The Angel Gambit

What our Goodstuff deck tried to accomplish was to present several gambit type problems to a beatdown format. By using mana acceleration, and both Exalted Angel and Ravenous Baloth, plus a card like Vine Trellis, we tried to make these decks either have an answer for our greater tempo swinging beats, or to force them into an extension of resources that we could then capitalize on with Wrath or Vengeance.

I had been meaning to write this article for some time, since about the time that the Hullabaloo over card advantage was going on. Then my right arm got wrecked and typing became even more of a chore than before. Things were so bad I tried looking on the Internet for some”You Talk It Types” software, but the good copy I was looking at got pulled and the old versions looked like more headaches than they were worth. Oh well. The arm got better. I’m happy to report that I can again type just as slow as I could before…

Man, the timing sure seems right for this sucker now. Witness JP Meyer.

Oh and also, never ever leave out good old-fashioned racing your opponent. With all the control decks and disruption cards in Type 1, this gets forgotten a lot. I bet a lot of it also comes from having the old”The Deck” style of grinding gameplay ingrained in a lot of people’s minds, where you just can’t drop your Serra Angel until your opponent has no hand and no permanents because they might, just might, be able to do something. There is actually a grain of truth in that, though. It’s pretty easy for decks to”do something” that can possibly win the game, so therefore, instead of potentially giving them the time to draw and cast it, just win ahead of time! Force of Will be damned – winning is so the best answer in Magic.

JP Meyer

What many have forgotten, and JP reminds us of here, is something that boiled out on the other side of Weissman deck theory from none other than Brian Weissman himself. After putting the stack of cards together that wound up as the starting point of the”I’m not gonna die” school of control decks, ones which were chock full of card advantage plays like Ancestral Recall and Disrupting Scepter, Brian and his cohorts found that they often liked to play simple threat and answer Magic like the rest of us mere mortals. They called it”The Serra Gambit.”

Basically what this west coast crew found out was that while playing”The Deck,” they often would be sitting at a game of Magic in the early stages of deployment with one of their two Serra Angels in hand, and they found that they would be asking themselves this question:”Can they answer this lovely beauty?” If the answer was no, they would flop the Angel onto the table as soon as their mana would allow, beat for five turns, and extend for the”Good Game” shake. In essence, they could throw out all of the work that the deck was built to do, like work towards a position of inevitability through”grinding” to an extreme point of card advantage, and just present a threat they thought was unanswerable.

I’ll reiterate an obvious comment I’ve made in the forums before to better illustrate these points. The vast majority of Magic games are won by the unanswered threat, and so of all the things that you are really looking for in Magic, in the end what you want to find is the unanswered threat.

“There are no bad threats.” Dave Price, King of Beatdown

Limited really pushes this idea to the fore, where players are forced to play with sub-par men (for Constructed formats) and where threat removal is always at a premium. That is why evasion is so very good, because the evasive creature generally strips the blocking utility from opposing creatures and takes away their ability to answer through blocking. Onslaught became known in Limited for its bombs, and at the top of a heap of those bombs were Akroma and Visara. The former angel was a flying swinger who didn’t tap to attack and who had protection from Red and Black, the colors of most removal. That latter had flying as well, and the ability to offer scads of removal in that she could block as a 5/5 flyer and then tap and kill off some other annoying creature.

The Other Angel and Turning Tempo

If one moves along the timeline of Constructed, Serra Angel eventually got replaced. And then the replacements got replaced. I may miss some of the timeline, but Morphling came along and did what the Angel did, only better. It beat faster and its untargetability led it to be far, far harder to answer. It could (with a little Blue mana), play the role of attacker, and still block, which was what made the Serra a notable source of advantage in the first place. Morphling however – and if we make a jump in moving from looking at Standard to Extended or then Type One – was in turn replaced by Psychatog, and if I read JP correctly, we also have current standard finishing staples like Decree of Justice and Exalted Angel jumping into the fray as finishers in Type One as well.

As you watch this push forward, what you see in part is a progress in the point at which these”control” staple finishing creatures can turn tempo. Tog is far less durable than Morphling, simply because it can be targeted, however the tradeoff is that when it shows up, especially in Type One’s environment of high library manipulation, card drawing, and thus de facto graveyard filling, it can kill you in one turn. It did the same thing in Standard, but got its advantage most often with the help of Upheaval, which basically reset the game to its starting state except for the fact that the Tog players graveyard would be filled with cards, and they generally had a Psychatog on the board with Circular Logic many ready. As folks found out, there aren’t many answers to that.

What we are finding here is that the speed or the tempo turning aspect of creatures can be highly significant. Since Tog offers the opportunity of winning the game then and there by turning a defensive deck to a position of single turn inevitability, it has trumped the durability of Morphling’s untargetability. There is speed and then there is speed. In part, this goes back to giving your opponent time and draw phases to find an answer. With Morphling, they may find an answer over the course of the four turns it needs to deal twenty damage. Tog often needs to be answered right then and there.

And so the gambit goes.

The Gambit At Regionals

In my last article, I put forth a deck that I called Green/White Goodstuff. At the heart of that deck was basically a take of the Serra Gambit, but presented with Exalted Angel instead of Serra’s finest. What everyone found out about a year ago was that the Exalted was a very good card. This was because it, like its earlier cousin, could turn the tempo quickly against beatdown decks. Early deployment of Exalted means that the card must be answered, or it will start chewing holes in both the beatdown deck’s life and useful cards. As one can see when the Angel starts hitting, she not only puts your opponent on a five-turn clock but she also starts nullifying cards. Like a pair of 2/2 dorks, or four 1/1 goblins, or that Volcanic Hammer that your opponent would like to point at your dome. This is tempo turning and virtual card advantage packed into one neat little package.

Astral Slide decks made a killing off of the Angle Gambit, and still do. One of the better plays for the deck is still that it can – because of Astral Slide and that cards interaction with morphs – make Angel more reliably and faster than most other decks, and also can protect her better than any other deck. One of the things that came out in response to the Goodstuff deck was that Angel wasn’t that hard to deal with. Hard here seems very relative. As we’ve found out since Exalted Angel appeared, her value is best relative to how fast she can be deployed and how often she can be dealt with. Beatdown decks have a much tougher time dealing with a size-five backside. Shrapnel Blast is really the only common card that fits the bill in the current Standard format, and if your opponent is having to use that card on the girl, then they aren’t casting it on your dome.

If you start beating with an Angel on turn 4 or 5 and your opponent doesn’t have an answer, you are going to win. The same card however loses favor in mirror matches. U/W can often just counter the card, and any White deck should have both Wrath of God and Akroma’s Vengeance, such that any life gains made can ultimately be swooped up by the player who ends up with control, and in the case of Eternal Dragon, it became problematic that Exalted was just a bad card that the Eternal could chump off and then ultimately trump.

The Goodstuff Revisited

4 Birds of Paradise

4 Vine Trellis

4 Ravenous Baloth

3 Molder Slug

4 Plow Under

4 Exalted Angel

2 Eternal Dragon

2 Decree of Justice

4 Akroma’s Vengeance

4 Wrath of God

4 Windswept Heath

3 Tranquil Thicket

3 Secluded Steppe

4 Plains

8 Forest

3 Temple of the False God


4 Oxidize

1 Molder Slug

4 Caller of the Claw

3 Circle of Protection: Red

3 Gilded Light

What our Goodstuff deck tried to accomplish was to present several gambit type plays to a beatdown format. By using mana acceleration, and both Exalted Angel and Ravenous Baloth plus a card like Vine Trellis, we tried to make these decks either have an answer for our greater tempo swinging beats, or to force them into an extension of resources that we could then capitalize on with Wrath or Vengeance. As Flores just pointed out, Ravager Affinity is very good at dealing twenty very fast on an optimal draw, however that deck’s faltering points are having to deal more than twenty points in a short period of turns while protecting itself against the likes of Wrath and Vengeance.

One of our points was that by doing this we had a very weak plan against W/x control, in part because we were running Exalted straight up and had few Decree of Justice or Eternal Dragons. Our options came down to trying to use Plow Under in an aggro-control type fashion. At the end, my plan for attacking W/x was to add in Caller of the Claw to the sideboard, as most often we were going to present probably three to five creatures before W/x would want or have to Wrath. This still isn’t a good plan and we are still admittedly giving up to W/x. However what we got in return was that this deck was solid against Tooth and Nail, a matchup that Flores found lacking in his and Seth Burn approach. The cards that swung our deck over Tooth and Nail were our main deck Plow Unders and then Molder Slug. A little bit of lifegain topped over with Molder Slug meant that one of the artifact men that Tooth would serve up would get to swing just once. It didn’t hurt us that sometimes we could punish Affinity on a sub par start with a turn 3 Slug.

Long, or perhaps not so long ago, Jim Ferraiolo wrote (in his Whispers of My Muse article) put forth that the format was putting up a field what was very much against rogue deck development. When you see such guys as Flores and Burn working on such cheesy approaches as main deck Worship you know what sort of jig is up. Damping Matrix is a card that is so pinpoint in its hate that it should really never see itself slapped on the Green….yet it is and will be. We got stuck in one of our approaches trying to be lucky enough to flop into”The Angel Gambit” early enough to offset the beats, in effect trying to steal games across the board. That just isn’t that strong a plan either.

And it’s why you’re going to see a lot of folks backing up into Red men for Regionals.

“Beware the hordes! Here come the hordes!”