Hey all! I’m Jon (Souljah632 on MTGO) and I’ll be a regular Pauper contributor here on MTGO Academy. I played the majority of my paper Magic in high school but transitioned to Magic Online when my playgroup dissolved. I’ve been playing mostly Pauper for a couple years now. The format has evolved and developed so much in that time, and my goal in this column is to pass along some of that accumulated information to you, the readers!
In today’s installment, I want to examine a piece of classic Magic theory and apply it to the format to help players better understand deckbuilding choices and to prepare them for their matches. Michael J. Flores wrote his article on the phases of a game of Magic some years ago, but it has become one of the predominant bases on which players develop their game. For reference, you can read up on Michael’s idea in his own words here. What has now come to be known as Stage Theory is an influential idea that outlines how a player progresses through the game and how to identify the trademarks of a successful game plan.
Stage I: Implementing a Game Plan
The first stage of the game, according to the theory, is about getting the ball rolling on a game plan. This begins with a player’s mulligan decisions. What does a deck need to accomplish in a given matchup, and how does the hand fit this plan? If a player is faced with a Storm Combo deck from an opponent, an fine hand against most other decks could be straight unplayable because it doesn’t interact with the combo player.
Once a plan is set, the obvious conclusion is to stick to the plan, yet many players are tempted by things like mana efficiency or fancy play. Continuing the game plan is the best way to win because allocating too many resources too broadly instead of focusing on a deck’s weakness will not meet any goals. If you need to disrupt a combo deck from going off or slow down an agro deck’s attacks, make every play toward that goal. Players often worry about finding ways to win, but if the plan they set out to accomplish works, the opponent will not have any chance to come back, and winning is inevitable.
The worst way to lose games is from mana issues, and land drops are the most important aspect of the early game. Playing cards that enhance your mana count or find lands for you will make sure you can hit land drops consistently, and therefore, ensure your plan goes off. Cycling lands like Barren Moor or Forgotten Cave do their job in this situation; they are lands when you need them to be and extra cards when you don’t.
Along that line of thinking, playing cards that have versatile uses in various stages of the game make sure you can work with your mana and find the appropriate plays. Krosan Tusker is a great way to end the game, but in the early turns it can make sure you reach four mana and dig up a card at the same time. Preordain and Ponder work well here because they can always be used to find what you need at a given moment. These cards are inexpensive, so they can be cast any time in the game, never losing value once you leave the first stage.
Stage II: Earn an Advantage
Once you’ve established a goal and know what you need to accomplish, the next stage is quite simple in theory but tough in gameplay: work up an advantage so insurmountable that the opponent cannot win. Not every matchup can be a good one for your deck because each deck has weaknesses that can be exploited. In these situations where simply rolling with Plan A will not do, it is important to identify the key points of a match and make sure they swing in your favor.
In some games, a particular card or group of cards is so powerful they become the focus of your strategy. If you are faced with an Affinity deck and you cannot effectively block a Myr Enforcer or an Atog, then saving the Doom Blade in your hand specifically for those cards is a must. Breaking from such a plan should only be done if an opening to win the game presents itself or if you’re under pressure and you absolutely have to spend your removal elsewhere.
Cards that give you an extra card’s worth of advantage often shine in this stage of the game because every extra resource you accrue gives you more options to fight your opponent. Creatures like Mulldrifter, Crypt Rats and Izzet Chronarch provide value by ‘paying for themselves’ when their abilities trigger, gaining the caster at least another card in return. Reusing effects is also valuable at this stage because redundant effects can incrementally build advantage. Grim Harvest pulling back Augur of Skulls or Kor Skyfisher bouncing Aven Riftwatcher back to its owner’s hand give players a considerable number of the creatuer effects, which may be exactly what a matchup calls for.
Stage III: Close the Game Quickly and Efficiently
Once an advantage is built so that the opponent cannot come back from it, the last and generally shortest stage is simply winning the game. A game reaches this stage when it seems inevitable that one player will win, and every draw step brings that player closer to that timely Lightning Bolt or that last combat phase. It is at this point in the game where every resource is focused on ending the opponent in a timely manner.
Deck Tech: Izzetpost
Let’s examine these elements of Stage Theory as they relate to a known deck and see how the deck functions within the bounds of these ideas. For reference, here is a decklist with a 4-0 record in a recent Daily Event.
Izzetpost, played by Fragoel2
The power of Izzetpost is in its ability to prepare a game plan for any type of deck that may come against it. Using card draw spells and Mystical Teachings, the Izzetpost pilot can dig for the appropriate tools in a timely manner while holding off opposing strategies. Let’s look at how it functions in general through the lens of Stage Theory and then focus on how it plans out matchups against popular decks.
Step by Step
The most important part of any control deck is hitting land drops and gaining a mana advantage over the opponent while slowing down his or her plan. Besides playing a healthy number of lands, the deck plays full sets of Preordains, Prophetic Prisms and Sea Gate Oracles as mana fixers. While the deck formerly ran Expedition Map, players have transitioned to cheap draw spells and value creatures like Mulldrifter and the Oracle because they retain value several turns down the road.
Besides using Mana Leak to counter early threats from the opponent, the deck also uses Condescend to slow down the action while scrying away dead cards like excess lands or a Rolling Thunder the player can’t quite yet use. The stack of Bolts and Flame Slashes answers most creatures at efficient mana costs, which allows the deck to cast multiple spells a turn.
As the deck reaches the Second Stage, it essentially digs through its library for the appropriate tools to end the game. Mulldrifter flies over for most kills, but Rolling Thunder can be used to wipe out an aggro deck’s forces. Similarly, Capsize can start locking players out of the game if it continually bounces lands and threats. With enough Cloudposts online, Capsize can bounce two permanents a turn, effectively undoing a player’s mana and making it harder to fight the deck’s threats.
The Third Stage is quite uniform in that it often involves wiping out the opponent’s threats and resolving a Mulldrifter. In matchups without countermagic, Rolling Thunder may also burn the opponent out, and Lightning Bolts can fast-forward the game to its end.
The focus of the deck shifts greatly depending on the opponent, and recognizing which cards are essentially dead weight in a given matchup is key to making sure you’re not playing catch-up the entire match. While the burn spells are obviously intended for aggro decks, the speed of a deck determines if the countermagic is worth holding on to. Infect and Burn decks are probably too fast, but White Weenie and Tortured Existence-based decks are slow enough to warrant their inclusion. Curfew is specifically slotted in the sideboard to hit Infect decks once they’ve played most of their Giant Growth effects to gain immense card advantage and Hydroblast gives the deck ten 1-mana removal spells against Goblins.
Control decks get hit with a full set of Pyroblasts and a couple of Negates out of the sideboard while trying to contain the awesome card selection the deck comes naturally equipped with. Capsize shines in the control matchup as a must-counter answer to the threats a control player needs to end the game. Using instants to bait countermagic on the opponent’s turn is a great way to open up Rolling Thunder to end the game.
Some specific cards have to be kept in check for Izzetpost to win, and identifying them will save the player a great deal of lost games. Because the deck can’t remove Guardian of the Guildpact once it resolves, the player has to hold onto a Mana Leak or Condescend just in case. Although Ancient Grudge does wonders against the Affinity deck, there’s no solid way to eliminate Atog other than Hydroblast, so those should come in from the sideboard specifically to cancel out that threat. If a player has a creature with protection from red, such as Crimson Acolyte, finding a Steamcore Weird can often blow a game wide open.
This kind of planning for a game’s flow and specific trouble spots can help players immensely instead of getting caught off-guard and trying to salvage an otherwise solid scenario.
Playing in Slow Motion
The difference between Pauper and other Eternal formats is the overwhelming power disparity, meaning that the interactions of cards are not as lopsided, and things like combos or sideboard tools do not dismantle games single-handedly. By this standard, the Stage Theory itself has to slow down as well. Transitioning between the stages takes longer, and the line is more obscure because a control deck can’t simply cast Wrath of God, and there’s no fear of cards like Dark Depths or Tarmogoyf.
With this in mind, the take-home point of Stage Theory is that the plan must continue advancing every turn. A series of botched plays or unlucky draws could open the door for your opponent to sneak back into the game. Don’t let up, and remind yourself every turn: “What am I trying to accomplish?”
That’s all for this time, check back for my next article and pass along any criticisms or compliments by posting below. Thanks for reading!