“Damn… That was my best wrench”
Dale Smither to Sylar
Anyone that has played other games knows that Magic is one heck of a complicated game. When compared to some of the elegant, classic games, the rules of Magic are much more complicated. This is not to say that the strategy of Magic is somehow inherently more difficult to master, just that the way that the game works is more complicated.
When we break down the kinds of tools that a Magic player can use in a game, there are only so many things that a player can do. You can make someone discard cards. You can counter spells. You can burn things. You can break things. You can change the rules of the game. You can manipulate a library. You can make mana. You can draw cards. You can gain life. You can make permanents that do these same things.
There are definitely more complicated options for a Magic player than these options, but they are not the most common tools in our box. A card like Opposition doesn’t exactly change the rules of the game, and it doesn’t exactly break things, but it instead is almost like a virtual hybrid of the two.
When you look at the tools of most combination decks, it seems clear that the cards that exist in the combination itself are usually very specialized tools. If you were to go to the Magic Tool Store, they wouldn’t be in the Basic Package for Deck Maintenance. A card like Dragonstorm is not going to find a home in a deck that isn’t very specialized. Compare that with a card like Smother, Pillage, Venser, Rite of Flame, Opportunity, and any number of other cards, which will see play in a wide variety of decks.
Certain tools in that basic package, though, always seem to be inherently better than others.
The “Best” Tool
Playing permanents is generally the “best” tool. Take one of the simplest permanents, a basic land. In essence, every turn the basic land can cast a spell: “Make a mana.” You can do this every turn.
Jackal Pup is a great example of a simple type of common permanent: the creature that attacks. Every attack phase is comparable to casting Shock at something. The Jackal Pup isn’t a Shock Spellshaper, to be fair. The Jackal Pup is limited in that he can try to attack a player (and now a Planeswalker), but your opponent can use a Misdirection on that Shock at will, to redirect it to one of their creatures, which in turn, by virtue of their power, will be doing some “direct damage” back.
The reason that we always see so many decks that run permanents is that permanents are great. Reusability of an effect is great. Still, though, each of these things often can be fit under some other major strategy category. Most of these strategies have a limited utility. I would argue that two of them stand out because of their versatility.
The Rest of Them
The problem with most of the tools out there is that they are limited in scope. They are limited in scope, either because Wizards has deliberately restrained them, or because there are simply not generally many cards to create a critical mass to make that strategy generally useful.
Take milling. Milling, as a strategy, just usually doesn’t have enough going for it to make it something that is widely powerful. The two classic milling cards are Millstone and Grindstone, and a more contemporary card is Brain Freeze. Even de facto milling, like a Prosperity or Stroke of Genius to finish out the opponent’s library, is generally not utilized as a milling strategy. Take the classic High Tide combo deck — even here, the Stroke of Genius generally serves as a milling strategy only once in a game, and will usually be a card drawing strategy for every use previous to the game-ending casting of the spell.
The use of this strategy is limited to highly specialized times. Take this Zvi Mowshowitz list from U.S. Nationals, a few years ago.
4 Accumulated Knowledge
4 Fact or Fiction
4 Wrath of God
2 Story Circle
2 Last Breath
3 Dismantling Blow
3 Tsabo’s Web
4 Adarkar Wastes
4 Coastal Tower
Milling only serves, strategically, to win the game. If you mill a player, you have taken an incremental step towards winning the game, but you haven’t actually effected anything. You haven’t gotten card advantage. You haven’t gotten board advantage. Everything is the same, and you could in many ways consider the use of the strategy as an exercise in reducing your virtual card advantage.
Milling is limited largely by its minimal impact on the game state, and its limited critical mass. If Wizards printed a ton of otherwise reasonable cards that milled a player when they were played or came into play, the strategy would perhaps go up in value for as long as those cards were in print.
Discard, on the other hand, has often had a large amount of cards that can be used to enact the strategy. In addition, discard can be used to actually impact your opponent’s strategy. It can be potentially used to gain card advantage, with cards like Cry of Contrition, Stupor, Hypnotic Specter, Persecute, and Ravenous Rats. That said, discard usually has a huge thing that limits it: it does nothing to a player that is out of spells and it does nothing to the table.
Creatures that help out discard still maintain their presence on the board, but you absolutely are not interested in drawing a discard outlet when you are being swarmed on board. Falling behind can be incredibly common for any deck that isn’t directly working with the table, but discard can be extremely dissatisfying when you spend your time knocking out cards from someone’s hands only to have it not really matter.
Most commonly, the best discard is actually a pre-emptive counterspell. Cards like Duress, Thoughtseize, and Cabal Therapy can all be used to remove specific cards that might be most problematic in the moment, rather than an attempt to overwhelm the opponent with mass discard. This can be a valuable way to use discard, but going to far down this path has quickly diminishing returns.
Discard, clearly, is more useful in more decks than milling. A heavily dedicated discard deck nearly always has to lean on something else, generally the “break it” brand of tool.
To be fair, “break it” has always been a clear favorite of mine. Land destruction has a certain kind of allure to it, despite its handicaps. One of the important maxims of land destruction, as pointed out by Sandsipoise creator Eli Feustel was this: once your opponent has enough mana, its like you never killed any to begin with.
Land destruction is one of the most easily identifiable “break it” strategies that has severe limitations. This is largely because Wizards recognizes how unfun it is for players to be unable to play their spells any more. As a result, you’ll find that land destruction has become more and more hamstrung over the years. For land destruction to truly elevate in strategy, it would have to include spells that functioned like this: “RR2, Destroy any two lands you want,” i.e., it would have to be completely unfair. The closest Wizards has come to a card like this in modern memory is Thoughts of Ruin, a semi-Armageddon reprint, that like Armageddon has the distinct disadvantage of destroying your own mana too.
Other “break me” strategies are generally limited because of the lack of true Desert Twister cards. Sure, Wizards has given us Vindicate, but every other such card has a lot of limitations to it. Bounce spell only “break” a permanent temporarily. Rootgrapple has the annoying habit of being unable to hit creatures. For each “break me” card that Wizards make, it is generally held back by being only able to hit a class of permanents.
The best of these, Wrath of God and the like, are able to kill with incredible efficiency or range of effect. It’s no surprise that most of the more expensive Wraths have seen little to no play, unless they do something significantly more (like Akroma’s Vengeance), nor is it a surprise that the various pseudo-reprints of Swords to Plowshares can only be used at specific times, against specific threats, or have significant drawbacks. Wizards has come to like permanents, and you’re going to have to play fair if you’re going to be knocking these puppies out.
There do remain two tools that are so valuable and versatile that they’ve easily become my favorites.
My two favorites: Counters and Burn
This is probably no surprise to most of you, especially if you know me or the decks that I enjoy playing.
In many respects, counters work the same way as discard in that they can hold down a strategy that your opponent might be playing. Counters, like discard, don’t generally do anything to help to stabilize the board. Counters seem pretty useless against a board that is overwhelming. Counters also feel inadequate when you can’t keep yourself free to use them at the proper time, much like discard feels inadequate when you don’t have it at the proper time. Generally, both discard and counters require the support of some other general strategy to work.
The big difference is that counters will generally work on anything. There are some exceptions, of course. There are split second cards and uncounterable cards, but these cards are the exception and not the rule.
A counterspell does something that discard cannot do. It uses up the time of the opponent. A discarded spell doesn’t cost your opponent a darned thing in tempo. They didn’t expend any resources to it. Sure they don’t have access to that card any longer, but it won’t keep them from trying to do something else.
Compare this with a counterspell. When you have a counter, you can not only nullify a spell, but you can also nullify any other activity that they would have done with that mana.
A counterspell can also be saved to deal with cards that are relevant. If you use a Duress on someone at some point later in the game, not only might you completely whiff, but you might merely hit something that is largely irrelevant. A handful of discard versus an empty-handed opponent when the board state is empty or stable feel awful, but a handful of counters puts you clearly in the driver’s seat.
Counters are, by their very nature, married to decks that break things (typically cards that break creatures, though usually with sideboard power to break whatever else they might fear) or things that establish the board (typically creatures). To whatever extent they lean one way or another, you can generally measure whether a deck is controlling, mid-range control, or an aggro-control deck. Most of these decks tend to be control decks, largely because it is difficult to create a reliable mid-range control deck with counters, and simply difficult to correctly craft any aggro-control deck. This inevitably leans towards the majority of these decks being control decks, whatever their color make up.
Burn, on the other hand, almost feels like a wildcard. Maybe that is why burn is so often Red, because it has such a chaotic feel to it. Burn can go in a control deck. It can go in an aggro-control deck. It can go in a mid-range deck, whether it is controlling or aggressive. It can go into an aggro deck.
The reason for this versatility is the nature of burn itself. With very few exceptions, a burn spell can be pointed at anything. It’s up to you whether you want to point it at a player or reserve it for a creature.
Compare this to dedicated creature elimination. One of the big reasons that an Aggressive Red Deckâ”¢ has had an advantage over an Aggressive Black Deckâ”¢ is that burn can do more things than creature kill. Take the classic “Who’s the Beatdown?” discussion on Sligh versus Suicide Black. Both decks have access to ways to kill their opponent’s creatures, and both decks have access to efficient, attack-worthy creatures. One of the many advantages that a deck packing burn has, though, is the ability to send extra spells straight to the dome, rather than stockpiling the removal. A Black player can kill every creature in sight, and still be at risk of death. By contrast, a Black player doesn’t generally have the burn-like cards to reach out and dome the opponent (with some infrequent exceptions).
The classic example of the power of burn comes from both Deadguy Sligh and Boros Deck Wins. I’m sure nearly all of us have been on the receiving end of some random guys just coming in and bashing our face down to a dangerously low 10 life. Against another deck, we wouldn’t necessarily be worried, but when Deadguy Sligh follows up with Incinerate and double Fireblast, we’re still dead. When Boros tosses a Char at our face, and untaps to do the same thing, with another friendly burn spell on top of it, we’re still dead.
Burn, like counters, rarely works all by itself. Those of you who are intimately familiar with Legacy are probably aware of the heavily burn-based decks that sometimes see play in tournaments. They often start with a turn 1 Chain Lightning, and end somewhere with Price of Progress. The problem that these decks have is that they are often too dedicated to this direct damage approach, and can get waylaid by a creature that requires their attention, or a combo that just “goes off” faster. The problem in this approach to burn is that most of the time you’ll be just short of what you need to do to get there. A deck full of Lightning Bolts will need to cast seven of them to win. In theory, it could accomplish this on turn 4, but usually, it will not draw that amount of Lightning Bolts — either they are slightly more expensive, or deal slightly less damage. This usually means that a deck that is using burn in a more dedicated way, as opposed to a deck using it as part of their arsenal, is going to have to find ways to deal the board, whether that is with Ensnaring Bridge, or actually putting a presence out there of some kind.
As wonderful as I think both counters and burn are, there is a major reason that most dedicated counter-burn decks have generally failed in the past: the board. Counters and burn generally do not include much in the way of board presence, and as you run out of valuable real estate in a deck by filling it with your counters and your burn, there isn’t much time left for the things that deal with the board.
This is probably part of the reason that counter-burn has done so poorly historically. Counter-Hammer is one of the only decks that has done well in this regard, way back in Regionals in the late â€˜90s, and even then it was generally outperformed by the other best decks of the time. If you are going to try to recreate the success of a deck like this, you’re probably going to want to have card advantage engines that can handle the board. Thunderblade Charge, Siege-Gang Commander, Chandra Nalaar, and Mulldrifter are all cards that could perhaps begin the making of a deck like this, but I remain somewhat dubious of the thought that it might be worth pursuing.
Burn and counters share a versatility against nearly every opponent. You can use both kinds of cards, properly supported, against anyone. A beatdown deck or control deck are generally not going to be sad that they’ve drawn a burn spell or a counter spell, because they can use them against whoever they want. Obviously, you might not be excited to have an Incinerate against a Sonic Boom deck, but it’s still going to have some degree of utility.
In the future, I’m sure that I’m going to continue to make decks that lean very heavily on these two tools. I can’t help it — I just appreciated the way that I can pull them out to fix nearly any situation, even the ones that I wasn’t expecting to have to deal with.