Fancypants and the Prime Directive

Posted in Level One on June 3, 2014

By Mike Flores

Turn One: Paul

Paul plays a Mountain and casts a Figure of Destiny.

Henry plays a Watery Grave, tapped.

Turn One: Jay

Jay plays a Marsh Flats, pays 1 life to sacrifice it for Sacred Foundry, pays 2 life to put the Sacred Foundry onto the battlefield straight up, and casts... a Figure of Destiny.

Henry plays a Watery Grave, tapped.

Turn Two: Paul

Paul plays a Mountain, attacks with his Figure of Destiny, and taps one of his Mountains to make his Figure of Destiny a 2/2 Kithkin Spirit.

Henry plays a Swamp, and casts a Dark Confidant.

Paul taps his Mountain and throws a Lightning Bolt at the Dark Confidant.

Turn Two: Jay

Jay plays a Scalding Tarn, attacks with his Figure of Destiny, and taps his preexisting Sacred Foundry to make the aforementioned Figure of Destiny a 2/2 Kithkin Spirit.

Henry plays a Swamp, and casts a Dark Confidant.

Jay goes deep and stares at his Scalding Tarn, like the remnant leaves at the bottom of a prophetic teacup...

What should I do?

Can I even afford to get a Mountain here?

Jay thinks, Thinks, THINKS about which Mountain variant, if any, he can afford to get.

Should it be Steam Vents?

Am I playing a Blood Crypt this week?

Gah! Jay curses himself. I should have gotten some kind of Plains on turn one! That was the mistake!

...the conclusion that, of course, doesn't solve the question of whether he should get a Mountain this turn, or just wait to untap.

Should I have not pumped Figure of Destiny? Of course I should have pumped Figure of Destiny! Right?

"Jay, did you say something?" asks Henry, understandably.

"Oh, uh...sorry...just talking to myself. Tanking."

"Obviously," concurs Henry. "But you going to make a move?"

"Stop rushing me!"

"Sorry Jay...I didn't mean to rush you."

"No problem. Sorry back. Just tanking. Um, I guess I'll do this..."

Jay resolves to crack the Scalding Tarn, fetches his Stomping Ground (though he doesn't seem at all happy about it) and throws a Lightning Bolt at the Dark Confidant.

"Whew," concludes Jay. "Okay, turn three."

Turn Three: Paul

Paul plays his third Mountain, considers his position a moment, and taps all three for Red ManaRed ManaRed Mana, making his Figure of Destiny a 4/4 Kithkin Spirit Warrior.

"Take four," says Paul; Henry nods and scribbles down a revised life total.

On his turn, Henry plays a second Dark Confidant.

Turn Three: Jay

"Sigh," says Jay aloud, and literally. "Follow through."

Jay plays a Hallowed Fountain straight up (marking a further 2 points off of his life total) and makes Red ManaRed ManaWhite Mana to send his 4/4 Kithkin Spirit Warrior into the red zone.

Henry nods and marks 4 damage off on his life pad.

On his turn, Henry plays a second Dark Confidant.

Turn Four: Paul

Paul untaps, draws, and considers his position and potential attack.

"Got another Lightning Bolt?" asks Henry.

"Nope," responds Paul. "Not a Lightning Bolt, but this should work." Paul taps three and pays the full price for Rift Bolt before attacking for 4 again. "Not fancy or anything."

A perturbed Henry scratches off 4 more life.

Turn Four: Jay

Jay untaps, draws, and considers his position and potential attack.

"Got another Lightning Bolt?" asks Henry.

"Nope," responds Paul. "But that Bob is very, very dead." Jay taps two for a table-snapping Tribal Flames, then attacks.

The perturbed Henry of this universe, too, scratches off 4 more life.

Will Paul win his game? Will Jay?

Both of these Red Deck mages look to be in commanding positions against their respective, hapless, Henrys.

How different are their positions? What can we say about Paul or Jay?

Jay's game to this point has certainly been more decision-intensive. Each and every move—from his mana taps, up—has required careful consideration. What lands is he playing? Which is the most appropriate way to go? These have been harrowing for Jay so far. Although, to be fair, he is in about the same spot as Paul and his modest Mountains.

At this point, Jay has saved a sum total of one mana (relative to Paul) and managed to waste some additional damage on Dark Confidant overload.

But, did you notice where Jay fell short of Paul?

Jay spent close to half his starting life total just getting lands.

There is nothing particularly wrong with Jay's strategy, relative to Paul's, but what is most important to note at this point is the two players are in almost identical positions offensively.

In Magic, as in many things, there are multiple routes that can get you to the same destination. Long-term success asks you to evaluate what one route asks you to do versus another and if increased costs pair meaningfully with increased payouts.

The Time Machine

In the spring of 1998, I was preparing for the Regional Championships (we used to have these open events called Regional Championships that fed into National Championships tournaments). I made a deck that I sent to now-R&D, but then "merely" Mad Genius, Erik Lauer for his feedback. The deck never went anywhere, so forgive me if this isn't exactly-exactly what I sent:

Five-Color Deadguy

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For reference, the dominant deck of the era looked something like this:

Deadguy Red

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Erik sent me a terse email along the lines of, "Why would you ever want to play something like that?"

Dense, I didn't initially understand. So I probed for more information. In hindsight, his explanation was kind of obvious.

What did my proposed multicolored deck offer beyond the dominant Red Deck of the time?

Ironclaw Orcs isn't, traditionally speaking, a very good Magic: The Gathering creature. River Boa, on the other hand, is super exciting. Between the three of them, Dauthi Slayer, Dauthi Horror, and River Boa are quite the offensive trio at two. They are all difficult to block at least some of the time, and River Boa in particular is a fine defender (which Ironclaw Orcs never is).

Uktabi Orangutan gave my deck some defensive flexibility (especially against opposing Cursed Scrolls) and the presence of five-color lands like Gemstone Mine and City of Brass let me experiment with powerful sideboard cards like Honorable Passage (great against Ball Lightning or Fireblast).


The cost of playing that multicolored deck was exorbitant!

City of Brass and Karplusan Forest and Sulfurous Springs? How was I ever going to beat a blocker-removing Shock, Ball Lightning, and Fireblast?

And all those nonbasic lands? How was I ever going to beat Jackal Pup into Wasteland?

For that matter, dipping into all those other colors might have given me some superficial flexibility, but it cost me my own Ball Lightning and Fireblast! I had no Mountains to sacrifice for Fireblast, and mustering Red ManaRed ManaRed Mana was not something my Black ManaBlack Mana/1 ManaGreen Mana deck was likely to do under pressure or on curve.

For all these reasons, my multicolored deck could be considered a more mana challenged, less reach-capable and consistent (read: "bad") Deadguy Red deck.

Or, in Erik's words, why would I ever want to play something like that?

Or to put it in the context of what Level One readers have studied so far, why would I ever want to play something like that (a beatdown deck) when an established, much more consistent, stock offering already existed that...

Like Jay in the first part of our article, I was just working super hard to do exactly the same things as the known deck. At best.In reality, I had a worse mana curve because I could hit my land drops and not be able to cast my spells; I had substantially weaker direct-damage options; and because I could have cards stuck in my hand, my Cursed Scrolls might never come online (so no card advantage outside of a pair of Uktabi Orangutans).

In some cases, the extra work can be worth it, but the defining "difference that makes the difference" is generally in capability. A Dauthi Slayer and an Ironclaw Orcs are both 2/2 creatures for two mana that play miserable defense. Is it worth bending my mana base for a Black ManaBlack Mana to cast Dauthi Slayer? It was arguable that my deck had any extra capability at all.

Sometimes, however, you do get a little extra mileage out of truly absurd mana bases.

Ken Yukuhiro's Five-Color Zoo

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Deathrite Shaman and Noble Hierarch contend for the title of best one-drop of all time.

Playing Deathrite Shaman almost presupposes playing Arid Mesa, Marsh Flats, and company. Playing these one-drops allowed Ken to play not just Geist of Saint Traft, but Geist of Saint Trafton turn two. White made for Lightning Helix and blue let Ken rebuy Lightning Helix with Snapcaster Mage. A deck like this one can pose many more and different problems for opponents than a more straightforward beatdown deck, and much more differentiation in capability than my 1998 Dauthi Horrors and River Boas.

When players—especially early on, after catching the deck-design fever that makes Magic so addictive—start putting together their own builds, they tend to focus on ideas and avenues rather than destinations. Wouldn't it be cool if... more than What is this going to cost me? or even Okay, so now what?

Successful designers of competitive decks can obviously be creative in how they put card ideas together, but they tend to focus on what those cards ultimately offer and can accomplish together rather than just what cool interactions or deviations they can represent along the way to getting somewhere.

"If you want to live a happy life, tie it to a goal, not to people or things."

—Albert Einstein

Just because you can do something doesn't make it a viable strategy. If your deck asks you to jump through hoops (read: mana requirements) of unusual size or shape, you had best be getting paid off, especially when there are known alternatives. At this point in Magic, strategies tend to progress by getting tighter, doubling down on their core consistencies, and sloughing off the fancypants.

Which leaves us with the Prime Directive for deck design:

NEVER play a bad "something else."

(a beginning)


Further Reading:

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