The Clock and the Race

Posted in Feature on May 8, 2008

By Mike Flores

Michael Flores is the author of Deckade and The Official Miser's Guide; the designer of numerous State, Regional, Grand Prix, National, and Pro Tour–winning decks; and the onetime editor-in-chief of The Magic Dojo. He'd claim allegiance to Dimir (if such a Guild existed)… but instead will just shrug "Simic."

If you are a moderately experienced tournament player, chances are that you have acquired a fair number of skills from experience, by way of your pure number of draft seats occupied and raw volume of matches lost, picking hither nugget up here and thither kernel up there. You probably first heard about card advantage via an online strategy article, and as time went on, found ways to milk on board positions to find opportunities to gain card advantage, whether by blocking a smaller creature with a larger creature, taking one of two gang blockers out with a removal spell before the hammer of combat falls, or just figuring out that filthy feel good that comes with playing spells that instruct you to "draw a card."

If you are a moderately experienced tournament player, you may occasionally have flashes of brilliance that accompany your fair number of skills, those moments of vision and clarity that keep you interested, keep you moving forward, make you love Magic a little more than you did a minute earlier whenever they lead you to a tight play or down the path less traveled to victory. As a moderately experienced tournament player, you may even have suffered from an excess of luck on a particular lucky day, and may just have been able to make it home in the dead of some Saturday or Sunday night with a pocket full of bragging rights.

And if you are a moderately experienced tournament player, chances are, there are still particular holes in your game that cost you matches, over and over, and you don't know why.

I am guessing that one such hole is your attitude—or lack thereof—with regards to the clock.

The last major piece of my game that I added was any kind of appreciation for the clock. I had been playing in high-level tournaments for at least three years and qualified for a fair number of National Championships and Pro Tours and I still didn't appreciate the clock, my own or my opponent's, or what either of those things meant. I was so gung ho on advanced techniques of opportunity cost in efficient deck design that I sometimes completely glossed over basics like being able to kill my opponent within a reasonable window of time (and sometimes, still do), or imagining the really concrete number of turns he might need to kill me (and often still do).

So... What is the clock?

The Clock

Pro Tour New Orleans: Mana Severance/Charbelcher

Download Arena Decklist

Similar decks were piloted to the same Top 8 by Yann Hamon and Nicolas Labarre.

How did this deck work?

The basic strategy for this deck was to play or Tinker up Goblin Charbelcher and then point the aforementioned 'belcher at the opponent's head, typically after playing Mana Severance to ensure the activation would be lethal (though there were bad beat stories at this Pro Tour that involved lucky Charbelcher kills without first running that two mana sorcery). The incredible mana acceleration of this deck (Ancient Tomb, Grim Monolith, Voltaic Key, and more) combined with the extensive and relatively inexpensive search (Brainstorm, Mystical Tutor, and especially Tinker) made The Clock and its variations extremely fast and consistent, hence the name.

In Magic, we use the word "clock" to mean many different things. Of course there are the fifty minutes (sometimes more, rarely fewer) that make up a tournament round; we're not talking about that today. Then there is the notion of presenting or playing against a clock. A clock can be a permanent, or it can be a number of turns. A clock is a permanent when it is, like a "jock," a stand-in for another related word—that is, it puts the opponent on the clock (more on this in a moment). And then, of course, there was a deck called The Clock because it almost always won by the third turn. When you were playing against The Clock, you were automatically on notice: do something that keeps me from winning by turn three (for example winning yourself), or you're just not going to win.

The whole model of control decks makes it easy for Constructed players to ignore the clock. Because most tournament players progress from straightforward strategies such as attacking with creatures and playing a little removal to more controlling strategies that seek to win in the later stages of the game after milking some amount of card advantage, the moderately experienced tournament player becomes one of the most likely offenders. Why?

Control decks have a tendency to, well, "take control of the game" in often multiple specific aspects (at least in games they are going to win) and then conclude favorably with one or two actual threats, often after some completely arbitrary number of turns. Sometimes it's really arbitrary! Former Magic Lead Developer Brian Schneider once make an Extended multicolor control deck full of creature removal, life gain, and Meditates that could only win by Gaea's Blessing recursion! The number of turns required to win was directly related to the number of cards still in the other guy's deck rather than anything Schneider's deck was doing (other than, you know, gaining life with Gerrard's Wisdom every couple of turns). The sad thing (from a clock management perspective) is that it was an awesome deck that performed to the tune of two PTQ victories and a bonus Top 8 appearance the only weekend it was ever played. Now surely if you are a player with that plan in mind, the last thing you are worried about is the clock.

Another place where a moderately experienced player might fail to appreciate the clock is when playing against a combo deck (such as The Clock itself). Many players construct decks and sideboards to overload a combo deck with disruption, assuming they will draw something to win "in time." Without a, err, clock, the disruption overload strategy will often fail against a broken combo deck. Why? Because without a sufficient clock, you have no way to dictate the course, let alone the successful conclusion, of the game. All you can do is, you know, make him discard or maybe blow up lands. Remember when we said that a clock can be a permanent? One of the most successful models of Extended anti-combo overload came via the Red Deck. The Red Deck could drop a first turn creature—a Goblin Lackey or a Jackal Pup—and then sit back on a hand full of Pyroblasts and Red Elemental Blasts. These cards might as well have been Duresses or Counterspells, they were so great against the combo decks of the time. With a first turn play as good as Jackal Pup or Goblin Lackey, the end would be in sight—ten turns on the outside—from the outset. That might seem like a bit of time, but consider that without a fast (enough) way to win, the opposing combo player would have many turns to set up a way to disrupt the disruption package so to speak, and win in one gloriously guilty flourish.

Phyrexian Negator
We've highlighted some failures, but what about a successful application of the clock? Many top players believe that best play involves not just making the right plays, but making the right plays as quickly as possible; for many of those, that extends to actually winning the game via the fastest possible route. I recall a game in the Top 8 of the 2000 U.S. National Championships where Jon Finkel made a curious play. He led on Unmask to check if his opponent had Vine Dryad, Invigorate, Giant Growth, some kind of surprise, and when he didn't... Jonny Magic thanked Dark Ritual for the Phyrexian Negator! Then he just attacked a bunch of times until his opponent died. Most players in Finkel's spot would have played a slow game, emptying the opponent's green hand with Persecute, milking the main deck Perish for card advantage, and turtled up to win with Thrashing Wumpus or Skittering Horror only after many turns of progressive positional improvement. But Jon didn't. Why? He knew that with more time, his opponent would have more options; chances were that Jon would win anyway, but given the essentially perfect read afforded him by the Unmask, Finkel could see that his fast Negator plan would allow him to win with fewer balls in the air.

Remember that third paragraph? The one about losing games and not knowing why? I would be willing to bet that you are getting raced... and you might even know it! The clock is most important when it is applied to a race.

Race situations can be some of the most basic manifestations of interactive Magic play. Basically, in a race, you are charged with killing the opponent before he can kill you. Simple, right? You might be surprised.

How do you even know you are in a race? It's actually pretty simple: At any given time, you're probably in a race. If you don't know... that probably just means you're losing the race.

Pure damage races are rare in Constructed because most Constructed players have something better to do than attack with all their guys and get attacked by all the other guy's guys. However, if this is what's going on, your race math at least begins on the table. If your opponent has a 5/5 and you have a 4/4 and he attacks you while you are tapped out, you know that after you don't block, provided he doesn't add another significant threat, you have at most two more attacks before the 5/5 is actually lethal; on balance, your 4/4 will require five swings from 20 to end it the right way around.

A couple of things become apparent from just this simple hypothetical... What about those turns? He only needs three more and you need five? All things held equal, shouldn't you just avoid the hassle and scoop?

Probably not... He might hit a land glut whereas you might find something to win the race outside of straight combat. You can pull a removal card. You can put things in the way of his 5/5, or distract him so he has to leave it at home. You've got your 4/4, right? If worse comes to worst, after taking fifteen, you can probably still chump-block to buy one more turn.

One of the bigger problems I see in races is that one player chump-blocks too soon. It can be tricky, especially if you've consigned yourself to chump-blocking. One of the things that I try to use as a guideline—and every game is different, so when you do this and lose, don't go pointing fingers over here—is to chump-block as late as possible so as to preserve options on my own next turn (I might want to attack with that chump blocker, for instance). It can get very tricky when the opponent has, say, a 4/5 and a 5/5 and you are on 10, but have only one available 4/4 blocker. You can let everybody in... but are dead to basically any burn or pump spell. Did he play out his hand? Do you have something saucy yourself? Every game is different, and you will have to use the information you are given to decide whether to block, and which creature to block. Either the 4/5 and the 5/5 will take out your lowly 4/4... So which one do you block? Typically it will be the 5/5, because then if you topdeck another chump-blocker, you can buy yet another turn by blocking the 5/5 again, leaving yourself on 1 life; plus, if you have a removal card or pump spell, the 5/5 is probably just the better annoyance that you can rid yourself of.

Chump-blocking too late is less of a problem, but still a problem. In the above hypothetical, I would typically block (unless I am leaving him on 4 or whatever with a clear path for my 4/4, or I have a reasonable chance to topdeck a win with, say, a burn spell) because if I don't, I am dead to either creature unblocked the following turn... and there are no options in inevitable death by fatty.

More complicated are games where you are racing... but not against damage. I remember reading a late 1990s tournament report where Brian Hacker described a race between his opponent's creatures and his Grindstone. At first I found this very confusing because creature damage does not reside on the same axis, conceptually, with deck exhaustion. Yet this is actually simple in its own way. You can figure out how many turns the creatures will take to kill you, and you can utilize some mathematics to figure out how many turns it will take to Grindstone the other guy out; in a race situation, each represents a possible terminus to the game. In the same way that you have to worry about whether the opponent can do something to speed up his clock with cards in hand rather than creatures already on the board, the opponent would have to worry about the bonus mills that Hacker's Grindstone would occasionally net. In one sense this is a poorer race than the classic "Serra Angel versus the world" of the oldest school Weissman decks, because even for the control deck, incremental damage is easier to come by (you can find a Fireball or another creature), plus a Grindstone can't block. On the other hand, creature damage would have been much easier for Hacker to prevent than defending deck exhaustion from the other direction.

Evaluating races purely on terminus-over-presented power (or expected exhaustion) is not particularly difficult in and of itself. What you have to be worried about is the method by which the opponent can shorten the race that he is representing on the board. Against competitive Red Decks I will not usually go into the single digits if I can afford to defend myself. I assume every card in the opponent's hand is worth 2 points, and plan my race accordingly. Those of you who are more practiced in Standard might chuckle over this one, but I have lost more games to on-table Garruk Wildspeaker than I am readily willing to admit. Garruk Wildspeaker, like the classic Overrun, will dramatically improve the speed of a clock; make sure you keep these boosts in mind when racing, because attacking with one creature too many may just spell a trample kill from double digits.

The hardest races to evaluate are the ones where the opponent isn't even trying to kill you (yet). You are waging a war against a concept, like terrorism or "I can't let him get to turn three," rather than something obvious, apparent, and right in front of you, as with creatures. The concept is a stand-in for the end of the game, whether it looks like it or not short term. Sometimes you yourself will be the concept, like when you have to find either Tormod's Crypt or Tolaria West plus three mana before dying to an all-in Zombie attack; in these cases, correctly identifying the race you are in—and there will likely be more than one over the course of even a single duel—will be the first step to not losing.

Here are some general tips for racing:

  1. Garruk Wildspeaker
    I know—I know—this sounds stupid, but this is really the most important thing you can keep in your head for a race: Don't get killed. It is probably the most obvious thing in the world from a macro perspective, but as you figure out how you need to eke a certain number of points in so that you can spring your not-yet-drawn burn spell to the head for the buzzer-beating highlight finish just before his fatty ends up on the wrong side of your life total... make sure you're not swinging for the fences but leaving yourself open to an on-table Garruk kill.
  2. When playing "the beatdown" against a combo deck, typically mulligan disruption-heavy hands with no dangerous one- or two-drop creatures. There is no virtue in a heavily disruptive deck that can't actually win. Moreover many combo decks will be able to strip away your reactive cards or counter them somehow. Without a clock, you can't penalize the opponent for drawing his anti-disruption disruption rather than pure speed. More importantly, when all you can do is hassle, not present a kill, you can fall prey to a combo deck's likely ability to reload.

  3. When playing Red Decks, it is often difficult to know when to stop holding your burn for the other guy's guys and start throwing it in his face. Count your mana. Count your burn. How much can you do? How long will it take (usually you will need two or even three turns of mana to spend all your burn, especially if you have an X spell). Play so that your attacks intersect your ability to win with burn spells before the burn spells are actually lethal; that is, use your on board clocks so that you can burn, untap kill, and continue to attack, and follow up with more burn, should resistance arise (and it usually will).

  4. Many moderately experienced players don't realize that most close games consist of a series of small races, milestones or checkpoints, where interactive skirmishes occur or can be avoided. You will often lose a game in its last stages because you failed to identify—and therefore lost—a race some five or ten turns earlier. You know, when you are in double digits and all of a sudden you're dead to Bitterblossom tokens, or you're ostensibly ahead on cards in hand, lands in play, and life total, but then suddenly all of your permanents get bounced and the opponent has 9—make that 30—points of power in play? Often you did something wrong many turns before the end, and a surprising amount of the time, the opponent should already be dead. I remember Jon Sonne once critiquing my Limited play. It was relatively early in a duel and I was temporarily able to get my green guy through a progressing fortress of blue and black evasion and card advantage. Use them now. Jon wanted me to spend my three Giant Growth effects, which would have put the opponent to single digits... but it seemed premature (these are for winning fights and finishing games, not just bloodying a nose or splitting a lip). He is giving you a window; there is no guarantee you can resolve them later... But by putting him low now, you make each subsequent blocking situation more difficult for him. I'll be honest, I don't like your chances if they resolve, but I don't think you can win at all if you don't try. I elected not to blow my hand, and ended up losing a tight one many turns later.

  5. Somewhat contrary to the previous bullet, all things held equal, set up your race to win as quickly as you can. Because creatures are renewable sources of damage that nevertheless come into play sick, many times that will mean making decisions so that you can do the most damage next turn... and because this bears repeating, optimize your clock this way only provided that you expect to have a "next turn." It ain't always obvious.

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