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Redundancy

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The letter O!ver the past couple of weeks, we talked about how some cards are better than others in specific ways.


While few people would argue that...


...is a better card than...


...most players with a few years under their belts probably recognize the viability—and in some formats strong impact—of a card like the former. (Lightning Bolt, of course, is a cross-format All-Star and possibly the best red card of all time that, few, if any, players have problems recognizing as desirable.)

Now speaking of Lightning Bolt, we know that...


Lightning Bolt offers a more powerful effect than Shock, at the same cost.

And

Lightning Bolt offers the same effect as Lightning Strike, but at lower cost.

There are implications of both strict superiority and efficacy around casting costs in both examples.

However!

We will often find ourselves playing cards like...

Shock, or...

Lightning Strike, or...

Searing Spear, or even...

Volcanic Hammer...

...even in wide formats that offer clearly superior cards like Lightning Bolt.

Here's one example:

Andy Burden
1st Place - Kentucky - Louisville - 2/18


Andy Burden's PTQ winner has many seemingly strange cards.

Lightning Bolt we get. Lightning Bolt is great! But...

Lava Spike is a Lightning Bolt that (a) can only be cast on your own turn and (b) can only hit players.

Shard Volley, though... here we have most of the text of a Lightning Bolt, but at grievous cost.

Ouch.

Why?

How?

How could a deck with so many weird and clearly inferior cards have won such a tough kind of event as a large-format Modern PTQ?

Even the cards that are not strictly inferior to Lightning Bolt are kind of nudge-nudge/wink-wink worse. Rift Bolt, for instance, is just a slow Lightning Bolt that gives up information on the first turn, and then an inflexible three-mana Lightning Bolt later in the game.

Burst Lightning and Bump in the Night both have interesting upsides... but only when you have a ton of mana. In most games, they are Shock and [a black] Lava Spike, respectively.

What's going on here?

Redundancy.

In competitive Constructed Magic we have what is called The Rule of Four.

That is, excepting particular rule-breaker cards (e.g., Relentless Rats) you can only play a maximum total of four cards of any particular name. But who hasn't wanted to play a deck of "all" Lightning Bolts?

Lightning Bolt Dream Deck

Main Deck

60 cards

20  Mountain

20 lands


0 creatures

40  Lightning Bolt

40 other spells



Wouldn't it be fun to play—can't you easily imagine the power of playing—a deck of "all" Lightning Bolts [and lands]? The problem is the pesky Rule of Four says that you can only play four cards named Lightning Bolt. So if you want to play more than four... you need to branch out to probably inferior versions... that largely do the same things. Which is how we get decks like Burden's.

Here's a different, and maybe even more surprising look at the same idea:

There is no bluer Magic player in the history of the game than Jon Finkel. It was shocking for me to see him lead off the Extended portion of the World Championships with a Mountain and Spark Elemental.

—Brian David-Marshall, "Next Year is Now"

Jon Finkel's Mono-Red Burn ("The Lightning Bolt Deck")
Extended - 2008 World Championships


Although he wasn't allowed at the time to play Lightning Bolt itself, you can see that legendary Magician and Hall of Famer Jon Finkel tried very hard to play a deck of "all Lightning Bolts" himself.

Spark Elemental, Lava Spike, and Rift Bolt would all have been cards that tried to get at the spirit of paying Red Mana to deal 3 points of damage directly to the opponent; Incinerate (better than the yet-to-be-printed Lightning Strike, maybe) was essentially a two-mana Lightning Bolt, Jr., here... I hope you get the idea. This deck was not about picking the very best cards for their functions; it was not about evaluations like we talked about last week; rather, this was a deck that had an idea of what it wanted _a_ card to do... and tried to pick many cards that had similar outputs at reasonable (and similar) casting costs and jammed them all together.

Redundancy isn't a concept that works exclusively with burn cards. Where there is a function on a Magic card, there is a possible avenue for finding similar cards, presuming you want more than four copies. Check out this deck that Hall of Famer Huey Jensen played a few months back...

William Jensen's GW Elves
Standard—2nd Place, StarCityGames.com Standard Open


This deck played Arbor Elf, Avacyn's Pilgrim, and Elvish Mystic in addition to Elvish Archdruid. Simply, the deck really, really wanted to play a turn-one 1/1 mana acceleration card... potentially into that turn-two Elvish Archdruid! Many considerations of this deck center around the desire to maximize playing 1/1 acceleration creatures for Green Mana.


Because of this, Jensen played every single such creature that was available for Green Mana in the format. Every single one.The presence of the three similar creatures—Arbor Elf, Avacyn's Pilgrim, and Elvish Mystic—actually gave structure to the deck as a whole.

Now, what happens when you play a deck like this is that you hope to get similar draws consistently, draws that have a 1/1 acceleration creature for Green Mana in your opening hand. This allows you to get more mana rolling—and quickly—than other decks in the room. Hopefully, you can do something explosive with that mana, like playing huge threats a la Garruk, Caller of Beasts and Kalonian Hydra, quickly.


...but games can drag on and you don't always draw what you want to draw when you want to draw it.

As such, Huey's deck accommodated for that as well. Playing four copies of Gavony Township (when was the last time you saw a deck playing four copies of Gavony Township?), this deck could turn a draw of all (normally tiny) 1/1 creatures into a respectable offense. Elvish Archdruid and Craterhoof Behemoth are two other cards that turn a large volume of usually small creatures (especially Elves) into winning attack forces.


Huey's was a Standard-format deck. Given the opportunity to choose from a longer range of acceleration creatures for Green Mana, he might have picked different ones. Check out an eternal-format look (Legacy) by Huey's Peach Garden Oath brother Reid Duke:


Duke dug really deep... but at the same time knew what he wanted to play. You might be more familiar with Elvish Mystic, but Reid played both Fyndhorn Elves and the original, Llanowar Elves. And... he played the combination of Green Sun's Zenith and Dryad Arbor. On the first turn of the game, a Green Sun's Zenith fetching a 0 CMC Dryad Arbor is quite similar to a Llanowar Elves/Fyndhorn Elves.


Reid understood what functions his cards were meant to have, and how much he wanted to pay for them. While Reid maximized the most powerful, specialized, and flexible versions of the one-mana accelerator (Deathrite Shaman, Heritage Druid, and Green Sun's Zenith, respectively), he did his best to identify cards that would serve largely the same functions and play as many of them as he could.

How much do you think this card usually costs?


Back in the mid-1990s, Andrew Cuneo crafted one of the most influential deck archetypes in history... and he did so incorporating Power Sink.


With the tools and examples from this article, you can probably see that Cuneo built a deck that was redundant in its counterspell composition in the same way that Jon played lots of Lightning Bolts and Huey and Reid played lots of 1/1s for Green Mana.

About one in four of Andrew's cards was some kind of counterspell (including four copies of the original Counterspell, of course). He played the next best thing in Dissipate, and the card advantage–bestowing version Dismiss as well. But this deck was redundant not only in that it played lots of cards that could potentially counter one of the opponent's spells but paid attention to when it could do so.

Andrew decided he wanted to play not only four Counterspells, but that he wanted to be able to counter the opponent's play on turn two. Counterspell might be the most obvious way to do that... but he was still constrained by the Rule of Four. However, by adding those two Power Sinks, he was able to increase the redundancy by which he could counter on turn two... when the opponent tapped out, Power Sink could do much the same thing.

Anssi Alkio - UR Twin
Pro Tour Born of the Gods - Modern - Top 8


This is Anssi Alkio's deck from the Top 8 of last month's Pro Tour Born of the Gods. The central strategy of this deck is to enchant Deceiver Exarch with Splinter Twin. A Deceiver Exarch so enchanted can tap to produce a Deceiver Exarch copy that will untap the original (enchanted) one... allowing it to tap to make another copy, which will in turn untap the original, which in turn can be accomplished any number of times.

The opponent then finds him- or herself attacked by a seemingly infinite number of Deceiver Exarchs.


Now, as this is the ultimate goal of Alkio's deck, he played four copies each of Deceiver Exarch and Splinter Twin, maximizing the chance to pair the two... but that was not enough for Alkio. In addition, he played two Pestermites as the redundant "fifth and sixth" Deceiver Exarchs. Pestermite has only 1 toughness; one of the things a Deceiver Exarch might do is contain a Bitterblossom or Wild Nacatl, buying time to pair with Splinter Twin. Pestermite is not as good at that kind of stuff... but is equally good at making infinite attackers.

Alkio also played Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker as a "fifth" Splinter Twin. Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker can kill an opponent with a summoning-sick Pestermite, but is otherwise much weaker than Splinter Twin. It costs more than Splinter Twin, costs a third red mana, and—unlike Splinter Twin—can be stopped by a Shock. But when you decide you want to play with more than four copies of Splinter Twin... you might dip into the five-mana 2/2 version.


Redundancy can be a tricky arrow to add to your quiver. For players who want to play the best version of each kind of card—the best attacker, the most flexible removal, the most efficient card-draw—redundancy kind of flies in the face of that. It is therefore not something you will use all the time, but rather a tool that you draw on when it seems appropriate.

When, exactly, is "appropriate?"

Redundancy works on a range; you don't have to push it to the extreme of playing an entire deck where most of the cards have a single similar function, although clearly you can. Sometimes, you can just play just a fifth copy of a card (like Alkio's Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker) and that is redundancy, too. To use this tool well, you will need to know what you want your cards to do, and figure out how many cards you want to do those things and how much they cost.

No problem!




Further Reading:



 
Mike Flores
Mike Flores
@FiveWithFlores
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Michael Flores is the author of Deckade and The Official Miser's Guide; the designer of numerous State, Regional, Grand Prix, National, and Pro Tour–winning decks; and the onetime editor-in-chief of The Magic Dojo.

 
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