Mike Flores wrote an interesting article on degree of difficulty. He was responding to a comment made in a daily question posted by Kevin Cron (Cha1n5) asking: Does Type One Test Magic’s Most Advanced Skills? I found the Flores’ article interesting not because I strongly disagree with him – but because I think the real issue is worth exploring: what skills does Type One test? Vintage is clearly unlike any other format. Nick Eisel once described some in-game analysis contained in one of my articles as “bizarro world.” Rather than compare Type One on a better or worse scale, this article will explore and explain what I think are the critical skills Vintage players must have to be successful.
But before we can explore what skills Type One hones, we have to take a look at what skill means in the Magic context. Skill is the acquired ability to make the correct decision. Most of the time, “skill” is mistake avoidance, or in positive terms, playing optimally. Magic is a brilliantly designed game. It is so decision heavy that as the game progresses, the potential to make mistakes grows exponentially. In Type One, it is easily possible to be playing a Control deck, like Tog, and make twenty mistakes by turn 4. With a combo deck, the possibilities for error are almost without bound.
The truth is that every single Magic player makes mistakes. It’s almost impossible not to. The most ingenious part about the game is that most of the time we screw up, we don’t even know it. A true testament of skill is the ability to spot mistakes.
Exploring the range of skills that Magic requires is far beyond the scope of this article. Instead, I’m going to explore some of the crucial skills that Type One demands and suggest how that might be different or similar to other formats.
One problem I have with most analysis of skill is that deck choice underpins two contradictory and flawed assumptions. First, sometimes we assume that the cards make all the difference. In Flores’ article, he recounted a story about Chapin and Weissman. One of the players was playing three and thereby was shut out. Alternatively, we often assume that our choice of deck is static and that skill can be determined in a vacuum just by watching how players play various decks. Both of these assumptions are wrong.
The fact is that Magic, in terms of Constructed formats, is a tournament-driven game. The decision concerning which deck to play is a fundamental decision that reflects upon a player’s knowledge of the expected metagame. Using the broader definition of skill as better decision making, choice of deck may be the most important decision that demonstrates one’s skill. For a decisional game, the choice of deck is possibly the most important decision one gets to make. Metagaming is quite important in Vintage as the format, apparently, doesn’t have one “best deck.” The metagame is constantly shifting as the best deck from the last tournament gets destroyed in the next event.
The decision of which deck to play reflects upon far more than just an anticipated metagame. It takes into account which decks a player feels are strong and weak, which decks are appropriate to that player’s ability, and so on.
The variety of decks one can choose from and actually succeed with in Vintage is quite astounding. In the past, I would have attributed this to the fact that the environment was underdeveloped. Now, I realize that many decks which are not fundamentally flawed have the tools to compete because of the breadth and depth of the card pool. Just as an example, I played Mono-Blue control at Gencon and placed in the Top 8 after going undefeated in the swiss. This isn’t because Mono-Blue is the best deck in the format, but because Back to Basics, Energy Flux and a boatload of counters happened to wreck every strategy that was out there at the time.
It is a huge mistake to assume that a person’s deck choice is constant and the only skill is how one plays their deck. One of the key skills of the format is making an intelligent deck choice. This involves not just metagaming, but testing and tuning new tech. It is very easy to play a little Type One, or just make some general assumptions about the format based upon the card pool, and draw some erroneous conclusions – often clichés – about the format.
Certainly playing some Type One decks can give the impression that they are little more than puzzle solving. Mike talked about how for any given Type One deck, goldfishing may be little more than playing the probabilities. This is not untrue, but not, I would contend, in the terms he is thinking. I do not think that you can show up, sit down with a basic knowledge of the combo deck, and play the deck correctly by making objective calculations. The Type One Combo goldfish has added complexities that may not be immediately apparent.
Playing Probabilities or Knowing a Deck’s Variance?
Perhaps the biggest problem that many people who don’t play Type One combo don’t see is that they assume a combo player sits down at the table, shuffles, draws their cards and then (should) begin making objectively correct decisions.
This assumes too much. Here is why.
Most combo decks in Type One have been significantly neutered by restrictions. That makes them rather inconsistent compared to other decks that people might play. As a result, one of the most important skills a combo player has to establish is an intuition or “second sense” about their deck. What does this mean? In the language of statistics, this means that you have a well-defined sense of the decks variances.
I think the single most important trait that makes a good combo player is an excellent understanding of your deck’s variances. Why? Because a player who understands a decks’ variances can use that knowledge to massage or smooth out the inconsistencies. This knowledge can be used directly to figure out how to win matches.
Take Michael Simister at Gencon Type One Championships. Michael Simister invented the two-land Goblin Charbelcher deck. The Belcher deck is in fact one of the less complicated Combo decks in terms of the quantity of decisions that must be made in-game. Usually, when you fan open a hand, the only key decision is: should I keep this hand? With a deck like Belcher, that question is simply impossible to answer if you have merely mastered the goldfish – you need much, much more experience than simply knowing how to execute. You need to know what kind of hands you are likely to get, and you need to use that information and weigh it not just against what your opponent is playing, but:
- What are your overall chances of winning the match?
- Which game of the match this is?
- Whether you are up or down games.
- Whether your hand loses to Wasteland, Null Rod, Force of Will, Trinisphere or whatever the dominant threat your opponent is packing
- If you have Brainstorm, what kind of cards you are likely to see.
Michael Simister played round after round of Force of Will, Null Rod, and Trinisphere and made it to third place. I think there is probably no one else in the world who could do that, simply because the unbelievable quantity of experience with the deck gives him a perfect understanding of the decks variances. I think I am better at executing the Belcher combo than he is – but he has mastered the more important skill: what hands do I keep against which matchups given my position in the match?
When I played him at Origins, I was playing Psychatog. I had just written an article on Tog v. Belcher for this website, so I was quite confident going in. Simister was the only player I lost to at Origins in multiple tournaments. Even more surprising was this:
He kept a hand with multiple Land Grants and at least one, if not both of his lands. For most people playing Belcher, there is no way they’d keep a hand like that. It isn’t very fast for a deck that is supposed to be the fastest deck in the format. When I cast Mind Twist on turn 3 for most of his hand and he discarded mostly Land Grants, I was stunned. I was even more stunned when he won the game. How did he win the game? Simister knew that in this match the most important thing was a balance of mana stability and threats. He would keep a more threat-light hand in exchange for mana stability. By turn 3 he had Living Wished for Mishra’s Workshop, had two lands in play and multiple Moxen. What this enabled him to do is work off the top. He knew that given his mana-heavy draw, he was less likely to topdeck mana, and more likely to topdeck bombs. He didn’t try to speed past me, he tried to overpower me – which succeeded.
In this game, he was able to play every threat he drew and it killed me.
I had to mulligan into Force of Will in the second game, which I did. I Forced his first-turn Wheel of Fortune, and Intuitioned for Force of Wills to stop his second-turn Necropotence. But lost when his third-turn bomb resolved.
Mike Flores seems to suggest that Type One is all about Force of Will or no. I think what that misses is the power of so much of modern Type One’s disruption. Combo has to deal with Chalice of the Void, Trinisphere, Wasteland, Duress, Mana Drain and Force of Will. All of those are online by your opponent’s second turn and most by their first.
Think about Michael Simister playing Belcher. He had to deal with these cards all day. Winning under Trinisphere is nearly impossible unless you have gone first with Belcher. All the skill in the world is unlikely to pull you out of that hole. What Simister does, and what I do with MeanDeath, is realize that you need to play the probabilities. When you sit down against a Workshop player with combo and you lose the die roll, your analysis immediately to: what can I do to win this match assuming at least one game I’ll get to play first and win, and he’ll have Workshop-Trinisphere in another. So I need to be looking for a hand that will at least give me some chance of being able to get out from under a Trinisphere. Simister does this by sideboarding in land to increase the chances that he’ll see it. Drawing Elvish Spirit Guides and Channel is another. There are combinations of cards that make it possible, even if unlikely to win under such circumstances.
The point I’m making is that a master Magic player can sit down and drive a deck just fine, but unless you know the deck’s variances (not just want is in the deck and a good sense of probabilities and decisional play), you can’t possibly expect to play the deck perfectly in terms of being able to seize the match. Without that intuition about the deck that comes from the great background experience of these complex T1 decks, you can’t intelligently make important decisions like mulliganing given the state of the match and the threats the opponent’s deck poses to you.
What I’m talking about is more than just probabilities that relate to decisional play – what the chances of your getting a bomb off of Brainstorm, etc. That’s information anyone with a knowledge the contents of the deck can figure out. The kind of skill required to pilot these extreme Type One combo decks requires a far more subtle than understanding of the decks probabilities – it’s variances. Without this knowledge, you can’t make fully optimal plays such as when to mulligan, what you will mulligan into, what the risks of mulligan are if you don’t mulligan into what you are looking for, etc.
Just as a quick example. If I am playing Meandeath and I have won game one against a Mishra’s Workshop prison deck. I draw a 7-card hand that is mediocre – likely a turn 3 win, possibly turn 2. But if he doesn’t have turn 1 Trinisphere, my chances with this hand are 50-50. I know that if I mulligan, I am likely to get absolute crap and have to mulligan to five and possibly oblivion, or I can get a good hand of six and that the chance of me getting a good hand of six is more likely. If I had lost the first game, knowing what I know, I would probably choose to mulligan. But given that a hand of six, on the draw, is unlikely to be any better against Trinisphere. And given that I won game one, so I have another game to win this match, I decide to keep the hand and hope they don’t have Trinisphere. Without knowing the kinds of hands I’m likely to get off the mulligan and a good understanding of what I need to be able to do to win the match – as Simister knew what he had to have to beat me, I can be a total master of probabilities, but not make optimal decisions.
Lots and Lots of Options
The second complexity is the sheer quantity of options. The last time combo in other formats really had a deck as fast as Type One combo was the Twiddle/Mind’s Desire deck from last Extended season. That deck would often have a hand like this:
Seat of Synod,
Burst of Energy,
There aren’t really any options here – it’s all obvious. Play Chrome Mox imprinting Twiddle, play Ancient Tomb. Tinker up Gilded Lotus – play Burst of Energy on the Lotus leaving WW up and cast Diminishing Returns with U floating.
Then you might get a hand like this:
City of Traitors,
Seat of Synod,
Then you play several more Twiddles and the Mox and play Desire. No one seriously contemplates playing the Returns. Then your Desire will pump out the incredibly obvious:
Again. This isn’t rocket science. It’s obvious.
The point is that there aren’t any serious decisions to make at most junctures in these games.
Type One combo is confronted with serious decisions at every stage of the game – and these decisions are close decisions that require one to wholeheartedly endorse which decision one must execute. This is in part a function of the number of tutors and card drawing combo decks play with. In order to execute a Type One combo deck correctly you must constantly be aware of every card in your deck. You can’t play a Tutor unless you know what you are going to find because what you find may become a worse or better choice depending on other cards in your hand.
Here is a great example of what I’m talking about. I was playing some fun games with Rich Shay. I had him playing my MeanDeath and I was playing Fish to show him how bad Fish was in this match. Kevin Cron was watching our games. Meandeath had gone first. He dropped a land and played Duress, taking my Null Rod. I dropped a land and played Grim Lavamancer. Rich took his turn and played Brainstorm and passed. I took my turn and dropped Cloud of Faeries and Spiketail Hatchling.
Rich untapped, played Lion’s Eye Diamond. He was about play Necropotence and pass the turn. Kevin said – no wait. Oh man, you guys will like this. He showed how he could play Necropotence, set aside some cards going to six life, Death Wish sacrificing Lion’s Eye Diamond in response for WWW to find and play Balance, balancing my hand to no cards, no creatures in play, and one land. Then at the end of his turn, he gets to pick up over a dozen cards from the Necropotence. Seeing the interaction between Necropotence, Death Wish – > Balance, and Lion’s Eye Diamond is not at all obvious. If Rich had wanted to, he could have Wished for any number of other cards I usually keep in my sideboard. The problem is that the options are not directly in front of you. It requires keeping in mind any number of things.
The point is that there can be lots of good or even great options, but there is only one optimal play. In many cases it is easy to find a good or great play, but because of the sheer quantity of options before one in Vintage, finding the optimal play can be quite taxing.
From Combo to Aggro, getting the right mana can often make the difference between winning and losing. With Storm combo, being able to micromanage your mana over long turns is absolutely essential to maximizing your options. For example:
City of Brass, Dark Ritual, Mox Ruby, Black Lotus. Lion’s Eye Diamond. I remove Elvish Spirit Guide from game. I play Duress and then Timetwister, and break Lion’s Eye Diamond in response. This is an exaggerated example, but think about it for the moment. You can have access to a dozen different mana combinations. You can sacrifice the LED for any color of mana. Which mana do you use to play the Timetwister? I would probably use all of the Black Lotus mana for Timetwister and then sacrifice the LED for UUU leaving UUURGBB available – maximizing my colors and quantity of good colored mana.
Another example is this:
Playing Tog your hand is: Polluted Delta, Tropical Island, Mox Ruby, Brainstorm, Cunning Wish, Force of Will and Mana Drain and you are playing against a Workshop deck. What do you do? Your two objectives are to keep your mana on the board (not lose to Wasteland) and yet also Cunning Wish for Artifact Mutation to win the game. Your mana decision here can make or break the game. Figuring out what to do is not easy. Making the “small” mistake of playing the Tropical Island first might cost you the game. However, with Brainstorm, that might seem like the right play. It’s difficult to know.
U/R Fish was, for a time, the most successful deck in the format. For those of you who play Extended, it is very similar to Red Deck Wins. Most people failed to appreciate how truly difficult Fish was to play. Let me give an example that I often cite:
Say you have this hand:
Cloud of Faeries,
Force of Will
The temptation on the part of many Fish players would be to go:
Volcanic Island, Cloud of Faeries, Null Rod
This play seems “safest” to most players and seems like the best play. In some situations it may well be. But, against almost every deck except Combo, it is not the right play.
Here is why:
Say I’m playing Psychatog.
I go, Fetchland for Island and play Brainstorm. I play a Mox and pass the turn.
Fish plays Cloud of Faeries and then Null Rod.
I play a dual land.
Now Fish has to decide whether to Wasteland me or play Spiketail. If he plays the Spiketail, I can Mana Drain it. If he Wastes me, I can play another Dual and Drain the Spiketail next turn.
Now look how this plays out the other way:
I find Island and Brainstorm and play a Mox.
Now, Fish plays Volcanic Island and Spiketail Hatchling.
I play my dual land.
Now Fish Wastelands the dual land. The Tog player can float a mana. Then the Fish players attacks with Spiketail and moves to the second mainphase. Now the Fish player is free to play the Null Rod or Cloud then Null Rod without Force of Will backup. Now the Tog player has effectively no mana, as the Spiketail has dealt with the remaining Island, the Rod has killed the Mox, and the Wasteland has killed the dual land. The Tog player can’t even Force of Will. At this point, therefore, Tog has no available mana. Under the turn 2 Null Rod play, Tog has two mana available on turn 3. There is a huge difference between two and zero mana, and yet such a small play order difference doesn’t seem like it should be so significant. As you see, it is.
This is the most effective use of your mana. Tog’s biggest threat is Intuition for AK. If that resolves, it will be hard to keep Tog from getting its mana down and winning with Psychatog. That small, yet subtle play difference is not easy to see unless you spell it out as I have just done. Yet it makes all the difference in the world. Red Deck Wins from Extended is often similar. You have to set yourself up for the big play the following turn. The point is that play order matters and people should be focused on making the plays in the best order.
This is one of the most important conceptual ideas that Type One players need to keep in mind. It’s basically an experienced-based concept and often intuitive – but if players are conscious of the role they need to play (beatdown or control) – then they will make conscious plays in line with that role and have a more effective game.
Perhaps even more difficult is knowing when to switch roles. With Mono-Blue, there are times when I needed to switch roles. If I was playing against Control Slaver and the Control Slaver player had managed to slip in a Goblin Welder, I know there are only a few ways that the Control Slaver player can win: Tinker, Platinum Angel, Mindslaver, or Pentavus. However, if I have kept them mana light by Powder Kegging most of the Moxen and using Back to Basics, it will be some time until they can get up to the requisite mana to hardcast the artifact and then Weld it back into play. Therefore, I know that I have to win before they can do that. That means I have ten or so turns to find Morphling and win. If I kept trying to play for the endgame, I have lost to the other player’s inevitability.
One of the most important skills in Type One is timing. Timing really is everything. Being able to sense when your opponent is weakest and when you are strongest is very important. I remember playing a Tog mirror and after the critical turn that I won, my opponent sighed: “You can’t flinch first.” I think what this means is that when the iron is hot, you have to strike – but being able to sense that is often difficult and requires a careful evaluation of what you need to do to win.
Queueing is probably most difficult in Type One than of any other format. In Type Two, you can pinpoint precisely when the correct time to play any given spell may be. Since the games in Type One can be compressed because of acceleration or because they are so long because you are in a control mirror, it is almost impossible to tell when the precise perfect moment to play any given spell is. If you haven’t played a lot of games with the format, you will need to just guess and then learn by trial and error when you were right and when you were wrong.
Related to Queueing is:
Tempo is one of the most important concepts of Type One. For the most part it is built into the format so deeply that one doesn’t have to consciously be aware of it, but we should be. Here’s an example: with Meandeck Oath, do you Intuition for Oaths if you have the Forbidden Orchard or do you go for Accumulated Knowledges – assuming you have the countermagic to back it up? The AK plan is a card advantage plan – assuming that you will draw into the Oaths and more counterspells to maintain control. This plan may not work out. However, if you go straight for the Oaths, it takes two more turns to win. You will have tempo, but you may not be strong enough to survive two more turns.
This is a fundamental question of Type One. It happens all the time in all kinds of different matchups. Knowing the right answer requires making minute calculations based upon: game state, including your opponent’s hand size, the length of the game so far, time remaining the round, which game you are in, your hand size, how much mana you both have on the board, what deck your opponent is playing, what they are likely to do in the next two turns, what you are likely to be able to stop them from doing, etc. After weighing all these questions you have to make the right decision.
When it comes to psychological pressure, there are three nonexclusive types of players. The first is the guy who uses it as a weapon, the second is the player who is taken advantage of, and the third is the head player – this player looks at the board and his hand the whole time trying to ignore his opponent and stay out of psychological games. Each of these players is susceptible to psychological intimidation; it just requires more work in some cases than others.
Type One is a format particularly suited to head games. When you sit down with a monstrous combo deck and ravage your opponent, you can very well demoralize them out of the match. By the same token, if you are playing something that appears innocuous, like U/R Fish used to appear to me, you will underestimate it. The important lesson here is to play a deck that will enable you to maximize your psychological intimidation. You know what your strengths with a deck are and what decks are most likely to cause your opponents to make mistakes that you can capitalize on.
This is a critical skill. It requires that you integrate knowledge of your deck, your opponents deck, and your sideboard into a seamless web. These decisions are difficult but critical and learning to mulligan properly can take some time. For example, it took me a while to learn that this sort of hand almost always loses the Tog mirror:
Force of Will
In most other formats, you take a mulligan when you have no/few lands or atrocious hands. In Type One, strategic mulligans are something that happen all the time.
Knowing When to Scoop
I think one skill that makes the difference between a good and a great Type One player is knowing when to scoop. If you regularly go to time in Type One matches (which lots and lots of people do), then you are playing badly – particularly if you aren’t winning because of it. Type One matches are strange. Most Type One games are about fifteen minutes long – even the two-turn games are that long. However, lots and lots of Type One games go to use the full time allotted in tournament play. I wish StarCityGames.com kept track of how many matches went to time at the Power 9 tournaments, because it would shock you all.
Knowing when to scoop is an absolutely essential skill. The difference between a draw and a win is profound. I have seen innumerable players do this:
Play a very, very long game one. This game one has gone so long because both players have made game-breaking errors (some of the time) or one player has, enabling the other player to remain in the game for this long. At 35 minutes into the round, player A (the player with the good deck and the better player) has only a 30% chance of winning yet, they continue to play on. This is a huge mistake. Here is why. Player B sucks. If you scoop up quickly, and sideboard you will cream player B in two quick games. Moreover, if you let player B spend forty minutes winning, they’ll have a huge psychological advantage. You want your opponent to be nervous and uncertain – giving them a big win will boost their confidence. If a scrub is confident, that can be unnerving because you will start having to overthink what they might be able to do.
I wish I could remember all the times I’ve seen good players fail to master this simple, yet crucial skill.
Sideboarding is most complex in Vintage because you require a different plan when on the play than when on the draw. Beyond that, all of the other points about sideboarding that everyone else has made and written numerous articles on remain true.
So, What Constructed Skill Does Type One NOT Test at the highest levels?
1) Creature Combat. The almost entire lack of creature combat – i.e. a creature attacks and another blocks (creatures blocking is absurd in this format) means that Type One players lose lessons about life management and tempo that one is more likely to find in other formats.
2) Life Management. I am totally guilty of this. I hate attacking with Goblin Welder just in principle. [I hear Raise the Alarm is some good in Type One these days… – Knut] In Type One, most games, even with Control decks like Tog, end in a flash. Actually managing your life while you are trying to remain on the offense is simply something that doesn’t come up very often.
3) The Necessity of Winning Small. This is probably the weakest part of Type One. The first two are minor issues, but too often Type One games end in landslides. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying Type One isn’t close – it may be a forty-turn game where no player was ahead until the last play – but that last play was a resolved Yawgmoth’s Will or Mind Twist. Even the aggro decks win big – Food Chain Goblins kills you in a splash of glory.
One of the few decks in Vintage that really teaches one to win small is U/R Fish. Learning that you don’t have to completely shut out your opponent to win is crucial. The real problem with not having this skill is that Type One players will force a deck to try to do something it isn’t capable of doing and will cause it to lose. No matter how aggressively you play Tog, it won’t win consistently on turn 3. No matter how aggressively you play Dragon, it won’t win consistently on turn 2. Forcing the deck to do more than it is capable of will cause you to miss opportunities to win. I’ve seen people force decks more times than I can count and turn out to be disappointed by the results.
Now that I’ve outlined what I view are some of the most important Type One skills, I think it is obvious that Type One isn’t better or worse, but just much different. It emphasizes other skills and requires a higher level of aptitude on many of them such as sideboarding, mulliganing, and the importance of knowing your decks variances. However, you lose smaller, yet critical aspects of the game like life management in many matches.
I’ve tried to emphasize that Magic is a game of decisional play. Every single stage of the game is filled with decisions – decisions which are distorted under the pressure of the moment, decisions which are complicated by unforeseen technology. Flores’ suggested that inherent in a format where a game can boil down to “Force of Will or No” there are less decisions to be made and therefore a less difficult format. I think that the skills I have demonstrated show that this is not the case. But if you are not convinced, here is an experiment I ran a while back.
I enjoy playing Limited and I decided to see how many “critical” decisions were made in some test games of limited I played. There are obviously many decisions in any given game, so I generally rate decisions as irrelevant, relevant, important, and critical. The irrelevant decisions are generally the common place obvious decisions. When you have dropped two lands on turn 2 of Limited, you almost always play your two-mana two-power man. There are exceptions, but rarely do you not. That is a decision, certainly, but I consider it not pressing because to not play it is blatantly wrong.
I discovered that in any given game of Limited, the number of critical decisions mirrored the number in most Type One matches. More than that, there is a general arc. The first three turns in Limited generally involved one or two important decisions – which covers the mulligan decisions in Vintage. Then, roughly speaking, turns 4 and 5 cover the number of important and critical decisions generally made on turn 1 in Vintage, and so on. The point is that Vintage has about the same number of decisions; it’s just on a compressed time frame. This is why storm is so strong in the format. It is true that some Type One games end fairly quickly and generally are “FoW or No?” However, about the same quantity of Limited matches and Type Two games are that lopsided – generally involving one key decision and then a downhill slide for the opposing player.