Spiral-Shifting Strategies in Standard

Last week, a couple of StarCityGames.com columnists decided to speculate as to how existing Standard decks would survive the rotation of Kamigawa Block, assessing to varying degrees their respective viabilities in, presumably, Time Spiral Standard. Instead of approaching the problem of the format from this direction, Mike decided to look at the upcoming Standard from the other direction: Rather than asking how the loss of cards might affect existing archetypes, how might the new cards shape our outlook and strategies as a whole?

The best strategy for Kamigawa-Ravnica Standard was clear from Champs. While it changed somewhat over the course of the year in detail, that top line strategy itself never wavered. Basically, at Champs (best exemplified by the then-unbeatable Jushi Blue deck), you wanted to play attrition and time control in the early game (Boomerang, Remand, Mana Leak, or whatever different trading cards they printed since then), hit your land drops, and just tap out for a monolith (then three copies each of Meloku the Clouded Mirror and Keiga, the Tide Star, but again, these details would change over time). This strategy carried through Honolulu, where on the way to his Top 8, Osyp Lebedowicz taught us that it was okay to tap out for any of his four copies of Keiga and four copies of Meloku because, well, it’s not like the opponent was going to do anything as impressive, so why worry? This same strategy was the backbone for decks like Solar Flare and its ken, even if the details of implementation were slightly different.

Other strategies could reasonably have been played over the course of the year, but I am certain that attrition-into-giants was the best one overall because it won the most, adapted, and returned in a different form to win the most again (and in large part continues to win). Jushi Blue, all the ‘Tron variants, and the Wafo-Tapa decks all ran it, and even the specialized decks picked it up. Heartbeat’s transformational strategy was, at least at one point, based on brining in Ryusei and Keiga, and Vore – a deck if there was any with a powerful main line threat – included maindeck Keigas and sideboarded Melokus at different stages. This strategy only got better with the printing of Spell Snare, and to a lesser extent Condemn, which would help control time to greater efficiency early game, especially by wiping out annoying cards that could counterbalance the three-or-so card values of the top end creatures from the Tide Star to Angel of Despair, especially Dark Confidant.

At this point, I believe that the age of attrition-into-monolith is already over, but that most players – even Magic Online players, who are supposed to be swift at adapting – don’t all realize it yet. Decks like 8StoneRain.dec can stifle the development required to hit the monolith and the Skred strategies (KarstenBot Babykiller is my favorite deck to play in Standard, and Jeroen Remie has never won so many packs as since he adopted it) make the whole philosophy moot. I cannot tell you how many times I have faced off against Solar Flare online and the opponent thought he was getting back in it with a seven-drop to kill the three-drop I played on turn 2, only to lose the said seven to my one mana removal spell… and then get ruined over the course of turns by Scrying Sheets and Into the North.

Leaning on the giant monolith is, like, so 2005.

Skred – and I maintain that it is the best card in Standard, and that Snow is the most under-played theme, you heard it here first – was merely the forerunner to the shift in paradigm. Last week, a couple of StarCityGames columnists decided to speculate as to how existing Standard decks would survive the rotation of Champions of Kamigawa, Betrayers of Kamigawa, and Saviors of Kamigawa, assessing to varying degrees their respective viabilities in, presumably, Time Spiral Standard. Instead of approaching the problem of the format from this direction, I decided to look at the upcoming Standard from the other direction: Rather than asking how the loss of cards might affect existing archetypes, how might the new cards shape our outlook and strategies as a whole?

Via this lens I came to the conclusion that superficially “updating” main line decks that are losing key cards – especially vitally important centerpieces like the Kamigawa Dragons and Flagships like Umezawa’s Jitte – is pretty irrelevant given that the paradigm of Standard will change so radically in the next two months via a million infectious mechanics. Much as the best strategy of Kamigawa-Ravnica Standard was attrition-into-monolith (or to a lesser extent mana acceleration into monolith while fielding some minimal defense), the 2006-2007 Standard seems like it will be all about dropping your hand with cheap plays and artifacts to facilitate strategic and synergistic advantages.

First of all, I think that even if players do not adopt Skred as unanimously as the Snow theme demands, that the influx of strong land destruction (with Cryoclasm in 8StoneRain.dec and KarstenBot BabyKiller as the leading edge to probably a year of decks with 8-12 maindeck mana denial cards) will make hitting sixes and sevens (which may prove the new sixes) difficult. However more, if not better, murderers of monolith are already being adopted, viz. Cruel Edict and Hit / Run, and Time Spiral is just going to add to the pile of awesome and cheap slayers of sevens.

Despite a general desire to limit myself to “official” or known spoiled cards rather than branching out to the often wildly inaccurate world of 4/3 Giant Solifuges, I will retreat a moment to talk about rumored Sorcery Smallpox, which if it is a true spell, will probably end up my favorite card in Time Spiral.

Each player sacrifices a creature, then discards a card, then sacrifices a land, then loses 1 life.

*I read about this “spoiled” card on on MTGSalvation.com.

The design implications of this card are dizzying for a closet Jonny (not saying that I am one, or they might steal my Spike membership card), not to mention intimately synergistic with the incentive trend that is the central focus of this article… but just think about what this card does to Simic Sky Swallower, onetime ravager of Charleston skies. That’s right, friends, Smallpox kills the world’s (current) scariest seven for a mere two mana. The fact that this card, Skred, Cruel Edict, Hit / Run, and countless other cheap options – as well as development-stunting cards like Wreak Havoc and Wrecking Ball, let alone Stone Rain and Cryoclasm – are going to see play makes last year’s strategy decidedly last year.

Okay, back to my predicted “this year’s” favored strategy, “dropping your hand with cheap plays and artifacts to facilitate strategic and synergistic advantages…” What does that mean?

Today’s Vintage players probably don’t have a concrete understanding of the origins of their own intricate long games, or why permission – strong as it should be given the depth of the format – is so under-played (excepting Force of Will, and to a lesser extent cheap specialty cards) given the popularity of combination-reminiscent decks and anecdotal popularity of counters in formats with weaker response cards. The theory goes back to the first run of Mirage Block (as opposed to the relatively recent Magic Online virtual release), and specifically, the first appearance of the Mirage tutors. The Tutors created new incentives to Vintage specifically in the area of Velocity, and rewarded different looks at card advantage and cards in hand. For example, though Mystical Tutor is generally considered a net -1 in card economy, the fact that it could fetch Ancestral Recall meant that a player, should he be willing to make one short-term investment of a card in hand, could quintuple his initial Ancestral access. Mystical Tutor laced together other strategies, for example breaking Balance (and if your goal was to set up Balance, maybe it wasn’t a bad idea to drop a card in hand).

This led to intricate strategies and counter strategies. Say you wanted to Balance the opponent to his doom. How might you go about breaking what is acknowledged to be a very powerful card but is also ostensibly a symmetrical card? You might notice that Balance does not affect artifacts. Armed with this knowledge, you might bias your deck towards more cheap artifacts, or figure out a way to somehow punish your opponent’s artifacts. You might then use Mirage tutors to drop cards in hand but gain value in the long term, or build your deck in such a way as to drop a lot of low mana artifacts immediately before setting up Mystical Tutor for Balance, which would punish the opponent’s cards in hand (which, ostensibly, he invested other cards, some as powerful as Ancestral Recall, cultivating). This led to counter strategies, laced and laced together again with Mystical Tutor. Many Vintage players probably think of Hurkyl’s Recall as a card that they use to pick up their own jewellery so that they can re-play everything, accelerate mana, and up the Storm count. In 1997, it might have been the case that a Type One player used Mystical Tutor to go -1 cards in hand to get Hurkyl’s Recall so that he could make the opponent pick up all his artifacts, so that he could untap and Balance, keeping his own board of colorless metal but forcing the opponent to drop his grip.

These low mana, high velocity, strategies only became more attractive with the printing of other short-term recoup instants like Tithe, which were also conveniently synergistic with a marginal focus on artifact mana (more, say, than all Vintage decks are theoretically artifact mana friendly).

Because Vintage has become a land of faster endgames (why sculpt an incremental advantage in play and give your opponent “I win” topdecks when you can use your tutors to thrill kill via Yawgmoth’s Will, Gifts Ungiven, Tinker, or Time Walk?), these strategies have become much less popular in recent years (not to mention the fact that shifting card availability and restrictions has similarly affected the landscape), but their legacy remains. It was during this era that the concept of being bound by mana was coined. In some ways, each and every 0-2 mana spell that a proactive velocity-focused deck played might be considered a threat. Cards for one mana, like Ancestral Recall, were death in and of themselves. Tithe was a terrible Ancestral Recall, but because a deck was focused on many short-term plays trying to create incremental advantage, that terrible Ancestral Recall might have had to be respected. Same on one-mana tutors which were ostensibly bad investments… but might have been building towards a critical sequence. Hurkyl’s Recall was trouble. Balance was obvious. In the end, permission at twice the price just couldn’t keep up. Force of Will was… well… Force of Will, but the opponent also had Force of Will, so it was a push, especially since the opponent might not care about dropping cards. Permission decks could not compete on the mana because even the efficient options like Counterspell and Mana Leak were twice as expensive or at best tempo-neutral. On the other hand, the opponent could play many more spells with his mana – if even for a single turn – because he had many cheap cards and was playing to overthrow the control.

The Mirage Tutors could help play solitaire as effectively as they could disrupt the game (or, for that matter, defend against the disruption). Dropping your hand is an awfully economical strategy when your opponent is leaning on a Library of Alexandria and you spend your last card on Mystical Tutor with the goal of untapping to play Timetwister. All of a sudden both you and the other guy have seven cards in hand, but yours is a net +7 and his is a net +0. By the same token, you can respond to a Mind Twist, Amnesia, or Balance by “storing” your value elsewhere (say the Wheel of Fortune on top of your deck) to recover when the other guy’s proactive game is online.

Have you ever wondered why Heartbeat of Spring was hands down the most successful deck of the Charleston PTQ season, why by the end of the season every single team that qualified was fronting a Heartbeat deck? Some of the mathematically disinclined claim that Heartbeat was convenient in that it did not steal dual lands… but I do not understand which dual lands it was not stealing. The majority of (default, and especially default-successful) teams had no conflict on their Godless Shrines or Steam Vents (or better yet, Temple Gardens and Boros Garrisons) and could have done whatever they wanted with the remaining color combinations. This was clearly not why Heartbeat was such a dominating option.

Heartbeat was not the best against aggressive decks, a dog against some of the less popular versions (Boros), and up for debate against other attack wings based on micro-archetype detail (Orzhov). Heartbeat dominated some versions of Orzhov, lost to Mindslicers when they came up, but for the most part, it held its own. One reason the deck got so much value was that it was absolute hell on the opposing control decks. They just couldn’t win. They could have a hand full of counters, and Heartbeat, tactically sound Heartbeat, would run circles around them on the mana. You see the Heartbeat player could make a control match feel like a mirror where the opposing deck was at a severe disadvantage based on Sakura-Tribe Elder and Kodama’s Reach in the early game (especially when ‘Beat was on the play). It might not matter that the control had four permission cards in hand, or more cards in hand in general, and Heartbeat had eight rather imperfect permission cards in his own deck. Ultimately, Heartbeat was playing for one turn where it could not possibly fizzle, so Remand, the world’s softest hard counter, was Dismiss for all intents and purposes, so long as its being played resulted in tapped mana. Never forget that humble Muddle the Mixture has the steel of Counterspell in a “may I?” fight. The sometimes pronounced cards in hand advantage of the control deck could not be exploited to its fullest potential against Heartbeat for exactly the same reason that the Vintage permission of 1997 conflicted so unfavorably with the Mystical Tutor-driven velocity control decks of that era: They didn’t have the mana to win fights. When they lost, their remaining Counters would be replaced by some random seven off the top or fall into the bin. Rewind is a pretty good card against Heartbeat, right? You play it on virtue of its anti-Gigadrowse power… This card is sometimes a gold star, but usually pretty weak in an actual counter fight.

The reason that “dropping your hand with cheap plays and artifacts to facilitate strategic and synergistic advantages” will be a leading strategy in the coming year is that incentives have shifted on an aggregate vector. Not only is it less attractive to use last year’s strategy because the big creature killing creature kill has become cheap and effective and that the Kamigawa Legends have made the remaining monoliths one more or even two mana more expensive in a world with twice the Stone Rains, the new cards – the cards most pundits have ignored in their analyses thus far – actually want you to play for the here and now while setting up some advantage that won’t be seen for four turns.

Wheel of Fate.

Ancestral Visions.

These cards are on a power level that has never been seen in Standard. Are they clunky in a way that the originals are not? Obviously. They are nevertheless like boogeymen that may scare away “fair” or conventional attrition decks (I know I’m wondering). These mighty Suspend cards – and whatever their undoubtedly frightening brethren look like – while impossibly strong in the right decks, may, by that token, only be best exploited by those decks.

In Magic, there are certain generally accepted if not immutable limiting factors. You draw one card per turn. You lay one land per turn. Your maximum hand size is seven. When you play one of these cards, you will inevitably find yourself bumping up against one of the limiting factors of the game. For example, a classic control deck that seeks to promote and preserve cards in hand with Karoos and Compulsive Research may be forced into an over-draw position with Ancestral Visions that compromises its ability to actually net cards, turning that into some kind of weak cycling… that takes several turns.

The immediate solution is to play mana acceleration – the cheaper the better – for a couple of reasons. Mana acceleration allows a player to drop cards in hand, which reduces the tension on the seven card limiting factor. Moreover, with more cards, you have more options, and with more mana, you can realize those options: The decisions are doubly synergistic. Now when you introduce a fat wedge of cheap mana acceleration into your deck, you will sometimes run into the dreaded “all mana hand” which has plagued Tinker and Secret Force, powerful acceleration reliant decks that also tended to put all their eggs into one basket so that they could lose with explosive draws to a single removal spell. The solution to the all mana draw is of course powerful and commensurately fast card drawing. The vulnerability of certain styles of Tinker was that they could generate an immensely powerful single threat with all their mana, but lose it. Less explosive versions with Goblin Welder, on the other hand, could juggle Tangle Wires and Urza’s Blueprints to stifle the opponent’s position and draw tons of extra cards so as to never find themselves with infinite potential but nothing, concretely, to do.

Proactive plays fall into multiple categories, but two of them jump out more than any others. Artifact mana is the first and more obvious for the reasons stated in the previous paragraph… but the synergies do not stop with the Suspend suite. Smallpox loves “storing” cards with artifacts in play. That is a route players can use to break the symmetry on having to discard cards themselves (they don’t have any, so they net a card when the opponent has to discard one). Mishra, Artificer Prodigy has obvious synergies with, um, his own Bauble, probably the cheapest opportunity to “store” cards in all of Standard.

The other major route to proactive play is to actively spend cards. This can take the form of trading one-for-one and then relying on the power of an exterior engine for card advantage (much as the old Necropotence decks could profit from Firestorm), or running the true Zoo offense of cheap 2/1 creatures, burn spells, and Mystical Tutor-into-Wheel of Fortune for the reload. A new strategy that I know I am going to try is to use Boomerang and whatever other bounce cards we get to set up Wheel of Fate. Boomerang has many advantages over specific trading cards like Stone Rain, Putrefy, and what have you in that it is very cheap and it doesn’t care what it is shooting at. You may counter that the opponent doesn’t actually lose anything, that his card merely changes zones, but with Wheel of Fate in the mix, that hardly matters. The goal is to keep the opponent off-resource as the raw power of the Suspend draw cards will take care of the economies. If his Izzet Boilerworks is stuck in hand when the Wheel fires, he will lose it as surely as if it were conventionally destroyed.

As exciting as this new – or old, depending on how you look at it – strategy may prove, my fear is that Standard players will suffer some massive degradation of endgame skills. One of the worst possible ruts to fall into (and this should be the subject of at least two articles itself) is the notion that if you take card of what you have to take care of now, whether by responding to threats with even speed, or setting up incremental card advantage through the middle turns, that the endgame will take care of itself. We know from previous turbo-charged card drawing and manipulation decks like Trix that this is not actually the case, that the end actually has to become more specific for the deck to thrive. The laziness, I fear, will erupt anyway, to at least the short-term detriment of everybody’s skills, at least until the Wise (or failing those, the Erudite) step in to stabilize the format, or as the case may be, mend time.