Sunday, November 25, 2012

Emergent Archetypes Part 2: Control

The second part of the emergent archetypes series talks about control decks.

Control is a family of decks that are built to last for many, many turns, completely control the game (hence the name) and end it with a single finisher, which is usually a creature but may be a repeatable effect or big instant, sorcery or ability as well.

UB Control

Cube Decklist: UB Control
Constructed Decklist: Psychatog
Relative popularity in cube: Common

Perhaps the most classical combination of colors for control decks, UB combines blue's counterspells, card drawing and versatility with black's efficiency at creature removal and hand disruption. Those two colors, together, can attack the opponent's plans through pretty much any angle. For this archetype to work, it is important to have a deck with answers to everything, so counterspells are a must. Creature removal, discard, finishers and card drawing complete the core of UB Control. Card advantage is very common in these two colors, so typically there will be a lot of options available to overwhelm the opponent as the game goes on.

This is a powerful and easy to draft archetype, making it a good option when blue and black are open. What it's good against and bad against varies too much from build to build. It can be weak to aggro if it doesn't have enough removal, to midrange if it doesn't have enough counterspells, to aggro-control if it doesn't have enough discard or to other control if it doesn't have enough card drawing. The key is making a balanced build that can do well against all sorts of decks.

Rare Variation: UB Milling

A twist on UB Control is UB Milling, which works the same way, except it doesn't use big creatures as finishers, but milling. As games typically last at least 15 turns with UB Control, this means milling 20 cards from the opponent while controlling him is enough to win. This plan is typically slower than using fatties, but more reliable because there isn't much for the opponent to do about it except win before he is decked.

To make UB Milling work, simply replace finishers with milling cards. Archive Trap is very efficient, and even Millstone does alright in limited. Assume the game will last 13 turns, which added to the 7 cards in the opponent's starting hand makes his "life total" regarding milling around 20. Archive Trap would therefore be a burn that deals 13 damage, and Millstone would deal 2 damage a turn for 2 mana each activation.

Milling also has synergy with reanimation that can take creatures from your opponent's graveyard. While they will attack a different dimension than the rest of your deck, it'll be invaluable for defense and using utility creatures that end up there, or eventually some big creature that can take the game by itself.

WU Control

Cube Decklist: WU Control
Constructed Decklist: Mirari's Wake
Relative popularity in cube: Common

Blue's main weakness is its inability to deal permanently with creatures, and that's why monoblue control decks are nearly impossible to be successful with. Black solves the problem with its removal, but so does white. In fact, white is better than black to deal with creatures - its removal is generally more powerful - see Swords to Plowshares - and it has access to several mass removal spells. Also, it adds the important ability to remove enchantments and artifacts that are already on the battlefield. Lastly, white has good defensive creatures and life gain, making it a great color to stop aggressive decks.

The downside in comparison with black is the lack of discard, which increases the importance of counterspells. Another disadvantage is that white does not generate as much card advantage as black does, so on average it's a better deck to deal with beatdown, but worse in the control matchup.

Rare Variation: WU Aggro-Control

This not-so-great control matchup causes WU Control to want to kill the opponent as soon as the situation becomes favorable. One good option is using evasive creatures and protecting them from the start of the game, and focusing more on tempo control than mass removal, while retaining the counterspells, creature pinpoint removal and enchantment/artifact removal. This creates an aggro-control build that deploys clocks early, at the expense or long term power. It's a delicate build to brew, which can only work with good evasive creatures, but quite effective when done right.

There is also the option of using this as a plan B with a transformative sideboard. When WU Control faces another slow, grindy deck, it can become WU Aggro-Control by replacing mass removal and expensive finishers with cheap and prefarably evasive creatures.

UR Control

Cube Decklist: UR Control
Constructed Decklist: Counter-Burn
Relative popularity in cube: Rare

Lastly, blue can combine with red, which has access to tons of creature removal, creating the archetype known as Counter-Burn. While it does not offer discard and card advantage like black does, or versatile removal and defense like white does, red is very, very efficient at killing creatures and artifacts, making it even better than white against aggro. Another plus is that expensive burn spells can be used as finishers, combined or not with fatties - a slower but harder to stop win condition, analogous to milling.

It's easy to draft burn for UR Control since there is so much of it in the cube, but an important detail is to prioritize expensive burn, like X spells or recurrent ones like Pulse of the Forge and Hammer of Bogardan. The blue part should have the usual - counterspells, card selection, and more importantly than in other archetypes, card drawing. Burning has the capacity of turning card advantage into victory quickly - there are few cards you would rather draw a lot of than Lightning Bolts.

WB Control

Cube Decklist: WB Control
Constructed Decklist: Decree
Relative popularity in cube: Rare

A control deck without blue will miss its counterspells and card drawing, which are key elements in the archetypes described before. White and black can, together, fill these holes partially with black's card advantage and discard and white's removal versatility. Since both colors are great at killing creatures, this won't be an issue at all for WB Control, so its aggro and midrange match ups are pretty good. It suffers, however, against decks that are light on creatures and run removal, like control and aggro-control. The only mechanism to protect your finishers will be discard, which is unreliable near the end of the game.

It is important to avoid putting too much creature removal in WB Control. It's easy to fall for this trap when drafting WB, but overloading your deck with Doom Blades and Journey to Nowheres will make it very bad against creature-light decks, especially control. It is preferable to fill some of those spots with resilient win conditions, even if they are suboptimal. You will have time to cast expensive spells, but remember you won't have a grip of counterspells to make sure they stick.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Emergent Archetypes - Part 1: Midrange

The series of posts about emergent archetypes starts with the midrange family.

The philosophy of midrange is that if you play more threats than your opponent has answers, the excess threats will beat him up to a pulp. These decks tend to have high average card power, as well as a high mana curve, relying on that sheer power rather than timing to win. It is very common to pack ramping cards, which help the big spells be cast earlier, as well as removal or tempo cards to delay the opponent's development.

A post by Ken Nagle that dates from 2007 about the midrange archetype can be read here.

WG Midrange

Cube Decklist: WG Midrange
Constructed Decklist: Ghazi-Glare
Relative popularity in cube: Common

One of the most popular archetypes in my cube is WG Midrange. WG is the combination with arguably the most powerful creatures, so it's quite natural to tend to midrange when one drafts WG. At the beginning of the game, green provides mana acceleration and white provides defense and removal. Both colors have decent 4+ mana creatures, so putting together this kind of deck is typically easy.

WG is a combination that features a lot of life gain as well, which combined with the good defensive creatures that white and green have makes this archetype have a very solid matchup against aggro. However, it is usually vulnerable to spot and mass creature removal. It is not for WG Midrange to play around a deck packed with removal, but it can be done by running reliable finishers (like Myojin of Cleansing Fire), manlands (Treetop Village), equipment, or something else more creative (Stunted Growth, anyone?).

Rare Variation: WG Aggro

One approach to WG which is similar to midrange but not quite like it is aggro. The major difference is the mana curve and play pattern: while midrange will spend its first turns ramping, and then cast 4+ mana creatures, aggro will cast threats starting on turn 1 and pretty much ignore mana development. Both white and green have good offensive 1 and 2 mana creatures, which makes this a consistent aggro option. It is still weak to removal though, so equipment and manlands become even more important for this build to work well.

UG Midrange

Cube Decklist: UG Midrange
Constructed Decklist: RUG Ramp
Relative popularity in cube: Common

This build works very differently than the previous. Blue is the opposite of white in terms of creature density, and acts as a support color for the green threats. The strategy is to let green focus on ramping and playing big monsters, while blue enabled it to do so. Typically, the deck will have some counterspells for disruption, some card drawing for refueling, and some tempo control to prevent the opponent from playing too fast to see your awesome fatties. This makes the deck less centered on playing big things, but it becomes way more versatile. UG does not have the raw power WG does. Rather, it can get out of any situation.

How this archetype plays varies a lot depending on the the decklist and the draw. The bulk of expensive threats will be green creatures, but don't assume blue will be restricted to the cheap part of the deck. It has a couple of good finishers as well, particularly evaders, and its creature control spells will often be game breaking.

Rare Variation: UG Control

If a UG midrange is too slow, it starts to lean towards UG control. Now, green is not a very appropriate color for control, as it does not have creature disruption. What it CAN do is play efficient blockers, ramp, cast Fogs, and make sure problematic artifacts and enchantments stay off the game. Green has a wide range of finisers though, making it a rare, but still viable choice as second color in a blue control deck.

If you are drafting a UG Midrange and notice it's leaning towards control (symptoms are: lack of ramping, lack of cheap tempo cards, presence of counterspells), then UG Control should be considered. It'll be a matter of strengthening the deck on the long run to make its plan A be "control the game completely then play finishers" instead of "play finishers as soon as possible".

BR Midrange

Cube Decklist: BR Midrange
Constructed Decklist: Jund
Relative popularity in cube: Uncommon

Being the only color combination often used for midrange that doesn't involve green, BR obviously works with a different midrange paradigm. Black and red don't have especially good big effects. This is about how easy it is to use those two colors to control the opposition at the start of the game. Red kills creatures easily with burn, while black has discard and more creature removal. Burn and discard lose value as the game develops though, so it's natural to play some strong cards to try and close the game before the opponent recovers. This is exactly the play pattern of a midrange deck.

Some aspects of red and black can be used effectively in this build. Black reanimation, for example, works great to bring back the most problematic creature your opponent managed to deal with. High power low toughness red creatures work great as well, because the way will be open for them to close the game quickly. This color combination is good to create incremental card advantage. Look at Blightning, Blazing Specter, Murderous Redcap and Bituminous Blast. See a pattern there?

Rare Variation: BR Control

An archetype that just appeared once, but was so successful that I feel like it should appear sporadically. As stated above, black and red are very good in controlling the game early on, but lose efficiency at control in the long run. To circumvent that, cards that work well in a long game must be prioritized. This is the only archetype that did well with Goblin Charbelcher.

A weakness of this archetype is that it has a hard time dealing with enchantments. It is a narrow drawback, but really, when one plays a control deck, the games that go in their favor will take a while and most of their opponent's cards will be drawn. If the opposing deck has a single problematic enchantment, there will be in trouble. The biggest problem though, may be creatures immune to spot removal, such as ones with shroud, hexproof or indestructibility. Getting powerful mass removal is necessary to deal with those.

G Midrange

Cube Decklist: No register
Constructed Decklist: Dungrove Green
Relative popularity in cube: Rare

A rare build that takes the midrange game plan to its extreme, without other colors messing it up. This build is very consistent since it is monocolored and very focused. It's very unusual for the opponent to have blockers powerful enough to hold back a G Midrange offensive, but it suffers with its lack of versatility. Mass removal, counterspells and spot removal work well against it, making it a fragile archetype depending on what it's up against.

This deck comes together naturally when one is power drafting green. Its success, like any monocolored build, depends heavily on how many people are in that color, so it's an archetype that cannot show up in most drafts, but when it does, it's a serious contender that will wreck anything not prepared to stop a full-on creature offensive.

Emergent Archetypes

I try my best to have a metagame as varied as possible, but the forces of Magic make classical (and modern) archetypes emerge straight from Standard, Extended, Legacy and Modern. In this series of 4 posts, I'll present the most common archetypes drafted in all these months of cubing and compare their cousins from Constructed.

Each post will talk about a family of archetypes, with all color combinations commonly played as such. A brief description of each strategy can be read in this post.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Draft Report - Nov 02, 2012

- Naka (WUB Control) 3-1, 7-3
- Jão (WB Aggro) 3-1, 6=2
- Kamila (UG Midrange) 3-1, 6-3
- André (UB Midrange) 2-1, 3-2
- Vitinho (UB Aggro-Milling) 1-4, 1-7
- Marcos (WG) 1-0, 2-1
- Mauro (BR Midrange) 0-3, 2-5
- Geraldo (WBR) 0-2, 0-4

As usual, the 3-person cycle on the top of the rankings shows up.

Some old theories claimed there was a rock-paper-scissors pattern between aggro, control and midrange. Aggro would develop too fast for control to keep up with, control would beat midrange due to being tuned to win attrition wars, while midrange would have a good matchup against aggro because the massive difference between the difference in card quality would quickly stanch a beatdown offensive, despite developing one or two turns later.

What we saw was exactly the opposite. Control won the match against aggro, which beat midrange, which completed the cycle by defeating control. These are the decklists and the counterpoints each one makes against the theory above.

WUB Control

5 Swamp
4 Plains
4 Island
Azorius Chancery
Celestial Colonnade
Jwar Isle Refuge
Esper Panorama

Sword of Body and Mind
Mimic Vat
Sphinx of Jwar Isle
Visara the Dreadful

Swords to Plowshares
Journey to Nowhere
Serrated Arrows
Devastation Tide

Raven's Crime
Gerrard's Verdict
Hymn to Tourach

Card Filtering
Demonic Tutor
Thirst for Knowledge
Careful Consideration

Animate Dead

Sphere of the Suns
Mother of Runes

Heavy in discard and efficient removal, this WUB control deck is built to abuse the graveyard and Mimic Vat. In one of the games I played with it, I was forced to Gerrard's Verdict myself to be able to reanimate Visara the Dreadful after a couple of mulligans, and still got close to winning. It has a couple of weaknesses though, the most obvious of them all being the lack of counterspells and mass removal.

The deck managed to stall the WB beatdown deck quickly using cheap removal. The discard part of the deck played awkwardly in this matchup and some of it was swapped out during sideboarding for more removal. Serrated Arrows, Swords to Plowshares and Shriekmaw were very efficient stopping small critters, even though the match was tough.

What the deck most missed, though, was fatal for its midrange matchup: mass removal. Devastation Tide can buy some time, but it sure is no Wrath of God. In the end, the lack of powerful card advantage mechanisms, which was atypical for a control deck, caused its loss to midrange.

WB Aggro

8 Plains
7 Swamp
Caves of Koilos

Diregraf Ghoul
Elite Vanguard
Isamaru, Hound of Konda
Vampire Lacerator
Soltari Trooper
Child of Night
Benalish Cavalry
Blade Splicer
Phyrexian Rager
Emeria Angel

Tidehollow Sculler
Grand Abolisher
Goldmeadow Harrier
Hypnotic Specter

Mangara of Corondor

Creature Buffing
Flayer Husk
Dolmen Gate
Lightning Greaves
Loxodon Warhammer
Griffin Guide

Phyrexian Arena
Wrath of God

A very aggressive WB beatdown deck running 4 2-power 1-mana creatures capable of winning the game very quickly and consistently. About 2/3 of the deck was comprised of efficient creatures and the rest was mostly creature improvement and disruption to support the plan.

It used a handful of evasion creatures to get through the UG midrange's blockers. While it only had 4 cards with evasion, the pressure it exerted with the rest bought it time enough to kill with Soltari Trooper and Hypnotic Specter before the opponent had time to stabilize and turn the tide with their fatties.

On the other hand, the low cost/benefit of these evaders against a nearly creatureless deck and the inclusion of some slower cards in the deck like Wrath of God and Mangara of Corondor prevented it from being fast enough to overwhelm the WUB control deck, which had time enough to build up its defenses.

UG Midrange

7 Island
8 Forest
Halimar Depths
Flooded Grove
Simic Growth Chamber

Llanowar Elves
Joraga Treespeaker
Nest Invader
Mul Daya Channelers
Explosive Vegetation
Defense of the Heart

Scute Mob
Call of the Herd
Great Sable Stag
Wickerbough Elder
Master of the Wild Hunt
Meloku the Clouded Mirror
Steel Hellkite
Simic Sky Swallower

Memory Lapse

Pendrell Flux
Psionic Blast
Corrupted Conscience

Fact or Fiction
Oracle of Nectars

This UG deck has good ramping and lots of big beefy threats, and with several counterspells it is able to hold up an offensive position very well once it is ahead of its opponent. It can play aggressively against opponents that struggle to develop, as well as stall and grind out a faster adversary.

The pack of 4 top notch counterspells was invaluable against WUB control, which had its most important spells countered, being subsequently beaten by resilient creatures like Simic Sky Swallower.

Those counterspells, however, were too slow to stop the very aggressive WB deck, which already had a strong position on the table before the counters were active. The deck could still play blockers and stop the ground attacks, and it did, but ultimately lost to evaders.

Each of these three decks had some aspect that is not expected of their archetype (evaders in aggro, counterspells in midrange, lack of card advantage in control). Those aspects were crucial for the match results, suggesting that while the rock-paper-scissors theory may be true for decks very typical of an anchetype, those advantages and disadvantages may be mitigated by minor changes in the deck's build.