Whatever style you wish to play, be it fast and frenzied or slow and tactical, the surest way to defeat your opponent consistently is by dominating him or her in the war of card advantage. Whatever style you play, though, can and should incorporate a mix of all classes of Magic cards, whether single-card effects or lock cards, card drawing or card nullification. Once you've got the right mix, you'll be able to focus on flawless play and prudent drawing.

—Brian Weissman

Welcome back to Level One!

Over the past couple of weeks we have started to put together some of the basic principles that successful competitive Magic players use to plan for, and achieve, better results. To review, some of those are:

  • Strategy—Specifically the notion of stringing our actions in a specific order to achieve particular (and predictable) results.
  • Strategies—Including the idea that what you really want to do is successfully end a game of Magic before your opponent does.
  • Card Advantage—One of the most important, fundamental, and foundational concepts in Magic: The Gathering... how more cards (however you obtain them) lead to more options and a greater likelihood of prevailing over your opponents.

This week, we will put together those three lessons to look at one of Magic's most important historical decks, which gave rise to a huge school of thinking, and ultimately somewhere between a third and a half of every major victory in the history of the game.


The Deck

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That masterpiece is Brian Weissman's The Deck, from almost two decades ago.

The Deck is a little non-intuitive so we'll take a moment and go over what it is all about.

The Deck's goal was to simply not die. To that end, it played a number of cards that would blunt the opponent's attack, like Ivory Tower (to gain life), and all manner of creature defense, from the fast Swords to Plowshares to the more expensive—but infinitely effective—Moat.

Ivory Tower
Swords to Plowshares

The Deck was Magic's first broad-base innovator of card advantage as a goal unto itself. Moat, for example, could neutralize any number of creatures on the ground. With all the turns that the anti-damage and anti-creature cards were buying it, The Deck had time to draw extra cards with Braingeyser and Jayemdae Tome.

The card advantage went two ways—not only was Brian drawing extra cards, he was hammering the opponent's hand. Mind Twist was a one-for-many single-card exchange that made last week's example of Mind Rot pale by comparison. And over the course of several turns, Disrupting Scepter could trade for card after card itself.

Mind Twist

Note how The Deck puts our first three weeks of principles into action to produce an important, groundbreaking, and highly influential set of incentives...

Strategy and Sequence

The Deck's principal way to win is by attacking with Serra Angel. It bears mentioning that Serra Angel was a two-way card itself. Not only could it attack for 4, but with both vigilance and flying, it could block smaller flying creatures that were capable of sailing over the Moat.

Serra Angel

Now, with only two such creatures in the deck—err... The Deck—Brian had to play his cards in a particular order.

In the earlier parts of the game, he would use Swords to Plowshares to kill fast creatures, and build toward Moat and other key permanents.

He would find his Mind Twist (perhaps with Demonic Tutor) and power out that Mind Twist with Mana Drain or Black Lotus. Then, hopefully, he would get his Disrupting Scepter on the battlefield.

The Deck's plan was to accumulate lots of machinery in play. It really wanted to empty the opponent's hand and soft-lock him or her with Disrupting Scepter. Helpless yet? Now he would play Serra Angel and hopefully win in about five swings.

Disrupting Scepter

Brian had to pay careful attention to his sequences. If he played Serra Angel too early, it might be Counterspelled or bite a Swords to Plowshares from the enemy; because he only had two, he couldn't be cavalier about their lives. Disrupting Scepter was a good card to keep the opponent down, but he probably wouldn't want to commit three mana—and then three mana each subsequent turn—to bop the opponent for just a single card while being attacked by lots of creatures on the ground... Brian would have wanted to use his own creature defense to stabilize his life total first.

At the same time, playing a single-minded defensive strategy around stopping threats and promoting card advantage gave Brian great liberty in his deck design. Unlike most of the decks you have probably seen, he didn't devote a lot of space to creatures. Subtly, this made him resilient against creature removal spells. If you had a hand full of Doom Blades you would probably not have anything to aim them at. And by the time they would be useful... you might be in discard-lockdown-hell. At the same time... it's not like you could not play such Doom Blades. He was still killing you with creatures!

"Successfully conclude the game before your opponent does."

Brian's deck clearly wasn't setting any land-speed records.

Today, a Modern (format) deck playing only cards you would be familiar with from Duels of the Planeswalkers can kill on the third turn!

Given the speed of such a potentially simple collection of cards, how can we reconcile the overall strategy of Brian's allegedly great and influential deck?

Goblin Guide
Lightning Bolt

The guideline I talked about in "Strategies" isn't expressly to win as fast as possible; rather, to win faster than the opponent. If an opponent's deck is full of clunky cards that cost four or more mana, a turn-three kill with Goblin Guides is going to put away that opponent before he or she can even cast anything interesting.

So, one way to successfully conclude a game before the opponent does is definitely to blaze to that 20th life point very quickly (say on turn three), cutting off turns with every Lightning Bolt. Brian's was to elongate the game until it is out of the opponent's reach.

Imagine you are Brian, hiding behind his Ivory Tower with a full hand.

Not only are you making it difficult for a fast Red Deck opponent to kill you (going up to just 23 life from one cycle of life gain puts you past the above three-turn kill threshold)... but at some point you are actually engaging in a card-advantage scenario (if your Ivory Tower is providing 3 life per turn, that is basically cancelling a Lightning Bolt or Lava Spike each time).

Card Advantage

...was the backbone and differentiator of The Deck. All the time that its creature elimination was buying would translate into more time, more land drops, to tap more lands in service to the great god of card drawing. Last week, we talked about how drawing an extra card could fuel your hand to murder—Murder—more Dragons. That was true in Weissman's heyday as well. Locking down the ground with Moat to stop multiple attackers and Ancestral Recall into multiple Swords to Plowshares for individual trades were both card-advantageous ways to stop threats and extend the game.

Ancestral Recall

While 2014 eyes might look at Weissman's particular collection of cards as clunky or antiquated, his principles of elongating a game, defending himself from creatures, and taking advantage of card advantage have guided top mages for nearly twenty years.

Just a couple of weeks ago, former Rookie of the Year Alexander Hayne put away a Grand Prix with his WU Control deck... essentially the 2014 inheritor to Brian Weissman's legacy:

(18) Alexander Hayne – Azorius Control

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Almost every card in this deck is defensive, and many of them are simultaneously card-advantage-promoting.

Isn't that amazing?

Every single main-deck card has defensive applications. Even Sphinx's Revelation! The "threat" cards in this deck—Ætherling and Elspeth, Sun's Champion—are both two-way cards that can both attack and defend (often simultaneously).

Elspeth, Sun's Champion

At the same time, many of these cards have card-advantage applications that would make Weissman smile. Sphinx's Revelation is kind of the quintessential Weissman card—card advantage and defense at once. Jace, Architect of Thought is a card-advantage engine and a troublesome defensive stopper; same with Elspeth, Sun's Champion.

Post Script:

When I first read about The Deck back in the mid-1990s, I immediately became enamored of the idea that creatureless—or near-creatureless—decks like Weissman's were somehow superior to the less focused and less strategic hodgepodges I was used to. With Weissman talking about "the surest way to defeat your opponent" it was easy for me, as a less experienced but very curious player, to go whole hog into this novel direction. Such became a limiting way of thought, itself.

Now I know—and it is important for me to tell you, I think—that a slow, creature-poor deck is just one sort of possible successful strategies, no better or worse than others (as an idea) in and of itself. Different formats will dictate what kinds of cards and strategies are better than others, rather than ideas in the abstract. What these ideas can do, successfully, is to give you tools. Hopefully (newer) players now know a different way of thinking and playing than they did before reading about The Deck; hopefully that knowledge can enrich how you play and inform the choices you are empowered to make from here.




Further Reading: