The Problem Of Equality

Michael Flores uses basketball as a metaphor for thinking about Magic games and its different resources. He then shares his take on disruptive Grixis in Modern.

Around 2008 or 2009 I took a radical turn in how I approach the craft of deck design. Part of that was the emergence / reemergence of Tier One cards in Standard, but perhaps more important was my personal transformation from a casual (if enthusiastic) basketball fan to someone much more interested in the statistics of what drives success in the game.

If you have watched the movie Moneyball (or certainly read the source material), you probably get how the things that actually lead to the production of runs (or baskets) can differ greatly from the “look” of how a player performs based on conventional wisdom or certainly what sportswriters and scouts have to say about it.

For instance, in basketball, a Power Forward / Center who scores 30 points per game can be heralded as an MVP candidate by some (ultimately misguided / moronic) commentator… who discounts that the PF/C in question is a severe under-rebounder relative to the expectations of his position, or that he commits more turnovers per game than two point guards glued together (point guards spend the whole game handling the ball, so even the ones who are good at taking care of it will typically lose the ball more often over the course of a game than a PF/C whose main job is to be a giant hanging out under the basket waving around his preternaturally pteranodon-like wingspan grabbing rebounds and scoring high-percentage jams).

Following is a simplified version of the equation that changed not only how I look at basketball, but ultimately Magic: The Gathering…

Win Score =

PTS + REB + STL + BLK/2 + AST/2

– FGA – FTA/2 – TO – PF/2

Win Score is a simplified version of the stunningly accurate Wins Produced equation pioneered in the book The Wages of Wins by Professor David Berri and others.

You don’t really need to know much about basketball or even buy into Berri’s model (I know many basketball fans who don’t, regardless of the ultimate accuracy of its evaluation) for the game to get why Win Score is so engaging a change of perspective.

Win Score assumes that a possession is worth about one point. This is because NBA players shoot a little under 50%, baskets are generally worth two (but some are worth three), so teams generate about one point per possession. Ergo much of the stuff on the top line (points / rebounds / steals) are worth about the same, again specifically in relation to the possession. A point is a point (and we already said that a possession typically ends in a point, more or less); a rebound and a steal both generate a possession, which we already said is worth about one point. A block is desirable, but not worth the same thing at all…

Blocks may or may not actually prevent opponents from scoring (sometimes the shot was going to miss anyway) and more importantly, don’t generally result in the blocking player’s team ending up with the ball. That said, spectacular blocks, in fact, often send the basketball into the audience (so, good for the highlight reel but certainly not worth “a possession” on average)… which further confuses what drives a team winning versus what ends up on the highlight reel, and therefore memorable and talked about from a mass media perspective.

The second line is about how teams bleed out their possessions. Even when you score, you have to use a possession to take a shot, same as with a turnover, just with a different result. I think of spending a possession the same as spending a dollar; you can bleed out a dollar by buying a Snickers bar (basically a turnover) or buy desperately mising the jackpot lotto winner (you know, like a low percentage but spectacular buzzer beater three pointer). Or you can put the dollar towards some kind of predictable investment… boring, but likely to generate a desirable return (layup).

See how the different ways we can “spend” a possession radically affect perception? Do we want media darlings using our taking—admittedly spectacular—cut-reverses through traffic or low-percentage threes at second 23/24 just because they hit one last game? Is that the best use of our dollar? Put another way, do we want to spend all our money on scratch-off tickets with explosive multimillion-dollar returns… a negligible percent of the time?

Truly epic scorers score more than one point per shot, but if an “average” scorer translates one possession into one point, you don’t really “get much credit” for scoring a point per shot (hence the inherent equivalence between PTS and FGA in the above). On balance, the true goal of an equation like Win Score is designed to expose the severe disconnect between the average fan’s (or sportswriter’s) perception and the real awesome players. Tops on Berri’s hit list? Prolific scorers who use tons of possessions to get those points (“volume shooters”).

Ultimately, outstanding players and statistical outliers do something other than score a point per shot. During his MVP years, Steve Nash produced approximately the same offensive output as a contemporary LeBron James (albeit largely in the form of assists and near-flawless foul shooting) but did it all in far fewer possessions; what makes the more seasoned LeBron of subsequent years so amazing is a combination of not just the ability to actually score 30 points per game if he desires (and at a greater rate than one point per possession)… but the fact that he racks up value in so many other areas at the same time… value, in rebounding, for instance, that generates more possessions.

The shift from a focus on pure point outlay to the cultivation of possessions first (again, with possessions ultimately translating to points) can be jarring for some fans, but it actually explains a lot. Like the championship Detroit Pistons team. Turns out that Ben Wallace at his height—who was a prolific rebounder (generating possessions) and defender (forcing opponents to waste theirs)—was just 4x or so as good as the average NBA player, a true superstar, if not a superstar scorer.

I certainly think it would be fair to say that the Win Score equation is far from perfect, but again it is a simplification; it undoubtedly favors above-average rebounders (arguably a bit too much), and friends like Gabe Carleton-Barnes and Patrick Sullivan have quite understandably asked why an assisted bucket is seemingly more valuable than a non-assisted one… For our purposes that really isn’t that important today. Ultimately, the notion of equivalencies between unlike things, and the benchmarking against a non-intuitive metric, has been very helpful to me in how I approach Magic.

We already knew from The Philosophy of Fire that you can benchmark one card at two damage. Check.

Can we also draw equations between other seemingly unlike elements in Magic?

I decided to benchmark at not one card (per the Philosophy of Fire) but one mana in an attempt to reconcile everything that seems to tie Magic together from different color perspectives… everything from losing to being mana-screwed to losing to being mana-flooded; the efficiency of the offensive two-drop to the sometimes suffocating power of the best planeswalkers.

What is a mana worth?

A red mana? About two damage.

A blue mana? About one card.

A white mana? Some amount of life gain.

A green mana? Very nearly “the ability to put a mana source in play” … Consider the difference between a Lay of the Land and a Rampant Growth; or the notion of tapping G for a Birds of Paradise or a Llanowar Elves.

I still have no idea what a black mana is worth, exactly; but I ultimately figured out you can just call a mana a mana and measure against not just that standard, but how two different decks perform while doing seemingly un-like things.

This is really the crux of the reason I ultimately thought that Exarch Twin was going to end the Age of Caw-Blade—a Stoneforge Mystic into a Sword of Feast and Famine (or Batterskull) could do lots of things at the same time… The Stoneforge Mystic would draw an extra card; that extra card could help deal tons of damage, gain life, and / or untap your lands so you could use more and more. On balance, a Deceiver Exarch could, in the same window, undo the opponent’s attack and then deal essentially infinite damage… and do so using a compact and relatively uncomplicated expenditure of mana. The two feats, while both more impressive on turn four than quickly searching out a lot of lands like a Primeval Titan, were themselves highly unequal.

The first thing I did when starting to puzzle this out was to slough off all the stuff I used to find interesting, most importantly my longest-standing place of pleasure, incremental card advantage.

You will notice that there is very little said about destroying the opponent’s permanents, making them discard cards, any kind of midrange durdling or grinding. I realized those things don’t really help you win the game. They might hinder the opponent’s ability to win the game, but they don’t actually win the game (and often they are out-stripped by the opponent’s more efficient and shall-we-say wealthy use of mana), so I figured that the most successful decks should concentrate on the things that actually did do things that won the game, specifically using mana as a lens.

A good way to think about this different benchmarking—and specifically the move away from cards / card advantage as the desirable measuring stick—is to contrast contemporary 187s like Man-o’-War and Nekrataal (or, if you prefer, Aether Adept and Skinrender). Nekrataal actually kills a man, and Man-o’-War just bounces one. You would expect Nekrataal to be many times more popular and successful a card, but it turns out that Man-o’-War was a small format dominator, and the two cards were considered more or less on the same level in wider formats. From the lens of card economy, this doesn’t make much sense.

From the lens of a more equivalent understanding of how Magic games are won via mana rather than the more traditional cards, you can see some obvious differences. Man-o’-War costs a full mana less. That is obvious. But because of it can often get in for two (an equivalence against one red mana) a turn earlier. This didn’t always happen but did often enough that deck designers like Brian Schneider, Brian Kibler, and Jon Finkel might key onto a little more punch being instructive in terms of card selection.

When we move to Skinrender versus Aether Adept, the line blurs a bit. Neither one has been an outstanding Constructed card, with Aether Adept seeing little (but not “no”) Constructed play and Skinrender only a little bit more, usually as a bullet, one-of, or corner case. Skinrender’s body is so much better than Nekrataal’s (50% more damage, greater toughness implying a long-term greater likelihood of getting in)… Not a strictly better card, but certainly more virtuous relative to the original than Aether Adept, which is essentially a strict downgrade.

This mental repositioning (for me) ultimately drove me towards an obsession with mana efficiency and deploying mana-efficient threats (like Scute Mob), in particular those (like Baneslayer Angel and Ranger of Eos), which I considered some of the best cards of the era that generated things that I considered “worth mana.” Conversely I became very interested in controlling my Bloodbraid Elf cascades (so as to “not waste” what should be “bonus mana”), leading to the separate implementations of Mono-Cascade (crusher of SCG Opens) and Naya Lightsaber (crusher of Pro Tours).

The most gratifying thing about this period was actually watching Andre beat Reitbauer for the World title… Reitbauer had “lands and spells” (crossed the tradition threshold for excuses in Magic losses) … But because of his ragged color development, he couldn’t get the value necessary out of his spells to keep pace with Andre’s relentless, mana-efficient (even “mana-producing”) threats. Color screw, I realized, isn’t necessarily about not having something so much as not being able to use something. Having lands (or not) is ultimately irrelevant. Having spells or not equally so. This game told me everything I ever needed to know about Magic theory at the macro. All that mattered—all that matters—is our ability to get the value we desire, “produce the results” we desire, with the resources we have.

For years everyone had been counting the wrong things.

Something subtle to consider: Playing creatures (or any other kind of threats) isn’t necessarily productive, nor is playing a creature necessarily the realization of your investment in mana. What is useful is getting through with a creature, not just playing one. A white deck can do the “red” activity of dealing two damage by playing an Elite Vanguard; after its initial investment, the Elite Vanguard doesn’t require any mana to continue (or just start) productivity… However a one-toughness creature isn’t necessarily that great at getting through. Traditional models for counting in Magic—based purely on card advantage or even damage—didn’t do a great job of explaining a standoff. Understanding equivalencies and how they drive the other side of the equation, comparatively, could tell you a lot about everything from missing your third land drop to why one combo kill is better in an environment than another one.

Over the past year Patrick Chapin has repeatedly asked me where I made a shift, from incremental card advantage to a relentless drive towards figuring out the 10 best cards… and then trying to play them all in a brew. From Akroma’s Vengeance and fair (if consistent) cycling strategies to explosive mana, titanic threats, and precise—if epic—Genesis Waves (another Opens terror, there)… from Beasts and Worship to a succession of U/R combo decks wherever available. The answer is all around this shift in evaluation.

You can probably see some of the things you have noticed yourself in Magic—the sometimes inexorable explosiveness (but susceptibility to flaming out) by a burn deck, the efficient beatdown (if somewhat time delayed by comparison) of White Weenie, why U/G Madness could be so dominant with its upgraded Grizzly Bears and oddly positioned Durkwood Boars… even Adam Yurchick’s new thinking about dropping his hand—in these equalities and equations.

Cards are not—as many players who are not as successful as they could be think—an end to themselves. Damage might be… but focusing on it, rather than the drivers to its production, might lead us to the same mis-evaluations as points-first-over-possessions in basketball analysis.

I ended up pretty efficient while riding these principles and designed a fair number of notable decks during Shards in Standard, including, ultimately, a Grixis National Qualifiers win for myself. One of the tricks I used (even if I didn’t explain it, discretely, at the time) was to take seemingly un-like equalities and transpose them in unexpected areas.

The best example is probably Countersquall.

Does a control deck “care about the two damage?”

I would probably say no.

Well, what if it’s free?

At the time I qualified, we didn’t have the versatile Mana Leak as an option in Standard. Many players were running Negate. But why not just upgrade to Countersquall? Especially given the quality of lands available in Standard at the time, there was very little cost to moving to the BU version. Two mana, two mana… but that switch from “1” to “B” was giving us—in two life—”a full mana” of additional value... at no cost!

I long ago lost count of the number of games I won because Grixis—with base-three damage sources like Sedraxis Specter, Creeping Tar Pit, and Lightning Bolt—would only have to close 18 damage instead of the full 20… just because I played Countersquall instead of Negate.

The other thing I did that was unusually productive (relative to the more control-oriented Grixis decks of the day) was to play Blightning. Blightning was of course super popular in Jund, but why not just play it in Grixis? It seemed to me one of the best cards in the format, a fairly unambiguous upgrade to various cards that had proven viable in the past, with one-and-a-half bonus mana tacked on.

Value cards like Countersquall and Blightning—positioned in a deck that might not “usually” play them—seemed to me like the LeBron James of card selection. They were doing what acceptably reasonable cards do / did / always have… while tacking on a couple more rebounds and assists.

In particular, my version was super effective in the “mirror” … My friend Thomas Dodd did a guest post on Five With Flores at the time (RE: an Atlanta Open back in early 2010) and laughed about how the mirror worked. He played Blightning; the opponent tried Negate; Thomas answered with Countersquall. It wasn’t just that he was taking three cards (Blightning hit and the Negate to boot), but the five life was a quarter of the opponent’s starting total, so much extra value.

Even before the explosion in popularity—then continuing evolution—of “Illusions” in Standard, I realized how potentially valuable Vapor Snag could be. Here was a card like a Man-o’-War, trading above its station (generally) in terms of mana-against-mana… but tacking on an additional half-mana in value in a format with Snapcaster Mage!


I’m sure many of you find all this thinking stuff fascinating, but none of it is worth very much without some contemporary output.

Why do we care today?

All of this brings us back to modern Modern.

I have been playing mostly with Snapcaster Mages the past several weeks. Since the Mono-Blue deck that I posted two weeks ago (which incidentally posted a couple of very nice finishes on the Magic Online site), I decided to branch out into some lower curve and faster options. Less dominating long term, maybe, than Teferi and a fist full of Cryptic Commands… but quicker to the punch and more early game options rich.

At first I did stuff that you probably knew better than to try… like with Vedalken Shackles (but I try all kinds of things). It turns out Vedalken Shackles isn’t as good in a deck with all Darkslick Shores and Rain of Tears. For those working on straight B/U (though probably not BUG), I like Victim of Night the best of the two-mana black instant point removal options. None of them are perfect, but I felt like I was hitting the most stuff with Victim of Night relative to Smother, Go for the Throat, and Doom Blade.

I also enjoyed validating the Snapcaster Mage + Annul plan. At first I worked very hard to fit Ancient Grudge into various Snapcaster decks, but not only was I taking a ton of damage working the mana to accommodate Breeding Pool, Stomping Ground, and so on, but even with Ancient Grudge in my deck, I was disappointed in my trials against decks like Hive Mind or random Crusade variants. Annul turned out to be great, and the combination of Annul and so many other instants with Snapcaster Mage gave me the perfect mix of flexibility and margin.

In further perusing MTGO lists, I eventually ended up pushing, shoving, mixing, and mashing until I came to this:

In the beginning, my biggest question marks were around Blightning and Cryptic Command, just because they cost so much.

Blightning ultimately more than proved itself and has gone from two to three to all four copies. I have even stopped siding it out against faster beatdowns than mine! One synergy in this deck is the combination of Inquisition of Kozilek, Blightning, and Dark Confidant to put the opponent in topdeck mode. Blightning often helps win games at this point as a blunt three-damage sorcery (even when the opponent has no cards)… but that is still worth 1.5 mana, remember :)

Cryptic Command—sometimes heralded as the best card in certain formats—when you finish adding up all its abilities isn’t necessarily that mana efficient, actually.

That said, the card has given me little reason to want to cut it, and other than the difficult road of hitting UUU in some games, it has been fine. I have found that this restriction actually forces me to play better, which in turn, amplifies the already often impressive Cryptic Command.

Things I Like About This Deck:

  1. All the mana comes into play untapped, at least some of the time.
  2. The spells play out super efficiently and are super mana efficient.
  3. Terminate! I spent the first several matches screwing around with Doom Blade and Go for the Throat, but Terminate was the obvious choice.

Things That Could Stand Improvement About This Deck:

  1. It could probably use another red source.
  2. River of Tears is a roller coaster ride. The games you have three in your opening hand and no other lands are incredibly challenging to win. Worst ever – Inability to play first-turn Delver of Secrets.
  3. I’m a little worried about the threat counts. I know there is no more Punishing Fire, but I have won half a dozen “mirrors” all the same way… Side in every Vicious Hunter and extra Terminate, and just kill all their guys.
  4. Dark Confidant – The biggest difference in my mind to a deck like Mono-Blue and a Dark Confidant deck is the difficulty in getting life back agianst aggro. I like Vampire Nighthawk as a sideboard card (for all the reasons discussed above), but wanted to get the most value out of my Delvers and Snapcasters; hence, Sorin’s Thirst.

End of the day, this deck is the most fun I have had playing Modern this time around. You can overload the opponent’s hand with Inquisition of Kozilek and Blightning, or just wear him down with all the efficient card advantage, while cashing in on free value. The deck is absolutely astounding at taking out large volumes of small creatures when you have every Ratchet Bomb and point removal spell in… For instance Merfolk as I have seen it has just no chance, and is out-classed by Dark Confidant and Snapcaster Mage (fueling removal) turn after turn, which, as we have said, really puts the hurt on the other guy’s ability to win.

I think the deck can be competitive with almost anything. The Lava Spike deck is admittedly a chore, but the last time I played it, I lost mostly to playing my lands in the wrong order, leaving myself open to a topdecked Goblin Guide than to what is admittedly a pretty rough opponent.

If I ever end up PTQ’ing with this, I can imagine going to Nighthawks on top of Sorin’s Thirst out of the side, but I like every single spell in the main deck. Dragon’s Claw is probably pretty good, but I don’t know if the Lava Spike deck will be popular enough in the late rounds to warrant a unique solution.

Win or lose, I have felt out-gunned all of once (over several dozen matches), against straight U/W (incidentally I had just gotten done beating Tron, primarily though a Countersquall sub-fueled race, crushing every Signet and Crucible with Snapcaster-fueled Annul humiliations). The U/W got value with Kitchen Finks and Snapcaster Mage, discarded Rune Snag and Day of Judgment to my Blightning, and finished me out with Sun Titan, all while I stared at a not-helpful Countersquall.

Obviously an eminently fix-able problem.

Any Innovators who love Grixis? Delightful Brewmasters?

Well, that is where I am on Modern right now; again, most fun I have had… and the deck seems very competitive, if admittedly not perfect yet.

It should go without saying that other people have obviously come to similar conclusions to me using different paradigms and concept sets. As you probably know I am much more interested in how my readers think than what you actually think. The inspiration and analysis in the first part of this article come from my process of the same; ultimately that place.