The Art of Going Big

Posted in How to Build on June 21, 2016

By Quinn Murphy

Quinn has been fascinated with Magic ever since Revised Edition. When he is not spending time with his lovely wife and amazing son, he's constantly brewing decks for, playing, and writing about Magic.

Casting good spells in Magic is a great feeling. Having a hard-to-answer threat or playing an answer to an opponent's threat at the right time to get maximal effect epitomizes the joy and challenge of playing the game.

But sometimes you want to do more. You want to play a spell that makes your opponent's efficient plans seem laughable. Sometimes you want to cast something a little earlier than you should. Okay, a lot earlier—like, Griselbrand-on-turn-two earlier. Sometimes you need to cast a big spell to which your opponent has almost no answer.

Sometimes you want to go big.

Winning always feels good, but nothing feels quite as good in Magic as a big creature or spell dropped in front of an opponent while she is still building a board. When going big works, it can feel like you're playing a different game; conversely, when the strategy falls flat, it feels like falling off the rails. But if you are preparing to win big, you need to prepare to lose big too. That's the thrill of pursuing this strategy, which always has some place in any set of Magic.

What Does "Big" Mean?

When we say "go big," what are we saying exactly? Are we talking about ramping into big creatures? Going off with a combo on our opponent? How far do we have to go to be big?

When we go big, we are investing some resource (mana is common, but it can be cards in hand or the graveyard, or simply a particular card sequence) to create an effect that is too large for the turn it is cast. Such a definition includes creature-based, land-based, and artifact-based ramp, but it also includes reanimation (particularly in Modern and Legacy) and "cheat" strategies (like Sneak and Show). It can also include control-combo decks like the recent Mono-Blue Prison decks (more on them later) or my favorite, Upheaval-Psychatog blue-black control. Both of these decks don't ramp traditionally, but use some cost-reduction effects—such as Nightscape Familiar and Jace's Sanctum—to make large spells castable sooner. They invest in time, delaying with counters and bounce until they can reach that big turn.

Whatever form the deck takes, the common thread of building big and playing big is that you make a commitment to invest in some resource that provides an oversize payoff, putting you several turns ahead of the opponent. While your opponent is attacking or establishing control, you are making sure that you go beyond their pace. When your opponent casts Sorin, Grim Nemesis, you want to be casting Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger. When a Wild Nacatl and its friends are knocking at your door, you want them to meet your friend Ugin, the Spirit Dragon (or maybe we'll call Ulamog again...it's not like he gets out much!).

In the end, going big is all about the strength and size of your payoffs. You are looking to put one and one together to make eleven, not two. It has to be this way to justify the time you spend building up to that big turn when everything goes off. Spending multiple turns setting up while your opponent is moving ahead with their plan means you need to get several steps ahead to make up for it, not just a few.

When thinking about going big, I like to keep a few things in mind. When you go big, your payoff needs to be two things:

  • Game-changing. It either wins on the spot or gains you immense advantage that leads to you winning shortly after. Ulamog isn't just a threat because he's a 10/10; he creates value simply by being cast. He creates a chain of value if you have a Sanctum of Ugin in play as well. Whatever your payoff is, it needs to create immediate impact.
  • Timely. You need to plan for your big turn and compare it to what is typical in your format on that turn. Ideally you want to be three or more turns ahead of what is reasonable on that turn to get maximum payoff. Dragonlord Atarka on turn five (achievable easily with Explosive Vegetation) is pretty strong in Standard. It gets harder to define "reasonable" in Legacy, but you are likely surpassing that if you are putting Entomb, Exhume, and Griselbrand together by the second turn.

Obviously I love Raymond Cornely's Top 8 Reanimator list from Grand Prix Columbus 2016:

Raymond Cornely's Reanimator—Top 8, GP Columbus

The deck generates raw power but can also shut an opponent down with a nice selection of silver bullets. Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite can shut down decks with lots of small creatures, while Iona, Shield of Emeria can shut down a large swathe of an opponent's deck.

Building Big

Like I've mentioned, there are many methods for going big.

There's the "hypermana" strategy, a term Zvi Mowshowitz coined and wrote a great article about. Essentially, we are using a high amount of mana-producing creatures to create a lot of mana quickly. Your payoffs in this strategy often reward you for playing a lot of these cards, like Craterhoof Behemoth, Gaea's Cradle, or Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx. The amount of power in the payoff is balanced by the fragility of the investment; creatures are the easiest cards in the game to remove.

What's popular in Standard and Modern currently is land-based ramp. Getting more land per turn or getting extra-efficient land can be more stable, as land is harder to remove efficiently than creatures. Putting together the Urza-lands to make a lot of mana on the third turn or using Nissa's Pilgrimage and Nissa's Renewal to pull all the land out of your deck isn't a plan easily impacted by a Wrath of God.

It's worth noting that in Legacy the reanimation is so cheap that it's often a better version of what mana ramp can do. Paying one black mana plus some life for a Grave Titan (via the namesake card Reanimate) is just better than what any ramp spell in that format could be doing.

Reanimation in Standard, by contrast, isn't really that exciting as a "cheat." Many of the times you could cast a Necromantic Summons, you could be ramping a threat out of your hand. Reanimation in Standard is mostly "reuse."

Ever After is another story. Getting two creatures out of the graveyard means not just getting even more value out of your graveyard (Dragonlord Silumgar and Dragonlord Atarka in the same turn!) but also exploiting synergies. Ever After plus Sidisi, Undead Vizier plus just about anything is a powerful engine. You can sacrifice Sidisi to itself to get Ever After back from the bottom of the deck, or just grab any other spell you need. I've seen some lists out there that are exciting, but I'm not sure we've seen the real use of this card yet. Its green sibling, Seasons Past, has certainly made a name for itself, and Ever After is just waiting for the right cards or synergies to go almost as big.

I've covered lots of cheating and rushing to play big spells, but not everyone is in a rush to go big.

The Mono-Blue Prison deck that Martin Müller first popularized is like playing Magic from another era sometimes. The deck invests in time- and cost-reduction with a payoff of casting multiple big spells. Jace's Sanctum makes card draw cheap, but also game-changing spells like Part the Waterveil. The deck seeks to get to a place where it generates multiple consecutive turns of card drawing until it can kill the opponent with a huge Rise from the Tides. The deck isn't fast at all and is fragile against certain cards, but it's great at delaying until it goes big.

I've mentioned one of my favorite decks of all time, Upheaval-Psychatog. The deck keeps the opponent off-tempo with removal, bounce, and counters until it has at least nine mana, which is when it can cast Upheaval and Psychatog in the same turn, creating a helpless opponent and leaving a very live threat on the board. The deck plays much like a control deck until it hits its big turn, which often proves to be too much for the opponent to handle.

We aren't getting that combo back in Standard any time soon, but the combo of Brain in a Jar and Rise from the Tides reminds me of it. Brain in a Jar is an Æther Vial for sorceries, letting you cast sorceries as instants on the cheap. An early Jar can tick up innocuously in the background until it can drop a Rise from the Tides on the opponent's end step and attack for the win. We even get that big spell at a discount so we can protect it with counters! Here we invest in time until we get a very hard-to-deny win condition in play.

There are so many ways to go big in Magic. It doesn't matter if you are fast or slow, as long as you go over the top! Leave fair play to those other mages.

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