Getting Nassty – Leveraging your Skill


Many articles tell you how to get better. They talk about steps to take in order to tighten up your Limited or Constructed game, strategies for blocking, attacking, countering spells, and even strategies for bluffing out your opponent. However, articles rarely tell you what to do as you get better. There are many ways to maximize the skills you gain from articles and testing.

Generally, when people start playing competitively, they play more mid-range or aggressive decks. These decks often require fewer decisions and they punish you less for making mistakes. They are certainly not easy and they do reward skill, as proven by players like Channel Fireball’s own Tomoharo Saitou: he is a master of Red decks and obtains much better results than when random players play it. Magic is a game of skill and no matter what deck you choose, if you play tightly, your results will be solid.

Nonetheless, there are certainly ways to try and get additional value out of your abilities. One great way is to find decks that encourage a large number of decisions: Combo Decks and Control Decks. Playing decks with more decisions for the sake of having more decisions isn’t valuable. However, decks that have more decisions have many benefits.

Combo decks are very powerful. When they are played correctly, they can race aggro decks while fighting through disruption from control decks. If a meta isn’t ready for a combo deck, it can often dominate a tournament, because the way to beat combo decks tends to be focused disruption. However, if you do not play a combo deck correctly, it will constantly fail. When you play combo, each piece of the combination is highly contingent on every other piece, and cards that are irrelevant in one situation are critical to another. Figuring out what to do given every possible combination of cards can be overwhelming. Even players who really understand their combo decks can be tripped up: When Steve Sadin won GP Columbus with Flash, he lost a game on the way to the trophy because he didn’t recognize how to make his combo work. Thus, while keeping track of every piece is important, it is also important to know the ins and outs of your combo deck. As you improve, you should be testing more, not less.

Control decks are very powerful in a different way. As the game goes longer, control decks press an advantage. In addition, control decks force your opponents to play well. They represent lots of cards to play around and can make your opponent’s life miserable. Even if your opponent chose a simple aggro deck because they do not feel confident with their abilities, they will be forced to make continual judgments about what cards you might have and how they could be played in particular situations. The aggro player must think about how to handle Wrath effects, make reads on counterspells, and know when to alpha strike; if not, they will lose a lot of games they could have won. Control decks often make good choices at tournaments where you expect lots of inexperienced players: because they tend to be less strong players, they are more likely to find difficulties in handling your threats. When aggro plays control, even one mistake by the aggro player can be highly consequential. Of course, your opponent is not the only one who has to play well when a control deck is involved: as the game goes on, control decks require more and more decisions, including how much mana to leave up, which cards to counter, and how to maximize the value of every single spell. Because control decks are built on disrupting the opponent, you should know the ins and outs of every deck before you play one. If you don’t understand what your opponent is trying to do, you won’t be able to disrupt them affectively.

PTQs are a great venue for using interactive decks to force your opponent to make decisions. For example, Faeries dominated the PTQ scene (while it was legal). Faeries is the quintessential interactive deck. It has combat traps like Agony Warp; a variety of counterspells that are tough to play around, including Broken Ambitions, Spellstutter Sprite, and sometimes even Scion of Oona, multiple 4/4s that come out of nowhere–Mistbind Clique and Plumeveil–and one of the best interactive cards in old Standard: Cryptic Command. It was virtually impossible for most PTQ players to play around all of these different cards. Making life difficult to for the opponent is what made Faeries such a PTQ-winning machine back in the day (and Bitterblossom wasn’t a bad card either).

Forcing Misplays

The perfect example of the difficulty of playing against Faeries is the Cryptic Command vs. Mistbind Clique dilemma. You, the non-Faerie player, have a Sprouting Thrinax out. Your Faeries opponent has four mana up. You draw for your turn, and are ready to play your four drop: Chameleon Colossus. The question is whether you play it first main or second main. If you play it first main and they have [card]Cryptic Command[/card], you get destroyed. They Cryptic countering the Colossus and will likely bounce the Thrinax, essentially stealing your third and fourth turns. If you attack before casting Colossus, they probably just take the three, but then still counter-bounce if you play Colossus second main. Additionally, if they have Mistbind Clique and you attack first, your Thrinax will get ambushed, and you will be mana-shorted and lose your chance to play Colossus. If you just attack and don’t play Colossus, they can bounce the Thrinax end of turn and draw a card, or just play a Mistbind and start bashing. While many situations against Faeries led to near-impossible decisions, this one does have a correct play. Because playing around Cryptic Command is impossible, you might as well play around Mistbind Clique by playing the Colossus first main. You may cost yourself three damage (if they have the Cryptic), but that is a small price to pay to avoid getting blown out by Mistbind Clique. Situations like this were why playing around Faeries’ cards was a nightmare, especially for inexperienced players. Even though the combination of Command + Mistbind led to unwinnable situations, most players would play around neither, allowing the Faeries player to get a huge edge even if they only had one of the two.

I spent much of the time Faeries was legal trying to fight it, but eventually I realized I should be playing it instead. After I got enough practice to where I felt comfortable with the deck, I started putting up much better results than I had previously, since the deck was just so much better than anything else in the format.

At the ChannelFireball 5k last weekend, I had to decide which deck to play. The options I was considering were Blue-Green Turboland, Blue-White Control, and Mono-Red Aggro. All three decks are powerful, and they all have their advantages.

Turboland is incredibly powerful. It has many of the most powerful cards in the format and lots of powerful synergies. Oracle of Mul Daya is incredibly powerful and this deck completely abuses it. Turboland is very hard to play, but does not really challenge your opponents heavily, as most games end in a race.

Blue-White Control is very interactive. It attacks aggressive decks that feast on Turboland. Unfortunately, its Turboland matchup isn’t great, but it can be built to disrupt it more with Meddling Mages in the board and Negates main.

Mono-Red Aggro is a great meta choice, but is not as difficult to play. Channelfireball’s own Zaiem Beg and Jeff Huang showed how powerful red can be with a Top 8 at the Channelfireball 5k for Jeff and a PTQ win for Zaiem.

In the end, I chose to play Red at the 5k because I thought it fit the meta the best. However, I now regret this decision because I do not think I took advantage of my experience or my opponent’s lack of experience. I should have played either Blue-White or Turboland.

As you get better, you should increase the difficulty of the decks you choose to play. If you do not, you are not rewarding yourself for your hard practice. You should always take advantage of all your brain power. As you get better, play harder decks.

34 thoughts on “Getting Nassty – Leveraging your Skill”

  1. Interesting article.
    I found myself the more interested when you were talking about playing around all the stuff the faerie player could have.
    I think it’d be interesting to give players some hard-thinking situations like this, ask them what would they do, and then ask some pros what do they think is the best play, like PV did with some hands about mulligans a couple of months ago.

  2. SpoonSpoonSpoon

    whereas I just think I never ever want to play against cryptic command and clique again.

  3. In your Faeries example, if you still have untapped lands during first main, it seems correct to assume the opponent does not have a Mistbind Clique (under the assumption that, if he has one, he plays it during your upkeep).

    Therefore, attacking with the Sprouting Thrinax into the empty board of the opponent (and casting the Chameleon Colossus during second main) seems the correct thing to do, right?

  4. @DjiM: That depends on what faeries he has to champion. He could easily be playing around burn, or actually trying to ambush your Thrinax.

  5. FrançoisB

    Like you said in your introduction, even if you are good, playing the harder decks isnt always the best choice. Playing the meta or what you are confortable with is what I’d rather do almost always.

    As long as people look down on agro decks or feel like they are better players by insisting on playing controls, there will be people at tournements who will scoop agressively because they are mad when they lose on turn 5 vs “scrubs”

  6. “These decks often require fewer decisions and they punish you less for making mistakes”

    “When aggro plays control, even one mistake by the aggro player can be highly consequential”

    I think you’re struggling a little to justify your conclusion with the facts, there.

    None of aggro, control or combo reward skill more or less. They require different skillsets. Knowing, developing and playing to your strengths will win you a lot more events than insisting ‘I’m good, I shouldn’t be playing aggro’.

  7. sprouting thrinax may not have been the best creature to use as an example as trapping it doesn’t accomplish near as much. but that conundrum definitely existed. when I ran GB elves and when I ran kithkin. in those matchup’s every point of damage counted and mistbind clique as a trap was a real thing to watch out for.

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  9. @down3: I completely agree. I will try and use more examples in the future.

    @Djim: on the other hand, waiting until second main only gets you three damage if they have the Cryptic and don’t use it. This is exactly what was so torcherous about Faeries.

    @Greg: I disagree. I agree that control,combo, and aggro require diffrent skill sets, but I don’t agree that they are all equally difficult to play. In my opinion, aggro deck sgenerally take less thinking than control or combo. There are very hard aggro decks like affinity, but in generaly they are easier.

    My point with the second line you quoted is that if an inexperience player attempts to choose an aggro deck they are comfortable with to avoid making tough decisions, you can force him to think more by playing interactive decks like control or Faeries. I’m sorry if I didn’t make it clear and those two lines seemed contradictory to you.

    @imsomniacbob: Luis and I spent a LONG time on AIM debating which creature it should be in the situation. We wanted it to be a realistic Jund creature, but it had to be smaller than Mistbind. Then we thought of Bloodbraid, but it didn’t fit the curve and couldn’t be Crypticed. Thrinax does make getting Mistbinded slightly less of a blowout, but it’s still pretty awkward to get Mistbinded. If we took an example from GB elves Colossus might still apply, but Wren’s run trades with the Mistbind.

  10. If control and combo are more difficult to play then why is it people are only considered ‘masters’ when they win with aggro?

    Master of Red. But never here of the ‘master’ of anything control. I’ve heard plenty about specialists, but never about ‘masters’ of any sort of control or combo deck. Just by the titles and looking at how few pro’s have one outside of playing control in general, one looking from the outside could only assume that the aggro, especially red, which requires u be a ‘master’ to expect success with, could be forgiven for thinking that the real skill test is playing aggro, especially mono red.

    But hey, just having fun playing devil’s advocate, but it is food for thought, that looking back, its taken those players considered among the greatest ever to manage any kind of success with aggro decks versus the regular, almost weekly success of pro’s playing with control. Tongue in cheek food for thought:)

  11. Man oh man that’s alot of typos… here instead of hear and one instead won… how could anyone ever take this noob seriously…. I pity that poor soul:p

  12. This article is great. I’ve seen alot of different examples of highly skilled players with decks that were considered Tier 2 or not very good at all have incredible success just because they knew the deck in and out and played to their strengths. One example is a friend who played alot of combo in legacy and extended. Before Worldwake came out he was playing Pyromancer’s Ascension and nobody was sideboarding for control. He got top 8 at states, maintained an 1850+ DCI rating and thoroughly smashed my jund deck many times for the months that he played it. Another example is Naya. It wasn’t doing particularly well in PTQ’s but there was one local player who made it look firmly Tier 1 with his play level and sb choices. Mono-red seems to be a meta deck at the moment (I feel it’s Jund matchup is overrated, it’s mythic matchup post-board isn’t fantastic but it’s Turboland, Bant, Eldrazi Green matchups are great.) though not a bad choice at all (Look at Columbus PTQ top 8 for proof: 0 Kor Firewalkers main or side in any deck including U/W/R and Mythic.) Good article.

  13. Sam Black makes the faerie ‘master’ list too, Jeff Cunningham was the U/G madness ‘master’ as well.

    You’re absolutely backwards when you say mistakes are punished less when playing aggro decks. Correct resource management is even more vital if you are playing something like monoR. You’re thinking of the times when the aggro deck just gets those oops I win draws, all decks get those, and playing a deck that gets to have more of them isn’t a bad thing at all. I think you’re confusing complexity of decisions with importance of decisions. It’s harder to play (there are going to be more decisions involved at least) a planewsalker or a cryptic correctly than a lightning bolt, but if you mess up the lightning bolt in one of those close games it’s more likely to cost you.

  14. That’s because everyone figures the rest will sideboard enough hate to keep it at the bottom, which probably will be the case for the next month as its put up some results

    Its only good when people forget about it

  15. To the guy who said you can assume they don’t have the mistbind clique when they didn’t run it out during the upkeep: That illustrates perfectly the edge the skilled faerie player has in the described situation. There is no need to run out the upkeep mistbind if you have it + cryptic. That sets your opponent up to get blown out no matter what they do. Scrubs would consistently run their guys into my midcombat mistbind clique based on that assumption. Then you’re holding cryptic behind. GG buddy.

  16. Good article. I like the new title as well!

    Good scenario as well, always intersting to get scenarios like that and learn what the correct play was.

  17. As the jund player here I would play into the cryptic command forcing it out of their hand, since you have a million answers to Mistbind Clique, and they must answer every card you play from there on out except BBE (and leach if you have that). And they’re now effectively *down a card* because they chose to cast boomerang instead of drawing a second cryptic command. I mean it doesn’t seem like they’re down a card, but not drawing a card on command is such a beating to their manabase and their game plan. Your thrinax becomes a suspended cantripping Perish the Thought for the cryptic command they would have drawn the last turn of the game to blow you out.

    Does the Fae player know you have Jund Charm of Fallout mana up? Are they seriously going to throw out the clique just to have it die, thus giving them effectively no way to end the game? Because that could be the game play. Can I mind trick my opponent into thinking I have jund charm here? The problem is that the m10 rule change with mana leaving steps instead of phases really wrecks a lot of options you could have. You could float, RRBG here if they clique on the attack step, and then mind trick them into not blocking, trading 4 life for 3 (and saving your thrinax). And if you do have jund charm you can smash their face for 5.

  18. Actually the more I think about this, the more ridiculous it seems.

    Do they have BB out not? If so, then I’m attacking to just shutdown 1 1/1 flyer blocker and risk losing the game when I have CC in my hand? If not, then why would my opponent clique on the combat step here? I could blow him out with Jund charm or Fallout with the champion trigger on the stack (nice you just two for oned yourself AND took 5 damage and have no board?)

  19. Competent Jund Player :P

    @ DjM toward the end, many people realised that to avoid cryptic command you would make the correct play and playa ur spells always during second main. so it was better to clique during combat.

    @ Patrick they still get BB back when the clique dies. and yes that was the counter to faeries, still wasn’t good enough tho was it?

  20. Matthew: aside from the already mentioned masters, Wafo Tapo is a master of Mystical Teachings control, and the author of this article is considered a master of elves combo.

    Those are some recent control and combo decks. I could come up with a longer list, but it’d go back a ways into the obscure territory. Oh, I suppose I should mention David Gearhart, a master of Solidarity.

  21. Given that jund situation, it sounds like playing jund is a _LOT_ harder than playing faeries (hurf durf counter-bounce!)

    good blockers like finks/thrinax = less variance in matches = playskill shines

    cards that are awful in certain situations and good in others (aka combo) = high variance in matches = playskill is irrelevant

  22. @ Matt: Maybe the creature you needed for the example was Kitchen Finks? That hurts a lot more to lose to Mistbind ambush and was more commonly played in the Fae heyday than Thrinax.

  23. “When aggro plays control, even one mistake by the aggro player can be highly consequential”

    Maybe it’s just me, but I find that mistakes by the control player are way more consequential. I mean, countering the wrong threat is just huge, whether it’s letting something through that you should have countered or burning your counterspells on insignificant early threats. Knowing when to tap out for Wrath can be just as easy to mess up and just as easily cost you the game.

    On the other hand, I’m trying to think of a generalized example where the aggro deck can make a mistake, and the only example I’m coming up with is playing too many/too few threats to the board at once. And even then the mistake only costs you if the control player has the Wrath (if you played too many) or draws into the Wrath (if you played too few) before you kill him.

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