Going Rogue: A Defense and Primer

Author's Note: Building a successful rogue deck is extremely difficult and requires lots and lots of playtesting. Most attempts to build good rogue decks fail. Badly. Some succeed. Massively. Kind of like evolution. In other words, experiment, but don't do it just for the sake of being different.

Rogue... you mean the chick from the X-Men?

Before we start talking about what rogue decks are, I feel we should begin with a definition so that everyone can have a discussion with a common frame of reference.

Sorry Phoenix, we're not talking about the
Rogue you know.
Dictionary.com defines "rogue" as both an adjective and a noun. Since we're using rogue as an adjective in this instance, I'll just put up the adjective definitions.

1. Vicious and solitary. Used of an animal, especially an elephant.
2. Large, destructive, and anomalous or unpredictable: a rogue wave; a rogue tornado.
3. Operating outside normal or desirable controls: “How could a single rogue trader bring down an otherwise profitable and well-regarded institution?” (Saul Hansell).

Wow, those are some pretty negative characterizations. No wonder so many people don't like rogue decks. However, in this instance, only part of the second definition is applicable, namely, "anomalous or unpredictable."

So basically, a Rogue deck is a deck that is outside of expectations -- in other words, a deck that is outside of the established metagame. Your opponents will not know what your deck is doing, nor how best to combat it. They will only have sideboard cards that hose your strategy by accident. Your opponents will not have experience in playing the matchup.

A rogue deck is NOT a commonly played archetype with a few different card choices. Slide with Dwarven Blastminer and Lay Waste is not a rogue deck in Extended. An Extended B/ Slide based around weenies and discard is a rogue deck.

iPod or Pinto?

So what makes a good rogue deck, and why should you consider going rogue over playing a netdeck with proven results? First, let's tackle the second part of that question. Is there any reason to play a rogue deck over something the pros came up with? Actually, there is. More than one, even. But to understand those, we first need to examine the origin of the rogue deck and the origin of the metagame. If you go waaaaay back in time to the third Pro tTour, Necropotence was everywhere, and so was Black. After making the Top 8, Mike Long switched decks to a R/G Orgg deck. (Yes, that Mike Long, and to be quite honest, he didn't cheat any more than ANY high-level Magic player did back then. They all cheated, most to a degree that even the infamous Cheatyface would have been embarrassed by. But that's a whole other story. And if you didn't play back then, I don't want to read a bunch of whining about how unfair that statement is. If you did play back then, you know just how accurate that statement is.) Yes, you could switch decks between the Swiss and T8 at that point in time. After the T8 (which he won), Mike admitted that he didn't think his deck full of Whirling Dervishes, Orggs, Black Vises, Lifeforces and Fireballs would have made it to the T8, but because it was pre-boarded for the other T8 decks, notably The Skull, he was able to cruise through the competition. Mike was the first player to successfully metagame. That is, he looked at what was being played by other players, and rather than building the best possible deck, he built a deck to beat what his opponents were playing.

Nowadays, thanks to the internet and the Pro-Tour, everyone has a good idea of what the "hot decks" are. This has led to the rise of the term "netdeck." Many people will assume that because a certain deck posts X number of wins on the Tour, which is reinforced by things like Mike Flores' "Swimming with Sharks" feature on MTG.com, that it is indeed the best deck. A much more accurate description of a particular deck’s viability than pure number of wins is one that is generally used much less frequently because it is so much harder to calculate. Namely, the deck’s winning percentage. As far as measuring a deck’s actual performance at an event or series of events, number of wins is an absolutely worthless statistic. Without knowing how many of any particular deck were played at an event, knowing what deck won doesn't tell you anything... except what deck won. Assuming all decks and players are equal, a deck with 60% representation in the field should result in 60% of the day two slots, and 60% of the T8 slots. However, this is rarely the case.

This graph tells you just as much about how good a deck was
this extended season as looking solely at what got the most T8 slots.
For example, if deck A has 20% representation and takes 30% of the T8 slots, it is much better than deck B, which has 60% representation and takes 40% of the T8 slots. Just looking at the results without the necessary context means that you would conclude Deck A was better, since it had 40% vs. 30% of the T8 slots. Unfortunately, this is how many seasons' metagames are created. This has a snowball effect over the course of the season; as the decks which do well in the first event are analyzed and copied as the supposed "best decks" and played in ever greater numbers, they acquire more and more T8 slots, thus validating their status as the best decks.

Underpowered? Or Underplayed?

The rogue player looks at two things before designing his deck.
  1. What are the common trends and vulnerabilities of the most commonly played decks?
  2. What are some powerful cards/interactions that are currently being underutilized?
If I were to come up with answers to those questions for Standard today, I would note that graveyard hate is currently effective vs. a large portion of the field, and enchantment hate is also becoming more and more valuable. Artifact hate is deemed important for one reason and one reason only: Umezawa's Jitte. There really is no other artifact in standard that NEEDS to be destroyed. There is also a heavy trend in Standard towards creatures and counters, so effects or cards that hurt more than one of these strategies, such as Isao, Enlightened Bushi (counters and creatures), or Mortify (creatures and enchantments), are especially effective.

To answer the second question, I would say that Descendant of Kiyomaro is currently the most underrated card in Standard and just waiting for the right deck to appear. Horobi, Death's Wail, Night of Souls’ Betrayal, Ivory Crane and Ebony Owl Netsuke, Boros Swiftblade, Homura, Human Ascendant, Mindslicer, Razorjaw Oni, Silklash Spider, Stoneshaker Shaman, Blackmail, Plagiarize, Stream of Consciousness, the color combination of Black/Red, discard, and land destruction are all cards or themes that are currently very underrepresented in Standard. And yes, I do realize how odd it sounds to say LD is underrepresented when Wildfire and Eminent Domain are running around.

What's Black and Red and not in Standard?

Most of the cards on that list are Black or Red. One might argue that Black/Red is fairly unplayable until the release of Dissension and the Cult of Rakdos. I would answer that by noting the number of Blue/Green decks currently being played without any help from the Simic. Or the Blue/Red decks that appeared pre-Izzet. Red is currently played in three forms: as the burn complement of another deck, as the red half of Boros, and as Blaze/Pyroclasm in Hattori Hanzo decks. Black exists mainly as Putrefy, Kokusho, Cranial Extraction, and Dark Confidant.

I would argue instead that Machine-Head type decks are simply underrated at the moment. There are several natural synergies just in the cards listed above. For example, Stoneshaker Shaman and Mindslicer work together excellently, as without any cards in hand, your opponent won't be able to tap mana, thus the Shaman will smash their lands. Throwing undercosted, hard to kill fat into the equation (Razorjaw Oni) simply speeds up the clock. Homura, Human Ascendant, Seething Song, and Crack the Earth also work into this equation nicely. Actually, Crack the Earth is probably the biggest thing holding R/ back. You really want to run eight copies of it, but there isn't currently anything that can fill in slots #5-8. Blood Funnel probably comes closest, but only hits your creatures. On the up side, you get the new critter vacuum, and eight watered down Squees. The point here isn't to try and set up a specific four card combo that really messes with your opponent, but rather to include a wide variety of independent combinations that all work well interchangeably. God's Eye, Gate to the Rekai is another card that would fit into this strategy, as would Stone Rain, artifact mana, and Seismic Spike. Slate of Ancestry, Bottled Cloister, Mikokoro, Center of the Sea and Phyrexian Arena are all efficient draw engines for this type of deck. Rukh Egg, Zuberas, Festering Goblin, Hell's Caretaker, Sadistic Augermage, Grave Pact, Golgari Guildmage, Akki Blizzard-Herder, and Infectious Host are examples of other permanents that could easily go into a sacrifice deck. Though if you wanted the deck to be good, I'd hesitate about throwing every card on that list in there.

Ok, so now that you've got an idea of what a rogue deck is, and how you could go about designing one, the question remains: why bother?

Why is not the question, but the Answer

Right now, you're more likely to see these guys
at a magic tournament than a BR deck.
Unexpectedness is one reason, and one that is often underrated. Many players can be heard lamenting the stupid bad jank they lost to in round two just because they didn't have an answer to card X which NO ONE plays. There's an important lesson here. Any deck that can't answer card X is going to lose to it. That means if you think a majority of the common decks at a given tournament will be vulnerable to X, you should strongly consider running it. Back during MD5/CBS Standard, I designed and built a five color control deck, you can read about it here. It won because at the time, the majority of decks simply could not deal with Night of Souls' Betrayal. If I had realized that Beacon of Immortality was infinitely better than Pulse of the Fields, the deck would have won quite a bit more. Had I realized how worthless Genju of the Realm was compared to another Bringer or a Dragon, it would have won even more than that. I'm not writing this to toot my own horn, but to point out how very hard it is to correctly build a successful Rogue deck. You might hit 8 out of 10 points correctly, but those last two will cost you games.

A second, and more important, reason to experiment with building rogue decks is to learn how to do it. Yoda says what? Netdecks are neither good nor evil, they simply are a part of magic. Netdecks also represent something I call the "black box" effect. Over time, the world has increasingly become filled with black boxes. A black box is something that works, but the operator has no real understanding of why or how it works, or the principles behind its design. Automobiles are an easy example. Fifty years ago, men were expected to be able to perform at least minor repairs on their cars and to have a basic understanding of the principles by which the internal combustion engine worked. Look under the hood of a car built before 1985 or so. In many cases there will be enough room in the engine compartment for a person to actually climb inside next to the engine. Now look under the hood of a car built in the last two or three years. You'll notice a big plastic plate that performs no useful function other than obscuring the engine and preventing you from tinkering. There are many other examples of black boxes in modern life; in fact, you're using a black box right now. It’s called your computer.

Netdecks are Magic's black boxes. You can play one to a win at a PTQ, but you can't build one yourself. Now, let me ask you a question: who gets more out of their computer, the guy who built his own, or the guy who picked it up at Best Buy? Even if you only want to play netdecks, which is a fine thing to do, you still will become a better player if you build and test rogue decks to playability every so often. Understanding how to build and create decks makes you better at playing decks. It sounds like a favorite quote of Captain Obvious, I know, but many truisms do.

Can't we all just get along?

Heh. And you thought Bush was anti-gay
There seems to be quite a bit of unnecessary acrimony currently between people self-identifying as Netdeckers or Rogues. Neither approach is superior. I absolutely could not build or design my truck, but that doesn't mean I have the slightest compunction about using it. And while Detroit and Tokyo are currently the "best, most professional, most skilled" car designers in the world, in the 1950s, Preston Tucker built a car that was so ahead of its time, that one feature standard on it -- headlights that turned with the steering wheel -- are just now being advertised as a "new innovation." Hey, I absolutely cannot build a better car than GM or Ford. But that doesn't stop me from using and enjoying their products. Not everyone has the innate mix of creativity and design sense to be able to create successful rogue decks. That's fine. Just don't go crazy bashing those who can, or try to. Likewise, if you have the skill set and temperament to be a rogue designer, I hate to break it to you, but it doesn't make you a better person. Or special. In other words, get over yourself and build a winning deck, then let your victories speak for you.

Unti next time,

Editing: Dr. Tom
Banner: Nex3


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