Sullivan Library – The Strategic Moment

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Friday, September 12th – Mike Flores, in his famous “Who’s The Beatdown?” article, told us that “Misassignment of Role = Game Loss.” However, words such as “Role” can be notoriously nebulous… Role is not Archetype. Today, Adrian Sullivan talks us through the principle of the Strategic Moment, and shows us that even the most counter-heavy decks can have their day in the aggro sun…

Last week, Mike Flores finished up his long-running column here at StarCityGames.com. It came as a surprise to most of us, I think, and on many levels. For me, as someone who has worked with the man, lived with the man, and built decks with the man, seeing him go is somewhat of a shock. Maybe he’ll be back someday or sooner, but until then, I have to say that it is an end of an era.

Whatever one thought about Mike or his writings, he will remain probably one of the most influential writers the game has known. I disagree with Mike about a lot of things, but I wouldn’t have pushed myself to write some of my better articles if I hadn’t been saying to myself, “I want to blow that Flores article away” or “I have to clean up this awful mess he’s made.” Competition is a good thing.

And so today I thought I’d talk about something that has been touched lightly in some theory articles in the past. The concept of the Strategic Moment. In many ways, this ball was started rolling by Mike Flores seminal “Who’s the Beatdown?” He sums up the article clearly in the final section, with “Misassignment of Role = Game Loss.”

The ideas of this article have been built upon many times over, usually without much merit. The problem is in finding something of use to say. Simply regurgitating the statements of the article does little good, but more commonly people misapply the lessons of the article. But it can be used to break new ground.

Role is not archetype. You can be, in a conflict between decks, “The Beatdown,” but not actually be a beatdown deck as an archetype. Flores goes into this in a few examples in “Who’s the Beatdown?” and I go into this in great detail in “Distinctions in Strategic Archetypes,” which explores what it means to be a control deck, an aggro deck, an aggro-control deck (no, not a mix of the two), a midrange deck (which is a mix), and a combo deck. While that article definitely owed its existence to “Who’s the Beatdown?” it went in the direction of clarifying what archetypes are.

I’m going to continue with another kind of distinction today, and talk about “moments.”

The Strategic Archetype, Role, and Moment

The difference between strategic archetypes, roles, and moments can get confusing. A part of the problem is our terminology. When we say “control,” what is it we are saying? Are we talking about an archetype, a role, or a moment? Not only has there been a historical ambiguity in these things, as terms are reapplied in sphere to sphere, but sometimes there are even mistakes about what terms mean as they get spread colloquially.

“Archetypes” is a big part of this. To be of an archetype is to be a deck that behaves in certain ways, generally. Still, understanding what the basic archetypes are, and using the correct terms to describe them has a lot of value. If you are conceiving of a deck as aggro-control, but in reality you have an aggro deck with disruption or a mid-range aggro deck, this failure of understanding can cause you to make strategic or tactical errors, both in-game and in your preparations.

Strategic Archetypes, then, describe the nature of the deck. In its optimal form, what is it that the deck does? Looking at the most recent block PTQs, for example, we can find aggro decks (Kithkin, Demigod Red, Shamans), control decks (Five-Color Control), midrange decks of various flavors (Elementals, etc.), and aggro-control (Merfolk, CounterElves). Faeries occupied a rare archetype (the hybrid control/aggro-control) that is only seen once in blue moon, and arguably hasn’t existed competitively since Accelerated Blue of Urza’s Block Constructed. Combo of any note wasn’t really to be seen, at least at the most competitive levels. Figure 1 below shows the relationship of the various different archetypes to each other. Combo, you’ll note, is missing from this particular chart, because combo doesn’t exactly live on the same line; it is on a different axis. This is easy to see in things like the difference between various Nantuko Husk based aggro-combo decks, more controlling decks like Hulk-Flash, as compared to a deck like NecroNaught or Necro-Pebbles which seem to be more akin to pure combo. (Where locking decks like Stasis live has long been a matter of debate…) Note the fuzziness of each of these positions. It is fuzzy, partly because these archetypes can bleed into each other as a deck travels around the circle. At what point does Ghazi-Glare become a midrange-control deck as opposed to a midrange-beatdown deck? How far do you have to go in one direction or another before you’ve “changed” archetypes? These lines are fuzzy…

The Circle of Life

We classify decks as these archetypes because it helps us not only define what it is that the deck does but also how it behaves in comparison to other decks. Historically, we can look at an aggro-control deck, like Merfolk, and note that it tends to have advantages over control decks, and for particular reasons (the threats of an aggro-control deck get under the control mechanisms of the control deck, and the countermagic can ride out the ability of a control deck to suppress them). The more we play on the known strengths or weaknesses of archetypes, the more we can borrow from the wisdom of those that have come before us (for example, control’s historical weakness to aggro-control, and aggro-control’s historical weakness to aggro). The less we play to the known strengths of an archetype, the less collective knowledge we have access to, though we may also gain access to strategic surprises if we’re lucky enough to have come across something worthy.

Roles, then, are different than that. “Misassignment of Role = Game Loss” only gets you anywhere if you’ve finished reading Mike’s article and know what it means to have a role. Without that knowledge, that nugget of wisdom is just noise.

Strategic Roles are, by necessity, contextual. It doesn’t matter what two decks you have sitting down against each other. At most, one player is the Beatdown. At most, one player is the Control. You can try to be the Beatdown or the Control deck, but that doesn’t mean you will easily succeed unless you are the Beatdown or the Control. Whatever the actual strategic archetypes involved may be, those are the two roles. If you are High Tide during the height of that era, playing against Sligh, you are the Control deck. If you are Kithkin versus Demigod Red, you are probably the Beatdown, even if Demigod Red is, archetypically speaking, an aggro deck. My old Legacy Prison deck, typically a control deck, would be the beatdown against Flash-Hulk. Essentially, the deck that asks the most questions is the Beatdown, and the deck with the most answers is the Control.

You might want to play a particular role, but wishing doesn’t make it so. Perhaps your deck is an aggressive variant on the “mono-Green” Hybrid Green/White list that was played in Standard a while ago, playing against some hypothetical Kithkin list. You might not have the tools to be a control deck. But if the other deck is a better contextual aggro deck, it is the Beatdown.

Note that I say at most one player will be a particular role. In some rare cases, it is possible that there is no particular player who asks more questions or has more answers. Usually if a role is absent completely in a matchup, it is the control role. If players have little way to actually interact with each other (take a particular aggro deck against a particular combo deck), and instead are just running a pure race, there may be no Control deck. Similarly, if two decks have such close strengths in their respective spaces of how they interact, there may be no Beatdown deck. These situations, though, are generally very, very rare. Someone usually has more of a trait, contextually, and figuring out who that is is exactly what Flores is getting at about with “Misassignment of Role = Game Loss.” If you chose the wrong side, it’s probably going to go poorly. It’s also possible that someone will be both roles. Woe be to you if you are unfortunate enough to be playing against someone whose deck has all of the questions and all of the answers (Trix during its heyday springs to mind).

If the Strategic Role is about what one deck’s relationship is to another deck in the abstract, the Strategic Moment is about one deck’s relationship to another in an actual concrete moment. In this way, the Strategic Moment has a lot to do with Strategic Roles — both care about the interaction of a deck with another. How we can describe this Strategic Moment, though, is often best thought of in a way similar to Strategic Archetypes, where we can describe these moments with a very similar language.

So, how can we best think about Strategic Roles? Perhaps we can illustrate how this works in the very dynamic example of the Block Faeries mirror.

Illustrating the Moment with the Block Faeries Mirror Match

When we think about the Strategic Archetype of Block Faeries, it is a great example of hybrid-control. The deck, by its nature, tends to act in a way that is controlling, but on a dime, can suddenly seem to be behaving much the way that Counter-Sliver or Blue/Green Madness can behave. This behavior is so much a part of the nature of the deck that merely describing it as a control deck fails to describe what it is that the deck does. Block Faeries shares a lot of cards with Five-Color Control, but their behavior is typically very different.

So, from a “Who’s the Beatdown?” perspective, in the mirror we have a situation where it may difficult to determine who is The Beatdown and who is The Control. Even if we can say that one build might be one role or another more than the other deck, it can be so close as to be overwhelmed by a single moment in actual play. Remember, roles are useful in determining what your preferred strategy should be going into the match. This doesn’t mean that you can overlook the reality of the game state.

From a common game of the mirror…

Take this example. You are on the play. You keep your hand: Mutavault, Sunken Ruins, Secluded Glen, Bitterblossom, Cryptic Command, Spellstutter Sprite, and Nameless Inversion. This is a pretty decent hand on the play, so you keep it. After much consideration, you start with Mutavault.

Your opponent opens with a turn 1 Thoughtseize, stripping you of your Bitterblossom. Your next turn is critical. What do you do?

You draw a Swamp. You can leave the mana open and bluff a Broken Ambitions, or you can just attack. If your opponent has the Bitterblossom and drops it, it doesn’t matter if you aren’t archetypically an aggro deck. What are your options going to be in that contingency? You can’t simply sit back on your Cryptic Command, Nameless Inversion, and Spellstutter Sprite, or you’ll be overrun by your opponent. Maybe if you’re lucky, you might topdeck a Bitterblossom back, right away, but the longer it takes you to get to that point, the more things might just go to hell. The Spellstutter is only going to do anything if and only if they somehow cast another one-drop.

It is time to become aggro, even if you aren’t that kind of deck. You aren’t good at it, to be certain, but what else are you supposed to do? Lose? You’ll probably lose anyway, but this is your only chance… You attack, bringing the opponent to 16, and Bitterblossom brings them to 15, and then your opponent passes the turn with three land open.

On your turn, drawing a Mutavault, you have choices. Do you lay the Mutavault (nixing your ability to cast Cryptic Command in another turn) or do you drop a colored land, and hope to eventually Command the Bitterblossom back to their hand at the end of their turn fourth turn, and try to wrest control back? Do you attack into a 1/1 Faerie and open mana? Or do you sit back?

These are hard questions. If you look at the situation though, even though it could all go to hell, you still aren’t really in a position to wrest control back to be in a control moment any time soon. So much can go wrong there as well. If you attack, on their next turn, if they don’t have an answer they’ll either be at 12 or 14, depending on if they chump block.

The game can still change. Later in the game, depending on what happens with your opponent’s mana and the board state, it may be that sustaining the aggro moment will be impossible. Maybe you’ll have lost at this point, or maybe you’ll have shifted into some other kind of moment, archetypically.

Re-examining the game

On the other hand, what if we take away that first Thoughtseize from the opponent in that first game? You could very well make the aggro plays that it looked like were necessary in that game. You could very well decide that after playing Bitterblossom on turn 2, that the right play was to simply attack with Mutavault turn after turn. Doing so, though, cedes your natural strengths of being a deck that is a hybrid control deck.

In terms of strategic moments, what you want to do is situationally move into the seat of being the aggro-control deck facing off against the control deck. Traditionally, aggro-control smashes control. You want to be able to have your opponent looking for answers while you use counterspells to waste your opponent’s time, keeping them off balance and on their heels. Much of the Faerie mirror is based on being able to force your opponent to the defensive.

If being the aggro-control deck in a series of moments gives you an advantage over an opponent forced into a controlling position, you might think that strategically, the best course would be to respond by acting like a beatdown deck. After all, beatdown decks have a strong history of beating up on aggro-control decks.

The problem, of course, is that Faeries kinda sucks at being aggressive. With your best aggro draw, you’re still a middling aggro deck unless you’ve achieved massive board superiority. When you’re looking at things on the Strategic Archetypes Circle, behaving in a manner that is not your archetype, in any given moment, tends to be harder. The farther away it is on the circle, the more difficult it tends to be. You might be able to pull it off, but you become less able to count on pulling it off.

Simple examples of moments

You are Demigod Red. You drop a Figure of Destiny. Over the next several turns you cast burn spells, clearing the way for your Figure, or merely pump it to kill the blocker in the way. Technically speaking, there is very little difference between what you’re doing and having actually counterspelled each of your opponent’s plays. They’ve spent the time casting the spell, and you’ve nullified it. You are having an aggro-control moment, despite the fact that you have no counterspells.

You are a Five-Color Control deck playing against Kithkin. You drop some Finks to gain life and cast Cryptic Command for a few turns, trying to weather the storm. In the moment, you are the control deck. After a Hallowed Burial, your opponent is completely out of gas, and you start laying on pressure with Archon of Justice and a Mulldrifter. Even though you have countermagic available, you simply cast more creatures during your main phase and attack, because your opponent is too far behind to make use of it. You may be a control deck, but in that moment, you are on aggro.

You are Merfolk without any creatures on the table. Your opponent casts an Oona, you counter it. You are in a control moment.

You are Merfolk with many creatures on the table. Your opponent casts an Oona with mana up, you counter it. You are in an aggro-control moment.

What To Do With Moments

Understanding the nature of strategic moments can help you understand just what it is that you’re getting into as you take a strategic or a tactical path.

Take the Merfolk example, above. You might be able to win in a continuation of controlling moments, but it isn’t what your deck is designed to do. What you really want to do is try to get a clock going on the table. You’re designed to be an aggro-control deck. Being something else is something that you can do, but you shouldn’t be excited that you are doing it.

Similarly, when you are in a position to decide upon a strategy to move forward in the game, or a tactic to enact a strategy, you could find yourself being positioned into a series of strategic moments that, archetypically, are disadvantageous. You don’t necessarily want to completely avoid these situations, but they increase the likelihood of being in some bad places.

Perhaps most importantly, though, is understanding your own deck. It can be very easy to get tricked into thinking that your deck is of a particular strategic archetype or another. What you don’t want to do is get tricked by these moments. You want to remember whether you should plan on being the Beatdown or the Control in a particular matchup. You want to remember that you are a particular archetype, whether it be mid-range beatdown, aggro-control, aggro, or something else. Failure to recognize your own archetype and how it interacts with another archetype can mean that you start stepping in the wrong direction with your choices (bringing in Everlasting Torment versus an aggro-control deck like Merfolk springs to mind as an example of such a mistake).

Avoiding mistakes is the big key, here. Given two otherwise equal choices, for a mid-range control deck fighting against an aggro deck to put themselves into a position where the aggro deck gets to be aggro-control is very problematic. Casting creatures in Doran, for example, to try to hold off an aggressive Red deck, might be worse than simply killing a creature. Obviously, the situations can be complex (if you’re setting up for a potential Profane Command, for example), but because moments have a great deal of mutability, we need to weigh in what kind of moments we are making possible.

“Misassignment of Role = Game Loss.”

This is the biggest weight of them all.

The misunderstanding of a strategic archetype means that you’ll be unable to bring to bear the knowledge of history. The misunderstanding of strategic moments means that sometimes you’ll fail to capitalize on situations that can be turned to your advantage, and not convert potential wins into actual wins.

Parting Aside

On another note, it would appear that I’m not the only one unenthusiastic about the new Wizards website. Wow. Holy crap, am I not excited about it. The new site reminds me, in too many ways, of the Magic Online update. Bells and whistles be damned (and yes, I do like the draft simulator), I want functionality. I want usability. The things I want aren’t huge… I just want the site to be a rational product.

How is it not a rational product? Well, take the Hall of Fame statistics page. On the old site, this was a sortable page. You could order it by a statistic, and see the immediate result. It wasn’t flashy. It was just useful. No longer on the new site. Trying to find where PTQs were for Pro Tour: Berlin takes, as best as I can tell, five clicks, if you happen to know where you’re going. Previously, my girlfriend, who doesn’t have any interest in the site, would off-handedly go to the site and easily navigate her way to where the qualifiers are. She likes to plan ahead.

But, as some of you go-getter tournament players probably already know, there isn’t even a good way to do that right now with the Kyoto qualifiers. Where are they? When are they? I’ve hobbled together some information from some of the tournament organizers sites that I know, but as of the beginning of this week, Monday, there is no information on the Wizards site about where any of the PTQs might be. None. Or, if there is, Google sure can’t find it.

I love this game, I really do. It does get frustrating, though, to constantly feel as though we’re being treated like afterthoughts. Bringing in new players is a good thing for Wizards, but so is retaining them. So is transforming a player into a tournament player. Maintaining excitement about the game is something that can only be sustained by community. It’s not like we don’t notice it when we’re overlooked as a player-base.

Wizards doesn’t have to keep us all happy. We will always have gripers about things like “Blue is too good” or “Green is not good enough” and the like. But the simple, common courtesy of at least maintaining standards means a lot. Even if my favorite restaurant gets rid of my favorite dish, I’ll still eat there. Once they begin serving me stale bread… well, that is another story.

Until next time…

Adrian Sullivan