The Only Way to Play the Game

Posted in Level One on August 4, 2014

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."

In the Season Four opener of Damages (great television show, by the by) Glenn Close's character, Patty Hewes, cautions her onetime protégé (Rose Byrne's character, Ellen Parsons) about taking on a challenging court case against literally a private army. Ellen, her own person, lawyer, maybe idealist, after three seasons at Patty's beck and call, wants to forge her own path. But Patty, cagey, experienced, and absolutely ruthless, gives her a mote of advice that I hope you can appreciate:

"You know, you talk about wanting to do it your way, but there's only one way to try a case, Ellen—whatever way allows you to win it."

—Patty Hewes

The moment I saw Close deliver that line I rewound the scene and rewatched it. And rewound the scene and rewatched it. And rewound the scene and rewatched it again. Heck, I watched it six times just now.

What a great lesson for Magic: The Gathering, I thought.

And it is!

When I was planning out Level One last year, I always wanted to end my run on this lesson from Patty Hewes, which will hopefully will be inspiring and open-ended for you.

To this, I want to talk about two different combinations. This is Ellen's:

Ellen's "Combo"

Crystalline Sliver has shroud. Opponents lacking specialized removal, a la Devour Flesh (or in Crystalline Sliver's day, Diabolic Edict), will find it difficult or even impossible to remove Crystalline Sliver from the battlefield.

Worship is an enchantment; relatively few decks have an easy time (at least main deck) dealing with enchantments.

Put these two cards together and you might just have an opponent who can't win (at least unless you yourself put the Crystalline Sliver into a position of peril). Not quite a "killer" two-card combination, but close.

A mage will play Crystalline Sliver, then tap out for Worship a turn or two later with every expectation of winning.

...but not against a deck that ends games by some vehicle besides dealing conventional damage.

One of the more memorable games I've played in tournament Magic occurred when my opponent sequenced these two. While he was tapped out for Worship, I killed him with:

Deals no damage.

I was puzzled at why he would tap all his mana for Worship. The play transcended "risky" from my side of the table, almost to the point of concession. His mistake I saw as a reprieve. Normally, a Crystalline Sliver deck full of Counterspells was actually one of my weakest matchups!

"That's what my deck does," said the opponent, unapologetic. "I have to play my deck's plan, right?"

Did he?

What would Patty Hewes say?

I think Patty would tell him to forget about doing it "his way" and figure out what was actually going to allow him to win. And considering the fact that I was playing a High Tide deck that, in fact, had one total source of damage—that had almost no vulnerability to Worship, strategically. I have never been able to get past the lack of flexibility in the face of desired cards shown by that game.

But on the other hand, it helped to inspire a Magic article I wrote some fifteen years ago. You might have heard of it.

Separately, about a month ago, I wrote about a two-card combination deck I played just a couple of years ago, one of the first UR Splinter Twin decks.

UR Splinter Twin

Download Arena Decklist
Planeswalker (6)
2 Jace Beleren 4 Jace, the Mind Sculptor
Sorcery (4)
4 Preordain
Enchantment (4)
4 Splinter Twin
60 Cards

As you're reading this, you are probably already aware of what the core plan of this deck is:

The quintessential two-card combination.

You play Deceiver Exarch. You put Splinter Twin on top of it. Deceiver Exarch gets the ability to make a hasty token version of itself...which untaps the original, allowing it to make another (yielding another untap), over and over and over again. When you're ready, you can attack for however much you want. This is obviously a very powerful combination of cards that allows you to win the game on turn four.

But things don't always go according to plan!

I played four copies of Splinter Twin (other folks at the time might only play three, on account of a redundant one having substantially lower value), but wanted to maximize my chances of finding both cards in my combo. As it turns out, I ended up finding all kinds of things to do with my extra copies of Splinter Twin.

Patty's Combinations...

1. That Time the Opponent Had Batterskull

The weekend I first played UR Twin, Batterskull had just appeared in Standard. It was an auto-in to the dominant deck of the day, Caw-Blade, because of the obvious synergies between Batterskull and Stoneforge Mystic.

One of the reasons I played Manic Vandal was that I figured opponents might be tapping five for Batterskull, and I would have a nice open to drop my Vandal onto it. That turned out to come up nicely, but never so nicely as when I was playing for the elimination rounds...but drew only the Splinter Twin half of my combo.

What the heck? I thought. Why not see how these two cards get along?

The Manic Vandal took out Batterskull, dealing with my opponent's best threat and buying me a ton of time. Outside its artifacts, a Caw-Blade deck's offense is mostly 1/x creatures.

One hard-working Manic Vandal dealt with a Batterskull, a Sword of Feast and Famine, and even held down Spellskite. Spellskite can prevent this deck's two-card combination by stealing Splinter Twin...but not when it is too frightened to come out to play thanks to a Manic Vandal that makes more and more Manic Vandals.

2. That Time the Opponent Had Squadron Hawk (and/or Phyrexian Crusader)

If you weren't surprised at Batterskull, you probably wouldn't be surprised at half the namesake of the Caw-Blade deck, Squadron Hawk, being an issue.

Squadron Hawk is a 1/1 flying creature that generates card advantage; sometimes a two-for-one, but in the wrong situation, as much as four-for-one.

Pilgrim's Eye is a 1/1 flying creature that generates card advantage, too; a two-for-one if ever there was one. Unlike Squadron Hawk, which was a staple in Standard, not many people thought Pilgrim's Eye was very good, let alone to be played in a fast combo deck. If nothing else, Pilgrim's Eye trades straight up for a Squadron Hawk without giving away too much card advantage.

One thing that you know unconsciously but maybe haven't thought about is that Pilgrim's Eye is colorless. That means it can block a Squadron Hawk no matter what Sword the Hawk is wearing. Moreover, in the case of one black-splashing Caw-Blade opponent I faced, it could ignore the protection from red of Phyrexian Crusader.

In multiple cases, I bought the time to find my Deceiver Exarch by playing Splinter Twin on my Pilgrim's Eye. For one thing, that represents an extra card per turn (at least). But no matter what gear, size, or venom my opponent's creature was packing, my infinite Pilgrim's Eye could hold it down.

Or, as I would later put it: "Pilgrim's Eye plus Splinter Twin is basically Jace, the Mind Sculptor."

3. That Time the Opponent Had Gideon Jura

One of the odder pairings to Splinter Twin I had on the day was to put it on Consecrated Sphinx.

This was a really weird game. He had Gideon Jura, but I had Consecrated Sphinx. I didn't particularly want to attack into him with my Consecrated Sphinx, for fear of what would happen to the poor guy in the opponent's contested sky, so every turn, in response to his forcing all creatures to attack, I tapped my Consecrated Sphinx (so it couldn't attack) to make a buddy. This had the added effect of netting me up to two extra cards, depending on the timing.

It was such a weird dance! He could never afford to use Gideon Jura's "Assassinate" ability on my tapped Consecrated Sphinx, because if he ever let up on forcing all creatures to attack Gideon Jura, I could pop the Exarch and send infinite damage straight at him)...I had, of course, been drawing lots of extra cards! At the same time, I knew he might be baiting me into a Day of Judgment, so I refrained from any further commitment.

Eventually, drawing two to four extra cards per turn was too oppressive for him and I was able to move on.

4. That Time the Opponent Had Infinite Life

Standard at the time had a strange White Weenie deck featuring Suture Priest, Phyrexian Metamorph, Leonin Relic-Warder, and others.

In addition to its usual White Weenie-ness, this deck could gain infinite life! If you had Suture Priest in play you could cast Leonin Relic-Warder and then copy it with Phyrexian Metamorph. Phyrexian Metamorph would give you a life when it entered the battlefield, and although a copy of Leonin Relic-Warder, would still be an artifact. It could remove itself. But then it would leave play! Triggering the return of—you guessed it—Phyrexian Metamorph (queue up 1 life)...which copying Leonin Relic-Warder would remove it from the battlefield (again), meaning it would come back (again) Life LIFE. Infinite life!

Now you have to pick a point and stop. You can't actually gain infinite life in Magic. Say you gain one trillion life. That's a lot, right?

Unfortunately, infinite damage is bigger than infinite life. If you gain one trillion from Suture Priest triggers, is there any reason I can't make two trillion Deceiver Exarchs to kill you with?

In fact there I, which is that Suture Priest will ping me for one for every Deceiver Exarch I make...and I only have 20 life to play with.

Unless you do this:

My opponent was able to gain "infinite" life and I got him to concede with a deathtouching, lifelinking Inferno Titan. The Titan pointed points across many creatures (killing them all instantly with deathtouch), and kept me alive with attacks that kept gaining big chunks of life.

Like the Crystalline Sliver + Worship mage, the infinite life mage executes his not-actually-lethal combination of cards and expects most folks to concede for time. But in this case, he realized I could eventually deck him with either Jace, the Mind Sculptor or Elixir of Immortality and he conceded for time.

5. That Time I Had Infinite Life (sort of)

You might notice there was a one-of/fun-of Trinket Mage in the sideboard of my deck. It could get not just Basilisk Collar but Elixir of Immortality.

Have you perchance thought of what might happen if you did this?

With three or more mana you could get your Elixir of Immortality every turn, play it every turn, and use it every turn. Every turn! Not quite "infinite" in the same sense as the above bullet, but a Trinket Mage wearing Splinter Twin, unopposed, would make you tough to kill and impossible to deck.

I think you can see from these five off-label combinations (collectively Patty's side of the table) that I was able to win games using all sorts of angles that aren't implied by the Deceiver Exarch combination.

The exact opposite of tapping out for Crystalline Sliver + Worship just because that is what your deck is supposed to do.

I never envisioned, ahead of time, that I was going to use Splinter Twin to prevent my Consecrated Sphinx from having to attack, or that I would deck a mage with infinite life using an Inferno Titan dressed up as a Vampire Nighthawk. But the games don't always go the way you plan, even when you have a very good plan. And other times, when your plan seems open, taking it might have you end up with your whole library in your hand while you're tapped out.

So I ended up winning that tournament with the UR deck. The Top 8 was like a Grand Prix Top 8, with Caw-Blade legend Dave Shiels in the quarterfinals, and a Flores mirror match against Caw-Blade master grinder Edgar Flores in the finals. But my Top 4 opponent was the one who impressed me most on the day. He had this brilliant mental game, and a way about playing a hand with nothing in it that could scare off action, turn after turn. He hadn't played in a Pro Tour yet, but I could see that rare glint beneath the bouncy sway of that pretty, pretty hair. I was very lucky to beat him: Reid Duke.

Ahem. No. 1 Reid Duke.

As you may have read, Reid will be taking over Level One after this week, which I think is cause for celebration. I leave you all and this column in not just capable hands, but the No. 1 most capable hands on the Magic: The Gathering Pro Tour. I hope you've enjoyed the past several installments, although I'm sure Reid will do all of them one better.

As I say farewell for now, I'd like to thank Mark Rosewater for giving me my first professional writing job, almost two decades ago; Brian David-Marshall for first giving me his spot here on the mothership; Aaron Forsythe (now the Magic boss but once the editor here!) for helping to define my voice on the site; Mike McArtor and Patrick Sullivan for their feedback on Level One; and Trick Jarrett for green-lighting it in the first place! Oh, and tons and tons of other folks too numerous to mention (but also important). I cherish you all.

What's next for YT?

I'll be taking a short break to enjoy the rest of the summer but will be coming back with an all-new column "October at the earliest" according to editor extraordinaire Blake Rasmussen. (We're still working out the kinks.)

Until then,


Further Reading:

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