Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Stage Left, Right, 1, 2, 3

Article has been modified to correct for some thing. More edits forthcoming as I flesh out the details on Stages. 

Alexander Shearer, writer on CFB and, started asking questions about classifying some decks. Like, what is "fish"? Is it midrange or something else? What is "land destruction"?

He seemed to be classifying decks as primarily "aggro", "midrange", "combo", or "control". With perhaps some sprinklings of mixed combinations.

But when you care about labels and start to examine them more, you start to realize... hey, some decks don't fit any of these labels. Why are we trying to jam decks like "fish" and "land destruction" and "reanimator" into narrow categories like the ones mentioned above, when that seems wholly inappropriate in some instances?

Of course, I'm not advocating we stop using terms like aggro and midrange - because they're very useful - however I think we can add clarifying terminology - terms that can describe both fish decks and midrange decks on the same level, without wrongly classifying fish as midrange and vice-versa.

I haven't actually figured out a good way to classify decks, but I realize that there is a broader way to describe them, which can give us information without what I feel is improper labeling.

We can describe what Stage of Magic they like to operate on - and also note which Stages they can operate on.

There are three Stages in Magic: 1, 2, 3. The term "stage" came from Patrick Chapin. He describes Stages in his book, Next Level Magic. If you've read the book, this will largely be rehash. Stages used to be Phases, but we're phasing that out. Flores is the first writer to talk about "Phases" in Magic - here's his first article on the subject.

The three stages of Magic translate roughly to the "early game", "mid game", and "late game".

What kind of decks thrive in Stage 1, or the early game?

Using Starcraft, I think an analogous strategy would be the "Zerg rush". This strategy attacks an opponent when he is most vulnerable - when he has not yet built up defenses, nor stored away many resources, nor has many defensive units. In Magic, the Stage 1 attackers strike when the opponent doesn't have much mana or much of a board presence - this is when his life total in particular is most vulnerable. It bulges out like the underside of a whale. You just have to hit it a few times.

The Stage 1 decks are all about speed and damage. Working with very limited, early-game resources, the Stage 1 deck has to utilize what resources are available and strike hard and fast. The Stage 1 decks are typically the only decks equipped to use some of these early resources - for instance, no deck but mono-red can justifiably use Goblin Guide, which gives up card advantage for early damage. A reasonable trade-off when you plan to end the game quickly - preferably before going too deep into the opponent's Stage 2.

Stage 1 doesn't last very long in Magic - things move ahead quickly. The mono-red deck tends to stay in "Stage 1" mode for a while. But the opposing deck will move to Stage 2 in a few turns - at which point they'll have A) mana B) hopefully some board presence and C) ability to cast more spells (because of their mana development). The mono-red deck quickly loses traction the longer the game goes on - it sacrificed a lot of early-game resources in order to deal fast damage, instead of building something more stable out of those resources. But mono-red has multiple forms of reach available to it to get in the last points of damage - allowing it to fight even as the game progresses.

Stage 1 is a vulnerable time for lots of decks, and there are very limited options for decks to exploit this stage of the game right now. Magic has paced itself and developed into a game centered largely on Stage 2 interactions. This is why there aren't more Stage 1 decks currently - there are more benefits to entering Stage 2 and fighting on this level. The card pool just leans us that way.

What kind of decks thrive in Stage 2, or the midgame?

All midrange decks fit here, straddling the border between Stage 1 and Stage 3. I like to think that midrange decks want the game to "last forever" in Stage 2. They want to pass Stage 1, but forever hold-off Stage 3 from coming. How does one actively stave off a Stage of Magic? Isn't it inevitable?

Well, this is why there are cards in Magic that steal tempo and disrupt the opponent. Discard, land destruction, counterspells, and other similar forms of disruption are often used by the midrange decks to prevent opponents from reaching their Stage 3.

The progression from Stage 1 to 2 is often natural - the crossing over often goes unnoticed. It is quite difficult to prevent an opponent from reaching Stage 2 of the game - whatever that Stage is to them. Often that Stage, in Standard, revolves around the accumulation of four mana sources. This is because the four-drops define Standard right now, whether you are a control deck or a midrange deck. Hitting four is very important.

Jund, Next Level Bant, and Naya can be classified as midrange. These decks can definitely be fast, but they're not "Stage 1" fast. They need more time and mana to get the ball rolling. It certainly doesn't hurt to draw a few extra cards along the way.

In Standard today, the biggest hits are at FOUR mana - that's pretty high on the curve, particularly for the decks with no acceleration - although all the current decks have either played or DO play a little accel - y'know, maybe a few Birds or some Nest Invaders or something. Sometimes, they're capable of some very fast starts, but this is not always.

The midrange decks thrive here because at this Stage, they are capable of accumulating a lot of card advantage while applying pressure. Constant pressure mixed with card advantage and some disruption is a powerful combination. As long as they aren't trumped by anything too crazy - like, I dunno, a Primeval Titan, an immovable Baneslayer Angel, Cruel Ultimatum, Destructive Force, Martial Coup, etc.

All of these things can be dealt with, one way or another, it's just a question of whether the Midrange deck has the right answer at the right time.

So, Inevitability. Who has it? When facing a Stage 3 deck, does the Stage 2 deck have inevitability? Prooobably not... depending on the decks. But let's say we're talking about Jund vs Turboland. The longer the game goes, the more opportunities Turboland has to win. What about Naya versus UW Control? Same deal.

Faeries is possibly the best Stage 2 deck ever - or at least was during Standard. It generally never loses to most of the Stage 3 decks because its disruption is so powerful and effective. It's really good at holding off whatever "huge thing" the Stage 3 decks throw at it. However it is vulnerable to decks more aligned with Stage 1, such as mono-red - as it is not equipped to deal with fast burn.

As Extended rolls upon us, it appears Faeries does lose to other Stage 2 decks in the format with the help of Punishing Fire combo and a lot of hate cards like Great Sable Stag and Volcanic Fallout. However it will no doubt continue to warp the format and provide as a buffer against many Stage 3 strategies that might crop up.

Goblins and Merfolk both are also probably Stage 2 decks in Legacy - I'm not fully versed in that format, but it seems obvious that these two tribes are precisely what Stage 2 is all about. Card advantage, disruption, pressure.

Would I consider Faeries, Goblins, and Merfolk "midrange" decks? I don't really think I would. I could see the arguments, but I wouldn't be fully comfortable with it. The similarities do seem more obvious than the differences, now, though.

Any land destruction deck that used cards like Goblin Ruinblaster would also be considered Stage 2 decks - after all, the whole point of LD is to permanently prevent the opponent from reaching Stage 3 and try to cripple their Stage 2. I am probably thinking of Travis Woo's LD deck from ZEN Block Constructed.

What kind of decks thrive in Stage 3, or the endgame?

Stage 3 decks come in all flavors. It's the friggin' end game! You can go craaazy here! Your path to winning has just begun.

HOW you win here is not nearly as much important as HOW you got here in the first place. After all, you had to struggle through all kinds of burn and aggression, disruption, land destruction, etc, etc. They're probably still trying, too, trying so hard to reach you for those last points of damage.

But when you swing and hit them with Baneslayer, it's just over. I mean, we hope.

Control decks fit here. Turboland fits here. Valakut fits here. Destructive Force fits here. I mean, most Titan decks will fit here. Milling strategies fit here.

These all seem obvious, but they operate very differently from one another.

Control decks most of all are a varied bunch and quite different from something like Valakut. Control is always interacting with the opponent; Valakut and Turboland largely ignore their opponents. It is sometimes unclear, the exact point at which Control has won the game. When Valakut or Turboland wins, it's fairly obvious what happened.

But one thing is for certain, everything the decks do is geared toward reaching Stage 3 of the game. Winning requires reaching Stage 3 every time unless they have faster, alternative ways that will sometimes become relevant. (Animate Gideon, jump Gideon with Elspeth. Swing.) This is often a risky move, but sometimes you have to take it.

How do we classify the majority of combo decks?

Combo decks come in all shapes and sizes, and it is very hard to classify them sometimes. For instance, Polymorph is Stage 3, but this isn't immediately obvious. After all, it classifies its Stages differently from other decks.

Most decks will classify Stages based on "time passed in the game" - by the number of turns, lands on board, the general board state, or whatnot. For Polymorph, reaching Stage 3 involves getting an Emrakul or an Iona into play. Everything before that is build-up. Stage 3 is the game-ending move that trumps everything else, and this is how Polymorph wants to win. It can be as early as turn 4 or as late as turn 11.

Combo decks operate on a different scale from most other decks - their game plan is different. They can win as early as turn 1 or as late as turn 9. Depending.

The strength of the combo deck can come from two things: its speed and its resiliency. Turboland isn't particularly fast, but it is very hard to disrupt. Legacy Reanimator is very fast and fairly resilient but can be disrupted with the right tools.

To keep a combo deck balanced, it makes sense that, the faster it is, the less resilient it should be. For instance a deck like Charbelcher is easily disrupted but can win very quickly. It is not always true that the slower a combo, the more resilient it should be. But to keep things fair, faster combo decks need to be less resilient.

Combo decks that are "all-in" I would classify as Stage 1 decks. And pretty much every other combo deck seems to make sense as Stage 3 decks. I cannot currently think of any Stage 2 combo decks - but I can think of Stage 2 decks with ways to combo (maybe it's the same thing?). Reveillark Body Double, for instance, seems to largely be a Stage 2 deck that simply wins very suddenly with a combo, like Stage 2 decks tend to do. I imagine it can win without the combo as well, though.

The area is pretty fuzzy, and I don't really want to reach in there and start fumbling around. What if I touch something gross?

For the simplicity of Standard, though, I think these classifications make a lot of sense. They're useful to think about, too! Once you understand the over-arching strategy of a deck, you can figure out how to beat it more easily. Just figure out what kind of Decks don't like other Decks and why. Is it because they're weak to Stage  1 decks? Or maybe their disruption isn't strong enough to stop all the Stage 3 decks?

You can even start breaking cards down and labeling them in relation to their purpose to the different Stages of Magic. It's obvious that Blightning is a very Stage-2 card, but it has also been used in Stage-1 strategies. (Because it does multiple things; that's why it's good!) Goblin Guide? Stage 1 only. Ranger of Eos? Stage 2, very much, but can sometimes be good in Stage 3, depending on what it is fetching. What about Baneslayer? Straddles Stage 2 and 3, depending on what deck it is fighting against. There are cards that can't beat it, and cards that automatically trump it - its value is very dependent on its environment. Primeval Titan? is Stage 3, which we have established many times.

I will conclude by saying that this article may have holes and flaws, and it seems inevitable - Magic theory always comes with exceptions. But I think this is a useful way to think about decks. Hopefully you found it at least diverting.