The Sublimity of Forgiveness

How does The Man in the Iron Mask, Alexandre Dumas, and the concept of forgiveness tie in with Mono-Blue decks in Standard and the idea that “control decks are hard to play”? Mike has the answers, in an article that will probably turn out to be another landmark in the career of this Magic literary giant.

One of my favorite movies of the late 1990s is The Man in the Iron Mask. It’s got this incredible cast with all kinds of award-winning actors, from Gabriel Byrne to Jeremy Irons to mighty mighty Malkovich – old men with legendary names kicking all kinds of ass. It is an action film, a mystery, a love story, brilliantly, tightly, written.

The reason the film is so good is that all through the movie, you’re wondering why Gabriel Byrne is acting the way he is. All the other old dudes are trying to get rid of the kid from Catch Me If You Can, but old Gabe is eating rotten tomatoes and making doe eyes with the Queen and defending little Leo with his life. The beauty is that they tell you the answer in one of the early scenes!

Early on, Scar from The Lion King stumbles onto Gerrard Capashen’s farmstead and catches him ferretting a couple of fat broads. The only actual French guy in the cast, bordering on suicide, asks the onetime philanderer-turned-Jesuit what is more sublime than a woman’s breast.


At the risk of spoiling a story that is two centuries removed slash a film from the last millennium, Leonardo DiCaprio is a very bad King and his twin brother (also Leondardo DiCaprio) is locked up in an Iron Mask (hence the title). The Three Musketeers seek to depose the King and replace him; they are thwarted at every turn by their old teammate, now the Captain of the Guard. The reason Gabe is at odds with his former teammates over the clearly Very Bad Blonde who kills Malkovich’s son King David style? Old Byrne ferretted the Queen some years before and is the actual pap of the King of France. How scandalous! How very French!

The great irony of this great film The Man in the Iron Mask is that when it came out, it wasn’t even the most successful Leonardo DiCaprio movie then-currently in the theaters. It took Rollergirl, Joey, and a thirty year old sci-fi property to knock Titanic (arguably the worst film of all time) out of the #1 box office spot, and even then, only after twentysome weeks. Before some idiotic Titanic fan (you know who you are) objects to what I’ve just said, consider that for the cost of one Titanic (a mediocre love story at best that actually makes no sense and folds on the feebleness of its own sad plot) you could have produced between 50 and 200 Pulp Fictions, depending on if you count marketing costs in the latter film’s budget.

So anyway, after seeing The Man in the Iron Mask, I was all jazzed about The Three Musketeers and Alexandre Dumas, et cetera. I read The Three Musketeers and it was a fantastic book. It stands up against any modern adventure story, full of action, full of tragedy, full of ferretting French broads and making them fall in love with you in order to get what you want espionage-wise, gambling and goodness, irony and laughs, all the way through. I ripped through The Three Musketeers and dived immediately into Twenty Years After (the book between The Three Musketeers and The Man in the Iron Mask).

Twenty Years After on the other hand was absolutely awful. I could not believe that these were the same characters, written by the same dead French dude, as appeared in The Three Musketeers. Imagine if you will an experience where Gabriel Nassif followed up his Onslaught Block Goblin Deck with, like, Ponza instead of the B/W Decree Control deck. Alternately, Twenty Years After can be compared to Nassif following up his innovative G/w Tooth and Nail deck from Kobe with, like, Mirrodin Block Ponza instead of the GP-nabbing G/r Tooth and Nail deck he gave to Garza (this analogy is somewhat flawed, as Nassif is so broken that he can also break Ponza, but you get the idea).

But, holding onto hope like a deluded Kerry supporter on November first, I slogged through Twenty Years After in order to get to The Man in the Iron Mask.

About the same time, another Alexandre Dumas property hit the big screen. This time, it was Jesus and the guy from Memento in The Count of Monte Cristo. At the end of the film, lo and behold, random kid secretly belongs to the Count of Monte Cristo, and Jesus’s girlfriend never actually betrayed him for his crappy backwards traveling best friend. It’s your son, Jesus!

How Repetitive, I thought. That’s The Exact Same Ending From The Man In The Iron Mask.

But when I watched the Bravo TV version of The Count of Monte Cristo, I realized that Dumas didn’t actually write the story that way, and when I watched the Special Features on the box office version of the film, this reality was confirmed.

Armed with this knowledge, I was able to reconcile the section in The Three Musketeers that says that Queen Anne’s gifting of a certain ring to D’Artagnan is the only time they ever met with my original presuppositions about The Man in the Iron Mask. If they two never met again, how could he ever father her child?

So it dawned on me that I could quit reading this smoking pile of garbage and just, you know, enjoy the movie. Like any typical American Male.

But regardless of how screwed up any of this is, the whole thing about forgiveness being maximally sublime remains. This is a truth that holds not just in French literature, American cinema, and Catholic philosophy… but the Magical cards.

Like everyone else, I carry baggage from the flawed perceptions of my formative years. In this case, I am referring to some normative idea that dates back to the last match of the very first Pro Tour, where Mike Loconto’s 62 card U/W deck with no card drawing and only six permission spells defeated Bertrand Lestree’s G/W Armageddon deck with fewer than the Maximum Number of Land Taxes. By top-decking Swords to Plowshares. I have, since this time, held in myself a buried belief that control decks are “harder to play”, because if you make a single mistake with a control deck, you lose.

Now obviously this isn’t true. I don’t recall whom I should hate for polluting my spirit with this terrible idea, but I have since grown into understanding that a Survival deck is the hardest kind of deck to play (because it has the most potential stacks, and therefore, the most opportunities to make a mistake), and following a Survival deck, a beatdown deck is the hardest kind of deck to play, because it has to fight against superior card advantage while managing not only all of its own resources, but the opponent’s life total at the same time.

I know these things, but the same way that memories of imagined childhood boogeymen make me nervous when the light is low, that stupid “control decks are harder to play” garbage still tugs at my Magical soul.

The problem is that this is a very easy lie to buy into: it often looks like control decks lie down in exactly this way. But the issue isn’t that control decks are harder to play. In fact, whoever said this in 1995 or whenever probably didn’t even know what a mistake was or is. I think that control decks just aren’t forgiving, so they can’t topdeck out of their mistakes the same way beatdown decks can.

How did this come up?

I impulsively grabbed a last minute flight to PT Columbus last week, to play in the Standard LCQ. Because I wanted to maximize my chances of qualification, I played the unconditional best archetype in Standard:

4 Relic Barrier

4 Vedalken Shackles

4 Annul

3 Condescend

4 Echoing Truth

4 Hinder

2 Inspiration

1 Keiga, the Tidal Star

4 Mana Leak

4 Thirst for Knowledge

4 Blinkmoth Nexus

18 Island

4 Stalking Stones


2 Duplicant

2 Oblivion Stone

2 Bribery

4 March of the Machines

1 Meloku the Clouded Mirror

4 Temporal Adept

When I say that this is the best deck, I don’t mean that it is necessarily the best deck to play. Affinity probably is, for reasons that are apparent if you are paying even passing attention. But if you are a tight player who makes the right decisions on a regular basis, you should probably win any Standard tournament with this deck and never have to worry about being the victim of infinite Oxidizes, Deconstructs, and Electrostatic Bolts.

This listing differs very little from the one I posted in the first article of the The 2004 Championship Deck Challenge. I actually liked four Inspirations and two copies of Thirst for Knowledge, but changed the numbers at the last minute when Becker kept losing before he could play an Inspiration. I’m not 100% on these six cards; I shudder to think that three and three is right, but I know that – sad but true – when Inspiration resolves, the opponent should usually just scoop ’em up.

The beauty of my listing this is that people will say “that isn’t the best deck” and in the unlikely case that they test and find that it is, in fact, quite ridiculously savage, they will still manage to forget about it by the time Regionals rolls along.

The reason this deck is the best is that:

a) It beats Affinity consistently, if not easily.

b) It doesn’t get hated out like Affinity.

When I say that it doesn’t get hated out the way Affinity does, let me put it to you this way: I played against two Mono-Red Big Red or Ponza type decks in the LCQ, both playing Molten Rain and Stone Rain main. I had to tap out against them for Thirst for Knowledge or Inspiration with nothing but Islands out several times in sideboarded games… and I never ate even one Boil. Who can fit tournament-winning cards like Boil when they are busy siding in Detonate?

So… Forgiveness.

I played all 8 rounds of the LCQ. I easily beat an Ironworks deck, a G/B deck, two Affinity decks and two mono-Red decks. I lost to an Affinity deck (Semion Bezrukov) and a U/G deck (Matt Scott) for a final record of 6-2, 10th place, and 18 packs of Champions of Kamigawa. You will notice that both of the players who beat me were in the Top 4, claiming spots.

Against Matt, I don’t think I could have done anything better. I kept two lands and Condescend in Game One and still had two land in play on turn 11, when he finished killing me with two Viridian Shamans who hadn’t killed any artifacts. Seriously.

Game two, he stumbled and I had Temporal Adept on turn 3. But I had 1UU, not UUU, and when I eventually got my fourth land, it was 2UU instead of 1UUU. So I drew ten cards with 2 Inspirations and 2 Thirsts and Still Died With Four Lands In Play. To give you an idea of how frustrating this match was, I was presented on multiple occasions the choice of Echoing Truth on Eternal Witness or Echoing Truth on Solemn Simulacrum to buy a turn. Really.

But it shouldn’t have mattered.

I lost to Semion.

Game one I made a call that edt says is correct. I countered his turn 2 Arcbound Ravager, and had a Mana Leak on turn 3 when he played Disciple of the Vault with two open, but no other threats. I thought about it and countered. Countering is only wrong if he has Ravager, and even then, I had Vedalken Shackles and he was only nine or ten cards in. Obviously he had Ravager. I played Shackles and he played double Worker to keep Ravager out of range. It was okay, because Semion gave me enough time to play two Thirsts and an Inspiration to find either a Relic Barrier or an Echoing Truth. But nope, ten cards and fourteen life weren’t enough to find an answer and I was down a game.

Game two, I played easy one-for-ones and dropped the March. Semion actually made me kill him, which ate up a ton of time, but this was a pretty scripted game.

Game three, Semion had a turn 1 Aether Vial. The difference in the matchup between playing against a turn one Aether Vial and any other opening can’t be exaggerated. The Blue deck is still favored, but the games are really stressful and you have to play very tightly.

Semion made a weird decision to side in Relic Barrier (to tap my Barriers), and it ended up being relevant. He tapped my Shackles, so I had to steal tapped guys, and ended up sneaking in a lot of damage.

Finally I drew into March with me on nine, with six lands out and two Shackles; my Shackles were pinning a Disciple and a Somber Hoverguard.

Semion hand three artifact lands, a Blinkmoth Nexus, a Glimmervoid, a Relic Barrier, an Atog, and a second Disciple. He could actually have killed me with Disciple + Atog for three turns, but I bluffed Echoing Truth the whole time, so he never went for it.

My March resolved and killed his lands. I took three, going to six with Relic Barrier, Thirst for Knowledge, Mana Leak, and Condescend in my hand.

The right play should be obvious here. With Semion on only two mana and two cards in hand, my two Shackles and two counters lock the game.

Was it that time was closing in after a long Game 2 and I was getting nervous? Was it the hour? Does it matter? For whatever reason, I tapped out for Relic Barrier.

Semion tapped my Barrier, played his third Disciple, played a Seat of the Synod, dealt me two, activated and sacrificed his Blinkmoth Nexus, and tossed the Relic Barrier at me for an even six. If I had just Not Played The Relic Barrier, the Disciple would have gotten countered and that would have been that.

One life or one mistake different, and I would have been swinging with River Boa equipped with Bonesplitter the next day. I got double manascrewed against Matt, but none of the rest of my matches were even close. I lost AN game to one of the other Affinity decks, but the rest of my matches were blowouts.

Just to be clear, I am not maintaining that I played perfect Magic in the LCQ. edt and I don’t even agree on if the Disciple play was an error, and I asked Randy about a game where I let Kokusho, the Evening Star resolve (he wouldn’t have). In that game, I set up a race of Kokusho v. Blinkmoth Nexus, and made my first attack one turn too late. In fact, I kicked myself immediately after saying “go.” That attack ended up giving my opponent two free turns because I drew Blinkmoth Nexus and would have been able to pump for two damage and a kill, had I made the attack instead of holding back on six mana for Hinder + Thirst for Knowledge (those of you who are thinking that my play was fine probably spend a lot of time bitching about how you got topdecked out of a close game with lethal next turn, never analyzing the fact that you could probably have stolen one if not two turns from your opponent if you had merely played correctly six turns previous). But because my matches weren’t close, the multitude of little mistakes I probably made and never identified over the course of the tournament end up being irrelevant: the entire tournament hinged on that one bad tap.

Now the Relic Barrier brand of error costing you a PT slot where you traveled spontaneously to the middle of nowhere in the middle of the work week is pretty devastating, believe me. What is worse is watching other players make mistake after mistake and utterly destroy their opponents all the way to big prizes. Don’t get me wrong. Pierre is awesome. He’s got a great attitude, clearly made innovative changes to the most powerful deck, and was always my pick for PT Champion. He played well enough to not only take Day One undefeated, but win the whole show; mistakes or no, I can’t see discounting his win. He’s awesome, as I said. But Pierre still made a lot of mistakes, and seeing them bit me, even as I cheered for him to win.

I don’t mean to isolate the champ, either. In his match to take one of the coveted four slots, Bryn Kenney successfully cast Tooth and Nail for Darksteel Colossus And Forgot About It For Five Turns. He missed literally 55 damage. Only when he was about to lose did he topdeck Rude Awakening and take his slot anyway.

How is this just?

It’s not.

Decks like Ravager Affinity and Tooth and Nail are just more forgiving than decks like the Mono-Blue Control. That is why no matter how awesome the Blue deck is, the Ravager decks will dominate more tournaments. Most people are bad. People make mistakes. Bad people make lots of mistakes. Ravager makes up for all the mistakes by killing the opponent immediately.

I probably make a mistake a turn. Clearly I am capable of catastrophic mistakes that can undo an entire deck’s tight play. If I had been playing Ravager, it might not have mattered.

In the Top 8 of New York States, the defending New York champ pulled out of a double mulligan to assemble the Urzatron and Oblivion Stone Mike Clair’s board. Mike missed an Oblivion Stone point prior to burying his Disciple of the Vault. He top-decked a Blinkmoth Nexus, and when he swung with the Nexus he had in play, missed the pump point. The defending champ was therefore on four instead of two. Facing double Nexus. He of course played Tooth and Nail, but because he had such cards as Sensei’s Divining Top in his stack, could not deploy a Platinum Angel and was forced to “only” assemble Darksteel Colossus + Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker, an easy two turn clock.

It really seemed like Mike had thrown away a possible win… But then he topped Arcbound Ravager and easily won. A few hours later, he was the 2004 New York State Champion himself!

It’s like Osyp said in the Columbus Finals coverage:

“Arcbound Ravager is like a fairy godmother. It sits on your shoulder and says ‘You play badly, but I don’t care. I still love you.'”

The same goes double for Red Deck Wins or Goblins. It is hard to play Red Deck Wins perfectly: that is why I loved watching Nakamura so much. He knew the relative power levels of the decks, but played his side of the table as precisely as possible in order to minimize the number of turns his opponent would have to overcome his Ensnaring Bridge. Nakamura eliminated and raced Exalted Angels, beat turn 1 Akroma, and chose the cards his Grim Lavamancers chomped expertly. That is a rare talent, even among Red Deck players. But the existence of games like [author name="Dan Paskins"]Dan Paskins’s[/author] Overload Damage can teach you a lot about how forgiving some of the Red Decks are.

Racing to twenty is one thing, but think about how ridiculously a Goblin Bidding deck can pull itself out of an ill-played clusterf***. Oh well, I got all my guys killed. Maybe I shouldn’t have attacked. Oops! I drew Patriarch’s Bidding (or Living Death). Deal you 100, I guess. 80 overload damage! I win!

This kind of brings me back to my incorrect beliefs stemming back from PT 1. Control decks aren’t necessarily hard to play. They are full of flexible answers and card advantage. They often give you a wide margin of error (mine doesn’t… the Disks are in the side). Control decks just tend to be less forgiving.

I’m not sure how you quantify the quality of “forgiveness.” It seems like the ability to do massive damage out of nowhere, via cards like Rude Awakening, Fireblast, or Arcbound Ravager are key. For control decks, maybe the ability to draw a bunch of cards works, but not in the same way. Any early beatdown followed up by a lucky topdeck can serve a beatdown deck, but for the most part, control decks at low life will not win just by drawing four.

I think that this is an interesting topic that is still open for development. I really didn’t want to run any Oblivion Stones at all, but Mail us at https://sales.starcitygames.com/contactus/contactform.php?emailid=2 pointed out that my deck has no margin for error; they ended up being “randomly good.”