One of the most fun things in Magic is doing something cool. I will never forget the duel I lost when my opponent (who was dead next turn) took back his Flickering Ward, recast it on his only creature naming Black, cast Evincar’s Justice, took it back again, recast it on the same creature naming Red and sent it in past my only surviving blocker (a Lowland Giant) for just enough damage to kill me. Nor will I forget the duel I won when I (who was dead next turn) sent my shadow guy to the air and Interdicted my opponent’s Spike Feeder so he couldn’t gain life.
I suspect that the joy of cool things is a big part of what makes Combo players so loyal to their approach. How can casting creatures, countering spells, and disenchanting Disks compare to generating infinite mana, shooting someone with a Mogg Fanatic 237 times, attacking with a 1,000,000/1,000,000 Mishra’s Factory or putting someone in a hard lock? Even bad combo decks like Reap/Lace or Shrieking Drake/Intruder Alarm/Nature’s Revolt are hard to let go of.
I don’t want to talk about bad combo decks, though; I want to talk about the tendency Magic players have to lose games or make blunders because they are fixated by the prospect of doing something cool.
Let me start with an example from the quarter-finals of the PTQ where I qualified for NY. I’m playing game one against Mo Gilmore’s Sligh deck. I’m at one life and Mo is at eighteen when I draw Yawgmoth’s Will. Suddenly, I have a chance: I can Dark Ritual/Will/Ritual/Hymn to Tourach/Duress. I have an active Cursed Scroll and two Racks on the table. With an empty hand (and no creatures on the table) Mo will only have a few turns with which to draw a burn spell or Mogg Fanatic before the Scroll and Racks kill him.
I start this off thinking Mo has three cards… But when I check I see he only has two. Suddenly I start to get clever. I decide not to waste the Duress, since there is a small but non-zero chance that Mo will draw a non-burn, non-creature spell (Goblin Grenade or Fork) and I might also draw another Will, in which case the Duress would be helpful. It is also conceivable that I will get a chance to use Spinning Darkness and might need the Duress in my graveyard.
Quick quiz: What happens when you are at one life and end your turn with Dark Ritual, Hymn you, go? I burn to death. It turns out not to have mattered, since Mo’s next draw was a Fanatic, but I was so happy about how clever I was being that I completely forgot that when I originally planned the Will I knew I needed to cast both spells to avoid mana burn.
Now let’s jump to Jamie Wakefield most recent Dojo article,”Super Lucky Guy,” which describes a recent PTQ effort with Secret Force. Quoth the King of the Fatties:
“John blocks with a fanatic and shoots me. I Natural Order a Triceratops (Which isn’t a card, but a 1/1 Saproling token – Jamie was famous for using dinosaur tokens in play – The Ferrett) and go get another Verdant Force. Not very smart because he might top deck a Wrath of God, and I realize this as soon as I do it. Wake up and play smart, Wakefield!!!”
Jamie got caught up with the fun he was having shooting out dinosaurs and put himself in a position where he could have lost both his Verdant Forces to one Wrath of God. Since one Verdant was plenty to win the game, and since if he held on to his Natural Order he could have met Wrath with creature/Order for the second Verdant, this was clearly a bad play as Jamie recognized.
Now let me suggest a second example, where Jamie’s judgement was thrown off by his focus on doing something cool. Again, quoting Jamie:”I untap, draw NATURAL ORDER. I have no creatures in play, a land in hand, and a Scroll on the board. I play my third land. Hmm, that’s no good. I can Scroll you, but if I do that, you’ll know I have a Natural Order in my hand, and you have to get rid of it right now….
“About the only way that I can win this, I am thinking, is if I draw a Wall of Blossoms, draw a land off the wall of blossoms, play it, and next turn, sac the wall, go get the Best Fatty Ever Printed, and F**KING WRECK YOU – YOU SUPER LUCKY GUY!!!
“No S**t – I top deck a Wall of Blossoms, I play it, and I get a land.
“I’m lyin, I’m dyin. This actually happens.
“Next turn – I’m going to untap, Natural Order, and well, win. My opponent scrolls me with the one card in his hand, the Demonic Consult, and then untaps, draws…
“…Super Lucky Boy…
” ‘Diabolic Edict the wall.'”
Can you see what Jamie is missing here? He is so focused on the Order/Force combo he thinks his opponent is lucky for topdecking a Diabolic Edict… The same opponent who is Scrolling him with a Demonic Consultation! Let’s assume that he drew some other random card instead. Jamie untaps, Natural Orders and well…
“During your discard phase, I’ll cast Demonic Consultation, naming Diabolic Edict.” It’s as simple as that. Unless for some reason he can’t Consult for one, Jamie’s whole plan involved throwing away his one real chance at winning (drawing a second creature so his Force would have Edict protection). Even if, for some reason, he already tapped out (say to Scroll Jamie out of spite) before Jamie cast Natural Order, he could untap, Consult during upkeep, Edict during upkeep… As active player, he gets to do whatever he wants before activating the Verdant Force.
I love Jamie’s posts and his decks and his determination to win with fatties. I look forward to the day when he starts playing”pure” control decks and realizes that at heart he’s a control player and doesn’t need big monsters to make him happy, just durable threats. But I suspect that on some level even his decision to play Secret Force is affected by the”cool things” problem… He really wants to Natural Order for a Verdant Force and put plastic dinosaur tokens on the table while the spectators laugh and even his opponent can’t help grinning at the unlikely beatdown.
Similarly, Jamie’s analysis of his matchup vs. Pox points out how good his spells are against Pox and then says how tough Hymn is and how lucky some of his opponents got. I won’t dispute that he’s got a good matchup or that his opponents got lucky, but he doesn’t seem objective.
But then – think about this. Everything in my deck is good against Pox.
Verdant Force – Built-in Pox and Edict Protection
Maybe, but the only way you can really get this out is with Natural Order and (as noted above) that means you need to have two creatures in play in order to reach Edict protection.
Wall of Blossoms – blocks Steel Golem without costing me a card in hand so the Rack doesn’t do more damage to me.
Definitely a good card… I sometimes boarded out my Golems against decks using Wall of Blossoms. However, either Scroll or Funeral Charm lets the Golem punch through.
Acridians – Block Steel Golem
See Wall of Blossoms. Remember, the main point of the Golem is to stop you from beating down on me while I rip up your hand and Scroll you. If you want to spend two mana on turns 2 and 3 for a guy who can’t beat up my Golem, that’s okay.
Elves – provide mana for the light LD element of Pox
Sure, these are okay, but Charms and Scrolls and half of my sideboard kills them.
Scrolls – good when they kill your whole hand.
No argument here…Pox doesn’t like people with Scrolls.
Creeping Mold – Like I need to explain this?
Actually, yeah, you do. Hymns, Pox and Elfkill makes 4cc spells hard to get off, and a 4cc one-for-one on artifacts that can be recast by Yawgmoth’s Will is hardly a powerhouse against Pox. Creep my Rack? Ritual/Will/Ritual/Hymn/Rack… We’re back where we started except that we both have fewer cards in hand.
Secret Force’s sideboard also has some good cards against Pox, but are three Charms and two Lifeforces really better than the Dystopia, Edicts, Perish, etc., that Pox is likely to bring in? Engineered Plague your Elves? Secret Force has to topdeck its hosers… Pox can topdeck a hoser or a Consult and get the hoser it most wants. Turn 2 Lifeforce is a beating, but half the time I will have a turn one Duress for it… And if I don’t, I may meet it with Dystopia on my next turn when you don’t have GG untapped.
I don’t want to beat on Jamie… Like I said, I love the guy (although perhaps not as much as he loves Rob or Michelle). I just want to make the point that sometimes we can get so wrapped up in the cool things our deck can do that we lose objectivity and forget what our opponent can do.
Last example, a top 8 match in the most recent Boston PTQ. My friend Terry is playing Rec/Sur against a mono-G deck without Cursed Scroll or Desert Twister. In other words, no answer to Recurred Spike Weavers or any number of other threats Terry has. It should be a bye.
Terry is in complete control. He has Weaver on the table, a graveyard full of great stuff and Living Death and Recur in his hand. He can Recur Weaver for Nekrataal if he likes or cast Death or whatever. His opponent knows he’s losing and basically says he’s just going to try to drag it out. What happens? As I understand it, Terry gets focused on casting an amazing Living Death… A Living Death for the epics. He gets out his Krovikan Horror and sacrifices his creatures, including both of the Birds of Paradise that he needs to cast Living Death.
Somewhat miraculously, he survives the next turn. With three land and a Wall of Roots in play, he’s still very much in the game, as he can use Recur/Weaver to buy time and he’s still got Survival on the board to find other answers. However, still thinking about the lost opportunity to cast Living Death, he draws something that doesn’t produce B and concedes.
Few players are immune to the”cool things” problem. We all love to come up with combos or brilliant plays, but (from a competitive standpoint, at least) we need to remember that what matters is winning the game. If Living Death is enough to win, cast it. If you come up with a plan that wins and at the last minute want to improve it, think for a moment about whether there were any reasons (like mana burn, in my case) why the original plan might be better. If you are close to pulling off a win, think about whether your opponent might have a way to disrupt your win (like Consulting for Diabolic Edict) and if you find one whether you have a better chance of winning through a different path. Above all, take the time to check what you are doing, make sure you aren’t giving unnecessary chances to your opponent and don’t be fancy for it’s own sake.
Chads of MephistophEllis
Team Your Move Games