In Development – So…How Do You Win?

The whole idea of deck power is dangerously nebulous. Saying a deck is “powerful” is right up there with saying that a card is “not really a card.” It conveys some of our intent in making the statement – we think that “powerful” deck is likely to help us win, and we think “non-card” card isn’t good enough to make it into a deck. The basic words just aren’t all that actionable – that is, they don’t give us either facts or directions for us to work with.

But the thing is that we know, intuitively, that deck power is a real thing. If I take two draft decks, shuffle them together, and sit down at a Vintage tournament, you know I’m not going to do well. It’s an extreme case, but this kind of extreme case lets us know that the difference really exists. Of course, it’s also pretty bad in letting me know, on any given weekend, if the Standard or Extended deck I’m pondering is really worth bringing – along with my entry fee – to a big tournament.’’

Two key elements in deck power are resilience and, for lack of a nicer-sounding term, strike. Resilience is the deck’s ability to keep its game plan on track despite attempts by your opponent to disrupt your lines of attack. I won’t be talking about resilience today. Strike is, in effect, the “power” of your offensive game plan, and that’s what I’m going to discuss in today’s piece.

Yes, I did just define one aspect of power by using the word “power.” Clearly, that can’t stand, so let’s dig a little deeper.

PTQing after Mirrodin Besieged

The big buzz after Pro Tour Paris 2011 will primarily center on Standard – and rightly so. However, I was looking forward to the lists from any Extended PTQs that took place during Magic Weekend Paris, with an eye toward understanding how the introduction of cards from Mirrodin Besieged might be influencing the Extended metagame.

As it happens, there was one – just one – PTQ in Paris, and the results went up a few days ago. Conveniently, they feed right into this week’s discussion.

The guts of a post-MBS PTQ

The Paris PTQ featured Faeries, Faeries, Valakut, Summoning Trap, Faeries, Bant, Elves, and Naya.

That…is a lot of Faeries.

We shouldn’t dwell on an apparent lack of innovation in this top eight. It’s the first one after the injection of Mirrodin Besieged into the format, and we can reasonably expect that players will be most likely to succeed with decks that are, at most, minor variations on well-known decks from the prior metagame. With that in mind, three copies of Faeries is not a particularly big deal.

For the curious, the big innovation in post-MBS Faeries was exactly what you’d expect – Go for the Throat. Jarvis Yu’s winning list featured four copies of this entertainingly named removal spell, whereas Masayasu Tanahashi and Ewan Maisonneuve each settled for two copies.

So, these decks top eighted the PTQ…but how powerful are they?

Plans A and B

Across eight slots in the PTQ top eight, we have six archetypes to look at. In examining the strike capacity of each deck, lets simplify our impression of each deck down into its Plan A and Plan B.

Faeries (Jarvis Yu)


Plan A – An overwhelming attack with Bitterblossom tokens and Mistbind Cliques, backed by stifling countermagic.

Plan B – Spot countermagic to stall opponent’s game plan long enough to grind out a win via intermittent attacks with Vendilion Clique and other cards.

Valakut (Eddie Mucha)

Plan A – Explosive, single-turn Valakut kill via Scapeshift or Primal Titan.

Plan B – Incremental Valakut damage via land drops or non-Scapeshift ramp spells, backed by damage from Ravines and Titans.

Naya (Moreau Marjiap)


Plan A – Overwhelming strike with Vengevines recurred via Bloodbraid Elf.

Plan B – Big creature beats.

Now, with those examples in mind, what about that Bant list?

Bant (Ville Schalin)


Plan A – Creature beats with mild disruption.

Plan B – Hm. Creature beats?

So, clearly I have some trepidation about Schalin’s Bant list, and it has something to do with either the nature of its Plan A and Plan B, or the fact that they seem to be essentially identical.

What, exactly, am I worried about?

Defining offensive power

With those examples in mind, we’re now in a position to consider what gives a deck a solid strike aspect. What, basically, gives a deck good offensive power?

There are no hard, quantitative rules for defining offensive power, but I think I can offer you a good conceptual outline for rating offensive power, as well as a rule of thumb for determining if your new deck design is actually a little bit behind the curve when it comes to striking out against your opponents.

Defining As and Bs

Before we launch into a conceptual models or rules of thumb, let’s take one more look at all those “Plan A” and “Plan B” ideas I touched on above.

When I talk about a Plan A, I’m not referring to a super-ideal case. This isn’t the “runner-runner-runner” situation, it’s just that situation where the deck flows pretty well. For example, a Fauna Shaman deck – something I have a reasonable amount of experience with – that is flowing pretty well has managed to ditch some Vengevines and is getting ready to buy them back on your next play..

Similarly, the Faeries Plan A might just be summarized, pithily, as “second turn Bitterblossom.”

Similarly, Plan B is not an extreme case where the deck falls apart entirely. In general, that’s not useful to think about, as your deck probably doesn’t do it all that often…and if it does, then you have a structural failing that goes beyond today’s discussion. The Fauna Shaman plan B, for example, is typically “play solid creatures, tussle,” with the absence of extensive Vengevine recursion or Fauna Shaman activations.

In other words, Plan A is “things flowing well” and Plan B is “things doing…okay.”

Just something to keep in mind for the following two sections.

Wounded, Crippled, Killed

There is, in the world of small arms, a whole mythology of “stopping power.” If you’re ever interested and want to burn a whole lot of time reading about it, I recommend looking up Martin Fackler and going on from there.

Essentially, the arguments boil down to trying to figure out what actually happens when you shoot someone. Does the bullet create a shockwave that disrupts their organs, killing them? Or is it all about the wound channel, that path of tissue that the actual bullet carves out on its way into (or through) the target?

The interest is not simply academic – it’s about what caliber handguns the FBI should carry (the conclusion – it doesn’t matter, handguns are terrible people stoppers) and what weapons soldiers will carry into battle (5.56mm offers high ammunition capacity, but it may take more shots than you’d like to take down a single opponent).

Enough of that macabre sideline. In rating the strike power of your deck, you want to ask essentially the same question those ballistics wonks are debating – what happens when I connect?

Or, to reframe it, how hard is it for your opponent to recover when your Plan A deploys successfully?

Imagine you’re playing Mythic, maybe Jonathan Benson’s fourth-place list from the late January PTQ in Atlanta:

Mythic (Jonathan Benson)


The Mythic Plan A clearly involves accelerating into a [card]Sovereigns of Lost Alara[/card], dropping an [card]Eldrazi Conscription[/card] on an early attacker to connect with an enormous trampler.

What is that like from the opponent’s perspective?

Let’s say that the Mythic deck’s attacker is something modest. Perhaps a Lotus Cobra. If there’s also a [card]Noble Hierarch[/card] out, that Cobra, once Conscripted, is going to swing for 14/13, with trample.

Any random Extended deck might have two points of toughness in the way, perhaps two points that it can afford to chump block with. So when the Lotus Cobra runs you over, you are left in this situation:

(That is, at 8 life, facing a 12/11 trampler, a 4/5 that can deploy a second copy of Conscription, and two exalted creatures.)

How long can you live from this position?

Metaphorically, you have had a giant chunk taken out of you if the Mythic deck connects just once with its Plan A. It’s bad. You are dead to any second hit from a Conscripted creature, and you’re going to have to kill at least two of their creatures to avoid that fate.

So how recoverable is that? Not very.

Note that you are way more likely to be able to derail the Mythic deck’s Plan A in the first place, perhaps by Pathing their guy, killing the Sovereigns, countering their spells, or whatever. That question – how easy it is to knock a deck’s Plan A off the rails – is one of resilience, and for another day. It’s an aspect of total power, but when we want to focus on the strike aspect of a deck, we don’t need to concern ourselves with it.

I picked Mythic as the lead example of this way of thinking about strike power because its Plan A is utterly straightforward – land a Sovereigns, take a Great White-sized chunk of flesh out of the side of your opponent. But what if we’re talking about the Plan A for Faeries, perhaps using Jarvis Yu’s list from Nagoya. Here’s the list again:

Faeries (Jarvis Yu)


The Faeries Plan A is less obvious than Mythic, at least in the fact that you don’t launch into it right away. Even though it typically involves that second-turn Bitterblossom, it doesn’t happen until the Faeries player chooses to flip the switch from “control” to “offense,” causing a change in tempo and tenor that is often shocking to the opponent.

In scoping out the power of the Mythic Plan A, we had to ask “How well do we recover from a Conscripted strike and the remaining board state?” In scoping out the power of the Faeries Plan A, the question is, instead, how we respond to this:

The question might be framed as “How well do you recover from a simultaneous attack via a swarm of attackers, powerful countermagic stifling your plays, and the excising of your ability to cast spells via Mistbinds on upkeep?” It’s a little more complex to keep track of than Mythic, but it’s still clearly a bad position to be in from the opponent’s point of view, as your are simultaneously facing down a rapid damage clock, repeated timewalks, and the inability to cast those spells that might get around the timewalks.

Now, consider Schalin’s Bant list from this perspective.

Bant (Ville Schalin)




Your Plan A is, more or less, creatures. They tend to be very efficient creatures, but they are basically creatures. Successful deployment of the Bant list’s Plan A might look like a Noble Hierarch into a second turn Knight of the Reliquary, perhaps with some fetchlands in the bin. If the Knight then swings on the third turn, your situation could look like this:

…and that doesn’t give us the benefit of that chump blocker from the Mythic example above.

How hard is it to recover from that position?

Actually…not so bad? This is a pretty vanilla game state, one that most decks are equipped to handle. Sure, there are more creatures coming, and the deck packs some mild disruption, but you aren’t dead on the following turn (like Mythic), nor are you facing the combined threat of a fast clock and the loss of your ability to act (like Faeries).

…and this is why, despite the fact that it top-eighted a PTQ, I’d be leery to run a deck like Schalin’s in a format that features so many decks with crippling Plan As. Sure, it is a reasonable deck, full of some of the most efficient creatures in the format. But where the other decks have the ability to regularly put their opponents in near-death situations just by playing out “well,” the Bant deck, even when it flows, just forces the opponent into a fairly normal game of interactive Magic.

Essentially, a powerful strike aspect for a deck can be thought of as that which provides a Plan A from which an opponent is hard-pressed to recover. The exact specifics of this will vary from format to format – a strong Plan A in Legacy is clearly different from a strong Plan A in block – but this is one way to conceptually judge the offensive strength of your deck.

The quick and dirty version

That was one way to evaluate strike power. Here’s another.

If your Plan A is another deck’s Plan B, you may not be strong enough.

Compare Schalin’s Bant list from the Nagoya PTQ with Benson’s Mythic from Atlanta:

Notice that the backup plan for Benson’s list – the way it operates when you can’t just gut your opponent and then circle back for the kill – is the only way Schalin’s list works.

In other words, the Bant Plan A is the Mythic Plan B. Absent any other analysis, this should lead us to question the Bant list. Is it strong enough on offense? Should we be picking another deck for our next tournament?

Now, it’s possible that the Bant list offers so much resilience – the other side of the “deck power” coin – that the relative lack of strike strength doesn’t matter. Possible, but typically unlikely.

Bruised, or bleeding out?

Wrapping all of this back together into one neat package, the take-home is this – whether you’re designing your own deck, tweaking an existing one, or just grabbing an existing list, the most direct tests of the offensive power of the deck are (1) how hard it is for your opponent to recover from your Plan A and (2) whether your Plan A is moonlighting as some other deck’s Plan B.

Simple as that.

So what do you think? Does your current deck pass these two simple checkpoints? Do you think there are special exceptions that give decks a pass on these ideas? As always, let us know in the comments.

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