The Only Thing That Matters

Mike discusses the fundamental differences between decks that are labelled under the same erroneous banner. When you face a deck such as Sea Stompy, your subtle plans for victory can be thrown off course if you don’t correctly assess your opponent’s true strategy. Incremental mistakes such as these can greatly impact your chance at success… An essential article for those serious about improving their game.

“The worst hand at the table belongs to the guy with the second-best hand.”
Zev Gurwitz

People who read Magic strategy sites – particularly people like you (or at least most of you), who subscribe to Magic strategy sites – are generally looking for one thing: an edge on Deck. The edge on Deck is both the easiest and most difficult edge that can be torn out of a player’s scabbard at the onset of a tournament. It is the most difficult to gain because, weighed against the six millions of scattered Magicians, only a tiny percentage of them – less than 1% – are even capable of creating the meaningful edge on Deck. These are the Hattori Hanzos, sequestered in their secret sushi shops; madmen, mathematicians, accountants, and geniuses; or at least dedicated tinkerers hammering iron and watered steel at hidden mounds of fire and art and radiant pixels, producing stronger and sharper swords than can be bought from middling craftsmen – or worse yet – dilettante pretenders.

At the same time, the edge on Deck is also the easiest edge to hold, if not own forever. You see, anyone can dip his toes into the waters of the metagame, check any Top 8 listings, and come up with 80% of the value available by 60 cards with 20% of the effort. The great mass of players rely on the few, in their late night salons, illuminated only by the eerie glow of Magic Online at 3am, forcing dozens or hundreds of repetitions, exhausting like push-ups, to uncover that ephemeral 1/5 value. Befriend one of these hermits, or identify the reasons why their efforts produce greater percentage more quickly than the rest of the tournament set, and you can borrow that incremental 20% with almost none of the actual effort that was required to create it.

The fleeting edge on Deck – fleeting because, as Kai once pointed out, in the Information Age, any rogue deck worth its salt immediately becomes a stock deck – is sometimes difficult to see. Players perceive clusters of the same cards and sometimes, even oftentimes, miss the nuances, fail to see… Or they see very different listings and fail to recognize the bleary duplication strategically embedded in two unlike lists. Dismissive players who are full of facts – or what they believe to be facts – and little understanding, say “x = y” when x in fact equals x and y in fact equals y, because if 80% of x is the same as 80% of y, then certainly that last 20% can’t make much of a difference… Can it?

Just as mis-assignment of role = game loss, mis-attribution of enemy archetype will consistently, often mesmerizingly, lead to match losses and short tournaments.

One example that has become particularly annoying to me in recent months is how players have lumped any and all decks with Llanowar Elves and Ninja of the Deep Hours together as “Sea Stompy.” Just look at the different decks that were played in Pro Tour: Honolulu and the Japanese and Dutch National Championships:

While these decks share colors – and Saito’s manabase gets better with Dissension – they are miles distant operationally. In addition to the one drop-into-Ninja of the Deep Hours plan (which is strengthened by the presence of, say, Dryad Sophisticate), the Japanese Nationals version can run the solid opening of one drop-into-Ohran Viper. This is not a negligible wrinkle. Ohran Viper is not just an Ophidian, remember: it is death to any opposing ground pounder, and a hell of a Jittesman. More importantly, by Japanese Nationals, Saito has discarded the maindeck Rumbling Slum – previously the trademark beatdown of Sea Stompy – in favor of Meloku the Clouded Mirror. All that said, the decks remain similar, as one might expect from the originator and chief adherent to Sea Stompy.

What is not similar is 8StoneRain.dec.

Yamamoto’s “version of Sea Stompy” is a far different opponent than the Saito builds. Yes, 8StoneRain.dec can open on the Ninja of the Deep Hours offense, and yes, it has many of the same creatures in general with a Jitte trump game, but you need look no further than the various U/W and U/W/x decks to see how much more difficult it is to play against 8StoneRain.dec. The White Wafo-Tapa deck almost can’t lose to ordinary Sea Stompy, but 8StoneRain.dec is exceptionally challenging. Why? The deck’s explosive opening can be Birds of Paradise on the play, immediately followed by Cryoclasm! This is a level of complexity and disruptive interaction that is like nothing presented in the Saito decks for a control opponent. In many matches, the game will be decided then and there. The capability of following up on Rumbling Slum – a card that Saito himself pulled out, remember – in the one-three-four Stone Rain curve severely constricts the ability of any build of any archetype to react to 8StoneRain.dec’s tempo on the draw, and in a sideboarded Solifuge game, the outcome on the play will be academic more than half the time. Moreover, the fact that Yamamoto’s deck can immediately extirpate an untapped Plains pre-combat will blank any Condemn plans, Slum or no, yielding many more successful Deep Hours hits over the course of a tournament than might be expected from an actual Sea Stompy deck.

Equating Sea Stompy and 8StoneRain.dec from the other side of the table is an error like lumping Deadguy Red and Sped Red under a lone umbrella. Deadguy Red is a deck with greater burn, which can strike from farther away, and chop huge chunks of life away with single cards. Sped Red would love to lead on a Jackal Pup just as much as any aggressive Red Deck, but its favorite second turn is Ancient Tomb plus Stone Rain. Its third turn Haste creature is not one of the offensive marvels that made Dave Price legend, but Darwin Kastle’s Invitational card, the often misplaced Avalanche Riders. Both decks run Mogg Fanatic. Both decks love a Cursed Scroll. But if from the other side of the table you are thinking “David E. Price” when you are sitting across from Jamie Parke, your decisions are going to be wrong an overwhelming amount of the time. You can afford to take more creature hits from Jamie: he has less burn (and is a year out of the good Fireblast). Conversely, when you evaluate your opening hand against Dave, you can risk a cantrip two-lander with a lot less sweat.

The matchups are different.

The decisions are different.

Look at more decks that we have been calling “Sea Stompy” (and by “we” I obviously don’t mean “me”):

Sadly, Jeroen was not able to complete the Big Burgles, and his deck’s primary designer and newly crowned Grand Prix Champion insisted on the name Go Anan is the Best Player. I do not rightly understand how someone can look at this deck and register “Sea Stompy.” Such mis-classifications between the original and 8StoneRain.dec may be understandable because, you know, they at least both lead on Kird Ape… But this deck doesn’t even have Red in it! The loss of Red is extremely important, because with Red goes any and all reach. Saito’s original deck played Electrolyze, an It! Girl! card of Pro Tour: Honolulu, one that has been discarded in everything from URzaTron on since that tournament… that deck could deal you two after its primary offense had been stopped. If you remember back to my 8StoneRain.dec playtest session with Josh Ravitz, you will remember that I gave Josh an out with Asahara Ideal with Form of the Dragon, not realizing that Josh could swing with a two power flyer and end me with a three point Cryoclasm: The decks are not only different colors, they have different strategies, capabilities, and most importantly, limitations. For all its incentives, Jeroen’s deck is never going to kill you without the help of the Red Zone.

Dutch Champion Kamiel Cornelissen ran a deck that can superficially, and with greater accuracy, fall under the “Sea Stompy” umbrella… but to great degree, such naming loses its meaning in the context of the Netherlands metagame. In chatting with Jeroen for the weeks going into his Nationals, the Pro Tour: Seattle Champion’s expectation was Ninjas. The Ninjas were coming! As good as Snow Control decks may have been, if you couldn’t beat a Ninja of the Deep Hours, you weren’t coming along in Jeroen’s deck box. His prediction was correct, and fifty percent of the Dutch Top 8 had four copies of Ninja of the Deep Hours and, in most cases, additional Ninja access.

Okay, you say. How does this change what Kamiel was playing?

Look at Kamiel’s details. Think about his game plan. If you are a control deck, it is quite probable you would rather play against Kamiel than Jeroen. Kamiel has fewer one-mana accelerators, shakier early game colors, and only three Ohran Vipers. You can make varying arguments along the metagame… but what happens when you are playing Jeroen or Julien’s deck in the Top 8? From your perspective, Kamiel isn’t playing “Sea Stompy,” he’s playing the mirror… only set up to beat you. What’s the big deal? Rumbling Slum might be good, but it isn’t in this main. Kamiel has the exact same endgame as Go Anan is the Best Player: Meloku, and in fact, he doesn’t even have as many copies. The decks even share the same Tipping Point: four copies of Umezawa’s Jitte. What’s the big problem? Kamiel has shakier mana and a less consistent early game…

… Part of which is three maindeck copies of Seal of Fire.

Seal of Fire is a card that is nowhere to be seen in the maindecks of any previous Sea Stompy deck. It is rather a low power weapon for a deck that has such a varied and extravagant color set. But if you are Go Anan is the Best Player, when you see Seal of Fire, you see death. This card is like the first domino in the perfectly curved sequence. You see how it can not just knock down the second domino – murdering a Birds or encasing Kamiel in some kind of invincible cloak proof from Deep Hours – but how it will annihilate you in the Jitte war, how it knocks down the table at your tipping point as surely as a single domino. Kamiel’s deck is not a burn deck. It doesn’t have the suite of Boros or Zoo. However, when you are playing a nearly identical mirror – except you are incapable of punishing him easily for his manabase – those three Seals mean that when you have Jitte he can keep counters off of it, and when he has Trygon Predator, he can more likely rush past the 0/1 defender to set up his own without fear of the Legend Rule.

Despite sharing colors with the Saito Honolulu deck, Kamiel’s doesn’t have anywhere near the same game plan, let alone the same fundamental turn. His deck has the Kird Ape opening, sure, but can present a breaker on turn two for either a Signet bearer (Trygon Predator) or just about anyone (Ohran Viper). When his Viper hits, Seal of Fire can help ensure that it really hits. Not only is his endgame card a very different weapon maindeck (five mana instead of the Juzam), Kamiel is not messing around with Thoughts of Ruin. He has not a one maindeck, and the board features only a single copy.

One of the toughest matches I played recently was at Regionals this year, Boros on ‘Tron, against eventual qualifier Bruce Calhoun. I was manascrewed and close to (if not actually) tilting both games, and Bruce demolished me, eventually going on to demolish my apprentice Julian Levin in the Top 8. The reason it was a hard match was not just that I was manascrewed and frustrated – so frustrated, I snapped at Bruce’s friend and “future of American Magic” Ben Lundquist at one point – but because I was not sure what I should be doing, strategically. Usually I have all the possible long game plans plotted out in my head, and my failings come from screwing up in execution somewhere on the path, even when I know where I am going. However in this matchup, because I didn’t know Bruce’s list, I struggled with leaving in Char when I didn’t actually want it. My theory was that I needed to kill Meloku (a key card played in our Honolulu version), but like most of the non-Green versions that came after Regionals, Bruce didn’t play Meloku: As such, the tentative disadvantage of not knowing hurt my ability to make the correct assessment.

Think about fighting one of the above listed “Sea Stompy” decks with an interactive creature deck like Hand-in-Hand. Against Saito version 1 you have to worry about Dryad Sophisticate racing you, but the top end threat is Rumbling Slum, a creature that you can block for all time with Paladin En-Vec. Now against Saito version 2 your Paladin En-Vec – a creature you would probably favor over almost all others in the original matchup – loses a tremendous amount of value. Not only are you not fighting Rumbling Slum any more, but Saito’s Trygon Predator is going to eat your trump card, and his ground fighting equivalent is going to mop the floor with your once valuable Paladin, merely 2/2.

That’s all right, you think. He might have an Ohran viper, But Hand of Cruelty has Bushido. Under this line of reasoning, you send Hand of Cruelty as trade-bait with mana open, and “Sea Stompy” declines to block. You proudly play your second Hand on defense (expecting, no doubt, further reluctance), and play your Orzhov Basilica. OOPS! It’s actually Kamiel across the table, not Saito v. 2, and he has a Seal of Fire for your presently 2/2 Hand of Cruelty. Fuming, you explode inwardly, Saito didn’t play that. Kamiel winks across the table with a, “Yeah, but this is the land of dead Deep Hours, and that was so last week.”

Your proactive game plan changes a great deal as well. Do you go for the Okiba Gang Shinobi when the path is clear? Neither Saito version 2 nor Kamiel can easily punish you without showing you his cards first… but if you are reading Saito version 1, you might be terrified of Electrolyze, knowing that a successful instant would end the game with the two-for-one Time Walk right then and there.

Don’t get me started on 8StoneRain.dec! The interactions with this deck are not even on the same plane as against Saito, Saito, and Cornelissen. Sure, your Paladin En-Vec gets good again if he is up against Rumbling Slum, but what about your opening hand? A Godless Shrine and a Basilica is a solid two-lander for the 22 mana Hand-in-Hand archetype on the play, but you’ll be tearing your teammate’s eyes out for the “bad tip” when the son of Shohei blasts your Basilica with a Stone Rain and chuckles at your re-played Shrine with his main-deck Cryoclasm. Nice Birds of Paradise… Jerk.

The nuance – and ultimately the only thing that matters – when analyzing these decks tends to occur only when you are on the other side of the table. The game plans of the various mislabeled “Sea Stompy” examples actually differ a great deal because they are headed in such different directions. All of them have Kird Ape. Sure… They are getting in identical Honda Civics as they open their garage doors at the beginning of the work day. That doesn’t mean they are going to the same places: this one wants to go to a land where there is no land, this one wants to visit the Shambling City, this one wants to take a long look at how great his game is on turn 4, and this other one just wants to blow up your home. As similar as their car(d)s are, with their identical leather seat covers and reasonable gas mileage and gorilla chauffeurs, their endgames and planned trumps lead them in such different directions that you cannot possibly believe that the middle turns they take to get there will look the same on the details. Treat them all the same, and you’ll probably only be able to beat one of them.

What about the flip-side?

Say you are playing in New York and you fight one of two competent but amateur-level Boros mages. One is Arthur E. Morseman’s from the Top 8 of New York States 2005:

One is the deck that the 2005 State Champion Julian Levin switched to for Connecticut Regionals:

Even a cursory review of the two decks will tell you that despite both being variations on Boros Deck Wins, they differ considerably on the details. Both decks play Umezawa’s Jitte and Lightning Helix, but Julian has incorporated Boros Garrison for a subtle layer of card advantage. Arthur has more lands and more creatures while Julian’s fewer creatures, rather than falling into multiple broad groups (1/1 flyers, 2/2 flyers, &c.) are entirely homogeneous despite their curving mana costs. Arthur can pump his creatures with Glorious Anthem. Julian will declare two times the mulligans (win or lose) over the course of a day. You know my opinion on which deck is better… but you know what?

They play the same basic game plan:

Play creatures. Get him into burn range. Burn him out.

Both decks are going to try to maximize their use of mana in the early game. Arthur is going to play every 1/1 flyer he can and pump them with Anthem. Julian’s clock will be faster initially, but more subject to opposing interaction. It doesn’t matter:

Play creatures. Get him into burn range. Burn him out.

Unlike the various Sea Stompy decks, which had in general more in common than these two decks, which can’t agree on anything except nine of their common lands and a couple of the “other spells” (only one creature slot is identical between the New York decks, and recent versions like Carlos Romao’s Third Place Brazil Nationals deck, have not a maindeck Kami of Ancient Law!), these decks want to do the exact same thing. They want to kill you with a Char, or perhaps untap and play two Helixes after slashing you with animals.

The difference – and the difference is grand – occurs entirely in the experience of the opposing player. A Savannah Lions is literally twice as scary as a Lantern Kami… but not when you have Sakura-Tribe Elder. Both decks will try to win with Reach after softening up a foe… but Julian’s deck can start aiming from a lot farther out. If you are playing a creature deck – anything from Zoo to Heezy to B/W – you are going to be much more frightened of Julian’s deck than Arthur’s. Julian can fight your Watchwolf if you’re Zoo, is much more likely to eliminate your Maher or Tallowisp if you are B/W, and is going to give any of these decks an impossible mid-game problem with Paladin En-Vec and Umezawa’s Jitte (main).

If you are playing from the Boros side, your plays are often scripted. You tap to maximize your mana, you pick your targets as tactically as you can, and try to rush to your best endgame with as much competence as the top of your deck will muster. I would guess that the two decks have very similar fundamental turns. However when you are playing against one of the two decks, mis-evaluation of which opponent is across the table will be anything but kind to you.

It was Randy Buehler and Mike Donais who first explained the essential matter of nuance and unique capability to me. I showed up at the unending Ohio Valley Regional Championships, where Mike was the Head Judge, and showed the future R&D Members my deck (and by “my” deck, I mean the Hatred deck designed by Brian Schneider and Worth Wollpert). I ended up being the only Hatred player in the Top 8 despite it being a popular deck played by other competent mages, and a month or two later when I got my heartbreaking 9th, I was the only Hatred deck in the entire tournament with a winning record.

This is the Regionals version:

Schneider / Wollpert Black
Played by Mike Flores

4 Blood Pet
4 Carnophage
4 Cursed Scroll
4 Dark Ritual
4 Dauthi Horror
4 Dauthi Slayer
3 Skittering Skirge
4 Duress
3 Hatred
4 Sarcomancy

3 City of Traitors
15 Swamp
4 Wasteland

4 Diabolic Edict
4 Engineered Plague
3 Persecute
4 Winter Orb

Conversely, “Joneseque” Hate was the default version that was being posted in The Dojo’s deck to beat at the time:

4 Hatred
4 Dark Ritual
4 Diabolic Edict
4 Sarcomancy
4 Carnophage
4 Dauthi Horror
4 Dauthi Slayer
4 Black Knight
4 Priest of Gix
4 Blood Pet

4 City of Traitors
16 Swamp

4 Planar Void
4 Bottomless Pit
4 Bottle Gnomes
1 Duress
2 Persecute

Both were Hatred decks. You might make the argument that Joneseque Hate would be the more consistent Hatred deck, playing four copies of Hatred and all… but you probably weren’t playing Hatred in 1999. You would actually be shocked at how often Priest of Gix screwed up your ability to get the Hatred kill because you needed a clock and you ended up mana-burning. Joneseque Hate had fewer evasion creatures and fewer lands.

… But those are just details.

Differing card choices are not always particularly relevant. For example, a lot of players (most notably former World Champion Carlos Romao) have recently been replacing Kami of Ancient Law in Budget Boros with Eight-And-A-Half Tails. Many have heeded Patrick Sullivan cry and taken out Tendo Ice Bridge for three basic lands… Their decks are still pretty much the same was the version Julian played at Connecticut Regionals with almost imperceptible differences, always hitting within one Garrison. However, the Hatred deck that I played is strategically far afield of Joneseque.

Before the tournament, Worth forced me to play Skittering Skirge and Cursed Scroll instead of Erg Raiders and Unholy Strength. Cursed Scroll gave the deck a different – yet synergistic – path to victory… But the unique element that allowed my version of Hatred to win difficult matchups throughout the day after the easy Hatred window had passed, was that of mana control. Few if any Hatred decks at the time played Wasteland, and almost none played Winter Orb (certainly not in the same decks as Cursed Scroll). Yet together, these cards allowed me to easily beat Circle of Protection: Black and even Light of Day. Did the Schnieder / Wollpert version of Hatred get fewer quick Hatred kills? I have no idea, because I always got mine. However I can say for certain that I also got many more difficult mid-game wins when I had been forced to interact than the default would have been capable of winning.

“You’re not the Shoal guy, are you? Never mind. I don’t care. Blaze you for 18.”
Osyp Lebedowicz.

“You take 8.”
Ben Goodman

This article is entitled “The Only Thing That Matters” because difference matters. All the meaning in the world comes down to one thing: x is not the same as y. What is an apple? How can we tell an apple from a photograph of Naomi Watts? Only because they are different. In Magic, recognizing the strategic differences between seemingly similar decks will lead you to victory, or at least far more victory than you would otherwise enjoy. Poor, yet strategically focused, players will win games because they understand the need for an over-arching game plan to guide their stack-to-stack tactics, but lose to superior players when they do not recognize, let alone properly respect, those players’ competing plans and capabilities. Woe to the Counter-Sliver player who tapped out for Crystalline plus Worship, only to die to the Stroke! Players in general lose close games because of one or two small decisions during a critical turn – whether to commit an additional creature, whether to play land x or land y, failing to play around an answer, or most insidiously, playing around a threat that isn’t there. Understanding the nuances between different, if seemingly similar, decks will help prevent errors during actual games. For example, if you stop playing around a phantom Meloku, you get to Char the opponent’s face at the end of turn instead of holding it in terror that he might run a 2/4 when he hits five mana.

Losses in the strategic long game tend to occur when you over-value an alleged trump, and under-value the opponent’s ability to answer or even trump that “trump.” For example, you play a Dragon, assuming you are about to put the opponent on a three turn clock, not necessarily recognizing that he might have a simple response like Putrefy and can therefore keep smashing you with the 2/2 army you were planning to scare off. Your plans crumble on every level: Not only do you not have a Dragon, not only are you not putting him on a clock, you are tapped out and are about to take four or six damage. Properly recognizing the possibilities that might come from the other side of the table will reduce the frequency of these embarrassing mishaps, and allow you to better evaluate your own instantaneous tactics.

One of my favorite games at Pro Tour: Charleston was in the first or second round against a U/R/W Angel deck. I had exactly enough mana to Mortify his freshly played Firemane Angel, untap, and slam down the Debtors’ Knell in my hand. I almost had to bite down on my cheek until the iron was bitter in my mouth to avoid making this scripted and obviously mana efficient sequence. What if he has Copy Enchantment? I might have been kold to Copy Enchantment if he had a Lightning Helix (he did), and would have had no shot against a Dream Leash. Instead, I had to take my hits like a man while I carefully depleted his hand with Castigate and Muse Vessel before I could comfortably take over the board, managing his mana against the possibility of lethal Demonfire. I was rewarded with a Sacred Foundry with which to play the stolen Lightning Helix, and won after many frustrating, but methodically, executed turns. Why was this remarkable in any way? Our version of U/R/W Angel had not a Dream Leash, and certainly no Auras sub-theme. We were playing Burn, and some of our friends like Osyp and Ant’s team even had a transformative sideboard with all manner of flying Bears. If I had played against the Leash deck like I did against our version in testing, we might have lost instead of won.

At the end of the day, the actual only thing that matters might be playing your absolute best game. Recognizing your role in the universe, or at least whether you are the beatdown or the control, is the first step in correctly approaching a matchup. The hard part is when you have to start figuring out what that you should do when the other guy starts playing cards back. Recognizing the significance of the veritable Da Vinci Code represented by his specific sequence of plays, when he commits, what he commits, and when he holds back is but the first step on the long stairway of interactive improvement.

Might I suggest reviewing the latest Top 8 lists?