Weak Among the Strong: Winning More

Today Chad puts forth yet another seminal piece of Magic theory explaining why winning is obviously good, but “Winning More” is clearly not. If you want to improve your deck construction skills, this is the place to start.

Back in my early days as a securities analyst I was sent on a training program in which we saw a business film starring John Cleese. Cleese played a senior executive in a large company who knew nothing about accounting or business, while another wily chap was the owner of a small firm and knew what was what. Near the start of the film, Cleese was asked how much working capital he would like to have in his business. His answer was, “Capital is good so I want to have lots and lots of working capital.” Of course, one of the keys to business success is to run on as little working capital as possible.

Winning is good. Winning more must be better than winning less. Do you want to run cards in your deck whose function is to help you win more? Absolutely not.

The question isn’t quite fair as written – I have a specific definition in mind for “win more,” and it doesn’t mean win more games. Instead I’m talking about taking a game that you’re already winning and “really” winning it, or a matchup that is 80% favorable and making it 85% favorable.

The problem with “win more” cards is twofold. First, when they come up they look great. They let you do something truly gross, leaving your opponent’s game in such a mess that you can’t imagine ever losing to him again, in that matchup or any other or even in tennis. They are the cards we are likely to see as the bombs of our deck, our “best tech” and not to be questioned.

Second, they are usually bad cards.

The reason they are bad is quite simple. Winning a game is winning a game. You can kill your opponent while clinging on at three life or you can leave him with no cards in hand, no permanents in play and with you at 157 life with a full hand, eight lands and a massive army. While one may feel better, they are identical from a tournament perspective.

Meanwhile, cards are precious things. Any card that isn’t pulling its weight in close games or games you’re in danger of losing isn’t worth a slot. “Win more” cards are often the ones that are dead in those situations. They are like a friend who is too busy when you really need him – no matter how much fun a person like that is on your good days, he isn’t a real friend.

Some cases of “win more” cards are clear. From time to time a person will show me a deck and I’ll question a card that seems like a poor choice to me. The person will then describe the scenario under which that card is “really good” or “just wins”. They will say something like, “Once I’ve got my combo going,” or “Once I’ve emptied their hand and cleared the board with Deed,” or something like that. In other words, “Once I’ve already won the game, this card kicks ass.” Oftentimes they will tell me about a particular game this card won for them, but when they do it is clear that Gray Ogre could have done the job about as well from the starting position.

While “win more” is usually talked about in Constructed, it applies in Limited as well. If you’ve got two Earthshakers in your spirit-heavy deck, a random arcane spell might be tempting because with Earthshaker in play it becomes Pyroclasm. However, such a card is good only in the situation in which Earthshaker is in play and your opponent is vulnerable to his ability. Given the makeup of your deck, you should be winning the vast majority of those games anyway – thus, you’d be better off replacing the card with something that helps you achieve that state – whether a cheap creature that can keep the game going, or Commune with Nature to help you find Earthshaker.

Similarly, let’s say you’ve been lucky enough to draft Kumano. Is Godo’s Maul an auto-include? It’s tempting to have Kumano as a 7/7 trampler, but the combination is only going to be good in situations in which Kumano is in play and your opponent doesn’t have Rend Flesh or Befoul to kill him. Since Kumano is quite capable of winning such games, you’d be much better off with a Soulless Revival to bring him back in case your opponent does kill him.

A good example of a Constructed win more card I used to hear about a lot is Avatar of Will. Lots of people I know built permission/discard decks designed to empty their opponent’s hands without letting the board get ugly and then drop out the Avatar for just UU. In other words, the initial condition is one in which the opponent has no cards in hand and the board is at least somewhat under control, and you have a specific card in hand. That’s the sort of condition under which you’re usually winning. Meanwhile, until you get to that position, the Avatar is probably a dead card. Thus, assuming the deck concept is viable at all, you’d be better off replacing the Avatar with something that is good when you haven’t achieved your ideal board situation, even if it won’t be quite as good when you have.

So far I’ve been using fairly obvious examples to make the point – most readers of this column already know not to run Avatar of Will in their control decks. But sometimes it’s far less clear. Those are the times when testing, experience, and above all being honest with yourself are what make the difference.

The tale of the tape on Kiki-Jiki in Extended.

A good example of a “less clear” situation came up recently on StarCityGames.com with Mike Flores advocating Kiki-Jiki in Goblins and me deciding not to run him at Grand Prix: Boston. At the moment I haven’t completely made up my mind because I respect Mike enough to test his ideas before dumping them altogether. But my strong suspicion is that Kiki-Jiki is a win more card.

The first clue is the introduction. Mike describes a situation in which the Goblin player has two Aether Vials (set to three and five) and a hand containing at least a Matron and a Goblin that has been tutored for (in this case, Kiki-Jiki). Unsurprisingly, this quickly leads to an utterly gross series of events (complete with a “cool play” end-of-turn finesse that lets Kiki create a copy during the opponent’s turn that sticks around) and an empty board morphing into an insane army. These are the sorts of things that cause us to fall in love with cards… did you see how I killed that guy when he thought he had the board locked up?

However, I would guess that about 80% of the time, “I have Vials set to three and five, and a Matron and recently tutored Goblin in hand” is a win. 19% of the time you’re just playing your turn for fun because you got comboed out last turn. That only leaves 1% of the time in which Kiki-Jiki turns a loss into a win. The win you get during 80% of those situations may not be as flashy as with Kiki-Jiki, but if my suspicion is right the tiny fraction of games in which you can only win with two Vials and a Kiki-Jiki are not worth a slot in your deck.

Meanwhile, there are ample matchups where Kiki-Jiki will be a dead card, simply by virtue of the fact that he costs five mana. I only run one Siege-Gang Commander for precisely this reason – having one in the deck is worth it because I can tutor for him, but I’m aware of the cost: sometimes having a dead card in my opening hand if I’m playing against any combo deck. The extra power of being able to get a second commander isn’t worth doubling the danger of having a dead five-drop.

With that said, Kiki-Jiki is clearly a very powerful card. With a Skirk Prospector or Goblin Warchief he could come out on turn 4. If you started the game with turn 1 Fanatic, turn 2 Piledriver, turn 3 Warchief, Kiki-Jiki on turn 4 can copy the Piledriver and let you swing for a turn 4 kill. Against the Rock, Kiki-Jiki can copy Goblin Ringleader or Matron, adding up to serious card advantage. In Mike’s build (which also runs Chrome Mox, increasing the chance Kiki will be fast enough while giving him a use if he’d be a dead draw), Kiki-Jiki can also pump out hasty Flametongue Kavus.

My challenge, then, is to evaluate how often Kiki-Jiki hurts me vs. how often he helps me when it matters. How often will the ability to copy a Matron or Ringleader be necessary to blow through a Rock deck’s resources? How often will I need to use timing tricks to make two extra Piledrivers to get through an army of blockers? How often does Kiki-Jiki help me win games I would otherwise lose, and how often (and how badly) does it hurt me to have a second five-drop in my deck?

Probably more than anything else, my suspicion that Kiki-Jiki isn’t good has to do with who I beat and who I lost to. Over the course of the GP and subsequent PTQ, I didn’t lose a single match to someone outlasting me – whether it was Black control, U/G madness, GAT, the Rock, White Weenie, Red Deck Loses. I never needed a way to generate yet more card advantage, or to steal inevitability from someone over the long game – Goblins already has that. Since those are the games where Kiki-Jiki should be good, Kiki-Jiki would be helping me to win more.

By contrast, I had an uphill battle against every combo deck out there. I lost 2-1 and 2-1 against Reanimator, 2-0 against Desire, 2-1 vs. Life, 2-0 against a non-Cephalid version of Sutured Ghoul, and 1-1 plus “Sorry, I forgot to board out an Enchantress and thus presented an illegal deck” against Enchantress. I had enough removal and luck to win 2-0 vs. Aluren, but Kiki-Jiki isn’t likely to help me win that matchup…in fact, these are all the matchups where Kiki-Jiki’s best use would be to imprint on Chrome Mox if I was running them.

Goblin Pyromancer looks much more interesting to me – it will probably be just awful against the Rock and other decks that I’m currently beating (hopefully not by so much that I start losing to them!) but it will help me win the games I’m currently losing.

Words of Win... More?

A counter-example is Words of Wind in Enchantress. When I first saw someone locking his opponent out with this card, my instincts (I wasn’t familiar enough with the current versions to know better) said, “Cool idea, but isn’t it winning more?” You certainly don’t want to be using the Words when you’re just drawing one card per turn (unless you’ve already locked your opponent out completely), so in order for it to be good you have to have Enchantress and/or Presence in play and a decent supply of mana. It seemed to me that at that point you were going off, and thus should eschew Words for something that helped your engine generate the win, e.g. Cloud of Faeries, or else protected you from losing, e.g. Propaganda or Worship.

Once I took a closer look, however, I realized that Words isn’t just a “finisher” in a winning situation but a powerful engine in its own right. Each activation “forces” you to return the permanent that let you cantrip in the first place, allowing you to keep going. Thus, Seal of Removal becomes, “1U: each opponent returns a permanent to owner’s hand; return Seal of Removal or the permanent of your choice to your hand.” Even if you haven’t found an Enchantress or Presence, Wall of Blossoms can bounce a permanent (and itself) for 2G. Thus, upon reflection it’s clear that Words of Wind is a win card, not a win more card.

After GP: Boston, smart PTQ players are looking at the hybrid Life/Cephalid deck (I’ll call it Cephalid Buffet for now) that took Lucas Glavin to a won position in the finals. This deck is a thing of beauty. It combines two radically different combinations, giving it a favorable matchup vs. every major deck in the metagame! Normally a combo deck wants to be as focused as possible, but this deck utilizes two combos with the overlap of en-Kor and creature search to have two radically different victory paths, each of which is good at winning different matchups.

If you’re playing beatdown, you know you don’t want to face Life. Buffet isn’t quite as good at getting the Life combo as a dedicated Life deck, but he’s close enough to race any beatdown deck favorably. Meanwhile, other tier one combo decks like Aluren and Desire love the Life matchup as long as they can prevent Test of Endurance, but they can’t handle the Sutured Ghoul combo, which is a turn faster and protects itself by milling not just the Ghoul and some fatties but also Cabal Therapies to remove any reactive Snaps or such that might prevent the Ghoul from smashing face.

With that said, I suspect that a lot of people will bring very bad versions of Buffet to their PTQs, because they will be tempted to win more.

Buffet has more tutoring power than the entire New York State after school program. Lucas and Shock Boy (the deck’s designer) used it to fill their deck and sideboard with important utility cards. Every time I spoke with Shock Boy he told me there was a new list, tweaking this matchup or that. By all appearances, they chose their tweaks well. But I can almost guarantee that some people will, in adding their own tweaks, make the deck worse by helping it out in matchups it should already win, while hurting its less favorable matchups.

Hugs ’til next time,