"One should always play fairly when one has the winning cards."
-Oscar Wilde (1854-1900)
So I spent the weekend losing at Magic. Oh, I could complain about bad matchups and unlucky pairings (what with playing Mountains against both Life and Pattern Day 1), but I’ll spare you the results. You can look up around 260th place in the coverage if you want to, I’ll be in there somewhere.
Instead what I’d like to talk about this week is a conversation that Steve Sadin, Michael J and myself had during the long trip home from Boston. You see we had all played Red decks in the GP. Sadin was the only one to make Day 2 (though he missed making money), while Flores and I suffered the beatings of decks that were more powerful and more consistent than anything we were capable of dealing with.
What came up in the car ride home wasn’t how to beat these decks, but why our Red decks were suddenly incapable of winning. There were two decks in the Top 16 that tried to win with Red men and burn, Josh Ravitz playing RDW and Vincent Chow playing Goblins – both were able to make money with the aggressive decks. The rest of the Top 16 is filled with combo, combo and more combo, until you reach the Top 2 where you find a deck that combines two combo decks in one! So why can’t Red decks keep up? It’s a thing we termed Interaction.
First, we determined what we meant by Interaction. Interaction was defined as being “anything that lets two Magic decks play on the same field as the other.” Think of a soccer game where all the players are on the same field trying to score a goal; they are interacting with themselves, the ball, and the goal in order to put the ball in the goal. When decks interact, it means that they are playing ball with each other, damage decks are trying to attack and deal 20 to your face, while combo decks are blocking with Walls or fogging for a few turns with Turnabout or men with infinite toughness.
Non-Interaction, however, is when two decks are playing on different fields. Usually they are parallel fields in that they will not intersect until the game is over, and most games end up being a race not for interaction, but for each deck to go off before the other can complete its plan. So with these definitions in mind, let’s talk about the failure of RDW.
RDW is an underpowered deck. It wins not by blowing your opponent away with amazing spells (although Affinity does hate Pulverize I suppose), but by forcing your opponent to play your game instead of theirs. How many games have you won against a control deck that went Adarkar Wastes go after you had played Turn 1 Jackal Pup? Now how many games have you won when you followed that up by Wasteland, Jackal Pup? RDW’s plan is to force interaction through its spells – mostly land destruction and fast, efficient creatures. In this metagame one of the two major failure of RDW is the mana base of many of the combo decks.
Looking through the decks of the Top 8, there are 3 decks with 12 Wasteland targets between them (Osyp, Dan OMS, and Ben Dempsey). For the other 5 decks there are nigh infinite Wasteland targets, but the issue wasn’t their mana base, it was that they couldn’t be forced to play RDW’s game even under mana disruption. Why? Because their combo was so cheap (Aluren) or cheap and game altering (Infinite Life against beatdown) that RDW could never hope to both disrupt their mana and play enough threats to end the game before the combo decks could go off.
The problem is even worse for a deck like Vial Goblins. There was one Vial Goblin deck in the Top 16, a deck piloted by Vincent Chow with maindeck Goblin Pyromancer. For those of you too lazy to click on the link, he’s a 2/2 Goblin for 3R that when he comes into play makes all of your Goblins get +3/+0 until EOT, at which point they all die. The effectiveness of Pyromancer is that it speeds up the clock of the deck against decks like Aluren, Desire or Life that need just 3-4 turns in order to combo you out. Goblins has a fundamental turn of about 4-5, so speeding that up by even half a turn can have great results, as shown by Vincent. So what happened to the Goblin decks?
The issue with Goblins is that it really, really wants to be a non-Interactive deck with a few proactive Interactions to disrupt its opponent. Proactive, or forced, Interaction in this case is discard. Another type of Proactive Interaction is free counter magic, such as Force of Will, which was used by many decks proactively to force through their spells. Regular countermagic, on the other hand, is reactive (though still Interactive!) because you have to spend your mana on countering a threat rather than producing your own and countering spells for free.
Goblins uses the Black spells at its disposal (Cabal Therapies and such) as methods of disrupting and slowing down its opponent to the point where it can overload its defenses with one too many Piledrivers or Ringleaders. The problem with this strategy is that its kill is slow, easily delayed if not disrupted outright, and inconsistent. Without a Piledriver -> Warchief draw, a reliance on Goblin Matron is required, which means slowing down by the clock by a full turn, usually pushing Goblins towards a Turn 5/6 kill. This is why throughout the whole weekend I felt I always needed one more turn to win. Michael J brought up a really good point that in Extended almost every competitive deck is always one turn away from winning on the final turn, but in Goblins it feels as though Goblin Matron facilitates this to nigh-unacceptable levels. Goblin Pyromancer can be used to counteract this phenomenon, in effect “stealing back” one full turn by adding Lightning Bolts to each of your men, and I feel the lack of this card in our decks was the major cause of the poor results.
The point of all this theory is to understand why decks will win, and why others will fail as the format evolves. New formats are great because there is no clear deck to beat, and the metagame will constantly shift as players find more efficient uses of different cards, until they finally stretch certain plans to the breaking point. However, we are nowhere near there yet, and what we are faced with is two prevalent methods of winning – Interactive methods, and Non-Interactive methods. Judging from GP: Boston it’s obvious to see just how powerful the Non-Interactive decks are, as 7/8 decks in the Top 8 were Non-Interactive. Dan OMS was the sole deck with men who wanted to attack that survived to the Top 8 tables. I don’t include the Reanimator decks in this case, because while they do want to attack with their guys, they’re cheating to get them into play and their game is utterly Non-Interactive prior to their combo. Once they go off (assuming they go off at all) then yes, the game becomes highly interactive, but usually it’s not a fair fight. For instance, yes Akroma and Sundering Titans can be burned out or blocked, but just how long can you survive against Akroma’s abilities, or Sundering Titan’s LD?
When choosing a deck for the metagame, especially at the PTQ level, Interactivity must be taken into account. If you really want to play Red Deck Wins, I won’t dissuade you – far from it – but I do have some advice: know that you’ll have to play tighter and better than your opponent in order to win. His deck, whether he plays Life, Desire or The Machine, will be more powerful than yours at every turn, but it is by no means unbeatable. Throughout the weekend Josh Ravitz was able to beat his opponent’s through what Michael J could only describe as "Burning with an intuition that was almost genius," and you will have to approach that level of perfection in order to best an opponent who comes packing stronger, more consistent cards.
If you decide to veer off the path of Good and tread down into the shadows with the rest, understand just how your Evil ways match up with the others. Life was an amazingly successful deck all weekend, but it was only Lucas Glavin who made the finals, and only because of his secondary combo in many of his matchups. The issue? When two Non-Interactive decks face off against each other, the proof of the pudding is in the eventual Interaction. Every deck has to Interact at some point, even if only for one turn, and for Desire its Interaction trumps Life’s Non-Interaction every time. Gain infinite life you say? Well that’s nice, Brain Freeze with 15 copies on the stack. In the case of Aluren this holds true as well, though luckily for Aluren (as well as Lucas Glavin’s deck) its plethora of combos works in such a way that they can choose the Interaction for whatever situation they are faced with. Need to gain infinite life to stay ahead of the burn? Auriok Champion + Cavern Harpy works nicely. Need to kill your opponent a turn before he can Desire you out? Cavern Harpy + Maggot Carrier is swell. And of course, if any of these magical pieces are missing from your hand, Cavern Harpy + Raven Familiar is a sure-fire method of finding an answer if it’s within your 75 card elephant.
The end point of all this discussion is that Interaction is a key facet of the Extended metagame. Looking through the Top 8 decklists it seems as though there are many different types of decks, but when viewed from this perspective it’s obvious to see that there are really only 2 decks – 7 Non-Interactive decks, and 1 Interactive deck. Dan OMS was the sole Interactive deck to survive the Combo-filled metagame, and even he was unable to muster much more than token resistance before being dispatched by Keith Mclaughlin in the Quarterfinals.
Sun Tzu often said that knowing your enemy is the key to defeating him. In this case I couldn’t agree more. Being able to understand how your opponent’s deck operates, what its limiting parameters are, will be key to defeating him. I watched TJ Impellizzieri play a round against Osyp in the Swiss a few rounds from the Top 8, and I could see that he understood perfectly what he had to do in the matchup. He played two turns of discard followed by playing out a bunch of 1/x dorks and attacking for 1. Why? He knew that the only way to win would be through attacking and slowing down his opponent, as his combo really didn’t help him much at all. Gaining infinite life against a deck that wants only to exhaust your library is not a viable plan, so instead he took the tools of his deck and turned them towards aggression. Obviously the tools at his disposal were not exactly well suited to the task, but nonetheless he played to win, and that is respectable no matter who the player.
Extended is a great environment right now. I don’t know if any of those R&D guys actually read stuff like this, but if they do I’d like to offer my most sincere thanks and a hearty congratulations. This is some of the most fun I’ve ever had playing Magic in a Constructed format and I look forward to more formats like this in the future. Obviously you guys seem to know what you’re doing, and that’s a really great thing for those of us playing the game today. Thanks again.
Till next time, where I might even talk about what I promised I would last week.
-Michael L. Clair