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In Development – Choosing to Fight Fairer

 

A BBC documentary based on John Keegan’s book The Face of Battle memorably covers the development of firearms by mentioning how guns were “the great equalizer,” before going on to note that better guns made some soldiers “more equal” than their opponents.

At the moment, Standard is largely dominated by “fair” strategies. As untrue as this seems when your Jund opponent has just played Bituminous Blast into Bloodbraid Elf into Blightning, it’s basically correct. The major strategies of Jund, Naya, Boros, and Green/x Midrange are all trying to win by killing the opponent through combat damage, and all hope to leverage some degree of conventional card advantage to do so. Jund is certainly the all-star at powering out normal card advantage via cascade, but it nonetheless does not break from the overall “fair” plan.

By way of explanation, an “unfair” strategy tries to do something “broken,” very powerful, and either utterly game changing or orthogonal to normal game play. This is what Zaiem was pointing towards in his recent ode to the joys of Extended. Over in Extended, Hypergenesis is a clear example of an “unfair” deck, in that a successful execution of its core strategy completely negates a “fair” combat-based game plan, and often effectively ends the game that turn. In the current Standard, “unfair” strategies include mill, Time Sieve, and Summoning Trap. I’m not fond of any of these, but they’re all good examples of decks that try to sidestep the normal give-and-take of the game and win via some orthogonal means.

If you’re taking one of those “unfair” strategies out for a spin, then the rest of this article probably won’t apply to you. For the rest of us, it’s time to think about making our “fair” deck the “fairest” it can be.

Optimizing our N-for-1s

I was struck by a comment Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa made recently about playing against Jund. When the Jund player runs out a Bloodbraid and then hits a Blightning to generate a 3-for-1, you may find yourself bitterly complaining about the Jund player’s luck. The trick, of course, is that the deck is built to do that. It’s not a matter of luck, but one of design.

Given the context of any otherwise fair fight, the Jund deck tends to overpower its opponent on the strength of having a greater number of N-for-1s. I use the term “N-for-1″ here because I’m going to discuss everything from 2-for-1s on up. Jund, especially, has a sort of variability in its N-for-1s, since a Bituminous Blast can be everything from a 1-for-1 (when it cascades into a dead card) to a 6-for-1 (Bituminous Blast to clear a blocker cascading into Bloodbraid to kill a planeswalker cascading into Blightning to hit two cards and a second planeswalker; not that I’ve ever seen that happen in real life). It stands to reason that if the best “fair” deck in the format heavily depends on maximizing its N-for-1s, then any other “fair” deck we’re going to try to run should do likewise.

This led me, in turn, to look through all the cards in our current Standard to generate an aggregate list of N-for-1s. You can get that list by clicking on this link:

Compiled list of N-for-1s

I used a few rules when deciding if a card qualified for this list. I assume that any removal spell can actually kill its target, and that having cascade makes a card an N-for-1 if the card itself is worth, well, a card. Thus, a Bituminous Blast counts as an N-for-1 because it will kill its target and cascade into something. Conversely, Captured Sunlight did not make the list because I don’t think 4 life is worth a card, so basically it’s a one-mana kicker effect on whatever it cascades into. Mass removal spells that can kill multiple creatures, such as Day of Judgment, make the cut. Unearth creatures make the cut, with an asterisk. Similarly, if a spell generates an N-for-1 when kicked, that special case is noted. I also counted certain cards, such as Hypnotic Specter, as N-for-1s if they can generate card advantage during their normal operation.

Finally, I didn’t clutter the list with planeswalkers. Each planeswalker is effectively a card advantage generator, and I’ve already discussed them at length here. We will assume they all count as N-for-1s.

If you peruse the list, you’ll notice that a lot of the cards aren’t good, or at least aren’t good in Constructed play. In general when I’m trying to approach concepts like this, I don’t want to edit my items too early on. We will always cut bad ideas out later, but the first thing we want to consider is our entire scope of options. So please don’t complain to me that Shard Convergence is on the list.

With this card advantage bible in hand, its time to think about how we want to optimize our deck. I’m going to focus on my G/W Walkers deck, but the principle applies generally to any “fair” Standard deck.

How do our decks rate?

Before I go into application for my G/x Midrange deck of choice, I wanted to check in with some known designs to see how they rate in terms of N-for-1s. For the purpose of this analysis, I’m going to look at the main deck and sideboard in each case, and just count the number of N-for-1 cards, including planeswalkers.

Like all benchmarking evaluations, this one is not as quantitative as it seems. In fact, I want to take a moment to emphasize that my point in writing about optimizing N-for-1s is not to suggest that it’s the sole determining factor in victory for “fair” decks. The Flores mono-cascade deck from last month or so is an excellent example of a deck that massively cranks out card advantage, but can lose based on other concerns, such as a shaky mana base and having no plays before the third turn.

Jund (by David Ochoa)

This is David’s 5-1 Jund list from worlds. It has 27 N-for-1s in the main deck and 8 in the sideboard. Notably, every single creature spell in this deck is an N-for-1, which goes a long way toward explaining the brutality of Jund in the world of creature-on-creature “fair” fights.

27 Main, 8 Side

Brad discussed his most recent take on Boros here. The main deck features 11 N-for-1s, with another 5 in the sideboard. Note that this deck also packs some card disadvantage generators in the form of Path to Exile and Goblin Guide. I’m not going to subtract the 1-for-Ns from the N-for-1 total, but it’s worth paying attention to their presence.

This deck highlights an important component of deciding how much card advantage we’re obligated to include in a deck if we want to remain competitive. The presence of N-for-1s in our deck is a sort of multiplier on the value of each new card we draw. The corollary is that shorter games limit the value of these N-for-1s. Boros tries to take advantage of this fact by emphasizing the speed of its game, thus reducing the intrinsic disadvantage of not only having a paucity of N-for-1s, but of actually packing cards that generate card advantage for the opponent.

11 Main, 5 Side

Magical Christmas Land (by Conley Woods)

This is Conley’s Worlds list. He’s offered up a number of variations here, but I’m using this list because it has a sideboard. MXL features 24 N-for-1s in the main deck and 11 in the sideboard. MXL is also a “semi-fair” deck. Against Jund or other builds with shakier mana bases, it attempts to obviate the opponent’s game plan entirely leading to a one-sided, “unfair” game. However, against decks with more consistent mana bases, it is forced to fight a much more fair fight, a concern that Conley addressed in his update article. Still, even in a fair fight, this deck packs an impressive array of N-for-1s even if it’s bringing along fewer in the main deckthan we see in a default Jund list.

24 Main,11 Side

BGW Jank (by Martin Juza)

 

Standing in for any number of Green/x Midrange decks, Juza’s Worlds list features 15 N-for-1s in the main deck and 9 in the side. It also has 4 1-for-Ns in the form of Path to Exile. The N-for-1 load in this deck is somewhat better than Boros, but without the advantage Boros has of ending the game before the opponent’s card advantage can come online. This may help explain a feeling you’ll surely have noticed in playing various Green/x midrange decks, that despite having solid card quality, you can nonetheless be blown out by Jund in the mid- to late-game.Although the sideboard gives a nod toward the “unfair” land destruction plan against Jund, the deck is mostly trying to fight Jund along its same axis, but with less powerful tools.

 
This is why I like exercises such as counting up N-for-1s. I’ve had a feeling that something like this was occurring, but actually taking the time to figure it out confirms that I’m not just being misled by variance. There really is a problem for the G/x builds.

15 Main, 9 Side

Green/White Walkers (not recommended)

 

This was the last published version of my Green/White Walkers list. It features 16 N-for-1s in the main deck and a mere 4 in the sideboard. Like we saw with Juza’s list, this suggests that, other than benefiting from greater mana consistency than a default Jund deck, our deck is underpowered when it comes to a head-to-head fight.

 

16 Main, 4 Side
Putting the lessons into action
This semi-quantitative analysis of card advantage points us toward an understanding of why our decks may be falling short when they run up against the best “fair” deck in the field. That’s useful for upgrading our deck, whether it’s our own design, like my G/W Walkers deck, or our attempt to tweak a known quantity such as Jund to try and take down the mirror match.
Following the above analysis, I started testing different methods of increasing the N-for-1 load out in my Walkers build. I’d actually already kicked Garruk out of the team prior to this analysis, as he wasn’t really pulling his weight. I’d originally swapped in some Borderland Rangers and a third Ajani Goldmane in his place. Starting from that point, I subsequently tried porting in a number of the more reasonable options from the aggregated N-for-1 list, and eventually ended up with this build that is testing decently:

G/W Walkers update

This version features a number of significant changes from when I last presented the deck two weeks ago.

First, as mentioned, Garruk is gone. Garruk who dies to a Blightning after making a Beast is okay in some decks, but not in this one.

Second, I cut two Llanowar Elves. Six mana dorks are sufficient to power out three- and four-mana plays a turn early most of the time while avoiding drawing too many useless one drops in the late game. Opening up that space in the deck made room to smooth out the curve by having a full quartet of Borderland Rangers. The Rangers are solid card advantage in any G/x Midrange deck, putting lands into hand to power out landfall abilities and to provide a buffer against opposing Blightnings. The Rangers also help provide mana fixing by providing four more ways to grab the deck’s single Swamp.
Finally, I’ve followed in the path of some of the G/x Midrange decks from Worlds and added some Emeria Angels to the main deck. Although I’m not fond of Emeria’s Bolt-able nature, when she’s played as a five drop especially with a fetchland, Emeria is a sort of flying hybrid between Nissa and Elspeth.

The Behemoth Sledge has also been bumped from the main deck, although it remains in the sideboard where it will serve in matchups with other G/x Midrange builds.

The sideboard features an additional set of N-for-1s in the form of Acidic Slimes. The Slimes serve both as a general source of card advantage and, naturally, as an orthogonal means toward victory by attacking Jund’s mana base.

Here are some sideboarding notes for this build (as always, specific sideboarding should be tailored to the actual deck your opponent is playing, but these are good starting guidelines):

Versus Jund

+4 Celestial Purge
+4 Acidic Slime

-4 Path to Exile
-4 Maelstrom Pulse
This sideboarding strategy introduces the land destruction axis of attack, as well as removing a flat set of main deck cards (featuring four N-for-1s and four 1-for-Ns) with somewhat more card advantage (four 1-for-1s and four 2-for-1s). It took me a while to appreciate what I should be doing here, as my tendency has been to run a full octet of Paths and Purges against Jund, but I think the superior approach in general is simply to maximize my own card advantage. In this case, that means simply replacing Paths with Purges.
Versus Boros
+4 Soul Warden
+4 Celestial Purge
-1 Borderland Ranger
-4 Maelstrom Pulse
-1 Elspeth, Knight-Errant
-1 Emeria Angel
-1 Nissa Revane
Here, Celestial Purges replace Maelstrom Pulses, and the other cards are shifted around to lower the deck’s curve and accommodate the addition of the Soul Wardens. Do note the Soul Warden/Emeria Angel interaction, as it is one of many ways to move yourself out of Ranger of Eos blitz range in the late game.

Versus G/x Midrange

+1 Behemoth Sledge
+2 Ajani Goldmane

-3 Emeria Angel

In the G/x “mirror” I prefer to use Ajani Goldmane to enhance the power of the Elves, Hierarchs, and Rangers. If all your guys become bigger faster than all of theirs, then the one or two birds they’ll generate off of their Emeria Angels don’t matter at all.

I’ll leave the sideboarding guide at just these three major matchups, and round out the discussion on this latest version of G/W Walkers like so:

19 Main, 6 Side

It’s possible that this N-for-1 count is still too low to routinely face down Jund. However, the net up-powering of the deck means that you have a much better chance against that and other “fair” decks, and the addition of a component of orthogonal attack from the sideboard means that this deck is more likely to take down a Jund opponent before they can leverage too much of their edge in card advantage to turn the game in their direction.

When in doubt, count

This idea of just coming up with a reasonable metric and applying it comes up in my day-to-day research work a great deal. We often notice what appears on a first-blush analysis to be a trend of some kind in the data we’re looking at. Rather than just go with that assumption, the best practice is to figure out how we can test our feeling. If we can find way to actually measure it, we do.

In any environment, if you’re going to attempt to fight along a certain axis – say, winning via creature attacks – you need to be able to understand which factors influence your success in that area. In the current Standard, if we’re going to be taking a Jund deck on head to head, we really do need to keep that card advantage tally in mind. I’ve applied this to my G/x Midrange deck of choice, but I think it applies just as soundly to tweaking a Jund deck against the field while not weakening it overmuch against the mirror.

If you look through the various successful Jund lists from Worlds, you’ll see any number of decisions that balance card advantage against other factors. Do you want to fix your mana with Rampant Growth or Borderland Ranger? One accelerates your deck, but the other is a 2-for-1. Do you want to devote some slots to potentially explosive acceleration via Lotus Cobra at the expense of overall density of card advantage? Similarly, is the power and mana consistency of Vampire Nighthawk worth losing four slots that would likely have gone to some form of N-for-1?

We tend to build decks largely by feel and intuition, but I think it’s important to sit down from time to time, determine how your deck wants to win and what it needs to do to achieve it, and then come up with a benchmark to test whether you’re really doing all you can to make that plan work.

When in doubt, count.

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