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In Development – The Cost of Resilience

Everything comes at a cost.

Should you be unlucky enough to, say, scrape yourself, get infected, and end up in the hospital, one of the things they’ll test you for is Methicillin-Resistant Staph Aureus (MRSA). Your doctor cares about whether or not your infected cut is full of MRSA because the “methicillin” part of that name refers to a large category of antibiotics known as beta-lactams, and the rest of the acronym means that those antibiotics won’t work on this infection. The bacterium is, in a sense, pre-boarded against beta-lactam antibiotics.

The bacterial world includes a number of antibiotic resistance genes that lead to things like beta-lactam resistance. These genes turn up intermittently in bacteria out in the wild, including the Staph on your skin that can sometimes get into cuts. A common starting biology student question is “Why don’t all bacteria just have all the resistance genes?” The answer is that simply packing those genes comes with a cost – you have to make extra DNA each time you replicate, and if you’re not using the genes, that’s a waste of energy. This is analogous to the starting Magic player who just wants to pack extra solution cards into their deck and thus ends up arriving at their first FNM with a ninety-card deck.

Just as the average bacterium can’t pack all the antibiotic resistance genes all the time, we also can’t just load our decks full of situation-specific cards while maintaining the deck’s overall performance. This forces us to decide which cards to include in our seventy-five, and then which cards to have in the main versus in the side. It also obligates us to figure out which matchups to even prepare for, and how much time to spend preparing for each.

A shifting environment

We can manipulate bacterial antibiotic resistance by altering our use of antibiotics. If I grow bacteria in a flask and constantly expose them to tetracycline, then I can reliably say that 99% of the bacteria in the flask at any one time must be resistant to that drug, or else they’d be dead. If I then take a sample out and start growing the bacteria with no antibiotics, over time I’ll see those antibiotic resistance genes go away (via mutation). They’re a waste of energy in the new bacterial “metagame,” and those individuals that have lost the genes are more efficient”¦until more antibiotics come along, at least.

Worlds has nicely reframed the Standard environment for us. You can find the official archetype breakdown by Bill Stark here, and the successful Standard decks from day one here. Jund remains the top choice at about a third of the field, followed in a rough tie for second place by Boros and G/x Midrange decks. Bill breaks that latter category down into Bant and Junk (black-green-white), but I think it’s more helpful to group them together into the one G/x Midrange bin.

With the usual caveat that you need to understand your local play environment, these three groups are the clear winners, with everything else coming in a distant second. Notably, although it is very different in specifics from anything I saw in the Worlds coverage, my Heroic Trio deck from last week’s In Development also falls into the G/x Midrange category.

It’s important that we check in with the ongoing metagame so that we don’t overfocus – that is, spend too many of our resources at all levels – on one matchup. Consider the list I showed you last week:

The Heroic Trio (last week’s version)

This deck is clearly focused on Jund with a side helping of Boros. It maindecks Celestial Purge because I wanted a very good game one against Jund and it’s a decent card against Boros as well. Similarly, I chose to just give up on Path for a while because I was having bad experiences with Pathing Jund and Boros players into better positions. Over in the sideboard, the Doom Blades and Angels were meant to come in against Boros, with the Duresses for random combo decks such as Joel Calafell’s Jacerator Mill deck.

I was spending my resources incorrectly. The cost of focusing so heavily on Jund in the main deck meant that I was taking a serious kicking against Boros and against G/x Midrange. I was originally unconcerned about Purges in the main being dead against those G/x decks, but given their prevalence, I believe that’s a serious error. Similarly, if you look at what fraction of the Worlds field sees Duress as a relevant piece of hate, you’ll notice that it is vanishingly small. It’s rather like preparing for when your airplane is hijacked while refusing to wear your seat belt when you drive.

Thus, it was time to try and focus not just on testing, but on testing properly.

Revising the concept

The high concept for Heroic Trio as presented last week was “win through fast planeswalkers.” The understanding here is that planeswalkers provide card advantage while tending to reduce the value of many of the cards in the opponent’s deck. The planeswalkers themselves blank a reasonable fraction of the opponent’s removal, and the creatures they generate or search up incrementally devalue removal by effectively forcing the opponent to spend a whole card to get rid of “part of” the planeswalker card. This is an exciting approach against Jund, but it can stumble a bit against G/x and Boros decks.

I spent much of the time since last week trying to figure out how to nail down the Boros build. In the absence of obvious choices such as Kitchen Finks or Loxodon Hierarch, I tried a range of approaches, with everything from Captured Sunlight to Kor Sanctifiers. Interestingly, I noticed one of my options – Grizzled Leotau – showed up in Manuel Bucher’s sideboard. Overall, the experience was most useful in showing me what wasn’t working, and in highlighting one of the hidden costs of the deck as originally designed.

Last week, I made a point of saying that having a planeswalker in play and a matching one in hand is not a fundamentally bad situation. I continue to assert that this is true, and I don’t think the pseudo-legendary status of planeswalkers is enough of a cost on its own to motivate you to play fewer planeswalkers than you would play if there were no planeswalker uniqueness rule. However, I realized that there was a different, and equally important, cost involved in having these four-ofs.

I really want an opening hand that has lands, a mana dork, and one or two planeswalkers. I also wouldn’t mind seeing another planeswalker to drop after the first one comes down. This motivates me to run four copies of each of my walkers. At the same time, I want to be able to slot in situation-specific solutions to problem matchups. The hidden cost of playing these four-ofs had nothing to do with the play experience, but instead came about during deck design when I had no additional space to fit in useful cards. Indeed, I found myself facing weird sideboarding decisions during testing in which I knew what might be useful to bring in, but had no idea what to kick out.

After serious consideration and a great deal of testing that I won’t bore you with, I decided to try pulling back to three copies of each of my hallmark planeswalkers. That simple decision, opening up three slots in the deck, gave me incredible room to maneuver in subsequent deck design.

Loot liberally

As I mentioned, I tried a lot of options against Boros with not as much success as I would have liked. In fact, I didn’t see anything I really thought could help enough with the early damage plus Ranger reload combo”¦until I watched the Quarterfinals of this year’s Worlds. In the Snepvangers-Cavaglieri match, William Cavaglieri played a novel white tokens deck that featured four copies of Soul Warden across its seventy-five cards. While this was insufficient to keep him alive across the five-game series, I thought it might work well when combined with the heavier removal and bigger individual creatures in my deck.

I liked it, so in the Wardens went.

Realizing that I’d been over-focusing on Jund and Boros, I also spent more time testing the G/x matchup. I’d considered Ajani Goldmane as a possible option in my deck, albeit in the context of the Boros matchup. When I actually tested Manuel Bucher’s Bant deck, I realized that Ajani Goldmane is tremendous in that context. Ajani adds great value to all your mana dorks, converting them into solid beaters. In fact, in the context of my variation of G/x that contains three creature-generating planeswalkers, Ajani’s counter-adding ability is even more powerful.

We should not be so proud of our own ideas that we are unwilling to just straight-up adopt good ideas that other people have already developed. I think Manuel and William found some solid choices here, and they’re worth incorporating for the appropriate matchups. Notably, moving down to three of each planeswalker gave me the space to include these new tools.

Costs in a different sense

I am very conscious of actual monetary costs when I suggest these decks. Quite a bit of Magic strategy is written absent of financial concerns. In the abstract, this is the right way to do your own deck design – you should simply pick the best cards for the job. Practically, there are financial constraints, so I am aware, even if I don’t plan on changing my recommendation, that I am suggesting a deck with twelve planeswalkers and eight fetches.

This, along with my contrarian nature, is part of why I have avoided simply slotting quadruple Baneslayer into this deck design. I say that it’s “part” because the rest of the reasoning has to do with how Baneslayer is a house if left unmolested, but in reality is so very prone to being killed that I don’t like to have my game plan rely on it. It is, however, a 5/5 lifelink with evade for five mana, and that means that if you were to simply yank four cards from the deck I’ll present today and replace them with Baneslayers, it wouldn’t be a bad decision.

On the other hand, it is probably completely incorrect in the abstract to assume that our play environment will not reflect real-world costs and card availability concerns. This is why Boros and Red Deck Wins designs may be rather more popular at your FNM and other local events than at the Pro Tour, as these are fundamentally more affordable builds. Once again, this is why we need to know our local environment.

So, after a week of testing and pondering the costs and benefits of my cards, here’s what I’ve come up with:

G/W Walkers

As I am now inviting four planeswalker pals to the party, I had to rename the deck. This new name is also more legitimately mnemonic than the previous one.

I’ve kept to the core concept of “victory through fast planeswalkers” with suitable amendments following a week of testing. This time around, I’ll address it matchup by matchup, with associated sideboarding notes:

Versus Jund

+4 Celestial Purge
+1 Elspeth, Knight-Errant

-1 Behemoth Sledge
-4 Maelstrom Pulse

The Jund matchup continues to be about building card advantage through means Jund has trouble interacting with while partially nullifying their own card advantage. Behemoth Sledge is unnecessary for a typical Jund pairing, and the Pulses are much less useful than Celestial Purge. The overall goal here is to drop early planeswalkers and keep playing them out while exiling annoying threats. Keep in mind that you need to watch which specific variation of Jund you’re facing down. Builds featuring Siege-Gang and similar creatures may actually call for your Judgments to come in from the side, perhaps replacing your Ajanis.

Versus Boros

+4 Soul Warden
+2 Battlegrace Angel

-1 Behemoth Sledge
-2 Ajani Goldmane
-3 Garruk Wildspeaker

The Soul Wardens are very powerful in this matchup, bulwarked as they are by other useful creatures and the fact that this deck contains multiple creature generators. You want to rely on Soul Wardens and Nissa plus Elves to push your life total up and out of range. Note that while Baneslayers are nice against Boros, Battlegrace really does work as advertised, allowing you to immediately swing for potentially critical life gain. On the other hand, although the life gain from Sledge seems reasonable in the abstract, it is far too slow for this matchup.

Versus G/x Midrange

+1 Behemoth Sledge
-1 Nissa Revane

Behemoth Sledge is a key stalemate breaker in the G/x mirror match. At the same time, Nissa is the least useful of the remaining cards for the matchup. Thus, while she isn’t a bad card, she happens to get the cut. Much like Jund, G/X Midrange encompasses a diversity of specific strategies. As a consequence, you may need to sideboard slightly differently from time to time – for example, bringing in the Judgments to deal with a G/x deck that’s operating on the back of Conqueror’s Pledge.

Versus Control

+3 Luminarch Ascension
+3 Day of Judgment

-4 Path to Exile
-1 Behemoth Sledge
-1 Nissa Revane

When I say “control” here I mean something like the RUW control deck that Benedict Klauser ran in the team event. These decks are essentially counterspells, some planeswalkers, and a couple Sphinxes. Consequently, the targeted Path to Exile gets the axe, to be replaced with the kill-anything Day of Judgment. I also favor Luminarch Ascension as a threat against this variety of slow deck, which has limited solutions for the angel generator.

That’s it for what I see as the major contemporary matchups. The single Relic of Progenitus in the sideboard came about as I had space remaining and there is an outside chance I’ll run into someone playing the Unearth deck, so I might as well give myself one useful option against it.

Keeping our costs in mind

It took me a while to reassess my costs this week, but doing so helped inform this revised and upgraded take on G/x Midrange. I spent a lot of time trying to shoehorn solutions to the Boros and G/x matchups into my remaining space before I finally figured out that the fundamental problem I was facing was just a little bit too much inflexibility in my core deck design. The cost associated with having a superpowered “Plan A” was the inability to nuance my deck appropriately for the rest of the field. Once I realized this, I was able to make the non-obvious decision to just pare down my core game plan ever so slightly and make a deck that is tremendously more effective overall.

Each time we develop a deck we should be carrying out a multi-tiered cost-benefit analysis. What can we do against each archetype in the metagame? How much value should we place on each of those archetypes? How much should we fix our eyes on a limited portion of the metagame at the expense of the rest? In reducing the marginal advantage my main deck has over Jund, I’ve significantly increased its power against the other two-thirds or so of the field. I think this is probably a good choice given that, two-thirds of the time, I’ll be playing against that remainder of the field.

Like many Americans, I’ll be traveling for Thanksgiving this week. I hope everyone out there has a safe and quick holiday commute and a good time with family and friends.

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