Winning by a Fraction
By Adam Styborski on November 7th, 2008 · Filed in General Magic · Comments not available just now
When you sit down with your decks and play, are you thinking about how your deck is performing and what you wish you had? What about things in your deck that are rarely useful? Taking a hard look at the cards in your decks, understanding what they do and need, and what can be used instead will move you away from "bad" deck building and towards "okay" decks. Not everyone can be a top-notch tournament player but anyone can make winning come easier for their decks with some thought.
You love your red Goblin deck. You're not running Goblin War Marshal or Boggart Ram-Gang but you like your Mons's Goblin Raiders and friends all the same. Your buddy Zev, however, loves his black reanimation deck. He always seems to have slightly better creatures than you and if they die he just brings them back to play soon thereafter.
It's a normal day in Magic dueling. For some quick fun you and Zev sit down to play a few games with your favorite decks.
Game one: You throw Goblins down in a valiant (for Goblins) effort to win. The Hypnotic Specter he played cruised through to both shred your life total and keep your hand emptied of any fun tricks. You burned it out twice but Zev doesn't mind: he'll just bring it right back with his bevy of reanimation tricks.
Bringing back game breakers since 2001.
While Zev is already shuffling up for the next game, you start looking through a few extra cards you keep with the deck. "What are you doing?" Zev asks. "I'm sideboarding a few things," You calmly reply. "This is just casual. I thought we didn't do stuff like that," Zev insists. "What do you mean? What will swapping a few cards around really do? It's not like I can completely change my deck, you know." Zev shrugs in a slight head-bob of agreement and waits for you to finish.
Game two: You start to throw Goblins down, again, in a valiant effort to win. On turn three your friend Hippy is back, again. This makes Zev smile: he knows this is a huge play and will grind you down in short order. You untap and draw. After swinging with two 1/1 Goblins that Zev lets through he gets really excited that you didn't have a creature to play in your second main phase. After the end of your turn he briskly moves through his beginning phases and goes to combat. "Wait. I have something at the end of your first main phase," you interject. "Go ahead. I'll just bring him back," Zev smugly quips.
"Yamabushi's Flame on the Hippy." Zev looks a little confused: it's been some time since he's seen that card and even then almost universally in Kamigawa Limited formats. After reading it again it dawns on him that the little bit of sideboarding you did may really make an impact this game.
Loves to see the light of day again.
Is this an everyday occurrence? Do we pull in cards for our decks that are better responses to our opponents' decks? Absolutely. There are tens of thousands of tournament players, worldwide and simultaneously, testing all of the competitive formats for an edge over the top decks. Thousands more are experimenting with their casual competitive decks: Peasant, Pauper, Elder Dragon Highlander, Rainbow Stairwell, and other formats resound with strategy, thought, and (thanks to the internet) global testing to get a better answers.
This article isn't strictly about sideboarding, and especially not about competitive play; card evaluation and substitution are vital skills for any casual player to get the most out of his cards. When you have a limited selection of cards, you will need to pull the "best" cards for your deck. But if you're short on the number of that card you need for your deck, finding a substitute to use instead is equally vital. The real foundation behind this is the idea of card function and cost that ultimately generate the results of your deck: reliability, consistency, and ability to generate relevant threats and answers, or the inability to achieve any of the previous goals.
Defining the Baseline
Let's look at how I define function and cost.
Function is what the card is doing or, more bluntly, what you can do with the card. Direct damage (like the cards listed above) is generally an easy-to-understand function: zap something and make it hurt. Some cards are more subtle, like Llanowar Elves, but newer players can understand them pretty quick, where cards like Teferi's Puzzle Box ("What if I want to keep what I have?") or Wrath of God ("Why would I want to blow up my own creatures?") are often very unclear to newer players but have functions that are both fairly unique and very potent. How powerful a function is generally dictates if it is useful or not: Lightning Bolt and Rift Bolt are better than Shock because they both deal more damage than Shock, and Fireball is "the best spell ever" because it can deal much more damage than any of them or even all of them put together. So why do you see more Lightning Bolt, Rift Bolt, and Shock cards played than Fireball? Their costs are all wildly different.
Cost is what it takes to use the card or rather what you have to pay to get your function. Looking at Lightning Bolt and Shock it's pretty clear that, given a choice, I'd much rather play Lightning Bolt than Shock because they share the same cost, , but Lightning Bolt deals one more damage than Shock. Rift Bolt can deal the same amount of damage as Lightning Bolt but costs a lot more (, and ignore the suspend ability for now I'll come back to that shortly). For Fireball to deal three damage (to one just one target creature or player like the other spells) I need even more mana: .
Your costs vary. See card for details.
So we've established that there are some wildly different costs between cards that share the same function. So how to we evaluate these cards? Which cards are better and why? There are some fairly simplistic (and therefore leave much to be desired) paths one can take: divide the damage dealt by the mana cost (Lightning Bolt comes in with 3, Shock with 2, Rift Bolt with 1, and Fireball with X/[X+1]) and the rank them with highest to lowest from the result (Lightning Bolt is best, followed by Shock, then Rift Bolt, and as you approach an arbitrarily large amount of mana Fireball will approach closer and closer to the rank of Rift Bolt); rank by the potential damage that can be dealt (Fireball is first, followed by a tie between Lightning Bolt and Rift Bolt, then finally Shock); rank by additional functions beyond the main one you are looking at, in our case dealing damage to one target creature or player (Fireball can hit a lot more targets for varying amounts of damage, Rift Bolt can by played directly for or played for its suspend cost of which makes it roughly equal to an upkeep-only Lightning Bolt, and Shock still ranks last since Lightning Bolt is the poster child for "strictly better" in this case).
We can even consider the timing on the cards. Lightning Bolt and Shock are each instant cards and can therefore be used as a reaction to an opponent when he or she gives you priority back or at the end of an opponent's turn (surprise value). Fireball and Rift Bolt are each sorcery cards and can only be played during either of your main phases when the stack is empty and you have priority. This significantly limits how you can use these cards. (Bonus: Rift Bolt's suspend cost of gives it Lightning Bolt's cost at the expense of waiting until the beginning of your next upkeep. While it opens up some combo capability, it also telegraphs far in advance that it is coming. Additionally, the beginning of your next upkeep may be a long way away, in multiplayer - or never come, if you lose between when you suspend it and when you get to play it.)
Pro Tip: Mana isn't always the only cost.Ultimately, however, the biggest piece of evaluation comes not from these individual cards in a vacuum together but what other cards they will be playing with. You must answer two questions. One, "What else am I putting into my deck with them?" Determine if there is beneficial synergy there. Fireball will fit right in with decks that pack Mana Flare and Seething Song. Rift Bolt, through its suspend cost, feels best in a deck that uses Dragonstorm or Empty the Warrens. Including both Lightning Bolt and Shock in a very aggressive creature deck will help you clear out any blockers and give you extra damage directly to your opponent if it will win the game. Two, "What am I playing against?" in regards to your opponents. The term "situational" is thrown around a lot and it's a very heavy competitive word that is often used in "makes or breaks" set evaluations (e.g. the card is too situational to main deck but fits well in a sideboard). The truth that tournament players don't dwell on often is that every card is distinctly situational to some degree because you never really know what an opponent is packing. To continue the previous example, all of these spells (Lightning Bolt, Rift Bolt, Fireball, and Shock) need the ability to target something which can be taken away by numerous effects and creatures. All these spells only deal damage which can be either prevented or redirected to somewhere you didn't want it to go. Red burn spells aren't perfect spells but they are good against virtually all opponents in almost any circumstance, which is why the Sligh and Red Deck Wins archetypes have been hanging on for years.
So how do we move beyond our limited understanding of these cards and earn the gleaned wisdom of someone who has played the card? It might sound suspiciously easy, but we go and play with the cards to check them out. Tournament players call this "playtesting" which is an elite way of saying "I took several different cards and tried them in different combinations in my deck, playing games over and over against a wide variety of decks, to see which cards gave me the best advantages overall." Playtesting is a very important, difficult skill to master and almost requires a good team to truly work through the high-level metagame of tournament Magic. However, the basic goal of testing different cards and strategies (what you're doing with the functions of the cards and how the costs interact together) is easy to shift to a more casual setting.
Grab Your Lemons and Thinking Caps
Let's head back to all the red burn from earlier: what should we play with? In a vacuum, our decision makes little sense because, as we previously established, it's not being used against anything yet. So let's build a basic red burn deck and two common (and very different) deck archetypes:
What does Burning Red do against these two very different decks? Regardless of which match-up you believe to be more difficult, both require very different play decisions. Against Mono-Blue Control, you will need to save up cheap threats (namely Lightning Bolt, Rift Bolt, Raging Goblin, and Mogg Fanatic) to play all right on top of each other. By playing spells that are cheaper than the counterspells you leverage cost advantage to bypass the wall of counters. Obviously, the fact that some spells can bounce (Boomerang, Capsize, and Repeal) your creatures back is problematic. It won't be easy but you'll have few targets for your burn spells other than your opponent. The Green Stompy match up is challenging for the opposite reason: you will be unrestricted in killing lots of creatures and you'll have too many targets. You can't kill every creature and the creatures will kill you if you don't kill some of them fast enough. Some of the creatures make the bigger creatures come out faster and the biggest creatures are much better than your own. How do you play against this? You need to leverage function advantage as best as possible to beat them to the punch. There is virtually no way to kill Thorn Elemental without losing in cost advantage (at least two of your cards to stop their one card) aside from a fully charged Fireball. Instead of holding back anything you play at a breakneck speed, killing their little creatures that prevent you from dealing as much damage as possible and slipping in very point of damage against the player you can. If Thorn Elemental hits the table, they need to be at a point where Lightning Bolt (or Shock, or Rift Bolt, or Fireball) to the face ends the game.
Obviously, some cards are going to prove to be much better in one game compared to another. Ghitu Encampment will play great against Mono-Blue Control: they can't play a counterspell against your land, Repeal can't bounce it, and even with the buyback on Capsize, is a lot to keep pumping every other turn; against Green Stompy, though, your manland just ends up dying by being blocked by something much larger than it. However, little Shock lets you burn out a Llanowar Elf before it gets out of hand and lets Mogg Fanatic's sacrifice ability take out an Elvish Warrior; against Mono-Blue Control, Shock doesn't deal with any of the real threats that would get played and is outclassed by both Rift Bolt and Lightning Bolt.
In both games, Fireball is something left relatively quiet. Despite its nostalgic place in Magic history, it is not a terribly effective spell, especially for multiple targets. Its best use would be to slam through the last few points of damage against Green Stompy (or kill a Thorn Elemental if you can't finish the player off), but Fireball will always be countered by Mono-Blue Control. Aggravating things further, either of these decks can run problematic creatures that can't be targeted (see CR 502.36) or can regenerate easily from the damage you've dealt.
Let the Cards Do the Talking
Screams "don't touch me!"Here is the ultimate point of this article: what can you substitute to maintain the cost and increase the function, or to increase the cost for an associated increase in function? What I mean is this: assume that you play Red Burn and win against both of the other decks a few times. Your buddies are going to go back to the drawing board and update their decks to handle yours, adding in things that regenerate, can't be targeted, and stop your general battle plan much better than before. You need to do this too! Stepping back to make different choices, with the knowledge of what you're going to face, helps you immensely as well. For a start, the card Fireblast seems like an excellent addition: it can be played for "free" against Mono-Blue Control and deals even more damage to a creature or player for the Green Stompy match up.
Adapting your deck may seem strange- "If I'm making the best plays and using the best cards I can now, why would I change anything?" The logical fallacy therein is that your cards are always "the best" and your plays are always optimal. It is impossible to guarantee both. Optimal plays depend on using what you have (cards in hand, permanents, and other resources) and assuming something about the game state to be true when you take your action. For example, when you attack with Goblin Infantry into Llanowar Elves you're going to assume that there is no combat trick waiting. The most potent example of this is when you must assume that you can win the turn before you lose, a common occurrence in Limited matches. This is a very deep topic best served elsewhere.
I can't stress enough that all decks, both casual and tournament decks, constantly test, develop, shift, and adapt to fight other deck styles. Stagnant decks fall into two distinct categories: decks that employ cards well above the curve for power and dominate across multiple formats (Ravager Affinity) or, more commonly, are slowly leeched of power and capability as other decks become accustomed to and adapt to defeat it (Dragonstorm, Faeries). They may stay strong but they can never stay "the strongest" forever.
When red players have nightmares...More specifically, are the cards you're using "the best" in every game? Lightning Bolt is awesome unless your opponent has Justice out to stop your deck, where then you may want to use Shock instead (or scoop unless you can play Burning Wish for Anarchy). Rift Bolt is great, but it's most definitely not Lightning Bolt if you have only open on your opponent's turn. All of these cards do nothing to creatures with shroud or that have a cheap regeneration cost, both basic foils of burn decks.
We're now back at our introductory game: red goblins versus graveyard recursion. What can we change to beat the recursion better? Carbonize, Yamabushi's Flame, and Disintegrate all provide ways to beat graveyard recursion. Without needed to splash in another color (Blue graveyard shuffle) or expensive, non-common card (like Leyline of the Void or Tormod's Crypt) you can do what you deck wants to do, and you don't even have to change your basic playing strategy. The downside is, of course, that these spells generally cost more mana and you may not have the multiple copies needed to fully replace every spell in your deck.
Smarter than the Average Bear
"What can we change to beat the recursion better?" Ultimately, what would you, the reader, do? Are cards like Carbonize, Yamabushi's Flame, and Disintegrate useful enough to add for a sideboard or even run in the main deck? How would you go about beating control or agro better? Are there other, better card options are out there? I challenge you all to answer some, or all, of these questions because no one has all the "right" answers – I guarantee it.
By Adam Styborski on November 7th, 2008 · Filed in General Magic · Comments not available just now
About Adam Styborski
Adam Styborski has played Magic on and off from around Ice Age onward. With his B.A. in Mathematics, he promply got a job in the insurance industry and moved far from the tiny towns he grew up in to the urban metropolis of Washington, D.C. Constantly trying new things, he loves to win with the unexpected and has found a home in the very diverse Magic community in D.C.