I got a lot of feedback off the two”Back to Basics” card advantage articles, but the most interesting letter came at the tail end of that stream:
“I realize that his is outside the scope of your article, but the last point addressed was probably the most important point to consider and yet it got the least attention from you. You have followed the classic model of an economist (intentionally or accidentally, I can’t be sure) of tackling a very complex problem by starting with a very simple premise. Obviously, the more advanced readers will see the problems with this, but I agree with you that a firm and universal basic understanding is needed before you can advance to more complicated areas.
“Having said that, there are some fundamental assumptions that a Magic player must make that should not be left out of the equation and should be the first things added back to the discussion once you decide to look at things that are, by definition, more complex.
“1) All decks are equal. Obviously, this is not true – but to play correctly the majority of the time, you must make this assumption. The amount of misplays you make because an opponent’s deck was vastly inferior to yours should be few and far between. Suppose you’re playing an opponent with all white… You’ve got two 2/2s out and are holding back another creature in anticipation of the Wrath of God… You have a Disenchant and a Swords for backup… suddenly he drops an island and says go, Mana Shorts you at the end of your turn, draws another island, and Donates an Illusions of Grandeur… Did you play incorrectly? Probably not.
“2) All cards are not equal. This is deck-dependent and somewhat subjective. Many decks have identifiable routes to victory and can be seriously hampered by spot disruption. If you can identify those key cards, then they net you card advantage well in excess of the actual play. For example, you’re playing an MBC deck that you know has two Haunting Echoes and four Corrupts. You have ten counterspells. The proper math to consider is that if you eliminate all six of these cards, you invalidate his entire deck – so each individual card is worth ten. Furthermore, if he casts a Corrupt early, then he loses the ability to do twenty damage with any one Corrupt and all you have to do is counter the remaining three.
“Conversely, old counter decks with two Serra Angels had to have absolute and complete control because any error resulting in a dead Angel was effectively wiping out half their deck.
“3) Your opponent will play perfectly. You can’t (or shouldn’t) assume that your opponent will make mistakes. I don’t mean this to say that individual mistakes aren’t possible and shouldn’t be considered… But on the whole, your opponent will generally not make gross playing errors, nor would you be correct to just assume he will. Therefore, when your opponent Tutors for something, you need to assume it’s the right decision for him to make and that the card is something that will either help him win or prevent him from losing (two very different things). Few people have ever Ring of Ma’rufed me to go get their Horrible Hordes. This also means that he won’t cast a Lightning Bolt at your head unless he has a surplus of direct damage or he thinks the kill is a reachable goal (like he can Kaervek’s Torch next turn for seventeen, for example). So when you say that Arcane Denialing the Bolt is a net two loss, you’re not taking into account that his card did not only do what he wanted it to, but the Denial did its job perfectly.
“How would you analyze casting Healing Salve after being Bolted when you’ve got a creatureless deck. Is that a loss of one card? To me, it’s not… Even if done ten turns later, you are still netting zero because you have directly invalidated something your opponent did.
“What if you Dissipate a hard-cast Roar of the Wurm? Again, under your system this would be a -1. But obviously if he was able to hard-cast it he can flash it back, so you’ve prevented two 6/6s for one card.
“I’m not trying to throw in needless complication; I’m trying to say that your system of saying that your logic that the investment an opponent pays is irrelevant to the card advantage decision is fundamentally flawed. If the card he’s playing does something that helps him win the game, then it is a very relevant thing to consider.
“Fundamentally, I think you just picked on a couple cards that everyone knows are good (Arcane Denial and Force of Will). These are probably the fourth and first best counterspells ever printed respectively, and they hold a place near and dear to the blue mage’s heart.
Well, I focused on Accounting in that article, so I guess it serves me right to get a reader who wants my Economics degree to get some work in. Jeff is right that in most of my articles, I have to make a lot of assumptions and I hope I didn’t have to spell it out. In most useful but basic economic models, you have to hold all but one or two variables constant so you can analyze the impact of their changes, and it’s the same logic behind an article that discusses card advantage independent of every other principle in the game.
(And if that just bothered you, don’t worry, because today’s article starts linking it back with the rest of the game.)
(A caveat, though, on Jeff’s second assumption: Transposing his Serra Angel illustration to 2003, somehow killing the first Morphling may not kill exactly half the deck. Consider that”The Deck” players are very willing to pitch an opening hand Morphling to Force of Will to prepare to play the second. Consider, further, that a first-turn Extract can be shrugged off as a card advantage plus as long as a second doesn’t hit, unless you end up so secure in control that you’re assured of winning with even Stroke of Genius or Braingeyser to win.
(Regarding the third, some people did comment that something was wrong with the article since only an idiot casts a first-turn Lightning Bolt to the head. Well, as Jeff helps point out, I did intend the article to help beginners determine what a bad play is. In any case, my best answer to Jeff’s counterpoint is that if you desperately have to counter a Lightning Bolt, it always pays to have one of the less card disadvantageous two-mana counters in hand.)
Again, this is a comment that made me see one of my articles from a fresh perspective, and that’s a wonderful thing.
I’ll use his examples to try to take my pure card advantage discussion out of the vacuum I put it in.
-1 card (Dissipate moves from your hand to your graveyard)
-1 card (Opponent no longer puts a token into play)
-1 card (Opponent no longer puts a token into play)
-1 – (-1 + -1) is +1. Jeff doesn’t say where the -1 came from, but remember that you normally count cards in hand and in play for card advantage, except for permanents that don’t quite affect the game apart from their abilities.
Second, casting Healing Salve, by itself and looking at what already happened in the game, is always -1 card advantage. What Jeff is talking about makes sense, but it’s already outside pure card advantage; both of you lost a card regardless. That play may not make a difference later on, since the opponent may have three power more than needed to win or you win at more than three life… Or the three”regained” life may buy an extra turn, in which case you traded a card for a turn, and the measurement isn’t clean because it’s apples and oranges.
We’ll talk about trading cards for other things in this article, but do consider that life is usually an irrelevant resource in that only the twentieth point really counts (which is why Necropotence is the most broken card in Magic).
Finally, Force of Will is lousy in card advantage terms, and that’s something you always have to consider when you use it, as emphasized so early in the Control Player’s Bible. However, as we’ll touch on below, trading that card for the mana-free casting cost often has benefits.
Arcane Denial, however, is just plain pathetic since there are so many other good two-mana counterspells that do the exact same thing without the heinous card disadvantage. The only time you’d even consider it is if you have a deck that splashes blue and can’t manage double-blue mana and you already have four Mana Leaks. And even then, even Memory Lapse is a contender.
What IS Aggro-Control?
Aggro-control is, in my opinion, one of the least understood segments of the metagame today.”Metagame” was equated with the phrase”rocks, paper, scissors” for”aggro, control, combo” but aggro-control has long since emerged as a distinct archtype in its own right.
When a beginner sees creatures, especially weenies, he usually labels a deck”aggro.” When he sees control elements, especially counterspells, he usually labels it”control.” Aggro-control decks, however, have creatures and counterspells.
The problem with misidentifying an archetype, as usual, is consequently not knowing how to play against it, much less sideboard.
Take a look at the aggro-control deck of the moment:
Growing ‘Tog (metagamed), Roland Bode, Champion, April 13, 2003 DÃ¼lmen, from e-mail
Perhaps the easiest way to define aggro-control is to explain what it isn’t.
From Robert Hahn’s”Time Control” To Modern”Aggro-Control”
Asked how to define this segment of decks, Eric“Danger” Taylor e-mailed that aggro-control is distinguished from aggro in that the former has less creatures, roughly half. However, nowadays, aggro-control creatures are always bigger than usual. This blurs the distinction between the two archtypes because Type I aggro-control features the largest creatures in the game: Psychatog, Phyrexian Dreadnought, and to a lesser extent, Quirion Dryad.
Both archtypes are thus the beatdown decks of Magic, but they don’t beat down in the same way.
Aggro-control is distinguished from control in many ways. The most important difference is that aggro-control does not emphasize the powerful card advantage elements that drive control decks. In fact, a counter like Counterspell or Mana Drain usually trades one-for-one with an opponent’s spell, at best, but the most important Aggro-Control counters are Force of Will and Misdirection, which trade two-for-one (or even worse, like Foil, which is three-for-one).
Many successful decks work by building an overwhelming advantage in one aspect of the game and pressing it, and aggro-control decks are no different. Instead of taking control and building up a bloated hand like control decks, however, aggro-control decks use their control elements to, in effect, take more than the normal number of attack phases for their beatdown elements.
This is my reinterpretation of what the venerable Rob Hahn once called”time control” on The Dojo in December 1997 (and The Duelist), explained using the old”Forgotten Orb” deck:
3Man O’ War
Rob wrote:”The hallmark of a time control deck is ‘window of opportunity’-first introduced to the popular Magic scene by Dennis Bentley’s LD Necro of US Nationals a couple years back that Icequaked, Choked, Hymn to Tourached, and Strip Mined its way to opening up a couple of turns of extra damage: the window of opportunity during which it can swing the game from a losing proposition to a winning one. Forgotten Orb is a direct descendant, in theory at least, of that deck where fast creature combine with cards that create windows of opportunity: Memory Lapse, Winter Orb, Man O’ War, etc.”
“5CB: Black Knight, go.
Opp: blocker, go.
5CB: Man O’ War (one turn gained), attack, go.
Opp: recast block, go.
5CB: Man O’ War (two turns gained), attack for 4, go.
Opp: recast blocker, Incinerate Black Knight.
5CB: Nekrataal (three turns gained), attack for 4, go.
Opp: Cast next blocker, go.
5CB: Incinerate next blocker (four turns gained), attack for 6, go.
Opp: Next blocker, kill your creatures, go.
5CB: Kindle, Kindle, Incinerate, etc. etc. Win.
“Without those extra turns gained via removal, 5CB has a tough time controlling the flow of battle. Thus, 5CB is weak against creatureless decks, particularly ones featuring mass removal (Nevinyrral’s Disk, Earthquakes, Wrath of God).”
The precursors of today’s aggro-control could play out their strategy through removal and the marquee card of the original theory: Man O’War. Of course, this is less so in today’s Type I with creature-light control and combo decks, but the original strategy notes remain valuable.
Going back to my earlier statement, the aggro-control deck is usually built to trade cards for time. For example, it can trade a Force of Will for an opponent’s Swords to Plowshares and come out one card behind in card advantage, but effectively gain an additional attack phase, which it can use to put the opponent on an impossibly fast clock with an oversized creature like Dreadnought, Psychatog, or Dryad.
I said last week that card advantage is not the end-all of Magic, and aggro-control demonstrates this readily. A turn consists of four elements: 1) An untap; 2) A card draw; 3) A land drop; 4) An attack phase. In the above example, the aggro-control deck can effectively trade a card for an extra attack, a trade hardly bad given its broken beatdown creatures.
In short, it just tries to use its counterspells as Time Walks, not to take control as some are used to. In fact, an aggro-control deck doesn’t have the resources to take control, and it has to push past the opponent with its own beatdown instead before he can regain his footing.
Demonstrating the distinction: 1997 Blue/Red
In 1997, the difference between control and aggro-control was further seen in blue/red decks. For example:
Darwin’s”Kastle”, Darwin Kastle, Top 8, Pro Tour Paris 1997, April 1997 (Mirage/Visions Block Constructed)
Kastle’s deck is roughly one-third each of creatures, disruption and mana, and you’ll see this pattern throughout this walk down memory lane. Note, incidentally, that Memory Lapse was a wonderful aggro-control spell. It comes out even in terms of card advantage (the opponent doesn’t really lose the countered card, but he does lose his next draw), but if used on an expensive spell, the opponent loses the better part of a turn recasting it. Combined with Winter Orb, it was more than annoying.
(Arcane Denial, however, is still intrinsically lousy. It’s just that there was no good splashable counter before Mana Leak was printed.)
Canadian Beatdown, Paul McCabe, 1997 World Championships Finalist, August 1997 (Type II)
Now compare these two decks to more traditional Blue/Red decks, ones that are probably more familiar to beginners:
Counterhammer, Olle Rade, Top 8, Pro Tour Dallas 1996, November 1996 (Type II)
Note that in these last two decks, card advantage came from cards like Nevinyrral’s Disk, Thawing Glaciers, Earthquake and even Frenetic Efreet. Cheap but powerful card drawing wasn’t printed yet, and Jayemedae Tome didn’t work well with Disk.
Again, these are all blue/red decks from the same year. The decklists were taken from Mike Flores deck history on The Dojo, aptly named”Fire and Ice: The One Day Lockdown, The Next Day Beatdown.”
Note, finally, that one difference is the lower land counts of the aggro-control decks (Gary’s deck has Thawing Glaciers), due to the faster, cheaper spells. This remains true until today, and is positive because the probability of drawing land is slightly decreased. Modern Type I aggro-control decks, in fact, can work with just two or three mana on the table, something decks that finish with Rainbow Efreet or Morphling just can’t do.
The Evolution Of Aggro-Control
Players who have never seen Type I aggro-control are nevertheless probably familiar with famous aggro-control archtypes:
Fish, Nicolas Labarre, Pro Tour Rome 1998 Finalist, November 1998 (Extended)
Other spells (5)
3 Nevynirral’s Disk
Fish is one of the oldest aggro-control archtypes, though it’s weaker because its creatures are among the weakest in combat. Labarre’s deck is closer to modern Type I aggro-control decks in structure (he noted Man O’War was a mistake), and demonstrates aggro-control’s effectiveness as a combo-breaker.
He wrote, for example, about his Round 14 against Randy Buehler Academy deck on The Dojo:”In the second, he has to mulligan. I go first-turn Manta Riders, second-turn Merfolk Traders, third-turn Lord of Atlantis… He counters, then Curiosity on the Trader. I win this one with five counterspells in my hand. ‘Are you sure this is an Extended deck?'”
After Rome’s combo-dominated environment, aggro-control decks with stronger creature combat were successful:
Counter-Sliver, Christian Luhrs, Top 8, Pro Tour Chicago 1999,December 1999 (Extended)
4 Acidic Sliver
4 Crystalline Sliver
4 Hibernation Sliver
4 Muscle Sliver
4 Winged Sliver
Other spells (17)
4 Force of Will
3 Demonic Consultation
2 Swords to Plowshares
4 Flood Plain
4 City of Brass
2 Undiscovered Paradise
2 Gemstone Mine
4 Underground Sea
2 Scrubland[/author]“][author name="Scrubland"]Scrubland[/author]
1 Tropical Island
1 Volcanic Island
2 Swords to Plowshares
2 Honorable Passage
3 Honor the Fallen
Deep Dog, Ben Ronaldson, 2002 English Nationals, Undefeated in the Swiss
Combat, however, became less relevant when Quirion Dryad was printed and aggro-control creatures were suddenly bigger than aggro creatures:
Miracle Grow, Alan Comer (Extended)
Super Grow, Ben Rubin (Extended)
Super Grow, Alexander Witt, Champion, Nice Masters 2002, May 2002 (Extended)
We know the rest of the story from here.
Nonblue Aggro-Control Decks
A mistake beginners usually make is to categorize black creature-based decks as aggro decks. If you compare their structures to aggro-control decks’ and count their discard and land destruction as proactive counterspells, you’ll find that the black decks’ strategies are closer to theirs.
Hymn to Tourach-based decks have been in the game since Fallen Empires was printed, but the controllish Necrodeck was a big disincentive to try aggro-control Suicide Black. They’ve had their moments, though:
Suicide Black, Tim Kryzwicki, Dojo Deck to Beat, November 1998 (Type II)
Suicide Black, Dominic Callos, Quarterfinalist, 1998 California State Championships, November 1998 (Type II)
…and let’s not forget Emmanuel Vernay’s 2002 Grand Prix: Reims deck, which is already in our database.
Type I Suicide Black has evolved into Tainted Mask, based around the Illusionary Mask/Phyrexian Dreadnought combo. The traditional black creature base simply falls short of the 12/12 for three mana and two cards combo which gives it a much better matchup against other creature-based decks.
Going back to the basic strategy of aggro-control, if the deck works by trading cards for attack phases it can exploit with Type I brokenness, then the deck should be defeated by denying it those attack phases.
In other words, an aggro-control deck’s weak spots are its creatures, which are the easiest class of permaenents to remove. If you’ve ever played against a Tainted Mask deck, you know that if you can kill the first or first two Dreadnoughts, the deck stalls until it can filter into another creature. Blue-based decks aren’t very different.
If you can keep the creatures out of the board, the other disruptive elements are suddenly far less useful, since they can no longer trade for attack phases.”The Deck” is one of the worst matchups for blue-based decks after sideboarding, since it’s the only deck that can bring in both Swords to Plowshares and Red Elemental Blasts (which kill Psychatog, in addition to other spells). Other decks are forced to hit the creature base with cards like Waterfront Bouncer, Gilded Drake, and Plaguebearer (an old entry in the Paragon inventory against Phyrexian Dreadnought, and later Quirion Dryad).
Fighting aggro-control is simply a battle of attrition. If a Growing ‘Tog player forces a Psychatog with Force of Will against Red Elemental Blast then gets it hit by Swords to Plowshares anyway, the card disadvantage will eventually catch up. As Rob Hahn quoted from Sun Tzu in another article:
“When you do battle, even if you are winning, if you continue for a long time it will dull your forces and blunt your edge; if you besiege a citadel, your strength will be exhausted. If you keep your armies out in the field for a long time, your supplies will be insufficient.”
Thus, Brian Weissman e-mailed me that he playtested against Patrick Chapin and his Type I Chapin Gro, but estimated a 95% matchup after sideboarding. About that time, I asked Kai Budde about Oath vs. Grow matchups in Extended, and he opined it was pretty good, with four Oath of Druids and four Swords main, and four Pyroblasts in the board.
Consider, further, why Compost is so good against Suicide Black.
While the archetype has evolved over the years, aggro-control has essentially remained the same, and we’ll explore these traditional strengths and weaknesses in detail in the rest of Book III of the Control Player’s Bible.
rakso on #BDChat on EFNet
University of the Philippines, College of Law
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