Speed, Inevitability, and Futility

Posted in Feature on November 29, 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."

Master_WarcraftFor those of you who have been asking, yes, Swimming with Sharks will [once again] take up at least some of the task of Constructed Magic Online coverage. At the time of this writing, though, we still don't have decks or playback from the post-Lorwyn Premiere Events... But we'll keep you posted! Check back next week! That is all about that!

So this week I decided to cover three basic strategic principles that even seasoned tournament players regularly fumble. I hope this one will be useful to you.


Some decks just beat other decks.

Sorry, there isn't anything you can do about it.

Frustrating, isn't it?

I am not talking about matchups that come down to tight margins, dashing tactics, and exquisite play skill... There are just some matchups where one deck has the other one covered because of how they interact with one another. When we think about real races and real interaction, usually each player is dashing for the finish line, trying to execute on his plan before the opponent; one might have disruption geared towards increasing the opponent's Fundamental Turn so that he can finish first. Sometimes it's a pure damage race, or an oblique one, creatures against decking. Almost all matchups have one player, or one deck, favored from the outset... Sometimes a matchup can be really good (like Deadguy Red over Hatred) or frustratingly bad (think Deadguy Red against Secret Force), but still competitive. However, in the really futile matchups, one deck will win even if the opponent hits his plan first, many times thanks to that! Thinking about this topic, I dialed it back to Grand Prix–Boston 2005, the time of the Japanese invasion, when a cadre of superstars including then-Resident Genius Tsuyoshi Fujita, the as-yet unknown Kenji Tsumura, and eventual winner Masashi Oiso left their mark on Bean Town, for some fiercely applicable examples.

Two different Quarterfinals matchups both illustrate this notion of futility. Let's have a look...

Lucas Glavin 2-0 over Osyp Lebedowicz

Lucas Glavin

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Cephalid Illusionist
Lucas was the first player to make big event noise with a hybridized Cephalid Breakfast deck including a Life combo. He correctly identified that there was a lot of potential overlap between the two combinations, and glued them together with Worldly Tutor and Living Wish.

How did this deck work?

The Cephalid Breakfast combo was any en-Kor (such as Nomads en-Kor) and Cephalid Illusionist. The en-Kor targeted Illusionist, the library suffered, eventually all relevant material was in the graveyard. Lucas would set up his deck with Krosan Reclamation for Exhume and/or Reanimate; Cabal Therapy (from the graveyard) would provide cover fire, and it was all Sutured Ghoul eating Krosan Cloudscraper, coming into play with Dragon Breath, and angrily attacking. Roar! (Today you don't have to walk a mile to school in the snow, shoeless, uphill both ways... or waste a turn on Krosan Reclamation; Dread Return works from the graveyard, and three Narcomoebas will get you the requisite fodder without complaint or additional mana investment.)

The Life combo, conveniently, also involved busy en-Kor creatures... They would target Daru Spiritualist, who would gain very large toughness (say three trillion) and then give up earthly concerns for the Worthy Cause of near-infinite life gain, either via Starlit Sanctum or Worthy Cause itself.

Osyp Lebedowicz

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Sideboard (15)
1 Snap 1 Intuition 3 Brain Freeze 2 Turnabout 2 Echoing Truth 1 Rebuild 1 Prismatic Strand 1 Meditate 1 Stroke of Genius 1 Stifle 1 Mana Leak

How did this deck work?

Cloud of Faeries
Mind's Desire was a storm combo deck that utilized the Urza's Legacy untap mechanic and Sapphire Medallion (or Sunscape Familiar) to net mana and generate repeated action. With Sapphire Medallion in play, Cloud of Faeries only cost , but still untapped two lands; therefore Osyp would immediately net one mana by playing it, and still have his mana untapped. Now figure in Snap on the Cloud of Faeries... There is another one mana net, with a Cloud back in hand ready to net yet another mana. Accumulated Knowledge with Intuition and Deep Analysis would give Osyp enough cards that he would be able to play these or similar spells several times, jacking the storm count for Brain Freeze. With two Sapphire Medallions in play, he could just "Wish for Wish" over and over to jack the Storm count as well, one mana for each Cunning Wish.

Because his deck won with Brain Freeze, completely circumventing damage as a kill condition, the opponent's life total was basically irrelevant. Osyp actually "beat" Masahiko Morita (see below) in the last round of the Swiss, but elected to draw him into second place... He felt that Life was an easy matchup, one that he wanted in the Top 8 in order to increase his chances of winning the Grand Prix... So why was Osyp flattened 2-0 by Lucas, a Life-like deck? Unlike Lucas, Morita didn't have the Cephalid combo...

Think about it like this: Lucas wants to mill his entire deck. Osyp... um... Wants to mill Lucas's entire deck? The process of setting up the Brain Freeze kill, spending all of his card drawing and energy, actually helped Glavin in Boston. Osyp would "kill" Lucas, but in the process fill his graveyard with Cabal Therapys and set up his Krosan Reclamation! Lucas would respond the next turn with a triple-covered reanimation attack thanks to Cabal Therapy, and one blow from the Sutured Ghoul would be enough.

Osyp was obviously in trouble. He rode to the top of the Swiss, first seed in the Top 8, but had a very rough matchup once he got there. In order to win, Osyp would have had to set up an actual kill, that is, something along the lines of a Deep Analysis or Stroke of Genius to actually force Lucas to draw cards that were not there rather than settling for deck exhaustion. Later in the Grand Prix season, Lebedowicz would experiement with cards like Words of Wisdom for a potential cheap kill card. The matchup was not impossible (the Life half was certainly irrelevant) but the fact that Osyp's deck and Lucas's had the same focus put the matchup decidedly in Glavin's favor for that tournament.

While Osyp's matchup with Lucas was rough, it was not an exercise in sheer impossibility like Morita's with Oiso...

Masashi Oiso 2-0 over Masahiko Morita

Masahiko Morita

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How did this deck work?

Morita's Loop Junktion (Life) deck functioned like the second half of Glavin's combo deck. The difference is that Morita's deck was so much more redundant than Lucas's... Because he did not have to fit the Cephalid combo, Morita had room for more en-Kors, four copies of Worthy Cause in the store itself, and a finisher in Test of Endurance. The big question mark from Loop Junktion was what happened after Morita got what he wanted. Obviously a deck like Red Deck Wins or Goblins would be unable to do anything and Morita would eventually be able to win with a Serra Avatar or Genesis, but a fast combo deck—even one that had been pre-empted by Morita's combo—would be able to take the time in between his successful plan execution and the actual end of the game and combo back. It isn't a great stretch of the imagination that an opponent like Osyp would welcome opposition from Morita.

Masashi Oiso

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Masashi Oiso's deck is an even better example of a deck that has Loop Junktion "covered," and Aluren has even become the classic foil to Life.

How did this deck work?

In terms of actual game metrics, Aluren has to be the most impressive combo deck of all time. Pro Tour standouts like Tom Guevin criticized Trix for gaining 20 life in the middle of a 20 life loss combo, but Aluren, successfully executed, can gain infinite life, inflict infinite life loss, generate infinite mana, and draw its entire deck... not just 19-39 extra cards.

With namesake Aluren in play, this deck can play numerous two-card combinations, all of which are very impressive. Auriok Champion + Cavern Harpy is just infinite life. Play Auriok Champion for free. Play Cavern Harpy for free; gain 1 life; return Cavern Harpy to hand via its comes-into-play ability, repeat three trillion and one times. With infinite life, you can start actually paying life for the pleasure of Cavern Harpy's time. Therefore Cavern Harpy + Raven Familiar (or in some versions Wirewood Savage, which does not require a lot of life point investment) allows you to draw your deck. Note that you don't actually have to have infinite life to take advantage of this sub-combo... Cavern Harpy and Raven Familiar with just a handful of life will allow you to draw into your Auriok Champion. There's that pesky Cloud of Faeries again! If Sapphire Medallion let Mind's Desire generate one mana per Cloud of Faeries, how much mana do you think Aluren and Cavern Harpy can make? Eventually it's Maggot Carrier who ends it all. Play and re-play it with Cavern Harpy, and you can dig through even Loop Junktion's enormous post-combo life total!

Because I'm not the sort to put out depressing deck matchups without anything actionable to take away, let's move on to the what does this all mean phase... Because some decks fit other decks' agendas like Legos, if you are one of the victim decks—assuming you are gearing up for a tournament where you'll have to beat one of the victor decks—it is probably important to have a plan. We can look at a deck like Lucas Glavin's as the "after" shot. If he had been straight Life, Lucas would have been a dog to Osyp; as it was, he was a favorite, with Osyp's deck helping Lucas hit his combo. How could Osyp improve from the other side of the table? It would be hard, but I think he would need to be able to draw at least enough cards to withstand Krosan Reclamation, a card that would be a problem from the graveyard essentially 100% of the time, and probably worse if it wasn't in the graveyard.

What about Morita's bad matchup? In this case—and this is important—it didn't matter whether or not he hit his infinite life combo. That is an important thing to remember! The Life player is usually very focused on gaining millions of life points to bury limited decks like Goblins or Red Deck Wins, but against Aluren the baseline combo is completely irrelevant. In fact, going through the motions and looking for the cards to gain lots of life would probably be a waste of time and a squandering of resources and opportunity. If Oiso could win, he could win for 20 or thirty million, whichever, anything in between. In order to win, a Loop Junktion player would have to shift perspectives and figure out a way to win outright before Aluren "went off" against him; though he didn't quite get there, Morita attempted to go Bear (Meddling Mage) beats in his second game against Oiso... The thirty million life from the first game disappeared pretty quickly. Glavin's hybrid deck is of course a good example of a fast alternate win, and it is important to note that after this Grand Prix, straight Life—an early predator of the popular Red Deck Wins—fell largely out of favor for the Cephalid version.

A minor branch of the futility family tree exists on the individual card, rather than overall strategy, level. Here incidental card choices go great lengths in improving matchups and feeding deck value in a metagame. Look back at Osyp's Snaps. Back during the above Extended season a fairly popular combo deck was Reanimator, which was designed to deploy a fast Akroma, Angel of Wrath or Rorix Bladewing, often at the cost of most or all of its hand, but setting up a three-turn clock as quickly as the first or second turn. Akroma, Terminate-resistant as she was, was thought to be an inviolate threat... but not against Snap! Snap, being blue, could hit her, and worse, would put her back in hand not in the graveyard where she could be reanimated a second time. Years before it was a slightly unpopular Extended deck, Balancing Tings (Balancing Act + Terravore) was a fairly popular Standard deck. That largely ended with the Tier One Standard takeover of what would for some time be considered the best creature ever, Psychatog. Look at how that one creature, Psychatog itself, has both Balancing Act and Terravore covered. It's pretty difficult to manage your hand with Balancing Act on the stack when the opponent controls Psychatog (he can make you discard everything, including your intended kill card Terravore, if it is still in hand); some players elected to play the Terravore before Balancing Act, but that was a dismal fight as well. Terravore versus Psychatog straight up is a horrendous matchup, as Psychatog can give Terravore -2/-2 at will while giving itself +1/+1!

There is a lot of value to be had by identifying the places where these subtle interactions appear in a metagame, where a popular deck has a near-futile blind spot to a card that would just be good to play in a reasonable deck. For example, numerous decks can punish Bridge from Below just by playing Mogg Fanatic or Sakura-Tribe Elder, slowing down Dredge without resorting to pure hate like Leyline of the Void or Tormod's Crypt. Boros Deck Wins was a popular option at Extended at last year's World Championships thanks to the printing of Sudden Shock; yes, that spell helped push Boros to a new level of good creatures, appropriately efficient burn, and potential slow-rolling... but it also scared off metagame competitors like Wild Mongrel, Arcbound Ravager, and the aforementioned Dr. Teeth, which helped the Boros deck's position in the environment. One thing that I try to do when picking a deck is to identify these little edges and interactions, and use that information to help craft my deck choice decision. The ultimate goal in tournament preparation is figuring out which deck has the greatest chance of winning the tournament, and when the competition is fierce, every little edge counts.


Inevitability refers to who wins a long game. The concept is from a Zvi Mowshowitz article, a follow-up to Who's the Beatdown? by YT. Rather than going into every nuance of inevitability, I just want to touch one element that many players get horribly wrong basically always. This is "misassignment of role = game loss" level!

Regardless of what you may have read on the back of a nearby cereal box...

  • The control deck in a matchup does not necessarily have inevitability.
  • The slower deck in a matchup is not necessarily favored in the long game.

The best example I can think of is a board control deck against a beatdown deck with significant direct damage. Usually what will happen is that Zoo, or Boros, or Deadguy Red will get in for 10 points, the board control deck will use its mighty board creature sweeper spells to generate a little card advantage and stabilize... and then the players will reach a crossroads.

Many cocksure or inexperienced board control players will decide that they are favored in the long game and attempt to win attrition fights or generate lots of card advantage. Often, what they should be doing is trying to figure out how to win as fast as possible! You see, board control decks without permission spells are just going to get themselves killed by direct damage if they don't get their butts in gear. You can't Wrath of God a Fireball to the face.

Pyre Zombie
Testing for Pro Tour–Tokyo with Brian Kibler, we encountered a strange phenomenon in the black-red aggressive vs. black-red control matchup: the aggressive deck was favored. I thought this was very strange as the aggressive playtest deck had relatively unimpressive cards like Shivan Zombie that would all eventually die as the controlling deck would take over with Pyre Zombie control or create wild swings with Void. The thing was that both decks had Pyre Zombie long games. The controlling deck had a little more land, was arguably the "better Pyre Zombie deck," but early beatdown put it behind in a race where both decks had similar tools. The controlling deck had to use its removal on creatures whereas the attack deck, ahead in the race thanks to those unimpressive Shivan Zombies, could use its direct damage directly on the opponent. Despite being behind on every measurable but one, the aggressive deck was consistently ahead. This result was very surprising. I eventually took it for a general rule, though Red Deck master Dan Paskins disagrees. That said, I think we would both agree that the controlling deck can't sit back and try to win on card advantage... The game is going to slip away if he thinks that is the paradigm!

This is not to say that blue decks can't fall victim. Josh Ravitz had a different general rule about two years ago, that the more burn spells a Zoo / Boros deck played, the worse it would be against creatures... but the better against control. It is pretty easily to resolve burn spells against control. Get the control to a certain life total with your guys, and the game will probably be yours from hand to face.

If you get the opponent low enough, there is no easy way for most blue decks to beat an aggressive burn strategy. At some point, every card becomes must-counter, and the blue deck can only hold seven cards. BDM likes to talk about a great game where Don Lim had gotten his blue opponent to 1, but was completely locked under a sea chest of Counterspells, facing the veritable avalanche of card advantage. Don figured out how to win, and it was beautiful. Rather than being "locked" he actually realized he couldn't lose.

Don simply waited until he had drawn into eight burn spells!

The opponent would only have seven permission spells maximum, and probably not enough mana to use them all anyway.

Had he sent the burn one at a time rather than stockpiling, Don would, or at least could, have lost. The opponent would have countered the threats piecemeal and drawn extra cards, eventually countering every burn spell. It was by changing the math and exploiting a basic fundamental in the game (maximum hand size) that the clever Don claimed victory.

When you are the control, be prepared to win, possibly quickly; don't stretch out the game just because it seems you will win a long game (you only "might"). Just because you can draw extra cards doesn't mean that's how you should approach the game; many times long games are poison and if you seek them you will just be shaking your head when you lose. Moreover, many of the best players got to be the best via the ability to quickly switch from defensive to attack postures. Jon Finkel, Bob Maher, and Kenji Tsumura can all spring into offense from seemingly passive roles, at essentially any time.

Put a different way, if you're going to play to win in the long game, make sure you are the guy with Inevitability; ain't nothing worse than a bad plan.

Speed, Before and After

What is the difference between these two cards?

Spike Feeder

What about these?

Gaddock Teeg
Ronom Unicorn

Besides the very obvious, each of these two pairs of cards represents the two solutions to specific problems in Extended Magic. Generally speaking, there are two ways to solve problems, to avoid or prevent them so they never bother you, or to deal with them after they've come up. Six years ago, The Rock was a deceptively solid deck when facing hell-raising PT winner Donate. While The Rock was short on power and had no obvious sledgehammer strategy, it had a myriad of different angles by which it could attack Donate. One solution was to take apart the combination of Illusions of Grandeur + Donate before the opponent could execute on it (Duress); the other was to survive the game even if the opponent successfully handed over a 20-point ticking time bomb (Spike Feeder). Neither one of these was a perfect answer (the opponent could always find another piece or reassemble the combo)... but between these two cards, and the many in between, from Scrabbling Claws holding down Accumulated Knowledge to Pernicious Deed or Emerald Charm ready to destroy Illusions of Grandeur with the "gain 20 life" on the stack (the opponent would lose 20 life first, along with the game), The Rock had presented a relentless number of interactions, all of which Donate had to respect, if even just a little bit.

The split between Gaddock Teeg and Ronom Unicorn is a modern update to a modern combo deck. One prevents four-mana spells from being played (like, say, Enduring Ideal); the other beats up Dovescape and other Ideal enchantments, deals with them after they have already drained the opponent's mana and cards in hand, and can force through the last few points by smashing Solitary Confinement.

As the presence of different kinds of answers should be obvious to most Swimming with Sharks readers, what is the point of discussing it at all? The quick answer is speed. Many players will side in solutions to their opponents' decks (good) but will have the wrong timetable (deceptively venomous).

Though it may be obvious, beating the opponent's strategy with a before solution has to be done with a faster card (or barring that, a card at least as fast as the opponent's strategy). A good example of a solution badly wrought would be removal decks against Fires of Yavimaya in 2001 Standard. The opponent would have Blastoderm on turn three and Saproling Burst on turn four. Most creature removal of the era (Terminate being one of the most popular spells) would have not been good solutions to either... but they could try to stop the Birds of Paradise before green mischief got out of hand. The problem? Most of these decks, especially early on, had Urza's Rage as the default creature elimination spell. This card was usually a turn, if not two, too slow to beat The Fix, especially on the draw. Spot creature removal was completely pointless! It was no wonder that Fires was so dominant (on balance, Zvi Mowshowitz, for my money the greatest deck designer of all time and a member of the upcoming Hall of Fame class, brought Assault to the Pro Tour... notice how this card, while less powerful than Urza's Rage, Rhystic Lightning, or Ghitu Fire, actually affects the opponent's ability to develop in the early game).

Even today, many control decks find themselves in bad situations when preparing for aggressive opponents after sideboarding. I know I have fallen into the seductive trap of Pernicious Deed and Engineered Explosives, Damnation and Tendrils of Corruption more than once! A lot of the time, winning a matchup is about Defensive Deck Speed; you might build your sideboard for card advantage, but often, what you really need is a bunch of cheap spells that can get you to the part of the game where your powerful cards can shine. No one is doubting the control deck's ability to gain card advantage... That is almost a given. In order to beat the good beatdown decks, the challenge is to bring the fight to the opponent where he is strong, before control has developed. The great thing about cards like Akroma's Vengeance is that they really do stomp all over Affinity... but the not-so-good thing is that they can't win in the abstract, all by themselves, against pure speed and card power; these cards need support, and quite often that support is slowing down the opponent's offense with faster removal spells, staving off damage and helping to ensure that you will have life worth defending once your Vengeance is online. It gets even worse when your eggs are in a basket that might get aimed at by Cabal Therapy, Mana Leak, or Remand. This one can require a fair bit of practice to get right, as solutions are often format-dependent, and based on what other people are playing, and how quickly. That said, keep speed, before and after, in mind as you build controlling sideboards. There is usually little reason to reinforce parts of the game that you have already got under your belt, especially if the opponent can deal with those tactics cheaply and at his leisure (his one- to two-mana before has plenty of time to gear up, and he will hold the momentum at exactly the wrong time for you).

Though both styles of solutions are serviceable (and you will many times have both working in the same decks) wherever possible, I try to opt for after solutions. Borrowing a little from the futile (up there), there's nothing like letting the opponent have whatever it was he thought he wanted and beating him anyway. Moreover, before cards usually demand a little more luck than their after equivalents. Think about a card like Sacred Ground... You really need to have it before the opponent starts wrecking your land base (and specifically white mana), maybe as quickly as the second turn indicated by its mana cost, or it's worthless. Have you ever seen a despondent PT winner slump down a Sacred Ground a turn or two subsequent to an opposing Ruination? It's just as sad as it sounds.

Hopefully you found some of the elements of this discussion helpful. Next week is Worlds here in New York! I'm looking forward to it; if you can't be here, check magicthegathering.com for instant updates.

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