Mike Flores for Dummies

or, "How Magic Theory Terms Like Interactivity and Misassignment of Role
Can Apply to New Players Still Practicing with Precons."



Believe me, it's a BIG can.
If you've just started playing Magic, or if you're still relatively new to the game, then before you stretches a giant expanse of infinite opportunity. The "Gruul Wilding" precon deck you've just picked up intrigues you, and you can see a couple different directions to go with it. But before you start beefing up your deck with the best cards you can find, let me just take a moment to say STOP!!! Now is the perfect time to do anything but! Now is the perfect time to put the blinders on. Now is the time to start practicing your "expert-level" skills while the field is still simple. Because before you open the can of wurms on the massive 8000+ Legacy cardpool... well, let me just say, it's a really big can.

You need to build some solid groundwork of proper Magic thinkin' first. Then worry about the flashy new cards.

Now if you've researched Magic theory at all, no doubt you've run across the name "Mike Flores" a time or two. If you're as lucky as me, you find yourself waking in screams at night, his name still whispered by your quivering lips. And if you've had the fortune to encounter any of his articles, you may have read something like the following:

For our purposes, a non-interactive deck will seek to win the game irrespective of the opponent's plan while an interactive deck will try to generate an advantage specifically by trumping the opponent's cards. A player using a non-interactive deck employs cards and decision-making processes that tend to affect only one player (himself), at least in the short term, whereas an interactive deck uses cards that affect both players.

"The Limits of Interactivity," Mike Flores, Feb. 11, 2005.


Uh??? If you're anything like me, you might have had a sudden urge to act like our cartoon lady at left. (Except for the bra-wearing part. Unless you're into that sort of thing.) But fear not, simple readers! I, the ever-intrepid Magic writer, shall brave the deepest, darkest pits of high-level theory, bringing to you simple nuggets of truth that even you can apply in your dilapidated states. Er, I mean, as new players!

(Side Note: For this article, I will be using solely the ten preconstructed decks from the Ravnica/Guildpact/Dissension block. First, I'm already very familiar with them. Second, they're an excellent way for new players to both learn each color's philosophies and strengths and to see multicolor decks in action. If you don't own at least one of these, get thee hence to the nearest open game shop! I'll suggest my favorites: the "Charge of the Boros" deck, if they're still in stock; or perhaps the "Code of the Orzhov.")

Okay, let's start with the basics. There are three "biggies" you should understand, plus two "not-so-biggies" we'll introduce.

1. Incremental Advantage.

Incremental Advantage, despite the imposing name, is really a simple idea. It's the concept of slowly but surely edging a lead over your opponent, turn by turn, whether it be with the cards in your hand, the creatures on the board, or even your life totals.
There! That wasn't so bad, was it?

Think of a tug of war where you take one step towards your opponent, two steps back, another step towards him, and then two more steps back. This is exactly what's going on in Magic; hopefully you're taking more steps towards your side each turn, or you'll end up in the mud. (Which is not always a bad thing, if our cartoon lady happens to be with you at the time.)

You might also hear the phrases "Resource Advantage" or "Fundamental Turn." These are corollaries of this idea. But don't worry! I know you're all still new to the game, and too many big words makes Jack a dull boy. I'll just give a few quick examples that you might use in your own games, to get those mind-gears turning:

A. Gain Card Advantage.

You'll hear this phrase touted a lot in Magic theory, and it's one of the oldest theorems in the game. The more cards you have in hand/access to, the more plays you have available, and the more ways you have of defeating your opponent. Since we're playing with preconstructed decks, we'll not have to worry about building it into our decks; there should already be a little of it in there. What we will look at is how to squeeze what you've got for every bit it's worth.

You're playing your "Selesnya United" deck against your friend's "Golgari Deathcreep" deck. You attack into him with a 3/3 Watchwolf. He tries to kill your wolfie by double-blocking it with a 2/4 Nullmage Shepherd and a 2/2 Golgari Guildmage. In response, you play Seeds of Strength on your Watchwolf, killing both of his critters and saving your own. Congratulations! You've just made your first "two-for-one" trade!

The big deal? You've still got a creature on deck, he has nothing, and it only cost you one card to do it. On the other hand, it cost him two (his creatures). Believe me, that sort of trade-off adds up fast. And if you don't believe me, try playing a game of chess where your opponent keeps picking your pawns, one at a time.

B. Keep an Eye Open for Sneaky, Sneaky Opportunities.

Here's another way to slowly creep across the board and strangle your opponent (not literally, although sometimes that works too): watch for clever moves. To illustrate, here's turn 2 of a game I recently had with a friend. (It didn't use precons, but I think you can follow along.)

US:
Board: 2 Swamps, both untapped; 1 Bile Urchin, untapped.
Hand: Dry Spell, and four other cards I couldn't cast yet.

THEM: 2 Forests, one tapped; 2 Hana-Kimis, neither tapped.
Hand: 5 cards, but his deck had no instants he could cast for one mana.

Question: Given this situation, what would you do on your turn?

The play is actually quite straight-forward. First, I attacked into him with my single Bile Urchin; he let the single 1 damage through. Then I sacked my Bile Urchin to make him lose another 1 life. Then I played my Dry Spell anyway, clearing his side of the board, and dealing a final 1 damage to him.

To recap, that's:
I lose: 2 cards, 1 life.
He loses: 2 cards, 3 life.

In other words, we each lost the same number of cards, but I pushed an extra 1 point through in my combat phase. All it took was a simple glance to know my opponent wouldn't block my 1/1 with his 1/1. He'd lose a creature, I'd sac to deal the 1 damage anyway, and he wouldn't be able to sac his in response, even if he did have something in the graveyard. And if you don't think that 1 point of life mattered later in our game... well, I have nothing nice to say to you. Except maybe get some more play experience - it often does matter.

I could come up with a few more examples, but I think you've got the general idea. Do whatever it takes to put more cards in his graveyard than yours. Or more cards in your hand than his. Or to deal 1 more point of damage to him than he can to you. Watch closely for opportunities, and your advantage will soon bring itself to bear.


2. Misassignment of Role = Game Loss

All right, here comes some good news. Once you've got the idea of Incremental Advantage down, you're pretty much set up for the rest of Magic theory! The next four terms are essentially corollaries of this one idea. Understand that playing Magic is about "getting ahead," and you're already on your way.

There are all sorts of big words and lengthy articles about Role Misassignment. Here's the "shorty-short" version:

Proper Role Assignment, in its simplest form, is playing to your deck's strengths.
Hypothetical Situation!
You're playing the "Dimir Intrigues" deck against your friend's "Charge of the Boros" deck. Your quick counterspells and smart removal have kept his ravenous beasts at bay, and the board has settled down to look like this:

If you think he's cool here, you should
see him on the dance floor.


US:
Board: Lore Broker, Lurking Informant, Szadek, Lord of Secrets with 40 +1/+1 counters, Dimir Signet, 4 Swamps, 2 Islands.
Hand: Vedalken Entrancer, Belltower Sphinx, Duskmantle, House of Shadow.
Life: 8

THEM:
Board: Thundersong Trumpeteer, Screeching Griffin, Boros Garrison, Sunhome, Fortress of the Legion, 3 Mountains, 2 Plains.
Hand: 2 mysterious cards.
Life: 15
Cards Left in Deck: 12 (Szadek, Lord of Secrets got in a few solid hits before he was locked down by the Thundersong Trumpeter.)

We're bleeding hit points from the Screeching Griffin, and it's only a matter of time before he swings for the last few points.

Question: Given this situation, would you aim more towards getting in the last few points of damage with what creatures you can summon, or for milling the rest of his deck with whatever you can topdeck?

Short Answer: Do you really think your Lore Broker and Lurking Informant can out-race a Screeching Griffin when you're at 8???

Not-So-Short Answer: Stick with Plan A. Right now, 12 cards is a lot easier to take care of than 15 points of life. You're much more likely to draw into something that can mill the last bit of his deck (Psychic Drain), or even something that can remove the Trumpeter (Last Gasp, Dream Leash) so your Szadek can go to town, than you are to find something that can dominate the battlefield. Especially against a deck geared for combat. As it stands, with what you have in hand, you can mill him in as little as three turns if he can't stop you. It's your deck's "strength;" now isn't the time to see if your quarterback can pinch-hit as a linebacker. Or if your hybrid car can tow your 20-foot boat. Or... I dunno; insert your favorite metaphor here.

I should mention that proper Role Assignment is actually much harder to do with Wizards' precons than with honed tournament decks. Wizards likes their decks to do more than one thing. (Take the "Gruul Wilding" deck for instance. Are you dealing direct damage with your Gruul Guildmages and Skarrgan Skybreakers, or are you smashing face with Battering Wurms? If you're smashing face, are you aiming more for Aura-driven beatdown with Gatherer of Graces or bloodthirsty Burning-Tree Bloodscales?) Ultimately, this gives players all sorts of good ideas, prompting them to buy more boosters and packs of Magic cards, leading to inevitable world domination by Hasbro.

That isn't to say Misassignment of Role never comes up in tournament settings. A "Boros Deck Wins" is by nature incredibly aggressive and to-the-face; however, in the "mirror match" (when you play against the same type of deck as yours), a Boros deck can shift to be more control-like, holding back on creatures and wiping the board before committing. This is why Role Assignment is always something to consider, regardless of how "honed" your deck may be; are you playing your deck to its natural strengths in the first place? And if you are, are you doing so in a way that takes the most advantage of your matchup?

There is delicious ambiguity with your precon decks; enjoy it! It will help you practice proper Role Assignment. Their lack of a strong theme forces you to study the board to decide the best course of action. And don't forget, your opponent will be doing the exact same thing in return. Which segues right into our next section...

3. Interactivity/Metagaming.

Don't let the big words scare you! Follow Marvin's example and take a deep breath. If the last point was about playing to your deck's strengths, then:

Your deck's Interactivity is its ability to play against another deck's weakness.

Here's an example of a deck with very little "Interactivity":

Dragon-"I'm Going to Win on Turn 4 Unless You Stop Me"-Storm, by Adam Barnett.Magic OnlineOCTGN2ApprenticeBuy These Cards
Artifacts
4 Lotus Bloom
1 Weatherseed Totem

Creatures
4 Bogardan Hellkite
4 Wall Of Roots

Legendary Creatures
4 Akroma, Angel of Fury
3 Radha, Heir to Keld

Sorceries
2 Dragonstorm
4 Harmonize
4 Mwonvuli Acid-moss
4 Search for Tomorrow
3 Void

Basic Lands
10 Forest
7 Mountain
1 Swamp

Lands
1 Molten Slagheap
4 Terramorphic Expanse



The deck plans to win on turn three or four with a resolved Dragonstorm, putting up to four Bogardan Hellkites into play. If the opponent isn't dead that turn, he will be veeery soon.

And here's one with a lot of interactivity:

U/B "You Bet Your Sweet *** I Can Stop You" Control, by Guillaume Wafo-tapa.Magic OnlineOCTGN2ApprenticeBuy These Cards
Artifacts
4 Prismatic Lens

Artifact Creatures
1 Triskelavus

Creatures
2 Aeon Chronicler
2 Draining Whelk

Instants
4 Cancel
4 Careful Consideration
1 Haunting Hymn
3 Mystical Teachings
1 Snapback
2 Sudden Death
2 Tendrils of Corruption
2 Think Twice

Legendary Creatures
2 Teferi, Mage of Zhalfir

Sorceries
4 Damnation

Basic Lands
10 Island
1 Swamp

Lands
4 Dreadship Reef
1 Molten Slagheap
4 Terramorphic Expanse
1 Urza's Factory

Legendary Lands
1 Academy Ruins
4 Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth



No matter what your deck tries to do, U/B Control has an answer for it: Cancel, Snapback, Sudden Death, Tendrils of Corruption, or even the mighty Damnation. Soon you're spent of threats, letting a Triskelavus or even a silly Urza's Factory token walk in for the kill.

See the difference? "Dragonstorm" decks try to win as fast as possible while ignoring what their opponent is doing. U/B Control (often called "Dralnu du Louvre") decks do the exact opposite: they win specifically by interacting with their opponent, denying him his best spells and paths to victory, and slowly (emphasis on slooooowly) crushing him to death.

Now, admittedly, precon decks are disorganized piles of almost-themed mush. Sometimes interactive cards will appear in your hand (Mark of Eviction or Vacuumelt with the "Izzet Gizmometry" deck) and sometimes they won't (Reroute in the same deck, against an opponent using no targeted abilities). This will give you at least a chance to practice the principle from time to time, without grinding your head into the dirt with it.

The Lesson to Keep in Mind Here:
When your opponent's deck shows you a weak side, exploit it. The "Golgari Deathcreep" deck only has one anti-flier creature in it (Elvish Skysweeper); deploy your Boros fliers and swing away. The "Simic Mutology" deck has only one strong anti-enchantment card: Indrik Stomphowler. Enchant his butt with your Pillory of the Sleepless and go to town. If you learn how to interact with your opponent's deck, you'll have that much better a chance of success.

Of course, Interactivity is a two-way street. Playing a Hissing Miasma from your "Code of the Orzhov" deck when the "Selesnya United" deck has a Nullmage Shepherd and three Saproling tokens in play wouldn't be the smartest thing you've ever done.

Before we move on, let's quickly mention "Metagaming," a closely-related topic:

Metagaming is actively researching your opponent's deck to learn its strengths and weaknesses, then adjusting your deck from that knowledge.
Metagaming exploits Interactivity to beat other decks. This gets much more important and complicated at tournament levels, and we're not planning to change anything about your precon decks just yet, but you can get a taste of it in your own group. Your friend loves playing the "Rakdos Bloodsport" deck. How much creature-removal does he pack? (A lot.) Any direct-damage spells? (You bet.) Does he have any solid way to deal with your Hissing Miasma? (Answer: no; neither Black nor Red can remove enchantments on their own.) So, logically, enchantment-heavy decks like "Azorius Ascendant" would make a terrific matchup. For you.

Metagaming is another reason why practicing with precon decks is a great way to gain Magic skills - it won't be long before you have a very good idea of what's in your opponent's deck. And just as if you'd studied for a major tournament, you can prepare for it. Even if your opponents have swapped a card out or two from the original precon, you'll soon be able to recite all 60 of the cards from memory. Pay attention to the games in your group; you'll be surprised how transparent people's hands will seem after a little study. Knowing what your opponents might or might not have in their hands lets you concentrate better on the threats they can't answer.

Which ties back to Interactivity (playing against the opponent's weaknesses).

Which ties ultimately back to Incremental Advantage (slowly gaining an edge).

See how everything fits so neatly together? It's simply magical.


You heard me.

4. Tempo.

And we're back! And we've made it past the "Big Three," which really weren't all that hard anyway, were they? Let's touch briefly on two other ideas you should be practicing:

Tempo is using all your mana every turn, or at least having the ability to do so.
Here's an example of a "Red Deck Wins" deck that placed 6th in the April 22nd, 2007 Pro-Tour in Yokohama, Japan:

Red Deck Wins, by Raphael Levy.Magic OnlineOCTGN2ApprenticeBuy These Cards
Creatures
4 Blood Knight
4 Keldon Marauders
4 Magus of the Scroll
4 Sulfur Elemental
2 Wildfire Emissary

Instants
4 Fiery Temper
2 Sudden Shock

Sorceries
4 Browbeat
4 Disintegrate
4 Rift Bolt

Basic Lands
21 Mountain

Lands
2 Fungal Reaches
1 Molten Slagheap



Tempo is incredibly important for any tournament-level deck, even more so for an "aggro" strategy. This deck tries to play a Magus of the Scroll or suspend a Rift Bolt on turn one; a Blood Knight, Keldon Marauders, or Sudden Shock on turn two; and perhaps a Browbeat or a Sulfur Elemental on turn three. You get the picture. Use all of your available resources all the time and hit your opponent with as much as humanly possible.

Tempo is just as important, however, even if your deck doesn't "do" anything by itself. Here's a deck that achieved 2nd place in the Mar. 11th, 2007 Extended tournament in Chicago:

Tenacious Tron, by Michael Bernat.Magic OnlineOCTGN2ApprenticeBuy These Cards
Artifacts
3 Azorius Signet
2 Chrome Mox
1 Crucible of Worlds
1 Engineered Explosives

Artifact Creatures
1 Sundering Titan

Creatures
3 Exalted Angel

Instants
4 Condescend
3 Gifts Ungiven
4 Remand
2 Renewed Faith
2 Repeal
4 Thirst gor Knowledge

Legendary Artifacts
1 Mindslaver

Sorceries
2 Decree of Justice
4 Wrath of God

Basic Lands
1 Island
1 Plains

Basic Snow Lands
1 Snow-Covered Island

Lands
2 Flooded Strand
3 Hallowed Fountain
1 Petrified Field
1 Skycloud Expanse
4 Urza's Mine
4 Urza's Power Plant
4 Urza's Tower

Legendary Lands
1 Academy Ruins



Until this deck can achieve a "Mindslaver lock" with help of Academy Ruins, it lies in wait like a Tangle Spider, just waiting for you to do something it can counter. A few more tools are available to this deck than the U/B one we just saw - two Chrome Moxes let it ready a Remand or cycle a Renewed Faith as early as turn one.

Hypothetical Situation:
Hand: Plains, Mountain, Boros Garrison, Boros Swiftblade, Thundersong Trumpeter, Skyknight Legionnaire, Cleansing Beam.

You're "on the draw" (you're not playing first). Tempo is VERY important for an aggressive Boros deck. What's the correct sequence of lands/creatures for your first 3 turns, assuming you don't draw anything else that matters?

Turn 1: Draw, Plains.
Turn 2: Untap, Draw, Mountain, Boros Swiftblade.
Turn 3: Untap, Draw, Thundersong Trumpeter, Boros Garrison, bouncing either the Plains or the Mountain.

Why not play the Boros Garrison right away on turn 2? Two reasons:
A. That would leave you with 8 cards in hand at the end of the turn (including the one you just drew), forcing you to discard one.
B. We already know you don't have a turn 1 play. Dropping the Garrison would mean you don't have a turn 2 play either.

Waiting a turn to lay the Boros Garrison down means you keep every card you draw, you play them as soon as you can, and (most importantly) you aren't wasting mana. Yet another way to gain that precious Incremental Advantage over someone who isn't as attentive as you.

5. Limited Information/Bluffing


Don't let that smug expression
fool you; he's double-bluffing.


"Limited Information" means never having to say you're sorry.
Or something like that. Limited Information is what makes Magic more fun than chess; unlike chess, you can't see everything that's going on in Magic. Limited Information can work against you, if you don't know those three untapped Islands from your friend's "Izzet Gizmometry" deck means he's holding a Convolute or a Runeboggle. But it can also work for you, if you're the one with those untapped Islands.

Hypothetical situation:
Your "Selesnya United" deck is going toe-to-toe with a friend's "Gruul Wildings" deck.

US: A 1/2 Selesnya Evangel and a Scion of the Wild, currently a 2/2.
THEM: A 2/1 Dryad Sophisticate and a bloodthirsty 3/2 Gruul Scrapper.

It's been a close game, both of your hands are empty, and each of you is desperately "topdecking" to break the stalemate.

It's your turn. You untap and draw a card. Instead of just laying it down, you spend a few moments reading the text. You place it down thoughtfully, look at the board, glance at your card again, then swing in with your Scion of the Wild, leaving the Selesnya Evangel on defense.

Not wanting to lose a creature to a surprise Seeds of Strength, your opponent lets the 2 damage through. It's only after the game he learns the card in your hand was just a Plains.

That's right! Bluffing is yet another way to gain Incremental Advantage. Instead of just slapping down the land, muttering something obscene about "mana flooding," and passing the turn, you just gained 2 free points of damage. And as stated before, that adds up.

Quick Note! "You can't bluff an idiot." If your opponent isn't paying very close attention, he'll probably just block, and you'll lose your creature. Bluffing is just as much of an art in Magic as it is in poker; you have to know when to use it, when to "double-bluff" (Le Chiffre's trick in "Casino Royale"), and when to do nothing.


Careful. Some of them are tricky.
And we're done! With any luck, these theorems didn't send you screaming for the safety of your mother's bosom, and you feel better-prepared to take on bigger cardpools and larger tournaments. Who knows? Perhaps you'll even feel inclined to pick up a few of Mike Flores' actual articles.

But just remember: if you positively, absolutely have to shoot something afterwards, don't shoot yourself.

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