I suppose I first taught myself about breaking down complex sequences and systems when learning to do long-ish, multi-hit, Street Fighter combos. Initially a really long combo would seem impossible. How could I remember so many individual jumps, crouches, taps, and Cancels? Especially when my natural inclination was to just to try to land a flying roundhouse kick? This wasn't fun. This was math homework.
It turned out that many long combo sequences - you know, the ones that involved chaining a complicated multi-hit into a [potentially mechanically challenging] special move, or vice versa - almost necessarily contained smaller sequences that could be mastered individually. If I had to be able to control the opponent's distance after a three-hit Fireball setup, I realized that figuring out how to do the three hits, performing the Fireball, and then controlling how far the opponent would land around the corner could all be practiced separately. It was easier to make three actions automatic manually than eleven actions; then another three; then another three. Then it was just a matter of putting them together.
Essentially a twelve-hit combo could be thought of as three much smaller (and more accomplishable) sets of four-hit actions (or maybe a five-hit, another five-hit, and a two hit; you grok?); if any of those were too complicated I could further divide them to learn and glue together smaller chunked routines.
I might have learned on Street Fighter, but it turned out that this was just a good way to think about, or even teach, difficult skills or concepts.
Let's think granularly for a moment on the process of deck design.
Imagine I said the word Mardu to you right now. What might that conjure in your mind?
Does Mardu simply mean the colors of the Mardu clan, black, red, and white? Or does Mardu mean a specific deck? If it means a deck, what cards are implied by the word "Mardu"?
If you're talking about Standard decks since Grand Prix Toronto earlier this year, "Mardu" probably implies Mardu Dragons, the archetype that puts together Thunderbreak Regent, Stormbreath Dragon, and Kolaghan, the Storm's Fury in order to get a little extra oomph out of Draconic Roar and Foul-Tongue Invocation. Mardu Dragons is the "Mardu" of today.
But well before Dragons of Tarkir gave us Thunderbreak Regent and the "Dragons matter" removal opportunities, Mardu had been long established a thing in Standard.
Consider a moment that Brad had every opportunity to play Stormbreath Dragon back at Grand Prix Los Angeles...but he chose to play Wingmate Roc instead.
I see Wingmate Roc v. Stormbreath Dragon in very much the same vein that we looked at Magma Jet v. Lightning Strike last week. It is really tough to say that one card is so much better than the other card, at least in the dark. The value of either card is largely determined by context.
Which is better if...
● I want to play with Draconic Roar and Foul-Tongue Invocation?● My opponents are playing with Draconic Roar and Foul-Tongue Invocation?● I want to play with Elspeth, Sun's Champion?● My opponents are playing with Elspeth, Sun's Champion?● My opponents are playing with Hero's Downfall?● My opponents are playing with Stormbreath Dragon?
Mardu Dragons is a thing in part because players want to take advantage of the synergies between Draconic Roar, Foul-Tongue Invocation, and a critical mass of Dragons. Of course Stormbreath Dragon is better when you want to play with those cards.
But what about decisions around the opponent's' card choices?
Stormbreath Dragon is an explosive threat. When it gets going it can be a heavy hammer between the eyes. BUT! Stormbreath Dragon is kind of awful against removal. It costs five mana and it sucks to spend five mana (and a lot of psychic topdeck energy) only to be met with a Hero's Downfall (where the opponent trades one-for-one with value) or a Foul-Tongue Invocation (where the opponent trades one-for-one for a lot of value).
Wingmate Roc is outstanding against removal! It can soak up a Hero's Downfall and leave a relevant 3/4 threat or, against a Foul-Tongue Invocation, even keep the threat you want while sacrificing a token.
The comparison between these two cards is even more explicit when we talk about Elspeth, Sun's Champion. Elspeth Sun's Champion is big enough coming down first that she can eat a hit from a Stormbreath Dragon, essentially buy you eight life, and leave you ahead by six tokens. That's not only awesome, that's when Stormbreath Dragon shows up after Elspeth to beat her up. If Elspeth comes down second, she can kill Stormbreath Dragon (really any number of Stormbreath Dragons) and still have the meter running.
The point is, the comparison between these two cards is not so cut-and-dried.
How about these two?
Thunderbreak Regent is seemingly everywhere - RG Dragons, Mardu Dragons, Jeskai Dragons - whereas the once-proud Butcher of the Horde has been seemingly nowhere since Dragons of Tarkir. One might conclude from recent Top 8 lists that Thunderbreak Regent is the stronger card by a mile.
But is it?
Butcher of the Horde might have been overrated even when it was at its height in Standard, but even so, the card is barely worse than Siege Rhino (Butcher of the Horde being essentially "the Mardu Siege Rhino"). I'd softly argue that the relative popularity of Thunderbreak Regent has more to do with Butcher of the Horde going only in Mardu (versus Gruul or Jeskai) concurrent with Dragons being en vogue (but probably not objectively better) in Mardu that has compromised Butcher of the Horde's reputation in Standard.
I mean one can argue that Thunderbreak Regent can enable cards like Draconic Roar and Butcher of the Horde can't, but that presupposes that Draconic Roar is even good. What if people aren't playing the cards that Draconic Roar is good against? What if it's all either Ojutais and Silumgars; or Brimaz on the ground into Elspeth up high? Or worse than just Elspeth; Ashiok into Liliana, Garruk, and Ugin? Because just a Thunderbreak Regent enables Draconic Roar, its synergy with Foul-Tongue Invocation generally has its Mardu devotees cutting Hero's Downfalls... You topdeck worse against control decks from two different dimensions when you go down this road.
Last week we spent a lot of time talking about Kai Budde and probably the luckiest topdeck sequence in the history of Magic. Kai's win over Darwin joins the $16,000 Lightning Helix together to give us an idea of what we think of as being closely correlated to luck: topdecking.
In each of these cases our eventual winners had narrow opportunities to find the right card under pressure. More generally when players talk about luck -- specifically being unlucky -- they talk more about getting topdecked when they are in a position they feel they are either likely to win, or will set up to be likely to win soon.
Can we affect the quality of our opponent's topdecks using granular deck building?
To attempt to answer this I would ask you to look back at Pro Tour Dragons of Tarkir. At Pro Tour Dragons of Tarkir we can set up an A/B/C view of three competing black cards:
● Bile Blight● Ultimate Price● Hero's Downfall
Bile Blight and Hero's Downfall compete with one another across a variety of archetypes, both being fast instant answers to threat creatures; Hero's Downfall does not compete directly with either card, being three mana and capable of destroying Planeswalkers, but does have a function crossover with Ultimate Price that is not really close to Bile Blight.
In the Top 8 of Pro Tour Dragons of Tarkir we saw Bile Blight and Ultimate Price neck-and-neck at eight copies apiece; eight Bile Blights and seven Ultimate Prices with an eighth Ultimate Price in a sideboard. On balance there were about fourteen copies of Hero's Downfall.
Sliding down to high performing Day Two decks outside the Pro Tour Dragons of Tarkir Top 8, we continue to see more Hero's Downfalls than either of the other two black cards; and slightly more Ultimate Prices than Bile Blights overall. Our only possible reading is that Bile Blight and Ultimate Price at that point were competitive with one another, even if Ultimate Price was a bit more popular overall.
Fast forward to Grand Prix Providence last week: a mature format almost ready for the next set. Assume for a moment that whatever else players choose, competitive players who are keeping abreast of deck trends watch the Top 8s of the most recent tournaments before they do anything else. The Providence Top 8 had a ton of Hero's Downfalls: the same fourteen we had in the Pro Tour Dragons of Tarkir Top 8. The card has been rock steady, even if a couple of copies migrated from maindeck to sideboard. But what happened to Bile Blight and Ultimate Price?
There was not a single Bile Blight in a Grand Prix Providence Top 8 maindeck! Sideboard copies only. And while there were not a whole lot of Ultimate Prices, there was at least a maindeck appearance by one (along with a par number of sideboard copies to Bile Blight). What is our conclusion to this? While Hero's Downfall has remained essentially equal in popularity over time, Ultimate Price has dropped off dramatically, while Bile Blight has fallen off a cliff.
Let's jump to, you know, yesterday (today for me but yesterday for you, actually).
Andrew Boswell of Sugar Loaf, NY finally puts away an SCG Open win with the only black deck in the Top 8. His deck features three copies of Ultimate Price main and one in the sideboard; no copies of Bile Blight (or for that matter Hero's Downfall) anywhere.
Ultimate Price amiright!?!
All right, all right; as convincing as that might be from one lens I'll be the first to give the nod to it being awfully weird to have only one black deck in the Top 8, and that deck favoring Herald of Torment at 1BB over Hero's Downfall. But I'd ask you to file away for a second that the Bos favored Ultimate Price at a greater rate than we might have anticipated, and didn't care for Bile Blight at all, despite being an Urborg deck and fully capable of making BB at some point.
What if we look to Grand Prix Buenos Aires that concluded the same day?
In Buenos Aires we saw a ton of black decks in the Top 8, such that our Hero's Downfall tally went through the roof: seventeen total copies (up from fourteen), and fifteen maindeck. Black point removal was popular again here!
But what about Bile Blight and Ultimate Price? You might give Ultimate Price a mini-nod that it made foil-Tarmogoyf-taking winner Pascal Maynard's maindeck and beat Bile Blight 3-1 overall there...but across the entire Top 8 Bile Blight and Ultimate Price ended up tied 4-4.
But once you go to sideboards, it's a blowout. Ultimate Price comes in at thirteen copies - close to our historical Pro Tour Dragons of Tarkir Hero's Downfall rate - with over twice as many sideboard copies as Bile Blight.
Boom shakka Bile Blight. :(
What does any of this have to do with topdecks?
Remember when we were talking about Butcher of the Horde v. Thunderbreak Regent? Regardless of number of Top 8s each are currently making, can we remember a time (not long ago) when Butcher of the Horde was up there, and can we agree for a moment that these two cards are at least in conversations with one another in terms of rate, cost, overall power, and appropriateness?
Let's assume they are close to equal: Which do you think makes for the more productive threat when Ultimate Price is lapping Bile Blight in popularity by insane numbers?
What a stupid question, some of you might be thinking to yourselves. Bile Blight doesn't kill either one.
But Ultimate Price does!
Even if Ultimate Price stings a bit against Thunderbreak Regent, three is less than five, and a hell of a lot less than five lifelink! But it's not just that. Thunderbreak Regent's best buddy is Stormbreath Dragon - another card that gets its butt kicked by Ultimate Price!
For all you want to say about the Dragons-matter synergies of Thunderbreak Regent, it's not like Butcher of the Horde is any slouch in the friendship department. His best buddy is Goblin Rabblemaster...who, I think you will agree, is one of the primary beneficiaries of a decrease in the popularity of Bile Blight.
Let's put it all together:
Luck in Magic is closely related - narrative-wise, at least - to big moment topdecking. Anyone who read last week's article knows about Kai, most of you know about the $16,000 Lightning Helix, and while you might not have known this before, the very first Pro Tour was decided on a key topdeck. Bertrand Lestree had a lethal Whirling Dervish on the table. Mike "Loco" Loconto ripped a Swords to Plowshares post-Armageddon to stay alive and eventually stabilize. These topdecks are largely around finding key cards - especially answers - when it looks like the opponent is about to win.
But like we said last week, a lot of what we attribute to luck is only partially luck. We can affect quite a bit of it, even if sizable chunks are technically out of our control.
See where I'm going yet?
My thesis here was that Butcher of the Horde and Thunderbreak Regent are at least comparable all other things held equal. If your Mardu deck is operating offensively, both cards can put you into similar offensive positions (with opponents similarly on the back foot) in similar time windows.
If one is topdeck-out-able and the other one either isn't or is way less topdeck-vulnerable, the Butcher of the Horde player can reduce the opponent's chances of turning our offense into a good topdeck story. It's not flashy because it never happens at all. The opposite seems positively icky: if we choose the other side, aren't we just asking to get topdecked? Ew.
Just like last week, I want to give you something to add to your model for decision making. I hinted at it all throughout this article.
There is a general tendency in Magic deck design and deck selection to think about our choices in terms of decks. "I am playing Abzan Aggro" is something you might say. I would ask you to step away from generalities like that and instead focus on individual card choices. This is especially interesting when you can choose a card or set of cards (like Butcher of the Horde v. Thunderbreak Regent or Wingmate Roc v. Strombreath Dragon) that are close functionally and cost-wise, but might give you contextual advantages. This is the single most important skill, I think, that Patrick Chapin used to win Pro Tour Journey into Nyx last year, when he figured out how much more oomph he could get out of Fleecemane Lion when the most common creature was going to be Sylvan Caryatid, or the relative value people were imagining into Magma Jet v. Lightning Strike.