Wednesday, December 5, 2012

An Aggressive Player Plays Control

My favorite way to train for playing Magic is making up a mock deck and playing with it a lot. It helps Mike (who is often playtesting as well as training) and gives me invaluable information. For example, in a recent tournament, I was playing against a blue/red deck that absolutely fizzled. The player cast lots of Brainstorms and Ponders, but never really cast anything else. Now, I had played with a particular red/blue deck called Show and Tell (maybe you’ve heard of it) and, taking an educated guess, I sideboarded against Show and Tell and, lo and behold, game two he tried to resolve a Show and Tell. Playing other decks, and not just the ones I’ll be piloting, is a great exercise.
It also helps me understand the underlying structure of the game. Everyone knows the basic phases of Magic; Untap, Upkeep, Draw, Main Phase I, Combat Phase, Main Phase II, and End Step. But, there’s lots of little tiny steps embedded within those phases. For example, the Combat Phase is broken up into Subphases. There’s Declare Attackers, Declare Blockers, and then priority passes to the Attacker, who is then able to cast Instants or activate abilities, and then, if the Attacker does something, priority passes to the Defender, and back and forth it goes until someone doesn’t cast something. Then everything resolves in reverse, starting with the last spell cast, then, and finally, damage is resolved instantaneously and at the same time. Creatures die, Lifepoints are lost (and/or gained), and then we move to Main Phase II.
Without this deeper understanding of the game’s underlying mechanic, a player can be caught be surprise when his opponent flashes in Snapcaster, giving Flashback to his Swords to Plowshares, and then Exile his big, ole Tarmagoyf, and finally blocks his Deathright Shaman. Or why it’s generally good to cast permanents in Main Phase II, just in case he needs some mana for something that happen during Combat.
This is really tangential, but it sets the tone for the rest of the article, because, you see, for the past two or three months, I've only been piloting super aggressive decks. For tournaments I've been taking Goblins. Currently, I’m tweaking a BG or BUG Infect deck which wants to resolve a creature and then slam for lethal next turn. In other words, I've been steeping in aggression.
So, Mike comes over for dinner and we bust out our decks. He had had a rough time in the last tournament, losing to RUG Delver, so I thought I’d play that while he played his B/W Stoneforge/Miracle/whatever-he-calls-it-that-week. Turn One I played a land and Brainstormed. Mike laughed.
“Dude, that’s a bad Brainstorm.”
I had no idea what he was talking about. I set a land and then resolved a spell! How is that NOT a good thing?!
I drew and then pondered (no pun intended, seriously) what to keep and what put back for about ten seconds. Mike laughed again.
“Dude, you are so not a Control player! I would have known what to put back before I cast that Brainstorm.”
And that’s when it hit me. I was playing like an aggressive player.
The entire mentality behind playing an aggressive deck is “RESOLVE EVERYTHING!” I love playing Goblins and sitting there with one mana. I love it. I got my Goblin Lackey and my Aether Vial is ticked up to three. I am sitting pretty! I use Aether Vial to cast my Goblin Matron, get Goblin Warchief, then hit with the Lackey so I can play that Warchief and then resolve Goblin Piledriver since its only one red mana now! Perfect!
See, when playing an aggressive deck, you play the cards your dealt. You’re deck is your ally. You play what your deck gives you. Sometimes your deck is mean and just gives you land, but sometimes it’s your friend and gives you what you need right when you need it. It’s much more of a partnership, which is why aggressive decks need to be cheap mana decks. You can’t be sitting there with four mountains and three creatures in your opening hand that are all above three mana. That sounds good, of course. How could having three creatures and the mana to cast them not be good? Because you might not be playing anything for three whole turns! That’s a mediocre keep at best and a whole lot of nothing at worst. The best is one land and tons of one mana spells. Maybe the odd two or three mana spells, but those should be in the minority. Aggressive decks need to be, well, aggressive.
Control decks are another matter entirely. Just because you can resolve that Brainstorm on turn one, doesn’t mean you should. Brainstorms are powerful because you can shuffle away junk cards with a fetch land, or you can set up a Delver to flip on turn two, or reveal a Miracle card on your opponents turn, or go digging for that win-con. It takes a lot of forethought to play Control because, in many ways, your deck is, at best, your slave and, at worst, your most immediate opponent.
Control decks are incredibly contextual. For mono-red, a burn spell is a burn spell. In a Control deck, a Brainstorm is either your best card or a weight around your neck.
“Looking for Entreat the Angels, are we?” Your deck says, “Here are a land and two more Brainstorms!”
Then again, you’re deck might say, “Hey, man! Your opponent has a lot of creatures, huh? Here’s a Terminus! You can thank me when we win this thing, pal!”
It’s much less of a partnership and more of a wrestling match.
My point is this; your mentality is a great determiner of how you play.  If you pilot a Control deck like an Aggressive deck, you aren't playing to its strengths. If you play safely with an Aggressive deck, you’ll find yourself quickly outstripped by your opponent.
The best piece of advice I ever heard about playing an Aggressive deck was an off-handed comment by Mike, when I was deciding whether to try to resolve a Goblin Matron and risk it being countered. He said, in a flippant manner, “Might as well resolve it now.” Every time I stare down a possible counter, I always say to repeat that to myself. 
This is a piece of advice from an Aggressive player who plays Control.