Losing to the Goldfish
By Jon Flieger on October 1st, 2009 · Filed in General Magic · Comments not available just now
It is my belief that there are a number of cards in Magic that serve as a litmus test of sorts to measure a player's understanding of Magic's various concepts. The way a player reacts to these cards can often tell you a lot about how they evaluate cards, and what aspects of the game they focus on. New players, for example, rarely understand the value of card advantage and flexibility, instead valuing more straight-forward cards that have a big, but linear effect on the game.
Show a new player a Force of Nature and a Kitchen Finks and they're more likely to be impressed by the Force. He's humongous, after all. Competitive play has taught us that the Finks' lower, more flexible cost, and the versatility offered by a decent body on offense combined with persist and lifegain on defense is more valuable than just having a humongous guy in the late game, but this lesson generally has to be beaten into a player a few times before it takes root. Likewise, there are a billion forum posts out there in Internet land where newer players and players who desperately want to keep to a budget propose running Cancel over Cryptic Command, seeing it as little more than an expensive counterspell. The ability to correctly assess a card's power and versatility (and sometimes in the case of cards like Cryptic Command or Tarmogoyf, to recognize that the card's extremely high power level justifies breaking the bank if you want to play competitively) is an important one. These kinds of decisions when evaluating cards give a lot of insight into what kind of Magic a player is interested in.
Enter the Goblin
The card I've encountered which I believe serves as one of the best early indicators of a player's process of card evaluation is Raging Goblin. Raging Goblin is cheap, simple, intuitive, flavorful, and most importantly, it's not very good. Raging Goblin has seen some competitive play, but couldn't really even make much of an impact back when Goblins had [card=Sparksmith]ridiculous[/c] [card=Goblin Ringleader]support[/c] [card=Goblin Piledriver]available[/c]. Despite Raging Goblin being far from an auto-include even before the power of the Goblin tribe waned, it is absolutely beloved by new players and by players who don't give enough thought to the interactive nature of competitive Magic.
Because here's the thing—your opponent gets to play, too. Let's face it, a lot of the "testing" we hear about on the Internet is done in front of a goldfish circling lazily in a bowl. Now it's possible that your goldfish is better than mine, but Fluffy almost never makes the right plays in our games. In fact, most of the time she just floats there and does nothing. Your opponent, however, won't be as obliging as poor Fluffy. Your opponent is going to play the game too, and their spells are going to invalidate any "testing" that doesn't involve a real opponent. That means your spells are really going to have to do something to be worth including. So what does Raging Goblin really do?
All things considered I am not likely to hitThe new player, or the player who doesn't have enough respect for the goldfish across the table, will say that the Goblin comes down on turn one and attacks for 1 every turn. Okay. Cool. Hastey beats. The little fella gets there. That's a very good reason to play an aggressive creature, so that seems fine. The problem is that I've never seen Raging Goblin get there. I've been hit by plenty of Raging Goblins on turn one, too. Less on turn two, though, and even fewer on turn three. In fact, I've hardly ever been hit by a Raging Goblin on turn four, which is generally the turn that aggro decks want to start thinking about winning the game. In fact it's the turn I most often see Internet posters running Raging Goblin claim they can "reliably kill". Poor Goldfish.
you all that often! RAAAWR!
Because your opponent gets to play, too, your 1/1 is going to die to just about any blocker, or else he'll sit home and not attack. This makes a narrow attack card like the Goblin worse the longer the game goes, and a pretty unexciting top deck in a tight situation. Sure, if your opponent is at 1 life, tapped out, has no cards, and has no blocks, a topdecked Raging Goblin will win the game, but that's a pretty ridiculously specific game state in which you're already looking pretty good. Aggressive creatures need to be doing something more than just a small amount of damage in the early game to be worth devoting the card slots to them.
So what Raging Goblin is really doing in a game is dealing a few damage (at most) and then becoming irrelevant. Not terribly exciting, and not really worth dedicating a card slot to for the same reason that "Mountain, Lightning Bolt you, go," has never been much of a heads up play. A couple of life just usually isn't worth wasting a card for, never mind other costs. Cards like Necropotence, Yawgmoth's Bargain, and Sign in Blood have taught us that cards are more important than life, and since an aggressive deck is effectively trading cards (an important resource) for your opponent's life (a less important resource), your cards have to be doing enough damage or be a big enough problem for your opponent's game plan to make up for this uneven trade.
A creature, no matter how cheap its mana cost is, that does one or two damage and then only continues to have an effect on the game if the stars align just doesn't make the trade worth it. The cards your opponent is playing anyway—his own creatures, sweepers, and myriad other ways to deal with or ignore a 1/1 dork—just get better if you're not trading resources effectively. Each time you offer a poor trade this way by wasting resources that just don't do enough to advance your game plan, or significantly hamper your opponent's game, you put your opponent farther and farther ahead.
What's he doing over there?
Now, I've been harping on Raging Goblin, but he's only an example. Any inefficient trade in a game that is, at core, about attempting to get the better deal out of resource trading is disrespecting your opponent's ability to interact with your game plan, and assuming they pose no more danger than poor old Fluffy. Just having a deck capable of having a guy on turn one, another on two, and another on three doesn't always mean much. What will your opponent have in those turns?
No haste? Only a 2/1? Control decks, by their nature, tend to run more powerful cards and cards that are worth more of their opponent's resources, such as getting a three-for-one off of a sweeper like Wrath of God or Damnation. While control decks can fall into the trap of playing slow, awkward spells that aren't worth struggling to stay alive to cast, it is far more common to see cards that just aren't worth including in aggressive decks. The aggro deck is attempting to end the game quickly before the more powerful control spells can come online, and this all-or-nothing mindset is actually what leads many players to make poor deckbuilding choices, or not pay enough attention to what decks are being played around them. For example, building an aggressive Naya deck that can win on turn four and has Path to Exile to handle problem creatures is a good start, but if the metagame around you is full of powerful enchantments, artifacts, and planeswalkers, you'd be better off running Oblivion Ring as removal, despite it generally being too slow to be considered in aggressive decks. In that matchup, Oblivion Ring's versatility makes it worth more of your opponent's resources, as it can answer many problem cards, and it allows you to keep your opponent from simply playing out his game.
Well this guy is obviously cut...
When building an aggressive deck, be wary of leaving out good cards just because at first blush they aren't aggressive enough, or don't do damage by themselves. Even hyper-efficient aggro decks like Extended's Zoo and Affinity play cards like Ancient Grudge or Pithing Needle that make concessions to their opponent's game. What does your aggressive creature do when your opponent has Burrenton Forge-Tender? What about Kitchen Finks? Do you have any shot of winning at all if he has both? Or multiple copies of either? You have to play cards that are worth enough of your opponent's resources that when he in turn plays a card, it doesn't break your back, even if it's a problem card for you. Planning ahead for the metagame and never assuming that you're going to simply get perfect draws that your opponent won't be able to answer is the best way to evaluate the cards you're putting in your deck.
Luck is good. Good cards are better.
While some players might grumble about their opponent's good luck in a situation where they have a problem card or two show up, the truth is that the opponent's "good luck" was actually foresight and a respect for your game plan. Your opponent has made concessions to the fact that aggressive decks are going to try to kick his teeth straight down his throat, so he's come prepared with cards that are problematic enough for an aggressive deck to be worth the resource of taking up card slots in his deck. This is a very clever goldfish, and it's the way real Magic turns out. Assuming you're going to get your stomps on and win on turn four every game is setting yourself up for grumbling about your opponents' luck while you're waiting for side drafts to start.
Instead of just assuming that you're going to play your guy and attack with him while your opponent sits back and twiddles his thumbs, ask yourself if the cards in your deck are worth playing. This is best answered by asking yourself several other questions:
Am I happy to draw this card after turn three? What about after turn four?
Is this a card my opponent can simply ignore? Is it worth his resources?
Does this card do a good job of addressing things being played in the metagame?
If I'm losing when I draw this card, does it help me get back into the game?
That last question is the most important one to ask yourself when you're evaluating a card. While we don't go into a match planning to lose, the fact is even the best player has to play from behind sometimes. Sure, occasionally an all-or-nothing deck filled with narrow cards can draw a crazy hand and just win despite the opponent's deck being better, or sometimes an opponent will stumble and not put up much of a fight. Most times, though, your opponent is going to make life as difficult as possible for you. Unlike in goldfish testing and theory crafting, real Magic games sometimes go in your opponent's favor, which means you have to play cards that are worth the spot.
You generally only have 60 cards in your deck, and of those around 24 are usually land (we can talk about aggressive decks that play too few lands another time). 36 is not a huge number of cards, and each spot is precious. A card that's "okay if I get it early" or "not bad if they don't have early blockers" or "might be good if they're not playing Popular Deck #2" or "works really well with X if Y happens in game three, if my opponent double mulliganed and has recently had brain surgery" or one of the million other reasons you've heard people justify bad deck construction, just isn't worth spending one of your precious slots on, let alone four of them. For this reason, you want to be playing cards that make you happy whenever you draw them, especially cards that can turn the tide and put you back into a losing game.
You win again. Great. Let me out of the Unless the opponent sitting across from you has gills, they are going to play cards, too. What is in your hand, what is on your board, and what is in your deck are only part of the game you're playing. The rest lies in your ability to interact with your opponent's game plan, and your resilience to his attempt at interacting with yours. If you've evaluated cards in a vacuum because you haven't respected the plays your opponent can make, you're going to get the raw end of the deal when he "lucks" into all those perfect cards he needed to beat you.
fishbowl and I'll bite your damn face, kid.
When you're selecting the cards to put in your deck, you have to be aware that your opponent is going to be unfolding his own plan at the same time you are, and you have to be ready for his answers and threats. Is the deck you've built strong enough to survive your opponent's plan, considering he gets to play, too? Is your plan strong enough to succeed through countermagic, or is your plan dependent upon resolving a key spell? What about discard? If your opponent lands a choice Blightning, are the cards in your deck strong enough that you still have a chance if you have to go into topdeck mode? Do you have answers for popular decks in your mainboard, or are you going into every match handicapped by putting too much stock in the answers you have sideboarded?
These are all important questions that you have to ask yourself as you build your deck, and being prepared to answer them is much easier when the cards you've built your strategy around are worth the resources it takes to play them, be those resources mana, life, card slots, or the resources of your opponent.
It's always tempting to simply shuffle up some land, fast creatures, and a burn spell or two and just start flopping cards hoping for good curves and a lack of early action from your opponent, but outside of goldfish testing games rarely go that way. Even if you get lucky with a deck filled with narrow cards and manage to win a match, if your ambition lies anywhere beyond simply playing casually with your friends, you'll find yourself in a situation where you're playing to get lucky round after round. Good aggressive decks—and good decks of any type for that matter—win long and grueling events by having efficient cards that not only get in there and start bashing, but provide a big enough problem for your opponent that whenever you draw and play them, you are offering a trade of resources that your opponent will be hard-pressed to get the better deal out of.
By Jon Flieger on October 1st, 2009 · Filed in General Magic · Comments not available just now