Splish Splash

Splash Damage is shorthand that I and some of my friends use when designing decks. After reading this article, you will be empowered to use it as well. When the Rabbit shows me a Black deck with Diabolic Tutor for card selection, and I ask him why he didn’t use Undead Gladiator and Twisted Abomination instead (like I have largely adopted), Rabbit can say”Splash Damage on Stabilizer.” I immediately know what he means and the matter is settled.

This article is only useful if you like to make your own decks. If you like to copy other people’s decks, go ahead and click that back button now; you aren’t going to get anything useful out of this article. You can also scroll down to the bottom, read the halfway amusing latest installment of”Before They Were Stars,” knowing that you will probably do better in the next tournament with your razor sharp Ravagers and shiny Siege-Gangs than anyone who reads what comes between.

Still there? Great. Now that those netdecking copycats are gone, we can start the real work.

Splash Damage is shorthand that I and some of my friends use when designing decks. Yes, Splash Damage is another new term, but in this case it is also a fairly new concept, or at least a new way of looking at things. After reading this article, you will be empowered to use it as well. When the Rabbit shows me a Black deck with Diabolic Tutor for card selection, and I ask him why he didn’t use Undead Gladiator and Twisted Abomination instead (like I have largely adopted), Rabbit can say”Splash Damage on Stabilizer.” I immediately know what he means and the matter is settled.

What Splash Damage means is that even though you are designing an independent build that can theoretically generate deck advantage by being a little different (and forcing errors from non-Budde players), you still have to keep in mind the metagame’s strategies for existing decks. The opponent might be aiming for Astral Slide, might have never even thought about Black, and yet have an amazing sideboard card for your deck if you’re not careful.

The concept of Splash Damage is one that first dawned on me at an Extended PTQ a few seasons ago. I had invented Secret Sauce with Matt Rubin, and gave it to Paul Jordan, who was to play it at a Pro Tour: Chicago PTQ (I also gave it to Aaron Forsythe, who gave it to Friggin’ Rizzo, who made (to my knowledge) his only PTQ Top 8 with it). To make a long story short, Dan McNeil stole Paul’s Natural Orders, forcing Paul to play Trix… and win his first PTQ. Dan made the long overnight haul from Chicago to New Jersey to hit our PTQ that Sunday… and hand me the Natural Orders for my deck. By the way, only part of that paragraph is true, but I won’t tell you which parts.

So Dan is in Edison with us, set to play Stasis. He had done a lot of drawing because Stasis is slow. Yet he thought it was a good choice. No one was expecting Stasis! How different! How unexpected! How rogue!

Do you see where Dan screwed up? Remember our definitions of rogue from last time. It might be the case that Stasis is an unexpected strategy. However, much of the power of the rogue mage disappears for Dan. The opponent might not be expecting Stasis per se, but he is in a Trix environment certainly ready for enchantments, and Blue enchantments or other spells at that. There will be no Sligh deck with fewer than four Pyroblasts or Red Elemental Blasts after sideboarding, and no White player with fewer than four Seal of Cleansings and Disenchants. That is not to say that Dan can’t win, just that he doesn’t have a competitive advantage on the cards: people are gunning for Trix, but have the exact same weapons that would efficiently deal with Dan.

Splash Damage is a gut check. Does it occur for a particular deck? If it does, do you proceed? If you do, what are your answers?

Probably my absolute favorite example of a Splash Damage beating came a few months later at a Grudge Match Qualifier in the summer of 2001. It was before Worlds, so Blue Skies wasn’t yet in the mindset of Type II players. It had been a long time since Jay Elarar’s Top 8 in Chicago. Seth figured out his game plan for Fires and was happy with it. Poor, deluded Seth.

Well poor, deluded Seth found his way to the Top 8 – maybe even playing for the slot, I don’t quite recall – paired with lazy Tim McKenna. Tim had been handed Dave Price Red by myself and Paul, and had bashed his way past all manner of decks, including myself and Paul. Dave Price Red was unbelievable, even if you had to play tighty against Forest. Waiting in Tim’s sideboard was a nasty surprise for Mr. Burn, a card invented by Jon Sonne, as unheard of as it was game ending.

Now Seth thought, probably accurately, that no one was gunning for or perhaps aiming slingshots at Cloud Sprite. However, he missed the memo that Opposition (including the German mono-Blue version) was becoming popular. Imagine the surprise of his deck – which included something like twelve creatures with toughness one – when Tim played a turn 3 Slingshot Goblin. As if Kris Mage were not bad enough already for Rishadan Airship and Spiketail Hatchling!

Seth fought valiantly. He made a good show of the game, declaring that he needed to draw specifically Glacial Wall and specifically something else every time he Gushed. But it was no use. He was out gunned, out slung, out shot. The best he could bring was a Troublesome Spirit, ironically named, because Slingshot Goblin had no trouble at all with it.

The applications of Splash Damage are very subtle. It is typically not something that comes up in the design phase of deck building, but in the execution phase, as you finalize sideboard cards and agonize over the last cards of your main deck. It is something that you have to keep in mind if you are serious about playing your own deck in a wide and competitive tournament like Regionals. It demands that you know your opponents’ deck lists well, and that you understand the strategies that they will bring to a matchup to counter decks like yours, if not specifically yours. You may know in your heart that your SedentaryArcboundRavagerNeglectedInsufficientAffinity plays differently than the aggressive version, hoarding Mana Leaks to protect your Broodstars, but at the end of the day, the turn 1 Oxidize intended for the Disciple deck may be even more lethal for your development.

Say you build a Green deck whose anti-Goblin plan is to play out Troll Ascetic and Worship. Given your knowledge of Goblin decks in Type II, this plan is almost certainly a game 1 kill. You have been waiting to proclaim – even rehearsing – the line”Are you going to concede now, or should I wait until there are eleven minutes on the clock to start attacking you?” ready to punctuate your victories over netdecking Goblin players with a little witty banter. Just like Spider-Man.

You are unexpectedly paired against Big Red. That’s okay, you think. Big Red is just a slow Goblin deck. Even if they have Starstorm, I can just leave two mana open to save my Troll Ascetic. I’ll just have to make sure I am attacking him early, because I don’t want to get into a position where he can draw Flamebreak (if he even has it).

So you assemble your combination. You even lay the Troll Ascetic on turn 5 – after the Worship – so that it won’t get unexpectedly snagged on the turn you tap out for your combo enchantment. Who needs Illusions of Grandeur? You don’t say anything clever this time around. It’s all business as you come in for three a turn.

Your opponent is quiet, his face almost serene. Maybe he is waiting to assemble a multiple-Starstorm hand. You are very careful and don’t lay anything else down. You want to leave open as much Green mana as you can, just to make sure you can regenerate more than once. He is throwing all kinds of burn at you. He’s hit you with everything he’s got, but his draw seems unspectacular. It’s okay. You are on a healthy six life when you draw your eighth land. You lay your Windswept Heath and crack it for a Forest. You remember that Gary Wise lost a Masters match to a mistake with an Onslaught dual with Worship out, but you think it through. Your payment of one life is a cost, so there is no way for him to stack it against you with a flurry of Shocks… But you still breathe a sigh of relief when they do not come.

You get the opponent down to four when he draws and sighs. Down comes Damping Matrix. Damping Matrix?”This isn’t really for you,” he says.”You don’t seem to have any Skullclamps or Arcbound Ravagers… but it’ll have to do.” Not surprisingly, he lets you take him to one life, plays a Starstorm at the end of your turn, untaps, and follows up by sending the Damping Matrix at your head with a Shrapnel Blast.

It’s probably important to remember that Damping Matrix is making a lot of main decks these days because of what it does to Skullclamp strategies. Even though not many players are gunning for Troll Worship, they will have Naturalizes in their main decks to handle Affinity decks, Skullclamps out of Goblins, and the odd Astral Slide or Oblivion Stone. As different as your strategy may be, you have to keep all of these things in mind when going for your killer combo. You wouldn’t be the first person to assemble a specialized creature and Worship and still lose because you underestimated the weapons in the other guy’s arsenal [oldarticlelink id="3692"]Who’s the Beatdown[/oldarticlelink].

I recently designed a version of Big Red that seemed pretty good on paper. We identified a particular problem, and decided that touching green for Naturalize in the sideboard would be the best way to handle it. This was great in a way, because adding Tree of Tales to the main did not disturb the mana at all, and, along with Talisman of Impulse and Wooded Foothills, made for enough early Green access to add Oxidize to the side, as well as ramping up Shrapnel Blast and Furnace Dragon. I was really happy with the deck. And then I got an email from the Rabbit.

Lost to Affinity. Oxidized my Tree of Tales in game one. Rorix Bladewing is Soooooooooooo expensive [especially after getting your Tree of Tales Oxidized in game one].”

Back to the drawing board.

That being said, here is a related example where you might think Splash Damage would come into play, but where a rogue deck designer did a good job of limiting it.

4 Blistering Firecat

3 Burning Wish

2 Dwarven Blastminer

4 Firebolt

3 Fledgling Dragon

1 Jeska, Warrior Adept

3 Pillage

4 Starstorm

4 Volcanic Hammer

3 Violent Eruption

2 Wildfire

3 Barbarian Ring

4 Forgotten Cave

16 Mountain

4 Petrified Field


2 Boil

2 Flaming Gambit

2 Flaring Pain

3 Spitting Earth

1 Slice and Dice

1 Overmaster

1 Price of Glory

1 Lightning Surge

1 Pillage

1 Wildfire

This odd-looking contraption won the 2002 Wisconsin State Championships in the hands of the equally odd-looking Adrian Sullivan. If someone told you he was going to play a mono-Red attack deck at States, you probably wouldn’t imagine it looking like Adrian’s deck. You would probably expect Goblins. You would prepare for Goblins with Engineered Plague if you were Black, Pyroclasm if you were Red, and Wrath of God or Circle of Protection: Red if you were White. Engineered Plague is awful against this deck. Even if you shut down Cats, the Blistering boys can come over face down. Wrath of God certainly has some utility, but Adrian’s deck has a lot of haste and doesn’t have to commit to the board because of all its burn. Pyroclasm is worse (at least Wrath of God can take out a Fledgling Dragon before it starts saying”FA-WOOSH!”).

But Circle of Protection: Red should still be good, right? People know Goblins are coming, and they bring the CoP, trusty since Alpha, to win the day. Well, Adrian is ready. He knows about Splash Damage on Circle, and brings the right tools to the table. Not only does he have Flaring Pain, but if he can take you to four life, a Barbarian Ring and a Petrified Field are going to end it. He can even use Burning Wish to go for Lightning Surge to take you out from as high as twelve – and that’s with Circle of Protection: Red in play!

Like a lot of the rogue decks we talk about, this deck didn’t end up all that good. Ken Ho bringing Standstill back into Standard with his Masters win was trouble, and no one but Adrian could hold off Roar of the Wurm with any consistency. Decks started gaining more life with Ravenous Baloth and Renewed Faith, and Phantom Centaur became more problematic than either card… even Sulli gave up on this burn version. But for that one day at Wisconsin States, Adrian presented a set of threats and questions that the average opponent did not know how to answer. As far as I know, he was even the first person to play Dwarven Blastminer main deck. This deck isn’t quite Dred Panda Roberts, but it isn’t a bad example of how you can execute on a different, unexpected, strategy to win a tournament.

Chris Senhouse, the final Dojo editor, the loving innovator of Slivers before they were any good, and the winner of a very respectable number of PTQs when he still played, once said that there is no”best deck” for an environment. They are too hard to plot week to week, and new decks are always cropping up or preparing in more efficient ways. Just look at how, for all its power, Affinity is being hated out by inferior decks. But even if there is no”best deck” for a format, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t always a best deck to play in any particular tournament.

That deck is only sometimes”the best deck” by popular opinion.


Before They Were Stars – Memories of Alice

I have been obsessed with this idea that I used to be better and that I have gotten worse. I wrote Who’s the Beatdown five years ago and, to me, it seems unpolished at best; but everyone loves it, so I must be wrong (it wouldn’t be the first time). I used to make the Top 8 of a PTQ literally every week and have Top 25 ratings in every format (not that I was able to ever back those up at the big dance, but that’s another issue); now I can barely go x-2 in a PTQ. Scratch that. I have no problems going, say, 1-2 or 3-2.

So in the spirit of”making your own deck,” I dug up this gem. And by gem, I mean poor tournament report. It is the first tournament report I ever wrote… and it shows. The day I won this PTQ, I was doing quite well (obviously) and my friend Worth Wollpert asked what I was playing. When I told him, he kind of snickered and said,”What, you couldn’t make your own deck?” Ah that Worth. You’d think he didn’t copy mine for the PTQ the very next week.

In this tournament, I battled the great Bruce Cowley and first met my good friend edt. However Bruce was not yet great (though if memory serves, he won a PTQ the very next day), and edt and I didn’t quite leave this tournament as friends. In fact, in the original Usenet forum, there was a nineteen-post-long thread concerning the allegedly illegal plays made in our match, hurt feelings, and apologies from me to Eric. Worth actually ended up smashing edt with my deck in the PTQ the next week, though it was the Ann Arbor dinosaur who took home the blue envelope. Worth would go on to qualify on rating, room with me, and make Top 16 of PT: Dallas (where we, along with Chris Pikula, would all play B/r Necropotence again. I finished out of the money while Chris cashed in a Top 4).

Last, but not least, I got my tail kicked by deck design God Erik Lauer in the finals. I made a definite effort to disguise that when writing the original report, but make no mistake, Erik pounded me in the”fun game” we played for one pack of Italian The Dark (we split everything else, and Erik became the nominal PTQ winner). This matchup involved my being manascrewed and getting my Snow-Covered Swamp Icequaked (ouch), and later trying to block Erik’s Legions of Lim-Dul with my Lim-Dul’s High Guard, being told that I couldn’t, switching blocks to Erik’s Lim-Dul’s Cohort, trying to regenerate, being told I couldn’t, and then conceding in an effort to maintain what little self-respect I had after this stellar series of plays. Not impressed? I still took home the blue envelope.

I know I’m not very good, but I sure hope I’m better than I was when I could actually win a PTQ. These days, Lauer and I would have been fighting for the actual slot. And as for writing… I make a lot of fun of my friends and peers. This one is to show you what an ass I can be all by my lonesome… and with no spell check.

For your anecdotal amusement: The Real PT Report, 1 (I don’t know where that came from… I’d try to claim that title wasn’t my fault, but you already know that it was.)

P.S. For the love of God, I know I had a Swords to Plowshares, a Wrath of God, two Fireballs, and two Lightning Bolts. I know it’s not an excuse, But I Had Never Played Sealed Deck Before.