Some Thoughts on Defensive Deck Speed

Posted in Feature on July 19, 2007

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."

One thing that always gets my head wagging left / right / left again, my jaw dropping a little bit, my eyes rolling, whatever, is hearing comments or reading posts that say something like "that deck looks too slow" in reference to a new control deck (usually board control or library manipulation), presumably in regard to its immediate offense. Many times I see something very different, different and quick, and usually aware in a way that is not being recognized. I'd say "I don't know what they mean," but the fact of the matter is, these posters themselves seem not to know what they mean, making speed comments about decks that can play 4/4s on turn three, or close very quickly with Maro-class threats after they've grasped the tiniest bit of tempo... They just don't necessarily open up on Savannah Lions or win on the third turn with Ignite Memories. That said, the reason I think, that I may experience any disconnect when the speed of a control deck is called into question is that I look at certain cards and I see Jay Garrick zipping across Keystone City...

...Where he promptly splats against one of the Shade's well-positioned solid shadows.

In Magic, speed can cut both ways.

Here are two important historical Standard decks:

Michael Loconto from Pro Tour 1

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Randy Buehler

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The first deck won the first Pro Tour. No matter how badly tuned we see it in retrospect—with its 62 cards, its wildly inefficient individual card choices, its general inability to deal with problem situations—we can never take away the fact that "Loco" Loconto came before Finkel, Budde, and the rest of our revered champions; his deck is foundational and fundamental, and helped to inform the earliest notions of the metagame. For our purposes, we can contrast Loconto's deck, which really needed to hit four mana or have its game plan firmly established, with Randy's deck from just a couple of years later.

Force Spike
How do I put this in order to undo the last nine years of education you have probably had that you didn't know you had? Randy's deck played Force Spike. You probably just see that as a given. You've seen all kinds of decks playing some number of Force Spikes and probably decided that that card is a given in formats where it is available. The fact is, somebody has to do, well, everything first, and this incarnation of CMU Blue is important because of its attention to the mana curve. In fact, former Sensei Chris Senhouse even called it the "Blue Sligh" because of the way it was structured.

Look at what Randy's deck does. He fights the Jackal Pup on turn one. While he has a fine reset in Nevinyrral's Disk (which makes this deck slow and agnostic no more than Swords to Plowshares made the previous fast and specific), he doesn't wait for some four-mana artifact to get him out of a situation that he has already gotten himself into; he avoids getting into that situation nearly half the time... and that's if the bad guys have the draw. He climbs up the mana curve very steeply; more than 1/3 of his spells cost two mana, and more than half his spells can be played in the first two turns. This was almost revolutionary. Look at Loconto's deck. He rattles clunk after unending clunk. Even if he can play Feldon's Cane and Fountain of Youth in the first couple of turns, they don't do anything. Fountain of Youth, despite being a zero, costs two mana for a very minor ability. Mike's deck is Icy after Tome, tons of pinpoint reactive cards, leans very heavily on getting Wrath, getting his draw. Loconto was loathe to use his small amount of permission as threat suppression; as such, he had to wait to get his defensive game plan rolling.

Randy's deck, on balance, is extremely quick. You might look at the Stalking Stones and Rainbow as his paths to victory and see a game that takes a long time to complete successfully. That hardly matters. Randy's trump zone, his end game, they never matter except in games that he can win, that he generally will win. The structure of his deck is such that if he can win, victory is many times inevitable. The tension is in the race. It's in getting to the place where the fast or powerful decks fight to be, cutting them off at the pass. Look at how seamlessly Randy's sideboard flows from his core strategy. Bam! Turn-two Sea Sprite. Take that, Mogg Fanatic! Answers? I'm sure the Sligh decks back in 1998 could beat a Sea Sprite (most likely with Cursed Scroll), but that would take time and offer the opportunity for a Counterspell. Sea Sprite took the fastest Jackal Pup-into-Ball Lightning draws and met them at their places of power. And walked away.

Now the contrast is not a perfect one because Loconto had Swords to Plowshares, which is like a much better Condemn (obviously fast). Big deal. Everyone had Swords to Plowshares. Its inclusion was an automatic of the format, a kind of planned one-for-one for Erhnam Djinn... It had nothing to do with the kinds of strategic principles holding Buehler's deck together. You can essentially say the same thing about Randy's Nevinyrral's Disks; everyone playing his style of deck played four of these. What matters is how decks are differentiated from stock versions, the unique elements that set apart the innovative ones.

Patrick Chapin

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When Pat Chapin was developing his Korlash deck this year, the mighty Detroit (Great Lakes?) Regional Champion came to me with a dilemma. His deck was powerful but could lose strategically in one of three different ways (Persecute, Blood Moon, and storm combo decks). Of the three, Blood Moon was the most significant; Pat's deck had game against Gruul, but it was really only 50/50 in Game 1. Going into Regionals, we didn't know precisely what kind of Gruul decks were going to show up, and from his local FNM metagame, Pat anticipated decks with as many as six copies of Blood Moon and Magus of the Moon. His proposed solution: one Mind Bend.

Blood Moon
There are many problems with one Mind Bend as a solution to Blood Moon. The most obvious is that Pat couldn't find it (Korlash is a Dimir House Guard deck, not a Mystical Teachings engine deck). Also significant was the fact that if he was planning to fight six Blood Moons with one Mind Bend, he would always have too much skin in the game come a redundant copy. My solution was a little different: play Last Gasp and Volcanic Hammer.

I thought Pat was misidentifying the reason he lost to Blood Moon. Most of the time when you lose to Blood Moon, it's your fault. Blood Moon isn't very good in a general sense, Magus of the Moon isn't very good, and when you are losing to these cards, which are basically do-nothings or do-nothings dolled up like Gray Ogres, you are too greedy or you're not playing with your head on straight, or you made some horrendous sequence of mistakes earlier, or you mis-sideboarded (or you didn't see them coming so your deck is fraught with inefficiencies that give up too much time). In Pat's case, his nonbasics were being turned into Mountains so his Korlash was unsatisfyingly little. Pat was losing to Gruul 50% of the time in Game 1 before a lot of Blood Moon shenanigans, and may have been losing to Blood Moon sideboarded... but was probably just actually losing to the same good elements of the green-red beatdown decks, with Blood Moon in play just by coincidence. He might have had responses curtailed because of that, but who knows if he would have won anyway? Oftentimes the relatively expensive Blood Moon makes an offensive draw worse.

When you lose to Gruul (Regionals-era Gruul), you are usually losing to the Kird Apes and the Scab-Clan Maulers. They get in for 2, 5, another 5, and all of a sudden you're dead to basically everything. You might lose to a Char, or a Giant Solifuge, and think that you would be okay but for the Blood Moon that is keeping you from Damnation mana, but the fact of the matter is that the opponent had 2/3s for one mana and 3/3s for two and you were worried about a three-mana card that doesn't even do any damage. It doesn't really matter how he closes the last few points; his deck has like 20 burn cards.

In PT–Charleston, for good or ill, my team (Paul Jordan and GP–Columbus Champion Steve Sadin) and our extended family (Osyp, Josh Ravitz, Jonny Magic, and their teams) tested a lot of green-red. I mean green-red was our main litmus test deck. Whether or not it was actually played, Gruul gave us a bearing on the speed of the format, showed us what was possible with aggressive decks, and provided something to shoot at as we developed our counter-offensives. By far the best deck we had against Gruul—better than blue-red-white Firemane, better than green-white Glare—was the black-white Bats deck I eventually played in Charleston. The big difference between my deck and a lot of the stock Orzhov builds? No Dark Confidants, four Last Gasps main.

Last Gasp was vital in the Gruul Matchup. For most decks, one-drop into Scab-Clan Mauler was, if not game over, pretty close to it. They could always stick a Cloak and a Char, weasel into Demonfire. Last Gasp took away their best draw, and on the turn when Gruul was king and most other decks were praying they had a Signet to drop. That was it. That was their plan. They won based on damage set up from the second turn. My deck was extraordinarily powerful in the middle turns, with drops from Ghost Council of Orzhova to Skeletal Vampire; I was going to win the majority of games that I got to play these cards. Draw Last Gasp to foil the Scab-Clan Mauler, and all you have is these slower games. For Korlash at Regionals, we just ported the forgotten Last Gasps back to Standard with the same intention.

Last Gasp is a perfect card for the anti-Gruul role for several reasons. Obviously it's cheap, but it can easily deal with the hallmark Gruul threats of Kird Ape and Scab-Clan Mauler. Even under Blood Moon, Pat's deck can muster the single to play it. If "Blood Moon" is actually Magus of the Moon, Last Gasp is actually a highly efficient way to kill it, netting a mana at the same time that it plays one-for-one. Last Gasp ended up really good and Pat was so enamored of its performance against the expected beatdown thathe moved one copy to the main. Volcanic Hammer is just more Last Gasps! The cool thing is that in Pat's deck, if Blood Moon was the card wrecking him, he could always play Volcanic Hammer.

Pat learned to love his Korlashes a little less, or a little differently, searching up basic Swamps to best Blood Moon; the improved, forcibly interactive, sideboard did the rest against Gruul for the most part, and he came back from the dreaded 0-1 deficit to win his Regionals.

How does an attention to defensive speed differ from just playing inexpensive cards? I think of it as being aware of the threats in the format, what defines the problems you will have to face and beat, and being fast enough to beat those threats, very specifically. A good example is Volcanic Hammer versus Pyroclasm at . Pyroclasm is many times better against a green-white deck whose big finisher is Vitu-Ghazi, the City-Tree. However that wasn't Pat's problem in this deck. He didn't expect to face green-white, and even if he needed a big sweeper, Damnation would do the same job (these kinds of swarms don't define the game offensively that quickly). In spirit, I also believe that the card selection functions differently.

If you think of the initiative of a game as an object, that is something one player or another holds, and something that the other has to wrest away in order to win the game, it follows that the means to steal the initiative successfully must be appropriate to the task. Playing The Legends of Team CMU at Regionals this year, I was faced with a couple of green-red and green-white beatdown matchups. In one match, I led with a Watery Grave; the green-white opponent happily played first turn Savannah Lions—basically his optimal open—and I responded with a lowly 1/1 Epochrasite, which he read. Notice how perfectly Epochrasite is suited to the task of fighting Savannah Lions. That Lions was basically voided for the entirety of the duel. Kird Ape is a little better... At least it walks away from a tussle with a chumping Epochrasite. However a deck that is tuned to defensive speed should hopefully be able to manage for two turns, perhaps with incremental spot removal or another Epochrasite, until the original warps in as a 4/4 (much bigger than the Kird Ape this time). Consider how two powerless green two-drops have filled similar niches in otherwise traditional control strategies, Wall of Roots in (original) Baron, or Wall of Blossoms in Donais Five-color. These cards seem in some wise non-synergistic with a long game control strategy, and to some superficial eyes completely at odds with the rest of the deck ("two-drops and Wrath of God, nice combo"). However the inclusion of these kinds of cards which can slow down creature offenses while at the same time offering things that blue or multicolored control decks might find valuable, like mana (Roots) and deck velocity (Blossoms), combined with their fastest points of contribution (turn two) made them very reasonable cards to consider, play, and succeed with.

Red decks use a variety of complicated strategies to accomplish the same goals as board control-driven blue and black. A key example would be to reverse-engineer a card like Volcanic Hammer that we talked about in Korlash, above, to its roots in the Deadguy Red / Red Deck Wins school: Before it was tasked to slaying Scab-Clan Maulers, Volcanic Hammer (and its predecessor, Incinerate) were beatdown cards that cleared the path or ended lives. How does the Red Deck approach defensive deck speed within an ostensibly aggressive framework? Dave Price, unquestioned master of all things Mountain, would go second. Red mirror matches, he always taught, all tended to look the same. One player plays guys, the other player kills guys. At the end of a murder of removal spells, one of those players gets there with the last remaining, unanswered, threat. Think about it... Don't you want the opponent to commit Jackal Pup first, so you can respond in a turn with Incinerate? Isn't it better to let him lay two X/1 creatures—even if one is a Mogg Fanatic—so you can defend with a single Fanatic? When both players' cards are so cheap and so fragile, might you not want to go second to get the extra card?

A whole school of modern Red Decks from Time Spiral Block Constructed is doing the same thing with cards like Mogg War Marshal. In some situations, the War Marshal and his little friends can take out as many as three opposing threats (if even virtually), but that is not often true... they don't actually trade successfully; however, it is almost the case that the War Marshal can stave of 6 or more damage, slowing the opposing beatdown to a crawl, and giving the War Marshal Red Deck sufficient time—and permanents—to approach its end game trumps.

Defensive deck speed is a concept that I try to build into all of my control designs, and something I keep in mind even in aggressive decks. Last spring when we brought back Boros (this time with the initially naysayed Garrison), beating black-white decks was a key goal, but with Hand of Honor to fight Watchwolf and Scab-Clan Mauler, and Paladin en-Vec to strap on a Jitte, the Boros deck ended up being one of the best possible strategies against the popular Zoo and Gruul approaches to agro; while Boros was ostensibly a beatdown deck, it never really attacked in the early game, never swarmed at all, and tended to attack with just one creature at a time, holding everyone back with Manriki-Gusari on defense, until a sufficient advantage in life and board position had been reached. Of the myriad configurations of red and white aggressive cards available in the rich palette of Kamigawa and Ravnica Blocks, we moved away from the originally stock 8 1/1 flyers build to both Volcanic Hammerand Lightning Helix for the simple reason that these cards killed Kird Ape, Scab-Clan Mauler, and Watchwolf in the early game... and our Jittes and Paladins gave us the confidence to play a waiting game, even in aggro.

When possible, and in fact most of the time, I try to make my response cards faster and more numerous (without being inflexible) than the main threats of the format. The way that answers work in Magic, especially pinpoint answers, is that you have to have the right cards, and the right type of cards, at the right time. If you have responses that are too clunky or slow or narrow, you will inevitably fall to fast and efficient threats. Moreover, if there are particularly important threats in a format that, left unchallenged, will wreck you (for example last year, meaning 2005 Champs, we thought that second turn Hypnotic Specter decks were going to be an issue), I will try to incorporate something like twice the relevant answers at that commensurate or faster speed into a deck... In the case of the Birds-into-Specters threat, we had Mana Leak and Remand on two versus Hypnotic Specter on two or three, and could fall back to Boomerang into Rewind if need be.

I know that defensive deck speed and the specific positioning of flexible answers is not something that most of you probably think about when building your decks (last night Zvi asked me, jokingly of course, if I was asking him if he ever thought about how quickly he "wouldn't lose"), but I hope that this was an interesting introduction to the principle.

On another note...

French Nationals

I don't actually want to get too much into French Nationals because they were held with Ninth Edition and smack of Seething Songs, Persecutes, and Kird Apes, but there is one deck that I really wanted to discuss because I think it's a little special.

Me: Have you seen the French Nationals decks? Ranque's made me gag a little.
Josh Ravitz: Really? I actually kind of liked that deck.
Me: Like it? I LOVE IT. Don't you get it? Ranque's deck is sick.

Wilfried Ranque

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The interesting stuff with this deck begins with the mana base. When was the last time we saw snow getting pushed? The singleton Overgrown Tomb and Blood Crypt are highly synergistic with Korlash and Twisted Abomination; finding the lands to play Detritivore or Gaea's Blessing should not be difficult.

Phyrexian Ironfoot
The creatures in this deck are a strange mix. It is neither here nor there, but most of them regenerate. Phyrexian Ironfoot is just a bit of an extra Scrying Sheets cheat; Detritivore helps grind out other control decks.

I really like this look at Swamp searching, and the double splash off of so few sources is inspired. It makes me sad (well, more sad that I was already going to be) that we are losing the wonderful Ravnica Block duals, because that constricts the time that we will be able to play such a uniquely designed look at "Swamps Matter" black control.

A lot of the individual card choices (one Coalition Relic in the sideboard, two different Quagnoth line items, the strange tuning of Phyrexian Ironfoot, the fact that if you House Guard for one Dodecapod the jig is up, no fourth Damnation anywhere) are puzzling or even maddening, but I think "the big idea" of this deck is big enough that it could be a significant contender in upcoming Standard metagames. I know I'm definitely going to give the idea a whirl.

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