Asking Permission

Posted in Feature on April 12, 2002

My anti-land destruction stance in last week’s article generated quite a few e-mails and just about every one of them agreed with my basic position. By far the most common theme in my Inbox last week was “Yeah! And counterspell decks suck too!” Those who know me a little bit better phrased this general sentiment as a question: “Isn’t is just as annoying to have a control player counter every one of your spells? Why does R&D continue to print good counterspells?”

The answer is that I think land destruction strategies and permission strategies are different in kind. Whereas a land destruction deck attempts to deny you the ability to cast any spells ever, permission decks always give you some opportunities. Early in the game, it’s essentially impossible for anyone to counter all of your spells. You’ll often hear Magic strategists singing the virtues of a card that gets into play “under” your opponent’s permission, before you have to start staring across the table at untapped islands.

Then in the next few turns of the game, the control player is typically forced to tap his mana to deal with whatever threats you snuck into play already. That will often open up another window of opportunity for the non-control player to get another threat into play, forcing the control player to react again, dropping his guard yet again.

Often, a beatdown deck will just win in the early game, playing out a steady stream of threats faster than the control player can deal with them. Even if she doesn’t, it’s usually still possible to force open another window of opportunity by casting a threatening spell during the control player’s end step. If you can force him to counter something, then you get to untap while he still has mana tapped. Now you may be able to run him out of mana by playing more threats than he has available mana to say no to.

I find this whole dance between beatdown and control fascinating. The eternal battle of threats versus answers is one of the archetypical struggles that defines Magic. Furthermore, I find these situations highly interactive. Sure, once the permission deck has “gained control” and you’re staring across at someone with a bunch of untapped land and a grip full of counters, the game is not very exciting, nor very interactive. However, it takes a while for the control player to get there. Basically, I’m arguing that permission decks are healthy for the game because there’s a whole bunch of really interesting interaction between the players before the game gets to the annoying stage.

I feel strongly that control decks are good for the game. In addition to providing for interesting, skill-testing interaction between players (you’re allowed to just concede if the blue guy establishes control -- I do!), control decks also keep combo decks in check. That said, it’s pretty reasonable to complain about the power-level of the cards that blue mages have been given access to over the years.

Over the years, there have certainly been occasions when blue strategies were too good. When “Draw-Go” was at the height of its powers it could realistically counter every single spell the opponent played. That’s not healthy. Wizards has also printed several over-powered artifacts (Chaos Orb, Nevinyrral's Disk, Masticore) that plugged the holes in a mono-blue strategy a bit too easily. I’m glad those artifacts have rotated out of Standard and I don’t want to make life that easy for the permission player ever again.

In addition, Wizards has made life for the control player too easy in another way. instant-speed card drawing has tremendous synergy with permission strategies. Whether for Fact or Fiction, Stroke of Genius, or Whispers of the Muse, control players have been able to just leave their mana untapped during the opponent's turn, counter threats if necessary, and otherwise draw more cards. In the future, expect to see the really good card drawing cards be sorcery speed (like Concentrate) or at least require the blue player to tap out on her own turn once to get it into play (like Jayemdae Tome). That should force control players to make some interesting judgment calls and allow their opponents more opportunities to play spells.

There’s one other aspect of control decks that I can feel lurking in the background of this entire conversation. Counterspell itself is awfully cheap. Right now it only costs UU to stop any spell the opponent tries to play. The cheap price on Counterspell then acts as a pressure, forcing anyone who wants to sneak threats into play before the control player has his defenses up to play really cheap threats -- 2 mana or less, ideally. Want to play multiple threats on the same turn to run the permission player out of mana? The same pressure applies -- at least some of them better be cheap threats.

On the other hand, Counterspell itself is so iconic. Players since Alpha have gone through the same emotions when staring across the table at two untapped islands. Is it a bluff or does she have it? And it’s such a simple, elegant name for a simple elegant spell. And no one can be sure what strange things would happen to the environment if Counterspell disappeared. Maybe it’s enough to stop printing board-sweeping artifacts and change card drawing spells into Sorceries. Or maybe it would be enough to bring back Armageddon and give white mages a powerful way to punish the control player for tapping out. Then again, Armageddon hurts mana-hungry non-blue decks even more than it hurts blue so that “solution” to the controlling the power-level of blue might have bad side-effects.

What do you think?

Randy may be reached at

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