It’s been a while since I’ve sat down with my virtual pen to say a few words to everyone reading here at StarCityGames.com. When I say that it’s been a while, maybe it would be more accurate to say it has been a long while. I started writing my column for Wizards of the Coast about nine months ago, and between that column, kickball, and the rest of my daily comings and goings, I just haven’t been able to do much in the way of other writing. Hopefully, though, I’ll be able to keep some of the steam that I’ve recently gained and keep that going. This one, my friends, this is a long one…
What I want to talk about is how you can go about taking the best deck out there and make it better.
Now, one of the things that happens if you’ve been writing and deckbuilding and theorizing for a few years is you build up a large framework of stories. These stories come replete with lessons and ideas that you can definitely apply to more modern situations. At some point, I know I’m going to spend a whole article addressing this idea of “standing on the shoulders of giants”. Our man Flores (the one and only Mike Flores) is one of the few Magic historians out there. It doesn’t take much effort to discover the truth of this one. His articles are always making reference to ages gone by; I think he and I both share a love of our more glorious days of Magic, a time when we regularly attended Pro Tours rather than our current status as occasional attendees. I could go on and on talking about what has changed, but I’d rather get positively Floresian in our history lesson.
The year was 1999. A little-known player named Mark Gordon was in the process of winning Grand Prix: Kansas City with his crazy version of mono-Red. Meanwhile, I sat with Eric “The Mad Genius” Lauer talking about how great our decks were. Historically speaking, this was the era of High Tide. For those of you who don’t remember this era, High Tide was the grand-daddy high-pooba of combo decks. Essentially, the deck originated with a simple idea: you put some Islands into play, cast High Tide, and then cast Time Spiral. The entire rest of the deck is a combination of card drawing and counterspells. As you go off, you draw more combination parts (making your Islands eventually tap for three, then four, to upwards of eight mana each time you tap them) until you have generated enough mana for a game ending Stroke of Genius. The basic deck was powerful and elegant, and entirely unfair.
Everyone (or at least nearly so) played this deck just like everyone plays Affinity now. Everyone built their decks to beat this deck just like everyone builds their deck to beat Affinity now. Everyone thought their deck beat this deck (when it almost never did), just like everyone today thinks their deck beats Affinity (which it almost never does). And if you played High Tide, you could expect a mirror match more than once in a day.
What do you do when the environment is like this?
First, and most importantly, you don’t want to take away the heart and soul of the deck. Much like a television show, you don’t want to overproduce, add glitter and glam, and water down the original allure of something just because it seems cool. Ultimately, you harm the original and end up with lackluster results. In preparations for Pro Tour: Tokyo, one of my collaborators Ben Dempsey made an important discovery: we sideboarded so many cards into our Affinity deck that suddenly we began losing to unsideboarded Affinity. Why? All of our cool tricks made us not act like an Affinity deck anymore! Second, you have to be different. Figure out a way that you can gain an edge without morphing into an entirely different animal. (At that point, you begin to build a new deck – certainly with lessons from the old deck, but I digress into something that is really the topic for another article someday…)
The Mad Genius and I had our own very different approaches for what made us win in the High Tide World. As High Tide had become easily the most potent deck in the field, everyone and their brother had come to the same “tech”. It was widely agreed that the way to do well in the mirror was to run Red for Pyroblast. The deck at large began packing Volcanic Islands (still an Island for High Tide purposes) and a single Mountain to fetch with the Thawing Glaciers. While this helped these players beat other non-Red High Tide players, it really didn’t get you anywhere against other people employing the same tech. Eric made use of this tech, and then added another layer on top of it. If High Tide mirror matches boiled down to control wars with Thawing Glaciers and Pyroblast making a big dent in everything, he would take out a few spells and add in Wasteland.
I remember how impressed I was at the time. Eric had essentially made unconscious use of Game Theory and made his deck leap up a level in metagaming*. Not only was his deck still a High Tide deck, but also it had a very valid strategy. If High Tide versus High Tide was about being able to win control wars, it had a very valid tactic. Not only did he have more mana (a classic way to win a control war), his Wasteland could make it so that the opponent’s Pyroblasts might technically be uncastable, even if only for a little while.
A segue to definitions:
noun – an elaborate and systematic plan of action
In Magic-ese = “the plan”; in this case, be the better control deck.
noun – the branch of military science dealing with detailed maneuvers to achieve objectives set by strategy
In Magic-ese = how to go about making the plan work; in this case, have more mana than your opponent (both numerically and by making your opponent’s Thawing Glaciers weaker), and make their Pyroblasts harder to cast (if not impossible)
I should add that Finkel did this as well (as Mike Flores talks eloquently about in this article), but he held his Wastelands to the board. Of course, there are often several solutions to the same problem. As I was impressed with Eric idea, so he was impressed with mine. I, of course, took it from my own personal style of deckbuilding. One part of what could be called the Sullivan School of Magic is a simple idea: “if your opponent cannot win, they lose”. Here is my High Tide deck from one-million years ago. It was designed with Cabal Rogue, and most of the essence of it came from me, the long-lost Zaid Maxwell, and Brian Kowal (with significant contributions from Jacob “Danger” Janoska, Mike Flores, and John Shuler).
SS High Tide – Cabal Rogue
3 Merchant Scroll
4 Frantic Search
4 Time Spiral
4 High Tide
2 Stroke of Genius
4 Force of Will
3 Thawing Glaciers
1 Teferi’s Realm
2 Mana Short
1 Blue Elemental Blast
2 Phyrexian Furnace
4 Mystic Remora
Game one, my deck is a lot like a mono-colored version of Finkel’s. I ran one less Thawing Glaciers, one less Counterspell, and one less Merchant Scroll. In their stead, I ran 3 Disrupt. Essentially, the concept of the card was this: you are playing in a world full of very fast games, and most people are running Instants and Sorceries. Also, you could often have an opponent tapped out from a Turnabout or Mana Short. Even if that wasn’t the case, Disrupt would usually act as a Dismiss. If it didn’t do that, it would often be a mini-Mana Short. Finally, when you began to win the game and go off, it would be one less control card that would gum-up your combo. You could essentially use it like a Whispers of the Muse. The card was never dead.
My strategy for the mirror was essentially a guerrilla warfare idea. I wouldn’t have the big guns of 4 Counters and Thaws. I wouldn’t have the pure countering ability of Pyroblast after board. I was going to be faster and quicker, though. Courtesy of Disrupt, I had both more counter-magic and card drawing, plus a lower curve. After board, I stepped up this guerilla war:
-2 High Tide
-3 Merchant Scroll
-1 Frantic Search
+2 Phyrexian Furnace
+4 Mystic Remora
This sideboard was designed with the interplay of the matchup in mind – while you could generally have the advantage game one, the second game would almost always be long and draw out. Both sides would have to proceed very cautiously, and as a result, you’d usually be in it for a long time. Forcing out the combo was not an option – if you cast Time Spiral, you both would fill up your hand again and you both ran counter-magic.
I dodge the fight. Phyrexian Furnace meant that the longer the game went, the less able my opponent would be to go off with Time Spiral. Mystic Remora meant that if my opponent wanted to try and go off, they would constantly be giving me new cards to find Force of Will. While I might be spending mana on cumulative upkeep, they would need to spend four extra mana if they wanted to keep me from drawing cards in a protracted game. Even if they never cast anything and just let me pay the upkeep, if I lost a single count of card advantage, I still got to keep casting Brainstorm and Impulse, while they sat there. As a threat, both of these cards cost only a single mana, and they weren’t scary to put on the table. Inevitability, though, would be mine.
Other radical sideboarding ideas were out there. I remember Zaid losing to Team ACD player Ray DeGuzman’s sideboard of 4 Dan-Dan and 4 Straw Golem. However, with a deck this potent, there really was no need to water it down.
Fast forward to the very recent past – this most recent Regionals. Flying high on the power of Skullclamp, Affinity was much more retarded than it currently is, and the mirror match was everywhere. Many, many games came down to who drew greater numbers of Disciple of the Vault or Arcbound Ravager (though a heavier weight lay to the Disciple). Skullclamp didn’t just power up Affinity, though. It was also ridiculously good in Goblin and Elf decks. There were very good reasons to fear these decks (Sparksmith/Goblin Sharpshooter and Wirewood Symbiote, respectively). The controlling decks were a world away from all of this, running almost no creatures at all.
I knew that I believed Affinity was the most powerful deck. But how was I going to improve the deck without playing something almost entirely useless in other matchups or without giving away the heart and soul of the deck. Almost by accident, I stumbled on the answer.
At first, I took the idea as a bit of a joke, but I tested it out just to see. Soon, I was completely redesigning the deck from the bottom up to make greater use of the card. Here was a card that meant I had yet more burn against the most problematic creatures like Disciple of the Vault and Sparksmith. Here was a card that I could get rid of against control decks to get closer to my threats. Here was a card that would allow me to stay in two colors so I could get more use out of my mana.
This was the final list:
4 Disciple of the Vault
4 Arcbound Worker
4 Arcbound Ravager
4 Myr Enforcer
3 Welding Jar
4 Shrapnel Blast
4 Pyrite Spellbomb
3 Myr Retriever
3 Spark Spray
1 Chromatic Sphere
3 Blinkmoth Nexus
4 Darksteel Citadel
4 Vault of Whispers
4 Great Furnace
I would have a whopping 11 burn spells. While I didn’t have Thoughtcast, the Spellbomb, Spark Spray, Welding Jar, and Myr Retriever helped keep me find and keep Skullclamp on the table. The deck was performing more than fantastically. The one really strange card choice happened as a result of tons and tons of testing. Seth Burn wasn’t impressed by my claims on the deck and took it upon himself to make sure it wasn’t just “Sullivan Hype”. In the end, he called me up to tell me the deck did everything that I claimed it did, but he was ever so slightly needing help with the color in the deck. Losing one Welding Jar still kept the deck in good working shape, and the Chromatic Sphere gave the tiniest nudge that was needed to help out the colored mana situation.
In Mirrodin Block, I spent forever trying to do the same thing I accomplished with this deck. I kept tinkering away with everything I could come up with, yet nothing was gelling. Osyp’s winning performance with his Affinity deck had virtually defined how Affinity looked, and try as I might, not only could I not figure out a way to improve the deck, but also I couldn’t find a consistent way to beat it.
Enter Brian Kibler.
The last time I liked a Kibler deck was in 1999 at Pro Tour: Chicago. Kibler would be crowned “the Dragonmaster” from then until the end of time, but before that, he was much less celebrated, though certainly well-known and liked throughout Magicdom. Everyone at that time was busy making Fires decks. I would reunite with Jacob Janoska, Brian Kowal, Seth Burn, Scott Johns, Ben Rubin and Seth Burn in the work on Mowshowitz’s infamous “My Fires”. Kibler would make something different.
Mike Flores regularly cites my 2001 Dojo article “What Kibler and Mowshowitz Got Right” as my best work. As articles go, this is an oldie, but a goodie. Essentially, the article boils down to determining why these decks were so much better than other similar decks. The answer: both decks had fatties. In Kibler’s specific case, he had a fantastic strategy for the near mirror. Be fatter. His tactic? Here there was a three-pronged attack. First, he would run more fat guys. Then, he would be better at keeping something fat out (Wax / Wane to win wars and kill Saproling Burst). Finally, he would use Armageddon to keep the opponent from having the mana to come back into the game. This was classic Ernham-Geddon stuff, folks. It was a great deck, and very much worth of the praise that it has been given.
When Kibler walked into New Jersey, Affinity was already well established. Osyp’s fantastic version of the deck was the same one that nearly every one of the Pros was playing. There were 958 competitors at Grand Prix: New Jersey, and I don’t think that it is a simple coincidence that he found himself in the finals with his build of Affinity.
For reference, here it is:
3 Myr Enforcer
4 Arcbound Ravager
4 Arcbound Worker
4 Disciple of the Vault
2 Myr Retriever
2 Moriok Rigger
4 Aether Vial
3 Cranial Plating
4 Chromatic Sphere
4 Seat of the Synod
4 Vault of Whispers
4 Darksteel Citadel
4 Blinkmoth Nexus
3 Great Furnace
4 Electrostatic Bolt
4 Relic Barrier
1 Moriok Rigger
3 Shrapnel Blast
1 Great Furnace
So what is it that sets this deck apart from the other Vial Affinity decks? Why did he cruise to the top of the tournament? And if his deck is so good, why didn’t he win the whole damned thing?
The differences are small, but significant. One of the first things that I noticed about the other decks in the Top 8 of that same tournament is how similar they all are to the original Osyp build. Clearly, Osyp’s build was solid. Mostly, they dropped a Myr Retriever (which Kibler kept) in favor of another Atog as a powerful potential threat that could resist artifact kill. One interesting thing to note is that one of the other players cut a Myr Enforcer and one cut a Cranial Plating, two cards that Kibler each docked down to three-ofs to fit in Moriok Rigger.
What is he doing? What does this accomplish? Essentially, what Kibler realized is that the deck is more resistant to artifact attack with Moriok Rigger. Not only that, but in game one, an unanswered Rigger can be incredibly potent and essentially unanswerable. If he is going to run Rigger, by definition he is going to have two less artifact slots in his deck and the big Myr Enforcer can be less reliably cast, especially against resistance. Cranial Plating also suffers against resistance. Answer-heavy draws from an opponent can quickly relegate the Plate to worthlessness, as it searches in vain for a viable creature to be put on.
So, as he gazed over the field, he imagined heavy resistance in the most powerful and successful decks. He decided, in essence, to slow his deck down just a tad and have a card that could successfully meet that resistance. Other decks chose another approach. Rather than using the slower Retriever, they would cut a card to try to speed up the deck with an all-or-nothing approach via Atog.
Both of these approaches are valid. What set Kibler’s build apart even more was his sideboard.
A full complement of Relic Barrier and Electrostatic Bolt were his primary choices here. Relic Barrier as a weapon against Affinity is incredibly potent. In the early game it can be used to hold down a valuable land, and as the game develops you can step away from the Rishadan Port concept and move it back into the realm of creature kill. In complicated midgames, a Barrier (or worse a pair) can hold down twice as many cards before a big all-in attack. Even better, Barrier was an artifact and thusly helped out Affinity and Ravagers, and was immune to color woes.
Other decks would bring in Green artifact removal. This meant that they also lost out on the very valuable Darksteel Citadel (another great resistor to hate). These two factors left them without the ability to stably expect to use a card like Bolt. Bolt, unlike the green spells that they were playing, killed the all-important Disciple of the Vault.
I looked a lot at Kibler’s deck. As I tested and theorized and examined and tested again, I came to realize that I wouldn’t change a card. Not a single one. Why didn’t he win the damned tournament? His deck is just better than everything else!
The answer can be found in the depressing coverage of that final match. The first game was a solid, if disappointing one: Garza went first with early access to two Oxidize and one Electrostatic Bolt. As he dropped lower and lower, he got off a Tooth and Nail before Kibler could get him down to zero, and without an answer that was game. That’s a somewhat reasonable result. The second game was a double mulligan for Kibler, and that’s all she wrote. We shuffle cards. Luck happens. As the famous Betrand Lestree once said, “Zat is zee game of Magique!”
Kibler’s deck was the best for Mirrodin block because it took the core of the power of the Affinity archetype, examined what people were going to do to resist it, and imagined a plan that would allow him excellent game against both resistance and the mirror. His decision to stay away from Green made his mana more reliable, his choice to stick with Retrievers kept his deck from being as easy to attack, and his decision to play Rigger would actually be an advantage in nearly every matchup in the first game. Playing more Riggers would have been a huge error, diluting the power of the explosive Affinity draw. Simply put, card for card, the deck is a triumph.
So, what has the deck gained from Type Two? Sadly, nothing of note. Everything is expensive or unwieldy. Volcanic Hammer? No. Blaze. No thanks. Shock is about it, if you’re looking for an efficient add-in (and frankly, I’d rather dip into the Mirrodin card pool for a Shock-in-a-Box). Champions is little better – Desperate Ritual or Hearth Kami? At least Rend Flesh might be something worth thinking about boarding (but I doubt it). You have a deck that essentially lives in its little block, and comes out of it swinging and full of power.
In closing, what does all of this add up to? How do you go about making the best deck (or even a good normal deck) better than it usually is? Here are the rules of thumb:
- Identify the core of the deck and stick to it.
- Have a strategy for your mirror matchup. Figure out if you feel like you need to be good at being more controlling, more aggressive, or if some other general idea is what makes the mirror more winnable.
- Find the best tactics to enact this strategy. If being more aggressive is the plan, how do you do it?
- Look for your new cards to stay in touch with what the deck is trying to do. These cards need to have an advantage in the mirror and yet have some valid use in other matchups.
- Test it. Test it. Test it. In theory, communism works. In theory.
Current Type Two is not like Extended. Current Type Two includes a very small number of very potent decks. You can expect that you will face someone else playing essentially the same deck. Make sure that you have the edge.