The School of Card Disadvantage, 2HG Tips, and Knowing Your Colors.

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The letter W!hile we may not be as Shark infested as Flores's New York City (New York City!?), Virginia has had its share of Pro Tour predators and I've rubbed up against a few. I've recurred Spike Feeder every turn with Oath of Ghouls against Kyle Rose's Sligh deck. I've Plowed Under Pete Lieher's Hoodwink deck into oblivion, and I've Aura Mutated Donnie Gallitz's Parallax Wave during combat to turn his assault into an ambush. Looking back, I've actually had fair success against pro players when I've played them on a local level, but obviously these guys knew how to take it up a notch and play at a higher level when they wanted to.

When Scott announced that this week would be “Swap Week” and I realized I would be swapping columns with Mike Flores, I found it a little amusing. I used to dabble in strategy writing way back in the wild and wooly days of Usenet, on rec.games.trading-cards.magic.strategy, and I'm fairly certain Mike concluded I was a complete idiot based on those old musings.

Once I posted something I called the “School of Card-Disadvantage,” in June of 1998:

Cursed Scroll rewards bad play. How can you reward someone from dropping their hand, which goes against the basic rules of good Magic play? They should never had made a card like that." – some control playing-weenie head

Long has the School of Card Advantage reigned supreme. It was the pinnacle of superior Magic play; it's nuances and subtlety the domain of pro-tour caliber players. I remember learning the hard way how powerful Card Advantage is when used against you, and have slowly learned to grasp that concept when designing decks and deciding what cards are worth playing...

...Now, with the Rath Cycle, WotC has ingeniously and insidiously taken the School of Card Advantage to task, by making the School of Card Disadvantage competitive. That's where cards like Cursed Scroll, Scalding Tongs, and Ensnaring Bridge come in, rewarding players for going out on a limb, for taking a chance of being devastated by a Card Advantage spell and gaining a tangible benefit. For a long time speed just wasn't fast enough to beat Card Advantage control; now speed has gained some weapons...

WotC has thrown a nice big monkey wrench into the old Magic paradigms. It's going to take some innovation and cleverness to see where control fits in the current metagame. I applaud WotC R&D for coming up with new ways to keep this game we love fresh and exciting!

I had been reading a lot of posts where people are complaining about these cards promoting "bad play" and I was trying to point out that using these cards actually encourages different levels of strategy, rather than the traditional card-advantage strategies that had so long dominated Magic. Apparently, my coin of phrase, “The School of Card-Disadvantage,” irritated one Michael J Flores, who was quick to riposte:

Sorry Bennie, but there is no school of card disadvantage. Card advantage reigns supreme -- still -- and definitely within the confines of the "card disadvantage" group of cards you seem to be advocating... The problem here is that you are identifying a group of cards that force the active player to empty his hand, and you are calling them card disadvantage cards when they are in actuality card advantage engines.

A few other old school names chimed in on the thread—Eric “edt” Taylor, the incomparable John Shuler (“It is now, of course, my personal mission to beat you in a Standard sanctioned match with a Scalding Tongs”), and even Jamie Wakefield. It was amusing was how quickly people began referring to Cursed Scroll and Ensnaring Bridge strategies as “School of Card Disadvantage”... and how much that term drove Flores nuts.

For perhaps the 10,000th time, neither of the above cards involves card disadvantage!

I can still hear the echo of fingers angrily pounding away on a keyboard. Heh.

Enough traipsing down memory lane. Here we are during Swap Week, and unfortunately Pro Tour Honolulu came one week too early to save me. I could certainly do a tournament recap. Unfortunately, Mike informed me this would be a “strategy” week. What the heck should I write about?

Two Headed Giant Champs is this weekend, and I'm playing in it alongside local Limited specialist Josh Adams, who has spent ridiculous time drafting and playing Sealed online. Together, we are team Jolly Green. We've actually done some play testing, and I suppose I could talk about what we've learned about the format.

  1. This is not “classic” 2HG (like what you play on Magic Online); it's quite a bit different so make sure you read up on the rules!
  2. Play all of your landwalkers. Yes, even the little Blue crocodile.
  3. Filling out your curve with low-cost dorks isn't as important as it is in a duel. You've got 40 life, which translates to a lot more time than you're used to in Sealed or Draft.
  4. Bombs are nice, but synergy is better, and cross-deck synergy rules supreme. I'm talking my deck's Flickerform on your Izzet Chronarch peanut butter and chocolate goodness.
  5. Main deck enchantment removal is rarely useless.

Hm. That doesn't exactly make for a whole article, does it?

Casting about for ideas, I decided to approach Ted “Crushing Blow” Knutson. As my editor for a while over on Star City, I figured he as much as anyone would know what sort of strategy article I might be in a good position to write about. His response?

[13:06] KnipKnut: why Bennie can only win with the colors black and green?

Ouch! As with most things worth doing, sometimes a little pain must be endured, and while Ted was teasing with his reply, there was enough truth in there to be thought provoking. As I thought back over the years and at my various successes in tournament Magic, Green was a near constant and Black made frequent guest appearances. I did dabble in other colors, but I wasn't nearly as successful with them and naturally gravitated towards the colors that “fit” me better.

Which begs the question, why? Why did I do better with Green (occasionally with Black) than other colors?

Jamie Wakefield has a long history of being the Green Mage, but Wakefield's style of Green was always quite different from my own. Jamie liked to summon huge monsters and smash face. His philosophy was “the last fattie you can't deal with wins.” Green's aggressive cards didn't really draw me. I liked Green's utility and flexibility in cards like Survival of the Fittest, Crop Rotation, Spike Feeder, Birds of Paradise, Weatherseed Treefolk, and Eternal Witness. I even liked non-Green cards like Sensei's Divining Top that merely played well with Green!

For a little outside perspective, I decided to ask two buddies of mine who've known me a long time what they thought of me as a Magic player and why they thought I was drawn to green decks. Kevin Davis had this to say:

“When I play Magic, I play for the feeling of winning. Bennie's different. Having known Bennie a while, I think he just likes to play, hence the reason he doesn't feel the need to play the “best deck” of the format. Now why does he play Green? Very simple. Bennie needs a deck he can play with, creatures that sit on the table (Bennie likes permanents) and that have abilities. Ben's favorite creatures, they all have plenty of rules text in the box. Last, I think his play style reflects his personality. Bennie is a great guy, and he doesn't have an "I must kill my enemy" mindset. He doesn't want to kill his opponent too quickly, he doesn't want to lock them down or counter everything they try to play. He wants to play his cards against his opponents cards and let the game fall as it may.”

Jay DeLazier chimed in with this observation:

“I feel that you favor Green decks because they are safe. Generally speaking, the decks that you seem to favor are "bash you with this stick twenty times" in lieu of "melt your face with this laser". It's a low risk, slow reward strategy that seems to do well in your hands. Green decks are also creature oriented. You like to turn men sideways. RDW also likes to turn men sideways, but it can run out of gas a lot more easily than most solid Green-based creature strategies. Your Green-based decks also tend to play on subtle synergies between cards. Many other colors don't have the small synergies that Green offers.

“I think that you just like the color Green. You were probably the only 4 year-old ever to enjoy eating spinach and broccoli. I'll bet that the only reason that you don't wear a kilt is that there's too much red in them.

“Conclusion: Bennie enjoys safe, synergistic piles of creatures, and loves to send men into the red zone. He does not like control and has a serious disdain for any combo deck that involves instants or sorceries. If you share these likes and dislikes, and also love long walks on the beach, Bennie Smith is the Magic player for you.”

Okay, armed with some self-analysis and feedback from my friends, I decided to delve into the colors Green and Black and see what it was about them that gave me strength. Naturally, that brings me to Mark Rosewater and his analysis of the Color Wheel. In It's Not Easy Being Green (Oct 2002), Mark wrote Green's “end goal is simply to let the natural way evolve. Green, in its heart, wants nothing more than to sit back and watch life unfurl around it. Thus, Green's ultimate goal is growth. Green would be happiest in a world where nature has been allowed to run rampant.” When I play Magic and am at my happiest, the games have unfurled and the battle is engaged on many fronts. My game plan and that of my opponent have run rampant, and may the best plan win.

Mark also wrote, “Green values the natural abilities of its champions. As such, it relies heavily on its instinct and on the natural symbiosis found in nature. This makes Green hard to predict and allows it the ability to overwhelm its opponents with sheer number.” Natural abilities sure sounds like rules text to me! I also highly value being hard to predict, going rogue as a way to both confound and amuse my opponent.

My greatest tournament success came in 1999 when I won Virginia Champs (or States as it was known by back then). I built this little Green control deck in an era when being a Green deck meant playing Stompy.

"Blair Witch Green" – 1st place, VA States 1999

In the year or two before this, I had turned from the pure Green path looking for help with some of Green's weaknesses, and Black often held the answers. Roswater had this to say in In The Black (Feb, 2004): “To accomplish its goals, Black seeks power... Black uses whatever tools are available.” When it came to Green's inability to deal with opposing creatures, I would splash Black for Terror or Smother. When my creatures kept dying to my opponent's creature control, I turned to Black for Living Death, Oath of Ghouls, and Oversold Cemetery. When they reprinted Perish in the base set, that most grossly unfair color hoser of all time, I turned to Black for Darkest Hour as insurance.

Green and Black filled in each other's holes quite nicely, allowing me to cover any bases I felt needed to be covered, depending on the environment at the time. I turned to that color combination again and again over the years, most recently in last year's Top 8 performance with my Dredge deck*. Looking over Rosewater's look at the philosophy of the Golgari (Life and Death, Oct 2005), they and I fit hand in glove: “Green and Black, for instance, are the two colors most adept at manipulating the graveyard and taking advantage of its resources. They are also the two colors that use their link with the graveyard to make use of recursion, consistently reusing their threats... Green builds. Black destroys. Green is symbiotic. Black is parasitic... Black/Green realizes that nature's secret weapon is its ability to recover from harm. If you recognize death as but a piece of the bigger picture, you realize that nothing can ultimately stop you. Sure, things can slow you down temporarily, but combine growth with death and you start creating an unstoppable army.

One situation I've always hated in Magic is when you've got no cards in hand, nothing of relevance on the board, and you're living off the top deck, hoping against hope you draw something – anything! – to get you back into the game... instead of yet another confounded land! Naturally, I've been drawn to Green and Black's recursion power, which to me represents the ability to always have something to do, to always have some game. “Black/Green's greatest strength is that it's virtually unstoppable. Its threats cannot be vanquished. Sure, you can destroy pieces of it, but others will always return to take its place. Like a weed or a virus, Black/Green constantly searches for new ways to continue spreading, adapting whenever necessary.” Yep, that sounds like many decks I've built, and certainly clues in on why I've had some success with those decks. I like resiliency, I like options, and I like having game and taking steps during deck construction to ensure that.

Of course, Mark also adroitly points this out: “Black/Green's greatest weakness is its lack of control. The very qualities that make it so hard to contain also make it almost impossible to mastermind. The plague that is unleashed takes on a life of its own. This means that often Black/Green doesn't always accomplish what it sets out to get done. Sure, it gets in the ballpark, but the lack of pinpoint control keeps Black/Green from having the finesse of many of the other color combinations.” What I found interesting about this was how Green/Black's greatest weakness points to my own weakness as a player-- lack of control. I want to engage my opponent, let him play his game and let me play mine so we can fight and skirmish. I don't mind disrupting my opponent's plans, or tilting the playing field in my favor, but I tend not to want to completely shut down my opponent. Sometimes the environment dictates that the best deck is a control deck so you can shut down your opponent's plans. Sometimes you play combo and barely interact with your opponent at all.

Ted told me I'm good with green because there are certain elements about the color that are constant from set to set, format to format. Even when playing with the newest Green spells, I know what to expect and how to play it well. Sometimes that's enough to do well on the local level, and in bigger events if my deck of choice happens to line up well with the environment.

The year after winning States, I made a second run at a repeat and ultimately ended up in 4th place (see A Fine Day at Virginia State Champs, Pt 1 and Pt 2).

"Scuffletown" – 4th place, VA States 2000

Scuffletown was designed to fight the Rebel menace by killing early rebels and attacking its mana base. Green's mana acceleration strength gave it strong resilience to the symmetrical mass land destruction plan.

For Regionals the following year, I came this close to making Top 8 with “My Fires,” a Fires deck built to hammer the mirror.

Regionals 2001 My Fires

The most feared play in Fires decks was a Saproling Burst coming down with a Fires of Yavimaya in play. Wax/Wane gave me a maindeck answer to that while not being useless against decks playing no enchantments. Power Matrix gave the deck extra reach, allowing me to win fights and punch damage through. The two tweaks gave me an undefeated record for the mirror match up without diluting the power of the deck too much against other matches.

The game plans for both decks were quite different, but there are some obvious common elements. Birds and Elves are a must in all the builds I do well with; Green's acceleration is something I've always loved, because I like playing the more expensive splashy spells. I also obviously loved Rishadan Ports, since they treated me so well in my winning States deck; Ports + mana acceleration is a match made in heaven.

For 2005 Champs, choosing a Dredge deck happened to be a potent choice against the many control decks that had arisen to fight the Boros menace. Wrath of God just wasn't that scary when I could “draw” a creature from my graveyard each turn afterwards. If all I'm looking for is good times and occasional success on a local level, there's nothing wrong with specializing in a color, colors, or type of deck. Some people prefer control decks, some prefer Red decks. The problem is that strength is also a weakness if you want to reach for something bigger.

As an illustration, let's look at 2005 Pro Tour Player of the Year Kenji Tsumura and the Constructed decks he's played over the past year or so. Here's a quick rundown:

2004 Oct PT Columbus (Extended) Black Desire
2005 Feb GP Boston (Extended) ScepterChant
2005 Mar GP Seattle (Extended) Black Desire
2005 Mar GP Singapore (Extended) Black Desire
2005 May PT Philadelphia (Kamigawa Block) Myojin Deck
2005 July GP Niigata (Kamigawa Block) Godo Gifts
2005 Oct GP Taipei (Kamigawa Block) Godo Gifts
2005 Oct GP Salt Lake City (Kamigawa Block) Godo Gifts
2005 Nov PT Las Angeles (Extended) Dredgatog
2005 Nov GP Kitakyushu (Extended) ScepterChant
2005 Nov GP Beijin (Extended) Dredgatog
2005 Nov-Dec Worlds (Standard/Extended) GhaziGlare/Dredgatog
2006 Mar PT Honolulu (Standard) Greater Gifts

Looking at just the deck names, I think it's easy to see that Kenji is partial to combo and control decks, and like many of the Japanese, he values the path of the rogue. It's also easy to see that Kenji doesn't let himself be held back by his preferences. GhaziGlare stands out from his previous deck choices, and yet he concluded it was the best deck to play and went with it.

During Grand Prix Richmond, I spent a lot of time at the gunslinging tables, playing a bunch of different decks. Most of the decks I selected were builds I was comfortable with - “Bennie decks” that I could play fairly well on instinct. One deck was quite different—Adrian Sullivan's original Eminent Domain build. This thing was completely alien to me and my play style... and yet the more I played it, the more those differences came into focus. The rhythm of the deck, its relentless quest to slowly but surely set up a devastating Wildfire from which your opponent will never recover, was something fresh and new for me. Deciding whether or not to Remand a spell, whether or not I should kill a creature right away or cast Annex, using my life total as a measure of how many turns I had so I could plan accordingly, I feel playing that deck allowed me to grow as a player.

Green decks are a source of comfort and strength for me, and I can do well with them, but if I want to improve as a player, I need to step outside the comfort zone. Magic is a rich, complex game, and I am only cheating myself by not exploring other strategies and elements.

What color or strategy is your comfort zone, and why is it your source of strength? Once you have the answers to those questions, pick up decks that are as far from your comfort zone as can be, play them and grow as a player. Trust me, not only does it give you a real breath of fresh air, but it will help you take your game up a notch.

--Bennie Smith
Acting chairman of the Card Disadvantage Club for Men
"I don't just talk about these cards, I play them, too."

 *speaking of Dredge, doesn't the mechanic remind you a lot of Weatherseed Treefolk and Rancor, two of my all-time favorite Green cards?

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