Beyond Strategy

Posted in Top Decks on April 2, 2009

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."

So now what?

If you play long enough, against enough good people, finding yourself with your back against the right—or wrong—walls ... this is probably a question you will be asking yourself at some point (and maybe more than once). Especially if you are playing in a wide format full of many different kinds of viable decks, as in today's Extended.

As you get better at competitive Magic—and I trust many of you reading are already at this point—your decisions will be increasingly guided by strategy. As a community, we use the term "strategy" far more broadly and far less precisely than we probably should. To many readers and writers both, strategy is, um, anything. Deck lists, strategy. Tournament reports, strategy. Draft walk-through... strategy. Tactics? Strategy too!

In actuality, strategy refers to the method, maneuvers, or most specifically plan that we use to achieve a specific event. This is contrasted with tactics, or the maneuvers and patterns themselves.

In Constructed Magic—in the abstract—our strategy is usually closely aligned with "what our deck is supposed to do" (and often within a certain time period), are what we are planning to do, while we use particular individual plays in order to "get there" with our plan.

So now what?

So that is the question!

Many (even most) players operate under the assumption that if they are able to assemble the pieces that describe their strategies in the abstract that they are going to win individual games of Magic. I recall playing in a local tournament in I think 1997 or 1998 against a player who was running a lot of cards from Visions: Man-o'-War, Nekrataal, and Dragon Mask. He slowed me down with Man-o'-War on three, got a nice two-for-one with Nekrataal on four, and then played the Mask. He expected a concession on the spot!

I was playing a blue creature deck, and I certainly couldn't ignore the Nekrataal (and the Dragon Mask, surprisingly, actually mattered). I did not, however, concede on the spot. It wasn't out of "principle" or anything, but rather that I thought I could win!

My opponent was somewhere between puzzled and annoyed that I did not concede. After all, he had 4 points of power in play, and had hit his combo. He could bounce or kill any of my creatures at will!

Sky Diamond
Winter Orb

However I was playing a mana control deck with Sky Diamond and Winter Orb. I took a little bit of damage from his 2-power creatures while I laid out my mana, then started putting creatures in the way. Some of them slowed him down right back. Others were big and burly and flying, demanding he actually pick up his Nekrataal to two-for-one me again.

By now you have probably figured out what I was doing.

My opponent was operating under the assumption that because he hit his Nekrataal and Dragon Mask against a deck that had to win with creatures he was going to win. He probably had Nekrataals in reserve, even, in case I had a Power Sink to spoil the one he had already shown me. But what my opponent did not have was an unlimited supply of untapped lands. By exploiting his belief that he had already won and that actually dealing the 20th point of damage was a formality that I was simply forcing him to ape through, I got him to tap a lot of mana on his own turn.

My strategy was costly. Tactically, that is in the short term, I was giving up a fair amount of cardboard material. But in return? I got him to tap a lot of mana. I invested many cards but my return was exactly what I was going for ... all his mana.

Then I dropped my Winter Orb (and probably by tapping a Marble Diamond and her sister Sky Diamond).

Then I could play a single creature big enough to hold off a couple of 2/X Visions bruisers (I am guessing a Waterspout Djinn).

Eventually I could build up a little mana and start racing back.

What is the lesson here?

Executing on a strategy (even "your" strategy) is not a stand-in for actually winning the game; at least not necessarily, whether that is as pedestrian as stringing a "comes into play" creature next to a way to re-use that creature or snapping two combo pieces together to theoretically shatter the sky. You may be successful the majority of the time, but as we said—and especially in wide formats such as today's Extended, which is full of many different kinds of decks—success does not correlate 100% with the assembly of a particular combination.

The easiest way to illustrate this idea is by comparing a couple of different decks that we have already spent time discussing in Top Decks this very season... All three of them are multicolored white-based decks, all of them good enough to take home the mythical blue envelope... one from the beginning of the season, one from the middle, and one from the most recent week of PTQs, a new addition to the canon of viable options.

Scott Honigmann

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Osyp Lebedowicz's Slide

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Let's start with Scott Honigmann's Mono-White Control deck with Martyr of Sands and Osyp Lebedowicz's update to Astral Slide.

Osyp's deck is a progressive card advantage deck that can generate tremendous card advantage from Life from the Loam and eke a lot of extra value out of Lightning Rift and Astral Slide. Osyp can win with creatures, or he can get a lot of value out of his creatures (say from Kitchen Finks + Astral Slide, persist counter or no), but against a control deck he is most likely to get most of his damage in with Lightning Rift after obtaining a tremendous advantage with Life from the Loam card drawing.

Eternal Dragon
Astral Slide

Scott's deck has very little in the way of card advantage and card drawing ... just the added value on Decree of Justice and the relentless grinding mana draw of Eternal Dragon. What he does have is a kind of two-card combo in Martyr of Sands + Proclamation of Rebirth. When Martyr of Sands is in the graveyard (and remember it can jump into the graveyard with a single mana), it becomes eligible for recursion with Proclamation of Rebirth.

Now when these two puzzle pieces find themselves next to one another, not even a Counterspell can stop the bleeding ... err ... un-bleeding. Life for the white deck can grow literally limitless, given sufficient time. And time, for a deck like this, can ultimately be just as limitless thanks to Mistveil Plains (which, as a Plains, can be obtained with Eternal Dragon).

Martyr of Sands
Proclamation of Rebirth

I can tell you how the interactions between these two decks will usually go.

If Osyp's deck has a Lightning Rift, Scott's deck can hold it off—if it even has to—with Runed Halo. Creatures are not going to pose a significant enough threat early, most of the time. Osyp's deck is not offensively very fast, and Scott's deck doesn't actually have to have the Runed Halo .... That's just there to buy time. If Scott's deck is very clever, it will bide time; hopefully Osyp's deck will flip over one or more Engineered Explosives, or given sufficient certainty, Scott's deck will be able to get Osyp's deck to blow an Explosives.

Why do these things matter?

Scott's deck wants to draw out as much time as possible.

Engineered Explosives is the problem—kind of—but only in the sense that it can blow up Chalice of the Void, which as a three-of is useful in holding off Life from the Loam; now, Life from the Loam is unconditionally awesome but in this case it is particularly awesome because Osyp's deck has got a pair of Ghost Quarters. The Ghost Quarters can be turned against Scott's one Mistveil Plains.

Engineered Explosives
Ghost Quarter

Now I don't know how often it will actually come to Mistveil Plains, because Scott has also got Akroma's Vengeance and Oblivion Ring while Osyp's deck is doing more cycling, and that whole dredge mechanic is going to whittle down the Slide deck more quickly than Scott's deck will ever deplete (even when drawing two cards per turn, which will be common come turn nine or so). But the fact of the matter is, if Scott is allowed to marry Martyr with Proclamation ... Osyp's deck will have a difficult time assembling anywhere near sufficient damage to win the game conventionally. Even without the Mistveil Plains, Scott's deck will likely be able to wait out Osyp's.

The game itself will be grueling and awful. Playing perfectly, Osyp's deck will probably have just enough resources to get Scott's deck to do something on some turns. Then the Slide deck will have to regroup and reassemble some kind of offense. Certainly it will be more friendly in sideboarded games where there are Eternal Witnesses to help; then again Martyr-Proclamation will be able to trade in point removal for Extirpate; I think Scott's deck will still have the edge.

Now all the games are not going to go exactly the same way, because Osyp's deck might slap down second- and third-turn Rifts, and just race through all that Scott's deck has to hide behind. Scott, after all, plays only two Proclamations, so it is possible Osyp gets some balls-to-the-wall victories.

But not many, I think. Most will go to Scott's deck, and sadly via decking. I find it highly unlikely that Scott's deck will win very often with damage, though it is actually pretty hard for Osyp's deck to beat Crovax, Ascendant Hero and Decree of Justice when backed up by Akroma's Vengeance and Oblivion Ring.

Crovax, Ascendant Hero
Decree of Justice

The key factor here is speed—specifically, the Slide deck's offensive speed. Under very specific conditions, that is, fast Lightning Rift, maybe a little creature damage shaving off a turn, possibly against a land-light Martyr-Proclamation draw, Osyp's deck can win. But Osyp's deck is among the slowest offensive decks in the format, notorious for going to time in PTQ rounds. Given sufficient time, Scott's deck will almost always be able to muster a little defense ... and a little defense is enough when it is a recurring source of essentially limitless life gain. If the lists were just a little bit different (say, Osyp's deck didn't have any Ghost Quarters or Scott's deck had more Mistveil Plains) the results would be even more lopsided.

Now what if we subbed out Osyp's Slide deck for last week's newcomer, Jonathan Loucks's Reveillark / Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker hybrid combo deck?

Jonathan Loucks's Kiki-Jiki Combo-Control

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(By the way, Jonathan was an early season Top 8 player with his own version of Martyr of Sands.)

I would suggest that Scott's deck can almost never win Game 1. I think that if you played ten games, Jonathan's deck would consistently win all ten.

Again it is an issue of offensive speed. This time "the beatdown," for want of a better term, is Scott's Martyr deck. I know this is non-intuitive for you because Scott's deck is generally on the defensive, whereas in many matchups it is Jonathan's deck that has to jam a combo through someone else's defenses.

... But shall we return to the three words that opened up this week's Top Decks?

So now what?

Assume for a moment that everything is coming up Piznarski for Scott, and that he gleefully assembles his Martyr of Sands + Proclamation of Rebirth combination. How much life shall we assign to Scott? How about one million? One trillion?

Unbelievably, he is still going to lose.

Almost every time.

This is a classic example of getting exactly what it is you are trying to get ... but then being presented with those three words.

Some versions of Martyr-Proclamation would have been able to put up more of a fight. At the same time Scott won his PTQ, there were versions with Unmake main-deck over Oblivion Ring, for example. And newer versions of the deck will have options like Path to Exile that can certainly matter as Jonathan's deck tries to snap Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker into Pestermite.

But let's consider just the decks in question.

Scott has no cards that he can play at instant speed save Decree of Justice (irrelevant) and Condemn (relevant only if Jonathan's deck makes a grievous error).

Even packing one trillion life, Scott's deck is not safe.

Jonathan's deck can produce one trillion Pestermites and attack for two trillion damage, after all.

Scott's deck can have the full regalia in play with Chalice of the Void, Runed Halo, and so on, and still be undone by Jonathan's deck.

I think in order to win Scott's deck would literally have to have a Runed Halo set to Pestermite and all three Chalices in play, set to three (Pestermite), four (Resurrection) and five (Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker and Body Double) and be facing a Jonathan's deck with nothing in play. Nope—that doesn't even do it, because of Academy Ruins. The greater issue is that there is no way to stop Engineered Explosives (Jonathan's deck can pay seven mana for a sunburst 2 Explosives for instance, or three for a zero, and so forth).

Even with every defensive card online Jonathan's deck can consistently deck Scott's with Academy Ruins and Pithing Needle (set to Mistveil Plains).

Pithing Needle
Mistveil Plains

The only way that Scott's deck would be able to win would be in the Red Zone, which is why it is—unexpectedly—"the beatdown" in this imaginary head-to-head. If Martyr doesn't kill the hybrid combo deck to death, it is just going to be an eventual combo kill. The problem is that while Osyp's deck is one of the slowest in the format, offensively speaking, Martyr is probably the slowest ... one of the slowest competitive decks ever in terms of actually completing a game fair and square.

A first-turn Martyr of Sands can kill in on the order of twenty turns, half that (or less) with more friendly Martyr support. However most of the rest of the ways to win cost six if not seven mana! Even a dismally mana-screwed Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker opponent can draw out of a bad opener given Trinket Mage, Thirst for Knowledge, and more than ten turns. That is why I predicted a dramatic advantage for Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker over Martyr heads up.

Trinket Mage
Thirst for Knowledge

None of this, of course, is meant to shine any kind of a negative light on Scott's Martyr deck. At the time he won his PTQ there was nothing on the order of the Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker deck in the format, and Jonathan's deck in fact includes at least one Conflux card that wasn't even in print yet when Scott won. But if you were to play a Martyr deck the day after tomorrow, you wouldn't get the same free pass. This is not to say that you would be up against Kiki Mite Get There every round, but if you planned to win a PTQ, you would at least have to think about how you might approach this or other combo decks.

Which is not to say that you would make a different decision at all! Osyp knew his Slide deck was a dog to Storm, for example, but judged the cost to do business with the Storm count was too heavy on his sideboard to consider given all the Faeries he would have to kill on the way to his PTQ win (he was just lucky and never fought Storm).

That said, "So now what?" can easily be translated into "So what's next?" Consider the same Slide deck facing some kind of Naya Burn or Domain Zoo variant. In Game 1, the strategy is to simply weather the storm. Chump-blocking is great with Kitchen Finks because of the life, and any combination of Kitchen Finks, Loxodon Hierarch, and Astral Slide is going to be hell on beatdown. But there is a danger in carrying this same strategy into Game 2. The cards are still good—great, in fact, in matchup context—but the opponent's cards improve, too. As the Slide player you will have ample mana and card advantage (thanks to Life from the Loam and enchantment triggers) but the opponent will be able to put up a fight without spending any more cards.

What happens the first time you face a Duergar Hedge-Mage?

Duergar Hedge-Mage

Interestingly, the Slide deck sides in similar cards in both the mirror and against beatdown decks like Zoo. In come Ajani Vengeant and Eternal Witness (but Lightning Helix rather than Duergar Hedge-Mage). Ajani Vengeant is a permanent that simulates part of Lightning Rift's ability, and part of the long term afforded by a Kitchen Finks and an Astral Slide. Eternal Witness is the more important, though. They have a Duergar Hedge-Mage and are happy about binning your enchantment .... Go get it back!

Eternal Witness

Without thinking about what you might need next, that is beyond the basic strategy of how your deck moves forward in a Game 1 abstract – even if you assembled your good cards in the matchup – you might have missed siding in Eternal Witness against beatdown and been the poorer for that. The reason? TheWitness gives you play even after his good cards ate your good cards.

Bonus Section: Strategy and Mana Fixing

I did not participate in last week's mana fixing theme even though I love mana fixing... Too busy reporting on hot new decks like Jonathan's Reveillark!

I want you to consider these two decks from the Top 8 of Grand Prix–Minneapolis way back in 2001:

David Humpherys's Angel

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Brian Davis's Sunny D

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The Hump won the whole shebang with the popular "Angel" deck, while PT finalist Brian Davis played domain deck Sunny D, designed by onetime Single Card Strategy columnist Adrian Sullivan.

The Angel deck was super exciting, especially for a Block Constructed deck. You can probably look back to recent years—as recent as just last season—and recall the Extended and Legacy standout decks built around the modern Hymn to Tourach, Gerrard's Verdict, or the flexible Vindicate. Angel was demonstrably overpowered for a three-set format, which should be obvious given the long term pedigree of its gold cards.

Gerrard's Verdict

Adrian's version of Domain, which Davis played to the Top 8, was designed to beat Angel decks in the long run, though it's been eight years and for the life of me I don't remember why. But let's assume that if the two decks played default strategies against one another that Sunny D would win more than half, and appreciably more than a regular Domain deck would in the same spot.

What we found through testing is that Angel could alter its strategy just a little bit and win, if not as many games as Loucks's deck over Honigmann's ... quite a dramatic percentage.

Look at the Sullivan / Davis list for a moment.

How many cards are there in the deck that can actually win the game?

I am not talking about cards that seem like they can win the game like Global Ruin, or positionally devastating cards like Allied Strategies. I mean cards that can actually negotiate the victory.

There are only three and a half.

Of those, one is Rakavolver and one is Spiritmonger.


Rakavolver requires red mana to play, Spiritmonger black.

Look at the deck's mana base.

Forget about the Harrows and Lay of the Land.

Look at the land itself.

One Mountain.

One Swamp.


If all you do as the Angel player is Vindicate a Mountain, you are four Chromatic Spheres away from having to deal with a total of two cards in the opposing deck. If the opponent is careless and presents Harrow into the Domain, you might even be able to snag a win with Recoil! Ditto on Swamp and Spiritmonger.

Yes, there were Restocks and Spheres, but you are still talking about whittling down a 60-card mana-fixing machine full of spells that read "draw five cards" or "Armageddon the opponent" and reducing it to only a few relevant pieces of cardboard in total. At the same time, point elimination of these basics would reduce the efficacy of each Allied Strategies and Global Ruin.

From the Angel side, this required a disciplined if not dramatic alteration of strategy demanding tactical restraint. Most Angel players played whatever disruption they had—Vindicate and Recoil on whatever land presented itself (provided Harrow mana wasn't open), or Gerrard's Verdict any time it would resolve—whenever they could. The key to the subtle, ultimately precision, change was to wait for specific mana sources and punish those individually rather than the disruptive overload approach. A hapless Sunny D opponent would meanwhile run through his Chromatic Spheres just to speed through his sixty, not necessarily realizing the ramifications for many turns.


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