Two weeks from now, the frenzy of spoiler season will come to a head, and something meaningful will happen. Everything before then is speculation, unfocused and out of context. I wish I could say that one of the 64 cards spoiled so far will change the world, but I don’t even know what the world looks like.
In my last article, I discussed the idea of identifying potential futures and then trying to create them. I got a really great response to that article and definitely learned a lot simply through the process of articulating my perspectives on Magic into concrete thoughts. Today I’d like to elaborate a bit on those thoughts, focusing more on the systems and tradeoffs that we encounter when trying to make some future a reality. As a brief refresher, the main idea from last week was the following:
1. Identify a winning game state.
2. Acknowledge the roadblocks that prevent you from achieving it.
3. Recreate that game state.
4. Lock up the game (what can go horribly wrong?).
While I think this is a really key idea when it comes to determining your big-picture strategy for a game, it doesn’t really say much about how to get from point A to point B. Making plays that are inconsistent with your strategic goal is a very easy way to lose, but just as often players will see the light at the end of the tunnel, only to veer off course as things are within reach.
Magic is a game of managing resources, and interaction in Magic almost always occurs as an exchange of resources. People like to describe this in a really simplified way like "one-for-one," which simply refers to the exchange happening on a card by card basis. The next way to think about this is to also consider the resources that went into the same exchange. Sure, Doom Bladeing that Krosan Cloudscraper might be a one-for-one, but when it comes to exchanging resources, one player was able to leverage their two mana to the opponent’s ten. That sounds like profitable interaction. That’s a really simple example, but the same idea is very applicable to more normal scenarios.
Let’s look at the case of an aggressive creature deck against a control deck with plenty of "one-for-one" removal spells. However, there’s a wrench in the plan—the control deck’s removal spells are typically one mana more expensive than the aggro deck’s creatures. In scenarios like this, the control deck might have the theoretical ability to answer every threat, but it also might be losing efficiency and mana on each interaction. Aggressive decks will often win games against control where their mana advantage virtually translates into cards—the control deck is stuck with spells in hand and not enough time and mana to cast them all. That pile full of one-for-ones might be even on a card-for-card basis but not on a mana-for-mana basis.
This is particularly critical because it helps explain the efficacy of mass removal spells. Most players look at Supreme Verdict and see something that kills two, three, or even many more creatures. It’s "powerful" compared to Doom Blade because it’s able to do deal with multiple cards. That’s true, but the real power lies in the ability to recoup multiple cards worth of mana and rewind the efficiency advantage gained by other player.
Naturally having cards like Supreme Verdict also means that you don’t have to answer every threat individually, leaving more room in deck construction for dynamic answers to other threats, threats of your own, and a higher land count. Still, next time you cast a sweeper effect, really think about what was more relevant—the number of creatures you killed or the amount of mana that went into them.
This leads me to one more anecdote. Last Standard season, Dave Shiels and I played a ton of U/W/R Flash against Naya Blitz, a deck popularized by Brad Nelson and Nico Christiansen. Dave liked to say that the matchup hinged on the number of spells each player cast in the first four turns. If U/W/R could stay within two spells of Naya (ignoring some sort of Supreme Verdict effect), it would usually be in good shape. The games where Naya gained a huge interaction advantage in the early turns were nearly insurmountable.
A final way to look at interaction lies in the polar opposite matchup: a control mirror. Let’s take a typical U/W Control mirror in Standard and say that each player has exactly one Aetherling. One really important aspect of this matchup is that it’s possible for a player to be ahead on every conceivable metric—life, cards, mana—and still lose to Aetherling. For our purposes, that Aetherling might be worth one million life, one million mana, and one million cards.
The idea here is that your other exchanges must be made with that calculation mind. A Dissolve cast on a Sphinx’s Revelation for five might sound great—until you realize that Dissolve might be a critical resource that prevents your opponent from getting one million and not just five. Of course, you don’t want to fall so far behind on those metrics that you have no hope of winning the Aetherling war. Going back to last week, this type of interaction focuses on understanding the future and positioning for it. Sometimes you are presented with a highly profitable exchange in the present that threatens to lure you away from your desired future.
Life, Mana, & Cards
One of the most common skills in Magic is using your life total as a resource. Many players have trouble with this because they see life as a direct representation of their fate in the game—up is good, down is bad. The idea of using your life total as a resource is sacrificing it to gain other advantages, other resources. Take the example of not casting a Detention Sphere on turn 3 when you have a Supreme Verdict for turn 4. You take an extra hit to cast Supreme Verdict (gaining mana in the process) and also preserve that Detention Sphere for the follow up. In this scenario, you’ve allowed your opponent to do more damage to you (their end goal) with the intent of preserving even more in the future. If you take four extra damage but the Detention Sphere takes out a Polukranos . . . you get the idea.
You’d be surprised at how many players understand the power of Necropotence (life for cards) or Dark Ritual (cards for mana) but still fail to recognize the opportunity to synthetically create these same tradeoffs by their in-game decisions.
The big picture of these tradeoffs is contextually understanding the value of each of your resources. There are some decks that focus mostly on one resource—the basic example being an aggressive deck that will throw away cards, mana, and their own life total to reduce the opponent’s. Even these decks shift resources around, preserving cards to play around sweepers (resiliency) or preserving their own life total in an aggro mirror (race math). Other strategies have more dynamic evaluations. Missing your third land drop in a control mirror might as well be worth twenty life, and throwing away cards for life or mana against aggro may save you from the unenviable position of dying with five good spells in hand.
This all amounts to the idea that envisioning your endgame for a particular game of Magic is about understanding the limitations of each player’s resources. Your opponent is threat light? Stockpile answers. Don’t pick fights over non-threats. Draft opponent has a bomb you can’t beat? Get aggressive. Time is a resource.
As many of you already know, I won’t be writing anymore for StarCityGames.com after this article. I want to thank everyone I’ve had the opportunity to work with at SCG—I’ve met some amazing people and learned a ton. I want to thank all of the readers for inspiring me to continue to think about Magic and express those thoughts, which is something I’ll continue to do.
For now, I’m looking forward to Born of The Gods, the Pro Tour in Valencia, and working with an amazing group of teammates.