Weak Among the Strong: Oops, I win!

Today I’m going to discuss building the “Oops, I win” factor into Constructed decks, giving you the tools to turn seemingly harmless or suboptimal cards into situations that your opponent’s simply cannot beat.

One of the things I’ve always admired about Zvi, and one of the reasons he’s been so successful at Magic, is that he has no interest in a fair fight. Zvi openly derides decks that try to play fair when there are unfair alternatives, and rightly so. If there’s a combo deck that kills reliably on turn 4 and you’re trying to win by attacking for two the only way you’re going to be successful is if you’ve got enough disruption that you’re not really playing fair either.

Most serious tournament players are members of the Zvi school of thought, or at least want to be. If Wizards prints blocks like Mirrodin, they will step up and play Vial Affinity. If there’s a card like Vedalken Shackles that single-handedly wrecks creature strategies, they will run it. If there are sideboard cards like Boil that can completely crush their opponent’s dreams, they will happily board them in and not feel bad when game three is a slaughter.

But most players focus on “real” Magic situations, i.e. games in which both decks are working reasonably well. When they talk about Wasteland they talk about the tempo gain of turn 1 Pup, turn 2 Wasteland, or the importance of getting rid of whatever utility lands are running the day – manlands, Volrath’s Stronghold, whatever. When they talk about Rishadan Port they talk about similar tempo gains or else being able to push through permission by tapping a land on the opponent’s turn and then on theirs. Only after lots of experience (and even then, not always) do they acknowledge that one of the reasons Wasteland and Port are so powerful is that they can turn manascrew into a rout.

You need two mana for your deck to work and you’re stuck on two lands against my Wasteland or Port? Oops, I win.

Some cards will occasionally just win the game for you – or else give you a massive advantage because the right situation came up. That isn’t their normal function, but it comes up often enough to make a real difference. When that happens, it is vital that you respect it in your deckbuilding decisions.

An example from my past is my mono-Blue Cowardice deck from Masques Block Constructed. I had plenty of permission but naturally suffered from Blue’s difficulty with permanents in play. Cowardice would take care of the creatures (except for Blastoderm), so I needed something to get rid of non-creature permanents like Aura Fracture which would otherwise wreck me. Between Accumulated Knowledge, Gush and Rhystic Scrying I had more card-drawing than a Poker tournament, so I didn’t mind going 1-for-2 with bounce and counter, thus Hoodwink was a fine answer.

As I playtested, I noticed something happening every now and then. I would be on the play with Hoodwink in hand. Nothing crazy, just that with three copies of Hoodwink, it wasn’t unusual to have one in my opening hand and I was going first half the time. There were very few meaningful one-mana plays in that block, so what this generally meant was that on turn 2 I would bounce their only land and on their turn they would replay it and discard. And when that happened, my opponent almost never recovered.

Time Walk was in Masques Block?

Who knew Time Walk was legal in Block?

Of course, this wasn’t the deep part of the deck or of the matchups. It didn’t factor in to the tweaking of my colorless land numbers, the reduction of Jolting Merfolk from four to three to two and finally to one, it had nothing to do with the addition of Rishadan Pawnshop to win the mirror. If I was explaining to someone how the deck worked, the “Hoodwink your land” play would usually be an afterthought to explaining how Hoodwink plus permission was your answer to non-creature permanents.

But it won me a lot of games.

Lately there’s been a lot of discussion over whether Echoing Truth is better than Boomerang in mono-Blue control for Standard. Star City even put up a forum in which players can discuss the merits of each card. As I read the forum, I kept waiting for someone to mention that a turn 2 Boomerang on someone’s land, especially when on the play, can be absolutely devastating. True, there are more turn 1 plays in Standard than in Masques Block, but even if your opponent doesn’t have to discard, you’re gaining almost a free turn. And if you’re sideboarding in Temporal Adepts, that free turn could be enough to prevent your opponent from doing much of anything for the entire game.

For most of the day, I waited in vain. Then finally, “SFC” made the point…and got no response, at least by the time I wrote this.

Instead, the discussion focused almost entirely on the “normal” tradeoffs between the two. Boomerang is better against Genjus. But Genjus suck. No, they’re the bane of the deck. Echoing Truth is better vs. Beacon of Creation and against other decks it can sometimes bounce two permanents. Boomerang is better if you both have Thieving Magpie in play. Someone even pointed out that Boomerang costs UU, which isn’t irrelevant considering the man-lands and how Blue-intensive some of your other spells are.

These are all important considerations, and it may even be that they are more important than the possibility of hitting a land on turn 2. But that “Oops, I win!” possibility shouldn’t be neglected in deciding which spell to use – personally, I’d be very surprised to find Blue players running Boomerang will win more games by only bouncing their opponent’s Thieving Magpie in the Mirror than they will by bouncing a land on turn 2.

When Suboptimal is Optimal

Sometimes there’s a card that is generally worse at what it does than the alternatives but is devastating against one or more decks. Tsabo’s Decree isn’t a great removal spell against most decks, but it does get the job done – and against Rebels it was absolutely devastating. I followed the mighty David Humpherys to Worlds running Nether-Go in Standard, with maindeck Decrees turning most of our games against Rebels into “Oops, I win!”

Mike Clair recently won an Extended PTQ with a Psychatog deck…by running four copies of Engineered Plague main. He recognized the dominance (at least in numbers) of Goblins and ran a creature removal card that is just okay versus many decks but utterly dominating against Goblins. (Four was much better than three because you really need two copies to devastate most Goblin builds and he wanted to be able to draw one and still Intuition for a second.)

As a general rule, Engineered Plague isn’t as good as Smother, Edict or other instant-speed, targeted removal. It’s usually limited to the sideboard, where deck-specific hosers have long found their home. Mike realized that the metagame was such that maindeck Plagues gave him enough of an “Oops, I win!” bonus to make them the right way to go for maindeck creature removal, even if they were a suboptimal way to kill off Jackal Pups.

The examples above aren’t quite at the level of running sideboard cards in the main, like when Sligh players were maindecking Pyroblasts to fight Trix. Pyroblast is devastating against Blue decks but flat-out dead against non-Blue decks. Instead I’m talking about running a card that gets the job done – albeit not as efficiently as some of its competitors – but which in addition crushes one or more matchups.

A more extreme approach (albeit not at the level of straight presideboarding) is to run single copies of maindeck hosers in a deck with lots of tutors. Mike Flores took this to an extreme with Napster (piloted by Jon Finkel) in which Vampiric Tutors had “Oops, I win!” cards for most of the popular decks. Many versions of Oath have done the same, maindecking silver bullet enchantments to fetch with Enlightened Tutor. The more tightly defined a metagame is (and thus the easier it is to take aim at it) the more likely this tactic is to work. Napster accepted the small risk of drawing it’s one Perish against Sligh because that one slot effectively gave it five maindeck copies of Perish against Stompy.

Oops, I lose!

Just as players are sometimes reluctant to take full account of the “Oops, I win!” possibilities of cards, many players build decks that are bad simply because they will often self-destruct. When they playtest they are prone to dismissing those self-destruct games as “bad draws” and not count them in figuring out how their matchups are or how the deck performs overall. Then they bring it to a tournament and write a report about how bad draws caused them to lose to some scrub.

Not the mana base you are looking for.

Mana is the most common culprit here. I’ve lost count of how many decks I’ve seen that flat-out don’t have enough land in them. Sure, if you run 17 land Sligh and hit your first three drops you’re probably going to have a great draw and keep finding gas. However, don’t complain about the games where you stall on one land, or having to mulligan no-land hands three times in a PTQ. Another common mana problem is decks that ask too much of their mana base. Last night (in a 3-on-3 team draft) I drafted a deck with Eight-and-a-Half-Tails and two Wicked Akuba…and to make things worse, I splashed Blind with Anger! This is obviously a dangerous place to be, and in both drafting and deck construction I took such steps as I could to minimize the damage. I avoided drafting any more WW or BB cards, shipping multiple copies of Distress.

When it was time to build, I made White my secondary color and cut any other WW spells I had, so that only Tails was likely to have to wait on mana – and he’s at his best as a late-game card anyway. I also considered sticking to two colors, but the power of Blind with Anger is enough to justify some significant risk. Naturally I had to run 18 lands to meet my color requirements, even though my curve could have justified 17, but at least I had Tails as a late-game mana sink. By keeping Tails and Blind with Anger I made my deck substantially more powerful than it would have been otherwise – but at the cost of increasing the chance that it would self-destruct.

I’m not suggesting that such risks aren’t worth taking, but rather that you have to take them with your eyes open so that you have the best chance of correctly judging the tradeoffs. That’s true whether you’re running Wicked Akuba and Tails or Eternal Witness and Hinder in Standard.

“Oops, I lose!” can come about in other ways, of course. If your deck is especially vulnerable to a particular sideboard card, you have to ask how likely you are to come up against it. If it’s likely, you need to find answers…or another deck. At the start of the Extended season I had an MBC deck that was crushing Red Deck Wins… before sideboarding. After boarding, however, Sulfuric Vortex was a tremendous pain. None of the answers I came up with were really satisfactory, and that was one of the main reasons I abandoned the deck.

When Mike Flores first wrote about mono-Blue control he spoke of his tournament experience in the Standard metagame dominated by 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?”

That was then… this is now. Despite Mike’s hopeful comments that people would forget about mono-Blue, it is widely recognized as one of the decks to beat… and with Affinity no longer around, people are going to find room for Boil, Choke and other nastiness. Some people are going to show up for Regionals with no real answer to this problem, and they are going to get blown out of the tournament.

Don’t be one of them. In case it isn’t obvious, it’s better to say, “Oops, I win!” than “Oops, I lose!”

Hugs ’til next time,