Solving The Puzzle

Four-time SCG Invitational Top 8 competitor Brian Braun-Duin writes about some steps you can take to figure out how to construct your deck to have a plan for a bad matchup.

"I just picked up my second loss." You sit down and look dejectedly at your friend. "If I could have just dodged Mono-Purple Dinosaurs, I could have easily made Top 8 of this event. My opponent even had turn 4 Barney all three games. I can’t beat that card. It’s the only bad matchup for the deck, yet I had to play against it three times. I even got lucky and beat it once. Woe is me, good friend of mine."

"Sorry, person who I also consider a friend. Bad breaks. Maybe next time you will get paired more often against Mostly Horned-Rhinoceros Midrange. I know that’s a good matchup for you."

"Yeah, you’re right. That matchup completely Rhox. It’s also a more popular deck in the metagame. I guess I just have to wait for the next tournament."

"You’ll get ’em next time, Tiger!"

If that conversation sounds like a conversation that you’ve ever had, then I think you’re completely lying to my face right now because those aren’t real decks or cards. Well, except for Rhox. His struggle is real. However, if the general idea behind that conversation sounds like a conversation you’ve had at one point or another, I think this article might be the strawberry jam for your lightly burnt toast.

One of the things I love most about Magic is building and tuning decks. I don’t love it because I want to express my creativity—most of my decks are grindy midrange monstrosities—but because I like the challenge it represents. I do it because I consider a format like Standard to be a puzzle and I like trying to solve the puzzle. I like trying to figure out how to fit the cogs together. I like figuring out how to beat the natural predators to any strategy.

There was one format I could never solve though. Maria. How do you solve that problem? "Blood" Baron Von Trapp never figured it out, and I couldn’t either. I was like sixteen going on seventeen losses in that format before I finally gave up.

I feel like Magic itself frequently is also a puzzle. In Magic you have time to plan out ahead what you are going to do. Because decks are built in advance, you can come into an event with a plan already set up for how you are going to beat each and every deck you play against. You can play out a game like it’s a problem with a solution. Every turn you can analyze what options your opponent has and what you can do to best limit their plays. Every matchup you can analyze what cards matter most and what you can do to maximize your cards and minimize theirs.

Quite often we put too much emphasis on our opponent and how our opponent plays the match or whether our opponent is a better player than we are or how our opponent sideboarded.

The fact of the matter is that a surprising amount of the time our opponent actually just doesn’t matter. With the right plan and the right steps ingrained in our mind to solve the puzzle of a specific matchup, it actually doesn’t matter how our opponent plays. We can beat them. They can be a Hall of Famer who knows their deck inside and out, but if we have the right game plan, the right cards in our list, and the right understanding of how to play those cards to interact with theirs, we will still win.

I want to talk about some steps to take to figure out how to construct your deck to have a plan in a certain matchup and how to go about figuring out how to beat those matchups. Specifically, I want to focus on how to take a matchup that isn’t favorable and figure out how to solve that puzzle and turn the matchup around. It isn’t always possible. Sometimes the cards simply don’t exist to make it feasible, but more often than not they do.

The premise is that you have a beloved deck but can’t figure out how to use Dearly Beloved to beat your opponent’s Bitter Archenemy. If you could just solve that one matchup, you would be living large . . . relaxing in the 7-1 bracket, sipping on water fountain water, and munching on concession stand hot dogs like you own that convention center. And maybe you do. So what are we waiting for? Let’s figure out how to break the code. Let’s crack the puzzle.

Step 1: Determine Which Of Your Cards Actually Matter

This may seem like an easy step, but looks can be deceiving. It’s easy to see what cards aren’t cutting it, right? Shouldn’t it just be obvious that you want to side out Ultimate Price against U/W Control? Sure, sometimes it’s as simple as siding out Squire against your opponent’s Shock deck, but it’s not always that cut and dry.

Here’s an example of what I mean. In the Esper deck I wrote about last week, Elspeth, Sun’s Champion was the best threat in my deck against Mono-Blue Devotion. This week I have been working on what some fine folk might refer to as "a bit of a brew." It’s a nearly mono-white Heliod deck. I went into the Mono-Blue matchup assuming that Elspeth would be the one of the best threats in my deck since, you know, it was awesome from Esper. Surprisingly, it wasn’t. It took me a long time to figure it out, and I couldn’t understand how I was resolving Elspeth and still losing since that was rarely the case with Esper.

The difference was context. In Esper, I have this little card called Detention Sphere. That card is nearly universally saved for Nasty T (or Thassa, God of the Sea as she is more commonly known). Thassa can make creatures unblockable, which is pretty damn effective against a card that spits out a lot of weak chump blockers such as Elspeth, Sun’s Champion. With Esper, I could just Detention Sphere or Pithing Needle the Thassa and Elspeth was free to rule over all the creatures of the sea the way it was intended. Esper also had Supreme Verdict to keep devotion down even when Thassa stuck around.

Nearly mono-white Heliod didn’t quite have the same capabilities. In fact, I didn’t really have any easy way to get rid of Thassa. Sometimes I would just play an Elspeth, make three Soldiers, and then Elspeth would just immediately bite it to the Thassa that was in play. That doesn’t really cut it for the card you’re trying to top out your curve with.

Figuring out what cards matter involves actual work. You can’t just eyeball a matchup and automatically know which cards come in and come out. I eyeballed the matchup and thought Elspeth would be awesome against Mono-Blue Devotion based on my prior experience with the card. I was wrong.

To provide another example, last year when I was working on a B/W Midrange deck called Orzhov Guildgate, I originally had four copies of Blood Baron of Vizkopa in my list. I figured that Blood Baron would be a fine threat against a deck like G/R Agro. I could use my abundance of spot removal spells to kill their handful of creatures that were bigger than it and then just outrace their littler guys with El Baron.

That was my thought process going into the matchup. Boy was I wrong. Blood Baron was the actual worst thing ever against them. It died to Domri Rade or Mizzium Mortars essentially every time it touched the battlefield, and the few times it went full James Bond and decided to Die Another Day, it would actually just do exactly that—die another day. I would inevitably have to block a Strangleroot Geist with it a turn or two later and a Ghor-Clan Rampager would ensure that The Baron was relocated to his proper place directly in the graveyard where he belonged. Bin it!

It’s important to play a bunch of games of a matchup and spend some time critically thinking about what cards matter the most. In the games you win, what are the cards that actually won you the game? It might not be the cards that dealt lethal damage. What are the cards that don’t really contribute at all toward those cards winning you the game? Those are the ones that should be cut.

To go back to the mono-white Heliod deck against Mono-Blue Devotion, Soldier of the Pantheon was a card I eventually realized needed to be cut. Soldier is actually a solid offensive threat. It attacks through Frostburn Weird, Judge’s Familiar, and Nightveil Specter and trades with Mutavault and Tidebinder Mage. Often I would do upward of ten damage with a single Soldier of the Pantheon. On the surface it seemed like the card was good against Mono-Blue Devotion.

However, it didn’t actually end up being that way in practice. I was never beating Mono-Blue by simply being too fast and beating them down before they could stabilize. Thus the ten damage that Soldier of the Pantheon could theoretically deal would never actually win me a game. The games I was winning all involved cards like Banisher Priest, Archangel of Thune, and Mizzium Mortars. I would keep enough of their creatures off the board and then win with a huge threat like Archangel that just went over the top of their strategy literally and figuratively. Soldier needed to be cut.

Step 2: Figure Out The Cards You Can’t Beat

It’s just as important to figure out which of their cards you’re struggling to beat as it is to figure out which of your own cards don’t cut it. You might be able to determine that Blood Baron of Vizkopa is really bad against G/R Aggro, but if you don’t know why they’re beating you, then you really have no clue what to replace it with.

It turned out that my Orzhov list struggled the most with three cards: Domri Rade, Strangleroot Geist, and Thundermaw Hellkite. Domri Rade was an issue because my deck was built around the premise of using spot removal spells like Ultimate Price and Victim of Night to handle opposing threats and then win the game with some giant threat like Desecration Demon.

Domri Rade’s +1 ability provided a long stream of card advantage that would eventually overwhelm my resources. It didn’t matter if I had three kill spells in my hand if my opponent just had an endless stream of creatures I needed to kill.

Strangleroot Geist provided a triple whammy. It was cheap and hasty, ensuring that I would take a few hits from it before I could react. It had undying, meaning that my spot removal spells would be ineffective against it, and it was also a very strong threat against Desecration Demon, one of my better cards in the matchup.

Thundermaw Hellkite (and to a lesser extent Hellrider and Flinthoof Boar) was also a problem because of its haste. Sometimes I would have enough removal spells to kill all of their creatures but would still lose anyway because every creature hit me once before I could untap and kill it. I would stabilize around three life and then eventually just die to a haste creature off the top.

With Heliod’s mono-white minions, the two problem cards were Thassa, God of the Sea and Master of Waves. Banisher Priest was one of my only answers for a Master of Waves. Even if I had a Banisher Priest to deal with one, it wasn’t a permanent solution. Cyclonic Rift and Rapid Hybridization would loom large and threaten to end the game at any point in time.

Thassa I simply couldn’t interact with. I could banish it if she became a creature, but generally that meant she would take a five-point chunk off my face first. Sometimes that was enough to ensure that even if I immediately dealt with her the next turn I could still lose to the rest of their creatures. Frequently they just played another Thassa, and I was back to square one.

When I played Junk Reanimator last year and was struggling to beat Junk Aristocrats, Blood Artist and Skirsdag High Priest were the most problematic cards. I didn’t have a lot of ways to remove either from play, and regardless of how much life I gained or how many creatures I would vomit into play, I would eventually lose to the residual advantages they generated.

Step 3: Devise An Outline To Win The Game

This step and the next step are the hardest part. They’re also the most fun part and the most rewarding. If you end up devising the right strategy, you’ll start to see results, and it’s invigorating. It feels good. You fought the beast, and you won.

It’s not easy, though, because there aren’t any automatic solutions. If a matchup isn’t a good matchup for you, it’s rarely as easy as just saying, "I’ll add four copies of Thragtusk to my deck, and all of a sudden I can’t lose!" If the matchup could be reversed with just one simple card, I wouldn’t ever consider it to be a bad matchup in the first place.

The important aspect of this step is to simply come up with an idea of how you think you can win a game against that deck. This is independent of any specific cards. This isn’t the step where you say, "I’m going to cut Soldier of the Pantheon and replace it with Last Breath!" This is the step where you say, "Having removal that can reliably hit Master of Waves might allow Archangel of Thune more time to win." This is the step where you say, "My game plan in a post-board game is to play my removal spells much more aggressively and try to sneak in as much early damage as I possibly can. I’ll end the game before they can get going."

For example, in the case of the Orzhov Guildgate versus G/R Aggro matchup, I knew that Domri Rade and the haste mechanic were the two hardest barriers for me to overcome. I spent a lot of time in this step brainstorming solutions. I came up with a number of outlines that I thought might work.

One was to change gears and try to race them. I would use my spot removal spells only on their biggest threats and try to kill them with cards like Desecration Demon before they could kill me. Another plan was to just have so many removal spells that I could conceivably kill everything they played and eventually win with whatever threat I drew. Another plan was to gain enough life to offset the haste damage their creatures would immediately deal.

One easy place to start in coming up with a scheme is to use the information from the first two steps. You should know which cards in both decks matter most and least in the matchup. In the case of Heliod versus Mono-Blue Devotion, I know that cards like Banisher Priest, Mizzium Mortars, and Archangel of Thune matter most against them. I know that Master of Waves and Thassa matter the most from them.

So now what is my game plan to beat them? There are a number of ways you can approach it.

One is to come up with a plan that can win without having to interact with their best cards. Ignore their best cards and attack them from a different angle. Perhaps I can just have a bunch of flying creatures, use my removal spells to kill their flying creatures, and outrace Thassa and Master of the Waves with creatures they cannot block. Perhaps I can just play a bunch of hyperaggressive creatures, deal a lot of early damage to them, and then finish them off with a Brave the Elements once they finally stabilize.

Another is to come up with a plan that supplements your best cards so that they’re better than their best cards. An example of this would be to play a bunch of cards that gain life and a bunch of token generators and focus on using Archangel of Thune to simply overwhelm them with a bunch of ever-growing creatures and a huge life buffer regardless of whether or not they have a Master of Waves or Thassa in play.

The final approach is to come up with a solution that involves dealing with their best cards and then hoping your cards will be good enough to beat the rest of their deck. For example, this plan would be to use cards like Mizzium Mortars to keep them off of devotion and cards like Chained to the Rocks, Last Breath, and Banisher Priest to keep Thassa and Master of Waves off the table.

Step 4: Figure Out What Cards Fit Your Outline

After developing a rough sketch of how to win a game against That Deck, the next step is to determine the actual cards you want in your deck to facilitate this plan. This is the step where you cut Blood Baron of Vizkopa and replace it with Obzedat, Ghost Council to get more aggressive. This is the step where Squire comes out for Maritime Guard to blank their Shocks.

One fantastic tool that is very underutilized in this regard is Gatherer. Wizards has a tool that lets you search for cards in any given format based on criteria. That is the perfect way to look for any card that could possibly be helpful in accomplishing your plan of action.

A Gatherer search is actually what completely saved the Orzhov Guildgate versus G/R Aggro matchup for me. My record against the deck was something extremely abysmal, like 1-13, when I was testing on Magic Online. I was winning enough other matchups to where I felt like the deck was still worth investing in despite my inability to beat G/R, but I still wanted to figure out a way to change this matchup for the better.

I tried out a number of plans from Step 3, but none of them were ultimately successful. The most promising plan had been a hybrid plan of combining life gain with aggression to attempt to reduce the effectiveness of their haste creatures. I had already cut a number of Geralf’s Messengers and was up to the full four Vampire Nighthawks. I was winning some games where I would curve Nighthawk into Desecration Demon into Obzedat, but I still died to Thundermaw Hellkite often enough.

I searched through Gatherer and found a relatively unplayed gem: Blind Obedience. I started testing with the card, and I quickly realized that I was winning almost every single game where I played a Blind Obedience on turn 2. Blind Obedience both nullified the haste keyword and provided me with an opportunity to gain life. If I played a turn 2 Blind Obedience, my opponent’s follow-up Flinthoof Boar didn’t hit me for three damage, and when I killed it with an Ultimate Price the next turn, I could extort for one as well.

Surprisingly, Blind Obedience also improved a number of other matchups. It made my U/W Control matchup stronger. I could actually just beat them without ever having to attack thanks to Geralf’s Messenger, Obzedat, and Blind Obedience. Thanks, Gatherer! I maindecked two copies of Blind Obedience the next time I played the deck, and it was very good the entire event. I didn’t lose to G/R in the tournament, and I played against it multiple times.

The key in this step is to consider what the most effective cards are that can accomplish the specific goals you outlined in Step 3. For example, if my plan with the mono-white Heliod deck is to win by playing a bunch of early threats and hoping to end the game before Master of Waves and Thassa come online, then Pacifism is a good card to find. However, if my plan is to play a longer game and try to trump their best cards or make my best cards better than theirs, then Pacifism does nothing because their creature is still going to make Master of Waves and Thassa better by providing devotion.

Based on the nature of the Heliod deck, I knew that the only reasonable solution I was going to have against Mono-Blue Devotion was to design a game plan that involves actually dealing with their Thassa and Master of Waves. I would have to completely change the entire nature of the deck to come at them with a different game plan, and I wasn’t willing to make that big of an overhaul. I knew that Mono-Blue Devotion can’t really interact that well with the permanents I put into play, so my plan became to focus on building my devotion to a big endgame and on beating their two most important cards.

Therefore the cards I was looking for were cards that could increase my devotion to white while also providing an answer to Thassa and Master of Waves. Banisher Priest was a good example of a card that did exactly that. In fact, Banisher Priest was one of the cards that I’d identified as being one of the best cards in the matchup from Step 1. Banisher Priest could remove Master of Waves while also making Nykthos and Heliod stronger.

I found a few other cards that also fit the description. Chained to the Rocks was a big one. While I already knew about Chained to the Rocks without having to search Gatherer, this matchup was bad enough to finally push me to the point where I was willing to butcher my mana base to accommodate it.

The last key card I found was Angel of Serenity. I am able to establish my own devotion easily and am looking for a card that can completely nullify their devotion. Angel of Serenity was a perfect fit. It is easy to cast earlier than normal with Nykthos, and if they lack an answer, it will simply end the game. Perfect.

Soul Tithe was another card that I discovered while searching for ways to win this matchup. While I haven’t had a chance to actually test Soul Tithe, in theory it seems like it could potentially be solid. While they can just pay to keep around a Master of Waves or a Thassa, the continual upkeep cost can help ensure that they don’t actually get to use those cards or cast other cards in the meantime.

Step 5: Test, Learn, Repeat

It’s rare that your first try is going to be good enough. However, it’s also very rare that you don’t learn anything from the attempt. Coming up with a solution to a particularly difficult matchup is often an iterative process. You try a certain plan, figure out what worked and what didn’t work from that plan, and then go back to the drawing board. Revise the plan, find new cards to fit your revised scheme, and then try again.

Each time you get one step closer to finding that ultimate configuration of cards and strategy that will let you finally see victory in your dreaded matchup. A perfect example of this method at work was when Chris VanMeter and I worked on solving how to beat Junk Aristocrats with Junk Reanimator.

We actually tried all of the common methods from Step 3. We tried ignoring their problem cards of Skirsdag High Priest and Blood Artist by just trying to gain obscene amounts of life with Trostani and winning that way. It didn’t work.

We tried supplementing our best cards so that they would be better than Aristocrats’ best cards. We went all in on setting up an early Unburial Rites on Angel of Serenity to clear their board early. It was too inconsistent.

Our final plan was to actually do whatever we could to keep their High Priests and Blood Artists off the table and then hope the rest of our deck was good enough to finish the job. This plan involved having Fiend Hunter, Abrupt Decay, Garruk Relentless, and Angel of Serenity as ways to remove them from play. This plan worked eventually. However, even once we figured that this was going to be the primary plan, we still had to revise and revisit it numerous times to figure out how to get it to work optimally.

It’s also very important to note that you aren’t just looking for cards you can play in your deck to improve the matchup. One of the easiest pitfalls I see people make is that they only look for cards to beat a certain deck, assuming that the cards are straightforward enough to play. That’s not always true. It’s also important to figure out how you’re going to play the cards in the given matchup.

Maybe your plan to beat U/W Control with your B/W deck is to never expose Obzedat to any piece of removal. Your plan in the matchup isn’t to just put Obzedat in your deck; it also includes how to actually play with Obzedat when you draw it. This means not attacking with Obzedat when they could have an Azorius Charm. This means not casting Obzedat into an obvious counterspell.

For Junk Reanimator versus Junk Aristocrats, one of the pitfalls I felt I was making was being too defensive with Thragtusk. For example, if my opponent’s board is Cartel Aristocrat and three Lingering Souls tokens, do you attack with the Tusk? If your opponent doesn’t block, you let them get a free two points of damage with Cartel Aristocrat without having to sacrifice a creature to enable it since you no longer have a blocker. Your opponent can also block with a Cartel Aristocrat and a Lingering Souls token and trade two Spirit tokens for your Thragtusk.

Early on I wasn’t making the attack. When I played the matchup more, I began to learn that I should nearly always be making that attack. My plan against Junk Aristocrats was to have more pieces of removal so that I could handle their problematic creatures more easily. Having access to more removal also meant that I could play more aggressively since I didn’t have to fear the damage from the swing back nearly as much. Not only was I figuring out what cards mattered in the matchup, but I was figuring out what lines of play mattered.

If you have a Chained to the Rocks and a Mizzium Mortars in hand against B/W, which removal spell do you use against Nightveil Specter? If you use Chained to the Rocks, you risk losing to a Desecration Demon. If you use Mizzium Mortars, you risk losing to a Blood Baron of Vizkopa. Learning which removal spell to use in this situation and how to sequence your spells properly is just as important as having the right spells in your deck in the first place.

The answer might even be that you don’t kill the Specter. Maybe your plan in the matchup is to just ignore it and focus on killing their bigger threats instead. Who knows? The point is that you can have the right cards in your deck and still have the wrong plan for a matchup. It’s not just finding those sweet cards; it’s also figuring out how to play them to make them sweetest.

This step is where I learned that Angel of Serenity, Last Breath, and Banisher Priest were actually still not enough by themselves to beat Mono-Blue Devotion. If I wanted to win the matchup with the mono-white Heliod deck, I needed to revise my plan to include Chained to the Rocks. Chained to the Rocks was the most efficient and most powerful removal spell, and it also provided devotion. This meant I had to add a bunch of Mountains to my mana base and add variance as a result, but it certainly improved the matchup significantly.

Hopefully this has provided good insight into the process of figuring out how to solve the puzzle of a difficult matchup. Overall, I feel like Magic offers a lot of scenarios where simple problem-solving techniques and iterative testing can result in a deck becoming progressively more and more tuned until it’s able to compete on the big stage.

If you accept that there is a solution for any matchup, then Magic can just be boiled down to figuring out where each piece fits to solve the puzzle.

Just don’t drop the pieces.