Magic Theory: Zones of Attack
By Sean DeCoursey on March 21st, 2005 · Filed in General Magic · Comments not available just now
Magic Theory: Zones of Attack
When most people (myself included) think about Magic theory, they think of card advantage vs. card selection, synergy vs. individual card strength, or Timmy vs. Johnny vs. Spike debates. That’s all well and good, but today I’m going to talk about a different kind of theory that all players practice, but few think about. That theory is, as I like to refer to it, “Zones of Attack.” Some of you probably read that and are thinking: “Now just hold up a minute there mister, I’m a control player and I don’t want to attack anything, much less in any kind of a “Zone.” When I say “Zones of Attack” I’m not talking about the attack phase, I’m talking about your opponents cards. See, that’s something that it’s pretty easy to lose track of when playing magic, everything in the game is at its heart, a piece of cardboard. The fancy names, beautiful artwork and nifty mechanics can easily make us forget that we’re not zipping around with Angels or countering spells or killing creatures, but rather using one card to counteract another. The main reason that blue has almost always been a strong color is that most of blue’s spells and effects deal with the spells and permanents and whatnot as, well, as cards.
So what am I talking about when I say “Zone of Attack?” Basically I’m talking about where you are trying to attack your opponent's cards (control), or if you’re just ignoring your opponent's cards and trying to attack their life total (aggro), or if you decide to just focus on your own cards and win the game (combo). For example, a counter based control deck seeks to attack opponent's cards on the stack. Counter decks have a long history of success. Why is this? Basically because since with a few notable exceptions every card in the game that enters or affects play has to move through the stack before its user can reap its benefits. Thus, Counterspell deals with nearly every single thing in your opponent's deck… for two mana. But counter decks don’t always win. In fact, at times they have been downright terrible. How do you explain that, Mr. Smartypants? Simply put, the big downside of counter magic is that it is time sensitive. The only time counter magic can deal with a spell or permanent is when it is on the stack. Not before, and not after.
Now I’m going to go through each game zone you can attack, and what the advantages and disadvantages are to attacking it.
Since we’ve already touched on countermagic, let’s start with the stack.
Description: The Stack is where spells and creatures reside in the time between when they are cast and when they resolve.
How to Attack it: Cards on the Stack can only be attacked by counter magic spells and effects, copied by spells and effects, or redirected by misdirection spells and effects. Some examples of these are Shunt, Sideswipe, Uyo, Silent Prophet, Fork, Mana Leak, Counterspell, Hinder, and Condescend.
Advantages: With the exception of land, every card that enters play or has an effect on the game goes through the Stack. This makes countermagic incredibly versatile, as any possible plan your opponent might have is readily answered by your deck. This also leads to an advantage in mana consumption, as before any card can go onto the stack, all costs for it must be paid. Countermagic is often much cheaper than the spell it is countering.
Disadvantages: Land isn’t covered here, neither is any spell which includes the text “cannot be countered.” Nearly anyone who has been playing for a while understands that they most likely have more spells than you have counters, so they will simply cast away knowing that you won’t be able to stop everything they have. Finally, and this is the big one, timing. Cards are only on the Stack for a very short, definite period of time, after that they are in play or their effect has resolved and it now takes an entirely different type of card to deal with them.
Historical Use: One of the first control archetypes ever created was U/W Control which originated waaaay back in Alpha. At the time White could easily kill any card in play through a combination of Swords to Plowshares , Disenchant , and Wrath of God . Blue could stop any spell from entering play through Counterspell , Power Sink , and Spell Blast . (of course, Blue could also deal with creatures with Control Magic and Psionic Blast , but that’s another story altogether) This deck relied on Serra Angel and Vesuvan Doppleganger for the wins since these creatures could fulfill their secondary role of offense while still performing their primary role of defense of the U/W player’s life. This type of deck probably hit its most evolved and efficient point with the Counter-Post deck, which relied on Kjeldoran Outpost and lots of 1/1 Soldier Tokens for the win.
Cards in Hand
How to Attack it: Cards in hand can be attacked with discard spells and effects. Black is by far the best, and pretty much only color with these abilities. Even off color Discard, such as Gerrard’s Verdict still includes black mana in the casting cost. Skullscorch is red, but that card was created at a time when the punisher mechanic gave Red access to all sorts of non-red abilities. Some examples of ways to attack the hand are: Hymn to Tourach, Unburden, Duress, Cabal Therapy, Persecute, Nezumi Shortfang, Disrupting Scepter, and Cabal Interrogator .
Advantages: Before any card enters play, before any card even has a chance to go on the stack, it sits in your hand. (Ok, Buried Alive in a Reanimator deck is an exception, but the Buried Alive still had to go through their hand.) Many spells remove multiple cards from an opponent's hand for a very reasonable mana cost. Finally, any card type in the game can be removed by forcing your opponent to discard it.
Disadvantages: Once an opponent's hand is emptied, all of your discard spells become dead draws. Further, there isn’t anything you can do to prevent them from drawing and playing spells. Finally, a deck with a lot of card drawing or that empties its hand quickly can shrug off discard spells as a minor inconvenience.
Historical Use: The first truly powerful discard deck was Necropotence. When the first Necrodecks appeared, there was literally nothing that could stop them, they drew an insane amount of cards, forced you to discard all of yours with Hypnotic Specter (which would often make a turn one appearance thanks to Dark Ritual) and Hymn to Tourach, then beat you down with First Striking Pump Knights that had protection from Swords to Plowshares. The power of Necropotence decks led to the restricting of Hymn to Tourach. The epitomy of the power of this type of deck was probably seen shortly after the deck appeared when Lake of the Dead was printed in Alliances. Lake-powered massive Drain Lifes allowed the Necro player to draw many more cards, thus powering more out more discard and mana for more Drain Lifes until the opponent was just dead, dead, and dead.
Cards in Play
Description: Cards in play are cards that have entered play and stay there, these are often referred to as permanents. They generally fall into the following categories: Artifacts, Creatures, Enchantments, and Lands.
How to Attack it: Removal spells and effects generally fall into one of two classifications, Mass Removal and Targeted Removal. Some examples of Mass Removal are: Shatterstorm, Wrath of God, Armaggedon, and Tranquility. Some examples of targeted removal are: Terror, Shatter, Stone Rain, Naturalize, and Vindicate.
Advantages: When you destroy something your opponent has put into play, you gain an advantage because your opponent has gone to a lot of trouble to put that permanent out there. He had to draw it, pay for casting it, and get it into play. Destroying a permanent means that one act of yours negates two or three acts of his. It also means that whatever benefits your opponent was planning on gaining from that permanent can no longer be received. You have, in effect, disrupted your opponent's plans. This is a good thing. Mass removal nets you card advantage, as surely as drawing cards or Mind Twisting your opponent would. When one card of yours wipes out three or four cards of theirs, in many ways it is much more powerful than if you had simply drawn three or four cards off of one spell yourself. Why? Because your opponent has gone to the trouble of drawing, casting and playing all of those cards. They represent an advantage accumulated over several turn that has just been wiped out by you with one simple card. Also, unlike countermagic, a permanent may be removed at any time, not just when it is cast.
Disadvantages: Many permanents have abilities or effects that trigger when they come into or leave play. Removal doesn’t stop these effects. Removal does nothing against decks that have few permanents for you to remove. There are many types of permanents and each requires a different type of spell to destroy it. This can often leave you with a hand full of the wrong type of removal while your opponent kills you. Finally, some permanents are extremely hard to remove. Darksteel Colossus is probably the best example of a creature that is hard to destroy, but there have been many others, such as Akroma, Angel of Wrath or Ihsan’s Shade (This guy was immune to Lightning Bolt, Terror, Dark Banishing, Psionic Blast, and Swords to Plowshares. That's basically every single creature kill spell that was available at the time).
Historical Use: One of the most removal heavy decks that I have ever seen was played fairly recently in Standard. The deck in question was Mono White Control during Darksteel Standard when Skullclamp was legal. This deck ran eight mass removal spells, and many versions also ran several Oblivion Stones and Purges as backup. The current Extended versions of Red Deck Wins also boast an impressive amount of removal in the form of many, many, many burn spells and some land destruction.
Description: Your opponent's deck is where all of his cards sit until he draws them.
How to Attack it: The main ways to attack an opponent’s deck is with Artifacts. There are also quite a few blue (and some black) spells which attack an opponents deck. Some examples are: Lobotomy, Dampen Thought, Millstone, Cranial Extraction, Brain Freeze, Extract, and Haunting Echoes.
Advantages: The vast majority of players attempt to kill their opponent by reducing their life total to zero. Very few players are prepared for an attack on their deck.
Disadvantages: A typical deck contains 60 cards. This is three times as much as 20 life. Before you even begin, you’re setting the bar for achievement three times higher than anyone else is.
Historical Use: Dampen Thought is currently one of the more powerful draft archetypes for Kamigawa Limited, but this is not the first time players have attempted to achieve death by decking. Mind’s Desire decks often go for the kill by using Brain Freeze to empty an opponent’s library. The original deck that attacked the opponent's library was the Millstone deck. This deck used Millstone(s) to grind away at their opponent's libraries while using cards such as Balance, Swords to Plowshares, and Wrath of God to keep the table free of creatures. The Millstone deck is such a traditional source of Library destruction that ever since all such library depletion effects have been referred to as “Milling” effects.
Your Opponent’s Life
Description: This is quite simply a person saying “I’m going to deal 20 damage to my opponent before they can do anything about it.”
How to Attack it: This concept is the heart of any aggressive strategy that anyone has ever pursued in Magic. From Affinity to Madness to Suicide Black, every aggressive deck in the game’s history has tried to kill an opponent as fast as possible and ignored everything else. Red has always been a big part of this strategy with its myriad burn spells and Haste creatures. Some examples of cards that simply seek to end your opponents’ life are: Sulfuric Vortex, Flames of the Blood Hand, Pulse of the Forge, Fireball, Lightning Bolt, Fireblast, and Blistering Firecat.
Advantages: Speed. Speed is by far the biggest advantage a deck like this has and when building one you should try to maximize this by any means necessary.
Disadvantages: Aggressive decks typically have many problems with longer games. If you don’t win in the first few turns, you’re probably not going to win at all. The best and most successful aggro decks have found ways around this, but at their heart, they still want to win early and win easy.
Historical Use: There have been some great aggro decks, and many of them have had a red base. Whether it was Goblins or Sligh, the burn and small creatures can win a lot of games. Some other notable examples of aggressive decks include U/G Madness, Affinity, and what was probably the very first aggro deck, R/G Kird Ape .
Ok, now that we’ve covered the basic zones of attack, you might be wondering what, exactly, the point of the concept is. Attack zone theory is very useful as an aid in the initial design of any deck, and also can be useful when tuning a deck. Generally speaking, the most successful decks focus on one or two zones and include a smattering of support cards that help them achieve that end. Oftentimes during deckbuilding players will include cards because they are "good" even if they don't help out in attacking the zones your deck is designed to focus on. Most decks can handle a little disruption. If you spread out your attack over a wide variety of zones then you simply disrupt your opponent a little in several zones, rather than crippling them in one or two and then exploiting that advantage to win the game.
What about tuning though? Remembering what zones you want to attack with your deck is very important when tuning your deck. If you don't keep your decks focus in mind when testing and tuning it, you will very quickly find yourself adding cards that weaken your deck's focus while at the same time failing to aid in it's primary mission. A perfect example of this would be an Affinity deck (pre ban) that was worried about Horobi, Death's Wail and decided to run Scale of Chiss-Goria as a counter measure. Why is this a mistake? Because Scale will never kill your opponent, when there are other options for dealing with Horobi (Pyrite Spellbomb, Shrapnel Blast) that deal with Horobi while still aiding in the primary attack zone of your opponents' life total.
So how do you make a deck utilizing the concept? I’ll give two examples that mainly focus on one zone, one for Standard, and one for Extended.
The Extended Deck
We’re going to focus on one zone with this deck, but we’ll branch out into some other zones to cover deficiencies in our main zone, and because sometimes those other zones work with our main idea. Let’s do something a little non-traditional here and attack the deck, but instead of using Millstone, we’re going to try and remove our opponents deck from the game entirely. We’re going to accomplish this by attacking our opponent’s cards before they enter play. The best two colors for this seem to be Blue and Black, so let’s start there. Cranial Extraction is perfect for this deck since it takes any four cards of our choice and removes them from our primary attack zone. Eradicate and Quash provide some defense out of our main zone and fit well with our theme, so we’ll include four of each of them. Lobotomy also seems like a natural fit for the theme and colors, so four of those as well. Up next, let’s get some more discard and countermagic effects going, so we’ll add Counterspell and Duress. We now have several of the secondary cards, so let’s look at what really kills the opponent's deck itself. Haunting Echoes can potentially remove a lot of an opponent's deck in one shot, so let’s add some of them. Dampen Thought also looks like a winner, plus it’ll help out the Echoes quite a bit. That’s seven cards for our main themes, so let’s add a few utility cards to round out the deck and protect ourselves from early creature rushes. What comes out looks something like this:
Now, is the above deck in any way shape or form tournament worthy? No, it’s not. For one thing it lacks a sideboard, card draw, and it’s probably too crowded at the 4cc slot. But that’s okay, we’re only using theory to create the initial outline of a deck that attempts to accomplish a specific goal, in this case “I will win by removing all of my opponent’s significant cards from the game and decking them.” Extract, Recoil, and Probe are all cards that seem like they would aid in the zones we're trying to attack here, but this is a case where testing would be needed to determine if they were superior to what is already in the deck.
The Standard Deck
So now we’ve looked at a way to attack cards that are not in play, what about cards that are in play? Before we design a deck to go after cards in play we have to decide what type of cards we want to go after, in this case we’ll go after land since every deck plays it, and no one can do anything without it.
For a mana denial deck, most people typically look to red, and land destruction, but there are other ways to neutralize a card in play besides destroying it, so we’re going to look at one of those and take advantage of some recently printed cards in order to do it. First up in the non-destroying but rendering effectively useless job interview is Hokori, Dust Drinker. This guy is basically a Winter Orb on legs with a higher price tag. If your opponent is tapped out when this guy comes down, it’ll be a bit before they can untap enough lands to start doing things again. Now, what looks like it could work well with him? Ghostly Prison seems like a sure bet to protect us from a tapped out opponent’s creatures. What else requires our opponent to tap mana? Early Frost and Mana Leak both seem to fit the bill. Ok, so we’ve got our opponent tapped out, now how do we get to untap ourselves? Hokori doesn’t affect Artifacts, so we’ll include plenty of Artifact mana, that’s a start, but what about our lands? Well, unlike Winter Orb, Hokori works whether he’s tapped or not, so Icy Manipulator doesn’t seem like it will help us that much, but it looks like unsummoning him is a good bet to get our land untapped. Boomeranging Hokori during our opponent's untap phase would do this job nicely, and work as a way to remove any other permanent we don’t like once we’ve locked our opponent out of their mana. But we’ll want to re-use the effect, so maybe we should use Crystal Shard instead. Or we could just combine Boomerang with Isochron Scepter and get even more benefit out of it.
Ok, so it seems like we can keep our opponent from untapping any mana and from attacking, but they can still play land and we don’t have a way to kill them yet. Orb of Dreams looks like it stops them from playing any land untapped, and since they don’t get to untap their land anymore it looks like we’ve managed to achieve a lock (they won't get to untap any lands from Hokori since he triggers during their upkeep phase and we're bouncing him during their untap phase). So how do we win? They probably have some untapped creatures that can’t attack because of the prison, so attacking with Hokori doesn’t seem like the best idea, but what if we had a creature that couldn’t be blocked? Fortunately, in blue we do! Phantom Warrior comes in as our sole win condition. So let’s take a look at what we’ve got here.
Again, I wouldn’t recommend taking this deck to a tournament as is, but with a little work and tuning it could turn out to be pretty solid. I mean heck, any deck which can potentially lock your opponent on one land starting on turn one can’t be all bad can it? (Use a Mox to get out a Scepter with Boomerang imprinted on it on your first turn, then on every turn thereafter bounce back their land during their upkeep.)
By Sean DeCoursey on March 21st, 2005 · Filed in General Magic · Comments not available just now
About Sean DeCoursey
Sean Decoursey is a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom where he served with the 2/124th Infantry from 12/02 through 03/04. He attended Truman State University where he was a member of the rugby team which ranked in the top ten nationally three times. Sean graduated with a degree in Justice Systems and now lives in Kansas City, where he works as a Financial Advisor.