Weak Among the Strong: How You Win and Lose

Today Chad looks at the most important thing to pay attention to when doing playtesting. This is something that will not only make you a better player and teach you the intricacies of a matchup, but it will also make you a better deck designer as well and help you tune your decks like the Pros.

When most people discuss matchup results they talk in terms of numbers, i.e. you win 60% pre-board and 50% post-board. In my experience this is a very inefficient way to look at matchups. I pay much more attention to how I’m winning and losing those games. That’s where you learn how to win the matchup – whether by deck alterations, mulligan decisions or play during the tournament. Knowing you’re a 40% underdog vs. MUC can, at most, make you decide not to play a deck – or else make intuitive calls on sideboard cards to help out. Knowing that you lost to MUC because you aren’t able to put on enough early pressure to force them to play Vedalken Shackles before they can protect it can do a lot more.

Consider the following matchup descriptions from Mike Flores‘ recent article on Big Red:

(Versus French Red, 9-1)

This matchup is very easy. Back in the day, Wisconsin players used to say “Thanks for the bye, Sligh!” when facing littler Red decks. The French Red gets a fast beatdown but is very erratic. It can have a perfect seven that farts into a bunch of useless Seething Songs, for instance, yet can’t really beat Molten Rain if you are correctly blocking. This matchup really reminded me of my RDW testing from Extended where the decks seemed similar but our version was heavily favored with the right man at the helm. The 9-1 stat is probably a little deceiving… Many of the wins were really close, but it is a matter of the Kuroda-Style Red being able to close with lethal burn very easily v. the French Red’s inability to penetrate.

(Versus Mono-G Tooth and Nail, 6-4)

I was actually very disappointed. Of the four games Tooth won, two of the games it was on 1-2, meaning that I probably screwed up somewhere along the way. I lost one where I resolved Sowing Salt somehow (don’t ask how… I’ve blocked the horrid memory obviously), and I lost one where I was greedy and let a Duplicant beat me down. My idea was to get my Pulse going. I went to 13 not realizing that I was dead on board to the
Duplicant and a Kiki-Jiki / Colossus engine (playing for the win next turn, assuming Sundering Titan). That game was just careless, and I think the matchup is better than 6-4. If G/R is 8-2, I don’t see why the more vulnerable Green deck shouldn’t be a better percentage.

(Versus G/R beats, 8-2)

At the point that I beat the T1 Birds, T2 Troll, T3 Troll draw I decided my deck was awesome against attack-oriented opponents. I played Bauble into four mana on turn 3, which let me play Top and buy back the Pulse. Next turn I Blasted into Pulse + Pulse and ripped a land for Blackjack on turn 5 when I was dead on board to Arc-Slogger. Nice game (i.e. the kind where you feel like an ass from the other side of the table).

In one of the losses my only non-land spells were two Wayfarer’s Baubles, two Molten Rains, and a Pulse. I actually almost won that one but the Jitte had something to say about it (lethal Slogger on top). In BOTH games I lost, I was either one turn off of winning or able to deal 22 damage or both, but Umezawa’s Jitte meant I had to deal 24. If Jitte rises, this deck gets worse, so we’ll have to continue to watch the Top 8 listings.

You also want to know To What Extent.

How useful are the stats themselves? Not very. Understanding why mid-range Red decks beat weenie Red decks is far more important to that matchup – if you mistakenly think you’re the beatdown, you could easily lose a favorable matchup. Similarly, knowing you have a matchup advantage vs. Tooth and Nail doesn’t really tell you much on its own. You’d rather know how often you won because Molten Rain slowed them down by a turn (or more), and how often you were able to win despite Tooth and Nail resolving. That’s the sort of understanding that helps you decide whether to add more land destruction to the deck or whether you need to mulligan a hand with Slith Firewalker and burn but no disruption.

The matchup descriptions don’t go into as much detail as I’d like, but they do tell us a lot about how the deck plays out. The insight about how the deck is better at dealing 20-22 damage than 24 is useful both for those playing it and playing against it. The unnecessary loss to T&N is a classic example of learning how you lose (in this case ignoring one of T&N’s options) helping you play better in future games. Combined with Mike’s descriptions of how the deck plays in general, the article tells us a lot about the deck, its strengths and weaknesses and what we might try to do with it.

Analyzing how you win and lose is a critical skill for developing Constructed decks. Many months ago I wrote an article about the development of Flea Market, a deck built around Auriok Salvagers and Trinket Mages for block. One of the tough matchups for the deck’s early incarnations was Tooth and Nail. Analyzing how I was losing those matches was key to turning them around:

Tooth and Nail was still proving a difficult matchup because the long game was favorable to them, especially if (as with most recent builds) they were using Witness. You still had Claws to handle Witness recursion, but you didn’t want to have to do that against a deck that fast and if they got back even one Reap and Sow you were in trouble. Even replaying Sylvan Scrying could mean their third Cloudpost and the end to your dreams of using Condescend to do more than Scry.

After boarding, my Last Words made things quite solid, but beforehand I would have game after game where I got set up but couldn’t stop them from forcing through a big Tooth and Nail. Or, just as bad, the Tooth deck would simply keep developing until it could play Tooth and Nail twice, and keeping up eight mana was often impossible. I was winning only 40% of my matches and since most of my playtesting was in the”Serious Decks” area of MTGO, I knew that the strength of the opponents and their decks was a bit lower than after the first few rounds of a PTQ.

The basic problem was a strategic one. There was fairly little I could do to a Tooth and Nail deck other than swinging with a Gray Ogre. Swinging for two isn’t awful and swinging for four is pretty good, but you couldn’t always attack at all, since they have (at least) Solemn Simulacrum and you really don’t want to swing into him. Essentially I wasn’t presenting my opponents with a big enough threat that would force them to act before they were ready.

The answer to this problem was Necrogen Spellbomb:

Necrogen Spellbomb changed all that. Suddenly I had a strategic “clock” and could lock them out of the game. We would play our turns, nothing to see here folks, move along, with them playing out test spells and building their mana base. Then suddenly at the end of their turn I would fetch a Swamp instead of an Island or Plains, untap, cast Trinket Mage for either Necrogen Spellbomb or Vault of Whispers, and start ripping cards out of their hand. Sometimes if I didn’t have permission, I could still empty their hand in a single turn (when you’re playing land and casting a test spell every turn, you can quite easily get down to just one or two spells), and other times I would only take one card at first but have Last Word in hand and be ready to empty their hand next turn.

Understanding how I was losing (the lack of a strategic threat meaning T&N could play for the long game) led to the solution by which a small change in the deck completely turned a match around. Another example from the past would be Counter-Sliver vs. Trix (with Necropotence). Fighting Trix with Duress, Disenchant and permission never worked. It was impossible to keep Necropotence and then the combo from resolving and cards in hand were either Duressed or Forced, but I was putting them under enough pressure that they couldn’t wait forever to go off, especially with Necropotence speeding up the clock. Seal of Cleansing was the perfect answer – I could put it out before they drew a perfect hand and it was usually too big a challenge for them to remove it before my Slivers killed them. The matchup turned so favorable that many smart Trix players learned they couldn’t fight back with their conventional plan and tried to win with Phyrexian Negators and Massacre.

With that lesson in mind, I began testing to see whether a Standard version of Flea Market could handle Tooth and Nail. The result was not encouraging. I won a couple of games with Necrogen Spellbomb, including one where my opponent actually resolved Sundering Titan after “baiting” permission with Tooth and Nail, but I was up against the wall in every game I won and lost far more often.

This time there were several strategic problems. Plow Under, as expected, is only a minor problem – Wayfarer’s Bauble would get the lands back in play and prevent you from wasting draws on lands. But other differences are more important. The Urzatron is faster and more reliable than Cloudpost. Boseiju nullifies permission. And, quite possibly worst of all, Tooth and Nail now has Sensei’s Divining Top.

I honestly didn’t expect the Top to be that big a deal. I saw in advance that it could mess with the Necrogen Spellbomb lock with its second ability, but that can be countered with Explosives for one. (In fact, this is precisely what happened in two of my early test games.) The draw-smoothing was naturally good, but Flea Market’s whole plan was to have T&N cast spells and then go for the lock – I’d won plenty of games in which T&N cast a good spell every single turn.

In practice, however, the Top combined with all the other problems into a really nasty issue. Taking the time to find and blow up the Explosives was non-trivial, especially since Boseiju would force me out of the card-for-card exchanges that had worked in Block. The Top’s ability to keep T&N drawing gas meant there were more spells I actually had to deal with, whereas in Block I could often just let some spells resolve.

In this case, evaluating the problems didn’t lead to a solution – or at least not to an evolutionary one. There are two revolutionary solutions possible – one is to follow a path advocated by some on the Forum thread and go with a heavier-discard route with considerably more Black mana. The other is to abandon the deck altogether and look for more fruitful options. The basic U/W/b version of Flea Market that I proposed for Block is in trouble on far too many fronts to think it likely that I can fix the problem without a massive reconfiguration, especially since it also has a strategically tough matchup vs. MUC.

Sometimes the lesson you take from how you win and lose is that you should try something else altogether. I’ll keep you up to date about what ideas I glean from Saviours*.

The same principle applies in Limited. In my last article I referred to a draft at YMG where my first three picks were all Kabuto Moths, leading to one of the best decks I’ve ever drafted – and a first-round defeat. A few people commented in the forums that they prefer to hear about “realistic” drafts, rather than insane ones since the realistic drafts are the ones you’ll have most often and thus are more important learning tools. So naturally, when I had another 3-Moth draft (this time on MTGO) and lost in the first round again I had to share.

The first triple-Moth loss didn’t have any major lessons in it. Everyone at the table seemed to have insane decks, and my first-round opponent was R/B with the sort of removal I haven’t seen since triple-Invasion, or possibly Extended. I think I drew one Moth each game and then he killed it. Soon after he played Earthshaker (he had two, if I recall correctly) and cleaned up what was left of my team.

The second draft, however, was quite interesting. I think my deck was stronger than my opponent’s and that it would win most matches between them. In game three I drew almost twice as many lands as spells, while he “stalled” on five lands all the way through turn 10 or so, so that definitely played a role. Many players, in fact, would probably have complained (to themselves or to the “room” – I don’t think I’ve ever looked into the MTGO Draft room without seeing someone complain about how luck cheated them of a win) about their mana-screw and how the only reason they lost was drawing tons of land.

But that’s not why I lost – not completely. I almost won game two and might even have held on in game three, since two of my few spells were Moths which might have generated enough virtual card advantage to give me time to draw out. The problem was Fear. In both games my opponent used Kami of Waning Moon and Hired Muscle to send through unblockable damage – notably from Wicked Akuba.

In my recent PTQ report, I pointed out a key error I made in the quarterfinals – casting Torrent of Stone on my opponent’s Kabuto Moth rather than his Shinka Gatekeeper. I fell into the trap of thinking about which card was better in the abstract rather than which was better in that situation. Even ignoring the prospect of doing four to the dome while removing a creature, at that point of the game the Gatekeeper was better at what my opponent needed to do – smash my face – than Kabuto Moth.

Normally a Green deck chuckles at Shinka Gatekeeper (“Hey, let’s wrestle until your owner is dead!”) but fears Kabuto Moth. In this situation, the size of my creatures (and the Kodama’s Might in my hand) meant that his Moth couldn’t really help him block and the Kami of Fire’s Roar on his side mean that the Gatekeeper’s three power was a lot more relevant than any Moth nonsense.

That’s a situational example of Kabuto Moth being weak, but along with the Fear example we can expand it to the more general case. Kabuto Moth is the best White common because it dominates most situations in which creatures are battling – and creature battles are pretty common in Limited. All on its own it can brawl with most creatures costing less than five mana, and when it’s part of a team facing off against another team it can make attacking or blocking extremely difficult. Since Kabuto Moth flies – and is in a color with solid flyers – it is able to cover both conventional avenues of combat, ground and air. This, combined with White’s ability to protect the Moth (e.g. Blessed Breath or Candles’ Glow) or get it back (turn 3 Moth, turn 4 Moonlit Strider), makes it easy to see why so many games have been won via Moth control.

But there are some things Kabuto Moth isn’t good at. It doesn’t swing well – whether it attacks or just pumps it’s only hitting for one a turn which is pretty mediocre for three mana. It also doesn’t handle non-flying evasion, i.e. Fear.

Is there an illegitimate evasion front?  Does that involve sleeping with Rosewater?

Fear is a strange mechanic. It’s always been there, but it usually hasn’t been that big a deal. Black has always had a few creatures with Fear, but usually they weren’t that exciting – a 2/2 for 1BB. Even if one came out and you couldn’t block it you could either race it with your own evasion creatures or else just kill it. Enchantments that give Fear are usually bad, having the “local enchantment problem” of inviting 2-for-1s as well as failing to increase your power on the board. Kamigawa, however, makes Fear a legitimate evasion front.

Another aspect to Kabuto Moth is that, since it likes to support a blocking team on defense and can only help out one attacker on offense, it is at its best when you are only sending one creature in each turn.

In general terms, this also means that while Kabuto Moth is a fine creature in U/W it is even better in B/W. A creature base that includes Black can negate much or all of the opponent’s Fear – moreover, you will be drafting some Fear-giving cards yourself. Black also has cards like Soulless Revival and Scuttling Death to help keep your Moths in play where they belong. Turn-3 Moth, turn-4 Moonlit Strider is pretty good, but few decks indeed will be able to handle turn-5 Scuttling Death on top. Add in Kami of Waning Moon and soon you’re the one sending in a threat each turn that your opponent can’t deal with.

This also means that if you’re drafting U/W with a Moth or two, you should be ready to handle Fear. A splashed burn spell or two, Shuriken or Hankyu can take out any of the creatures that have or give Fear, and some permission (ideally Hisoka’s Defiance, but even clunky permission like Minamo’s Meddling is better than nothing) in the sideboard can come in to bail you out against Dance of Shadows. Neglect that line of defense and your deck may be great in the abstract but awful against turn-2 Cutthroat, turn-3 Kami of Waning Moon.

Hugs ’til next time,


*Spelled British-style in honor of PT London!