The Beautiful Struggle: All We Need…

Read Mark Young every Thursday... at StarCityGames.com!
I’ve been playing a lot of Tenth Edition Release Events on Magic Online lately, for a lot of reasons. In part it’s because I do most of my Constructed work online these days, and thus I’ll need the cards; in part because I love the format and hate drafting Time Spiral block; and in part because I’ve done pretty well in them, especially if you count events that crashed after I was able to draw into Top 8.

I’ve been playing a lot of Tenth Edition Release Events on Magic Online lately, for a lot of reasons. In part it’s because I do most of my Constructed work online these days, and thus I’ll need the cards; in part because I love the format and hate drafting Time Spiral block; and in part because I’ve done pretty well in them, especially if you count events that crashed after I was able to draw into Top 8.

In an event on Sunday afternoon I opened a very interesting Sealed deck in a 2x event. For those of you who don’t play Magic Online, that means a 5-round event with between 24 and 32 players and a cut to Top 8; the tournament winner qualifies for the 2x Championships (an invitation-only MTGO event) this coming Sunday. This is what I opened:

After a good amount of thought, this is how I built it:

Against removal-heavy decks where I might need to recur Reya, I boarded out an Island and the Sage Owl, replacing them with a Swamp and a Gravedigger.

I’d like to say that the games I played with this deck were instructive, but they really weren’t. I won three matches, each by a 2-0 score, and then was able to draw into the Top 8. Of those six games, two involved my opponent taking multiple trips to Paris. However, I think this deck is still notable, because this was one of the most “patient” Limited decks I think I’ve ever played.

In my prior Release Event Top 8s, I had adopted the strategy you’ll see most often in Core Set sealed: a Green base, with varying amounts of Red and Black as support colors. You basically just smash with Wurms, Kavu, Zombies, Goblins, and the occasional Elemental or Dragon, backed up by spot removal. This deck is the polar opposite. I have exactly three creatures that the average deck would fear on the attack (Air Elemental, Aven Windreader, Reya), and one of them costs nine. I have two things that I normally despise having in my Sealed decks: a wall, and a Samite Healer. I have Heart of Light, which stops my opponent’s offense at the price of stopping my own. There will be precious little smashing going on here: I simply intended to “not die” until I could untap with Reya Dawnbringer in play.

Playing this deck made me think a lot about patience in Magic. Many players equate patience with control or defense, and defense has had a bad reputation as far back as Dave Price’s famous “there can be wrong answers, but there are no wrong threats.”

However, patient decks have their place, and the lesson they teach is useful across the spectrum of types of Magic player. Look at the above Sealed pool. I’m surely playing Blue, and it would be easy to shoehorn in some impatient cards to join my fliers on the attack. The Black has some decent threats in Looming Shade and Lord of the Pit, and Gravedigger to recur them. Red has Thundering Giant and not much else. Green can curve out with small creatures, including the underrated Rootwalla.

However, many Sealed matches are a lot like that old Itchy and Scratchy bit from “The Simpsons” … each side aims a larger and larger gun at the other until everything goes boom. I have a Grizzly Bears, you answer with Giant Spider, I play Juggernaut, you slam down Shivan Dragon. In the case of this specific event, if the best I can manage is a risky Lord of the Pit or an easily-outclassed 4/3 hasty guy, then my opponent’s gun is going to be biggest most of the time. I may have to take a different approach, a more patient and defensive approach; hence, the U/W deck.

I was practically writing this article in my head as I played it, because just about every principle of patience in Magic I could think of came up as the games progressed. Principles such as…

1. Take as much damage as you can get away with. As Brian Weissman famously said, the last life point is the only one that matters. If you can defend that last life point to the death, you can still win the game.

In Constructed, this used to be done with countermagic. If a Quicksand or Nevinyrral’s Disk could take care of the early creatures across the table, then the late game was dominated by an Ophidian or Whispers of the Muse drawing the patient player into infinite countermagic. Usually the game reached a point where a Red deck could try to burn the opponent out, but it was likely that he would not resolve another spell from that point on. These days, the countermagic is much worse, but the life total can be guarded in more inventive ways, such as the Urborg-powered Tendrils of Corruption that are so popular in Time Spiral Block Constructed.

It’s tougher to guard your life total in Limited, because you’re a lot less able to stop a pump spell or burn spell with tricks of your own. For this reason, you often find yourself in a situation where you want to block, but a trick from the opponent would blow you out (by the way, this is another reason why patience and defense have a bad name; usually they involve blocking, and really, who blocks?).

Different players deal with that situation differently. Some people never block, and some people always block even when they probably shouldn’t. I prefer a happy medium. My rule on blocking is to ask yourself, “if he has the trick, when do I want to see it from him?” If my best creatures are coming up in the next few turns, I’ll often say, “well, if he has the trick, I better see it now,” and block. If I have a removal spell in hand that I can’t play right now for some reason, I’m more likely to say, “if he has it I want to 2-for-1 him later on,” and not block.

With the U/W deck listed above, the only game I had that was especially close was game 1 of the first round. My opponent’s U/W deck did not have too much real removal, so I bided my time, happy to let our creatures trade or bounce off each other. I set up Reya + Aven Fisher at 15 life with a Starlight Invoker in hand, so even though my opponent had some fliers of his own, I assumed that the game was in the bag. However, he surprised me by playing on consecutive turns Craw Wurm, Hunted Wumpus (my hand was empty), and Primal Rage.

Ugh. The board was crowded, but that much trample damage can race even my Invoker. The wrong thing to do at this point would be to lose most of my whole team in blocking. He has other creatures also, and I might not be able to rebuild with Reya in time. I decided that I should chump block with the Fisher, suck up a ton of damage on that first Rage-enhanced attack (I fell to 5), Invoke (back up to 10), and hope to find some answers. In fact I drew Heart of Light off of the Fisher, the perfect answer to his Wumpus since I am planning to win in the air anyway. I piled 5 power’s worth of creatures in front of the Wurm on his next attack (no Aggressive Urge outs for you!), drew into Aven Cloudchaser over the next couple of turns to get his Primal Rage, and coasted to a win.

Until I was able to Invoke for a few turns in a row, my life total was pretty low — low enough that Overrun or Might of Oaks probably would have won for him if they were in his deck. However, one of the things you’ll learn about patience is that it involves a lot of playing the odds. Might of Oaks is a lot less likely than Giant Growth, so it makes a lot more sense to take just enough damage to keep from losing to Giant Growth, right? If the opponent has it, well, them’s the breaks.

2. Change gears as needed. Consider an extreme example: in another match with the U/W deck, my opponent mulliganed to five and stalled on a couple of Forests. In the meantime I curved out perfectly with Soul Warden, Youthful Knight, and Wild Griffin as my first three plays, so obviously I was attacking the entire time.

Thus we can deduce that there is a point, somewhere between “Curl up into the fetal position behind my Wall of Air” and “Attack my color-screwed opponent like there’s no tomorrow,” where the outlook on the position changes from defensive to offensive. You need an accurate sense for where that point is, and when you are able to attack or not even as you try to hold your opponent off. You won’t be perfect all the time — none of us ever are — but if you see some free damage offered up by your opponent, and you think you can afford to take it despite being on the defensive, it’s a pretty good idea to do so.

I’ve lost count of the number of games I’ve seen in which one player defended well for a time, but by neglecting to attack he fell behind when the game came down to a racing situation. Many patient defensive games turn out that way — you use removal on a certain opposing man at a key point, and then the game just turns into a straight race between your guys and his remaining (presumably less threatening) guys. However, if you neglect to take the odd damage point where you can get it here and there, you may not be able to even start racing, since your opponent’s higher life total means he wins the race.

A recent Constructed deck that requires this skill in great measure is the Mono-Blue Pickles deck from Time Spiral Block. “It’s not a control deck,” Josh Ravitz said on the top8magic podcast after his PTQ finals appearance with it, “it’s a beatdown deck.” In reality, it requires you to switch with great skill between the two. Remember, the Pickles kill actually can happen quite quickly: one Brine Elemental by itself can swing for five on the turn it flips, and five more after the opponent has been tapped down for a turn. So, while you may be on the defensive against opposing threats early on, you’re also attacking with your Cloudskates and your morphs where possible, looking to get the opponent low enough on life that every one of your face-down creatures represents a quick ten damage.

It’s not all about Delay and Cancel; it’s also about sculpting a position where you have a 5/4 Time Walk at the moment when your opponent has no good defense against it. I’ve found that many people claim their G/W or mono-White beatdown decks destroy mono-Blue, but their mono-Blue deck is not being played correctly in testing. If the Blue player doesn’t show enough patience to play defense and enough cunning to switch to offense at the right time, he’ll lose a lot of games.

3. There are no wrong… answers? During a separate Tenth Edition Release Event from the one mentioned above, I was Red/Black, thanks to opening the Beacon of Unrest/Phage the Untouchable/Siege-Gang Commander print run. In the fourth round — I had to win to draw in to Top 8 — I saw almost none of my opponent’s deck in game 1. He played Forests, Islands, a Mountain, a Merfolk Looter, and an Icy Manipulator; when I tried to put pressure on with Phage he used the power of Persuasion on her and I lost instead.

On the draw in game 2, I led with Goblin Piker and my opponent answered on his turn with Prodigal Pyromancer. I had Incinerate in hand, but I held on to it. Why? Because I also had Rod of Ruin and two more lands in hand. I have the late game well in hand with Siege-Gang and Beacon in my deck; I just have to parcel out my removal effectively to get there. I might have been hoping to beat down with the Piker, but by playing the Pyromancer he turned my stance into a defensive one instead.

I know it sounds very obvious to say, “you shouldn’t use a removal spell on a one-toughness guy if you are going to play Rod of Ruin,” but if you browse the middle tables at your average PTQ you’ll see a lot of players give in to impatience and ignore the same basic principle in more complicated positions. You don’t use Tendrils of Corruption to kill Saffi Eriksdotter if you can afford to wait; if your opponent is running Griffin Guide then you are better off holding back Venser, Shaper Savant as long as you can; Teferi, Mage of Zhalfir doesn’t have to be flashed in as a blocker if he’s just going to be hit with Dead/Gone or Sunlance during the second main phase.

I’ve always thought that the real reasoning behind the Dave Price line was this: there is always a right answer, but sometimes you can’t afford the patience for it. Psychatog, for instance, couldn’t really go wrong with Upheaval, but Upheaval takes awhile to set up such that you’re actually winning after it resolves. In the meantime, your opponent could draw all of the right threats to crush you. Similarly, your Green deck for Nationals grinders might have had access to Loaming Shaman, but that doesn’t mean that you could afford to metagame against the relatively rare Dredge decks out there, which makes Dredge look like a better threat than it might actually be against the rest of the format.


You might ask what happened in the Top 8 of the Premiere Event with the U/W deck listed above. I drafted U/W again since I was receiving late Loxodon Mystics, but it was a much less patient deck this time: two copies each of Youthful Knight, Benalish Knight, and Skyhunter Patrol. I lost in game 3 of the finals when an R/B opponent had his boarded-in Cryoclasm for my Plains on turn 3, stranding two Patrols in my hand. I then had a qualification for the 4x Championships locked up, when the server crashed and the event results were lost.

I was pretty sore about this turn of events, as you might see from my LiveJournal, but I waited until I could try again Monday night. I won a 2x event outright to qualify. Whether it’s in a game or a season, patience is everything.

This article written while listening to Common’s “Finding Forever.”

mmyoungster at aim dot com
mm_young dot livejournal dot com
mm_young on MTGO