The Beautiful Struggle: Super Vision

With a new Standard environment on the horizon and Extended season in full bloom, Mark takes a step back from the tournament scene to review the various forms of strategic superiority and where they come from.

So, last month I was up in Maryland at the local store, doing the ol’ sanctioned draft routine. In between rounds I wandered over to watch the FNM Standard event, where one of the top tables featured a rematch of the decks of Maryland State Championship finals: the always-loved White Weenie versus the Blue/Green Vedalken Shackles control which dominates these tournaments due to its reasonable matchup versus Affinity.

In one game the weenie deck had a turn 1 Leonin Skyhunter and laid down some vicious beats to the tune of a Glorious Anthem. That game was virtually over by turn 4. It was quite the impressive beating. And yet there was absolutely no doubt in my mind that the control deck would emerge the victor.

The issue was, the White deck did not seem to have a way to remove Vedalken Shackles. And even if he did have removal – Altar’s Light, perhaps – the Blue deck could just counter the spell. And even if the White deck was able to draw and play enough men to swarm the Shackles, the control deck also had Echoing Truth on hand if he needed it. When a Shackles resolved in game 3, the aggro player was soon unable to even attack. I wandered away; I knew that the battle would soon turn into a rout, the Magical equivalent of Mike Tyson vs. Pauly Shore.

The Shackles player here was enjoying a case of strategic superiority. Barring a nut hand on his opponent’s part, or a massive misplay on his own part, it was virtually impossible for him to lose. Not only that, but victory did not require a large degree of trickery; play Islands, play Shackles, take control of opponent’s creatures at will. About the only tough decision he faced was whether a given creature on the stack was to be met with a Shackles or a Condescend.

That’s the sort of situation we’d all like to be on the right side of, right? Soon we’ll have a whole new Standard format to try out, so I thought this time I’d take a look at the various forms of strategic superiority and where they come from.

The Problem Card

This is the sort of advantage that we see in the Shackles vs. White Weenie example: there is one card in the matchup that the player facing it has trouble dealing with. If not for that spell, the matchup might be even or favorable in the reverse; but, because it’s there, one deck has the upper hand.

There are varying degrees of this advantage. Let’s say you are playing Affinity in Standard. Horobi, Death’s Wail is a Problem Card, but it doesn’t stop Affinity dead unless the Black deck already has the advantage on board. Samurai of the Pale Curtain is a bigger Problem Card, as it shuts off almost everything affected by Horobi, plus your Disciples and Moriok Riggers, but even with Bushido it’s no match for a heavily-sacrificed-to Arcbound Ravager or a sufficiently Plated flier. The biggest Problem Card for Affinity is probably March of the Machines, since it serves both as an Armageddon and a way to neutralize Cranial Plating.

A Problem Card is a very powerful advantage to have. However, it’s difficult to create this advantage during deck construction. Knowing that you would have utter strategic superiority if you played card X in deck Y against matchup Z is not very useful when creating a deck from scratch. How do you know that Y is a good deck? And in other, more prevalent matchups, maybe X gets a lot worse than it is against Z.

Where is does become useful is when you are metagaming. As I mentioned above, Green/Blue Shackles control has completely taken over my area. Many people around here think that it, and not Affinity, is the best deck in the format (that’s not to say we’re not pleased about the upcoming bannings, though). So, in anticipation of a lot of mirror matches, I recently took Cranial Extraction out of the sideboard and replaced it with Troll Ascetic, which is Problem Card Number One for the deck.

Funk and Wagnall got nothin' on Yawg

The Troll can’t be Shackled, Echoing Truthed, or removed by blockers, so he puts a tremendous strain on the opponent’s suite of countermagic, and makes it more likely that your late-game bombs (Sundering Titan, Rude Awakening) will resolve. In post-board games against an opponent running Extractions, the Troll still plays a vital role by being the first target for opposing Extractions, allowing Eternal Witness and Sundering Titan to go unmolested for awhile. The big bad Troll (and by the way, it’s pronounced Uh-SET-ick, not “ecstatic” or “aesthetic”) has yet to let me down.

When facing a Problem Card, generally the best thing to do is try to execute your deck’s plan fast, before the card resolves. For example, most Affinity decks could board in Annul, if they were really that scared about the March of the Machines problem. Annul seems a great card: the cheapest, fastest, the most efficient answer to March one could play. But hanging on to a counterspell is not what the super-aggressive artifact deck wants to be doing; it’s better to have any artifact, even an un-imprintable Chrome Mox, so as to better play your role as the beatdown deck. Affinity’s best draws can kill the opponent by turn 5 even if March should stick – but those draws don’t want you to be holding any Annuls.

Getting Role-d

“Clearly, the Suicide Black deck has to be the beatdown deck and the Sligh deck has to be the control deck. However, Suicide Black can’t afford to be the beatdown deck.”

Mike Flores, “Who’s the Beatdown?”

Everybody who has studied their classics knows that “Misassignment of Role = Game Loss.” But, that’s not a strategic disadvantage. That’s just somebody playing badly and not knowing his deck’s role. But, sometimes you know what your deck’s role is supposed to be, yet you are incapable of assuming it. That’s another type of strategic inferiority.

It’s easy to forget that two Extended seasons ago, right after Pro Tour: Houston, some people actually thought Suicide Black might be the format’s best deck. “Everywhere we looked there was [Phyrexian] Negator and friends,” Kai Budde wrote of Grand Prix: Reims a couple of weeks later. But, when the Day 2 field at Reims was thrashed by Red Deck Wins, everybody and their brother knew that Phyrexian Negator was headed back into sideboards and trade binders, because there was no way he could deal with Grim Lavamancer.

An interesting case of this may arise after the bannings, when Vial Affinity will (hopefully?) no longer be the boogeyman of the Standard format. Once that happens, you could still try to play a beatdown Affinity deck – I assume Frogmite, Myr Enforcer, and the various one- and zero-drop artifact creatures will still be legal – but the bannings will most likely kill its ability to adopt multiple roles well.

Part of the strength of the Affinity deck is that it can play beatdown with Cranial Plating and modular counters, or it can play control/combo by chump-blocking and Thoughtcasting until it can sacrifice + Disciple you right out of the game. Affinity can even change its role in mid-game, which very, very few decks can do well. Unless Wizards completely screw the pooch on their bannings, Affinity soon will be forced to choose one role or the other: either beat down with cheap men and Plating, or arrange for a Disciple-based combo, but not both. Ideally, some other beatdown decks in the format will get a chance to play the Red Deck Wins role, while Affinity goes the way of Suicide Black.

Know Your Role.

This kind of advantage can be very, very subtle. Consider two Extended U/G Madness decks that are completely identical, save one card: deck A has a fourth Roar of the Wurm, and deck B has Genesis instead. That lone change can make a big difference: knowing that he has the inevitable win with Genesis, player B can choose the role of control deck, simply trading cards and making sure he stays above zero, counting on his inevitable recurring Arrogant Wurms to win.

So, if you should find yourself in one of these matchups where you are unable to adequately take your role, it’s important that you don’t just play “normally.” If you play on autopilot according to your role, you’ll most likely lose. So instead you should put yourself into a mindset that you need to save the game.

In the case of U/G decks A and B, as soon as deck A realizes that his opponent is playing Genesis, his strategy has to change. He may want to go all-in repeatedly, trying to force through lethal damage before the long-term card advantage kicks in. Or, A may want to hold back, avoiding creature trades that facilitate his B’s plan, and wait for a moment when a well-timed Circular Logic or bounce spell might clear the way for an alpha strike. He may have to make some unorthodox or risky plays, but that’s better than the long, drawn-out loss that he will face otherwise.

The Anti-Strategy

Sometimes it becomes clear that two decks are just completely, utterly mismatched. No matter what one deck does, no matter what move is tried, loss seems inevitable.

At U.S. Nationals 2004, I was on the rail during the Top 8, over the shoulder of Michael Aitchison in his quarterfinals match with Bill Stead. Aitchison was running G/R Beasts, a fairly good choice against the Goblins and Elf and Nail decks that were running rampant in the Constructed portion of the tournament. Unfortunately his luck in matchups ran out against Stead, who was playing a G/W control deck similar to the one designed by my teammate Rick Rust. As Rick grinded his way into Nationals with the deck, he and I joked that the Beasts matchup was a bye, and similar jokes were made in the commentary booth while the Top 8 was going on.

Don’t get me wrong; Aitchison is a fine player, but consider the obstacles he faced: he’s out-landed; between Wrath of God, Akroma’s Vengeance, and Wing Shards, it’s virtually impossible for the Beast deck to keep a creature on the table; and Mindslaver and Eternal Dragon are absolutely decisive late-game threats that he can’t do a thing about. He fought as best he could, but Stead swept the match easily.

That was a rare case; usually this kind of superiority is more likely to happen in more wide-open formats than we saw at Nationals. When there are a dozen or more different decks that are viable, it will often come to pass that one of them just completely beats the hell out of another. We see a perfect case of this during Extended season, with Life and Mind’s Desire. As I pointed out in my Mind’s Desire article, the Blue deck has a crushing advantage simply because all the infinite life in the world is not going to accomplish anything when you have no cards left in your library. Sure, Life can theoretically win fast with the hot new Unspeakable Symbol tech, but then again, Beasts could theoretically get a hot Plow Under draw against Green/White and roll in there with men. That’s not to say that it happened too often.

Then Lucas Glavin and others came up with the idea of merging the Cephalid Breakfast and Life decks together, and all of a sudden Desire is the one with the decisive disadvantage! This is simply because the Cephalid combo goldfishes one turn faster than Desire on average, and all a giant Brain Freeze does is enable an even more giant Sutured Ghoul. Even if Desire is lucky enough to start a big pile of storm on turn 3, it has to go through a very specific kill path: either “Brain Freeze your deck + Cunning Wish for Stroke of Genius”, or “Brain Freeze your deck + gain the ability to cast another Brain Freeze after your Krosan Reclamation resolves.” In Boston I got off a Mind’s Desire for seven on turn 3 (!) in one game against Cephalid Life, and it gave me a chance to do a huge Brain Freeze, but I still lost on the following turn because I was unable to reveal a way to, y’know, win.

When you don’t have it, this is by far the most depressing and frustrating form of strategic superiority. It’s like all of the other kinds of disadvantage discussed in this article, plus every other kind of disadvantage you can possibly dream of, all rolled into one. It seems as though you shouldn’t even have wasted your time going to the tournament that day, and you wonder how the pairing gods could be so cruel as to put you into such a matchup while your buddies breeze through their games with enough time to go get some lunch.

So what do you do in a case like this? Well, you can’t just give up. No game is 100% lost; there are odds – very, very long odds – that you can still pull off the win. So you have to scratch and claw for every chance you get. If you are the sort of person who engages in psychological warfare with the opponent, you might want to do that. If you are the rules-lawyering type, you might want to do that. Do whatever you feel comfortable doing (within the rules; I have never advocated cheating and I never will).

In the end, these sorts of matches are best for testing one’s ability to avoid going on tilt. Because no matter how many theory articles you read or how much testing you put in, sometimes there are matchups that you just can’t win. If you can’t accept that, maybe you need another hobby.

Until next time, here’s hoping you get to enjoy some strategic superiority.

This article written while watching Takeshi Kitano’s “Zatoichi.”

Mm underscore young at yahoo dot com