Sullivan Library – The Question of Pacing

Claim your territory at The 2009's State and Provincial Championships!Thursday, November 19th – Last weekend, Adrian Sullivan made Day 2 at Grand Prix: Minneapolis with an admittedly weak cardpool. In doing so, he learned a valuable lesson on the art of pacing. He shares that lesson today…

This last weekend in Minneapolis, I was particularly proud to make Day 2 of the Grand Prix. This isn’t a great accomplishment, when looked at in the big scheme of things. I ended up at 111th place — in the top ten percent, I suppose, but nowhere near as well as I was hoping to finish. I was proud, nonetheless, primarily because I fought so hard to get there.

My Limited rating took a dive at GP: Indianapolis, and I’ve never really fully recovered it. I only had a single bye, and a mistake in the finals of the first GP Trial the night before the main event kept me to one bye. As “luck” would have it, my Sealed pool felt particularly marginal.

I’m one that, at least generally speaking, thinks that Sealed deck is actually a particularly meaningful measure of skill. Yes, there is luck, but the skill level is still real. Richard Garfield recently spoke about this. He brought up the idea of “rando-chess,” a game in which, once completed, a ten-sided die was rolled — if it came up “1,” the result was flipped, and the winner became the loser. In a game like this, if you backwards applied it to all of the sanctioned chess matches in chess, you’d still have the same players ranked at the top. Yes, rando-chess is more random than chess, but skill is still very, very relevant. (More amusingly, he had an anecdote of a player from a particular country complaining strongly about how Sealed deck was “too much luck,” to which Garfield replied, “that must be why your country has done so consistently poorly in that format.”)

So, yes, I did have a subpar pool. And only one bye. This meant I was shooting, realistically speaking, for a 6-2 in played matches to make Day 2. Making it was difficult, but I owe it all to three guys.

Gaudenis Vidugiris — who I went to immediately after construction to get his take on it, for reasons to be discussed below.

Alex West — who ended up suggesting the particular improvements to my build that I should have thought of.

And this guy:

I went to Gaudenis with my deck as soon as I could find him — I knew that he had played a deck with multiple Ruinous Minotaur in the past. Mine were in my board, and I needed to see if he had any insight into why I should or shouldn’t play mine. I didn’t agree with all of his conclusions, but I heard enough to realize that I had been convinced that Minotaurs belonged in my otherwise subpar deck.

Talking to Alex West was really very instructive. He rebuilt my deck ever so slightly in a way that I had initially disagreed with, but by the end of the day, I found myself generally sideboarding into just what he had suggested I play based on my own assertions of card strengths. And it had everything to do with Minotaurs.

It had to do with the Minotaurs because of a little thing called pacing.

If you’ve ever played Cribbage, you know that pacing is absolutely critical in this game. When you’re the dealer, you get two “hands” (your hand and the crib), and you’ll average, between the two, 12.6 points. If you’re receiving the deal (the “pone”), you only have a single hand, and you’ll average about 8.1 points. You do, however, get the privilege of counting your score before the dealer.

Having a sense of not only where the game is, but where it is going, is critical. If you having your pacing off, because of the stutterstep nature of scoring, you could lose a game in which you had a real advantage. As the two hands interact, both players in a game of cribbage can control, to some degree, the speed of the interactions.

In Magic, it is much the same.

Take this sideboarded game I had in the last round of Day 1.

Turn 1
Me: land
Opp: land

Turn 2
Me: land, Highland Berserker
Opp: land, Welkin Tern

Turn 3:
Me: attack (18), land, Ruinous Minotaur
Opp: Adventurer’s Gear, equip, land, attack (16)

Turn 4
Me: land, Shatterskull Giant, attack (11)
Opp: land, attack (12), Highland Berserker

Turn 5: kill blocker, attack for 11 (0)

Now, I have no way of knowing whether or not my opponent top decked into their Highland Berserker or not. If they did not, though, they were certainly faced with some real choices of pacing.

What if they had not cast Welkin Tern on turn 2? Putting down a critter to hop in the way could have saved six life if it had traded with my Berserker. What if they had not cast the Gear, but had instead dropped their own Berserker? They could have saved, if they wanted, 5 life on the next turn.

In Limited, the choice of whether or not to block is a critical one when it comes to pacing. In my finals match the night before, I lost due to one gross error. On the other hand, if I had had a better sense of the pacing I needed, I wouldn’t have even been in the position that the error would have cost me the game. This pacing error happened on turn 2. My opponent, on the draw, dropped a Guul Draz Vampire. I dropped a Surakar Marauder. When he attacked, I should have blocked. Yes, yes, in a vacuum, my two damage is worth more than his one damage, but this was not a vacuum. I had not only already played a game against this deck, and knew that it was both hyper aggressive, but full of evasion creatures (particularly multiple Living Tsunami and Umara Raptor), but I had also watched his deck play out many times and was well aware that it was by far faster than my own deck (which was quite fast in its own right).

In a vacuum, the trade was bad. But in context, the trade would have won me the game. Why? Pacing. I needed the game to go long.

In classic Magic theory terms, the first thing that comes to mind is the Mike Flores classic, “Who’s the Beatdown?” I needed to realize that despite my deck’s position as the typically more aggressive deck, in this matchup, I was the defender. Another way of looking at it, though, comes to us from Zvi Mowshowitz, with an oft-used term: inevitability. The idea that as the game continues to the infinite horizon, one player will benefit.

In Limited, inevitability is far more tenuous. It is probably far better to say that something “approaches inevitability” in Limited, largely because the less regular nature of Limited decks as opposed to Constructed makes inevitability less likely in practice, even if it is still probable.

One of the things I’ve long posited as the opposite of inevitability is “immediacy.” The deck that seeks inevitability is the one that, generally speaking, profits from the game going long. The deck that seeks immediacy is the one that, generally speaking, profits from the game ending quickly. Another way to think of this is that they want to see as few cards enter into the equation of a game as possible, because the more that cards see play, the more likely the game could change in ways that are unprofitable for it. (Interestingly, it is worth noting that sometimes a deck can have an advantage both in inevitability and immediacy. Pity their poor opponent, who usually has to hope for some kind of crazy luck to step in and make the game go their way, or who dances in a strange area of the game where they want it to end mid-game, after the early advantages have worn their course, but before the latter advantages kick in for their opponent.)

Ruinous Minotaur is a great example of a card that exemplifies the dual concept of pacing. The whole nature of Ruinous Minotaur is very unforgiving to the “late” game, as it eats away land when it successfully attacks. When you attack with a Ruinous Minotaur, you are saying in no uncertain terms, “I want this game to end soon.” One of the reasons that you don’t often see the Minotaur in the best Sealed and Draft decks is that if the Minotaur hasn’t accomplished its goals and won you the game incredibly quickly, it often has helped seal your fate in the opposite direction, with the land loss just being too problematic. On the other hand, for the worse cards pools, the Minotaur can be a great asset, letting you shut down a game incredibly quickly before your opponent can really get anything going.

This was just about exactly what Minotaur did for me Day 1. Even when the Minotaur hung back because an attack was foolish in that moment, when it came in the next turn or the turn after, the damage potential was just too huge to ignore, and the Minotaur was constantly eating much more powerful creatures.

From the other end of the extra, in games that had me as the defender, where I really needed the game to slow down, again the Minotaur was just so big that it could kill nearly anything that tried to attack into it. It would act as either a Moat or a Pit Trap, and once a late game was achieved, its drawback was minimal.

The drawback of the Minotaur is what makes its position in pacing so obvious, but at other times it is not nearly so clear. If you both have various Grizzly Bears, there is a time when attacking is correct, and there is a time when trading is correct. What players often forget when they are making this choice, is that they are making a choice.

You aren’t required to speed up a game, nor are you required to slow down a game as a result of when you’re choosing to make trades or use your creature kill. Some of this can be personal preference. A player who thinks that they are better at making decision-making in critical combats is likely to want to up the pace by avoiding trades and making aggressive attacks. A player who prefers the board clear is likely to do the opposite.

Sometimes, there is a clear strategic superiority to one of these plans. One key example of this is Zvi Mowshowitz and Brian Kibler deck choices for the “My Fires” Pro Tour Chicago, which I wrote about almost ten years ago. Both Brian’s “Red Zone” and Zvi’s “My Fires” made an important decision: not including River Boa in their aggressive deck. Yes, rather than include one of the most undercosted creatures ever printed (at the time), and rather than include a card at their two-drop in the curve, both decks chose to not run River Boa. Why? Because if you played River Boa, it meant you were blocking, and you needed to be attacking if you wanted to win the mirror. And this in a format where Fading creatures were a big deal!

Figuring out the particulars of pacing is not just contextual to archetypes and their particular matchups. You can “want” to be attacking all you like, but it doesn’t mean that that is the right call with your particular hand.

Take this more contemporary example: you are playing Jund in a near-exact mirror match. The dreaded Jund mirror match!

Generally, in this matchup, you want to be the one that is attacking. This is not the same thing, though, as wanting to have the game end quickly. If your opener is Putrid Leech, Terminate, Garruk, Broodmate Dragon, land, it is possible that you might want to see the game go a little longer.

Reading this is a real trick of experience. If you’ve played the Jund mirror enough times, you can know that it can be a maddening experience. One of the biggest keys to pacing, here is not merely attacking or blocking in the correct way, it is understanding when to pump your Putrid Leech.

Pumping a Putrid Leech — this little act is something that directly ties into pacing. Every pump of a Putrid Leech is recognition that you’d like the game to go more quickly. One of the reasons you often see a game won or lost by Putrid Leech is because the player using it didn’t actually realize that they wanted the game to go at a different pace than they chose. Sadly, knowing which one is what you want can’t be described in a primer. You just have to have played enough games to know how quickly the game is going to go.

In cribbage, playing aggressively nearly always shortens the length of the game. Sometimes, this is what you want to do. Sometimes it is the exact opposite. It is the same in Magic. Even as there are matchup specific incentives to choose a particular pace (in cribbage as well, if you play against particular players and learn their strengths and weaknesses), the biggest determiner of correct pacing is learning the skill of reading the situation at hand, and knowing what will work best for the moment. Just as there is no need to score those extra three points in pegging, if it means that, on average, your opponent will score out on the crib, sometimes winning the damage race now, in the moment, will set up a conclusion where your opponent takes it down in a squeaker of an alpha-strike that just barely didn’t go your way.

Playing last weekend really crystallized these thoughts in my head. Minneapolis GPs have always been good to me, so it was nice to make Day 2 (even if it meant letting Troy Thompson smash me in both of my drafts). I especially want to thank TO Steve Port for being so accommodating with me for seating, and saving me an intense amount of pain by getting me set up somewhere stable.

I’ll be plugging away at another PTQ this weekend in Chicago. Best of luck to everyone who is away in Rome, another place where I have fond Pro Tour memories. I’ll be rooting for a bunch of you!

Until next time…

Adrian Sullivan