Level One: Enter the Fire God
Now I am sure there are many of you out there saying to yourselves”Who the hell is Dave Price?”… while the rest of us are shaking our heads. Dave Price was, simply put, the King of Beatdown. He was the first workmanlike pro in the game of Magic, plugging away at PTQ level events, and qualifying for every single Pro Tour the hard way. Dave jumped from King of Qualifiers to King of Beatdown – and then made his reputation – at a Philadelphia PTQ in 1997 where he defeated Deadguy teammate Worth Wollpert with the then-disregarded Sligh deck to qualify for PT Paris. It was at that point that Tom Guevin, at the time the game’s most vocal commentator, declared Price the best beatdown theorist and player on the planet.
Price went on to forever redefine how competitive Magic was characterized, how it was viewed in the minds of the common player, when after a disastrous Day One – and no chance of tangible prize support – at the 1997 US National Championships, he wrecked dreams with his Lava Hounds-based mono-Red deck – the original Deadguy Red – defeating eventual US National Team members Bob Maher and Justin Gary on the way to his perfect 6-0 finish in what was unquestionably the world’s most difficult Standard tournament.
Dave continued to innovate in the field of beatdown theory, crystallized the fundamental nature of threat and answer in a single sentence, and plugged away until finally winning PTLA98 with his trademark mono-Red. Dave’s success continued into the summer where he scored Top 4 at US Nationals, again with his mono-Red; by playing a perfect plan against Andrew Pacifico’s more aggressive build, Price helped to make concrete the fundamental mirror strategies we still use today to solve the riddle of winning the similar deck on similar deck matchup. Because he took success out of the hands of the often aloof control player and re-positioned other essential elements of Magic besides card advantage in deck design, Dave became a favorite among the Pro Tour’s fan base. I would hazard a guess that, up until perhaps his retirement last year – after winning a Chicago PTQ and remaining qualified for every Pro Tour ever, mind you – Price’s popularity among Magic’s young, aspiring, or casual fans eclipsed that of almost every other player.
Price will forever be remembered for liking to attack.
Which begs the question… If Dave, like Brian Hacker, taught us to beat down, if Dave himself chose simple, focused, attack decks and eschewed complex strategies, Why In The World Would He Choose To Go Second?
The answer, as ever, comes down to card advantage.
Level Two: Lessons from the Stone Age and Inherent Card Advantage
Here are two decks. Explain the card advantage.
Dave Price – Top 4 Ohio Valley Regionals 1997
4 Elvish Archers
4 Giant Growth
4 Granger Guildmage
4 Jolrael’s Centaur
4 Llanowar Elves
4 River Boa
4 Whirling Dervish
4 Yavimaya Ant
4 Karplusan Forest
4 Mountain Valley
4 Emerald Charm
1 Force of Nature
3 Uktabi Orangutans
2 Dwarven Miner
Mark Globus – Top 8 Ohio Valley Regionals 1997
4 Nevinyrral’s Disk
1 Snake Basket
4 Air Elemental
4 Force of Will
2 Rainbow Efreet
2 Soldevi Excavations
3 Thawing Glaciers
1 Miser’s Cage
1 Energy Flux
3 Knight of the Mists
2 Memory Lapse
3 Mind Harness
3 Political Trickery
2 Sea Sprite
Now I had no choice but to select decks from Regionals 1997. The reason is that the very next set after Visions was Weatherlight; Weatherlight gave players Ophidian – which made card drawing fast – and then came Whispers of the Muse in Tempest – which made card drawing last – followed of course by a succession featuring Intuition, Stroke of Genius, Accumulated Knowledge, Fact or Fiction, and so on until R&D specifically decided to curtail good card drawing at instant speed (repairing the issue with Standstill, Deep Analysis, Future Sight, and Mind’s Desire). Now what does the creation of Ophidian and the future printings of instant speed card drawing cards have to do with a beatdown deck like the one I posted for Dave in 1997?
Dave’s deck has twenty lands; Mark’s has twenty-five; though he has several potential routes to card advantage, such as Nevinyrral’s Disk, Snake Basket, and Thawing Glaciers, some or all of those routes have poor interactions with Dave’s threats, specifically River Boa and Uktabi Orangutan. In 1997, a top designer would tell you that Dave’s deck had a quality of Inherent Card Advantage by virtue of simply playing fewer lands. His deck would deploy – and certainly draw – threats at faster rate than Globus’s deck could draw – and certainly deploy – answers. Therefore the relevance of Globus’s cards would be generally inferior.
Let’s say that Dave, going first has a turn 1 Granger Guildmage and a turn 2 River Boa, and Mark has no Force of Will. Dave will have a completely non-interactive and automatic kill around turn 9; Mark may have some play with Quicksand, but Dave has Giant Growth to potentially trump… this is all assuming that Dave never plays another threat card, which is of course unlikely. Mark’s best recourse may be to race; his fastest race will initiate with a frankly ill-advised Rainbow Efreet on turn 4 (the presence of Granger Guildmage actually invalidates Rainbow Efreet before turn 6), and even then it is a dicey race. If Mark can’t follow up with an Air Elemental on turn 5, he is very unlikely to be able to win this game at all.
Now keep in mind that Dave doesn’t always have this opening, but that even with weaker starts, or going second, his threats are just faster than Mark’s answers. Because Mark has not much in the realm of card drawing (he certainly has selection with Thawing Glaciers, Portent, and Soldevi Excavations, but no real way to beef his hand up to answer the superior percentage of threat cards that Dave is drawing off the top of his deck), he will almost always have to rely solely on Nevinyrral’s Disk for card advantage and play into a race plan. This kind of a plan is of course theoretically fine, but because Dave’s deck is faster, can deploy multiple threats per turn, and punish Mark with a Fireball on any turn where he taps out for Air Elemental, will be problematic.
The matchup comes down to strategy superiority fed by card advantage. Dave just has more stuff. He draws a couple of lands to start, doesn’t need very many to get going, and has fewer in the long game. With five more lands, at some point Mark runs out of defense or ironically doesn’t have enough mana to counter multiple threats in a single turn, and Dave attacks with everything and taps for Fireball.
The Inherent Card Advantage associated with playing fewer lands is a design element that has been forgotten for many years because it simply ceased to exist in practical terms. When card drawing became fast enough, and long lasting enough, control players could actually play more and more lands to draw cards and answer threats in the same turn without ever running out of responses. That is, control players were able to pull their decks out of pure Attrition wars, were no longer obligated to trade resources straight up over the course of games, and forced almost imperceptible (though fundamental) changes in the structure of both beatdown and control decks.
Level Three: Attrition Basics
So getting back to the title of this article, why does Dave Price choose to go second? Think back to the deck for which we think of and remember Dave: mono-Red beatdown. Dave’s success especially at PTLA98 hinged on understanding the elements that made one Red deck beat another. In the case of a historically typical, mixed, mono-Red deck, that usually includes going second.
When I say a”mixed” mono-Red deck, I am referring to the kind of deck Dan Paskins probably likes best. Though Dan is currently shilling for a pure Goblin attack-and-close deck, everything I know in my heart about Dan through everything I have read by him tells me that he likes the kinds of decks that do a little bit of beatdown – certainly that have quick drops – and add burn to clear blockers or go to the face, the kinds of decks that have some decent options rather than going fully focused on a tribal attack; this is, after all, a man who once powered up Jeska, Warrior Adept with Dwarven Bloodboiler. In the finals of a PTQ. Twice.
In fact, a few weeks ago, when we linked to the 1999 English National Championships from the first Editor’s Choice, you probably read about Dan’s theories concerning his original Red Deck Wins. With more land, it had superiority against other Red decks (more on that in a bit), as well as the ability to establish Strategy Superiority over anti-creature sideboards by morphing into a more burn-focused deck.
When Dave explained going second to me, the deck he as playing was actually the mono-Red beatdown we looked at in The Philosophy of Fire.
4 Chimeric Idol
3 Firebrand Ranger
4 Flametongue Kavu
3 Ghitu Fire
4 Kris Mage
3 Rage Weaver
4 Seal of Fire
4 Urza’s Rage
4 Rishadan Port
4 Scorching Lava
1 Tahngarth, Talruum Hero
Look at the nature of this deck. It has a pretty homogenated combination of aggressive drops and cards that are excellent at removing threats of just these sizes. What happens when you go second? Your opponent has the initiative and can start up with a Kris Mage, or at least a Seal of Fire. He has seven cards… but going second, Dave has eight.
In a matchup between this deck and itself, dealing damage to the other player can be notoriously laborious. [Say that five times fast. – Knut, twisted (and forked) of tongue] The reason is that every single card trades evenly with a variety of other cards. You’ve got Firebrand Ranger? So do I. Block. I can also prevent two points of beats with a Shock, or even a land tossed by my Kris Mage. Chimeric Idols can clash or even swap with Skizziks. Certainly Skizzik and Flametongue Kavu are going to be the most powerful cards in the symmetrical matchup, but not dramatically so. Given five mana, there is no reason one deck can’t play a two-drop and use an Urza’s Rage on the oncoming kicked Elemental, no reason it can’t suck up a Flametongue disadvantage and preserve four life with two points from anything else.
Think about it. Both decks have the same mana balance, so neither one has a Inherent Card Advantage. Each deck has a maximum of four haste creatures and four 187s. Almost every burn spell can trade with almost every threat in either deck – not to mention the fact that most creatures can successfully block and trade – so Dave’s maxim that there are no wrong threats, just wrong answers doesn’t really come into play. The guy who goes second only really has to worry about Skizzik and Flametongue Kavu and can leisurely trade one-for-one the entire game… and always end up one card ahead.
That is the nature of winning an Attrition war. If you can trade one-for-one forever with neither deck drawing significant extra cards, ultimately the deck that has the lower land count is going to overwhelm the other deck. Going second in the identical beatdown matchup can be significant because (unless one deck draws dramatically more Flametongue Kavus to throw off the Attrition math or Skizziks that constrict life total, can be cleanly traded only with Urza’s Rage, and bring the Philosophy of Fire into play), the guy who went second will have a little extra card advantage. Little advantages like this one allow a strategically keen player like Dave to win more games in the mirror match over time.
A similar Attrition strategy was posed last year by Zvi Mowshowitz and Jeff Cunningham regarding the U/G Madness matchup against Psychatog. In game one, Psychatog was advantaged because, even if it didn’t have a raw number of answers equal to the number of threats U/G could pose, it had enough to kill a sufficient number of creatures to live long enough to set up Upheaval. Moreover, Psychatog was gifted with greater consistency and could feed its answers with Deep Analysis, which more than counterbalanced the superior tempo and lower land count of U/G.
But after sideboarding, U/G could bring in Gigapede. Gigapede ideally helped to break the Madness mechanic with a variety of co-conspirators leading to two-for-ones, but even if Gigapede only traded with lands and re-deployed turn after turn, the Psychatog deck had no choice but to trade with it. The card couldn’t be targeted, and if it got in a tussle with Psychatog, it was never one that Psychatog was happy to win. It was so big that only a few hits were required before death itself came into question, and demanded a one-for-one response every single time. As such, the Inherent Card Advantage represented by the disparate land counts between U/G Madness and Psychatog would come further and further forward, with Psychatog’s limited reservoir of Innocent Bloods, Chainer’s Edicts, and even permission now being forced to trade with City of Brass!
As Psychatog played few, if any mass creature removal spells, the amount of time the deck had to assemble an Upheaval kill was constricted; nothing was stopping U/G from dropping every threat it could cast every turn. There was no Wrath of God to fear, and something would get through. Even if Psychatog were strategically killing Madness enablers, the presence of Gigapede could set up three mana 4/4s on upkeep, while leaving a powerhouse Insect still in hand and ready to follow through. With limited turns, bound by mana, and ultimately unable to draw enough one-for-one answers enough of the time to deal with the almost doubled threat component of the U/G deck, Psychatog was caught in an Attrition war that it was unable to consistently win.
Level Four: Winning the Morph War
So we have already touched on Dan Paskins saying that Red Deck Wins ’99 beat other Red decks, surprisingly, because it played more land. In fact, there is a long standing tradition of beatdown decks sideboarding additional lands when fighting other beatdown decks. If you look back not very far to my Extended Stompy report, you will see that Tiger Woods sided not one, but two lands in order to help the fight against the modern Red Deck Wins and other fast decks. A subtle advantage that you might not have picked up with Dave’s going second in the symmetrical fight is that he, too, could play like he had more land than his opponent. If you don’t understand why Dave will over many games have a higher percentage land draw with eight cards, going second, than his opponent with seven cards, going first, think about it like this:
What if Dave got to see all sixty cards in his opening hand, and his opponent only got to see seven. Clearly the opponent is going to be manascrewed sometimes, but Dave is going to be able to pick and choose his distribution and will have the optimum balance of mana, threats, and burn. With eight cards over seven, the advantage is much more slight, but the higher land advantage is still there.
Didn’t we start with the idea that the deck with fewer lands – and theoretically more”stuff” – would have Inherent Card Advantage and tend to win the Attrition war (most of the time) over a deck that had more lands and less relevant stuff?
That’s right! We did! Kind of.
What we said was that we had to choose decks before Weatherlight because with Weatherlight the card drawing got good enough to throw off the basic idea of Inherent Card Advantage so badly that most players Who Have Been Playing For Seven Years And More probably don’t remember it existed. The thing is that Blue was not the only color to get card drawing of such strength that it could afford to up its land count higher and higher (consider Alan Comer in a pre-Ophidian 1997 playing seventeen lands and Randy Buehler fifteen months later, armed with Dismiss and Whispers of the Muse, playing up to thirty lands).
The same principles hold true for beatdown decks. For those of you who like definitions, try this one: With card drawing facilitating answers in an Attrition war, Inherent Card Advantage becomes less dependent on relative land counts between two decks.
You will notice that Tiger Woods, Red Deck Wins ’99, and many of the other beatdown decks that proactively tout their higher (potential) land counts as strategic advantages against other beatdown decks or in the mirror tend to play with Cursed Scroll. Because of the way Cursed Scroll works, it is great to draw a lot of land: you can drop your hand faster, and even more than that, getting Cursed Scroll working requires a lot of available mana. Because beatdown-on-beatdown violence can be so fast, it often becomes the case that you can’t miss a drop early. If you falter, the other deck kills you. More than either of those (or maybe to facilitate the first Cursed Scroll argument) the secret of beatdown-on-beatdown is Who Gets To Be The Control Deck.
Think about it. Two aggressive decks go at it. They are chock full of two drops, burn, haste, and maybe Cursed Scrolls as the finisher. Their goal is… to remove the other deck’s creatures? They plan… to block? They play for… the”eighth card” after trading in an Attrition war?
Do any of those statements sound very”beatdown” to you?
Okay, let’s flash forward seven years to the beatdown-on-beatdown matchup every cares about: Goblin Bidding v. Ravager Affinity. Ravager Affinity has got all the advantages game one. They have fifteen to twenty lands to Goblin Bidding’s twenty-three… a lot of Inherent Card Advantage for Affinity there. Skullclamps bounce, but Ravager has also got Thoughtcast and Chromatic Sphere. They are breaking the rules. They are the beatdown drawing extra cards, sure, but like Comer in 1997, they are also increasing the stuff percentage of their deck more and more. It is no surprise who the beatdown is in this matchup. Ravager comes at Goblins relentlessly. They can be reckless; they just want to get Goblins into a position where Shrapnel Blast and Disciple of the Vault can end it. They are fast, hit hard, are not bound by mana.
Poor Goblin Bidding is blocking. Who’s the Beatdown? Not Goblin Bidding. If they win game one, it is usually by winning the Attrition war. Block, trade. Block, trade, Block, trade again… huge Patriarch’s Bidding. That last card? It just drew ten more. (Notice I didn’t say”eighth” card. Goblins has to win the Attrition war, but that doesn’t mean they are choosing to go second this time around. Winning the tempo fight is hopeless for them and choosing tempo as the field of battle is the path to defeat.)
Failing a victorious Attrition war, Goblins has a lot of little card advantage engines… Sparksmith and Goblin Sharpshooter jump to the front and do a great job if given the time to come online. The normally aggressive Goblins deck for the most part hangs back. That hasty Goblin Warchief? Thanks for speeding up active Sharpshooter. Thanks for letting me drop Siege-Gang Commander a turn early… I’m going to need to block with these little guys.
Notice how the Paskins Red beats Affinity. It isn’t bound the same way Bidding is. It isn’t as fast as Affinity maybe, but it can get its Cursed Scrolls online faster. Turn 1 Sparksmith, turn 2 Sharpshooter anyone? More on this dynamic another time… Maybe Dan will save us the trouble?
Anyway, when Goblin Bidding wins, it is the control. Goblin Bidding loves to be the control so much, it goes all out in the sideboard. Gone is Goblin Piledriver; here comes Electrostatic Bolt! When Goblin Bidding fights in games two (and likely three), it chooses a far different plan. It maximizes removal and sets up the fight. It morphs into a red control deck.
Lay out the sideboarded decks, one next to each other.
Affinity has about twenty guys with some great support to win. Some of the guys are pretty great, too, but there are only twenty of them… and a lot are just 1/1s.
Bidding has four Sparksmiths and four Sharpshooters. If either of those get online, they are going to trade with more than one Affinity guy each. Now add in the removal. Incinerators? Four. Electrostatic Bolts? Four. Shatters (or some people play with Echoing Ruin, but not me)? Four. Lower land and superior card drawing or no, all of a sudden Affinity’s Inherent Card Advantage isn’t looking so inherent. With a specific focus on taking out threats, Bidding can buy the time to use its creature removal goblins… The raw volume of creature removal in Goblins might even be enough to eliminate every threat in Affinity Before Shrapnel Blast Becomes An Issue. All of a sudden the little red men get options. Bidding can get the quick Sparksmith, or trade its removal for early threats. It can win a pure card advantage fight or can play for a traditional Attrition war, where its 1 mana Electrostatic Bolt is trading with the other guy’s”seven mana” Myr Enforcer. Not a bad trade at all.
When Bidding wins, it is the control. Make no mistake, this isn’t a cake walk. Affinity is still lightning quick… but the matchup might as well be RDW against Draw-Go. If RDW has the right speed and the right finisher draw, Draw-Go is going to the loser’s bracket. No one would suspect Draw-Go of going beats… when the Blue deck wins, it is on the strength of stopping the early rush and then taking the midgame with card advantage into finishers. It can one-for-one early, or get a little board advantage with a turn 2 Keg for one. Either way, if the deck didn’t have Whispers, Ophidian, or Fact or Fiction to buy more answers, it would end up falling regardless; Sparksmith, Sharpshooter, Gempalm Incinerator, Siege-Gang Commander, and even Patriarch’s Bidding fill this role as Goblins sets up to win the war… after winning the initial fight for the ground.
Level Five: Who Wants to be the Beatdown?
In a similar deck on similar deck fight, it is actually pretty rare for one of the decks to correctly want to be the beatdown. The reason is pretty simple: given similar resources, the control has more card advantage. Traditionally, the Blue on Blue fight is lost by he who plays the first spell on his own turn, and even in the ancient Ophidian mirror match (turn 2 Boomerang your first land, turn 3 Phid, turn 4 Man-o’-War and swing), deployment and interactivity were motivated by the quest for board control and card drawing.
I think the exception is when you have two similar non-interactive decks. The most direct example would be a pure combination deck with no interactive elements whatsoever… say the Dred Panda Roberts mirror match. That one would reward whoever acted faster, because the other deck has a sum total of three Duresses to fight eleven Necropotences. In today’s Standard, I think the MWC match might be the same. Resolve Mindslaver and get ’em! This is of course because while MWC has a lot of interactive answers, they don’t do much interacting with another MWC deck’s threats.
Of course adding Gilded Light interactivity to the mix makes one player look very foolish, but since there aren’t a whole lot of Gilded Lights out there, perhaps the race to Mindslaver implies that being the proactive threat deck is the right route. The implementation is a little different — rather than winning, you just humiliate the opponent — but the idea is the same. Get your game on the board first and smash (the hand). Played control side the White on White matchup seems terminally stupid. Either one player is destroying the other one with Eternal Dragon or everybody is discarding Wrath of God (or both) until somebody makes the first Decree… which probably doesn’t kill anyone anyway.
Bonus Section: Goodbye Dave, and the Top of the Hop
The most memorable, top of the front page, big bold letters, article I can remember ever being posted is The Orthodoxy of 60 Card Decks by Robert Nanka-Bruce. When this article came out, I was floored. Who was this Robert Nanka-Bruce? How was it that a new and important writer was appearing on the scene to change my life with his wisdom and mathematical knowledge, just as my friend Dave left his post as the Editor-in-Chief?
I will never forget you, The Orthodoxy of 60 Card Decks.
It turns out that this particular article was… mostly wrong. It inflamed edt and got the community talking. Though Rob would later tell me that he thought it was a good article, because the responses taught him that many of the readership were mathematicians, its appearance as the lead story for April 14, 1999 will be forever etched in my memory as a player and a reader. I hate articles like this one. It’s up there for everyone to see, and especially Green players trying to learn are pulled in by a veneer of legitimacy.”Feature Article,” it says. All kinds of formatting have been added that might never have been to one of their articles.
I was reminded of The Orthodoxy of 60 Card Decks this week upon reading something at the top of Star City’s front page. It featured such wisdom as”Control decks are, essentially, impure Aggro or Combo decks,” and”opponents are easiest to ignore when, for whatever reason, they do badly,” characterizing the latter as a good, and potential design tenet.
Following this article’s system of reasoning would lead to some of the worst design conclusions imaginable. As an example, say you had a very good White control deck (clearly an impure combo deck); you are preparing your sideboard. Because only opponents who will do badly, you assume, will play Flashfires, you remove Sacred Ground, never once considering the fact that in a tournament, you don’t have to prepare just for the opponents who do best, but for whichever opponents you face. For the most part, this article made no sense to me.
A better rule of thumb, I think, is Zvi Mowshowitz. Zvi says that you don’t prepare for the best versions of the best decks, played by the best players. You prepare for the versions of decks that you think will show up, played at the level of the opponents you think will show up.
That being said, that old front page is a great one. On the subject of a good deck preparing for different levels of opponent ability, you have Chris Pikula Top 2 report from GP: Kansas City and can chuckle at the partner article from the Top 16’s Tim McKenna. There are several other very good articles you might want to read or re-read, too, though the first Chad Ellis is something like two clicks in.