Breaking Through – Displaced Pressure

In general, Magic theories tend to fall into one of two camps. 1) The theory is so general that it tries to cover everything at once, forcing it to be either too complex or too involved and therefore not very user-friendly or 2) The theory is so specific that it only comes up when a very narrow set of circumstances are met. Every once in a while a theory makes it past both of those checkpoints and gets locked into Magic lore, like “Who’s the Beatdown,” but it is pretty rare. That is why I am hesitant to call today’s piece a theory, despite falling under most of the appropriate headings. Think of it as a theory if you must, but hopefully it just gives you an additional thing to think about when playing matches and building decks which then in turn hopefully improves your win percentage.

Magic is difficult. We all know this to be true and yet we do all that we can to make the game come easier to us. Still, at the end of the day we understand that we are all going to make mistakes in just about every game that we play. Because of this, Magic has a unique element to it that most games or sports do not have. While we obviously want to minimize our own mistakes, there is actually strategic value toward maximizing the chance that an opponent makes a mistake and then capitalizing on that.

So many games of Magic are actually so close that allowing your opponent to make a mistake is often the turning point of a game. If we were to assume both players played perfectly at all times, then the match up comes down to simple things like deck vs deck percentages and who drew better, but that is obviously not what actually happens. Instead, one player makes fewer mistakes than the other and this allows a bad matchup to come out the opposite of expectations, or the better draw to still end up losing.

Because of this, there is something to be said about being pressured into making those mistakes. Mistakes are going to be made by both players as we discussed, but there are times where a mistake takes effect in what seems like tenfold due to the pressure being applied by the opponent. Consider making a mistake when you have a Jace, the Mind Sculptor in play sitting along side a Primeval Titan and Frost Titan. Your opponent on the other hand, has just Steppe Lynx in play with 2 cards in hand and you are at 12 life. Let’s now say you forget to activate your Jace for the turn. In a vacuum, that is a pretty big blunder, but because you are so far ahead this game, it will likely not impact the end result of the game.

What if we change the scenario a little bit though. Now you have a Jace in play sitting next to a Lotus Cobra and your opponent has Steppe Lynx, Plated Geopede, and Stoneforge Mystic in play with a Sword of Body and Mind and 2 unknown cards in hand and you are at 14. Now if you forget to activate that Jace, the outcome of the game could be decided in that very moment. You have certainly not lost yet, but making a mistake here could cost you everything. Despite the physical mistake being the same, we can see that not all mistakes are created equal here.

Maximizing Pressure

This concept of maximizing points where the pressure is put on the opponent is actually used every time we choose a deck or a card to play even though we may not be consciously thinking about it at the time. My goal with this article is to make the idea of pressuring opponents and therefore magnifying any mistakes made transparent enough to be useful.

To summarize, the goal here is to manipulate pressure so as to maximize its potential on an opponent’s likelihood to make mistakes. You essentially need to be aware of where the pressure is during any given match or match up and then capitalize when its position is primed for doing so. Archetype breakdowns actually demonstrate this very well.

Aggro strategies look to apply pressure very quickly through fast threats. They put the pressure on the opponent to find answers and stabilize and the goal is to win before that pressure pendulum swings back. Take a normal Boros draw of turn 1 Steppe Lynx, turn 2 Plated Geopede and you see that while your decision making was fairly straight forward and there was almost no room to make game changing mistakes, the exact opposite is true for the opponent. Choosing what removal to play, how to use his Preordain, when to play his removal etc. etc. are all decision points where an incorrect choice could very well lead to him losing the game. Granted, an aggro player can have this all backfire on him when he reaches turn 5 and the opponent has stabilized. At this point, the pressure is on the aggressive player to find a way to win. Ideally, every aggro player is looking to win while the pressure during decision making is off of him. You can and likely will still make mistakes during the early game when playing an aggro deck, they are just less likely to immediately end in a game loss which your opponent cannot say in return.

A control strategy uses an almost opposite philosophy. Instead of apply early decision making pressure on the opponent, they instead take the brunt of that themselves under the assumption that if they can make correct decisions for 3 to 4 turns, the decision-making pressure will then be relieved and the opponent will be under that duress for the remainder of the game. A control player goes into a tournament with the determination to make an investment of pressure early in the hopes of a long-term payback late in the game. This setup is why many people believe control decks to be more difficult to play. Early on there are an immense amount of decisions to be made to keep you in the game, but the reality is that once you have reached that tipping point against anything other than a control mirror, your decision tree becomes pretty easy and that pressure is placed on your opponent. Obviously in a mirror match the pressure pendulum reaches parity at some point and instead swings due to individual cards and plays as opposed to matchups.

Then we get to the reason why most midrange strategies are scolded by players. Midrange, much like control, voluntarily puts the pressure on itself early to make the correct decisions and eventually stabilize Unlike control though, when it gets to turn 5 or 6 and control would typically pull ahead, putting that decision making pressure back on its opponent, midrange decks usually have to be content with just allow the pressure to equal out across both parties. They need to continually come up with answers still for as long as the game goes on while supplying a moderate clock. Midrange decks never take total control of the game the way that a control strategy should. This means that while you are giving up the same leverage that a control strategy would, the payoff is not nearly as big.

In fact, if you look at the mot successful midrange decks like Jund, it is rarely the strategy itself that provides the pay off, but rather individual cards that do the heavy lifting. Jund was able to survive because even though its strategic framework looked to bring the pressure to even par, cards like Bloodbraid Elf or Blightning were happy to turn the dial a bit and place the pressure back on the opponent. Midrange decks are only able to exist when there are powerful enough cards to provide this sort of pressure, which to be fair, has been a trend in the way R&D designs cards recently. Previously though, a deck like Rock would sit back and take all of the pressure on itself for the early turns, throwing Duresses and Putrefys at everything they could and then their big finish would be something like a Ravenous Baloth, which is obviously not that big of a deal for the opponent. With the printing of Doran though, the classic Rock archetype began to be supplied with threats that were fast and efficient and is the primary reason that midrange decks are so popular today.

Combo is the one odd area on the spectrum as far as placing that pressure on someone to make the proper decisions. Rather than place it on the opponent solely, or place it on themselves, a combo player choose to begin the game at parity. They are forced into making solid plays and decisions early to set up their combo, while the opponent is also expected to do the same and come up with the proper answers and plays to combat them. The combo player is looking to outplay those answers though or eventually spot a chink in the armor. It is at this point that the combo player breaks parity and pushes the pedal to the floor, placing as much pressure as they can on the opponent to come up with a final answer or play in a single turn of glory that leaves the opponent dead. If you are playing against combo, you are just looking to extend this moment of pressure for as long as possible and hopefully supply a win condition of your own in the mean time.

So far this seems like something that a wise man once wrote entitled “Who’s the Beatdown,” but if you look closely, we have tried to take a step further. Instead of just figuring who is in fact the beatdown, we are analyzing WHY someone is the beatdown. There are a lot of reasons why someone wins a game of Magic and even more theories trying to explain them.

Everything from stock mana to card advantage have been tried and sung from the mountaintops, and they all do have merit. But in this instance, we are instead focusing on a generally agreed upon area of Magic in that, the person who makes less mistakes tends to win more. It turns out that beyond just looking at the number of mistakes, which is obviously important, it is just as important to assess when those mistakes were made. Mistakes made during points of the game where the opponent has displaced the pressure on to you tend to be more crucial than mistakes made elsewhere.

None of this is rocket science after all. We all know intrinsically that when we make a mistake when facing down 10 power on the other side of the table, it is going to be pretty bad, but decision-making pressure is more than just a dominating board state. Each deck and each player has a critical time period where they are taking the pressure on themselves and then has a second critical point where they are the one trying to apply the pressure. What happens then, when these two coincide?

Unsurprisingly, we see a trend very similar to what results tell us. In modern day Standard, if you look at a match up of Boros versus Blue/Black Control, you tend to see an equipped UB player winning more often than not. Look at the matchup from a pressure stand point. The Boros player is looking to apply its pressure early in the hopes of foregoing a late game where it has the pressure placed on itself. The control player here has come equipped with the tools to accept and fend off that early game pressure. After all, a control player understands that this is what is going to happen and therefore the Boros player is simply playing into the control deck’s strength. Once that Boros player is out of gas, the control player is able to transition naturally into its role of applying the pressure and the aggro deck loses.

When we introduce mistake-making into the equation though, we quickly see why aggro can win games against control. Due to the fact that Boros is looking to provide a short game in which they are the one applying the pressure, every mistake made by the control player during this critical period is compounded. Everything about the early game is critical to the success of that control player. If the control player keeps a bad hand or mulligans a good one, that is already a huge mistake made during a portion of the game in which they cannot afford to be making them. Once the incorrect spell is countered or removal is used on the wrong creature, control has completely overrun by the pressure from the opponent and Boros is able to execute its game plan perfectly.

From the Boros perspective, if we assume the control player was able to stabilize and you have them in the single digits but the game is going long. Now every mistake you make allows the game to slip away from you. Time a burn spell incorrectly and get it countered, tutor up the wrong piece of equipment, fetch at the wrong time etc. Any mistake makes the game go from hard to impossible as you are playing on the control player’s turf at this point.

One of the reasons that many players credit pros with staying cool under pressure is simply that the pro understands what they got into with their deck. They know that they are going to be forced to take the pressure on themselves at some point in the game in order to disk it back out at some point. Just because things look bad for you does not mean you are losing. Sometimes, that is actually by design.

Obviously we want to play tight at all times, but it is painfully obvious that certain times are more forgiving than others and as a player you need to manage that. Putting your opponent into a position to make mistakes is a completely viable strategy so long as you can handle the heat when it turns back on you, as it will. You will not be able to play mistake free, even if you dedicate yourself to trying to do so during critical times of pressure, but neither will your opponent, so use that to your advantage both during deck selection and play decisions.

Hopefully this discussion makes sense as I understand it is a little difficult to grasp at first but I have found my dec building skills have improved once I began taking things like this into account. Thanks for reading and I will see everyone in Atlanta!

Conley Woods

23 thoughts on “Breaking Through – Displaced Pressure”

  1. Interesting – do you think it would be particularly valuable, then, to concentrate on those moments of pressure when testing? I know when I’m testing, it’s most fun to play through the moments when the deck is humming, but logically, it’s probably much more important to play through the moments when you’re most under pressure. For example, if you’re control, you might run through the first five turns against Boros a lot, and run complete games less often.

    The All Blacks Rugby team of New Zealand were noted for their unique attitude towards practice. Most teams practice perfect sequences of play, trying to get the best possible passes and fluid play. The All Blacks would practice recovering from, and taking advantage of, screwups. Perhaps this is a similar principle: make sure most of your practice is in high-pressure situations, so you’re able to recover better and take advantage of screwups.

    At the very least, it helps avoiding and staying off tilt.

  2. The hardest part of this is learning to recognize the scenarios and understanding them while it’s occuring. A good way to practice this is learning to manage life totals as a resource, just as you would manage your mana or creatures, etc.

  3. This is definitely a theory article, and to me the theory is an extension of Flores’ Phase theory, http://www.starcitygames.com/php/news/article/15164.html.

    From what I understand of your article Conley, is that you define pressure to be the burden of making fewer mistakes during a period of time. This seems to fit directly into Flores’ description of Phase II: Mostly Errors.

    At first I thought that your turning point would be equivalent to the transition from Phase II to III. However, after re-reading, you don’t seem to imply a Phase III: Trump mode as much as a period of time when one player’s potential mistakes “matter” less than the opponent’s potential mistakes. Something like a Phase 2a – my errors are punished severely and Phase 2b – your errors are punished severely. Or maybe Phase 3: Trump mode is exactly what you mean by turning point.

    I think that Phase 2a and 2b are the correct way to look at pressure/mistake theory. For example, the most relevant turning point I can think of right now is extended Jund vs Faeries turn 4. The pressure is on Jund to not walk into Mistbind Clique and also on Faeries not to let Bloodbraid get cast at all. After a resolved Mistbind or cast Bloodbraid, any mistakes by the opposing player are punished severely, but the both players can still leave themselves open by making mistakes.

    This contrasts with a real Phase 3 Trump like Wurmcoil Engine (or recurring demigods). In the Wurmcoil situation, the Jund player must either have removal or lethal damage, and nothing else matters. There’s not much room to make a play mistake in this situation; either you have an answer and kill it or you don’t have an answer. Either way you are at the mercy of your draw step.

    I think that provides a nice contrast to Phase 1 as well: during Phase 1 you depend heavily on your draw step to provide lands, and during Phase 3 you depend heavily on your deck to provide business (gas/answers).

    Do you think pressure/mistake theory fits into Phase theory this way, or did you mean something different?

  4. Great article! In testing it’s always good to have spectators and note board states. One good thing to try out in testing (especially with aggro decks) is to pinpoint where the critical mistake was made and back up the game state to that point and discuss what could be better done there.

  5. Conley,

    Where’s the deck doctor man? That series was great and honestly, I love the work that you produce and this was a great article; however, we miss the Deck Doctor. Don’t let “All Up on my Deck” take over the niche that you have helped create! Besides, we all know he’s gotta stay away from the Phyrexian Vatmothers.



  6. andrew had a good example. being able to recover is key. I made a mistake against mono u merfolk playing u/w and it cost me and I was never able to recover.

  7. As usual, another solid Conley Woods article. You should teach a writing course to the rest of the CFB staff writers.

  8. Pressure is pressure and we will all make mistakes. Sometimes it cost us the game sometimes we don’t get punished like casting a harrow against a U/W control deck with 6 cards in hand and 3 open land and it resolves. The only thing we can do as players is at every phase takes a few seconds even count to slow yourself down and then play even if you think you know what you are going to do. This won’t cure mistakes however it is a good sedative.

  9. OK, then if we follow this logically.

    If Aggro decks put their pressure window on early in every game, if all players will make mistakes and if the mistakes matter the most in the pressure window THEN –
    Isn’t it logical to play beatdown all the time? Assuming it is a balanced meta.
    Because sometimes a game will finish before the control players pressure window, but every game will have the aggro players one open.

    I think some pros already go this route, but they can be rare.
    I wonder what others think.

  10. This is why I like Goblins in Legacy, against counterbalance you are the deck forcing them to respond to the early pressure through stuff like Lackey, Piledriver etc, then against Zoo you ride out their early pressure by vialing in Mogg war marshals until you reach the late game and then you are the one supplying all the pressure thanks to the massive card advantage you get through ringleaders.

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  12. @tootatis
    I get the impression that high level players are fine with having periods of high pressure, because they are better at not making mistakes during those periods. As long as the control player can last through five or so turns of intense pressure each game, they’re OK.
    On the other hand, an aggro player who doesn’t finish the game quickly will have to deal with high pressure for the rest of the game, which could be a long time. That might be more mentally exhausting in the long run.
    I’m just guessing, mind.
    Another thing that’s interesting to me is the difference between magic and other pursuits that require practice. In some pursuits (eg. dancing, acting, music) you want to practice doing things perfectly. It’s a waste of time to learn how to recover from mistakes. Games and sports require a mix of perfect practice (ie. dealing with situations you’ve encountered before and where you benefit from a prerehearsed sequence, eg. chess openings) and improvising practice (ie. dealing with novel situations). I think magic is more improvisational than most other sports or games.

  13. There’s the articles where you get ‘kastled’, and then there are articles like this – where you glean insight into the game, or at least a thump to the back of the head.

    Bobby Fischer could seemingly drop through a chessboard and see what the game would develop into. Chess is a game of situations, just like M:TG. From a deckbuilder’s standpoint(if you are limited player, everytime you draft you are a deckbuilder), this article reinforces a crucial point – have you built a short, mid or long range deck, and what have you done to ensure you succeed along that criteria?

    This is one of the best articles I’ve read on this site in the past few months, keep it up Conley!

  14. Aspiring semi pro

    Dear My.Conley
    Thank you for the excellent article. It was most insightful and has helped me realize some of my weak points
    yours truly
    Aspiring semi pro

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