[M:tG] Gaining advantage from Wasteland’s seemingly-symmetrical attrition

Andrea Mengucci is an expert Magic: the Gathering player known especially for his love for the Legacy format. One of the defining features of Legacy gameplay is the presence of very powerful nonbasic land cards. The format’s most important check on its nonbasics is Wasteland, which can sacrifice itself to destroy another nonbasic land. In this clip, Andrea is playing against a Wasteland deck and finds himself faced with one of the Legacy format’s classic forks in the road: should he spend his turn’s land drop on a more flexible/powerful nonbasic or a less-vulnerable basic land?

Lands are important because they typically produce mana, the resource used to cast spells. Sacrificing a Wasteland to destroy a nonbasic sets both players back on their mana development by a turn. When does activating Wasteland favor a Wasteland player? Andrea points out two long-recognized ways to profit from the mutual attrition.

The usual use of Wasteland is what Andrea calls here a “tempo Wasteland” that sets both players back on mana at a moment in which the Wastelander has a superior board presence (e.g. 1 creature against 0, as in the clip). The Wastelanding player seeks to preserve their advantaged board state as long as possible, as the onus is on opponent to find some relevant and castable spell to equalize. If they did not have a way to equalize with last turn’s mana, and one uses a Wasteland to set them back to that same mana, they probably will still be unable to equalize for at least another turn cycle.

The second type of Wateland is more brutal, hoping that the opponent does not have any more lands in hand to replace what was destroyed, leaving the player’s spells stranded in hand, uncastable until they draw lands from their deck.

In the video, Andrea recognizes that he is behind on board, as the opponent got to play first and has a Deathrite Shaman out while Andrea has nothing on the battlefield to oppose. Playing out a nonbasic land would open him up to being punished by a Wasteland that would preserve the imbalance of power. Andrea wisely chooses to play out a basic land to ensure that he will have two mana available on his second turn.

[All] Don’t position against a wall (without good reason)!

Today we return to the site’s roots, looking at a general strategic idea that exists across the gaming world: “Don’t position against a wall!” I’ve most recently remembered this idea from reviewing and playing Overwatch games, but it has cropped up many times before. Sometimes the wall is physical, sometimes it is metaphorical, but by definition it limits your available moves. This is a gift to the opponent! It makes their job easier. We want to do the opposite. As I’ve put it before, we want to “put the onus on the opponent.*” We want to make their job harder, to give them opportunities to misplay or guess wrong. Let’s look at some examples.

(11:54-12:18) First I’ll take a look at an Overwatch clip, though the ideas extend very naturally to games involving realtime movement prediction. It’s here that the concept of not positioning flush against a wall most recently returned to my thoughts. Here is a brief example that cropped up while I was reviewing and analyzing a set of replays from a player’s run to diamond rank. The Ana, by positioning right up against a wall, takes hits from all 3 of Genji’s shuriken. If she had a little more leeway to play with, she could force Genji to divine her movement, putting the onus on him to guess correctly in order to land his damage:

The example above has analogues in other FPS and also arena games, like League of Legends. For example, a Thresh chasing down a champion towards a wall will wait to hook until the enemy is up against the wall, reducing the directions they have for juking But you might be surprised to realize this idea comes up even outside of real time movement-prediction games. In chess they often say “A knight on the rim is dim,” referring to the weakness of the knight when on the edge of the board. A centralized knight could move to 8 squares, but on the edge will have only two options. It’s so bad that the rim knight can be completely “dominated” by a bishop, as presented by YouTube commentator MatoJelic in this clip:

(19:58-20:26) In the Overwatch example the wall was a physical wall. In the chess one, the wall is almost physical, consisting of the edge of the board. Now let’s look at a Magic: the Gathering example. In this clip from the recent Week 7 of Vintage Super League season 7, Rachel Agnes highlights a good example of a metaphorical wall restricting a player’s options. Rodrigo Togores has only 1 life left, making him unable to pay the alternate cost of Force of Will (card image below clip) without losing the game. Having even one more life would require his opponent to play around the possibility of a no-mana-cost counterspell, but as-is he’s against a wall. The opponent knows that if he does have the Force, he must pay the full 5 mana for it or not use it at all. Rachel goes on to share the amusing tale of a past an opponent of hers who threw away a winning game by needlessly paying their last point of life to counter a spell unnecessarily:

* Aside: In the past, I’ve used the phrase “put the onus on the opponent” to talk about minimizing risk while comfortably maintaining a gamestate where the opponent is disadvantaged, where if nothing changes the status quo will bring you more advantage or a win, forcing the opponent to take on risk in trying to “make something happen” that might upset this trajectory.

[Classic] Who’s the Beatdown

Who’s the Beatdown?” is a 1999 Magic article from by Mike Flores that introduced the ideas and terminology of the relative beatdown and control roles. The concepts are strongly relevant to other games (e.g. this OTC match) and still alive in Magic analysis today.

The heart of the article is:

The most common (yet subtle, yet disastrous) mistake I see in tournament Magic is the misassignment of who is the beatdown deck and who is the control deck in a similar deck vs. similar deck matchup. The player who misassigns himself is inevitably the loser.

In similar deck vs. similar deck matchups, there are a couple of things that you want to look at to figure out what role to play:
1. Who has more damage? Usually he has to be the beatdown deck.
2. Who has more removal? Usually he has to be the control deck.
3. Who has more permission and card drawing? Almost always he has to be the control deck.

If you are the beatdown deck, you have to kill your opponent faster than he can kill you. If you are the control deck, you have to weather the early beatdown and get into a position where you can gain card advantage.

Misassignment of Role = Game Loss.

Critically, Flores points out that even in a match between similarly fast aggressive decks or slow controlling decks, one of the two will be a bit more aggressive or more controlling than the other as a static gamestate element, via the cards each players put in their deck.

The beatdown (or aggro) should play aggressively in pursuit of a shorter and more resource-scarce tempo-oriented game. The plan is to force the opponent to deal with immediate threats and minimize the time and resources they can afford to use investing for later. When the op does invest resources towards non-immediate ends, the goal is to go for the throat and punish, reaching critical pressure before the investments yield returns.

The control should play defensively in pursuit of a longer and more resource-rich value-oriented game. The plan is to survive while preparing for the long term, turning the tables as the op runs out of steam. The goal is to fend off short-term defeat with as few resources as possible, investing with as much as the op’s pressure allows.

Use beatdown (aggro) vs control roles as a lens for thinking about other games. Correctly determining your relative role will let you make better choices, nudging the game in a direction that favors your setup.

[MTG] What’s in a Gush?

It looks innocent enough, but this little card is a format-warping powerhouse. Against the backdrop of that very morning’s non-update update to Magic’s ban/restricted lists, Vintage veteran Dr. Rich Shay argues eloquently for Gush’s restriction. Lend Rich your ear for a spell (heh), then read to review the subtly powerful synergies driving the Gush engine.

Gush. The card, the art, and the Magic: the Gathering game are all property of Wizards of the Coast and are featured here under fair use.

Continue reading “[MTG] What’s in a Gush?”

[MTG] 3 Vintage Super League match commentary higlights

Rachel and Randy, commentating on a Vintage Super League match between Davids Ochoa and Williams, start out with a discussion of Williams’ hand. Williams, playing a Monastary Mentor deck, has not drawn the explosive mana pieces that sometimes lead to enormous early pressure. His hand will not speedily play out Mentor, but it does have ways to buy time towards finding one. He holds two 1-mana removal spells with many targets in Ochoa’s artifact and creature reliant Workshop deck:

Unfortunately for Williams, while he does find time to draw two copies of Mentor, he does not draw enough land to combat the Workshop deck’s soft-lock mana denial elements. Williams loses game 1 of the match with Mentors stranded in hand, an example of “threshold of effect” that I introduced last week. Williams, due to not mulliganing his opening 7 and also playing card-drawing spells, has access to more cards than his opponent, which is abstractly an advantage. However, without the ability to actually play the cards, their contribution is illusory. Despite Ochoa mulliganing his opener to 6 cards and not once actually drawing extra cards, he effectively has the card advantage:

Finally we have an interesting discussion of how recently printed magic cards have influenced the Vintage metagame. Vintage is a powerful format, and it’s fairly unusual for new cards to be strong enough for the Vintage context. New “toys” for Vintage decks have included Monastary Mentor (for a cheap spells deck), Paradoxical Outcome (for some storm decks), and Walking Ballista (for Workshop decks). Rachel favors Mentor, partly because Stony Silence is an effective hoser against both Outcome and Workshop decks:

[MTG] Sam Pardee on a common mistake using Tasigur, The Golden Fang

Tasigur, the Golden Fang can be cast at reduced cost if the player exiles cards from their graveyard while casting it. Once in play, one can pay mana to activate Tasigur's ability, which puts some cards in your graveyard, then makes an opponent choose one nonland card in your graveyard to return to your hand. Players may be tempted to exile as many lands as possible when casting Tasigur, so that their graveyard is full of spells, but by exiling spells and leaving more lands, the opponent does not get as many options about which nonland card to give you.