During 1999’s Extended PTQ season, a mistake by his teammate forced Michael Flores to ask the question “Who’s the Beatdown?” Six years later, another Extended format prompts him to re-examine the strategies he advocated in what may be the greatest single Magic article of all time. The Limit of Interactivity challenges Michael’s own conclusions, and, while it categorizes Extended decks into two distinct groups, this time they aren’t “beatdown” and “control.”
The Limit of Interactivity
“What do you mean ‘counter that’? It’s not even your turn! Attack you!“
We generally think of decks in three broad groups, “beatdown”, “combo”, and “control”. Randy Buehler says that in an ideal world, combo races beatdown but beats control only when R&D has made a mistake; control, with its fancy answers is too busy containing combo by imprinting funny things on funnier permanents to avoid being smashed to death by beatdown (which we already said is usually not fast enough to handle a good combo deck). A very clear example from the innumerable decks of the current Extended environment are the three points represented by Reanimator (combo), West (control), and Red Deck Wins (beatdown). Reanimator can produce a giant Protection From Red blocker on the first turn that also quite adequately kills Red Deck Wins to death much faster than Jackal Pup can do the same, say turn 3 or thereabouts. Meanwhile, an Isochron Scepter on Fire / Ice will tap said giant Protection From Red creature all
day game long while drawing extra cards, while an Isochron Scepter on Orim’s Chant will merely render her (and her master’s turns) completely impotent, and even a simple Meddling Mage can doom the often hands-free Reanimator deck. But don’t expect West to be able to beat a Jackal Pup! Exalted Angel might as well start off in the graveyard against such cards as Cursed Scroll, Grim Lavamancer, and the actual Red burn cards.
“Who’s the Beatdown”, conversely, claims that there are really only two roles, choosing beatdown or choosing control, and that those two roles actually shift from matchup to matchup, making real-life matchup interactions a lot more complicated than the previous model (especially when we consider similar deck fights). What I am going to present today is an alternate dualist theory of Constructed Magic, but rather than “beatdown” and “control”, the categories are going to be “interactive” and “non-interactive.”
Brian Kowal made a bangup observation six years ago, during the post-Rome Extended PTQ season ruled by High Tide… And though I have lived by this observation for more than half a decade, I don’t remember anyone ever writing anything about it. The best decks of that era, previously Academy and Free Whaley, graduating to High Tide and very briefly, Broken Jar, were by nature Non-Interactive decks. This is pretty obvious, as anyone who has ever sat down across from a High Tide player can nod his hat to a solitaire game in the best (or worst, but better) tradition of Cadaverous Bloom. Brian’s observation was not that the best decks were non-interactive – that was pretty obvious, as we’ve said – but that When Forced To Interact By A Fast Enough Clock, These Decks Would Wither. It was therefore not surprising that the pro answer to the powerhouse combination decks of that era was to go control, with players like Buehler and Maher embracing Forbidian and Oath of Druids (highly interactive counterspell decks), and players like Lauer and Finkel adding more sophisticated control elements to their combination decks that allowed them either cheap answers or superior resources in the Thawing Glaciers war; even Goblin players got into the act, morphing into faux-Fish decks with eight Pyroblasts after sideboard.
Kowal’s response was to invent Counter-Sliver with Black for Demonic Consultation and Duress (according to Brian the best counterspell in a format that included Force of Will), and (thanks to Brian Schneider) I eventually qualified with a mono-Black beatdown deck revolving around Sphere of Resistance and 8+4 dedicated discard spells. These cards would slow down cards like High Tide and rip Time Spiral and Turnabout out of the opponent’s hand before he could ruin anyone’s game. In today’s Extended, we have a format that echoes the best and worst of ragtag 1999. In one sense, there are A LOT of viable decks. There are more viable decks in this format than I recall in any format, ever. No matter how diverse, we can nevertheless divide the decks into our two broad groups, and very successfully.
From this point forward, I am going to use the terms “interactive” and “non-interactive” fairly broadly. In general, “non-interactive” is going to refer to decks only, whereas “interactive” or “interaction” will apply to both decks and cards. For our purposes, a non-interactive deck will seek to win the game irrespective of the opponent’s plan while an interactive deck will try to generate an advantage specifically by trumping the opponent’s cards. A player using a non-interactive deck employs cards and decision-making processes that tend to affect only one player (himself), at least in the short term, whereas an interactive deck uses cards that affect both players.
For frame of reference, the best example of an interactive card that I can think of is Cabal Therapy. Not only does it (usually) affect both players, but a naked Cabal Therapy can involve reads, bluffs, and tells, analyses of what might wreck a player or what might be relevant three turns from its being cast… This card, properly played, requires human interaction that goes well beyond the cardboard involved. That said, there are exceptions to every rule. The best decks at PT Rome, the most non-interactive format in the history of the Pro Tour all played four copies of Force of Will. Counters are generally highly interactive cards (involving decisions based around the other player’s cards and predictions about what he might [be able to] do next), but in Rome, the “free” nature of Force of Will made it perfect for forcing through a combo (in a room full of Force of Will). In certain decks, even Cabal Therapy is used in essentially the same manner as Grim Monolith, Dark Ritual, or: a cheap catalyst that facilitates an essentially non-interactive game plan down the line.
Both non-interactive and interactive plans seek to generate card advantage by making the opponent’s cards irrelevant. Take Aluren, the quintessential non-interactive deck. Masashi Oiso main has a total of four interactive cards total (Cabal Therapy), and as we said, these are largely there to make sure that Aluren resolves. Aluren is so non-interactive that it can ignore other combination decks… even if they get their kills. Aluren can out-infinite the infinite life from Worthy Cause, and via cards like Volrath’s Stronghold, it can even get around a storm of Brain Freezes. In sharp contrast, consider Red Deck Wins when specifically fighting Aluren. Red Deck Wins has lots of trouble with Wall of Blossoms and can’t actually beat an Auriok Champion, cards that Aluren needs to play just to find or complete its combination respectively. But in the games that Red Deck Wins does win, it typically does so via interaction. When Firebolt finds Birds of Paradise or Wasteland slashes Havenwood Battleground, they might just be stranding Aluren in the opponent’s grip – that card ain’t cheap. Seal of Fire, Grim Lavamancer, or even Cursed Scroll can prevent the opponent from cycling through Raven Familiars. Notice that agnostic non-interaction and specific interaction are flip sides of the same coin, two very different routes to a functionally identical goal of invalidating the opponent’s cards.
Who’s the Beatdown 2005 – Interaction When Discussing Similar Decks
Now compare Red Deck Wins with Goblins. These decks seem to have a lot in common. They are both proactive, offensive, Red Decks, that, according to the old nomenclature, we would call “the beatdown.” Both decks have a powerful one-mana artifact as a centerpiece component, both use Mogg Fanatic (the best one-drop in Magic history for the ninth consecutive year) to good effect, and both decks tap basic Mountain with the long term hope of smashing face. All that said, the decks, philosophically, have little in common.
Compare the game plans of both decks on turn 3. Red Deck Wins wants to spend its mana by playing a Firebolt to burn a blocker, come in with Jackal Pup and maybe something else, and then use Rishadan Port on the opponent’s upkeep to keep him off his mana. Goblins wants to tap out for a Goblin Matron or maybe a Goblin Warchief. I guess it depends if there is an Aether Vial with two counters on it. Goblins has the long term plan of a huge turn, something spectacular with Siege-Gang Commander or multiple Piledrivers probably, whereas Red Deck Wins wants to use its burn to clear a path and its mana control to stay perhaps one turn ahead of the opponent’s development. Of course Plan B can involve Rishadan Port, searching up Mogg Fanatic with Matron against specialty creatures, or abusing Sparksmith against U/G Madness, but most of the time, just wants to set up a crushing offense.
Personally, I just like Red Deck Wins. I think it is a good choice – and many of the PTQ Top 8 finishes around the country to this point agree with me – despite the fact that almost every other deck is much, much, more powerful. You can’t even compare the power level of Goblins and Red Deck Wins. Goblins can kill on the third turn or generate hundreds of points of damage if need be. The flashiest effect in Red Deck Wins is the Scrying on Magma Jet. Historically, then, why would someone want to play Red Deck Wins?
Red Deck Wins has two potential advantages. The first is that it is, hands down, the most consistent deck in Extended. It is one color and its curve is extremely low, with almost every card only one mana. It can play approximately the same game, almost every game, with minimal draw dependency and no wild swings in consistency. The second, and perhaps more important, advantage is Red Deck Wins’s ability to force the opponent to interact. Remember what Kowal said about non-interactive opponents put into this position?
Because more powerful decks require more mana, Red Deck Wins can fight a war with cards like Wasteland, Rishadan Port, and in some lists, Pillage or Tangle Wire. Playing into its low curve, this kind of forced interactivity prompted Boston’s returning Steve O’Mahoney-Schwartz to declare that “Jackal Pup, Wasteland never stopped being game.”
The Limit of Interaction
The reason that Red Deck Wins was not more successful at Grand Prix: Boston was probably because, in an innovative field rife with pros playing powerful non-interactive decks, its ability to force its trademark interaction, to make the field of battle about short term survival, mocking the opponent’s powerful – but expensive – engine cards, very likely came down to this card:
Windswept Heath is a power card in Life against Red Deck Wins. It is a Brushland that can’t be hit by Wasteland, and a Forest (or Plains) that can’t be Ported, at least the first time around. Just dropping Windswept Heath prevents Red Deck Wins from being able to force interaction, its rare strength.
Now no theory is very useful unless we can gain from it a nugget of practical application. I am pretty sure that this is what we can draw from interaction: The ultimate deck is the deck that profitably forces the most interaction in the most matchups. I actually had an argument about Draw-Go with Brian Kowal this past weekend, saying that it was never the best deck in any format (even if it was Top Three or so in multiple), but I think he might have been onto something with Worlds 1999. Randy Buehler deck, a Draw-Go deck, was highly interactive, using the most agnostic tools for interaction available: counters. Randy’s deck had Dismiss and Whispers of the Muse to generate card advantage, allowing it to beat other counter decks, which were forced to generate card advantage via Thieving Magpie. Randy’s deck had lots and lots of mana efficient answers to cards like Yawgmoth’s Bargain, and exactly the right answers to cards like Jackal Pup, Cursed Scroll, and Mogg Fanatic. As Randy said back then, beating the beatdown decks came down to the Destiny rares.
In the same tournament, the Speds also had a successful deck. Though Randy scored a perfect day in Standard, multiple copies of the Sped Red deck made it to the actual Top 8. Dave Price, one of this deck’s advocates at the time picked it because it was a mono-Red beatdown deck (his favorite), but unlike previous versions, the Sped Red deck added resistance to combo decks. The ability to go Jackal Pup directly into Stone Rain (via Ancient Tomb) was a powerful one, especially as Avalanche Riders could be added with no loss of either tempo or card advantage (quite the opposite, actually) the very next turn.
4 Cursed Scroll
2 Arc Lightning
4 Avalanche Riders
3 Hammer of Bogardan
4 Jackal Pup
4 Mogg Fanatic
4 Stone Rain
2 Ancient Tombs
3 Ghitu Encampment
It is worth noting that the Sped deck in the hands of both Parke and Mark LePine failed against Kai Budde Mono-Brown deck because they were incapable of forcing Kai to interact. Their burn spells were pitifully small against Kai’s Covetous Dragons, and their land destruction was negligible against a deck with Grim Monolith, Fire Diamond, and so forth. Sped Red was designed to drop a Pup and then set the opponent back, but in the deciding game of Worlds 1999, Kai actually ran a second turn Covetous Dragon which was well out of LePine’s ready burn range… not exactly the tempo game that the Sped deck was designed to play.
A wholly reactive deck like Randy’s would not be able to compete in a fast Extended with Cabal Therapy from even the non-interactive decks, and the days when Ancient Tomb worked for the good guys – or anyone at all – are now behind us. That said, I think that an agnostic/interactive deck is possible for today’s Extended. Very likely this deck will play Vampiric Tutor and hand destruction because there are so many decks in the format, it is impossible to create profitable interactions with all of them without running bullets. Most successful non-interactive decks have incredibly powerful cards that say things like “draw seven and untap all of your lands” or some similar. Interactive decks also have powerful cards, but in a format like Extended, can’t necessarily afford to play them all to the point of consistency. For example, Mutilate is very powerful against White Weenie but unplayable against Mind’s Desire. Coffin Purge is conditionally strong against Cephalid Breakfast but a mulligan against Goblins. You can’t fill your deck with multiple copies of the best cards for fear of drawing them, and therefore need library manipulation to help you cheat your way into having the right spells at the right time. The trick in building this deck will be to ensure a good matchup against beatdown; very often decks have all the answers, but especially when playing Vampiric Tutor, deal so much damage to themselves along the way, the top of the opponent’s library is good enough for the win.
Per Who’s the Beatdown, it is generally better to be the control: In the original, altran’s loss was a direct result of his failure to seize the control role. When similar decks fight, interactive Red Deck Wins beats non-interactive Goblins by firing Magma Jet at Goblin Piledriver. These cards are of equal cost but dissimilar power. One does two damage, one does twenty-two. When Goblins beats Red Deck Wins, it is because the latter deck’s reactive elements fail in the face of the Goblin deck’s card advantage (generally “control”-esque card advantage via Goblin Matron, Goblin Ringleader, and Siege-Gang Commander). Another way to look at it is when two U/W decks run into one another. Typically the deck to lose is the one that draws all the White cards or all the White mana. The White cards – Wrath of God, life gaining, and most finishers – are control elements… but irrelevant control elements; whereas the blue cards – card drawing, counterspells, and library manipulation – either interact profitably (counter the opponent’s threat), enable long-term card advantage (Brainstorm to tune a hand via Flooded Strand or just ensure the next land drop), or both (Stroke of Genius or Cunning Wish during the opponent’s end step). In either case, the “White” mage has no opportunity to force profitable interaction, will inevitably fall behind in land drops, and will ultimately bow to interactivity dictated by the “Blue” opponent.
Forcing interaction is trump only when combined with sufficient speed: For example, a control deck with a bunch of Duresses will fail in a field of powerful decks if it allows them to draw back into solitaire card advantage (The Rock) whereas similar disruption combined with a fast clock will be highly consistent (Reanimator). This is the same reason why an Ancient Tomb-powered Red Deck would be very strong (essentially a faster Red Deck Wins) but Buehler Blue would not succeed in the current Extended. Note that speed can be considered broadly on a case-by-case basis; for example, you don’t have to actually win immediately if the opponent’s lands never phase back in.
The relative power disparity of non-interactive decks over interactive decks in the current Extended will further disinfranchise beatdown (provided [continued] adoption of combo decks by elite competitors) unless there is an opportunity for forced interaction inside a relevant time period: Consider that U/G Madness, which can force interaction against every deck via Circular Logic and Daze while simultaneously presenting a fast clock, was the only beatdown deck in the Top 8 of GP: Boston, despite the fact that Goblins and other aggressive decks were popular. In the Boston Top 8, fully 50% of the placing decks could generate infinite life, including both of the finalists’; the popularity of these kinds of decks, especially when enabled by interaction-resistant mana sources like Windswept Heath and Aether Vial, will make life difficult for the Wasteland-reliant beatdown.
The most impressive [new] decks will demand relevant interaction, challenge the opponent’s play skill, and provide a fast clock: Consider the first successful rogue deck of the new season: Teen Titans. This deck uses skill testers like Goblin Welder, presents trump interactive threats in Platinum Angel and especially Sundering Titan, and plays a solitaire goldfish game with almost the same clip as traditional Reanimator.
The End, For Now
The application of interaction specifically has been done many times before – Comer and CMU in Rome, Finkel at US Nationals 1999, and most recently Kibler’s Silver Bullets one year ago. Despite the success of certain decks peppered throughout history, this branch of Magic knowledge is largely unarticulated. I think that there is a lot of room in this theory for exploration, not to mention a hundred new, great, decks ready to face the combo challenge.