This entry is part 37 of 41 in the series In General

Grandpa (Eric)

By Eric, aka Grandpa Growth

 

I spend a lot of time in my own head. I am contemplative and solipsistic. Ideas are my favorite pastime. It is for this reason that I find kinship with thinkers and philosophers ranging from the classical right up to the modern day. To me, thinking is my real work. My job is a distraction from my thinking. I enjoy the untangling of mental knots. This helps me in a couple of ways, one being that it keeps me involved in the game of Magic.

 

Magic is a deep mental challenge. Volumes have been written about it. Both fortune and fame have been made playing it. It asks of us a passionate pursuit. It takes quite a lot of slow, purposeful thought to get good at. Every once in a while you can pull off a win while you are on autopilot, but most of the time you are going to have to ponder your way to victory…sometimes literally.

 

In my “Decksplanations” series, I have been showcasing some landmark ideas that help lead me through the murky swamp that is the deck creation process. In trying to come up with appropriate examples for how to best use my principles, I decided that the  best way to drive my point home was an intuition pump.

 

An intuition pump is a thought experiment with a leading answer. They are designed in such a way that they pass the asker’s logic along to the answerer in a subtle way. It leads to the feeling that the answerer has arrived at or even created the correct answer all on their own. I am by no means an expert on this, but I am happy to point you to some cutting edge philosophers/debaters who can explain the concept better than I can.

 

This article is all about the ‘Dig Through Time’ puzzle that I presented in one of my previous articles on threat density in Control decks. If you didn’t read that article and participate in the comments then you aren’t going to get much out of reading this. I am going to reproduce the question below just for the sake of making things easy, but I urge you not to simply read it, read my explanation, and assume you got all the information that you needed out of this. The process of thinking about the question is the ENTIRE POINT.

 

The question goes like this:

It is late in the game and both players have plenty of lands in play. You have just swept the board. Both you and your opponent have no cards in hand. You untap, draw, and resolve Dig Through Time seeing:

 

  1. Beast Within
  2. Counterspell
  3. Demonic Tutor
  4. Beacon of Unrest
  5. Concentrate
  6. Koth of the Hammer
  7. Inkwell Leviathan

 

Which two would you pick?

I said just a moment ago that I was using this question to drive home a point. It was meant to lead the reader to the conclusion that having more cards, more access to those cards, and a better selection of cards to choose from, would help win more games. If people agreed with me that there was a need to improve their decks, then they will be more likely to agree to the solution that I am presenting: increase the representation of these three ideas: velocity, selection, and access when building decks.

 

Design

 

The puzzle is designed to get the reader to think in the way that I do. Therefore it must be somewhat lopsided so that people are easily led in the direction that I want them to go. However, it can’t be so lopsided that it is obvious, because that will tip my hand and make the puzzle both uninteresting and seem like a simplistic advertising ploy. So let’s talk about the cards that I chose, why I did so, and then I will share some extra tidbits that came up while designing the puzzle.

 

Beast Within

 

I knew that I wanted to include a removal spell, but I agonized for a long time about which one. Should it be a spot removal spell or a mass removal spell? What color should it be? What types of cards should it answer? Additionally, the specific card that I choose to represent removal has to be well liked. If the card isn’t respected and popular within the community then it would be easier to write off.

 

It is funny that this was one of the most difficult cards to choose for the puzzle, but it was ultimately irrelevant to any potential solution. As I will discuss later on, this is a true red herring. Unfortunately though, that meant I had to go to some effort to make it look convincing. I was also considering Oblation and Chaos Warp for this spot, but ultimately settled on Beast because I thought it saw more play than the other two and would get a warmer response.

 

As an answer, it is less versatile than Counterspell and I mentioned in the original article that having a glut of answers in your hand while your opponent has no threats is a bad situation to be in. Thus I reasonably expected people not to choose this. There is a better option available and you don’t need multiples.

 

Counterspell

 

This card is a classic and I knew from the very beginning that it would be one of the options. Not everyone likes to play counters, but everyone knows how powerful they can be in the game state that I am presenting here, so I knew this would be an attractive option. I thought for a bit about upgrading it into Mana Drain, but I hesitated because some readers might get distracted by the idea appeal of a rare card like that and end up choosing it just for its mystique. This wasn’t intended to be a red herring, but after much thinking I ended up moving away from choosing this in my potential solutions. I don’t think it is ‘wrong’, but I fully expect quite a few people to choose it and that made me value including it as part of the puzzle.

 

Demonic Tutor

 

Every lesson that I learned from creating this exercise was a direct result of including this card. I conservatively estimated my ability to design an engaging puzzle, so I wanted to give people the leeway to insert their own ideas. Inevitably, people would like their own suggestions better than anything I could present. Little did I know that I was opening up a whole different can of worms by committing to this decision.

 

Beacon of Unrest

 

Another card that presents possibilities and another Black card. This was one of the easier cards to decide on because it filled several roles for me. It is a threat, which so far we haven’t had as a choice. It is also a popular reanimator card, which is a popular theme in Commander decks and was sure to strike a chord with the audience. Everyone reading this has a deck in their arsenal that has some sort of graveyard synergy. Much like DT though, this requires extra thought and extra imagination from the reader, so I expected that some people would rather choose one of the other threat options out of pure laziness.

 

Concentrate

 

I knew immediately that I needed some sort of card draw effect. After all, the conclusion of my article was that control decks which have higher velocity card flow are better. It was also clear based on the game situation that I was presenting that I wanted a one-shot spell, not some engine effect. Any card draw that took longer to pay off skewed the puzzle too much in favor of the future. We have our opponent pretty much dead to rights. Now is the time to go for the throat. Unlike in Age of Empires, you can’t win at Magic by erecting a monument to how cool you are. From there, the only consideration was fine tuning the choice down to card drawing effects that were recognizable, regularly played, but not too strong. Keeping balance with the power of the other cards was the big challenge here.

 

Koth of the Hammer

 

This was the final card that I chose. It felt wrong not to include a planeswalker and it felt wrong not to have a Red card. I was pretty sure that I didn’t want to have a third threat card. I wanted to have a third answer so that I could represent either a board sweeper or some sort of prison effect. Alas, people often have strong negative reactions to those types of cards so ultimately I decided to leave them out. Having a planeswalker as the threat made perfect sense because they resist some removal, immediately affect the board, generate incremental value, and have a clear path to victory – all things that I look for in a good threat. This helps make Koth convincing, even if he doesn’t check all those boxes as definitively as some other planeswalkers.

 

Inkwell Leviathan

 

If Primeval Titan weren’t on the Commander banned list, this would have been a prime time. By the time I picked out Inkwell, I already knew I needed a threat that was hard to remove, hard to block, and killed quickly. There are plenty of quality threats in that possibility space, but I didn’t worry too much about which one to use. I just went with one that I liked and didn’t think much about it. It turns out that people recognize it and play it pretty often, so when I started considering those factors later on, it just further cemented my choice.

 

Some other points:

 

  • There are no lands in this pile. One of the givens is that we have all the lands that we need, so you should be able to rule out taking a land as a possibility and therefore I didn’t want an obviously wrong choice to distract from the other options.
  • I didn’t specify who our Commander is or what kind of deck we are playing because each person is going to bring their own assumptions into the process with them and I didn’t want to interrupt that. I don’t want to tell you that you are playing a deck that you may not normally play. That will cause some people to turn off and disengage. I needed the reader to keep things personal and discover their own thought process. The conditions of the question aren’t specific. This is deliberate, it will help each reader project his own experience into the puzzle.
  • There is no White card. This seems pretty obvious, but it has an interesting implication. There is at least one card of each other color. There is no four color Commander. We can deduce from this that we are playing a five color deck. This has no bearing on the actual choice of which cards we want to take, but it came up a lot in my own experimentations. Trying to model the value of Demonic Tutor is difficult because it hinges on what colors you have access to. Ultimately, it became important to me that I present every possible card as an option for DT. Ergo, I wanted to make sure we could access all five colors.
  • For some time I considered DT an ‘inverse red herring’. It was so right that some people would skip over it for whatever reason, ultimately pushing them to choose other options. I understand that some people just don’t want to think. DT is the most difficult to evaluate and justifying it as a choice depends completely on your ability to value a large number of possibilities. I expected that this extra mental work would push people to choose something else. Tricky, but almost unavoidable.

 

That is pretty much what I was thinking during the creation stage. With these pieces in place, I had a puzzle that I could use to get people engaged and specifically get them thinking about the topics I wanted to cover in the weeks following the original post.

Deciding What To Choose

 

Let’s take a look at each card again, this time we will go over my thoughts on how each one stacks up as a solution. From here on out, we are talking strictly about my opinion. If there ever were to be a right answer, I certainly don’t have a monopoly on it. I fully encourage disagreement. This whole charade was meant to be a conversation starter, nothing more.  Whatever biases and experiences I bring with me into the puzzle are going to be evident, but I won’t discuss them here. Why I love certain things more than others is simply too broad a topic to include in what is already going to be a monster article.

 

Beast Within

 

This is a great place to start because it is my baseline for evaluating each of the seven options. This is the worst pick by far. In fact, given the other options, no combination of choices which includes Beast can be correct.

 

Here is the thing. It is the only removal spell, but it is only one of two answers. The other answer is almost straight up superior. Sure, the number of uncounterable threat is greater than the number of indestructible threats, but at the same time not every threatening card is a permanent. Of all the things we are scared of our opponent drawing, permanents are only a portion. So that tells me that I will always take Counterspell over Beast. Well then, the only situation in which I end up choosing Beast would be if I also took Counterspell along with it.

 

I am not going to go into it too much here, but suffice it to say that you don’t need multiple answers. The board is empty and the opponent is only going to draw one card. Also, there is a good chance (20-40%) that they end up drawing a dead card. Their deck contains lands and situational elements that won’t be relevant in the given situation. I think we are much better served adopting a proactive game plan. I consider every combination of threat + Counterspell to be better than Counterspell + Beast.

 

Counterspell

 

Counterspell is a much better option because it stops more than just a top decked threat. If we want to choose a threat of our own and play it, Counterspell can help protect it. The additional utility of stopping removal spells, opposing counters, hand disruption, and other such nonsense makes Counterspell an extremely attractive option. In most cases, if you are sure about which card you want to take first, Counterspell is pretty much always the best compliment…except in one case I will discuss later. Counterspell showed up more often than anything else in my list of possible solutions.

 

It is so good that I consider any solution that contains a threat to be incorrect UNLESS it also contains Counterspell. Taking a threat plus counter is vastly superior to simply taking two threats because it guards against a wider variety of possible draws from the opponent. That is easy to demonstrate in terms of the game, but there is another force at work that isn’t so easily explained.

 

For me, the main determining factor when deciding to choose Counterspell or not is this: do you think your deck is better than your opponent’s? That can be tough to figure out. This a weird question to ask oneself. The facts are there. We know the situation. One deck has a higher chance to win than the other, but that isn’t easy to calculate in a real game even in a real game. It is impossible in our hypothetical scenario; we just don’t have the required information. So the answer becomes psychological in nature. Are you the kind of person who thinks that your deck is better? Do you find yourself winning more and thus subconsciously becoming accustomed to victory? This will absolutely influence people’s choices, as will their general risk tolerance. Counterspell provides safety from the unknown. If the opponent can draw a single random card and somehow instantly win, Counterspell would stop it.

 

Continuing on that line of thinking, if the possibility exists that my opponent can straight up win on their turn I should obviously stop it. But hang on. If that possibility exists for them…then how come it doesn’t exist for me? Personally, I think that it does. This lead me to start evaluating potential solutions on their ability to win. Immediately is preferred, but later is okay. If I choose a card that doesn’t enable me to win now or soon, I think it is wrong. Because of this notion I found myself drifting away from Counterspell as a choice. In a turn of events that surprised even me, I now think that Counterspell is also just straight up wrong, BUT I do acknowledge that there is a subset of possible choices that only require me to select one card in order to win. In those cases I think that Counterspell is the best second choice as I said earlier. This is a contentious stance, but I will elaborate on it in a moment…

 

Demonic Tutor

 

First, is there a single card that lets us win this game on the spot? If such a card exists, then DT must be the most correct choice. Our opponent has no cards in hand and no relevant permanents; they can’t interact. If we can assemble any string of cards, no matter how crazy, we will win. Well in point of fact, with access to all five colors you could have literally any Magic card in your deck. There exists within the game several combinations of cards that will instantly win. This takes much of the mystery out of the puzzle, but it is a true statement.

 

So if a hair brain combo can win, we can search for something like Doomsday or Diabolic Revelation and go off. Again, the only limiting factor is your imagination. Can you see yourself building a deck that can win instantly? If so, DT is your card. Once we have established that we CAN win now, every other option that can’t do so is automatically worse. It is from this that I concluded DT is the correct answer. The second choice doesn’t matter. Some will balk at this and I understand. Saying “tutor for Fireball, Fireball you for lethal” is a bit uncreative and it creates extra assumptions that I haven’t given you any information about, chiefly: what your opponent’s life total is. It is a POSSIBLE solution, but not necessarily likely. That part is important.

 

Once I discovered this thought, I was consumed by the search for a method of instant victory that was the most ‘realistic’. Considerations like requiring the least untapped mana, the least cards left in deck, irrelevance of cards in graveyard, irrelevance of life totals, only tutoring for commonly played cards, etc. all suddenly became much more important to me.

 

For example, you can take Demonic Tutor and Concentrate. Tutor for Doomsday, create some stack that involves Voltaic Key and Door to Nothingness. Cast Concentrate, play the aforementioned cards, activate them in the correct sequence, and voila! Certain victory. This particular solution sucks in my opinion. It requires a TON of mana in a variety of colors and assumes that you are playing a very uncommon combo. However, it does score well in other categorie. It doesn’t care about either player’s life total, library, or graveyard. It doesn’t care about the contents of your opponent’s deck or their next draw.

 

A better solution wouldn’t require drawing any additional cards, so tutor + counter is equal or better than tutor + Concentrate. Therefore, that is the closest thing I can claim to being a ‘correct solution’ for this puzzle, but there are plenty of counter arguments. This is where I spent a lot of my time considering my options and where I have ended up, but the whole point was taking the journey and it taught me many valuable lessons. Not to mention it got a great response from everyone I tested it on.

 

Beacon of Unrest

 

Beacon is tough to evaluate relative to the other threats. It provides access to more possibilities, but also forces us to bring in extra requirements. There needs to be a thing in a graveyard to bring back, but I haven’t given you any information about that. In the abstract, I think that Beacon is better than any single threat and potentially better than the other two options. However, we can’t assume that straight away. This makes choosing to take Beacon a little strange inside this puzzle. If anyone has an interesting thought about Beacon, I would love to hear it. My jury is still out.

 

Concentrate

 

Concentrate is worth three cards, so it should be better than any single card right? Well In the article, I was talking about having more card draw and less gas being a good thing for control decks. I am certainly not going to take back any of what I said, Concentrate is a great option, but what are you really hoping to draw off of it? I would be happy to draw some random threat, some sort of answer, and anything else. That would be a good haul by all accounts. Well this feels strange because I could just choose Counterspell + threat and guarantee myself some action and a solid gameplan, but give up that third bonus card. One feels better than the other, but is logically worse. Curse my irrational brain.

 

These two options are somewhat equivalent, but which one is better depends on the quality of your average draw. If Inkwell Leviathan is the best threat in your deck, Concentrate gets worse. You can no longer draw one of your best cards if you choose to put it on the bottom. The situation is reversed if Inkwell is your worst threat. You don’t have to worry about drawing your worst card and are favored to draw something better.

 

So the real question we need to ask ourselves when considering taking Concentrate is: are these seven cards good, or can we do better on average? Notably, Concentrate is often necessary for me to win with some of my ideas for Doomsday ideas. Yes, Doomsday is a favorite card of mine.

 

Koth of the Hammer / Inkwell Leviathan

 

Taking a threat will help us close out the game. Again, I think that taking a proactive posture is better in this situation. Koth has haste and it is pretty tough to kill given that the board is empty. It is highly resistant to removal. Unfortunately, it doesn’t generate a ton of value, but neither does Inkwell. Inkwell kills much more quickly, but it is vulnerable to more types of removal. I don’t have a good handle on which is better than the other in the abstract. In order to make a definitive decision I would need more information about our situation. For example, if our opponent is at 4 life, I would snap off Koth and get to work. We could spend all day debating back and forth which is more correct than the other, but I just went straight over the top and decided that they were both wrong as stated earlier.

 

I think that taking a threat + Counterspell is a great choice that is both sensible and defensible. This is what you would do most often in a regular game of Magic. It has a proactive plan, resists opposing topdecks, and is highly likely to produce a win in the future. This is a very consistent, if uninspired, game plan and I think that it most accurately reflects how people actually build their Commander decks. I can claim that choosing tutor and then using tutor to find Doomsday is more likely to win, or win sooner, however the simplest counterpoint is that I don’t actually have a Commander deck with Doomsday in it…so that solution isn’t the most realistic for me. Threat + counter is predictable, but it is also practical and that practicality will matter to many people who read and participate in this thought experiment.

 

Final Thoughts

 

I have examined all of the plays, even discussing most of them here. I have weighed some pros and cons, admitting that my biases have swayed my analysis. But at its heart, this piece is following up on an article about how to improve control decks so I would be remiss if I didn’t at least mention how this puzzle has influenced my deck building process.

 

Dig Through Time is so good because it gives us options. Choice is powerful, and that power is at the core of what makes good Magic decks. Having the ability to respond to changing game states is inherently better than not having said ability. So when you craft a control deck, giving yourself a rich diversity of options and easy access to those options is of paramount importance. But do remember this:

 

In the situation I gave you, we are a heavy favorite to win. Not because our opponent has nothing. Not because we saw some really great options off of the Dig. But rather, we are ‘winning’ because we simply had the Dig in our deck. We could never have cast it if we didn’t draw it. We could never have drawn it if we didn’t actively choose to put it into our deck. We could never have maneuvered ourselves into this advantageous position if we didn’t make the decision to give ourselves greater access to the relevant cards we needed, greater velocity to see more of the relevant cards, and greater selection over what cards we wanted to keep. Dig Through Time is an elegant and efficient way to give us all three at a moment in the game where we needed it the most. That is the best advice that I can give on how to improve your decks.

 

GG

 

Series Navigation<< Strategy: “In General” – The Library, No Not That One[In General]: Introduction and Biography >>