So Many Insane Plays – CounterTop Depths in Legacy

The StarCityGames.com $5,000 Standard Open Series Comes to Nashville!
Monday, November 2nd – In today’s So Many Insane Plays, Stephen Menendian presents an exciting new deck for Legacy: CounterTop Depths. He also touches on his intriguing debate on Collusion in Magic from a few weeks ago, answering a couple of interesting forum posts along the way…

Dark Depths Combo sounds like a risky proposition in Legacy. Legacy is a highly disruptive format featuring all of the disruption and removal spells ever printed. Wasteland is common. Swords to Plowshares and Path to Exile are common. Pithing Needle is common. Answers like Threads of Disloyalty and Sower of Temptation are common. Bounce spells are frequently played. Removal spells as common as Lightning Bolt can take care of a Hexmage before it can be used to call Cthulu from the deep. Just as bad, Vampire Hexmage and Dark Depths aren’t exciting by themselves. A BB 2/1 first strike creature isn’t Legacy playable. Dark Depths does nothing by itself. Removing counters one at a time is a pipe dream. Dark Depths is a blank that takes up a land drop.

That said, there are some tremendous upsides. It’s a huge threat. It wins the game in one swing. It can’t be Wrathed or Explosived. It’s incredibly efficient. For two mana and a land drop, you can win by turn 4, and it’s almost all uncounterable once Hexmage is in play. Legacy is full of two-card combos just like it. For a spell (until Qasali Pridemage was printed), Phyrexian Dreadnaught plus Stifle (Dreadtill) was arguably the best deck in Legacy. That’s a two-mana combo that puts a 12/12 into play. Natural Order is common in any deck with an appreciable number of Green creatures. For four mana you get a 10/10 that has protection from everything. Imperial, Painter’s Servant combo is another two-card combo that wins the game that sees some play. There are others, but Natural Order and Dreadtill have recently been top performers in the format. Hexmage plus Dark Depths is of a similar kind. However, it needs the right home.

This is not a combo deck. As I’ll explain later, playing it as such is a tremendous mistake. This is a Counter-Top Goyf deck with an inevitable combo finish. Bob, Goyf, and Counterbalance are the core of the deck. Dark Depths is simply a secondary finisher, and a huge advantage is a wide swath of matchups. I will explain every card choice, and, arguably more importantly, cards I did not select. In my description of card choices, I will explain exactly how this deck works, how you should play it, and how you should not play it. Then I will describe the major matchups in the format.


Brainstorm is restricted in Vintage because of its efficiency and card selection, particularly with Fetchlands. These cards serve several key functions. The least important function of their many purposes is their ability to assemble the combo. Yet, these cards do that amazingly well. The sheer quantity of cards you see with these 8 cards over the course of the game assures that you will see both Hexmage and Dark Depths sooner rather than later. However, these cards are far more important than combo search. The first and most important function is the ability to dig for lands. A turn one Ponder is just incredible because, even if you don’t see lands, Ponder itself shuffles your library and gives you access to fresh cards. Brainstorm and Ponder can critically find the second black mana you need to play Hexmage, or the green you need to play Goyf. My favorite sequence of plays is turn 1 Fetchlands into Island, Brainstorm or Ponder, and turn 2 Dark Confidant. The second most important function is to find answers and threats, spell selection, and particularly Daze and Force of Will. Turn 1 Ponder or Brainstorm gives you a non-trivial chance of finding a Daze or a Force of Will, critical protection for the first turn. The third function of these cards is manipulating the top of your library with Counterbalance (and, to a lesser extent) Bob. These card are just great cards. They allow you to turn mid-game topdecks into great cards.

But, as I said, the least important function of Ponder and Brainstorm is assembling the combo. In fact, you will be more likely to Ponder or Brainstorm away superfluous The way the deck works is that you’ll find one of the combo parts naturally in the deck. A mid-game Brainstorm or Ponder will find the second part and you’ll promptly win the game.

Force of Will/Daze

Force of Will and Daze are the two best counterspells in Legacy. They may be principally thought of as amazing tempo plays, on account of being able to protect early threats like a Bob or a turn 2 Counterbalance, but that’s just the beginning of their awesomeness. They counter key threats like Lackey, Vial, opposing Goyfs, and, perhaps the best use of Daze is to counter an opposing Force of Will.

Counterbalance plus Sensei’s Divining Top

Sensei’s Divining Top is a no-brainer. Like Ponder and Brainstorm, Top gives you unbelievable card selection. Top alone can help you assemble all of the combo parts quickly, but, like Brainstorm and Ponder, that’s not its first purpose.

Counterbalance is one of the key cards in this deck. It generates tremendous card advantage and it protects your creatures from their removal and their countermagic.

Counterbalance is a perfect fit with Dark Depths combo. Consider. Counterbalance is the best way to protect the combo from cards like Path to Exile. Counterbalance can also generate lots of card advantage and lock out the opponent, making Dark Depths a simple, yet efficient, finisher. Vampire Hexmage is actually a nice card to have with Counterbalance, as it gives you four more two-mana spells to flip.

Dark Confidant

Bobby helps you accumulate resources, which are translated into the combo or other routes to victory. He does that as only Bob can. You have four Tops and 8 Ponder/Brainstorm, so there is no real danger that this card will kill you. You are already in Black, so this card is a perfect fit.


I had six slots left. I knew that four of them would be this guy. In my SCG $5K breakdowns, you’ll note the absurd proportion of decks that run Goyf (anywhere from 43-47% of decklists in the field). This guy is simply the best beater in Legacy because he’s so cheap.

As I said, this is first and foremost a CounterTop-Goyf deck. Goyf is your primary win condition. You use Dark Confidant and Counterbalance for card advantage, but Goyf is your main beater. However, there will be games where things get out of control. Then, Goyf becomes a large wall that will allow you to survive long enough to assemble the Dark Depths combo.

Vendilion Clique

I had two slots left in the maindeck, as I knew I wanted at least 18 lands on top of 4 Dark Depths. I consider a range of cards, which I’ll discuss in a moment, but I ultimately settled on this card. It’s a quick beater, is good in the deck’s toughest matchups, and is blue, for Force of Will bait. It got the nod over Thoughtseize, but just barely.

The Manabase

The first thing I decided regarding the mana base was that I wanted to max out on Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth. So I included two. Urborg allows Dark Depths to tap for mana. I did a bunch of testing with the deck, and my opinion of the card began to sour. But I stuck with it anyway. I ran this deck in a tournament, and my disquiet in testing was confirmed. There are several problems with it. First, you just don’t see this card that often. The manabase is principally manipulated by Fetchlands. Time and time again I just wished that this card was a basic Swamp. The second problem is that it just doesn’t matter that Dark Depths can’t tap for mana. You’ll sit there holding Dark Depths in your hand until the time you want to use it anyway, unless you know that your opponent doesn’t have Wastelands or a way to destroy lands, or, unless you want to have your opponent target DD with their Wasteland. Third, the dream of turn 2 Hexmage with Urborg + Dark Depths and turn 3 win is just a mirage, and not even a hand that you’d likely feel comfortable with in a range of matchups.

This deck needs a basic Swamp. I cut the second Urborg for a Swamp and I haven’t looked back. This deck wouldn’t mind a second Island, but I think that having one Urborg probably carries its weight.


As I said, this deck is a Counter-Top Goyf deck with Dark Depths as a combo finish. The reason I repeat this is because it would be a tremendous mistake if you built this deck and then played it as if all you were doing was assembling the Dark Depths combo. That is the unmistakably wrong way to play this deck. Rather, you play this deck like a Counterbalance deck. You draw cards, assemble your manabase, and play your three key threats: Dark Confidant, Counterbalance, and Tarmogoyf. The idea is that these three cards will take you most of the distance, but Dark Depths + Hexmage can help you finish the job. I caution not only to avoid trying to assemble the combo in a rush, but I would also caution against drawing or keeping combo parts when another card may be more important, tactically, in the next turn or so. For example, it would be a mistake to Top and draw a Dark Depths if you need a Goyf or a Force instead, unless you had the Hexmage in hand.

Let me show you some sample hands, and how I would play them:

Sample Hand 1:

Polluted Delta
Tropical Island
Vampire Hexmage
Dark Confidant
Sensei’s Diving Top

If you are on the play and do not know what your opponent is playing, I would play as follows:

Turn 1: Break Delta for Island. Play Ponder. If you don’t see a land, you will almost certainly want to shuffle, even if you see Dark Depths. However, you probably will see a land. If you have Force on top as well, pop the Force into your hand and pop the Force into your hand and put the land on top.

Turn 2: Untap, draw the land, play it and cast Dark Confidant.

Sample Hand 2:

Tropical Island
Underground Sea
Dark Depths
Vendilion Clique

Turn 1: I would play Tropical Island and pass the turn.

There is a good chance that I would not play Brainstorm on my opponent’s endstep because we might not see a shuffler, and we might get the most out of our Brainstorm later. Instead, I would play Counterbalance on turn two with Daze as protection.

Turn 2: Sea, Counterbalance

That way, Brainstorm can help you counter something on turn three and simultaneously dig you deeper. Again, this is all without knowing who the opponent is.

Sample Hand 3:

Flooded Strand
Dark Depths
Misty Rainforest
Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth
Force of Will
Sensei’s Divining Top
Vampire Hexmage

I would play turn 1 Misty Rainforest for a basic Island, and cast Sensei’s Top.
I would probably play turn 2 upkeep Top, to be honest, to draw something useful and Blue. Then I would play Urborg or the other fetchland and pass. On turn 3 I would then try to combo out with Vampire Hexmage and Dark Depths. This way the Hexmage is protected by both Force (hopefully you’ve seen a Blue card with Top) and from other removal. Also, you don’t want Dark Depths to be Wastelanded. This line of play will also allow you to tap Dark Depths for mana on turn 3 to activate Top, seeing new cards. The hope is that you’ll see a Daze on top to continue to protect your combo, which you can flip Top to draw, if needed.

I hope these three sample hands give you a sense of how to play the deck. If they don’t make sense, test the deck until they do. Now, let me talk about the sideboarding plans, briefly.

The Sideboard

The Sideboard was one of the trickiest parts of the deck, and it was only after I ran this deck through a tournament that I have a much better handle of precisely what this deck’s sideboard should look like.

Ravenous Trap earns the nod over Leyline for one key reason: this deck has so much library manipulation that finding a Trap, or hiding one with Top, is very easy to do. It’s just better than Leyline since it doesn’t need to be in your opening hand.

Also, Ravenous Trap is better against the Land deck. Yes, I know that they can cycle in response to Dredge again. That’s just something you’ll have to deal with. That’s also another reason I have 2 Extirpate. Extirpates serve several purposes. First, they are here for Dredge, as Dredge hate 5 and 6. Second, Extirpates are good against Land.dec. Third, they are good against control decks, by nailing Wasteland to take out their answers to Dark Depths, or, if you find it a problem, their Forces. They give you simultaneous access to their hand so you can play around their grip. Fourth, it’s here for combo. You only have 4 Force, 4 Daze, and 2 Cliques for the combo matchup. Extirpate on LED or something like that can really mess up their game.

Blue Elemental Blast times 5 is that important to fight Goblins, burn, and Zoo. Threads rounds out the sideboard. It’s here for opposing Goyfs. Submerge is also a great choice in that spot.



The huge rise in Goblins and Zoo in the late Summer/early Fall is the appeal of this combo. Goyf just isn’t enough to win games in this environment, but neither Goblins nor Zoo can really deal with a 20/20 flyer and it can be hastily assembled without protection. There is little that they can even do. Also, Hexmage is actually good enough by itself in these matchups.

Sideboard out the Cliques for Threads, and a pair of Ponders and a Daze for Blue Blasts. More if you are facing Goblins. You may even sideboard out one Hexmage and one Dark Depths for maximum Blue Blasts.

Counterbalance Mirror

This matchup is almost exactly symmetrical, except that instead of 3-4 creature removal spells you have 20/20 flyers. In short, you have a deadly finisher, not just Goyfs (a good finisher). Most Counterbalance lists now are three color, to my amazement. Those that do not run White will have no way to stop the Marit Lage Demon. Smother cannot kill a Marit Lage token. Lists with White will have Path or Swords. However, Sower is definitely a beating here. Sower is must-stop, but you only need to stop it for one turn. That means that you will want to activate the combo on their endstep.


Ravenous Trap + Extirpate + Dark Depths combo = The Win. Seriously, there is a reason that I have a bunch of anti-Dredge spells in the sideboard. Ravenous Trap and Extirpate are very powerful and will buy you plenty of time. Counter their Breakthrough on turn 1.

Canadian Threshold

This is actually a hard matchup for you, primarily because of Stifles and Wastelands. It’s still quite winnable, especially with either post-board Submerges or Threads of Disloyalty. In game 1 you just want to set up Counterbalance and take control. Post-board, Counterbalance is still really powerful, but they’ll have answers.


Another reason to run this combo. They can’t stop Hexmage Depths, except with maybe an Echoing Truth.

Ad Nauseam

Your main tools are Force, Daze, Clique, Counterbalance and Extirpate. Be prepared to be Chanted.

B/G/(x) Decks

These decks are becoming more and more popular, and they are designed a number of different ways. Good news: Deed can’t kill your token. Bad news? They have Wasteland. Good news: they will Wasteland your dual lands, so bait them and then combo out.


Last week I discussed the issue of collusion, and argued that Collusion should be illegal because it is unfair. In support, I explained that collusion disadvantages particular players by advancing harder matchups, which reduces a key skill in Magic, metagame positioning through deck selection. I stated, perhaps too strongly:

Regarding the first point, the most important skill in Vintage Magic, and perhaps Magic generally, is deck selection.

Zac Hill questioned:

… Really? I might be persuaded to agree for Vintage, but in-game playskill seems *far and away* the most important variable for Extended, Standard, and Block.

There are several issues here. One is the comparative importance of deck selection (a skill) versus in-game decision-making (a skill) in Magic generally. The second, and even trickier, is the relative importance of these skills in Vintage, as compared to other formats.

Let me address them in that order. Zac claims that in-game decision-making is ‘far and away’ the most important variable in Extended, Standard, and Block. I will address this, not to those formats, but to Magic generally. Zac’s statement, as formulated, is, I believe, provably false for two simple and related reasons, either of which can independently support the conclusion.

The first, and the easiest to understand, is this: There are matchups that are so favorable or unfavorable that skill cannot bridge the gap. Therefore, in-game decision-making cannot be ‘far and away’ the most important variable, since there are instances in which in-game decision making cannot affect the outcome of a matchup between two particular decks. In those instances, it is, necessarily, less important than the matchup itself.

The second reason is more general: Skillful deck selection is very clearly a necessary condition to winning a tournament (and may or may not be a sufficient condition, depending on the circumstances). Being a good player is not clearly a necessary condition (and is clearly not a sufficient condition), although it may be.

Now, let me unpack both of those reasons in greater detail, and caveat where necessary.

My first reason is that there are matchups so favorable or unfavorable where skill cannot bridge the gap.

Let me illustrate this by degrees, starting with admittedly extreme examples:

Consider this deck:

61 Islands

That deck cannot lose to this deck:

60 Swamp

No amount of skill can bridge the gap.

Example 2:

This deck:

30 Plains
30 Savannah Lion

Cannot beat this deck:

30 Forest
30 Elvish Archers

Almost no amount of skill can bridge that gap. So long as the Elvish Archer pilot follows a very simple four step algorithm, they will win: 1) play Forests if possible, 2) play Elvish Archers if possible, 3) block Savannah Lions if possible, 4) attack with at X Elvish Archers every turn, where X equals the number of Elvish Archers you control more than the number of Savannah Lions your opponent controls minus 1.

Now, it’s absolutely true that most cases aren’t that extreme. However, there are many cases in which the gulf between any two decks is greater than the skill gap between 3 standard deviations of all players, if not more.

There are many examples, but I will highlight only a few:

Owl versus Zoo, PT Honolulu 2006

“Jones mulliganned to four on the draw for Game 3 and then ran over Ruel, putting the Englishman into the semifinals via what Ruel referred to as “the worst matchup in Pro Tour Top 8 history.””


U.S. Nationals, 1998: Stupid Green Deck (Eladamri’s Vineyard control) could not beat Rec/Sur in any way. SGD could not put any pressure of any kind on Rec/Sur and Rec/Sur could use SGD’s Eladamri’s Vineyard engine better against SGD than SGD could use it against Rec/Sur.

I would say that if in-game decision-making were ‘far and away’ the most important variable, then these cases would not exist, even in there less extreme forms that I have not illustrated here.

The second reason: Skillful deck selection (i.e. choosing a deck that is capable of winning games of Magic, let alone particular matchups, and one that will perform well in the metagame) is a necessary condition (although not necessarily a sufficient condition) to winning a tournament. It is a predicate. Being the best player in the room is not. There are many situations in which a mediocre player or a good player can play a surprise deck and sweep a tournament, as happened when people first started playing Flash in Legacy tournaments leading up to Grand Prix: Columbus.

Now, I know what you might be thinking. You might agree with the points I’ve made, but nonetheless think that this doesn’t disprove Zac’s statement. Despite the counter-examples I’ve demonstrated, it might still be the case that, in general, in-game play skill is ‘by far the more important variable’ in those formats, right? Just because having a good deck is a necessary condition, that doesn’t necessarily make it more important, doest it? Or, conversely, just because there are matchups — perhaps many — where playskill cannot bridge the matchup’s natural divide doesn’t mean that, in general (or more often), that in-game decision making isn’t by far the most important variable.

That’s true. My arguments aren’t deductive in nature (meaning that if the premises are true then the conclusions must be true). Most arguments aren’t deductive. Like my counter-points, most arguments are inductive (where if the premises are true then the conclusion is probably true). The simple fact is that I’ve presented really good reasons to think that Zac’s claim is wrong. That doesn’t mean that it’s conclusively wrong, but common sense says that 1) if there are matchups where in-game decision making cannot swing the matchup and 2) if skilful deck selection is a necessary condition to winning a tournament and in-game skill may or may not be, then it’s highly unlikely that in-game decision-making is ‘by far the most important variable’ in shaping match outcomes. To require that my arguments prove it irrefutably is to hold them, as most arguments, to an unreasonable standard of proof. Very few arguments are held to that standard of proof. For example, in our criminal justice system juries send people to jail for murder when there is no reasonable doubt, even when it has not been conclusively proven one way or the other. In most lawsuits, the standard is even lower, only preponderance of the evidence is required. By that standard, I’d take my arguments against Zac’s statement to a jury any day of the week.

However, that isn’t to say that my arguments aren’t true, even from a higher standard of proof, but it will require a semantic argument about precisely what we mean by ‘the general case,’ and how we measure relative importance.

Note, as a caveat, in case someone overlooked it, that disproving Zac’s claim does not prove the statement I made that he was responding to. However, the reasons I listed do support that statement. Rather, my claims were directed towards Zac’s statement.

However, I’d like to backtrack from my claim, for a very different reason. I made the point that skillful deck selection is the most important skill in Vintage, and perhaps Magic generally, as a way of emphasizing my problem with collusion. Collusion infringes upon one of the most important skills that Magic tournaments test, by manipulating top 8 structures to advance harder matchups. Thus, my example of playing Paper in a tournament of Rock and Scissors. As you advance through the tournament, your chances of facing good matchups increase. I believe that a master of this is LSV, who, during his string of tournaments last year, consistently found amazing deck choices, whether it was Elves or Extended Storm Combo. He positioned himself amazingly well time and again, to win tournaments. Granted, he’s a brilliant technical player, but that doesn’t take away from his ingenious deck choices.

Which leads me to the real point I wanted to make: to separate in-game decision making and skillful deck selection is, in large measure, a false distinction, particularly in trying to say which is more important. Suppose you just enrolled in a 1200-player Constructed Grand Prix: What would you rather be: 1) the best player in the room with the worst deck in the tournament, or 2) the worst player in the room with the best deck in the tournament? Both would be terrible situations. Which one is worse? It’s very hard to tell. The worst deck is probably dreadful and incapable of winning most matches. And the worst player is really bad. The real answer is: it probably depends, but doesn’t matter.

And so this question is an unproductive debate because both in-game decision making and deck selection are hugely important, and arguably ‘necessary,’ at least for long-term success, and I believe it’s a mistake to say that one is ‘by far’ more important than another. Human beings need food and shelter to survive. Water needs hydrogen and oxygen. Trying to assign the relative importance to a water molecule of the hydrogen component or the oxygen component is just silly. They are both necessary conditions, although neither is sufficient.

I also think that the way that we typically conceptualize skill is wrong. The various skills in Magic: deck selection, mulligan decisions, sideboarding, in-game decision-making, etc, are actually far more integrated than our separation suggests. For example, sideboarding is actually a form of design. It’s a way of redesigning your deck after the first game, to maximize your chances of winning. Mulligan is a species of the same: you are, in effect, redesigning your opening hand. Deck selection is a strategic decision, positioning yourself within a metagame. It’s your plan. Yet, good in-game decision-making is a product of deeper understanding of one’s plan. For example, Mike Flores famous axiom, role assignment = game loss, is a statement about understanding of your strategy, and how to behave within the context of that plan. Therefore, I believe there is a deep relationship between skillful deck selection (and design) and in-game decision making.

For all of those reasons, I think the argument about which is more important: deck selection or in-game decision making is both silly and unproductive. They are both hugely important, and there is really no way to prove conclusively that one is more important than another, regardless of the format. That’s because they are inseparable.

Now, regarding the argument about whether Vintage is an exception in this regard, as Zac suggests it might be (notice he left out Legacy from his list), this argument is not new. In response to an article I wrote about Vintage three years ago, Mike Flores started questioning whether Vintage tests ‘skill,’ as he conceptualized it (primarily in-game decision making). You can read that debate here.

Despite the perception, Vintage is not exceptional in this regard. The reason is simple: although Vintage has the most powerful cards and the most efficient threats in the history of Magic, it also has the most efficient answers. That’s what makes Vintage fair. For every Mind’s Desire there is a Mindbreak Trap. For every Time Vault there is a Null Rod. To give you a sense of how things look in Vintage, Mana Drain decks have dominated Vintage for years, and continue to dominate (they are too good, in my opinion).

Collusion Continued

MJSperling asked some good question in response to my discussion of collusion:

I wrote that:

Intentional draws are not calculated for the purpose of disadvantaging another player in a game of Magic based upon the deck the next round opponent is playing. No consideration of another player’s deck or other in-game considerations are brought to bear. It’s simple tournament math and has nothing to do with the strategy or tactics of Magic: the Gathering.

MJ Sperling asked:

So what do you think happens when the X-0 gets paired down versus the X-1 in the final round? The X-0 never factors in top 8 matchups when the X-1 asks for an ID?

ID to screw someone else and help your friends also happens when a player with no chance of making top 8 refuses to ID because a friend is trying to sneak into the top 8. Or someone IDs with a friend when he/she would have played for top 16 against a non-friend, for example, knocking some other guy or gal out of the top 8.

This example is not an example of collusion. The comparison between IDing and collusion is made to suggest that Iding and collusion are both manipulating the tournament structure to disadvantage other players. A refusal to ID is besides the point. No one is arguing that a refusal to ID is collusion, since no third persons are being disadvantaged. The only person being disadvantaged is the opponent, should they lose. That’s true of every round in tournament Magic.

My main argument is that collusion should be illegal because it is fair. One of my main points was that IDs are not fair.

Here is what MJSperling asked:

Saying “IDs are not unfair” as a way of distinguishing them from bribed matches just begs the question. I suppose an attempted explanation is offered in the form of “There is a qualitative fairness difference between locking some people out simply on account of their accumulated points and targeting a particular person because of their deck choice” but again, what is the relevant difference? Why are ID’s fair? Arguments about the importance of metagaming and the importance of determining results “on the field of play” apply to IDs as well.

The relevant difference between IDs and collusion is the form of disadvantage that the players suffer. In the case of IDs, a player is disadvantaged because of their prior performance in a tournament. In the case of collusion, they are disadvantaged because of their deck choice. Their opponent’s have conspired against them to advance a more difficult matchup. The former is perfectly fair. The latter is not.

In the case of an ID, players are locked out of a tournament because they cannot accumulate the needed amount of points to make the Top 8 cutoff. That is because they have suffered a certain number of losses. If not for their prior performance, they would not be disadvantaged by the action of the players who ID in the final round. The Top 8 cut off is just such a disadvantage: players are being treated differently on account of their performance so far.

MJSperling says:

If you were going for the distinction that players intentionally drawing don’t intend to harm others, I would respond that this is both inaccurate and irrelevant. As explained above, the ID system is often used to exclude a known player/deck from the top 8.

My position is not that players IDing are not intending to harm other players. Quite the contrary, to the extent that their purpose is to make Top 8, that is a zero-sum goal. They make Top 8 to the exclusion of some other players. That’s something they are aware of when they ID.

The difference, the distinction I’ve been making, is that IDs are fair, while collusion is not. Everyone knows or should know that to make a top 8 in a tournament structure that is swiss + Top 8, that if you accumulate two losses you will likely be locked out of the tournament.

The objective in swiss tournaments that have a cut to Top 8 is not to maximize the number of wins, but to maximize the amount of points you accumulate. Wins provide points.

If you accumulate two losses, you are knocked out because you will be unable to cross the critical threshold. For example, in a 6 round tournament, the goal is basically to accumulate 13 points. In a 5 round tournament round tournament the goal is to accumulate 10 points. If you get two losses in the first four rounds, you will not be able to cross that critical threshold. People are themselves responsible for their prior losses.

Collusion produces a very different disadvantage. It’s perfectly fair to be disadvantaged because of your prior performance. Top 8 cutoffs discriminate precisely on that basis. It’s not fair to be disadvantaged because of your deck choice and metagaming skill, which is what collusion does.

In response to my article last week, Vroman composed some rebuttal arguments in support of his proposal to legalize collusion.

Here is what Vroman said, and the crux of his rebuttal:

There are no Vintage decks, with reasonable chance of making Top 8, that cannot be made, via sideboarding, to have good matchups against each other. Thus it cannot be said that deck X has a good matchup versus deck Z in the abstract, without knowing in detail, the sideboard composition and strategy of each pilot. Therefore, it is unfeasible to unambiguously increase ones expected value by rigging single-elimination brackets based on deck choices, defined simply by archetypal labels. It may be the case that collusive splits will be attempted more frequently if legalized, but I dispute they would actually increase the participating players return, over the “chance” outcome of playing their matches.

My first response is this: Vroman’s argument appears to be restricted to Vintage, or at least, most pronounced in Vintage. Before that quotation, he spends much time talking about the nuance and subtlety of Vintage decks, which have evolved over long periods of time. Even if he is correct that there are no favorable matchups in Vintage, at least that are knowable at the moment that collusion would occur, that is not true of other formats. The DCI Floor Rules are written for all formats. The Slow Play rule is the same for Standard as it is for Vintage, even if there are more high pressure, game consequent decisions in Vintage.

My second response is that although any deck can be made to have a favorable matchup, that doesn’t mean that it has been at the relevant point in time. For example, while an opponent could include 15 anti-dredge cards in order to guarantee a win in that matchup, that doesn’t mean that a player has made that choice at a particular moment in time.

And while Vroman is correct that the opponent “won’t actually know whether they have good or bad matchup versus you, at the time they need to make collusion decision, because its impractical and/or impossible to know what all your opponents are boarding, or what maindeck metagame cards they may have,” reasonable assumptions are made all the time.

He continues…

They will just know you are playing “Tez” or whatever, and their current opponent is playing “Fish” and based only on those two words, they might decide they don’t want to play versus you with Tez, so scoop to the Fish player so he can go on to play you and win, and they then get half the big prize. Except they have no idea if your Tez is geared to Fish, or might be wide open vulnerable to whatever they are playing.

Except that Vintage players do know. They won’t know with certainty, but they know probabilistically. For example, most Tez sideboards look pretty similar. Most Shop sideboards look very similar. Most Dredge sideboards look very similar. And so on. And probabilistic decision making is what collusion decisions involve anyway. You don’t know for sure that the deck you advance through collusion will win, but you make a calculation. After all, no matchup is 100%. You could collude to advance a much worse matchup for the next round opponent, but still lose. Same principal: you won’t know for certain what your next round opponent’s sideboard or mainboard looks like, but you will have a pretty good idea, since most lists are pretty similar.

I do not for a second dispute that sideboards can swing matchups, and change Paper to Rock, to continue the analogy. After all, most Vintage decks lose to Dredge the vast majority of the time in game 1s, probably approaching 80% of the time, if not more. Yet, Dredge does not dominate Vintage tournaments. Yet, most skilled Vintage players have a good sense of whether they have a favorable or unfavorable matchup, whether they know with certainty or not, and they are probably right. If Joe Shmoe is in the top 4, and the other side of the bracket is Rich Shay playing Tezzeret, Joe Shmoe knows what his chances are.

Until next time…

Stephen Menendian