The Glass Cannon

Bringing a deck that packs to a commonly played archetype is something I’ve come to term “bringing the Glass Cannon Deck.” It’s where you launch yourself head-on at the tournament with a deck whose only chance is to avoid your few nightmare matchups the whole way through. Encountering that matchup more than once — a possibility you can neither avoid nor control — will likely end your tournament on the spot. But when do you bring a Glass Cannon on purpose?

Back in Mirrodin block, I used to get frustrated whenever anyone beat me with a deck that clearly stood no chance against Affinity. Affinity, for those who do not remember, was the 800-pound gorilla of Mirrodin block. It was the Deck To Beat by a mile, and yet some managed to apparently ignore it altogether. I’d spend countless hours testing the Affinity matchup, then lose to some clown who was maindecking super-slow (but powerful) cards like Promise of Power where I had devoted slots to cheap artifact removal.

How could someone do this? What kind of madman brings a deck that loses to Affinity to an Affinity Block Constructed tournament?

“Affinity is hated out,” went one response. This, of course, was a falsehood at best and a lie at worst; one need only look at the Grand Prix results of the period to confirm that the most hated-on deck in the environment (by a lot) remained alive and prosperous at the high-level arena.

Another way that someone could arrive at the conclusion that he didn’t need to worry about the 800-pound gorilla is the following sequence of logic.

1.) “Everyone’s maindecking Oxidize, Viridian Shaman, Shatter, and so on, in order to beat Affinity.”
2.) “If I play Affinity, I’ll be overwhelmed by the hate and get smashed at the tournament.”
3.) “Therefore, I’m not going to play Affinity at the tournament.”
4.) “Clearly, everyone else must have come to this conclusion as well.”
5.) “Therefore, I do not need to worry about people playing Affinity; no one will be brave enough to play it anyway.”

This logic is flawed right from step 2. What if you play Affinity, people hate on you… And you beat them anyway? This outcome may not have occurred to some people because:

1) In their playtest group, nobody can pilot Affinity well enough to beat the hate decks.
2) Nobody in their playtest group wants to play Affinity, because everyone else is hating on it. Thus, whenever anyone starts to playtest Affinity, they either get frustrated and give up or just go through the motions in order to help their friend test out a “real” deck. (Little did they realize that if they had been trying their hardest at piloting the artifact deck, they could have come up with a winning record against even the hateful decks in the gauntlet.)
3) The word on the street is that everyone’s hating on Affinity. Because most people tend to (unconsciously) bias experiments toward confirming what they believe to be true from the outset, they start ignoring games where Affinity “got really lucky” or the hate deck “got really unlucky” in order to support the popular intuition that the hate decks are successful at beating Affinity.

So now that most of the playtest group has ruled out Affinity as a viable choice for the tournament, the players start to focus on testing the decks they might actually take… Against other decks of a similar nature. That’s when things like this happen:

“I tested the Affinity matchup earlier, and it was favorable. It will still probably be fine if I replace those maindeck Electrostatic Bolts with Fireballs, and Fireballs are much better against Tooth and Nail and Big Red. Yeah; I’ll go with the Fireballs.”

You will be amazed how far people will trim their matchup against the top deck(s) in an environment without going back and checking to see if they’re still the favorite.

Now, I didn’t write a tournament report for 2006 States, but here’s an abridged version: I played a version of Pat Chapin’s Flag Burner very similar to the one Zac Hill recently wrote about. My matches were as follows:

Round 1: I beat Zoo 2-0.

Round 2: I was paired against a familiar face: Nick Novak, playing U/G Aggro. I took solid control of game 2 pretty early on, but drawing an absurdly long string of lands (and bouncelands) caused me to take a million years emptying my hand for a Hellbent Demonfire, so we had only ten minutes left in the round going into game 3.

I got Draw Bracketed straight out of contention last year at States thanks to some… um… “turbo” players, so I really didn’t want it to happen again this year.

I went into warp speed mode for game 3, and managed to play only “Shivanreefgo!” for my first turn, neglecting to suspend the Ancestral in my hand because I was already thinking ahead to how I should play my second and third turns.

On the final turn of the match, I was at five life, having finally suspended the Ancestral on turn 4. Nick had only a flashbacked Call token, no cards in hand, and my Ancestral had one counter left on it. I was holding Remand and a couple lands. Nick drew and played Moldervine Cloak with three mana to spare; I Remanded, drew a Wrath of God from it, and was attacked for lethal damage.

Had the Ancestral resolved so much as a turn earlier, my hand would have consisted of a backbreaking Lightning Helix, among several other goodies that would have put me well in control against his empty hand and topdeck-mode status. However, what actually happened was that I played too fast, didn’t suspend the Ancestral turn one, and lost. My fault for sure.

Round 3: I beat a four-color Pillar of the Paruns aggro deck 2-1.

Round 4 I beat Gruul Aggro 2-0.

Round 5: You might think that, having played against Aggro, Aggro-Control, Aggro, and Aggro, I would expect my opponent in the 3-1 bracket to be either another aggro deck that had been winning its mirror matches, or a control deck that had been munching on aggro decks for most of the day. What I got instead was a mono-blue Snow deck whose only ways to deal with a creature (that I could see) were Repeal and Mouth of Ronom. Oh, and sideboarded Phyrexian Ironfoots. Turn1 Kird Ape was probably game, but man was that deck ever good at beating combo and control.

I managed to pull out game one, and navigated game two into a position where I had an empty hand and an exactly lethal Demonfire going into my draw step… But I pulled a Signet instead of the (non-bounceland) land I needed, and so died to the Rimefeather Owl that Teferi brought in on my end step. Game three he Commandeered my Ancestral on turn 5, with countermagic backup, and I just couldn’t come back from that. He lost the next round, and did not make the Top Eight.

By the way, lest it seem I’m bagging on the guy — I should mention that the deck’s pilot was definitely a swell guy. Sure, I don’t think he made a good deck choice for the tournament, and I was definitely frustrated that his poor deck choice (as I see it) led him to beat me, but he was a good guy nonetheless, and I kinda gave him some attitude that he didn’t deserve after our match. (Specifically, I asked “Other than the one aggro deck, what else did you get paired against to end up 3-1?” Heh.)

What’s so bad about bringing a deck that can’t beat aggro, anyway?

Actually, there’s not a thing wrong with it… Or at least, not necessarily.

Bringing a deck that packs to a commonly played archetype is something I’ve come to term “bringing the Glass Cannon Deck.” It’s where you launch yourself head-on at the tournament with a deck whose only chance is to avoid your few nightmare matchups the whole way through. Encountering that matchup more than once — a possibility you can neither avoid nor control — will likely end your tournament on the spot.

Some people bring Glass Cannons on a whim, or as a last-ditch effort to overcome an inability to settle on a deck. “As long as I don’t get paired against Goblins,” you will hear, “I’ll do fine.” Others do it unintentionally; they have either misjudged the metagame or overestimated their ability to overcome a deficient matchup.

But when do you bring a Glass Cannon on purpose?

Is it ever reasonable to say, “I’ve figured out this environment, and my best shot at doing well here is to ignore one minority set of matchups in exchange for great win percentages against all the others?”

If you’re Tiago Chan or Antoine Ruel, it certainly is.

Remember this deck? Or this one?

I probably tested for PT: Honolulu more than I have for just about any other tournament, and if there’s one thing I remember, it’s that Owling Mine was an extremely black-and-white deck.

“You’re playing one-drops and Char? Concede.”

“You’re not? Heh. Should we even play this out?”

With Guildpact having just infused the previously aggro-deficient Kamigawa-Ravnica-9th Standard environment with the ability to play a 2/3 Kird Ape on turn 1, control decks with Faith’s Fetters, Loxodon Hierarchs, Wildfires, and so forth, were all stepping up to the plate to try and take them down. Owl ate all these decks, as well as most combo decks or midrange aggro decks, for breakfast.

The strategy of the deck was simple: play symmetrical card drawers like Howling Mine and Kami of the Crescent Moon, disrupt the opponent’s mana with all the extra cards you’re drawing so he can’t make use of the extra cards you’ve given him, and then use the fact that his hand with bloated of cards he doesn’t have mana to get rid of to take him down with Sudden Impact and Ebony Owl Netsuke.

This game plan was embarrassingly effective (ever been beaten down by Kami of the Crescent Moon?) against these decks, but against an aggro deck with a low curve and burn, it was a mess. The Owl player would drop a Howling Mine, the Zoo player would play out a Watchwolf and a Kird Ape, and then use all the extra cards drawn to fling burn at the dome like it was going out of style.

Chan and Ruel both made it to the Top Eight by dodging these decks, but both were eliminated on Sunday by red decks packing Char.

Tiago rolled Ruud Warmenhoven 3-0, even though his B-W midrange aggro deck came with a more aggressive “three Savannah Lions/three Isamaru, Hound of Konda opening” game than most B-W decks. He then managed to pull out a 1-3 record against Gruul; the fact that he even won a game drew a good deal of surprise from Aaron Forsythe, who was covering their Top Eight match. Meanwhile, Ruel was so confident he would never win his Quarterfinal match against Zoo, he actually boarded in a real Ancestral Recall as a joke.

Now, while both players suffered embarrassing defeats under the Sunday lights, it’s important to realize that their Glass Cannons got them to Sunday. They chose a deck that had such scorchingly good matchups against everything but aggro, as long as they didn’t get paired against that one nightmare matchup, they could cruise their huge margins to victory. As luck would have it, they didn’t draw the aggro matchups, and did indeed defeat just about everything else that lay in their paths.

So when do you pick this strategy? As with most things in Magic, there’s no hard-and-fast rule. Just keep it in mind, in the back of your head. If you find a deck that is just tearing up your whole gauntlet except for one deck, your intuition might tell you to tweak it to salvage that matchup at the expense of reducing the other matchups from “amazing” to “okay.”

But maybe that’s not the best way to go. Maybe what you’re really in the market for is a Glass Cannon, and what you should actually be doing is making your auto-loss even more dismal in exchange for beefing up your other matchups, so that as long as you don’t draw the nightmare matchup, you will not lose.

Just don’t get disheartened if it doesn’t work in the first tournament you try it in; statistics will tell you that if your strategy is “don’t get paired against the nightmare matchup,” there will always be the chance that you smack into in rounds one and two and you 0-2 drop. If that’s because everyone was playing the nightmare matchup, you probably need a new strategy. If it seemed like a fluke, though, you might still be right to try your luck again at the next tournament.

In any event, the strategy is something worth keeping in mind.

Until next time!

Richard Feldman
Team Check Minus
[email protected]

By the way, my friend Rob insists that it was practically criminal that no one who made Top Eight at PT: Honolulu with this deck had the good sense to name it “O RLY?”.dec. I have to say I’m inclined to agree.