“What does your deck even do, exactly?”
I was looking over a friend’s decklist that he insisted we test in our gauntlet, trying to glean a little insight as to what his game plan looked like. The list did a lot of things I liked, but didn’t exactly seem like it had a way to end the game quickly. Here’s the list, for reference:
UWR Trinket Mage by Souljah632
“There’s so much value in this deck. You can recycle the Spellbombs for card advantage, and it has the utility of the equipment package,” he said. I understood what he was getting at, but I wanted to probe a little further into what an actual game might play like.
“Can you turn your value guys into results, though? That’s my question.”
“Well, it?s not exactly the same. You have to spend way more resources recurring it, and you can’t effectively deploy spells in another direction while managing the Spellbomb at the same time.”
“Whatever, it’s a slower format anyways, right? I virtually have more spells than anyone else.”
“What do you estimate the goal is with this thing? When do you win?”
“Well . . . whenever.”
I’ve had this kind of conversation plenty of times with regard to new deck design, and it seems more prone to Pauper players because the format permits running fewer utterly broken cards than the other Eternal formats. While the list does several things right, my comrade did not account for the most important aspect of any well-designed deck: ending the game in a timely manner.
You see, while someone piloting the deck may get in tons of plays “for value,” it may not matter. The opponent may be crushing him by then, and burning an opponent out on Turn 15 isn’t exactly pressuring your opponent to change their game plan. When considering playing or building a new deck, you must first consider what your opponents will be trying to accomplish and see if you can keep up with their play. This concept of acknowledging another deck’s plan and basing your play around disrupting it or racing it to that point is the concept of the Fundamental Turn.
The Fundamental Turn is essentially the estimated turn when the deck shifts modes into the end game. After spending several turns trying to get ahead, at some point a deck needs to execute a line of play that directly positions it to start finding a way to win. Longtime magic pro Zvi Mowshowitz pioneered the idea in this article over ten years ago when considering whether a deck was able to successfully interact with opposing strategies given the opponent’s usual mode of operation, and when counting out the time he is given before he couldn’t catch up to the opponent’s plan. Mowshowitz essentially noted that deckbuilders should consider whether their decks were fast enough to win before another strategy, and if not, how their deck planned to disrupt the opponent to buy appropriate time.
The above Pauper list never really does so. Trinket Mage has tons of value attached to it, and the Spellbomb interaction is cute, but let’s be honest: Either I’m spending my mana on value bears and swinging my 2/2s into a board of creatures that don’t require extra mana to be useful, or I’m practically flashing back Firebolt every turn and hoping my army of gray ogres will hold the fort.
Compare the above deck to this list:
Infect Beatdown by Souljah632
While the Infect deck lacks fancy 2-for-1s and tutors, it does one thing exceedingly well. It looks to swing in for the win as early as Turn 2. As unimpressive cards go, Mutagenic Growth and a stack of undersized creatures don’t look like much, but the list is inherently focused on putting pressure on the opponent early and winning the game before the opponent can set up any attempt to defend himself. Without many ways to disrupt the opponent’s game plan or block their attacks, Infect players see that their best plan is to simply accelerate their Fundamental Turn and avoid countermagic or larger creatures altogether.
Let’s look at how the concept applies to the various archetypes and what you can do to optimize your lists while preparing a plan for any opponent.
Aggro players have it easier than most because they can essentially play solitaire games with their deck about 30 or 40 times to get an idea of where their Fundamental Turn is, then apply it to some actual games and see what the difference is. Goblin decks may be able to goldfish a win on Turn 4 with an extra burn spell and stream of cheap creatures, for example, but when a live body is sitting across the virtual table, that may change to Turn 6 or 7 depending on how the opponent blocks or if his deck has relevant removal spells.
Once it’s clear how a matchup alters your deck’s plan, it’s important to explore both options moving forward from here: consider both accelerating the Fundamental Turn (making your deck faster) and searching for possible disruption to buy the time needed.
White Weenie tends to be my aggro deck of choice because of this reason. The card selection white offers essentially allows me to explore both options realistically. Wanna trim down your clock? Consider cheaper threats to focus on getting the job done in its simplest form, like playing Leonin Skyhunter over Aven Riftwatcher. Test builds with Mutagenic Growth and Barkshell Blessing to push the tempo and give your deck some reach to steal a win against control. If there isn’t a way to build the deck fast enough, look to sideboard options like Obsidian Acolyte or Dust to Dust to break up your opponent’s game plan.
When I mentioned reach in the last paragraph, I should note that all aggro decks should consider running a package that allows them to break a stalemate and keep pushing through damage. Whether it’s Lightning Bolt, Rancor, or Reinforcements, an aggro deck does not have the tools to stop caring about the board state. These cards can essentially give new life to a matchup that looks grim.
Most control decks don’t really measure their Fundamental Turns by the same metric, so establishing what you should consider, such as a soft lock, or adjusting your priorities within the game, is extremely important. For example, the Fundamental Turn for any given Mono-Black Control (MBC) list is probably when the opponent has no cards in hand and far fewer creatures on board. This means that resolving a copy of their trademark Corrupt will tilt the race in MBC’s favor and make it impossible for the opponent to attack them aggressively. Shaping the game to lead to such a position is the job of the control player, and requires constant supervision of resources while considering how to disrupt the opponent.
Most players can recognize that sinking feeling when the Izzetpost deck starts throwing burn at their face instead of at their creatures. Somewhere in the course of the game, the control player hit their Fundamental Turn and their line of play clearly shifted to closing out the match. In general, a good rule of thumb for the control deck to measure by is the turn in which your opponent cannot effectively attack you, thus allowing the control player to consider ways to start attacking the opponent. When the MBC deck can start tapping out for Corrupt, the game has hit the Fundamental Turn, and the only remaining issue is what creatures they can afford to send into the red zone.
Control is disruptive by nature, but selecting the appropriate disruption for the job and considering what aspects of the game plan are worth fighting over is key. If the MBC deck relies on hitting with Okiba-Gang Shinobi, determining if defenses like Apostles Blessing or Dispel deserve merit is in direct proportion to how important the Okiba-Gang is to your game plan. If you can afford to use the ninja tricks to regain value on a creature and bait a removal spell, maybe the Okiba-Gang isn’t as important as one might think. Answering these questions will allow you to tweak your already good game plan until it becomes a great one.
Temporal Storm 2.0 by Souljah632
Sometimes this deck can go off as early as Turn 4, but it can buy a lot of time by deploying blockers and sculpting a perfect hand with its various draw spells to ensure the board clears around Turn 7 or 8. The importance of noting this is that it helps the pilot consider whether or not waiting until Turn 8 can be a feasible game plan in the current metagame. If countermagic and MBC are rampant, this deck isn’t really a good choice because an opponent will have disruption ready by the time the deck can go off, but aggro decks and midrange creatures make this kind of strategy an appealing option.
The Goblin Storm lists are more volatile, but the concept is the same. A friendly metagame offers plenty of Turn 2 wins, but when everyone is prepared for the deck, it can be hard to ensure going off effectively ends the game. Sideboards can be tuned to bring in specific hate cards such as Duress or Negate for these matchups which make winning even more difficult.
Thinning out the wasted space in a given deck and finding ways to accelerate the Fundamental Turn are great options to make combo decks such as these more powerful because you can effectively bypass some of your opponent’s disruption. It takes some innovation to discern how to speed up decks like these, but the rewards make it worth the effort.
To wrap things up, there are two questions a player should ask himself to time his Fundamental Turn effectively. First, what does a winning board position look like? Consider a specific matchup, play out a scenario in which the deck of choice can look to win the game, and note what cards are in play, how many options are in each player’s hands and what cards are absolutely vital to achieving this.
Secondly, go over the decklist and ask this: Knowing where the game needs to go, how does this deck get there? For example, if the scenario involves the opponent with an empty hand, the deck is going to need some combination of threats, disruption and card advantage to force the action and come out on top.
Above all else, testing several matches against the trouble matchups for a given deck will reveal the proper course of action. It’s important to make changes and alter game plans on the back of data, not speculation, and make reasonable changes when necessary. If the goal of a deck does not line up with the card choices in the list, invariably something has to change.
That’s all for this installment. Next time, I will also be unveiling a decklist I’ve been working on to kick off a series of deck-tech articles to examine what new decks can do to break up the current metagame and get an edge on the competition. As always, feedback is welcome, and any questions or concerns will be addressed in the space below or in an upcoming article. Thanks for reading!
-Jon aka Souljah 632