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Born in the great gaming state of Wisconsin, Jason was fated to be a gamer. Too young to drink Beer (well, not anymore) and lactose intolerant so he couldn’t eat the cheese, Jason turned to AD&D (1st edition). After that, many systems were dabbled in until he found his home in piles of cardboard. Since then he played at least 6 CCG’s and may be learning to play Harry Potter if he finds some free time and a few bucks (donations welcome).
Peasants at Risk of Cancer and Death
Well, I have said it before and it looks like I will say it again. You should never start off a speech, or an article, with an apology. That said - do as I say don’t do as I do.
As you may have noticed there has been yet another break in my weekly PEZ offerings. This one was expected as I had to prepare my debate team for Novice Nationals. We got beat like baby seals but my debaters now realize that I wasn’t whistlin’ Dixie when I encouraged them to research and prepare blocks. Next year we will take it to the competition! My big regrets, however, are that I didn’t warn you, my readers or editor, about the anticipated absence and that I sat on my butt after the event was over.
Also, I know that I got a number of e-mails from readers over the last few weeks and I don’t believe that I have responded to a single one. Before the tournament to Atlanta I was flooded with e-mails from my team. After the tournament I had a billion e-mails in my inbox. Please, don’t be offended that I didn’t respond please show some faith in me and resend your e-mails and I will endeavor to make up for my lapse.
The tardiness of this article has once again landed me in trouble. Shawn, also known as Swawagon on the Yahoo group, has once again scooped me. I swear that this man is my own personal MtG stalker. The fact that he has gotten me off my rear and into a word processor outweighs my own personal angst. Shawn, thanks for forcing me to write before my thoughts ended up too far behind the curve of the PEZ revolution.
Magic Theory and More Thanks Due
If you will recall, many moons ago I had teased you with the thought that I was about to expose the black cancerous heart of Peasant Magic. Now, latter than intended, I am about to reveal what I see as a threat to the viability of the best format ever created. You must, however, wait since a brief review of basic Magic theory will provide another point of view on the issues involved.
I wasn’t going to bother with this, instead I had planned to dive right in, but Starcitygames posted one of Zvi’s surveys of card advantage articles and he trapped me in a time warp of applicable articles. This was the most relevant post: http://www.classicdojo.org/bou97/bou.970810eta.txt. It is good reading but here is my somewhat concise and more topical rendition. I know you will never ever read my articles but thanks for bringing my articles back to the basics Zvi!!!
Most of us, at some level, have an understanding of basic card advantage. The basic theory (not the advanced theories) ignores efficiency and utility but can be summed up as the number of cards you have versus the number of cards your opponent has over the course of the game. Imagine that you had a split second to glance at a game of Magic and then you had to pick a player to bet on. You wouldn’t have time to see the specific cards in play so you would pick the player with the most cards on the board and in their hand. All things being equal, you would probably guess right most of the time. This is basic card advantage.
At this level, players gain card advantage by trading cards at a better than 1:1 ratio or by accessing more than 1 additional card per turn. There are many ways that this can be accomplished and it is always a thing to be treasured.
Within a framework where the relative value of individual cards is mostly ignored there are only two resources to be manipulated: number of cards and amount of mana. Because available mana is generally related to the number of turns played it is essentially correct to equate mana to time. The amount of mana isn’t truly at issue. Instead the issue is what you are able to do with your mana. Thus, the corollary to card advantage is time advantage (or tempo).
If a deck can do more in a limited amount of time this compensates for card advantage. In reality, the two are equal since each theory counteracts the other. Basically, card advantage needs time to develop to a clear edge over the competing deck. Thus in the long run, card advantage would always win out except for the fact that time advantage works to ensure that card advantage never gets out of hand.
The two strategies check each other. While all good decks will try to maximize both card advantage and time advantage most decks will prefer one over the other.
Magic Theory Applied to PEZ
Currently, most players are in agreement as to the top decks in PEZ: Iso-Burn, Pros Tides, Elf Clamp, Affinity, and MBC.
Iso-Burn is clearly a deck built on the idea of card advantage. By placing burn on a stick the player seeks to turn spells that would be 1:1 trades into spells that are much more advantageous. Properly played, Iso-Burn is a control deck and most control builds are based on card advantage.
Pros Tides, Elf Clamp, and Affinity are all examples of time advantage builds. Affinity is the most obvious example of a time advantage build since the Affinity ability essentially allows all artifacts to double as mana. Players can argue that both Elf Clamp and Pros Tides are examples of card advantage since both decks will outdraw all opponents by a huge margin. This is oversimplification, however, because what makes both of these decks work is manipulation of the 1 land/turn = 1 mana/turn standard. To win the way it was intended, Elf Clamp doesn’t want Priest of Titania. It needs the Priest in the same way that Pros Tides needs High Tides to resolve. In addition, both of these decks maximize the usage of the key cards by untapping and allowing even more mana development. Since mana = time both of these decks most clearly lean toward time advantage (the time advantage allows card advantage).
The oddball is MBC. Insofar as MBC uses Cabal Coffers to generate massive amounts of mana it is a time advantage build. What most players of MBC fail to realize, however, is that the deck is called Mono Black Control for a reason, although it certainly combines the two theories of advantage nicely. The PEZ build packs 4 Pestilence because the deck needs to halt the ground game in order to lay 1 land each and every turn. In fact, if you remove the kill conditions, every card is based on the premise of card advantage. Pestilence and Cemetery Gates almost always produce huge trade ratios and everything else is at least a 1:1 trade. The single most important card in MBC isn’t Drain Life/Consume Spirit or even Cabal Coffers it is Pestilence.
Why Does it Matter?
Remember that time advantage acts as a check on the power of card advantage because it limits the ability of card advantage schemes to develop a clear margin of superiority. If we choose to look at goldfish games, the three time advantage builds all win consistently on turn 4 with Pros-Tides having a decent shot at winning on turn 3. That means that most card advantage builds have little time to gain advantage over their opponents. Iso-Burn only remains in the running because, in the early game, its cards are cheap and it can afford 1:1 trades. MBC, on the other hand, is competitive because it routinely gains board control around turn 4. In fact, I would not consider MBC to be competitive without the inclusion of time advantage cards such as Dark Ritual and Snuff Out (because of the alternate casting cost).
Essentially, decks that are skewed towards card advantage must find a reliable way to extend the game in order to gain advantage. Unfortunately, they must find a way to do this with a very limited card pool - essentially cards that cost 3 or less. In PEZ, this task is made more difficult by the fact that your card base is already severely limited.
On the other hand, players have yet to discover time advantage builds that are more efficient or consistent than the three decks listed above. Aggro/Control Black is an exception because these decks draw well and punish decks that draw poorly so, while I don’t believe they are in the top 5, they tend to entice lady luck into giving them a chance. Likewise, Sligh is an example of a deck that strikes a strong balance between card and time advantage. The downside is that, without heavy artifact hate, Sligh loses to Iso-Burn and it always loses to MBC.
The Peasant Cancer
In short, the threat to PEZ is that the agro and combo decks have gotten too fast, mostly as a result of Mirrodin block. This places a huge burden on deck builders since it effectively eliminates a large portion of the already limited card pool by placing an artificial casting cost ceiling on viable cards. In addition, it also tends to force players to dedicate a sizeable portion of their deck to early game answers. On the flip side, the two best control builds to date can cope with the changes without losing their strength against other builds.
In other words: Why play with solid time advantage decks when they simply aren’t as competitive as the ‘best’ builds? Alternately, why build decks based on card advantage if it won’t have a chance to make a difference?
In addition, the gap between Tier 1 decks and Tier 2 decks has simply been magnified. Innovative and fun builds like GW Phantom and Astral Slide/Lightning Rift decks are increasingly less competitive the faster the format moves. In fact, the range of playable innovations has effectively been narrowed. The end result is that the metagame will stagnate as players find fewer decks capable of competing against the ‘best’ decks.
Some innovative builds like White Life and Channel-Ball are possible. These decks, can be good when well built but still win on what feels like luck. I don’t say this to disparage the builders and players of these decks - it takes a lot of work to make solid designs. Instead, I believe that an increase in these types of builds is bad for the format because many players don’t like to lose to decks that just got ‘lucky’.
The worst news, in my mind, is that if this situation truely exists then the same speed factors that limit the card pool for deck builders also limit the ability of future card sets to have a significant impact on the PEZ environment. At best this means that the format remains mostly stagnant with few new Tier 1 builds. At worst, the format is somehow accelerated. That may shake up the top 5 decks but in the long run it would make the problem worse.
Of course it isn't all doom and gloom. Even in my worst case scenario, there are 5 Tier 1 builds and 3-4 decks that will be Tier 1.5. Also, three of the top 5 decks are artifact heavy so hate decks may be able to launch a comeback in some local metagames. This means that, at worst, there are a minimum of 8 playable decks before we even address my response to the stalemate. That is still more diverse than many other Magic formats.
Perhaps, PEZ players don’t need to worry as much as players in other formats. In my experience, PEZ is a much less competitive format. This means that many good players are willing to play fun decks or at least give their opponents an occasional break and not bring the ‘best’ builds to every tournament. Similarly, in my experience fewer PEZ players play optimal builds than players in other formats. Finally, PEZ tournaments are smaller and the players are more often regulars. This means that the local metagame is likely to be skewed toward one or two of the ‘best’ decks, allowing sideboards to be a more effective response to abusive builds. Maybe, just maybe, this means that the cancer is likely to remain benign for a long time.
Assuming that the cancer is malignant, however, there is a response that may do good things for the format. The answer is free counterspells and agro/control builds. PEZ has access to Daze but I believe that the new brand of agro/control decks will have to branch out and use the Uncommon slots to access additional ‘free’ counters. Force of Will is clearly the best but Foil and, to a lesser degree, Thwart are also available (and cheaper to buy). These builds need to use the ‘free’ counters because they must have a way to compete for time advantage and that is exactly what alternate cost cards do. In addition, they still have access to the whole host of 1 and 2cc counters.
These decks have the best chance of checking the rampant spread of MBC and Pros Tides since the matchups are favorable. In addition, different builds such as Psychatog (built from a control base), Blue Skies, and UB Animatter, each perform well against 1 or more of the three remaining top builds (although Affinity and, to a lesser extent Elf Clamp, still perform admirably). Where they tend to have a bit more difficulty, however, is against the more traditional creature heavy PEZ builds. The traditional builds grow at an even pace throughout the game and have too many threat sources, and no real ‘key’ cards, which makes the decision to counter more difficult.
If these decks are needed it opens more space for Blue to be competitive. In addition, if these decks perform as well as early testing would indicate (I would still consider them Tier 1.5 builds) that opens the format to 10 or more competitive archetypes total.
On the downside, reliance on a relatively expensive card like FoW could be bad for the spirit of PEZ. Also, many players dislike losing to counters because they feel like they have somehow been cheated or that the power of counterspells is unbalanced or unfair. This could be a downside if PEZ moves in this direction.
Of course, one could always argue that moving to a rock-paper-scissors format is always better than living in a rock-paper environment so the solution (if indeed it is one) is still better than the disease (again, if there is one).
I am not convinced, because of the style and local quality of the format, that the ‘top’ decks will be dominant. Indeed, I included quotation marks around ‘top’ decks since we have all seen environments stormed by breakthrough and radical deck ideas. It is also possible that future sets may well change the balance, although this seems unlikely as the pool of cards that could change the format shrinks based on casting cost considerations.
If it does come to pass, however, and if my ideas for chemotherapy (and your ideas that I haven’t even thought of yet) don’t do enough to make the format healthy then the PEZ Council faces a difficult decision in bannings. Do we ban the cards that make the combo and control decks work? Do we risk moving so strongly against these decks that PEZ risks becoming just a lame creature format? Honestly, I don’t see that happening but we need all PEZ players to start thinking about new decks that will redefine the format. This article doesn’t have to be a challenge to the format - read it as a challenge to PEZ players everywhere! At the very least your designs could keep the PEZ Council from having to work hard ;)
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