This entry is part 5 of 14 in the series Decksplanations

Grandpa (Eric)

By Eric, AKA Grandpa Growth

 

Hello and welcome back to Decksplanations. Over the last couple of weeks we have been talking about how I approach increasing the power levels of my decks. So far we have covered the concepts of:

 

  • Solidarity – Focusing on what you do best and maximizing your chances of achieving it, removing elements that don’t advance your gameplan.
  • Durability – The ability to overcome the most common obstacles that would prevent your victory. Be difficult to stop.

 

As always, the information that I’m presenting compliments and builds on what I’ve already discussed in the series. If you missed the previously posted articles I encourage you to go back and read them, if not start at the very beginning of “Decksplanations.” Today I’ll discuss the third of five parts of power: interactivity.

 

This isn’t just about being more interactive, though. It’s about interacting more favorably and this can take on so many forms. I’ll discuss a few and give you some ideas on how to rebuild your decks to take advantage from the interactions that take place in your metagame. A word of caution, though: this is going to be a very top-level discussion. I’ll reference other authors and their work. Because I can’t include a full discussion of everything that I’ll reference, I’m going to have to assume that you have read the literature I’m talking about or are willing to click a link and do so. Let’s begin with a quote:

 

We often give our enemies the means of our own destruction– Aesop

 

That gem comes from his fable of the eagle and the arrow. In summary, eagles rather carelessly drop feathers, never bothering to pick them up or hide them. Sometimes they will even vanely prune the feathers out themselves and toss them aside unceremoniously so that they might flutter to the ground. There, of course, a savvy man might make of them an arrow, with which he could shoot the eagle off his perch. Nature isn’t known for suffering fools lightly. Imagine, though, that both the eagle and the man were instead Commander decks. Ironically, this might take the ‘magic’ out of the story, but it serves to artfully illustrate a point about the game: utilizing resources poorly is a weakness that can be turned against you. Some of you may not share my appreciation for the stories of the ancient Greeks. I’m prepared to offer an alternative quote, more modern in nature: “Take what the defense gives you.”

 

I have to admit, I get a little angry when people say this. These words have been said shamelessly in interviews and press conferences for decades. Sometimes it’s true, sometimes it’s false. Sometimes it’s a justification for failure, sometimes the celebratory cry of victory. Sometimes it’s just a nonsensical vocalization. It consists of words, but it doesn’t intend to convey any real meaning; it has become a thing that people just say. Often this phrase is used as cryptic ‘coach speak’ to deflect a pointed question while revealing nothing about your strategy by answering.

 

You can assume that I truly mean something when I tell you to “take what the defense gives you,” but what? The idea being presented is simple: if your opponent has a weakness, exploit it. There is no reason to charge uphill if you don’t need to. You don’t get any style points for winning in the most arbitrary way possible, at least not from me. The law of parsimony applies here, as does its playground analogue, K.I.S.S. If we know that we can win by having a strategy that is somehow superior, then the first question we should ask ourselves when designing our strategy is what weaknesses exist in our opponent’s strategy? Once identified, we simply have to design our strategy to take advantage of them. In this case, knowing really is half the battle.

 

“There is no such thing as a Magic card.”

 

This is really about interacting. Covering your weak points, don’t be weak where your opponent chooses to strike. Go after the soft targets; strike when and where your opponent is unable to defend and most likely to be hurt. You can tell I’ve been through Sun Tzu’s The Art of War more than a couple of times. He never gave it such an elegant title, but what he coaches you to obtain is the interaction advantage. You don’t have to do something the best, if you can do it cheaper or faster. Heck, you can even just do a BETTER THING that no one has previously thought of. Interaction advantage is about first discovering what the important variables are THEN devising a strategy to capitalize on that information.

 

Most people go about doing things the opposite way, e.g. someone thinks, “I’m going to play Trading Post in Standard instead of, “does Trading Post allow me to derive some advantage over the other decks in the format?” I fully encourage you to read all you can about interaction advantage from the horse’s mouth. Or in this case from the words of Zac Hill, who penned what became the seminal writing on this topic for Magic.

 

Inevitably, when I lead people down this line of thinking, they come back to me with one criticism. How can I believe, as Zac does, that interaction advantage is the most important form of advantage and that everything else is subordinate? Doesn’t this contradict my notion that cards are the most important resource in the format and the person with the most cards does the most winning? No.

 

Obtaining the interaction advantage implies that you have assessed all the available resources and determined what importance they have in the frame you are examining. It could be selecting a deck for a tournament, deciding which tournaments to play in, selecting the order in which to play the cards in your hand – doesn’t matter. To make any of these decisions correctly, you need first to gather information. I’m of the opinion that cards are the most important resource in Commander and that card advantage is the best predictor of victory as a result of collecting that information. I’m arguing that the deck that interacts most favorably in this context is the deck that ends up with the most card advantage.

 

Collecting the information to guide these decisions is the most important step, but can be the most difficult because the things that we learn aren’t always easy to conceptualize. At other times, the information is digestible, but not actionable. A simple example might be if you discovered that you often lose to an enchantment card like Doubling Season. Well, if you are intent on keeping your deck mono-black, you aren’t going to have an easy time interacting with that card once it hits the table. You will have to aggressively pursue proactive answers like targeted discard or extraction effects.

 

 

What I learned from fifteen years of reading Mike Flores

 

The best way that I’ve found to get the information you need is a technique called comparative analysis. You will be familiar with this if you have read Mike Flores’ column “Top Decks” on DailyMTG…or if you went to business school. He is a real hero of the game and a master of strategic thinking. As we seek to improve our Magic game, we walk always in his shadow, my brothers and sisters.

 

The tool that Flores like to use is called a S.W.O.T. analysis. It provides four dimensions with which to evaluate something – in this case a Commander deck…or a bird. S.W.O.T. is an acronym for:

 

 

  • Strengths – What is your deck good at? What is the thing that you can do better than other decks? In the eagle metaphor, the eagle is fast, can fly, and has good ol’ eagle eyes.
  • Weaknesses – What is your deck weak to? What are the things are going to cause you to lose the game? In the eagle metaphor, it’s small and frail. Injury to virtually any part of its body will make it too weak to hunt.
  • Opportunities – This is what you can do with all that amazing strength you have. How do the strengths of your deck allow you to interact favorably with what your opponent is doing? For the bird, it can spot both prey and predators from far away with its excellent vision. It can dive bomb prey, ambushing them and escaping before being exposed to danger.
  • Threats – This is how they are going to get you. Just as an opportunity was a way for you to turn a strength into advantage, threats will turn your weaknesses against you. This is the proverbial feather which so inspired Aesop. Eagle sheds and we make arrows to then threaten the eagle.

 

 

Strengths and weaknesses are internal, idealistic, and often abstract. That is to say, they are properties of the thing we are examining, not of its environment or competitors. Strengths exist in a pseudo-vacuum, an arbitrary safe space where we can talk about how fast something is without asking how much faster it’s than the next thing. The abstraction is that we know we want to have ‘a lot of removal’ in our red/black all-removal deck, but we don’t have a set number in mind.

 

Opportunities and threats are external, functionalized, and should be concrete. That is, they describe the conditions outside of the thing we are examining. The considerations must be functional; we have to be able to put that information into action somehow. It isn’t enough to know that mono-black lacks enchantment removal if we can’t do something to capitalize on that fact. Lastly, the considerations need to be concrete. We don’t just want ‘some removal;’ if we know our opponent presents seven threats in the average game, we need to have seven answers available in our average game, or we risk losing to those threats.

 

This is a very simple tool that pretty much anyone can use to analyze a deck and look for the important strategic considerations to take into account when designing a counter-strategy. It works best when you are trying to attack a specific matchup, but by no means does that prevent you from using the S.W.O.T. analysis to think in a more general sense. Try doing it on a few of the best decks in your playgroup and you will have a good idea about what makes up the pillars of your individual metagame. Don’t be afraid to generalize; as long as the information you are getting back is accurate and actionable, it will be worth the time you spend thinking about it.

 

To help you crystallize this, here are some general examples of an internal consideration and a corresponding action that you could use to capitalize on it:

 

  • Ramp decks have to invest multiple cards to expand their mana resources until they can cast spells. In Commander, this often means using two or more ramp spells to cast seven- and eight-drops. There is an opportunity to interrupt the expansion of their mana base by countering ramp spells, targeting mana rocks, or sweeping away mana dorks. This will slow down the deployment of their expensive spells. If you stress them enough, they may not be able to cast their fatties at all. Also, ramp decks tend to have to overload on the low end to be able to reach the high end. Even having just two or three answers for their giant haymaker plays could be enough to exhaust them. After that, they are stuck topdecking irrelevant mana and accelerators which comprise as much as 75% of their deck.

 

  • Voltron decks like Uril, Bruna, or Rafiq are often dependant on sticking their commanders. The backup plans (if they exist) are usually not nearly as scary. Coming after them with proactive disruption like Thoughtseize the turn before they cast their general will let you strip away whatever they were planning on using for protection. A showstopper like Moat or Ensnaring Bridge will also crimp their style.

 

  • Grandpa likes to play decks with a dangerously low threat density. He doesn’t tap out much, but likes to ramp on turns two through four. This is the time to hit him with a Sadistic Sacrament to remove all of his viable win conditions. Now you only need to worry about his commander.

 

A note about mana curves: in short, they are very important. Enhancing your position turn-after-turn is a great way to mount an advantage against your opponent. You should be making full use of your time and mana, because both are key resources within the game.

 

Different Types of Interaction

 

There are tens of thousands of cards in Magic the Gathering. Very few of them are truly identical to one another, but most of them fall into just a handful of discrete categories. Still, saying that there are a staggering amount of possible interactions within the game is an understatement of cosmic proportions. I couldn’t possibly advise you about the totality of all those possibilities. Instead, I’ll just touch on some of the basic concepts that I see people utilizing in Commander:

 

  • Going Over the Top: It seems like many multiplayer Commander games devolve into everyone competing for who can get the furthest into the stratosphere. Too little disruption is used because of the inherent card disadvantage of singling out one player. This allows players to develop unfettered and get up to some pretty degenerate things in the late-late. I don’t recommend trying to compete on this axis. If everyone else is trying to go big, I want to go weird. Decks specifically geared for multiplayer should have a multitude of ways to instantly win a game with multiple players. That could mean a big Exsanguinate or something less mundane, likely going infinite somehow. Depending on how you define some of these terms, this could be a totally different idea or it could just be going even further over the top (semantics are a thing). This thinking often runs counter to the ‘spirit of the format’, but I’m already pretty far off that path in this series, so keep that in mind…speaking of which, when is Commander going to get a Dredge deck?

 

  • Incremental Exchanges: This tends to be much more popular in single player, but it’s woefully underrepresented in multiplayer decks. Too many people are looking for the ‘big hit.’ Picking up a couple of cards here and there makes for much more efficient use of mana in the early turns and is not nearly as vulnerable to counterspells. Casting Think Twice is not going to attract the same kind of attention that Recurring Insight does. This is a real advantage. If you play multiplayer, you should be capitalizing on peoples’ general tendency to get distracted by ‘flash’.

 

  • Going Under: I credit Uncle Landdrops with getting me to think about this more seriously in Commander. By actively choosing to lower the average converted mana cost in your deck, you can generate a huge, game-winning advantage on slower opponents. The most commonly played threats in the format show up at four and six. Cards that cost seven or more are DRAMATICALLY OVERPLAYED. Trying switching your curve around so that it focuses on three and five drops, with your answer cards centered around two. This naturally sets up a situation where you will have a threat in play and an answer in hand, ready to be used on your opponent’s upcoming threat. Consider this script:

 

Turn 1: Cast Thoughtseize, focusing on cheap threats and answers.

Turn 2: Generic ramp spell or hold up counters. Whatever your deck is interested in.

Turn 3: Cast a durable threat like Geist of Saint Traft or Dungrove Elder

Turn 4: With four mana, you can cast a removal spell and hold up a counter.

 

Suddenly your opponent is on the back foot and under pressure. You are attacking for damage while the opponent is thinking about how they are ever going to stabilize if they can’t resolve any spells. I love quick, proactive, aggro-control decks like this. The aforementioned Geist, Edric, Spymaster of Trest, Venser, Shaper Savant, Vendilion Clique, etc. all make great generals for these kinds of decks. Notice the pattern of blue mana symbols.

 

The Opportunity Cost of Fundamental Turns

 

The plan that I was just advocating relies on, and derives advantage from, having an earlier fundamental turn than your opponent. We are going to redesign our mana curves so that we can win, or put the game out of reach, in a more timely manner than our opponent can. By picking our battles carefully, we can do our important things at spots on the mana curve where most players are sleeping or casting Kodama’s Reach. This is a crucial type of interaction that is specific to each matchup, but some types of decks are better at creating it than others. I strive to make the most of the mismatch of mana curves between two decks and generally try to play when the opponent is less capable of interacting favorably. I’ll go to pretty incredible lengths to strand situation cards in an opponent’s hand or force a tempo battle. I’ve learned that this is just an easier path to victory.

 

By generally playing cheaper cards, we not only get to victory sooner than our opponent, but we can influence Magic’s inherent variance. If you need fewer lands in play, you are much less likely to get land screwed. If you have fewer expensive spells, you lessen the chance that you might lose the game without being able to cast them. Keeping the majority of your cards cheap, efficient, and relevant will serve you well as you try to mount an early advantage in a game. Karn Liberated is real tough to beat, but if it never gets into play, the Karn-father can’t win.

 

I’m not going to go into much more explanation of what fundamental turns are and how they can work to influence the outcomes of a game here in this article, although a full treatment of the subject could be in order in the future. If you need more material to get up to speed read this article and the original discussion by the concepts’ creator and legendary deck builder, Zvi Mowshowitz.

 

A Philosophy of Action

 

I want to close this article today by talking a bit about the added psychological benefits of having more interactive decks. Most people agree that games where you aren’t able to play your spells because of mana problems are some of the least fun times you will experience while playing Magic. The same can be said of squaring off against irregular decks – like Dredge – that have oblique lines of attack that are very difficult to interact with through the course of normal play. My prior joke not withstanding, things like this are simply not fun, for me or anyone else. I get the most out of Magic when it’s interactive and I always want it to be more so, be that strategically or socially. I think my thoughts on this subject are best summed up in a comment response from a prior article. I’ve reproduced it below for review. Shout out to reader Jeremy Parsons for the comment.

 

JP: “I admit I may skew some other directions from it, but my goal is more often a fun game than to win all the time. And even to have a fun game still draws on a lot of information from the series. After all, a bad game is one where you never hit your mana, your deck refuses to flow, and you get rolled over. And a good game has your deck doing what it wants to do and interacting with the other players, even if it doesn’t win in the end.”

 

GG: “I couldn’t agree more. The close, interactive games are the best, regardless of who wins. That’s what really draws me into the game. The mental exchange of strategies.

On the other hand, the worst games of Magic are where one player can’t properly interact. I have different opinions about how we typically arrive in that situation though. Tighter deck lists that are more consistent, will lose to mana screw/flood or incongruent draws much less frequently than looser deck lists. I am a huge fan/proponent of building for consistency largely because it limits the feel bads associated with these one-sided games. The idea that two decks may not be evenly matched in power level is not such a big problem (although it will absolutely result in lopsided games). I would just say that both players have a shared responsibility to select decks that are appropriately matched for each other.”

 

I hope this week’s article has left you with plenty to think about. Keep on brewing, boys and girls. I’ll be back next week to talk about proactivity.

-GG

 

Decksplanations is all about sharing my deckbuilding philosophy. If you want to change how you behave, you must change how you think. The same is true of your decks. My goal is you give you the foundation to analyze and improve your decks. In each article I’ll share one idea that shapes how I approach creating a new deck.

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