So Psychatog won Worlds… And came in second, too. Is anyone surprised? I think it’s very cool that, as Aaron Forsythe put it, "Carlos Romao and the rest of the Latin Americans did so well for one reason: They broke the format." It’s good to have confirmation that Magic is still a game with many levels, each one needing mastery to become the best in the world.
But even if Romao had known everything there is to know about the metagame and the Psychatog–Psychatog matchup, if he hadn’t been playing Psychatog, he very well might not have won. Worlds proves that Psychatog is probably the best deck in Standard Magic right now. The question to ask now is, "Why is Psychatog so good?"
Now I’ve never played Psychatog… But I’ve played against it plenty, and I’ve read about it enough to have formed an opinion. My conclusion is that Psychatog doesn’t fit neatly into the rock, paper, scissors, hand grenade mold. I think that Psychatog is a mixture of the first three classifications without actually being a hand grenade.
First, some definitions, for the newer readers, and then a new twist for the experienced ones: The rock, scissors, paper classification system works to define the three main archetypes for decks in Magic. Those archetypes include control, aggro, and combo – and, like in the game of rock, scissors, paper, each archetype generally beats one and loses to one. Control beats combo but loses to aggro, and combo beats aggro but loses to control. The concept of the hand grenade refers to decks that makes a storm onto the scene, forcing the other decks in the metagame to restructure themselves to deal with it.
An interesting analogy of the rock, paper, scissors concept is this: Imagine three fields of American society: Engineering, Government, and Professional Sports. Think of combo deck players as engineers, control deck players as feds, and beatdown deck players as sports players.
Engineers create. They get together, think of new ideas, and make a new, efficient product. The core of the field of "engineering" is "engine," and this is also true in combo decks. Each good, pure combo deck is focused around an engine, with all the rest being ways to find or power that engine. Once a combo deck gets going, its output is going to be amazing. Similarly, when a team of engineers get together, they can create amazing things. Just look at the space shuttle, for instance! Although much thought goes into something so impressive (card-drawing) and it needs a lot of fuel (cards in hand, life, etc.), the product can be out of this world (Stroke for 700,000). Like combo decks, engineers generally take a while to get started (meeting, team-building, etc.), but, once begun, become fearsome once on a roll.
However, if engineers were allowed to run rampant, we’d have a lot more presidents like Herbert Hoover and Jimmy Carter! I’m not saying that’d be a bad thing – only improbable. No, in our government, we have politicians, and these politicians spearhead agencies run by officials who manage departments that micromanage every aspect of daily life. If the government weren’t in strict control of our space program, who knows how close to the stars we’d be? The government also has a hold of everything in our daily lives. Although it took over a hundred and fifty years to become as powerful as it is, the American government is now in complete control of much of America. Similarly, a control deck, though it may take a long time, will gain control and rule the game if everything goes right.
But there’s a huge part of American life that the government doesn’t have to much direct involvement in: Many Americans are hugely into sports (of the non-Magic variety), and the national government doesn’t have much to say about it. Most sports, as I understand it, are fairly self-contained. Football is moderated by the National Football League; baseball is moderated by the Major League Baseball association. And so on. Although the government is no doubt in control of the Olympics, the run-of-the-mill sports are out of their league. Like beatdown decks, these sports are generally physical, occasionally aggressive, and, compared to results in government or engineering, end very quickly. Whereas a president may spend eight years trying to push his agenda into being, a football game ends in a few hours. I think the parallels between sports and beatdown are fairly easy to draw.
We can fit these synonyms into the same sort of rock, scissors, paper pattern as Magic decks. The government likes to control every aspect of everything, including engineering and its products, but has a difficult time reigning in professional sports; engineering, however, with is breakthroughs in telecommunications, has a complete choke-hold on sports. Government – engineering – sports. Control – combo – beatdown. Paper – rock – scissors.
So this is all well and good… But how does it fit in with Psychatog’s uncanny ability to win so consistently? I think the first thing to understand is that Psychatog is not a hand grenade. Hand grenades storm the scene and demand immediate attention, causing the metagame to shift with the new threat. However, Psychatog stormed the scene and just stayed there. The metagame went where it willed, but nothing seems to be able to stop this monster deck. Also unlike a hand grenade, it hasn’t gone anywhere since it appeared, and the OBC versions make it appear that it’s not going anywhere for awhile.
So if it’s not a hand grenade deck, what is it? My conclusion: It’s a deck that has control, combo, and beatdown elements. A deck that can do everything would naturally be very hard to disrupt.
So, what are these elements? Let’s take a look at the decklist that Carlos Romao used to win Worlds:
2 Cephalid Coliseum
1 Darkwater Catacombs
4 Salt Marsh
4 Underground River
4 Nightscape Familiar
3 Chainer’s Edict
3 Circular Logic
3 Cunning Wish
3 Deep Analysis
3 Fact or Fiction
3 Memory Lapse
1 Coffin Purge
1 Fact or Fiction
3 Ghastly Demise
1 Mana Short
1 Teferi’s Response
So what makes this a control deck? I think that’s the easiest question to answer: I’d wager that most people believe that Psychatog is simply a control deck. It’s got ten counterspells, seven removal spells, and two reset buttons. Keeping threats under control isn’t hard to accomplish with ten card-drawing spells, three of which that can be reused. This build of Psychatog definitely has some very controllish characteristics.
But, I’d argue that there are also combo elements in this deck. Think of a combo deck: Lots of card-drawing and tutoring to get specific cards that let you win the game. This deck uses Fact or Fiction and Deep Analysis to draw lots of cards, and Cunning Wish lets you tutor for numerous cards in your sideboard. Additionally, combo decks usually use a combination of one or two cards to win in a relatively short amount of time. This deck often has the ability to cast Upheaval and Psychatog on the same turn, allowing a win the next turn. That in itself is very combo-ish.
Now what about the beatdown? This subtle attribute may be what gives Psychatog the edge over other combo-control decks. When playing against a Psychatog deck with a control deck, I once took a heap o’ damage from a measly Nightscape Familiar. An earlier match against Psychatog saw numerous unpumped ‘Tog beats before my opponent went in for the kill. If the creature defense doesn’t cut it for you, perhaps the aggro will: Nightscape Familiar is an aggressive addition to the deck. With one on the board, everything speeds up by a turn. With two, Fact or Fiction and Deep Analysis each cost two mana, Cunning Wish searches your sideboard for only a blue, and the non-Counterspell counterspells each cost only U. Even if this seems simply like aggressive control, beatdown is all aggressive.
So how does this translate into our earlier analogy? It’s an entity that has the experience and ability of the American government, the ingenuity and creativeness of engineers, and the overwhelming popularity of sports. Such an entity would have complete dominance over Americans in such a way that hasn’t been seen in the history of America. Similarly, a deck that combines control, combo, and aggro strategies is destined to dominate the field as long as it exists. The eyes behind the toothy grin of Psychatog are the eyes of Franklin Roosevelt, the eyes of Henry Ford, and the eyes of Michael Jordan.
And now we know just why Psychatog is so good. With a combination like that, it’s no wonder it’s great!