Stage-Skipping Standard

Championship deckbuilder Mike Flores goes back to one of his old articles that newer players may not have seen yet: “The Breakdown of Theory.” He explains what Stage Theory is and applies it to Magic as we know it today.

According to Hasbro CEO Brian Goldner (in February of this year), Magic: The Gathering is the largest game brand in the US.*

Forget for a moment what Goldner meant by that, exactly, and do me a favor and focus on the implications on us in the everyday. Magic has grown by some 100% since 2008. That is great not just for Hasbro stakeholders and the bonus structures of our buddies in Renton, WA…but for content providers and retailers like Pete Hoefling. I mean, just a hand full of years ago who would have thought that StarCityGames.com could invent its own Pro Tour or have guys like Gerry Thompson and Brad Nelson form a full-time content nexus in Roanoke?

For people like myself and Lauren Lee, we have a different challenge.

There are now—as in in the last couple of years—squadrons, legions, and massive millions of folks who have never read The Breakdown of Theory. The Breakdown of Theory is bar none my favorite theory article I ever wrote for StarCityGames.com and probably the most important theory article I ever wrote. Published in December of 2007—”recent” to someone whose wide scale Magic writing career began around 1995—chances are that some half of you (or more?) have no idea WTF I’m talking about.

“You realize,” said a certain 2/2 flying fish, “that more than half your readers are never going to have occasion to summon Mageta the Lion.”

So here’s the redux redux:

  1. Pretty much all Magic games evolve the same way.
  2. There are three stages in a game of Magic (in the original I called them “phases,” but that’s dumb because Magic already has official phases).
  3. Each stage has particular characteristics.
  4. You really want to be trumping your opponent’s face in Stage III; he wants the same thing.
  5. People generally hate it when they don’t get to play Stage II.
  6. All of this can help us infer the best play.



That means you have to read the rest of this!

We can break down the vast majority of Magic games into three stages.

Stage I

In Stage I, you are basically mana screwed. I think of Stage I as any time or place where you have not yet crossed a so-called minimum game threshold.

In the early days of the Pro Tour, U/W decks did very little—certainly very little proactively—before reaching four mana. They could jockey defensively with a Swords to Plowshares or (probably inadvisably) tap out for a Millstone, but for the most part they needed four lands in play to put a stamp on the game with Wrath of God.

The most powerful deck in those days, Necropotence, needed about three mana to start pushing and shoving. Necropotence itself cost three mana as did Hypnotic Specter, which in a world where the most popular decks needed four lands in play before they were really getting anywhere were about the most dangerous threats in the format. Now Necropotence could play a must counter threat on two lands (Knight of Stromgald…again, remember that Swords to Plowshares was the default defensive spell before four mana) and could ruin someone’s day with Hymn to Tourach.

But the unkindest cut of all?

Dark Ritual.

On one lonely land, Necropotence could jump to a de facto three mana for purposes of a first turn Hypnotic Specter (or Necropotence) to gain a massive advantage in position and ultimately cards. In hindsight, I think this was part of the reason people gravely disliked the deck.

In part as a reaction to these two disparate decks, the Sligh / Geeba deck (Mono Red, a proto-RDW) evolved with the notion of the mana curve. Sligh / Geeba was essentially the first deck to recognize that doing something before the opponent got to his mana flash point was going to give you an advantage, and it was able to win a PTQ and earn Patrick Chapin his first Premier Event Top 8 by deploying such hits as Goblin Balloon Brigade on 1 and Orcish Librarian on 2.

These drops might seem comically ineffective to 2012 eyes, but the notion of doing “stuff” while the opponent was still thinking about getting to 3-4 lands actually got you quite a bit extra out of your mana over the course of, say, an entire tournament. Imagine you played eight rounds, 2.5 games per round, and tapped mana on both your first and second turns most games. You are talking about getting an incremental 40-60 mana over the course of a tournament that a U/W deck of that era would never get, at least not proactively.

This implies our first incentive.

–> Stromkirk Noble

Look at our old buddy Stromkirk Noble. You can substitute Grim Lavamancer or Goblin Fireslinger if you want to, but I like Stromkirk Noble because it can so quickly become a serious threat.

One of the things that has kept straight red decks aloft over the past sixteen years of competitive play is that they cross the minimum game threshold so effortlessly. Mike Long once X-0’d the Block Constructed portion of the World Championships with a straight red deck that topped up on CMC two. Ones, twos…that was it.

Now imagine you are on the play and you have a Stromkirk Noble. Your opponent has a hand he thinks is pretty good and keeps. You play your one-drop. He plays his one-drop, a Delver of Secrets. You go in. I think many Delver players would be more than willing to trade there, but Delver of Secrets doesn’t interact well with Stromkirk Noble. Your guy is now a 2/2; you drop a Stormblood Berserker. He was planning to Mana Leak when he looked at his opener but now realizes he’s basically going to have to race; Invisible Stalker it is!

Did his Delver flip? Who even cares? You have a third land and a Volt Charge. You don’t even have to play it, necessarily, this turn. Just your first two turns of mana utilization are putting up huge numbers. What if you stall on two? Any combination of Incinerates, Shocks, Galvanic Blasts, or, “I guess I’ll go into anyone’s deck-slattern,” Gut Shots are going to splatter some large percentage of decks.

At least your opponent here was Delver. Given a slightly different set of hypothetical circumstances, we could talk about Delver’s ability to slide under the minimum game threshold effortlessly. He might have laughed off a first turn Stromkirk Noble with a super cheap Gut Shot, and can get back into this game by racing + a well-placed Vapor Snag

But imagine instead your opponent was a ponderous Esper Control deck. His draw isn’t quick, but it also isn’t worth shipping to six. He has his game in hand, but his only interaction in the first two turns is a Mana Leak that is a half-turn too slow to stop your Stormblood Berserker.

Point being, basically everyone starts at Stage I. They might not “really” be mana screwed (they have lands and spells and can make plays given time), but almost everyone starts the game functionally mana screwed (they don’t necessarily have the room to make their plays right now).

Getting out of Stage I is the first goal, therefore, of every deck; and some of the most impressive (especially offensive) decks get out of Stage I very quickly. Think Red Robots and what they can do in Modern in the first couple of turns with Memnites and Signal Pests. They might still need three-to-four lands in play to feel comfortable with their hand and threat deployment, but the opponent stops thinking of them being unable to make plays midway through the first turn.

Stage III

In Stage III, one player is both 1) dictating the field of battle, and 2) playing in such a way that only a subset of the opponent’s cards (if any) are live any more.

Both Stage I and Stage III are intimately concerned with card economy (or perhaps we should say card utility), though neither one has an obvious relationship to what we think of as card advantage.

Think about the average turn 10 or so against U/B Control. For one, you have let it go ten turns. Oh boy.

The jerk wad on the other side of the table is Karning you. Or worse, he is some combination of Karning and Lilianaing you. It’s miserable. “We both discard?” Yeah, yeah. You discard your excess land; he discards his Think Twice. Yeah, this is a fun game. “Activate Karn?” Yeah, yeah. Like he really had to lilt his voice there at the end.

This game is about his Karn.

Or is it about his Liliana?

Either way, it’s about one of his planeswalkers. In order to win this game you’re going to have to overcome one or both…and your resources to do so are slim. What do you need? Runner-runner copies of Oblivion Ring? Beast Within? You’re getting to the point where playing a creature and attacking one conventionally is kind of a joke (I mean he has a high level Liliana there)… Though maybe a well-placed Bolt of some sort can at least delay the inevitable.

You know where I am going with this?

You can substitute one Consecrated Sphinx, with him holding seven and having eight untapped lands with the planeswalker pin, if you like. Both U/B scenarios are equally winnable-but-only-if, if you grok.

In order to beat the Consecrated Sphinx you might have to do something different (like burn past his hand or kill the Sphinx first, likely at great cost); in both scenarios you have to assume conventional creature assault is going to have a thin likelihood of victory.

Why? Because not only is he dictating what this game is about…but the expectation is that he can more than counter/otherwise deal with your pedestrian Plan A.

Here’s our second big point.

–> This situation is not unique to U/B Control.

The U/B version is highly illustrative because I assume most of us have been in similar spots. The game is possibly winnable. But to win it is going to take a bit of effort (and some amount of stumbling or gift giving by the opponent). In any case, the number of cards we have that can likely profitably interact are thin.

Let’s look instead to “modern” Legacy and the deck I have referenced the past couple of weeks in Cephalid Breakfast. How does the Breakfast Stage III differ from the Standard U/B Control?

Now let’s assume the opponent slaps down both halves of the combo: Nomads en-Kor and Cephalid Illusionist. Is he dictating the field of battle? You better believe it! Deal with one or both cards or he’s going to Millstone most or all of his graveyard and stick you with a Dread Return combo kill.

You might have some play, though.

One criticism of the Breakfast combo versus other fast Legacy combos is that the opponent has many routes to interaction. Removal is relevant (as long as it’s instant speed). Depending on timing, the opponent might give you a spot to Shock / Plow / whatever one of the pieces, breaking up the combo. Again, this “depends”… Don’t figure you can do much if both pieces are already in play (he can respond by targeting the Illusionist repeatedly) or burning the Nomads en-Kor with Cephalid Illusionist on the stack if there is another creature in play (he can move the damage).

Can you interact? Sure. But only a subset of your cards are still live. Removal is live, permission might be live, and so might graveyard hate a la Surgical Extraction. All this depends on how you’ve been set up (i.e., did you eat an Abeyance first) and/or how much room he has (don’t think you can Force of Will Dread Return if he can Cabal Therapy you first).

No one is going to mistake a turn 2 Legacy combo deck with a ponderous Standard planeswalker control deck operationally, but even these two very different decks end games in fashions that are very outline-able by a set of identifiable guidelines. The same can be true of beatdown decks, other combos, other controls… The specifics of what is [still] life might change, but the parameters of who is dictating what, and some reduction in the number of relevant cards generally will not.

Stage II

Stage II is…everything else.

I originally called this stage “mostly errors”… because Stage II is when most of the errors in a game of Magic: The Gathering take place. Most of the Magic gets played here, too. Your ramping, your non-lethal attacks, the forced discards, the creature removal; the searching, the counterspell wars, the development, the attrition…takes place in between the time when you are 1) completely mana screwed (and can’t do anything), and the point when you are 2) actively dictating the game and reducing what your opponent can effectively do.

While we joke that most of the errors in a game of Magic take place in Stage II… Most of what we love about Magic (and most of our decisions) take place then, too.

I think that most of the decks most players end up hating get hated because they don’t present much Stage II. You either interact with them in terms of pre-empting their hitting Stage II or you’re desperately trying to defend yourself from their mighty Stage III…or you aren’t interacting.

There’s tons of play between a ramp deck that hasn’t gotten to Primeval Titan [yet] and most opponents who have [also] crossed their minimum game thresholds but haven’t “won” yet. You can blow up a land to keep them off six. You can Mana Leak their Inferno Titian or Negate their seven-point Green Sun’s Zenith. Maybe they get in with one from an Inkmoth Nexus or two from a Solemn Simulacrum; maybe they have a good reason to lead with Sphere of the Suns instead of Rampant Growth… Maybe they just screwed up.

Delver—when it gets lumped in with “mistakes”—doesn’t so much offer the same interaction and play.

You ever see one of these games?

Turn 1: Seachrome Coast, Delver of Secrets.
Turn 2: No flip; whatever, in for one; Island + two copies of Delver of Secrets.
Turn 3: Flip ALL THREE DELVERS. In for nine…

A blue deck—non-combo blue deck—has you at ten going into turn 4!

And what is the other guy supposed to do?

What if Delver mage flipped all his Delvers with a Mana Leak on turn 3? What’s the opponent’s big crime here? Not having a Gut Shot in hand? What’s his recourse? Lingering Souls? I mean is there even a profitable block here? The other guy is a Vapor Snag and/or Gut Shot from doom.

Taking the long view, there’s quite a bit of difference between a Standard Delver deck (essentially the quintessence of aggro-control) and Legacy Breakfast (ditto for fast combo). Delver gives some players the willies the same way many (even “most”) players get that “icky combo feeling.” I think there’s a very similar situation going on with them and countless other effective decks: the perception of no Stage Two.

Stage Two is when we do most of our skill testing. Stage Two is when we name cards with Cabal Therapy, make Fact or Fiction piles, are forced to choose between clearing a blocker with Incinerate or sending in Chandra’s Phoenix with haste, and evaluating the mana that stands between those two plays. Magic is most “fun” during Stage Two, and many (again “most”) players have problems when it’s absent.

Part of what makes Stage Theory such a favorite is that it’s great at describing Magic games.

But…whatever. You can describe Magic games in other terms and probably communicate effectively most of the time. I think what makes it useful is a twofold takeaway: 1) Stage Theory can help us better pick decks, and 2) Stage Theory can ultimately help us make plays.

When I first wrote The Breakdown of Theory, one argument I made was that you want to pick a deck that “has” a Stage Three (well, I said “Phase” Three, but you grok). Back then I didn’t necessarily understand everything I have come to realize over the past four years. A deck (say midrange without reach) can be dictating the field of battle and limiting the opponent’s top decks… It’s just doing so ponderously and giving them a larger proportion of outs. Surely you can see how if you let someone hit you with a Huntmaster of the Fells (and friends) a bunch (no one really thinks of that as an end game / end boss), that it’s going to kill you and not all of your cards are going to get you out from under it at some point.

Similarly I didn’t realize that in some cases both players can be in Stage III simultaneously. Imagine a RDW mirror in top deck mode when one player is on two and one player is on three… The field of battle is agreed upon and both players are a topdeck away from ending the game, yet there are limited—and different—relevant pulls for each.

I would generally err on the side of choosing decks with powerful and relatively easy to access Stage Three capabilities, because Stage Three typically trumps the bejeezus out of Stage Two. A few years ago before the return of Mana Leak to Standard, the various Jace Beleren / Mulldrifter decks would dodge, bob, and weave around each other’s Cryptic Commands, when in fact getting “two-for-one” with a Cryptic Command (even against a “relevant card”) was among the worst things you could do in Stage Two if it meant having one fewer Cryptic Command to defend the Cruel Ultimatum in Stage Three. 

Part of our maturity in understanding the implications of this theory is to realize the similarity between multiple fast, flipped Insectile Aberrations (Stage Three-forcing, even if they leave a fairly large number of still-relevant cards) and a resolved Primeval Titan. It’s harder to access a Primeval Titan than an Insectile Aberration, maybe, but it also reduces the number of relevant things you can do back. One of my favorite things about the last time I was in the SCGLive booth (where I will be again tomorrow!) was watching Christian Valenti beat Brian Sondag that one game.

I loved Sondag’s Wolf Run Ramp deck, and I knew it was going to be the breakout… What I loved was how Valenti knew exactly how he had to play—and how he had to get lucky—to stay alive. He removed the offending Titan and drew and/or Snapcaster Maged every Doom Blade in his deck to stay ahead of what should have been an inevitable Inkmoth Nexus brigade. Was Brian dictating the field of battle? Hell yeah! But Christian knew his outs and played inspiringly to them.

Think about a first turn Birds of Paradise, second turn Sword of War and Peace. You don’t typically think of the G/R Jackie Lee beatdown deck as unfair or broken. The reasons are that Bird/Sword/swing isn’t necessarily her Plan A. She has all kinds of stuff that gives you the opportunity to interact. You can Flashfreeze a Huntmaster of the Fells, Doom Blade a Hellrider, and so on. Even Birds/Sword/swing gives you play. You can Gut Shot the Birds up to and in response to the Sword equip. Despite its post-equip resistance to Shocks and so on, you can still Vapor Snag the pieces out of it, Oblivion Ring the offending Sword, or apply a judicious slice of Divine Offering.

So we don’t get all upset, necessarily, with Jackie’s deck… But one of the things that does make it compelling is that when you don’t have the immediate answer to Bird/Sword/swing… You’re just dead.

Stage Theory teaches us that you want to be picking decks that have these easy vectors to dictating the field of battle; ones like Delver and G/R Aggro are deceptive in their combo-like ability to slide from turn 1 to Stage Three quickly.

Now the other thing to think about is how Stage Theory can help us pick the best play. This is less developed than some other aspects, but I think it can be instructive. We know that stage advantage is highly predictive of victory. Stage Three versus Stage Two… Stage Two is in trouble. Stage Two versus Stage One… Stage Two is playing Magic and Stage One is trying to figure out how to get to Stage Two. It follows, I think, that between two similar plays, the better one is probably the one that 1) (and per Jon Finkel) preserves the most options, but 2) either best advances your Stage or deters the advancement of the opponent’s.

That first part probably says more than it seems, as there are implications about resource commitment when we start talking about option preservation, but I trust the strategic point is probably still pretty clear. Just think about the order that most green decks deploy their cards… Typically best acceleration first in an effort to jump a stage. Or think about how the best beatdown deck designer of all time—Tsuyoshi Fujita—so often constructed his decks to get a fast advantage while keeping opponents on their heels mana-wise. He wanted to keep a brother down [in stage].


* http://www.icv2.com/articles/news/22100.html