Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Circle?

Today, the story of why I am not afraid of Circle of Protection: Red, Silver Knight, Worship, Pulse of the Fields, or any other stupid White cards.

“This is the sound of someone losing the plot

Making out that they’re o.k. when they’re not

You’re gonna like it

But not a lot

And the chorus goes just like this…”

Pulp, ‘The Fear’

Dear readers,

Today, the story of why I am not afraid of Circle of Protection: Red, Silver Knight, Worship, Pulse of the Fields, or any other stupid White cards.

I’m playing in a tournament shortly after the release of Stronghold, and in my second round I get mana screwed both times and lose. So, to cheer myself up, after I’ve finished my match and signed the results slip, I wander round to find out how my friends are doing. Sam is playing a mono-Red deck with thirty-seven Goblins, four Incinerate and nineteen Mountains. I ask him how his match went.

“I won the first, lost the second. Game three, my opponent plays a bunch of artifact mana, two CoP: Reds, two Chills, three Propagandas and two Winter Orbs.”

“Riiiight,” I said.”So, let’s see, all of your spells cost four additional mana to play, you had to pay six mana to attack with a creature, and your opponent could spend one mana to prevent damage from any Red source. You were only allowed to untap one Mountain a turn, and your opponent had plenty of mana available, due to his Diamonds. Sounds pretty bad. What happened?’

“I decked him.”

Sam went on to top 8 in that tournament. I saw his opponent in the next round, getting utterly demolished by someone with a White Weenie deck with plenty of enchantment and artifact removal.

Six years on, people are still scared of CoP: Red and its loathsome friends. I’m not.

One well-known piece of draft theory is that it doesn’t pay to be too scared about what ends up in your opponent’s deck. Sure, if there are no cards which fit in your deck, it is worthwhile to grab a card which would be good against you, but”hate drafting,” where you take a powerful card which you can’t play in your deck just to stop someone else from having it, is a bad idea. The thing to do is to concentrate on making your deck as good as possible, and worry about the cards that you pass if and only if you end up playing against the person who has them.

You can see when people have got the Fear just before a Constructed tournament. They won’t play Ravager Affinity because they are scared of all the artifact hate that they’re sure everyone will bring, and they won’t play Bidding because they’re scared that they’ll lose to all the Ravager decks that get played and they won’t play Tooth and Nail because they are scared that they’ll lose in round one to the random land destruction decks and they won’t play Black-Green Cemetery because they’re scared that they’ll get mana screwed and…

It is, of course, important to be aware of what your opponents’ plans will be to try to defeat you, and be aware of the weaknesses of your deck. It is also, though, important to remember that every deck has weaknesses and situations where it cannot win, and to fight the Fear. In my experience, there are two things which most Magic players get unnecessarily scared of, the Unlikely Nightmare Matchup and the Unbeatable Sideboard Card.

I played in an Extended PTQ one time, and in round one I attacked with my Goblin Cadets, which treacherously deserted me when my opponent cast his main deck Simian Grunts on turn 3. And, no, I didn’t win that match. You might turn up to Regionals with the Red deck and find yourself playing against a White deck with four main deck Silver Knights and main deck Worships, and a variety of other unpleasant surprises. It isn’t much consolation that such a deck will get crushed by all of the other good decks if you end up losing to such a deck.

The odds of facing a bad deck which has a favorable matchup only against your deck are pretty slim, even if you are playing what is generally acknowledged to be the best deck. You might play against White Weenie in round 1, but as long as you have a winning record, you won’t do so after about round 3 or 4. Every deck has Unlikely Nightmare Matchups, and it is a hazard of the early rounds that you might have to play against such. The only consolations are that even an Unlikely Nightmare Matchup deck can get mana-screwed or steam rollered by the Goblin deck. The other thing is that no deck with Silver Knight in it has a favorable matchup against most of the decks at Regionals. Even in the Constructed environment where lots of people were playing four Silver Knights, the Red deck was still the best deck.

I imagine, though, that it is not the Unlikely Nightmare Matchup that is concerning most of you, but that other Fearful thing, the Unbeatable Sideboard Card. The examples of the Unbeatable Sideboard Card that interest me are a couple of White cards which are extremely powerful (I’m not gonna lie to you, they are) against the mono-Red deck – Circle of Protection: Red and Pulse of the Fields.

The first thing to remember about the Unbeatable Sideboard Card is that when you are facing it in a tournament situation, you are usually already 1-0 up, because most people put Unbeatable Sideboard Cards in their sideboard to help with matchups which are bad for them before sideboarding. The games that I have played of the Red deck against Rift-Slide before sideboarding were mostly won by the Red deck. You can win against Rift-Slide or White control through a quick creature rush. If they survive that and have removal for the first wave of Goblins, you have seven haste creatures (four Warchief and three Clickslither), which are guaranteed to deal more damage even if they have a second removal spell. Then you still have Skullclamps to tear through your deck and assemble a lot of direct damage (four Shrapnel Blast, four Siege-Gang Commanders, four Goblin Sharpshooter). The White decks can win only by surviving all of that, usually by drawing plenty of removal spells and some lifegain and then using Lightning Rift or one of the big creatures (Eternal Dragon or Exalted Angel) to win, or by trying to deploy a quick Angel and attacking. Each deck will lose a few games through drawing too much or too few land, but overall a comparison of the two decks’ plans for how to win shows that the Red deck has a clear advantage in game one.

What happens after sideboarding? People with the Fear say,”they bring in Pulse of the Fields and CoP: Red and wreck you.” I’m not so sure about that.

In the first place, they might not have either of those cards in their sideboard. CoP: Red isn’t all that good against Goblin Bidding, and for the White control player to devote four sideboard slots to a card which only really shines when facing a mono-Red deck might well be a bad decision for them, when they need to find room for cards against Ravager, Tooth and Nail, mirror matches and Bidding, all of which are matchups where they would like some cards in their sideboard to help out. By the same token, Pulse of the Fields is a card which they might have main deck in place of Renewed Faith (neither one is noticeably better than the other in the main deck), but if they have it in their sideboard, then they are much less likely to have CoP: Red. A sideboard of four CoP: Red, three Pulse only leaves eight cards for dealing with all other problems. If they are scared of you having Stabilizer, then they have to bring in some Echoing Ruins as well – and they have to find cards to take out for all of these. In addition, CoP: Red and Pulse of the Fields are both pretty mana intensive, and without testing the matchup from that side of the board, I don’t know how well they would complement each other.

The worst case scenario, though, is that after sideboarding, your White control opponent has managed to find room to have in their deck four CoP: Red, seven lifegain cards (Renewed Faith and Pulse of the Fields), lots of removal spells, both targeted (Spark Spray) and less discriminating (Wrath of God and Starstorm) and, I suppose, a couple of ways of dealing with your artifacts as well (Echoing Ruin). If they have a Blue-White deck, they might also have a few counterspells (Mana Leak), and as noted above, if they have Red in their deck then they will have Lightning Rift in addition to the goodies listed above. It’s worth remembering that at Regionals you probably won’t have to face that level of hate, but let’s go with the worst case scenario and be consoled that things might be better than that.

Let’s see what happens. They still lose to your very best draws. Going first, you can cast a turn 1 Goblin Piledriver (with a Mox), a turn 2 Warchief and a turn 3 Siege-Gang, which beats anything that their deck can do. You have a variety of draws which are a bit less stellar than this one but are still exceptionally difficult for them to beat, anything involving a turn 1 Piledriver or a turn 2 Warchief being pretty hard to beat. That aside, though, they have much better answers to your threats than in game one. The CoP: Red offers protection against the second wave hasted creatures, more time to find a removal spell to wipe out the first wave of Goblins and shuts down your late game direct damage plan, and the lifegain is really good when the aim of the Red deck is to deal twenty damage as quick as possible. Whereas in game one, as long as the Red deck got a reasonable balance of land and spells it was likely to win, with its sideboard cards the White deck has to be considered the favorite against the unsideboarded Red deck unless something goes wrong. Not a”win every game” favorite, but a favorite nonetheless.

Of course, the Red deck also gets the chance to sideboard, to try to swing things back in its favor. There are three main plans that you could adopt to give yourself more of a chance. One is to go round the CoP: Red with artifact damage such as Goblin Charbelcher. The Red deck already has four Blinkmoth Nexuses, and certainly Goblin Charbelcher, if left to its own devices, will win you some games. It is, however, pretty slow and vulnerable to artifact removal (something which every deck should have), and not all that exciting against Pulse of the Fields. It suffers in the deck that I’m playing from the fact that I have four Great Furnace and four Blinkmoth Nexus, meaning that it will do much less damage than if I only had Mountains. I believe that there are better plans than this.

Two other plans to consider are the landkill plan and the Naturalize plan.

The Naturalize plan is the bad plan, and is the plan which people adopt if they’ve got the Fear. The idea with this plan is to have in the main deck Wooded Foothills and maybe also City of Brass, and to bring in a Forest and four Naturalize to deal with the CoP: Red. The idea is obvious – if the opponent plays CoP: Red and it isn’t removed, then I’m going to lose, so I’ll give myself a chance by packing removal for the CoP: Red.

This is the Constructed sideboarding equivalent of hate drafting. You weaken your maindeck by putting in lands which damage you, in exchange for getting a card which, in certain circumstances, can answer CoP: Red. This plan can win some games. It wins the games where you get a good draw and your opponent is relying on CoP: Red to keep themselves alive. For Naturalize to be good, though, you have to draw it and be in a position to cast it to remove CoP: Red, while you still have creatures in play before they all get removed, or while your opponent is on low life, you have direct damage in hand, and they don’t have lifegain. Otherwise it is useless.

Naturalize itself is not a threat, and the point of playing a beatdown deck is to fill it with threats and see if your opponent has the right answers. Think of it this way. Red beatdown decks have been winning tournaments for seven years. Go back and look through those decks and see how many sideboard slots are devoted to cards which only have the purpose of answering one particular card that the opponent might have.

Naturalize can, of course, also be used against Ravager, but it is no better there than Shatter, except that you might not be able to cast it. Nor are there any other Green cards that it would improve the Red deck to sideboard in for this matchup or any other.

The landkill plan is the better plan. There is no rule which says that you have to leave it up to fate for something to go wrong for the White deck. As Zvi pointed out in his analysis of Red Deck Wins in Extended, the Red deck is designed in such a way as to ensure that its opponents suffer as many bad beats as possible, and inflicting mana screw on them definitely counts as a bad beat (try not to smile too much when they start whining about how unlucky they are). CoP: Red, Pulse of the Fields, Wrath of God and the rest of the gang are all extremely mana intensive. You remove Sharpshooters, the Sparksmith, a couple of Skullclamps and Sledders, and put in as much land destruction as you can. Ideally, after sideboarding you would have four Molten Rain, four Stone Rain, and two or three Flashfires. You don’t have enough space in your sideboard for anything like that unless Ravager Affinity disappears off the face of the metagame, but four Molten Rain and two Flashfires (replacing the Furnace Dragons in the sideboard I played at Regionals), is reasonable without making any other modifications.

This has a considerable effect on the post sideboard matchup. The first is that it will let you win some games which otherwise you wouldn’t by using your land destruction to stop the White Control player from getting to four land, or denying them one color of mana if they are playing a Red-White or Blue-White deck. You win far more games this way than you would with Naturalizes in your deck.

The other thing it does is give the White Control player some really difficult decisions to make. It is always good to give your opponent difficult decisions, because they might make the wrong decision and hand you the game. Suppose, for example, they draw the following hand:

Mountain, Secluded Steppe, Circle of Protection: Red, Pulse of the Fields, Wrath of God, Starstorm, Lightning Rift

That’s a hand which contains pretty well all of their best cards in the matchup, and both colors of mana, and I’m not even sure if they wouldn’t be correct to mulligan it. One land destruction spell on turn 2 or turn 3, and all of a sudden they need to draw two to three land in the next four turns or they are going to lose against most decent draws the Red deck has. Or how about:

Plains, Plains, Plains, Plains, Eternal Dragon, Wrath of God, Pulse of the Fields

Again, this isn’t a bad hand, but one Flashfires would make it horrendous.

The landkill sideboard doesn’t make games 2 and 3 against White control decks ones which you win automatically. If they get two very good draws, then they will probably stomp you. But there are a lot of things that can go wrong for them. They can fail to draw CoP: Red. They can not draw enough land. They can draw CoP: Red too late for it to matter. They can not have the right mana to cast Wrath or Starstorm. They can be one Plains short of being able to cast Wrath and Pulse of the Fields to kill off the creatures and survive the Shrapnel Blast. And usually they will be needing to win both sideboarded games to win the match.

I know the Fearful player’s rejoiner to this -“What if they have Sacred Ground?” It is indeed possible that as well as CoP: Red and Pulse of the Fields they might have Sacred Ground as well. But even then, it’s not like you are playing some Ponza deck or something. The Sacred Grounds will be replacing cards which kill Goblins, meaning that what they gain in stopping the landkill, they lose out on in terms of having fewer ways to avoid getting beaten down. And that’s even if they draw the Sacred Ground when it is relevant – it’s not that great a top deck the turn after a Flashfires.

One last suggestion for conquering the Fear. If you’re scared of what your opponent might be able to do to you, think of how they are feeling. Just like a chess game looks completely different depending on which side of the board you are viewing it from, the way that each player views a particular matchup is very different. While you are worrying about whether they’ve got CoP: Red, they should be worrying about whether you have Stabilizer, Goblin Charbelcher, whether they’ll actually draw their CoP: Red, whether they’ll get mana screwed, whether they’ll have to face the Goblin God draw… there are lots of things that can go wrong when playing White Control against the Red deck even for those people who have lots of sideboard slots devoted to this matchup rather than any other. If you, playing the Red deck, think that you’ve got a lot to worry about, you should see the other fella.

Much as it pains me to do so, I should point out that much of this advice is good not just for the Red deck, but for any deck which tries to win by posing threats and seeing if the opponent has the correct answers. When deciding which deck to play, and which cards to put in your sideboard, remember the Bene Gesserit rite, from Dune by Frank Herbert (slightly adapted) :

“I must not Fear. Fear is the mind killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my Fear. I will permit it to pass over and through me. And when it is gone I will turn my inner eye to see its path. When the Fear is gone there will be nothing. Only the Red deck will remain.”

‘Til next time, may your Flashfires leave your opponents helpless,

Take care

Dan Paskins