Earthquake. Typically this was Turn 6.

That was two turns later than my FT.

My FT came at four mana, when the sweeping nature of my effects took place. That’s when I would be able to Wrath with impunity, to throw out Waves or Earthquakes and generate card advantage that would be otherwise lacking. By itself, stuck at less than four mana, the deck basically threw out blockers that normally weren’t able to push past opposing defenses. At my fourth land drop, I was able to take control, because the board stabilized from that point forward at a rate in which I could answer every threat.

The game may not be over on your Fundamental Turn, but that’s when you win it.

Think about how important Chill is in Extended.

Thank you.

5. Number of cards useful if you can’t attack?

This is the Collective Restraint question, yes — what do you do if you have to pay ten to attack with every critter and your lands are Ruined? It’s also the way to analyze a creature stalemate, when you just need to do x more damage but can’t puncture through a bunch of 2/5 white guys with protection from whatever color they freakin’ want.

I love white.

Useful cards can come in all varieties, from removal to direct damage to card-drawing in order to facilitate finding an alternate win condition.

6. Number of lands you need to operate properly?

This is fairly obvious — but in IBC, of course, you also need to factor in how many of each colored mana you need. Mana ratios have become both easier (more two-color lands) and more difficult (more early gold spells). God needed four lands, the same as its fundamental turn. Mono-red can run efficiently off of two or three. My Nether-Obliterate deck needed six to eight mana in some form or fashion.

Adjust your mana ratios accordingly. One of the great evolutions in Magic has been the amount of mana included in decks. I remember when I would always put in”21 lands,” which was one more than the twenty that everyone else was using, and I felt damn cool because of it. Of course, I also ran 62 cards in every deck. Hi, have you seen Jamie Wakefield lately?

Nowadays, unless you’re playing cheap beatdown, 24 lands is the norm, and some decks up the level to 25 or 26 if they’re going to ensure land drops for the first five turns. Fires was a beatdown deck that ran 26 lands, because while it was able to accelerate beyond belief at times, when a Fires player was stuck on Forest, Forest, Bird, and couldn’t draw a fourth land or alternate mana source, they would lose. They needed at least four land/mana sources to run smoothly, and as mana sources can be rather easily killed….

You see where I’m going with this.

7. Number of turns to recover from Desolation Angel?

Ah, how people scoffed at the Angel. He’s a backbreaker, pure and simple, and something that must be answered. At one point in time, this might have read”Armageddon”… But as we know, Wizards decided that card was too powerful when they had their emergency meetings to break up the God deck.

If you see black and white, assume the Angel and play accordingly. Keep mana open to Terminate, Repulse, or Jilt. Consider how quickly you will be able to stop it or kill it when you start a turn with no land in play.

Because, see, I saw a number of people looking at the board morosely when Desolation Angel make their PTQ over PDQ.

Not witty.

For everyone who thinks that they can assuredly counter it or respond to it — the Angel, not my sudden lack of wit — try this neat trick:

Orim’s Chant. Desolation Angel.

Booya. Now, you really need to know how fast you can recover. The Angels are out there.

8. Number of first- and second-turn plays?

Normally, you can shorten this to first-turn plays, but this is IBC. Most of your first turn plays consist of:

a. Stormscape Apprentice

b. Mogg Sentry

c. Lay of the Land

d. Comes-into-play-tapped Land

The bees start waxing on turn 2. If you don’t have many two-drops, you’d better have three-drops… And if you don’t have those, you really have to wonder what the hell kind of deck you’re running — and it had better be Domain, which can bring everything to a screeching halt and stabilize faster than Sybil on Zoloft.

This relates to a common problem discussed earlier: The Golden Ticket syndrome. A lot of cards are quite powerful, but expensive — and that makes them worth excluding. When everything in your deck starts at four casting cost, you’re in trouble no matter how powerful the cards are.

Unless it’s Wrath of God, and after casting it you can then proceed to stop every single freakin’ threat the person tries to present to you, hiding behind your pathetic little islands and plains and going”Ooooh, look at me, I don’t have any permanents, I’m going to win with one creature in my deck, oooh.”

I have issues. Most of them come from playing Will Rieffer. Jay plays all creatures. Scott plays lots of creatures. Carl I don’t play frequently enough because he works too damn hard. Will plays counterspells.


I love ‘im.

9. Number of ways to remove:

a. Spiritmonger?

He’s fat, and he’s color-changing, and he regenerates. I don’t care about the lack of evasion or the fact he can be Terminated. He’s trouble, and we all know it, and he’s out there, and it doesn’t matter if you say”He’s stopped by Lynx!” or”He’s stopped by Nightscape Familiar!” if you don’t have any in your deck, eh?

b. Blurred Mongoose?

What more do I need to say? Pay attention to untargetable creatures. Pay attention to ones that can’t be countered. Pay attention to ones that come out on turn 2 before you have your defenses set up. When other creatures are trading and throwin’ hands, guess who’s usually left? Yep. The ‘goose. He is blue/red/black’s nightmare. Thank goodness for Decree.

c. Spectral Lynx?

You’ll probably see more of the latter two creatures than any others because they fit into such a wide range of decks. Lynx is pro-green, and if you haven’t noticed, in IBC the pro-bears, Lynx, and Voice of All, are often huge. Whatever pro-bear you have, there’s a hefty chance you’ll be able to get by your opponent’s blockers in some fashion.

Lynx is dangerous because it regenerates, kills a lot of bears, and also sneaks by a lot of ‘em. I would hazard saying that Lynx single-handedly made the pure blue-green tempo archetype outdated before it began, forcing it to swing into other colors for removal because it was unable to rely on drawing bounce.

d. Questing Phelddagrif?

Anything that can fly and have protection from red and black needs to be examined — particularly when it can be pumped and backed up with counterspells. I’m still surprised the hippo isn’t represented more; c’mon, Phelddy, keep it real.

However, I have seen them commonly appear in Domain decks, where there’s an obvious synergy with Collective Restraint. It hates Voice of All: blue, mind you. A lot. However, if you’re playing a lot of red/black removal, you need to be fully aware of the hippo.

e. Meddling Mage (static)?

Mage is out there. People who know how to properly play Mage are out there as well. While you see some people struggle with it, my general rule — which nets me a fair amount of success — is to name the card you fear the most in the color combination that you’ve been shown. Don’t be too tricky. If you’re facing red, do you name Fire/Ice, Rage, or Ghitu Fire? Rage first — Fire’s versatility is lost if they use it to kill the Mage, and you’ll be able to counter those later. Not so Rage. If they want to use the potentially game-winning Ghitu Fire to rid themselves of the Mage, let ‘em. Know what trades are worth making.

A static Mage is one that’s sitting there, not attacking, not defending. They don’t want it to die, because it’s holding off some important spell — like, say, Collective Restraint. Or Absorb. Or Undermine. Or Pernicious Deed. How do you deal with something that does nothing except eliminate part of your deck?

One Mage = Annoying as hell.

Two Mages = Oof.

Diversification of threat is, rumor has it, some good.

Obviously, if you’ve analyzed your deck thus far, you can see how these questions give you an intimate knowledge of your deck — and moreso, how they interrelate. Played correctly, with a bit of luck, a Meddling Mage represents four counterspells on its own. Don’t underestimate the perils of playing an opponent who always seems to call the right card — chances are, it’s on purpose.

10. Number of permanents with cost three or less?

Wait a second, Mason, first you advocate first- and second-turn plays. What’s this?

This question exists for one card: Pernicious Deed.

Early plays are important. However, if you have the tendency to play out your hand and lose a number of cards to a turn 3 or 4 Deed, you could be in trouble. The card can wreck your adorable Necra Sanctuary combo and take your Titan, Mongoose, and Skyfolk and send ‘em to hell in a handbasket. If everything you have is cheap, make sure it’s threatening or you have counter backup, because Deed can end your dreams like that.

Pretend I snapped my fingers there.

Be aware of how vulnerable you are to a well-timed Deed, and watch out for its wonderful synergy with clearing away your critters end of turn and being followed up with a Desolation Angel.

Have two carrots.

11. Number of color options for targeted removal spells?

Voice of All must be reckoned with. So must Lynx, so must Yavimaya Barbarian, Galina’s Knight, Shivan Zombie, Vodalian Zombie, and my mom on a bad day.

Now and again, so must Nishoba. He’s a big’gun that frightens me, since I like to play blue/red and have a nice, healthy mixture of both kinds of removal that oh, by the way, Mr. Tramplepants is immune to.

Figure your opponent will have something that’s invulnerable to blue or red because, hey, this is IBC. The Shivan’s remarkably effective against Death Grasp and Vindicate and Hobble tech, and Vodalian gives decks a reason to smile and laugh at Blurred Mongoose.

Remember what I said about the pro-bears earlier? I’ll reframe my comments here:

Never before has the”protection” mechanic played such an integral role in a block.

Let me repeat that, because as a white player (and I’m not talkin’ genes), I have always loved protection, which is somewhat unfairly given to one color.

It almost makes up for lifegain.

So here: Never before has the”protection” mechanic played such an integral role in a block.

I love that all of the colors have a pro-bear. I love that protection from blue is actually important.

Gold cards only make it easier to be immune.”Oh, Terminate? Great, now both my Crimson Acolytes AND my Obsidian Acolytes can be dropped to protect my critters.”

Thus, if you’re not careful, you’ll screw yourself out of any sort of removal. Diversify. Don’t use gold cards alone for removal. Mix burn with bounce or burying. Heck, take this advice a step further for creatures, too —if everything in your deck is black&white, you’re in for a world of hurt.

Ah, the levels on which I operate. <–token self-gratifying musing

I think that’s it.

Let’s look at them one last time, sans prolixity:

1. Number of cards useless against a creatureless deck?

2. Number of cards a counter deck has to stop to break up your deck?

3. Number of turns you need for the goldfish kill?

4. Your Fundamental Turn (sometimes, but not always, the same as #3)?

5. Number of cards useful if you can’t attack?

6. Number of lands you need to operate properly?

7. Number of turns to recover from Desolation Angel?

8. Number of first- and second-turn plays?

9. Number of ways to remove:

a. Spiritmonger?

b. Blurred Mongoose?

c. Spectral Lynx?

d. Questing Phelddagrif?

e. Meddling Mage (static)?

10. Number of permanents that cost three or less?

11. Number of color options for targeted removal spells?

These evolve from set to set, but the core questions will always remain the same. Build your deck, analyze your deck, and evolve your deck while being consciously aware of the strategies you need to utilize not only in the current environment, but in adhering to the tenets of Magic in general.

Know what questions to ask — and answer them.

-m / 00010101