Baghdad Bazaar: Let's Have a Funny Time!

It's been a few months since my last article for this-here-website. Summed up, I have been extraordinarily busy. Since March, I have:

  • Finally left the Army. (Woo hoo!)
  • Gone to all the classes and turned in all the equipment said departure required.
  • Taken all the courses needed to renew my EMT-B license.
  • Searched for and bought my first house, together with my wife.
  • Moved everything into that house.
  • Located a job teaching English to kindergarteners in Taiwan. (Ask my wife--it was her secret ambition).
  • Set my house up with a property manager and a tenant to live in it while away.
  • Moved overseas.

A pretty common sight around here. I love hustle and bustle.
Yup, even out of the Army, I still can't seem to stay in the States. And let me tell you, Taiwan is a trip. There are a number of comforts of home we miss, yet a number of innovations we wish America would pick up. (Like the absence of alcohol stores. Because you can buy 12-year MacAllan in any 7-11 you pass!) And for those of you who aren't old enough yet to drink, consider the fact that many bills you receive can also be paid in cash at the same local 7-11 store, who will then forward the money on to the internet company or the phone company or whatever themselves. Talk about handy.

One of the more entertaining aspects of any foreign culture is the poorly-translated English phrases you see everywhere. Although they are not quite as atrocious as those I saw during my time in Iraq, it's still hard not to laugh outloud when reading: "Clone your happiness!" or "Welcome to Pig Pig Family; let's have a funny time!" If you've never been to an Eastern Asia culture, let me just say they have a intense emphasis on "Kawaii" (Japanese for "cute") to sell everything, much like our culture has an intense emphasis on not looking like a dweeb. It seems to work over here though. And for some reason, sickeningly-cute and poor English actually go hand in hand.

But enough about my personal life. On to the Magics!

1. Theory.

On one occasion, I remember reading an article from one of the "main" MTG sites in which the author referred to one or two currently placing Standard decks. I remember that he bemoaned not understanding why the creators would put in only 1 or 2 copies of a particular card (anti-enchant, for example) with no way to tutor them, when it wouldn't hurt its particular sideboard to load up on 4. "If you're going to sideboard in anti-enchant," he said (or something akin), "why not make sure you have the most opportunity to draw the cards you need?" And although I've forgotten the article itself, his thoughts stuck with me. Because not only were the one-of decks still placing alongside 4-of decks...but they were placing well. That fact, if nothing else, should make one start to wonder.

Take, for example, Edward Dunning's deck from Boston. He has one copy each of Faerie Macabre, Nath of the Gilt-Leaf, and Puppeteer Clique in the whole deck, and no way to find them other than two copies of an expensive Primal Command. What gives? Why not simply judge which one of the three would be better at whatever metagame he's going to, then make it a three-of? Why even bother to sideboard a Puppeteer Clique if you're never going to draw it on the one turn you absolutely need it?

(For another solid example, check out Yong Han Choo's Top 8 placer from Hollywood. The deck is tutorless and almost completely two-ofs.)

For the likes of me, I could only think of one possible explanation:

The Theory of Versatility:
Any given deck may perform better when built with an emphasis on a diverse card pool that can respond to a wide variety of situations, rather than a card pool built around the reliable draw of a few key pieces of strategy.

Rephrased: A deck with "one-ofs" and "two-ofs" might actually be better off in the long-run than a strict "four-of" deck.

Taiwan currently has the world's tallest building.
It kinda...sticks out.
Think of it this way: in a mono-White deck, a hand of three Wing Shards and a Plains might be a reliable draw; but against a Vigor, perhaps you'd rather have those three non-land cards be a Wing Shards, a Devouring Light, and a Crib Swap instead. In the end, which of the two versions is truly "stronger"; the version that can always have a Wing Shards in hand, or the version that can always use what it draws?

In other words, maybe deck builders like Dunning and Yong aren't afraid to have one-ofs and two-ofs because, in the end, the deck is robust enough to respond to any given board state. All it takes is a skillful pilot who knows what's in his deck, what to keep in his hand, and what to play at any given moment.

Of course, no theory is worth anything without due experimentation. I eventually decided to give the idea a shot.

2. The Decks.

I believed a version of Mono-Red Control (i.e. global burn) would probably be the best candidate for this sort of test, as it was one of the simplest and most straightforward successful deck designs. It has a distinct win condition, doesn't fold to an Extirpate or stray Counterspell, and can stay away from permanents that get periodically wiped. In particular, I geared my deck towards Extended Two-Headed Giant, as that is the format I play almost exclusively.

An important message from Pig Pig Family.
Mono-Red Control--Reliable BurnMagic OnlineOCTGN2ApprenticeBuy These Cards
Direct Damage (16):
4 Lava Spike
4 Skred
4 Sudden Shock
4 Browbeat

Global Burn (11):
4 Flamebreak
4 Earthquake
3 Sulfurous Blast

Anti-Artifact (3):
3 Shattering Spree

Life Gain (4):
4 Dragon's Claw

Etc (3):
3 Stuffy Doll

Lands (23):
11 Snow-Covered Mountain
4 Forgotten Cave
1 Terramorphic Expanse
3 Ghitu Encampment
4 Wooded Foothills

The theory here is simple: start a life gap with cards like Lava Spike or Dragon's Claw, then use the global burn cards to keep the field clear and finish the damage.

On a few of the odder card choices:
  • Browbeat has always been a favorite of mine in a dedicated Red burn deck, despite arguments I've made to the contrary. I essentially treat it as a cheap Beacon of Destruction, and there's always that one time an opponent is foolish enough to give me extra burn cards.
  • Stuffy Doll is a little expensive for the curve of the deck; but it's a terrific blocker when the opponent starts laying down creatures too large to burn, and it combos well with global burn and Skred. (Another thought I had for this slot was Hostility, but it's a little more expensive and tricky to use alongside global burn that'll just kill the tokens you made last turn.)
  • Dragon's Claw. I really wish I could just replace this with four more reliable burn spells (aka Magma Jet), but I've found them to be crucial in maintaining a life gap with the enemy. It's just too easy to find yourself on the receiving end of a furious start, turning all your global damage cards into quick paths to suicide. And considering how often you find Red or Red hybrid cards slinging around these days, the Claws more than pay for themselves. (Plus, they're indespensible in the occasional mirror match.)
(A quick aside: I play exclusively on MTGO, and this "experiment" began before Shadowmoor was released for MTGO. Hence, I didn't include any Shadowmoor cards in the design. Had I to do it again, I'd throw in goodies like Manamorphose and Smash to Smithereens.)

Now what if we decided to diversify our deck a little? Instead of three Skreds in your hand, why not have a Skred, a Seal of Fire, and a Dead//Gone? They all cost R, yet each one has a specific set of circumstances in which they are superior. Or here's another thought: would you rather have Rain of Embers in your deck to deal with those pesky Lys Alana Huntmaster tokens or Breath of Darigaaz for late-game potential? What about Volcanic Spray instead, in case you empty your hand?

Why not all of them?

Turning a reliable four-of deck into a "pseudo-singleton" deck will put an emphasis more on skillful play than on the forced luck of the draw. But it hardly makes it unplayable--it simply means the deck requires a different kind of play than a simple, idiot-proof version would.

Let's see what we came up with:

The poor translation actually makes it more endearing.
Mono-Red Control--Versatile BurnMagic OnlineOCTGN2ApprenticeBuy These Cards
Direct Damage (16):
2 Skred
1 Lava Spike
1 Seal of Fire
1 Blazing Salvo
1 Firebolt
1 Shock
1 Dead/Gone
1 Magma Jet
1 Sudden Shock
1 Crushing Pain
1 Flames of the Blood Hand
1 Browbeat
1 Sizzle
1 Molten Rain
1 Demonfire

Global Burn (11):
1 Breath of Darigaaz
1 Volcanic Spray
1 Rain of Embers
1 Flamebreak
1 Molten Disaster
2 Earthquake
4 Sulfurous Blast

Anti-Artifact (3):
1 Shattering Spree
1 Smash
1 Granulate

Life Gain (4):
2 Dragon's Claw
2 Sun Droplet

Etc (3):
1 Stuffy Doll
1 Chandra Nalaar
1 Hostility

Lands (23):
11 Snow-Covered Mountain
4 Forgotten Cave
1 Terramorphic Expanse
3 Ghitu Encampment
4 Wooded Foothills

As you can see, I tried to keep to the original "spirit" of my global burn strategy. There are exactly the same number of point damage/global burn/utility spells as in our previous version, plus I've managed to keep the mana curve as similiar as possible. (As you can see, I've also kept the mana base exactly the same--it would do no good if a different mana base could be blamed for a difference in performance.) In Statistics, we call this minimizing the number of other variables, so we can see what happens when we change just the one we're studying.

That being said, the individual card choices seem all over the board. Ah, such is the life of a deck devoted to versatility over reliability. Here are a few I'd like to point out:
  • Molten Rain. This isn't an LD deck, so why is this card in here? Because, besides being able to do direct damage, sometimes there's a Academy Ruins or a Urza's Power Plant that really needs a-killing. You won't draw it reliably, but there's always a target when you do.
  • Crushing Pain. One of the many banes of a straight-damage deck is a large creature. (Compare a simple Terror from a Black deck vs. a 15-mana Demonfire.) Large creatures aren't on the board often enough to warrant adding even a second copy, but finding a target when one draws this won't be a problem.

  • When you pack 25 million people onto an island the
    size of Delaware+Maryland, it makes sense that
    half the vehicles are Mopeds.

  • Smash/Granulate. Although Shattering Spree is still my favorite anti-artifact card (despite being a sorcery), sometimes you run into that dedicated affinity for artifacts deck. Or just need another card.
  • Sun Droplet. Not only did reliable life-gain turn out to be as needed in this version as the original, but even 2 Sun Droplets proved themselves better than all four of my original choice. Dragon's Claw will only net you 1 life per Earthquake cast, whereas the Droplet will eventually give back whatever you paid for x. (Additionally, creatures with a power of 4 or less would look at the Droplet and not even bother to attack. That doesn't happen with a Claw.)
  • Hostility/Chandra Nalaar. Since I'm no longer required to use three Stuffy Dolls, I threw in a few other solid options that any respectable MRC deck would appreciate. They may not be as mindless to use, but they definitely have their times in the sun.
  • Sulfurous Blast. Why still four? Why not, perhaps, two of these and a few more of the other global burn options? Because in testings with the deck, I've found that this card is the only option against fliers like Scion of Oona. And having as many options as possible against those helps, even if the card has a limit on damage.
You'd be correct in guessing this deck requires a bit more finesse than our last. Instead of simply going through the rout of Lava Spike, Lava Spike, Flamebreak, Earthquake, a player would be forced to make much tougher decisions. Do you use the Dead on the Magus of the Candelbera, or do you save the Gone side of it for the upcoming Wurmcalling token and risk the slower Firebolt instead? Do you use your Magma Jet just before you untap on the Woodland Changeling to set up your draw, or do you use your Sudden Shock in case he has a boost? Or even, do you play your Dragon's Claw on turn two to start gaining life, or do you think he has hasted creatures/burn spells and drop your Sun Droplet?

The Games.

Reliable Burn:
Ground Rules:
  • All games were MTGO Two-Headed Giant, Extended, Single Game Win, players only attack across. (The starting life would vary between 30 and 40 per team, depending on if I was creating or if another person was. However, in Statistics, a factor varying freely over both populations can be ruled out. In other words, if I played in enough both 30 and 40-life games with both decks, it wouldn't matter.)
  • Lost connections and ties weren't counted. Concessions, on the other hand, were. If you think your deck isn't up to the challenge and scoop, it's the same as a loss. (This resulted in both wins and losses for me.)
1. The only thing worse than a turn-5 Kokusho in 2HG is a turn-5 Myojin of Night's Reach. We valiantly hold out for 8 turns and bring them down to 3 life; but in the end, we can't beat the card advantage. (Wins/Losses: 0/1)
2. This time, the deck works the way it's supposed to. I periodically clear the board of annoying elves and minor creatures, and my teamy holds back till he can lay an Aether Charge. (1/1)
3. I use what burn I have to keep the elf/Obsidian Battle-Axe combo at bay, but the addition of a Loxodon Warhammer spells doom. This deck can't do much against dedicated life-gain. (1/2)
4. Speaking of things this deck can't do anything against, a beefy Soulless One is another. (1/3)
5. An early Earthquake for 1 makes life difficult for the over-extended double-elf team, and further Flamebreaks force fast forfeitures. Ah, the alliteration. (2/3)
6. Despite my teamy being admittedly hopped-up on cold meds, I still keep the field clear of opposing zombies and goblins long enough for him to decide to start swinging with his Korlash. (3/3)
7. Our opponent's Tendrils of Agony combo goes off while he's at 1 life and I hold two Sudden Shocks in hand with no open mana. That's a frustrating feeling. (3/4)
8. I thought it was over when my opponent's Hunting Grounds dropped a Phantom Nishoba, but a few turns later he attacked into my Stuffy Doll with a Serra Avatar. Needless to say, the APNAP rule kicked his butt. (4/4)
9. This game turned into a trench warfare battle between goblins, centaurs, and treefolk. We would have won the game on the back of an instant-speed Sulfurous Blast, except that my teamy couldn't read the abilities on his own creatures. Some of the most aggravating losses are the ones you should have won, barring stupidity. Well, such is the life of 2HG. (4/5)
10. The opponent across from me got severely mana-screwed and sat on two lands the entire game. My deck, on the other hand, is perfectly fine with only three. (5/5)
11. In the halls of the goblins, the Stuffy Doll/Earthquake combo is king. (6/5)

They've got Magic here too?? Sweet!
Wait, I can't read any of these cards.

12. The problem with a Howling Mine/Ebony Owl Netsuke deck is that it lets me draw right into the Shattering Sprees needed to beat it. (And Counterspells don't do anything to stop them.) (7/5)
13. Speaking of Shattering Spree, apparently it counts as LD when playing against artifact lands, and people will quit on you. Gosh, I love that card. (8/5)
14. Dragons are big, tough, and hard to kill. (8/6)
15. This time around, the enemy Howling Mine/Ebony Owl Netsuke combo was backed up by Academy Ruins and Exhaustions. It made a much stronger showing. (8/7)
16. With the opponent at 7 life, I played Browbeat targetting myself. Fearing the one card I had left in my hand was another Lava Spike, the opponents let me draw 3. Oh, how I love bluffing on a land, especially when it lets me draw into a Flamebreak to hit my Stuffy Doll with. (9/7)
17. My teamy couldn't stop the flood of Shadowmoor elementals on his side, and I couldn't burn them all. (9/8)
18. Despite my teamy being land-screwed for most of the game (Epic Proportions needs more than three land), I still manage to Lava Spike and Flamebreak the enemy down far enough for him to finish off with a timely Squall Line. (10/8)
19. This time my old teamy does get enough land for her large creatures. Except that she's on the wrong side from me now. The Pandemonium doesn't help. (10/9)
20. For once, I actually mana-flood; and my partner never gets his reanimation engine off the ground. We succumb to one of those many varients of elf decks. (10/10)

Total Wins/Losses: 10/10 (50%)

Well! That wasn't actually so bad, considering it's a deck that has no fast blockers, no other way of killing than straight damage, and no answers to large/protected/indestructible creatures or life-gain. Let's see if our other version can fair any better.

Versatile Burn:

1. Ignoring my normal inclination, I let 2 Howling Mines sit on the board in this game. It turned out well, as they let my teamy's 850-card deck pull into a Traumatize and then a Ancestral Tribute. The opposition conceded once we hit 900 life. (1/0)
2. Although I also popped a few of my own artifacts, a Granulate took out an opposing Power conduit, Talon of Pain, Sun Droplet, and Energy Chamber. A further Molten Rain stopped their Urzatron in its tracks. An O-Stone gave my teamy's Honden deck pause, but my two unblocked Ghitu Encampments eventually brought them down within easy burn range. (2/0)
3. I love elves. As in, playing against them. And my teamy's double hideaway into Mirari Wake and Storm Herd helped the cause. (3/0)
4. My teamy used 3 Otherworldy Journeys to keep his Serra Avenger dealing damage, and I Sulfurous Blasted both the opposing slivers and the opponents into the ground. (4/0)
5. Sudden Shocking an opponent's Epochrasite while he's got a suspended Greater Gargadon is a great feeling. Especially when your teamy is Harmonic Slivering every other artifact he throws down. Remember, tools to stopping any particular combo are usually found in the same block. (5/0)
6. A reanimator deck and a Cloudpost deck can both throw down creatures larger than I can kill. (5/1)
7. Cameleon Colossus + Shield of the Oversoul = bad times. (5/2)
8. My teamy's Nettleblight Vine ripped apart his opponent's few lands. I was glad, since that Persecute he discarded would have stung like heck. I actually did almost nothing this game. (6/2)
9. This time one opponent mana-flooded while the other mana-screwed. I spot-removed what few chump blockers they laid while my teamy rolled in with two lifelinked Cairn Wanderers. (7/2)

Taiwan is just off the coast of China
and has nothing to do with Thailand.
A lot of Americans don't seem to know this.
10. We should not have won this game. Once my opponent had played Cloudposts into Howling Mines into a Darksteel Forge into a Mycosynth Lattice into a Sun Droplet, I knew it was only a matter of time until we saw Wrath of God+March of the Machines or a giant Blaze. The other opponent's Runed Halos naming our only threats didn't help us either. With no other recourse, I slung Sulfurous Blasts and Earthquakes each round, hoping to get points past his Droplet. Oddly enough, even with four cards a turn, my opponent never drew his WC; and it was his own teamy's Spiteful Visions that finally finished them off. (8/2)
11. This was an intense game where the winner ended at 1 life. My opponent's deck played Troll Ascetics, Humble Budokas, and Nimble Mongooses to stop decks with targetted removal. (Luckily, I am not one of those decks.) Still, the Kami of the North Tree dropped us farther in life than I would have liked, and the final turn was a tricky combination of Skredding my teamy's Faceless Butcher to drop a Highway Robber back into play, attacking with a Ghitu Encampment, and then Blasting for the win. (P.S. Sudden Shocking an Elvish Lyrist--nothing rocks harder.) (9/2)
12. My teamy this game was mana-screwed the whole game and played nothing other than an Oblivion Stone he couldn't activate. My own opponent quickly began milling me with a Mesmeric Orb with at least Induce Paranoia backup, and I never drew the disenchant to stop it. Still, by completely emptying my hand, I managed to bring them to 6 life before my very last turn alive, upon which I topdeck...a Demonfire. Suck it, Blue! (10/2)
13. I had one good play this match: one of our opponents played an Oona's Blackguard on his turn 2. On my turn 2, instead of playing a second land, I instead hit the Blackguard with a Blazing Salvo. Probably thinking I had no other land for this turn, and probably unsure as to how much DD I was packing, the opponent took the 5 damage. I then played my second land and Skredded it. Other than that, however, the game was won on the backs of my teamy's tasty pigs. (11/2)
14. Killing opponents who attack into your Stuffy Doll with an Emberstrike Duo and no tricks is like beating up on retarded kids. You feel bad, but you do it anyway. (Winning the game, not the beating up kids part.) (12/2)
15. Apparently, my opponent's win condition was Forbidden Orchard/Aether Flash/Shared Fate. (I know, I was expecting Burning Sands too.) Still, a recurring Havoc Demon rode us down pretty far on life, and I won at 1 life only through some burn I'd stockpiled in my hand. (13/2)
16. One of our opponent's 100-card 3-color deck severely color-screwed (ya think?), and the other used an O-Ring on my Stuffy Doll, instead of the Sworded Cloudskate beating him down. (14/2)
17. My opponents both had 100+ card five-color decks, let me draw off a turn 4 Browbeat (hint: no), and clicked "Prevent all combat damage" on a Dawn Charm when I was Molten Disasterring their Elvish Piper. My deck doesn't forgive mistakes well. (15/2)
18. A quick tip, folks: "Big-Deck Mulligans" are never "free," as much as you might like to think so. If I see Gelectrodes and Wee Dragonauts in your revealed hand, I'm keeping the hand that has a Sulfurous Blast or two in it and nerfing your deck when you play them. And timing them just right so my teamy's elf deck finishes the job. (16/2)
19. Two Mindstabs and a Molten Rain (from me) rip an opponent's Hypnotic Specter deck apart, and the goblins on my side hardly scare me. The opponents never recover. (17/2)
20. Well, the winning streak had to come to an end eventually. Both opponents played Cloudpost artifact decks. Although a Shattering Spree from me forced a concession from one of the opponents, I erred by not also taking out the Salvaging Station on the board. The recurring combo from that and spellbombs locked me down quick. (17/3)

Total Wins/Losses: 17/3 (85%)

So Kawaii it hurts.

Well, that deck had an insanely-good matchup versus a blind metagame. Too good, in fact. Even if all the close games had gone against me, the deck still would have done 13/7 (65%). Which is odd. Some of the previous versions of the deck, which weren't more than a few cards different, were only at a 5/4 record or so when I moved on.

So what changed so drastically? Did the 2HG metagame shift in the time it took to test the decks? For example, did more people move to Lorwyn/Shadowmoor-style decks, packed with loads of small creatures that my global burn loves to eat? Did my play skill slowly improve during the testing, as I became more and more familiar with what was in my deck and how to use it? Or is there really some form of advantage to the pseudo-singleton deck that is all but invisible on paper?


Okay, this actually wasn't so hard an experiment to concoct. Essentially, I didn't have to prove that every "pseudo-singleton" deck would fair better than a four-of deck of the same strategy--just that one such deck could. The theory doesn't have to hold true for all cases; it simply had to work for one to be viable. And, in this case, it did.

Though truth be told, that was not the first rendition of the "pseudo-singleton" deck that I tried. I fiddled with perhaps 7 other permutations, testing everything from a simple Barbed Lightning to splashing for Gaea's Embrace. In the end, this version did the best of all.

Okay, this Kawaii stuff's a little infectious.
One definite advantage of the second deck was in the unexpected tricks and synergies could arise. There are only so many things one could do between Skredding and Earthquaking and hoping your opponent doesn't throw anything weird at you. In the second deck, however, I could have/did do:
That list is by no means exhaustive, but it does point out how additional options arise when a cardpool is more diverse. Still, there were times when I missed the old cards (such as when I Flames of the Blood Handed myself with two Droplets in play, just to gain 4 life, when Flaming the opponent with 2 Dragon's Claws would have meant a 6 life difference instead.) But for the most part, cards in each role were similar enough to be used whenever drawn. All it took was a pilot who understood how each card had to be used differently.

In the true spirit of scientific experimentation, I'd love to see these results reproduced by someone(s) else. I imagine the theory is less viable in different formats and with different deck strategies, where there may not be as many different cards that do the same thing. (Green aggro in Standard--what would you substitute for four Goyfs? Chameleon Colossus? Vigor? Nothing has the same cheap, explosive power. Even in Legacy, Quirian Dryad is about as close as you'll get.) I'd imagine "pseudo-singleton" might also work better for aggro or control than combo--there aren't too many cards that reproduce an Early Harvest or a Mind's Desire.

And please, people, remember that there's a difference between four identical cards, four cards that do similar things, and some jank rares that you threw in just cause they're gathering dust and you wanted the excuse.

Personally, I might try the experiment again with an Extended Mono-Blue Control, seeing if something like a Counterspell/Memory Lapse/Rune Snag/Faerie Trickery combo might work over just 4 Counterspells.

In conclusion (ha! loved using that in college), to use an analogy, evolutionists believe whales were first mammals that lived on ground like any other. Learning the four-of rule of deck reliability may indeed be the first step in a Magic player's evolution from the primordial cesspool of n00bism. But once they've honed their play skill, what if returning to the water is the next?

Send me your thoughts on the forums.


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