Quick note: The first discussion of the initial MEP results will happen next week. Also, In Development will be a Thursday column from now on, so look for me a day later than usual.
In dealing with a problematic pathogen, there are few things that work as reliably as pure, unadulterated brute force. Bleach, heat, and pressure kill just about everything. This wonder cleanser comes bundled with the pesky caveat that, well, it kills just about everything, including the patient.
So, great for disinfecting a scalpel, not so good for curing aunt Betty’s pneumonia. For all those cases where we can’t adopt a scorched Earth policy, we’re forced to engage in a fair(er) fight with the pathogen, hoping that our antibiotics will kill it before it does something pesky like evolve a resistance to them.
The classic work-around for this situation is by using multiple lines of attack. This approach is the basis of combination therapy, the treatment that has turned AIDS from a death sentence into a chronic condition. In that case, although the mutation-prone HIV tends to adapt to any one drug, hitting it with multiple drugs that attack different parts of its biology is more than it can cope with, and the infection is kept under control.
Unsurprisingly, this concept has some relevance to fantasy card games, too.
Taking Dr. Shaman and friends for a spin
I was going to call her “Ms. Shaman,” but I was suddenly struck by the image of the Fauna Shaman as a sort of Elvish Jane Goodall, working to understand the beauty and complexity of that most misunderstood of creatures, the Vengevine.
Last week I talked about the Fauna Shaman deck and some of the conclusions I’d reached about it. Afterward, I had an excellent conversation with Ian Shore, who took down one of the last Amsterdam PTQs with an early Fauna Shaman build (you can see his deck list and the top eight he played in here. Ian set me straight about a few things.
My manabase, for example, had sacrificed too much tempo in an effort to make the colors work. Some of the blame could go to the second Steppe, of which Ian was not a big fan. The rest went to my strong desire to hit double white, driven mainly by frustration at not seeing it when I wanted to cast [card]Elspeth, Knight-Errant[/card]…a card that Ian managed to convince me really does not fit in this deck.
Even when we’re trying to be rigorous in evaluating our card choices, some cards can be grandfathered in through various testing iterations, maintaining spaces that they aren’t actually earning. This was the case with Elspeth. She’s powerful in the abstract, sure, but in the Fauna Shaman deck, she was a distraction.
I ended up updating the deck after this conversation, and then, in a fit of experimental curiosity, did something weird to it and took it to last weekend’s Game Day 1K at Superstars. The deck I took looked like this:
Fauna Shaman Baloth Party (not recommended)
So, let’s start with those main deck Baloths. As Ian noted when we spoke, no Jund deck is keeping its [card]Blightning[/card]s in against you post-board. With that in mind, I had the crazy idea of just running them in the main. I expected to play two or three Jund decks on the day, as well as maybe some Burn or Boros, and figured maindeck Baloth would be pretty solid. And besides, what’s wrong with a 4/4 that gains 4 life?
Yeah, so that was a stupid idea. I only played one Jund deck anyway, and my opponent told me after the match that his Blightnings were in his sideboard, only to be deployed to the main after confirming an absence of opposing Baloths.
The mana base is considerably improved, however.
There’s always an issue when we start applying metrics that we may focus on the wrong metrics – or, more often, we may fail to focus on some portion of the correct metrics.
Last week, I really cared about having good color coverage. I still care, albeit a little bit less. I’d like to have more red sources. However, Ian pointed out a critical failing of last week’s build, as represented by the new ‘FTG’ number I added in there. It had only six green lands that could come in untapped on turn one, thus limiting the ability to hit a mana dork into a turn two Knight of the Reliquary or Cunning Sparkmage. Although I wasn’t too concerned about the overall count of tapped lands, this is a problem. The new build helps fix that problem.
Okay, enough about the Naya deck I brought. Let’s get back to the point of today’s piece.
The power of multiple lines of attack
The third game in my third-round match last weekend found me with the following board position against my opponent’s U/W Control build:
Put yourself in my opponent’s place, with no creatures or planeswalkers in play. What are your outs?
Day of Judgment can handle that creature threat for a little while, or you might hit a clutch Condemn or two to deal with the pain. Alternately, a Baneslayer Angel could buy you time unless your opponent draws into their removal in the form of Path to Exile, Oblivion Ring, or Sparkmage/Basilisk Collar.
What about Ajani? Well, an Oblivion Ring would be good there. If you can draw into a creature in time you can attack him, but that means you’re going to be taking a beating from those Vengevines and who knows what other godawfulness the Naya deck coughs up.
Finally, there’s that Luminarch Ascension, ticking ominously ever upward. We can also handle that sucker with a Ring or an attack…except if we do that to Ascension, we’re not doing it to Ajani Vengeant.
Multiple lines of attack. The stock U/W list isn’t running any one card that can derail all these threats. Consequently, it is overwhelmed in a way it tends not to be if I instead offer up a brute force threat.
Which isn’t to say that brute force can’t work. It certainly can. My game one against the same opponent went something like this:
Me – Vengevine, Vengevine
Him – Day of Judgment
Me – Noble Hierarch, Birds of Paradise, Vengevine returns, Vengevine returns
Him – Day of Judgment
Me – Cunning Sparkmage, Fauna Shaman, Vengevine returns, Vengevine returns
Him – Heartfelt sigh
Pure, unadulterated brute force. Except, of course, if he’d drawn into his Oblivion Rings or Condemns, as he did in game two, he could have dealt with that plan. “More dudes” is a linear threat, solved with the antibiotic of “more removal for dudes.” In contrast, Ascension + Ajani + dudes is a multiline threat that can’t be solved with any one answer, unless you want to autoclave the entire board.
This is also why Thopter Depths was such a pain to deal with.
“I’ve stopped Dark Depths.”
Incidentally, this whole idea of multiple lines of attack doesn’t just cover what any given deck does – it applies to the metagame as well. We rely on the concept to keep any particular archetype from proliferating and overtaking the metagame. This is why any number of decks that are ridiculously powerful in the abstract turn out to be poor choices in practice.
When herd immunity fails
Immunization is one of the most powerful developments in modern health science – it’s right up there with washing your hands, which you damn well should be doing at a Magic tournament (seriously, think of all the hands that touch your cards, and all the cards they’ve touched…it’s like a contact tracking experiment). The limitation of immunization is that not everyone can be immunized – the very young, the very old, and the immune-compromised, for example. However, if enough of the community receives the immunization, we achieve herd immunity, where there aren’t enough carriers of the disease to let it get a real foothold and attack those who aren’t immunized.
Incidentally, this is why it’s important that young, healthy types get immunized against flu – not so you won’t die of flu (you probably won’t), but so you don’t get the mild sniffles and pass it on to grandma, who dies from it.
This sort of “herd immunity” concept is why everyone doesn’t have to bring the “Scissors” deck to tournaments to insure that “Paper” won’t dominate. Just enough people need to. This is the idea that Antoine Ruel and Tiago Chan exploited at PT Honolulu 2006, relying on slow control decks to clear out the majority of the fast aggro decks, leaving a safer environment for the Owling Mine build. Of course, just like herd immunity, this sometimes fails…and Raphael Levy hits a string of Zoo decks to get knocked out of the tournament on day one.
Herd immunity can also fails us as, well, a community, if we don’t have enough “vaccine” – in Magic terms, when we don’t have the Scissors to take out Paper.
I mention this because I had this exciting match against a Valakut Ramp deck last weekend:
Game 1 – I play some guys, he hits Primeval Titan and deals 24 damage to me in one burst of Mountain-facilitated violence.
Game 2 – I hit the opening Leyline, so he kills me with Titans and stuff.
I had a similarly poor outing against a U/R/G Titan Ramp deck. So what gives with that?
Well, our first point of failure here is in terms of herd immunity – barely anyone is playing superfast decks along the lines of RDW and Boros (except in China, apparently). This means that a ramp deck can get away with spending its early turns casting Explore, Rampant Growth, and Cultivate. This style of aggro deck is an essential component in our metagame’s “herd immunity” against people just casting a bunch of ramp spells and then Valakuting or Forcing us to death. Pyromancer’s Ascension can also help in this area, but seriously, U/W Control, Naya, and Jund aren’t doing the trick.
The second point of failure wraps right back into the point of today’s article.
Multiple lines of Valakut and stuff
Returning to the concept of multiple lines of attack, think about how a typical Valakut Ramp deck attacks a typical Naya deck. Here’s a representative Valakut list to keep in mind while we think about it:
Valakut Ramp (by tiberman)
What lines of attack do you see Valakut deploying against Naya in game one?
Here are the ones I’d list for a typical Valakut build:
Sudden Valakut death – This happened to me in my game one, where I did some harm, but my opponent just ignored that, played his ramp spells, and then 24ed me right out of the game. I’ve talked about this before, but it merits mentioning again – the one global solution to your opponent’s game plan is to just kill them.
Kill your dudes – Valakut decks deploy their removal subversively. While there’s some actual removal in the form of Lightning Bolt, Pyroclasm, Siege-Gang Commander, and Hellkites, there’s also those damn Valakuts. They sit there mocking the creature-based deck, converting each Mountain into some multiple of 3 damage, wiping your board and leaving you bereft of a game plan.
Clog the board – Even absent the two lines listed above, a Valakut deck that makes it to the “casting dudes” phase of its game plan can do a bang-up job of gumming the whole board up. Between giant creatures and hordes of plant tokens, the Naya game plan can screech to an abrupt halt short of its goal as you can no longer make it through – and now the ramp player can kill you at leisure.
Notice how these “lines of attack” aren’t strictly “ways the deck attacks the opponent” so much as they are “things that damage the opponent’s game plan.”
Now we, as the Naya player, are placed in the uncomfortable position we had that U/W opponent in just a little while ago. We are being presented with a triple threat of combo kill, abundant removal, and board stall, and being asked to adapt and deal with all of that in the space of seventy-five cards without wrecking our game against our more favored pairings.
It’s like a scene out of Macross, so you really want to be the one with more missiles
That whole “not wrecking our game” is, of course, why it’s hard to handle all of any given opponent’s lines of attack. Really, we’d rather just let someone else comprehensively handle their lines of attack by taking them out of the tournament, but in the midst of a failure of herd immunity, we instead need to optimize our solutions so that they don’t cost us too much.
Up above, I mentioned that the U/W Control deck does have an option to “autoclave the board,” handling all of our attack modes. That option is the evocatively named All is Dust, which really will handle Ajani, Luminarch Ascension, and all our dudes, all at once. Powerful!
Also, it kills your own planeswalkers.
Now, that doesn’t make All is Dust a bad card. It just reflects the costs associated with having a broader solution. All is Dust is a comprehensive solution to the Naya problem unless the Naya deck just kills you first.
Looking at the specific application that caught my attention this week, we want to consider possible solutions to the ramp problem that don’t destabilize our core game plan. In the most literal sense, that probably means not deviating especially far from core that looks like this:
Example Naya Shaman core (not a complete deck!)
Some of the slots in the sideboard are also necessarily dedicated to bolstering certain pairings, so our room to maneuver is pretty limited. In this light, let’s reconsider the sideboard cards I brought along on game day:
2 Path to Exile – Path covers multiple lines of attack. It takes out faster attackers should we face one of those mythical Boros decks. It disables our opponent’s Vengevine recursion. It exiles Titans before they attack and get their effect again. And, of course, it de-Linvala’s our opponent in the mirror.
2 Luminarch Ascension – Ascension is a narrow card, as it pretty much attacks U/W Control decks. It is, however, very good at that job, which is why I have two in the sideboard, but not a full set of four. We can’t afford the cost in terms of overall space in our seventy-five…and, realistically, we can’t even afford it in our sixty when we’re fighting U/W – it comes with the cost of diluting our core game plan too much.
1 Qasali Pridemage – This attacks opposing removal strategies, be they Collar-based on Ring-based. In that sense it is narrow, which is why I didn’t want a whole pile of them. Pridemage does bolster, ever so mildly, our “attack the opponent with dudes” line of attack, which is nice, and reduces the pain of inclusion.
2 Goblin Ruinblaster – The intent here was to bring Ruinblaster in against Jund and Valakut. In practice, I’ve become disenchanted with the Ruinblaster. It comes with the cost of bumping a couple of the better action cards out of the deck and replacing them with a somewhat disruptive, but mediocre creature. The clincher that really knocks it out of contention, however, is that it fails as a line of attack against Valakut decks. Think about the typical Valakut kill, driven by the nausea engine that is Primeval Titan. When they case the Titan, they get two lands. Then it attacks. Two more. Do you suppose they can get some backup Valakuts? Right.
4 Leyline of Sanctity – There was an active debate ahead of last weekend’s event about whether Naya wants to run Leylines or Manabarbs. I even switched at the last minute. Leyline brings the value in a couple ways. First, it blocks one of Valakut’s major lines of attack, forcing them to either try to win via another method, or dilute their lines of attack by sideboarding in cards like Back to Nature and Naturalize. Second, it blocks the core line of attack of the Pyromancer’s Ascension deck, reducing the effective “cost” of having it in our seventy-five by dint of being applicable to a broader swath of the metagame.
Now, we could say something very similar about Manabarbs, but for the moment, I think Leyline has one other feature that gives it an edge – potential freeness. A Leyline in your opening draw steps cleanly out of your game plan’s way, having no negative impact on your preferred lines of attack. Manabarbs, of course, has the advantage of providing a novel line of attack – your opponent’s plays. Which is better? I don’t currently know.
2 Linvala, Keeper of Silence – Linvala’s lines of attack include nailing some enemy removal plans (those that are based on Sparkmages or, God forbid, Royal Assassin), but they also include stalling creature-based acceleration, which impacts Naya and Mythic alike. She also offers a modest line of attack against Jund, turning off opposing Putrid Leeches and Siege-Gang Commanders. This suite of options makes the cost of keeping a couple Linvalas around worth it.
2 Ajani Vengeant – Planeswalkers, unsurprisingly, are line-of-attack all stars. Ajani proactively attacks the Ramp game plan by time walking them, threatening them with an Armageddon loss, and occasionally locking them out of a color. He similarly screws up U/W opponents by offering more critical targets for their limited generic removal. Finally, he is powerful against redline aggro by acting as your bodyguard, capping an attacker with a Lightning Helix before he takes a bullet on your behalf.
Maintain your line of attack
The upshot of all this discussion of lines of attack versus costs is that we need to trump our opponent’s lines of attack while not disabling our own. Goblin Ruinblaster got the boot because he simultaneously diluted one of our lines of attack while failing to properly add another.
Let’s consider the options a Naya Shaman deck has against Valakut Ramp.
Naya versus Valakut lines of attack, post-board
1. Kill with creatures
2. Attach a damage cost to their spells (Manabarbs)
3. Nullify their combo kill (Leyline of Sanctity)
4. Damage their tempo (Ajani)
Now we can look at the reciprocal relationship.
Valakut versus Naya lines of attack, post-board
1. Combo kill (nullifies all lines, blocked by line 3)
2. Removal to kill creatures (nullifies line 1)
3. Clog the board (nullifies line 1)
4. Enchantment removal (nullifies lines 2 and 3)
5. Ramp (tends to nullify line 4)
That last one may be a little non-intuitive, but I think it’s pretty accurate. If the deck just played out a land a turn, then the tempo damage from Ajani would be potentially lethal. However, unless you can lock the deck out of green, it’s likely to just push the plan back marginally until a Cultivate catapults the deck into the appropriate mana range to do horrible things. Unlike, say, a U/W Control deck, there is no special land that you can lock down (e.g. Celestial Colonnade) to permanently lock down a line of attack – and ramp is the reason this is true.
This week has seen a number of other options discussed, including splashing blue for Flashfreeze or black for Thought Hemorrhage. Let’s bundle those with a few others and consider them in terms of a “lines of attack” cost-benefit analysis.
Flashfreeze – The costs here include forcing you to alter your mana base to some extent to let you reliably cast the spell, having something in your deck that you pretty much only want against ramp decks, and pulling back from your other lines of attack to maintain it as an option. It offers the lines of attack of disrupting the combo kill (1), the board clogging (3), and potentially the enchantment removal (4).
Thought Hemorrhage – See above, with the caveat that it might apply against Pyromancer Ascension decks, if you could cast it in time.
Dauntless Escort – The Escort is a potentially nice card in that it blocks Valakut’s removal option while fitting nicely into your own “attack with dudes” line of attack. It also applies against U/W, which means it is not strictly a dedicated anti-ramp card. On the downside, it does nothing about the board-clogging attack (3), which means that while you might get to keep your team for a turn, you’re not going to win.
Eldrazi Monument – The Monument shares some features with Escort, in that it disrupts removal-based lines of attack. However, the addition of divorcing your team from the board clogging fight probably makes it an overall winner in a head-to-head comparison, as it completely shuts down one of Ramp’s major lines of attack against you while simultaneously enhancing one of your own.
My latest experiment is none of these, however. I’m currently trying out:
Naya Charm – Maybe it shouldn’t be surprising that a Magic “charm,” with its many modes, sells itself well to the lines of attack way of thinking. In the Ramp matchup, it offers several potential lines of attack:
1 – Nullifying their removal. Given that you’re already slinging Vengevines, the Charm can do the neat trick of rebuying a Bloodbraid which can, in turn, rebuy one or more Vengevines.
2 – Nullifying the board clog. In the ramp matchup, I frequently found myself facing a multicolored board blockage, meaning that Sejiri Steppe couldn’t hand me the win. The Charm is color-agnostic, letting me Falter any number of obnoxious plant tokens.
3 – Potentially nullifying their ramp (by killing an Oracle).
On top of this, the Charm can operate as removal against fast opponents. It has a lot to recommend it. The major cost, however, is that it dilutes your core line of attack because Bloodbraid can cascade into it, screwing up that whole recursive Vengevine wave attack plan.
If I weren’t trying out the Charm, I’d be giving serious consideration to Eldrazi Monument. The Monument has the downside of falling to Ramp’s post-board Naturalize plan, but is otherwise a stellar card.
Here’s my current list:
Dr. Goodall et al
There are clearly other experiments at work here, but I figured I’d share what I’m running right now.
So what do you think? What lines would you deploy against the Ramp menace?