Picking the Right Plan

Did you read Becker’s piece yet? Good. Now we can move on.

I asked Jon to talk about his different play style from Derek Rank’s in those ancient days of the Frenetic Efreet, back when Invested cards like Browse were good, for a reason. Though I will stand by the fact that there is One Right Play on any stack (or any of those non-stack moments when you can play or tap land or whatever), that is not to say that there is necessarily one right Plan. Probably you are scratching your head right now. What do you mean one right Plan? What is a Plan?

So part of my coming to Star City, along with the part where I had to write Magic University for Ted (which, as I mentioned already, I haven’t), was to resurrect Jon Becker. So there. Now you’ve got your Becker. Did you read Becker’s piece yet? If you didn’t, click your back button and read his first.


Good. Now we can move on.

I asked Jon to talk about his different play style from Derek Rank’s in those ancient days of the Frenetic Efreet, back when Invested cards like Browse were good, for a reason. Though I will stand by the fact that there is One Right Play on any stack (or any of those non-stack moments when you can play or tap land or whatever), that is not to say that there is necessarily one right Plan. Probably you are scratching your head right now. What do you mean one right Plan? What is a Plan?

I’ve written articles about this before, and so have other bright people, such as Justin Polin, Andrew Johnson, and Manuel Bevand, but it bears repeating. Magic play, decision making, and so on during the course of a match occurs on two levels. One is the tactical level, where we make individual plays. The other, and in most cases the more important, is on the strategic level, the Plan by which our tactical decisions are directed.

Most errors in Magic occur due to either a bad Plan or failure to execute on a reasonable Plan. The reason that I am writing this type of article again, at this time, is because of some of the forum feedback that I have gotten on some of my previous articles.

From Sullivan, Nimble Mongoose, and Sullivan:

“To just say that Nimble Mongoose, a 3/3 sometimes for 1 is better than all of the decks out there is just ignorant. What is anyone thinking who plays a *creature based deck* *without disruption* of *all low mana costs* versus Rock and expects success? -this deck does not beat deed, period- I question whether this matchup was even played.”

Now before I go any further, it is important to point out that the mighty Osyp Lebedowicz, Pro Tour champ and one of the finest Constructed minds in the world, came to the deck’s immediate defense, saying”Have you ever played a Rock deck against a deck playing main deck Deep Analysis, let alone 4? Combined with Intuition? I think it’s funny you think this deck can’t beat Deed, considering the Threshold player can recover from it faster than the Rock player can.”

I actually learned to play the U/G v. Rock matchup by watching Matt Rubin (who was working with Osyp at the time) win a PTQ last year. Like many players, I thought that a low mana cost U/G deck would roll over to Pernicious Deed. It does… if you play into the Deeds. MattR pointed out to me that all you have to do is dump a Wonder, and the typical Rock player is against the wall. You dictate all the terms. You put out a Wild Mongrel and one other large man and you make him have the Deed. If he has it, congratulations! You just lay out the next couple of guys that were waiting in your hand and make him have the Deed again. If he doesn’t have it, he loses in a couple of swings.

I actually think Osyp went a step too far. He’s right of course, but he is actually assuming that the first poster’s contention was also right, which it isn’t. Even if the U/G deck plays directly into the Deeds, he is going to pull out of the lost positional advantage with Deep Analysis and potentially Genesis while the Rock player likely top decks guys who don’t block or Birds that don’t matter.

If the U/G player has the correct Plan, the Rock player’s Deeds don’t wreck him. That is, if the Rock player’s Plan is to dominate with Deed, he’s going to lose. Picking the Right Plan is very similar to Who’s the Beatdown. If you pick the wrong Plan and your opponent picks the right one, unless you are the beneficiary of divine providence or he is on the wrong end of a manascrew, chances are that you aren’t going to win. You are going to make his plays for him, literally”playing into his hand.”

When you start approaching games with the Plan in mind, you will see yourself thinking more and more steps ahead, and find yourself better and better prepared for the kinds of matchups that you are losing. A great example is the same Rock v. U/G fight. If you know that you are going to lose to the popular U/G deck, but you are otherwise confident with Sol Malka’s pet, you can add Buried Alive to your build. Now when the U/G deck goes for the scripted Wonder and two attackers, you can answer him with Bone Shredder. Bone Shredder is disgusting against U/G. Not only does it block a Wonder-ful Wild Mongrel, it kills his buddy Roar of the Wurm on the way down. It might not kill Nimble Mongoose, but it sure buys a lot of time for your otherwise slow Ravenous Baloths to come online and try to race.

I was introduced to the concept of the Plan while working with the original (and”friends of”) Team CMU many years ago. Back in the 90s, working with guys like Brian Schneider, Erik Lauer, Pat Chapin, and Eric Taylor was remarkably eye-opening (those Turian and Buehler PT Champs were no slouches either). I’m sure that there are teams that are more successful today than the CMU of old, but back then, the ideas that we take for granted were just being discovered. Lauer and Cuneo discovered Investment and Inevitability, even if they didn’t use those words or write those articles, and we can still trace most of the accepted deck design principles and even archetypes to the Mad Genius.

During the PTQ season for New York 1999, I asked Erik (who was just coming off an Academy Top 8 in Rome) what he thought I should play. Though he made a great Necropotence deck, Erik said that he thought High Tide was the best choice. The problem was that this mystery man KK from nowheresville New York proved that a mono-Blue deck with Ophidian was not just good enough to win a qualifier, but would pound to oblivion the typical High Tide deck. Cabal Rogue had simultaneously innovated High Tide in ways that were later appropriated by everyone else… but we couldn’t beat Krouner Blue or any decks like it.

What happened next was that Eric Taylor figured out the matchup. If, as the High Tide player, you tried to go off against Ken’s deck, you were going to lose. Ken beat a room full of people who were all on the wrong Plan.”I’m the combo deck,” they thought.”He’s the control deck, I’m the combo deck, he’s control, I’m the beatdown. I have to win, or he won’t let me.” But that kind of thinking was wrong. It was exactly the kind of attack that Krouner Blue was designed to absorb.

What Eric proposed instead was to let Krouner Blue go at it with Ophidian. I mean, if you had the opportunity to out-counter Ophidian, go for it, but don’t sweat it if the devil snake starts swinging. What players on the wrong Plan were doing was going into a panic when the opponent started hitting them with Ophidian. Instead of putting themselves on the right Plan, they tried to go off. It was no surprise that the Krouner Blue player (who had been drawing two cards a turn and had all of his lands untapped) was winning the matchup as it stood.

Instead, Eric said to match Ophidian card drawing with that of Thawing Glaciers. Let him draw two cards a turn. At some point he is going to be drawing irrelevant Nevinyrral’s Disks, or his hand will be choked with creatures. Even if he draws nothing but counters, he is still bound by his mana. What the High Tide player should do is just keep laying lands. Thawing Glaciers would essentially ensure that a drop was never missed. Ophidian drawing cards doesn’t deal any damage, so the Krouner Blue deck would either have to tap five mana at some point for Morphling, or deck himself. If he went for Morphling, then you could win a fight, not over the spell, but over the mana; it didn’t ultimately matter if Superman hit… what you cared about was taxing his lands. If he didn’t, at some point, the control deck would start discarding permission.

The opponent was bound by two things: having seven cards in hand, and having access to however much land he had in play. By trying to go off with its aggressive combination, the High Tide deck was actually allowing the opponent to use his resources: he could play the permission he had drawn rather than having to discard excess cards. At the point that the opponent discarded a permission spell, the High Tide player received a very important signal: he was suddenly in a position where he not only could, but would, win a threat fight. After his next draw, the High Tide player would have one more card than the Krouner Blue player. If he had to, the High Tide deck could also just burn Turnabouts at the end of the opponent’s turn. Even though the Krouner deck seemed to be drawing more cards, seemed to have every advantage, mighty High Tide would still win if only it played the right Plan.

A few years later, while sitting in an airport on the way to San Francisco, I got a random call from Sulli. Sulli didn’t introduce himself or anything. He was just like”I don’t understand how this Black control deck (Napster) can possibly win. My Stompy deck keeps beating it.”

I explained to Adrian that he was going for the Perish too soon. There is no reason to try to Perish out a Stompy deck. Just go for him with one-for-ones. Burn the Vampiric Tutors going for one-for-ones. If he has non-basic lands, go for the Dust Bowl and one-for-one him. Use your life as a resource. If you fall behind, then use your bombs, but if he isn’t overextending, don’t blow your best card. Stompy ain’t got no Shocks. One life is the same as one hundred life if he has no threat in play.

There was a time when Inspiration was actually one of the best card drawers in Standard. Mike Donais played Big Blue with Inspiration to the tune of many a tournament win. I explained that Sulli had to use his Yawgmoth’s Wills like Inspirations. A two-for-one is fine if you are riding a Vicious Hunger into a Vicious Hunger. It’s more than fine when you are using the Will to re-cast the Vampiric Tutor you used to get the Will to get the next Will. Use the Dust Bowl liberally: you want to burn land because that is one more card you are trishing with when Will resolves. [For those who don’t speak Floresian,”trish” is the verb form of attrition. – Knut] See just how long the Stompy deck can run with Will after Will after Will until your graveyard is so juiced that the last Will is absolutely horrifying: if you are not setting up all four Wills in a game, you are being too kind.

Sulli changed his Plan and promptly changed his weapon of choice.

When Becker says”one of our friends” in his article, he means Scott McCord. Scott believes that card valuations are objective. Like most very good players, he believes that there is only One Right Play. He also believes that there is only one optimal Plan. Personally, I tend to think that there are better and worse Plans, and have spent the bulk of this article trying to explain how assigning the wrong Plan is no better than picking the wrong role, but unlike any individual play, I think that which Plan is correct is not always as clear.

Jon talked about how he and Derek Rank played their U/R deck so differently. Derek would say that he was mostly a PTQ player, and that loose play based around representing Counterspells was a good way to make it into the onetime sacred cows of the PTQ Top 2: buffoons don’t play very well when faced with untapped Blue mana. Becker, on the other hand, played with some of the best players in the world, Mike Long and David Mills in their primes, Brian and Justin Schneider before their various departures from competitive play. Becker had to lay down that Frenetic Efreet, because if you give Mike Long thirty-seven turns to beat you, he would; Derek went for total control because he had the luxury to do so.

A few years ago, I wrote an article called The Ten Greatest Battles of All Time. Many of those battles were chosen because of their innovations in Plan:

#10: Becker v. Some Guy

“… The time was Regionals 2001; the matchup was the worst possible for Junk, with Becker somehow able to split the first two games. The opponent had sided in Scorching Lava, usually there for Nether Spirit, but equally effective against Ramosian Sergeant and that annoying snake, River Boa.

“I remember glancing over Jon’s shoulder and wondering why when he passed his first turn, there was still a Sergeant in his hand… It was only after his second turn, when the opponent untapped, and gleefully sent a main-phase Scorching Lava at the”helpless” 1/1, did Becker’s Plan become obvious. He responded with Wax/Wane…”

The typical Junk Plan was to beat decks like Fires with Parallax Wave and Wane. Red Zone was like Fires that wasn’t vulnerable to Wane and had enchantment kill of its own for Parallax Wave. Becker’s concession of tempo here is brilliant. He knew that we weren’t beating Red Zone with Plan A, and instead decided to use the Wax half to protect his Rebel chain.

#2: Hacker v. Elarar

“… Game 1 saw Hacker almost recklessly spend his hand on Elarar’s creatures, and then Consult for a Dark Ritual with only 2 land and 3 cards in hand. Rather than playing The Skull, California’s innovator of beatdown put into play a hand-depleting Masticore! Banking on the theory that Elarar’s small creatures and burn would not be able to hang with the 4/4 regenerating monster, despite the fact that it would prevent any future development on the part of Hacker (locking him firmly under his own ‘Core), his gambit was rewarded by a win that only Seth himself (later a fan of throwing away all possible resources to win close games with Blue Skies) could appreciate.”

Seth’s”Pooh” Burn deck was not so great against the Trix that would ascend later in the PTQ season, but man was it good against the top decks of Maher’s Chicago. Oath couldn’t trigger against the Sandstalker attack, and Free Spell Necro had precious few targets for the Spinning Darkness it used to keep the engine running. Worse yet, Pooh Burn was full of the Red stuff, meaning that Necropotence was a dangerous card to use anyway. Hacker’s play here is wonderful. He knew that his Plan A was garbage, that going for Necro was painting a target on his own skull, so he just decided to go all-in with Masticore. Who needs to draw extra cards? Who needs cards in hand at all?

#1: Steve OMS v. Da Hump

“Steve knew that Dave was running Replenish. Going first, his hand was absolutely perfect… A couple of lands, a Dark Ritual, a Phyrexian Negator, a Stromgald Cabal, and that most miserly of mulligans, the Vampiric Tutor itself, stared back at the boy from Brooklyn…

“Instead of turn-1 Stromgald Cabal, Steve went for turn-1 Phyrexian Negator. After the Hump passed his first turn, Steve untapped, cast Vampiric Tutor on his upkeep for a second Dark Ritual, and ensured the win by playing Stromgald Cabal on turn 2.”

This is still the most wonderful Plan decision I have ever seen. Steve could have just played Dark Ritual for Stromgald Cabal like most other players would. In fact, that would have been a win. Dave would have needed eight mana or a non-existent Ring of Gix to play out of the little Cabal’s Inevitability, and that assumes that Steve didn’t draw any Duresses. Instead, the PTLA champ saw Plan A and decided that he could still execute on it… after setting up a little four-turn clock detour.

Correct Plan evaluation is possibly the number one most important thing that you can use to advance as a player. Understanding what really matters will allow you to figure out what is going on in a game without worrying about whether card advantage is virtual or not. It will allow you to plan ahead two or three steps, so that even if you have to draw card X followed by card Y, in the unlikely case that you do, you can take advantage of the win when you draw that Donate off the top, staring down a Crosis, because you took the time to play your Illusions of Grandeur. It will inform your mulligans: when you should take them and when you should do the previously unthinkable. One of the most flamboyantly successful non-mulligans in history was Mark LePine keeping a no-land hand against a mono-Red beatdown deck. He drew a couple before it was too late, deployed the Sea Sprites that had prompted him to keep, and collected his position in the Top 8 of the World Championship. By the same token, more games are lost on keeping a”land and spells” draw than you probably realize. Sometimes the spells are just too slow, no matter how tantalizing those lands look.

Just because a deck is full of little Green creatures doesn’t make it vulnerable to Pernicious Deed. If you play your cards right, it might actually be an amazing deck against the kinds of cards that you assume will dominate it. Just because the opponent is drawing twice as many cards as you are doesn’t mean that he is going to win. If you constrict his resources properly, he might not have enough mana to cast all the juicy permission that is overflowing out of his grip. And just because you just drew your Temple of the False God on turn 5, and you are staring at a board full of juicy artifact lands, doesn’t mean you should play your Akroma’s Vengeance. Think, bait, and evaluate the resources you have at hand before blowing your wad on what is probably just going to be a Mana Leak.