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Switching Gears

Four years ago I played my first Pro Tour, just a few months before I started college. In both cases I was in a bit over my head, and introduced to a world of new people and experiences. Since then, my life throughout the past four years has been a strange combination of two very different worlds. I’ve been introduced to great communities and formed strong bonds, but also worked really hard in each.

Magic has fulfilled the role of a break from reality for me, but it’s ironic that my idea of a vacation is to wake up on a Saturday earlier than I normally would on a weekday to prepare for a 12-hour day. I’m sure this resonates with most readers—we’ve all suffered through a meeting or class on Monday morning after driving back late from a Grand Prix.

I’ve always been jealous of my peers who get to play Magic more “full-time”; practicing, writing, and making content during the week and getting to play tournaments nearly every weekend. This isn’t necessarily a lifestyle I would want in the very long-term—something I’ve talked to Paul Rietzl about numerous times. In two weeks I’m going to graduate from college and, like all seniors, I’m constantly bombarded with the question of “what next?”

The theme of this article is switching gears, and I’m really ecstatic to be able to say that starting this summer, I’m going to focus on Magic for the foreseeable future. I don’t know exactly what this means—I haven’t really thought beyond the end of the 2014-2015 Pro Season. An unfortunate side effect of this scheduling means I’ll be missing Pro Tour Journey into Nyx. Many of my teammates on the Pantheon have already assembled at our team house in Atlanta and I really wish I could join them. That said, it does seem to fit with the theme that I get to take a little break to recharge before committing myself to something so fully, complete with six straight weeks of travel to start the summer.

As I prepare for the future, I’ll be thinking about how great it is that I get to immerse myself in something that I’m so passionate about, and that has such a great community. I’m really hoping to take full advantage of this change, in the form of writing more and finally trying to make videos. Who knows, I might even get to see a bit more of some of the cities I travel to than just the airport and the inside of a tournament site.

One of the reasons I’ve chosen to talk about switching gears is that I think it’s one of the most important skills in Magic. Every time you watch a control deck “stabilize,” this is essentially what is happening. Aggro decks come out of the gates quickly and apply pressure from turn one, but once the opponent stabilizes, they have very little shot at winning.

On a basic level, control decks are the opposite—they have basically no way to pressure the opponent, but once they stabilize and “get going,” the control deck will inevitably win. I’m sure this is all pretty obvious—but these are the two base cases of decks that don’t switch gears well. They are typically very good at operating in one gear and pretty bad in the other. Aggro decks rely on winning before the switch is flipped, while control decks can’t win unless that happens.

I definitely have a reputation for playing decks that fall in the middle of this spectrum, and will often switch back and forth multiple times per game—or at least at a different point in each game or each matchup.

The card I want to talk about most specifically today is Pack Rat—a card that has been discussed in depth but maybe not in this context. The scenario most people are familiar with is the turn-two Pack Rat. From personal experience or simply from the constant complaining of the community.

Pack Rat turns all of your resources into pressure. Turn two Pack Rat allows a black devotion (or black-white midrange) player to go on the offensive regardless of the contents of their hand. Midrange decks often have this problem of not having quite enough pressure to go on the aggressive or enough control to sit back. Pack Rat solves this problem by allowing the black deck to play the aggro role of pure-pressure from turn 2, while also maintaining some level of flexibility because you get to choose what cards to keep.

However, this conversion of resources is even more interesting as the game goes on, because of how quickly it allows a Pack Rat deck to switch roles. A deck that is forced to play the control role in the early turns may often have trouble converting to a late-game offensive posture if it is stuck with redundant interactive cards once the game has been stabilized. Pack Rat similarly provides the ability to convert those resources (which would have been very valuable on turns 2-5) into pressure to close the game out quickly.

Modern Magic is often faced with the problem of threats being better than answers, which causes answer-based decks to play a huge quantity of them in order to guarantee interaction at critical points early in the game. The fundamental question these decks have to solve is how to best close out games while devoting so much space to answers.

Two classes of cards that perform this role are threats that serve as answers (like Restoration Angel or Elspeth), or cards that convert resources to threats or provide immense card advantage. Sphinx’s Revelation falls into the latter category while the former might be something like Pack Rat, or burn spells out of a UWR control deck that can be used to finish of the opponent.

I find it interesting that current Standard is, for the most part, defined by decks with either very few spells or very few creatures—yet the arguably best deck, Black Devotion, is the only one that presents a more classic midrange split of 16 creatures and 18 spells. The deck does a fantastic job of solving the problem of having not enough answers (by playing threats like Lifebane Zombie and Desecration Demon that double as answers). However, the deck also solves the problem of having not enough threats by using Pack Rat to convert dead interaction into pressure.

Underworld Connections provides an interesting function in this regard because the matchups where those removal spells are the most likely to be dead are also the ones where your life total is the most safe—allowing Connections to provide enough additional card advantage to offset the threat density issue against control decks.

A lot of the time these midrange problems crop up in sideboarding. A perfect example would be a Mono-Black deck playing against control which cuts all of its removal spells and then loses to some sideboarded threat like Nightveil Specter or Blood Baron. I personally think it is a fundamental mistake to cut all of your removal spells against control decks, because you have so many ways to make up for drawing a dead card. The value of hedging and having access to a narrow answer is greater than the downside of drawing a dead one.

This may feel counterintuitive, because Mono-Black often loses game one against control as the result of having too many dead cards. However, the deck also gains additional ways to convert resources into card advantage (in the form of Erebos and more ways to force through an Underworld Connections). As a result, each dead card drawn is less damaging. In reality, you lose with Mono-Black in game one when you draw a critical mass of dead cards, not just one.

The opposite problem can come up when removing slower threats against an aggressive deck. This was a lesson I remember learning from Reid Duke in the last Standard format with his Jund deck. Reid would often keep in 1 Garruk or other big threat against aggro decks, because the general sideboard plan was to remove expensive threats for cheap answers. However, this ultimately resulted in the games going long and giving the aggro deck more outs. In short, the Jund deck was able to stabilize, but it wasn’t able to switch gears and find a way to win.

The next article I’ll be writing for CFB will be as a (very) recent college graduate. After that I’ll be switching gears, and a month from now I’ll be writing as a full-time Magic player.

Until then, focus your attention on Grand Prix Minneapolis, which kicks off the beginning of the Modern PTQ season—and after that on Pro Tour Journey into Nyx, where I have no doubt CFB: The Pantheon will come up with something great in my absence.

Thanks for reading,

Matt Costa

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