Yawgmoth’s Whimsy #74: Going Rogue

This article has three parts: It begins with a discussion of the reason some players find playing rogue decks a moral imperative. The second part looks at the advantages and disadvantages of playing a rogue deck, while the third section looks at the steps necessary to build and tune a rogue deck.

This article has three parts: It begins with a discussion of the reason some players find playing rogue decks a moral imperative. The second part looks at the advantages and disadvantages of playing a rogue deck, while the third section looks at the steps necessary to build and tune a rogue deck. Next time, I’ll demonstrate those steps by building a rogue deck – but my playtesting isn’t complete enough to write that now.

Rogue – The Moral Imperative

Magic has two distinct aspects – deckbuilding and playing. Some formats, such as draft and Sealed deck, require a combination of the two aspects, and require the participant to display both. However, Limited formats have a strictly Limited card pool, making it harder to completely screw up the build. Constructed formats, with their wealth of available cards, put more emphasis on deck construction. Well-built Constructed decks are potent weapons that will crush bad builds.

For many Magic players, deck construction is what matters. These players build their own decks, and play them. It is a point of pride to have done the work of creating the weapon with which they fight their duels. Netdecks, for these players, are an admission of incompetence. In movie terms, these are the players who fight honorably. It’s the final scene in practically any martial arts or action movie, where the hero and villain square off, and the hero throws his gun away so they can fight it out hand-to-hand.

For many, many Magic players, play skill is what matters. Deckbuilding is less important, although tweaking may still be critical. These players will take the best deck they can find and revel in their ability to outplay any opponent. For these players, winning is what matters. Using anything but the best weapon at hand is giving your opponent an unreasonable advantage. In movie terms, think of the first Indiana Jones movie, where the Arab with the big sword begins to advance and Jones shoots him.

A lot of movies, books, whatever, have one person saying "You didn’t fight fair," and the opponent replying "I fought to win." Any question which person is dying? The Magic equivalent of this is a match ending with "That’s match, right?" and "Yeah, but at least I didn’t play a frickin’ netdeck!"

The end result is that the person who practices their play skills, but neglects their deckbuilding skills, tends to win Constructed tournaments if they are given a deck or decklist before the tournament. It may be unfortunate, but that’s just the way it is.

In a old-west role playing campaign I ran years ago, one player put every character creation point available into pistol, quickdraw, dexterity and gunslinging. He was absolutely unbeatable in a shootout. He could barely ride a horse, could not make or repair his pistol and had no other skills at all, but he was an amazing gunfighter. He won gunfights – much the way the Magic specialists who rely on play skill alone win Constructed tournaments. In the RPG, the gunfighter eventually died to a character with lots of skill in sneaking and hiding, and a shotgun, but that’s irrelevant. Shotguns aren’t legal in Constructed Magic tournaments.

Is shooting someone from ambush wrong? Does it matter that you could never win in a "fair" fight? Does it matter that some players could never win if they had to build their own Standard decks, from scratch?

In a way, this debate is about honor, and a code of conduct. These things vary. Samurai refused to use guns at all. Policemen will use guns, but only against people actively trying to kill them. The military also has rules of engagement, but they are flexible. The DC sniper had a different code – if that even counts as a code.

The point is that the point at which individuals draw the line between honorable and dishonorable varies. Other people will disagree over that line. For any given action, you can find some people that will find it crass and blackguardly, and others will find it stupidly restrictive.

None of this changes the fact that the people with fewer scruples have a much wider scope of action, so they tend to win. When the guy in the white hat says "Meet me at the OK Corral at noon!" and shows up, alone, with his pistol in his holster – but the black hat (and six of his friends) are hidden in the barn loft 300 yards away with sniper rifles, I know who I am betting on.

Nonetheless, it may really be "better to die with honor than live life in shame." That’s not what popular media says at the moment, but maybe the resulting current business culture, where it is apparently acceptable to defraud and lie to customers and investors may not be optimal, either. When moral standards slip, so do other things.

"In Rome, matrons told their sons to return with their shield or on it. Later, that custom declined. So did Rome."

Lazarus Long

I seem to have digressed. Back to business.

In Magic, right now, I see a sort of "honor spectrum." Here are some of the points along the way, from lowest to highest:

1) I’ll cheat, stack decks, mark cards, add bombs to sealed decks, etc.

2) I’ll keep silent about opponent mistakes involving mandatory actions (e.g. an opponent forgetting to draw two cards with Howling Mine in play, or not marking off damage I take), but I won’t draw extra cards or cheat like that.

3) I’ll bend the rule a trifle – e.g. I won’t call a judge if I forgot to de-sideboard, unless the error gives me an advantage, or I won’t stop the game if I suddenly realize I have eight cards in hand when mana screwed.

4) I’ll play strictly by the rules, but use them to my advantage wherever possible.

5a) I’ll play by the rules, but I won’t play Netdecks.

5b) I’ll allow opponents to correct or "take back" obvious misplays.

6) I’ll let my opponent take back mistakes.

7) I’ll help my opponents with suggestions for the correct play during games and let them make those plays, help build their decks in drafts or sealed, etc.

8) Complete sainthood.

No two-hundred word summation is perfect, of course, but that’s seems to sum it up. Some people’s code of honor will let them do everything on the list. Some people’s code of honor is more restrictive. I know I’m atypical – I tend to stay at the "high moral" end (6-7) of the scale, except at high REL tournaments. I don’t play my Power Nine at the T1 tourneys where no one else has power. I warn people when they are about to do something dumb (like cast Chainer’s Edict when I have True Believer in play). That does cost me games and matches, but I play for fun, not profit.

Please pardon any holier-than-thou attitude – I am not making any judgments about where the line should be drawn. Everyone has their own morals or code of honor. The official rules put the line about 4 – and people argue that the effort DCI puts into rules enforcement means they put it at about 2.8. My code says 5-7, depending on the type of tournament and caliber of opponent, but that means I lose some matches that I could have "stooped" to win. Your call on whether that makes me right, self-righteous, or stupid.

I’m not fishing for sympathy. My Uncle Ralph used to say "Looking for sympathy? It’s in the dictionary, between s**t and suicide." (I know it’s spelled wrong, but it’s still a great line.) The point is that different people have different codes.

That is part of the reason that some players feel so strongly about netdecks. They feel that using netdecks means that the netdecker is not playing the whole game of Magic. The netdecker is not doing the design work and testing, is not doing the hard thinking that entails. From their point of view, the netdecker is taking an unethical shortcut: in effect, cheating.

The DCI disagrees. The rules of tournament Magic don’t care whether players are playing a netdeck or not. Those players avoiding netdecks may feel they have won a moral victory, but that moral victory doesn’t show up in rating points or qualifications.

In the end, though, it is pointless to argue about what is moral or honorable. Each person develops their own view of honor and moral system. Much of that system is based on beliefs and life experiences, and arguing about this is akin to arguing over religion – the arguments are passionate, but are unlikely to change anything.

The Pros and Cons of Being Rogue

So let’s set moralizing aside, and talk about the pros and cons of rogue decks. By "rogue decks," I mean decks that are outside the mainstream. These are generally decks that people design themselves, but I will also include the decks that do well in one tourney then disappear, or decks that get discussed briefly and are dismissed.

The first advantage to playing a rogue deck, especially one you have designed and tested yourself, is that you probably know your deck very well. You should know what the deck is supposed to do, and why each card is in the deck. In any given situation, you should know what answers the deck has, and how likely you are to draw them. With any deck, the better you know it, the better you will be able to play it.

The second advantage is surprise. In larger tournaments, most of your opponents will have been practicing and will know a lot about the basic matchups. They will probably know what their deck should try to do against each other mainstream deck: Whether their deck should try to be the control or beatdown deck, which cards are critical in each matchup, and so on. However, that preparation goes for naught when you play a rogue deck.

Opponents also make mistakes against rogue decks. I played my variant Elvish Succession deck in Standard tourneys at GenCon and Origins, and won at least two matches when my opponent left a Nantuko Husk unblocked and the Husk hit for an unexpected twenty damage. Against rogue decks, opponents counter the wrong things, sideboard incorrectly, and otherwise just don’t play well. That all helps you win.

Depending on just what your rogue deck does, opponents may not have appropriate sideboard cards. For example, land destruction decks fold to Sacred Ground – but what mainstream deck has that card in the sideboard? Good players, with prepared decks, bring sideboard cards that are good against their weakest matchups, and against the most common decks. If your deck is rogue enough, opponents may have nothing to sideboard against it.

On a slightly different tack, going rogue can make up for a lack of playtesting. If you are going into a major tournament, and have not had time to sufficiently playtest the major decks, you can negate part of that with a rogue deck. In effect, you are making sure that your opponents don’t benefit from their knowledge of primary matchups and mirror matches – which would be the case if you were playing a mainstream deck. This can be a minor advantage – and if you are going rogue for this reason, you probably haven’t playtested enough, so you are foregoing the first advantage (knowing your deck inside and out.)

I have to admit that I tend to do this. At GenCon, I went expecting to play in ten to twelve different formats. I had not extensively playtested many of these formats, so I looked for unusual decks that could, in theory, handle the metagame. Sometimes this worked, sometimes it didn’t. The main advantage is that I never played a mirror match.

Rogue decks have two major disadvantages, however. First, rogue decks do not have the wide body of supporting information that the mainstream decks are blessed with. If you play Wake in Standard, for instance, you can probably find dozens of articles discussing strategy, sideboarding, matchups, alternative builds, etc., and a lot of Wake tournament reports. Even if you are building your own variant of a netdeck, this information is invaluable. By reading the articles, you can learn about the mana base choices, critical cards, strategies, and how opponents are likely to play and sideboard against you. You also know what matchups are favorable and unfavorable for the mainstream builds, and that is a big help.

The second problem with rogue decks is that they are almost invariably weaker than mainstream decks. Mainstream decks become mainstream decks because hundreds of thousands of people have played and tested those decks. People have analyzed them online, in forums, in articles and in team meetings. People have goldfished them, playtested them, and tried them in tournaments. That level of testing is going to be orders of magnitude more than any one person or group can do for their rogue decks.

I am not saying that every rogue deck will be inferior. Every killer deck has a first appearance where it is rogue. However, for every Trix deck to appear, there are tens of thousands of U/R Wizards decks. The odds, however, are that the rogue decks are not worldbeaters.

Building a Rogue Deck

Next, I’m going to go through the basic first steps of designing a rogue deck. Deck design has a number of stages: Concept, build, goldfish, fine tuning, playtest, more tuning, more playtesting…. I’ll describe the parts, and next article I’ll actually design a deck. I cannot promise exhaustive playtesting, however.

At each stage, you have to look hard at the deck. You have to ask the fundamental question: "Am I wasting my time?" If the deck is doing okay, great. If it looks bad, you want to drop it. Even if you have a lot of time and effort into the deck, if it is not going to work, cut your losses. This is hard, especially if you have devoted a lot of time and effort to your creation, but sometimes no amount of effort can bring some deck concepts to life.

That said, back to the stages of deck design.

The first step in deck design is a concept. This can be simple, like beat fast with green guys. It can be more complex, like the old Squandered Resources combo deck. Typically, the concept should be either pure speed, control, resource denial, accelerating to a winning fattie or establishing a lock.

A rogue deck needs to answer a number of questions. Here’s the initial list. (There will be some additional rules and questions specific to combo decks later on.)

  • Is it my style?

  • Does it win?

  • Is it consistent?

  • Is it fairly bulletproof?

  • Is it fast enough?

  • Does typical hate for other decks affect it?

The first question is generally a given, since few people spend a lot of time designing decks they don’t like to play. Generally, funky combo or control decks are my style.

The question of how and whether a deck can actually win needs to be considered at the initial stage. Too often, control and other decks build impervious locks that don’t allow for a win condition. Asking about winning up front avoids that pitfall. If the deck is intended for tournament play, then also consider whether the deck can win in the fifty minutes allowed for standard rounds, especially if it loses game one.

The next question whether the deck is consistent. Consistency means having the mana correct. Consistency means dropping threats at the right pace, and finding the parts of the combo. Consistency is a function of build.

By bulletproof, I mean that the deck is fairly resistant to the common methods that people will use to interfere with the deck. Traditionally, these are counters, discard, removal, and land destruction. With 8th edition, Counterspell is gone, but Mana Leak is almost as good, especially since the format is fast once again. However, counters will mainly be used defensively, to protect what the deck is doing instead of as a pure control through countering everything. In Standard with 8th , discard can also be a problem – but Duress, the most serious problem, is gone. Removal is a concern of decks that win with creatures, and requires either that the creatures be protected, or that they be redundant enough that losing some is not fatal. Finally, a deck once needed to be resistant to land destruction, but Wizards has pretty much eliminated that archetype. In short, a deck is passably bulletproof, to the extent that it can defend itself.

Whether the deck is fast enough will be answered partly in design, but mainly in playtesting. In the new Standard, that means playtesting against little red misprints. No matter how inevitable your turn 5 combo win is, it makes no difference if it dies to Goblins on turn 4.

The last question is whether typical hate will affect it. To answer this, it is necessary to know what sideboard cards opposing decks may – which, of course, presupposes knowing what those decks are likely to be. This means analyzing the gauntlet of tier one and tier 1.5 decks, plus the tier 2 decks that will be popular, or extremely cheap to build. In the past, Goblins was the cheap deck that showed up at every tournament; now, the cheap standbys are probably Zombies and Clerics.

To some people, the purpose of going rogue is to ignore the Internet and netdecks, but that is simply not possible. A deck is a weapon, a weapon that is designed and tuned to defeat other decks. You cannot tune the deck to beat everything; you tune to beat the field you will face.

One starting point for deck design in any Constructed format is the available card pool. The other starting point is the list of mainstream decks in that format. Those decks make up the playtest gauntlet. The source for those decks is the Internet. Read the forums, the articles and the reports and decklists from major tournaments. Wizards and the DCI have been pretty good about scheduling some major tourneys in each new format prior to it seeing a lot of play. Those tournaments generate a lot or information. Use it.

For example, based on the results of Worlds, the following gauntlet should cover the major Type 2 archetypes after 7th edition is replaced by 8th edition:

Tier 1:

  • Wake

  • U/G Madness

  • Goblins / Goblin Bidding

Tier 1.5:

  • R/G Beatdown

  • Astral Slide

  • Reanimator

  • Maybe U/W or B/W control

Tier 2

Some more new decks will probably appear, and the tiers may not be perfect, but that is a decent starting point. When doing serious design work, I proxy up all the Tier 1 and Tier 1.5 decks, and maybe some of the tier 2 stuff, and playtest them all against my new deck.

Next week, I will go over the design of a rogue combo deck, and show how I tweak the deck to answer the above questions, plus some special rules for building combo decks.

’til then,


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