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In Development – Keeping Your Tools in Order

 

I’ve generally managed to avoid working with radiation.

This sounds like it shouldn’t be the hardest thing in the world. I suspect that most of our careers don’t interact with radiation all that often, and since Magic cards aren’t foiled with Radium we’re all able to live relatively radiation-free lives.

However, some biological research requires the use of radioisotopes. When you’re involved in that kind of work, you’re encouraged to do a dry run through the whole experiment before you ever touch the radiation, so that all your equipment will be where you need it, and you don’t find yourself suddenly stuck with a test tube full of radioactive cells but with the critical measuring device you need all the way in another building. It’s generally a good idea to do this kind of planning in advance when you’re doing any kind of experiment, since it cuts down on the time wasted scrambling to get stuff ready that you could have had already waiting for you as you finish one step and move to the next. Basically, you want to do things in the right order.

In Magic, we call this sequencing.

Sequencing is the order in which you play your cards, and it’s not nearly as simple as it seems. It starts at the beginning of each game when you need to decide which land to play first, a decision that embraces consideration of the other lands in your hand, the other cards in your hand, which lands and cards you can reasonably expect to draw, and what you expect your opponent to do.

For example, let’s say you’ve mulliganed to six on the play and see this hand:

In Development #26 - a sequencing example

Stirring Wildwood, Plains, Forest, Noble Hierarch, Knight of the Reliquary, Elspeth, Knight-Errant

Which land do you play on your first turn?

The answer here should probably always be “the Forest,” barring exceptional circumstances, as that lets you cast the Noble Hierarch, which opens up a range of options for your second and third turns.

So you went with the Hierarch. Now what?

Do you play the Stirring Wildwood?

Sequencing option one

“¦or do you play the Plains?

Sequencing option two

If you play the Wildwood, then you open up the option of a turn three Elspeth or Knight. In contrast, if you play the Plains, you can run out a second-turn Knight of the Reliquary, but may be stuck with a Wildwood as your third land drop, deferring Elspeth to turn four. You still have the option of accelerating Elspeth out using the Knight, of course, as long as the Knight survives long enough to do so. Is it going to eat a Deathmark? Will you need to keep the Knight up to absorb an attacking Hellspark Elemental?

The utterly concise take-home message on sequencing is “it depends.”

It is, however, one of those things you really need to be thinking about if you aren’t going to autopilot your way into a train wreck of failed matches. If you find yourself with the right cards stuck in your hand at the wrong times, or with the wrong removal left over after you used what would have been the right removal on a stupid target, then it’s time to sit down and figure out your sequencing.

How I playtest sequencing

Many sequencing issues will make themselves apparent in the course of normal play, as long as you’re paying attention. With that in mind, part of my general approach to play, especially if I’m playing a new deck or a new matchup, is to try and keep track of issues I face that tie heavily into sequencing. If you’re interested in doing the same, here’s a quick-and-dirty method to identify basic sequencing issues without taking painstaking, play-by-play notes on your matches.

First, pause the game when you feel like you’re about to lose. “About to lose” is a fuzzy term, but basically means those times when you realize you’re dead in one or two turns barring an unlikely series of draws on your part and a surprisingly dead hand from your opponent.

Assess what would keep you from losing the game. Would a big enough blocker keep you around? A point removal spell? A mass removal spell? A [card]Force of Will[/card]? Just scribble down a list of things in your deck that would keep you alive. Note that “in your deck” means anywhere in the initial sixty cards you sat down with for the playtest game, rather than just in what’s left of your library in this game right now.

Now that you have your list, go take a look at what’s in your graveyard and in your hand. Do any of the cards in either location show up on your list? Are you dead on board to a Finest Hour-powered Baneslayer Angel next turn, with a Path to Exile sitting right there in your graveyard? Are you dead on board with a Malakir Bloodwitch stuck in your hand and not enough mana to cast it?

On that list where you just wrote of all your “not dead” options, write a note about why you don’t have that option. Did you use that Path early in the game to exile a Lotus Cobra, hoping to stifle your opponent’s mana development? Is that Bloodwitch cooling her heels in your hand because you cast a Kalastria Highborn?

If you honestly can’t remember how the card ended up being inaccessible, then you probably aren’t paying enough attention during the game. We can’t all expect to have photographic memories of our matches, but your ability to figure out correct sequencing pretty much depends on recalling the basic outline of the game you just played.

Now that you have your “stuff that could have saved me and where it was” list, review how each card ended up stuck where it couldn’t help you. Did you have to Path that Cobra? Did you need to play that Highborn? If you realize that you didn’t need to use that card, or place it off limits by otherwise applying your resources, then you suddenly have a guideline about how your sequencing should work in this matchup.

That’s why I used the example of Pathing the Lotus Cobra – it’s almost never the right thing to do, but it’s nonetheless very tempting to do it.

Although there are no general sequencing rules, here are some sequencing errors to watch out for in your own playtesting:

– Playing removal in the wrong order
– Using the removal on the wrong creature
– Using removal on a creature that didn’t need to be dealt with
– Playing lands in the wrong order
– Casting creatures into removal in the wrong order
– Casting spells into countermagic in the wrong order

Once again, this is not a comprehensive list. It’s just a starting point for thinking about sequencing, and identifying places where you may be doing it wrong.

So why was this on my mind?

The current Standard environment

Last week, I talked about the problem of running on autopilot. This fits nicely into the idea of playtesting your sequencing and identifying errors, but it’s also highlighted by the updates Standard has seen in the last week or two.

One of the pleasant upshots of Magic being an exercise in combinatorics is that even in the absence of any new additions to the available card pool, formats can shift, sometimes dramatically.

In the last couple weeks of MTGO Standard play and at GP Kuala Lumpur, we’ve seen the addition of a U/W big mana deck that buys time with spot removal to ramp into mass removal, winning via Baneslayers and giant groups of soldiers. In case you’ve missed it, here’s a recent example from MTGO:

Everflowing Control

This is the deck that forced me to think about both card choices and sequencing, as it was absolutely crushing my old (that is, one week old) Stoneforge Mystic lists in testing. It was ugly. If you aren’t testing against this deck, you should be, as it has a purity of operation that makes it very, very powerful against much of the field.

The rest of my default gauntlet right now comprises Gortzen Jund, Bituminous Jund, Kor Aggro, Boss Naya, Mono-Red Aggro, Open the Vaults, Bolt-Lynx Aggro, Blue-White Control, Mythic, and Vampires.

As an aside, after some consideration over the past week or so, I’ve realized that if I were really interested in playing a “power”-based G/W/x deck, I would choose Mythic rather than Baneslayer Junk. A typical Baneslayer Junk list contains eight true fatties (four copies each of Knight of the Reliquary and Baneslayer Angel) and an additional four to eight decent threats, depending on deck design. In contrast, a typical Mythic build might look like this:

Mythic

This deck features fourteen absolute, game-winning fatties, backed up by triple Finest Hour. If you really want to just crush opponents with big threats, Mythic is almost certainly a stronger choice than Baneslayer Junk.

Revising the Stoneforge Mystic lists

With this new field in mind, I took a second look at Stoneforge Mystic Junk (SMJ), as well as considering a pure G/W Emeria Knight build and Stoneforge Mystic Bant (SMB). Following playtesting, SMJ is still my favorite choice for a resilience-based G/W/x deck, although SMB has much to offer. I don’t like the pure G/W builds at all, as they are forced to rely on Oblivion Ring to play the role of Maelstrom Pulse or Bant Charm in dealing with general threats, and are severely disadvantaged against Malakir Bloodwitch.

Having ruled out G/W Emeria Knight, I went about refining the SMJ and SMB lists. Here they are, with commentary.

Stoneforge Mystic Junk (late March, 2010 edition)

I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I spent a fair amount of playtest time thinking, “What am I going to do about all those Wraths in Everflowing Control?” Then I finally remembered that Dauntless Escort exists, and found my answer.

Everflowing Control is a tricky deck to play against. It’s going to be hard to win if you take the normal aggro tack of trying not to overextend, as most builds run seven or eight point removal spells, three or four copies of Jace to bounce your attacker, as well as Baneslayer and Knight of the White Orchid to stand in their way. Playing out multiple attackers, of course, means you’re going to eat a Day of Judgment. In game one, this forces you to field your attackers in pairs, but in later games, you can rely on the Escorts to let you launch a wave of attackers to punch your way through the opponent’s defenses.

In line with today’s topic, you really want to pay attention to sequencing in this matchup. As much as possible, Paths are for Baneslayers, and Maelstrom Pulses are for Jace. Knight of the White Orchid is almost never worth a removal spell. In game one, you want to hit the Path as late as you can feasibly get away with, to avoid ramping the opponent into Martial Coup, Mind Spring, and Iona.

Similarly, you want to run your creatures out in “least to most” threatening order, to try and soak up removal before you play game winners. In general, that means Noble Hierarch or Stoneforge Mystic, then Qasali Pridemage, then Knight of the Reliquary or Angel, and finally Master of the Wild Hunt. If you can get a Basilisk Collar on one of the Master’s wolves, it’ll help you clear out opposing Baneslayers and kill Iona.

Here are some sideboarding notes:

Everflowing Control

+4 Dauntless Escort
-4 Emeria Angel

Kor Aggro

+3 Day of Judgment
-1 Elspeth, Knight-Errant
-1 Emeria Angel
-1 Marshal’s Anthem

Mythic

+3 Day of Judgment
-3 Elspeth, Knight-Errant

Vampires

+2 Grim Discovery
+3 Day of Judgment
-4 Path to Exile
-1 Elspeth, Knight-Errant

Jund

+2 Grim Discovery
+2 Thornling
-4 Path to Exile

As always, sideboarding should be done on a case-by-case basis, but these are the general guidelines for these major match ups.

Stoneforge Mystic Bant

Going into blue rather than black buys you some nice advantages, but at a cost.

On the plus side, the Bant take on this deck gets to run four copies of Rhox War Monk. Although this isn’t a power card in the same sense as Knight of the Reliquary, it is another three drop that is surprisingly hard for many opposing decks to deal with, and that bolsters your basic game against burn-heavy R/W and mono-red decks. I’ve found it a sufficiently worthy addition to clip one Path to Exile, one Master of the Wild Hunt, and one copy of Elspeth. Blue also nets you Bant Charm, which fills roughly the same role as Maelstrom Pulse, trading off the ability to kill an opposing planeswalker for the ability to deal with a Sprouting Thrinax without generating Saprolings. Bant Charm also enhances your game against Hellspark Elementals and other aggressive unearth creatures.

The big gain from going Bant comes in the sideboard, where the deck eschews the Escort plan, going for Negate instead. Although Dauntless Escort is nice when you’re being hit by Day of Judgment, remember that it doesn’t do anything about the Soldiers they’ll be generating with a Martial Coup. In contrast, Negate just stops the actual spell, which is handy here as well as being randomly good in other match ups. The sideboard also gains Vapor Snare, which is necessary as a bulwark against getting blown out by a Bloodwitch, but it also handy against opposing Baneslayers.

The major downside to going the Bant route is that the mana base is worse – something players of Boss Naya have noticed in that deck as well. Unlike the smooth intersection of color requirements and fetch lands in the Junk mana base, SMB only has access to four truly helpful fetch lands, and must dance carefully around its land choices if it’s going to both hit a first-turn Hierarch and manage to hit its other colors later.

This is, you might notice, a sequencing issue.

The deck does get added value out of Noble Hierarch, as you can actually use that blue mana to power out War Monks and [card]Bant Charm[/card]s. That said, I’d never want to keep a hand that relies on Noble Hierarch to cast too many of its cards, as there are so many [card]Deathmark[/card]s running around out there.

Here are some sideboarding notes:

Everflowing Control

+4 Negate
-4 Emeria Angel

Kor Aggro

+3 Day of Judgment
-1 Emeria Angel
-2 Elspeth, Knight-Errant

Mythic

+3 Vapor Snare
-2 Elspeth, Knight-Errant
-1 Qasali Pridemage

Vampires

+3 Day of Judgment
+3 Vapor Snare
-3 Path to Exile
-2 Elspeth, Knight-Errant
-1 Emeria Angel

Jund

+2 Thornling
-2 Path to Exile

(You will want to bring in Vapor Snare against Jund decks that run [card]Malakir Bloodwitch[/card].)

Getting it all in order

I don’t know that there are any decks that don’t benefit from a careful consideration of sequencing issues. The two takes on Stoneforge Mystic decks that I’ve detailed above definitely require that you be on top of your sequencing, as each turn offers key decisions on which lands to play, which creatures to cast, which removal to use, which equipment to search up with Mystic, and on and on. In playing these decks against an evolving field, I’ve found it immensely helpful to use the simple procedure I described above, pause the games that are going poorly, check my hand, battlefield, and graveyard, and ask, “How could I have won this?”

It’s a simple procedure, but it’s powerful. It’s how we learn that we want to do Path before Pulse in this matchup – and it’s also how we might learn that it’s Pulse before Path next week, when something in our opponent’s deck changes.

My Kor rely on me knowing all about sequencing to let them be the most effective Artificers they can be. After all, there are all these Knights, Angels, and Cat Wizards depending on them.

Learn your sequencing, because no one likes a disappointed Cat Wizard.

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