Probably the most interesting article I’ve read all year is Mike Flores‘ article on Interactivity. WARNING! ALERT! WARNING! I’d like to talk about Interactivity and Vintage. That means boring magic theory to those of you who could care less.
Let me summarize what Flores said. (You can read the article here)
Flores began by describing the various ways we classify decks. We often talk about control, beatdown, and combo; or more simply, just beatdown and control. Another classification is interactive versus non-interactive. The point that Flores was making is that when forced to interact, non interactive decks "wither.’ But how are we to tell what decks are interactive and which are not?
He provides two related definitions. The first and broader definition is that, "A non-interactive deck will seek to win the game irrespective of the opponent’s plan while an interactive deck will try to generate an advantage specifically by trumping the opponent’s cards." The second definition which elaborates on the first is that, "A player using a non-interactive deck employs cards and decision-making processes that tend to affect only one player (himself), at least in the short term, whereas an interactive deck uses cards that affect both players." Rephrased, non-interactive decks use cards that affect yourself, whereas an interactive deck tries to trump the opponents cards by playing spells that affect the other player or both players.
Mike also says that there are interactive cards as well as decks. The quintessential example that he gives is Cabal Therapy. Cabal Therapy brings into play all the elements that make a card interactive. It requires thought, sizing up an opponent’s deck tactically and strategically, and understanding of the format as well as understanding what cards threaten your deck. In his words: "Not only does it (usually) affect both players, but a naked Cabal Therapy can involve reads, bluffs, and tells, analyses of what might wreck a player or what might be relevant three turns from its being cast… This card, properly played, requires human interaction that goes well beyond the cardboard involved."
However, he is also careful to point out that interactive cards are often used to facilitate a non-interactive deck’s game plan. He uses Force of Will as an example of an interactive card used at the height of Extended combo to facilitate a non-interactive game plan.
Flores then makes much of this theory concrete by comparing Red Deck Wins, an interactive deck, with Vial Goblins, a non-interactive deck. Based upon an analysis of that matchup, he posits a truism: an interactive deck will lose to a non-interactive deck if it can’t force the non-interactive deck to interact. To make this clear in Type One terms, a mono-White control deck in Vintage that uses Swords to Plowshares, Moat, and Wastelands may not be able to use all those interactive cards to stop a creatureless combo deck with primarily basic lands from winning because it can’t force it to interact.
Flores then concludes with something that is not immediately apparent: "The ultimate deck is the deck that profitably forces the most interaction in the most matchups." While it is true that the deck that profitably forces the most interaction in the most matchups may well be a great deck, why isn’t it also true that the deck that avoids the most interaction in the most matchups might also be the ultimate deck? I think the answer is that both are true or that it depends. However, it’s also true what Flores says in that weaker decks may win because they force interaction and therefore can trump stronger cards. Null Rod is a great example of this. No one admits that Fish is the most potent deck in Vintage, but it is widely accepted as a great deck. However, Flores also says that forcing interaction is only trump when combined with sufficient speed. Finally, the most impressive decks force interaction, challenge opponent’s playskill AND provide a fast clock. A tall order.
I think a lot of what Flores says is true or has practical application. Nonetheless, the underlying premises or assumptions are not fully theorized. That is what I want to focus on today.
In the article, he talks about how he included Sphere of Resistance in his Black deck to force the Extended combo decks to interact. In Vintage, Trinisphere was recently restricted. Both Spheres meet the definition of interaction: they affect the opponent or both players. They force the opponent to interact. However, the primary criticism of Trinisphere, ironically, is that it was non-interactive.
The Flores definition is now in direct conflict with the common sense understanding of Trinisphere. I tried to confront him with this in reply to one of his articles to which he said: "Please note that the error here is not mine. I never characterized Sphere of Resistance as anything but a foil to one particular card in one particular deck."
"You may not have explicitly done so, but you provided a very clear framework from which to draw the conclusion that Sphere of Resistance was an interactive card.
At the beginning of your article on the “Limit of Interacitivity” you begin by stating that there are interactive cards and decks. You define what it means for a deck to be interactive and you describe how decks that can force a non-interactive deck to interact have an edge against them. Your definition of interactive – as cards that affect not just one player, but both players – specifically and directly implicates Sphere of Resistance. While you may not have had that definition in mind while you were writing your example about Sphere and High Tide, your definition brings it into play. However, your use of it to show how it forces a non-interactive deck to interact suggests that you were using it to show that it IS an interactive card.
Regardless, under your definition of Interaction and interactivity, Sphere of Resistance IS an interactive card. Since you like quotes, I’ll quote your article directly:
“A player using a non-interactive deck employs cards and decision-making processes that tend to affect only one player (himself), at least in the short term, whereas an interactive deck uses cards that affect both players.”
In case there was any doubt whether this definition applies to cards as well, you leave no doubt with your next sentence:
“For frame of reference, the best example of an interactive card that I can think of is Cabal Therapy. Not only does it (usually) affect both players…”
Sphere of Resistance affects both players and not just oneself. Moreover, it forces a non-interactive deck to interact.
Trinisphere ALSO forces non-interactive decks to interact. Moreover, it affects Both players. That makes it, under your definition, interactive. Which in my mind, raises SERIOUS questions about the viability of your whole definition."
He never replied to that.
I want to be clear, I loved his article – I just want to be devil’s advocate because I find the issue so interesting.
Last summer at Gencon after the swiss finished and I was locked into the Top 8, Aaron Forsythe came over and asked to see my deck. I was playing mono-Blue – a surprise for Top 8. He scanned through it and concluded that it was like every other deck in this format: trying to make it so the opponent couldn’t ever play a spell. He was right.
I had 16 counterspells, 4 Back to Basics and a full complement of Wastelands and Phids to erect a wall of counterspells and steady stream of mana denial so that my opponent could never actually resolve a spell that mattered.
If the Trinisphere deck goes turn 1 Mishra’s Workshop, Trinisphere and turn 2 Smokestack – what’s the difference between that and my mono-Blue deck that has turn 1 Mana Leak, turn 2 Mana Drain, turn 3 Ophidian and counterspell and then counterspells every turn thereafter? Is there a relevant difference between being able to *play* a spell and *resolve* a spell? I’m not sure, to be honest. I suspect that the answer is no, for practical purposes. In reality, people feel like they have more of a chance against the counter deck than the prison deck, but they both result in the same thing. The relevant question I guess is how well either deck prevents the opponent from resolving spells. The Trinisphere deck is vulnerable only to a few things: Wasteland, Force of Will, and inconsistent spells, by and large. Unless it is followed up with Smokestack or Juggernaut, a deck with mostly basic lands may prove a real threat. But beyond that, not much is that painful besides its own inconsistency. The mono-Blue deck is vulnerable to different threats such as turn 1 Goblin Welder, Juggernaut, or Red Elemental Blasts.
In Vintage, I think the Flores definition breaks down when viewed with a healthy dose of common sense. My teammate Kevin Cron pointed out the most important feature of all in regard to interactivity: almost every deck in Vintage is a non-interactive deck. It is true that most of the Vintage decks affect and act upon the opponent and try and trump their cards with other cards, but the simple fact is that they are non-interactive. They try to imprison the opponent so that they are unable to do anything, or, they seek to win as quickly as possible. There is almost no deck in Vintage that tries to trump an opponent’s cards without attempting to shut them almost entirely out of the game. Because of that fact, I think strategic interactivity in Vintage is really just an illusion. Every deck in Vintage is strategically non-interactive. It either attempts to completely shut the opponent out with interactive cards, or, it attempts to win the game immediately with non-interactive cards.
I am not saying that Vintage isn’t interactive. There is a boatload of tactical interaction, or, as Flores put it, interactive cards. I just think that interaction is basically an illusion. Anything that would seem to be strategically interactive is just trying to shut you down with cards like Trinisphere (and Null Rod).
Let me go through the decks:
- Worldgorger Dragon has two or three interactive cards: Duress, Force of Will and sometimes Xantid Swarm. It uses those cards to prevent the opponent from stopping it from comboing out.
- The Perfect Storm uses Force of Will, Duress, and artifact bounce spells which would threaten it from winning.
- Meandeath uses maindeck Duress and sideboarded Wish targets to clear the path to victory or remove an annoying threat from the board. Otherwise it just wants to combo out.
- Meandeck Tendrils even runs a Chain of Vapor in the maindeck and Force of Will in the sideboard. Otherwise it has almost no tactically interactive cards.
- 2-Land Belcher uses Living Wish to find Scavenger Folk and Goblin Charbelcher to trump countermagic for its Goblin Charbelcher. Otherwise it is entirely non-interactive.
- Fish uses almost entirely interactive cards like Null Rod, Chalice of the Void, Meddling Mage, Wasteland and the like to make it so you can’t even play a spell.
- Birdsh*t uses Swords to Plowshares, Stifle, Daze, Force of Will and Wastelands to prevent the opponent from doing anything while it runs you over with good size men.
- Psychatog uses Duress, Mana Drain, and Force of Wills as well as Cunning Wish to prevent the opponent from stopping it from drawing cards, playing Tog, and then Berserking the Tog. It has a combo finish but uses plenty of tactically interactive cards.
- Oath of Druids uses upwards of 15 or so counterspells and Duresses to stop the opponent from preventing it from resolving Oath of Druids from which it Oaths up two very large hasty men that end the game quickly or an Auriok Salvagers from which it immediately wins.
- Divining Top Combo uses 3 Mana Drains and 4 Force of Wills in the maindeck to prevent opponents from stopping it from resolving Future Sight, Helm of Awakening, and Divining Top so that it might draw its entire deck and kill you with Brain Freeze.
- Gifts Ungiven uses Mana Drain, Duress, and Force of Will to protect its Gifts from resolving from which it either Time Walks twice and bashes your face in with Darksteel Colossus or finds Goblin Charbelcher and Mana Severance to murder you immediately.
- Mindslaver Decks use Mana Drain and Force of Will to accelerate and protect Thirst for Knowledge and Goblin Welder by which it prevents you from ever having another turn.
- Stax uses Sphere of Resistance, Crucible of Worlds, Wastelands, Chains of Mephistopheles, Goblin Welders and all manner of interactive cards for the sole purpose of preventing you from ever playing a spell.
- Workshop Aggro uses cards like Sundering Titan, Crucible of Worlds, and Chalice of the Void to shut you out of the game while it beats with Juggernauts and kills you.
No deck in Vintage actually wants to interact with the opponent. They all try to lock the opponent down with mana denial and countermagic, or, they use cards like Duress and Force of Will or Mana Drain to both protect and fuel their combo. Mana Drain itself is an interactive card that fuels non-interactive strategies. If your opponent Drains into Gifts Ungiven, you have likely lost the game.
There are basically two types of interactive cards. There are proactive interactive cards. And there are two types of reactive interactive cards: countermagic and other.
Why is the format so non-interactive? Because the best interactive cards are the cards that further a non-interactive strategy: counterspells and proactively interactive cards.
Let me explain. Trinisphere is easy to see as a proactively interactive card. It comes down and affects your opponent immediately. Null Rod is the same way. Wasteland, however, is a reactive interactive card. It can’t be used for its primary ability unless your opponent has a land on the board. Swords to Plowshares is also reactively interactive. It depends upon your opponent playing a creature first. Duress is almost like a counterspell that is played proactively. Force of Will is used mostly like Duress. When I go: Mox, Land, Oath of Druids, I use Force of Will as a free Duress that I may not have to use. There is almost no difference between Force of Will and Duress in terms of protecting Oath. They are both protecting the Oath – Force of Will is being used to protect a non-interactive combo component. The same is true of Force of Will and Duress in Gifts or Tog. The difference is this: In all the control decks that are viable today, Force of Will is used to protect your spell more than it is to stop your opponents spells. In the same way, but perhaps more egregious, Mana Drain is used not to counter some threat, but to get a tempo boost and steal your opponents mana. Mana Drain is like Dark Ritual and counterspell in one. The most aggressive use of Mana Drain is when I do this:
It’s turn 2. Your opponent passes the turn. I have UU up and I have Mana Drain, Force of Will, and a Blue spell in my hand. They play a spell. I play Force of Will on the spell instead of Mana Drain. Why? Because they play Force of Will in response. Then I can Mana Drain the Force of Will to get five mana on my turn. I untap, and play ridiculous spells like Intuition and double Accumulated Knowledge or Gifts Ungiven and Tinker or Time Walk.
I love that play. But it demonstrates that Mana Drain isn’t being used as a counterspell with a bonus. It’s being used as a tempo spell that generates mana with a bonus. The bonus is that the combo-control deck can slip into the control role before it combos out in a single turn.
The non-counterspell, reactive interactive cards are just too narrow to build a good interactive deck. That’s why Keeper is dead, in part. Cards like Swords to Plowshares, Balance and other white cards are just too narrow to build a truly interactive deck strategically that doesn’t just shut your opponent down.
So what does all of this mean for Vintage? I think the lesson is this: If you can play a spell that stops your opponent from keeping you from winning, you will win so long as you can stop them from dealing with it or win before they can. That’s the real nugget of truth from the Flores Article. If Fish can protect the Null Rod by adding more threats to the board or countering their answer and kill them before the opponent can deal with it, Fish will win. The same is true of Trinisphere. If Stax player can pile on the threats so that the opponent can’t handle or play around the Trinisphere and win before they can do either, then the Workshop player will win. Similarly, the Mana Drain deck inherently disrupts the opponent with Mana Drain while it uses the Mana Drain to stop the opponent from stopping them while it wins. For these reasons, I think interaction is sort of illusory in Vintage. Sure, there is lots of tactical interaction, but none of it is strategic. There is no deck playing counterspell at the moment where the counterspell is there primarily to stop the opponent’s game plan. It’s there to protect your spells so that you can win first.