This post is inspired by the Guerilla Tactics I found digging around my parents’ basement last week; you may have read about this expedition here.
Among other things, Guerilla Tactics.
And in case you were wondering, I sadly found only four regular Gaea’s Cradles upon returning to New York 🙁
Guerrilla Tactics returned to the playable conversation when Patrick Sullivan publicly bought a playset from Star City Games prior to Grand Prix Denver. He got to showcase them against the many Liliana of the Veil decks in matches like his successful feature against Former #1 Apprentice (and GP Denver Top 8 competitor) Joshua P. Ravitz.
This tale of Guerilla Tactics is a story, a lesson really, from my first Pro Tour. You may have read here, here, or elsewhere that I won an Ice Age/Alliances PTQ with a B/R Necropotence deck. In college in Philadelphia I had a great group of friends with whom I played as many as fifty hours of Magic with per week. We played draft, Standard, PTQ formats, and ground dozens of matches of Arena League. We played local Philadelphia tournaments together (though I was the only serious-serious one) and adventured to reasonably close PTQs within ~2 states, usually via public transportation. The most talented player in our group as Albert Tran (the only player other than myself to win multiple Blue Envelopes when we were in college) but unlike most of the rest of us, altran was wasting his college years on a string of cute Asian girls so was very off and on in terms of how seriously he took Magic at any given time. Ergo the effective best player in the group was, unfortunately, YT.
Being the best player in your community is mostly terrible. You play for more hours than most people have jobs, and consistently win no matter how badly you execute. If your only goal is to be king of the kitchen table this can make you the local Alpha Nerd; if you actually want to become a World Class Magic player you have little opportunity to tear up bad habits and build up myelin. When I was competing hard with The ‘Pile o’ Bitches the next year — my first standout deck design and when I first got serious about writing tournament reports — we were concurrently grinding Mirage/Visions Constructed in the store Arena League. The best deck at the Mirage/Visions Pro Tour was the proto-Storm Combo deck Prosperous Bloom; I was dominating our local league with my Teremko Griffin deck:
Like you, my 1997 opponents didn’t understand how Banding works.
Not only was a turn three combo deck available, Nekrataal was probably the most played creature… and, again, I won the Arena season with 2/2 Banding Weapon of Choice 🙁
Nevertheless, I was lucky enough to have contacts in a wider world. Worth Wollpert came down to Philadelphia from Penn State to test for the Pro Tour with me; Worth was training up to become a member of Team Deadguy after impressing Chris Pikula et al in the East Coast cash tournament series of that era with his “Demonic Consultation for Channel” gambles to set up the lethal Fireball.
I am sure that to Chris — who, among his immeasurable contributions to the game even then was a Top 8 coverage commentator and one of the faces on ESPN — I was at best a barnacle wannabe hanger-on at the time, but luckily Worth took care of me like his annoying kid brother. We came up from the same store in Ohio, and helped each other Q early on. As such, I got to play essentially the same Necropotence deck as Chris (Top 4) and Worth (Top 16) at Pro Tour V (139th if memory serves).
Our conception of sideboarding strategy was not then what it is now. Of the three of us, Chris was the only one to have Anarchy for Circle of Protection: Black, Circle of Protection: Red, or Karma (Matt Place destroyed me with the Place/Weissman U/W Control deck); Worth and I played a single Final Fortune; and of the three of us, only I had Demonic Consultation (tested with Erik Lauer the night before).
What sucks when you hit your second-turn Hymn to Tourach?
So I am up in the Necropotence mirror in maybe my first ever match as a Pro; my opponent hits a fast Hypnotic Specter. I look at my hand gleefully… My sided-in Guerilla Tactics!
Cool things were dangerous even then.
Now I can make a pretty clean play on my turn: Just play my land and Guerilla Tactics the Hypnotic Specter, right?
However by drawing my sideboard card in the proscribed spot (against my opponent’s discard mechanism) I found myself in a serious The Danger of Cool Things moment. Do you see it? You probably don’t, thank God.
I am probably one of the top 100 players in the world at this point and this is what is going through my head:
If I let him hit me with that Hypnotic Specter, I might [randomly] discard it and hit the Specter for 4.
Can you even imagine fathoming this in 2013?
This was the first few turns of the game; There wasn’t even a positive likelihood he was going to randomly hit the Guerilla Tactics! Still, I passed.
Worse: I didn’t even make a turn two play! I mean it would be one thing if I stuck a Black Knight or something and lucked into the Tactics while tapped, right? Nope.
It wasn’t over. Maybe he was going to draw Hymn to Tourach or Stupor me prior to attacks. Maybe I would get to discard Guerilla Tactics and punish him as a freebie! Now that would be both cool and validating! Nope.
It still wasn’t over! I could have thrown banana peels at his Specter* prior to damage and saved myself two points. Still… Still nope.
This is what happened:
I discard [not Guerilla Tactics] — literally throw a card into the garbage can and give up two points.
He does something and / or passes.
I Guerilla Tactics the Hypnotic Specter.
Can you even imagine fathoming this in 2013?
So whenever I see a Guerilla Tactics; this is what I think about. Cool things; a game poorly played… And my first Pro Tour 🙂
But I can also see, in a world with a resurgent Guerilla Tactics, how far we’ve come. I think about myself, then such a strong player [relatively speaking]… with such a poor systematic understanding of the game; versus the baseline level that competitive players are all at today. The glory of this story is that few (if any) of you would have made the same kind of fumble, or even seen it as a possibility. Let’s list just a few of the reasons why:
- Classical v. Romantic approaches to common situations… Perfection versus subjective or personal criteria in evaluating a play.
- Appropriate pricing – How much does this effect cost? How much does this cost me? What is scarce here? Life / mana / cards / what? What do I actually need in this game?
- Tight play – What play will give me the best result, on average, if I do it each and every time?
- Philosophy of Fire – Would I ever give up a free Shock (let alone a Shock and a card) after 1999?
- Removal on your own turn / when your opponent’s mana is tapped – Because the last thing you want is to eat a Giant Growth
To sum it all up, the idea of springing a Guerilla Tactics on the attacking Hypnotic Specter was exciting. I was excited, emotionally, by drawing the card I wanted to see against my opponent’s aggressive discard deck. I saw the possibilities in the card, perhaps remembered being spanked by its anti-discard ability to smack for four in my own testing. Perhaps that excitement confused me for a moment… Did I really want to hit the Specter, or did I just want to hit the opponent, punish him for his arrogance, his devotion to The Skull? Likely I had this combination of excitement, the exhilaration of playing on my first Pro Tour, and the stress of playing against my opponent’s best hand all at once. Certainly I didn’t have the modern ideas of focus yet; nor had Jon delivered either of his two famous edicts (nor did he have the reputation yet, that anyone would listen).
A Hypnotic Specter is just a 2/2. We only need two damage to deal with it. If we don’t deal with it, it is going to generate a ton of card advantage for the opponent while whittling away at our life points. This is really super bad for us! There is a reason that first turn Hypnotic Specter is the scariest play in the format!
How did I forget that, myself?
It can be tough comparing Magic in 2013, with all the things you already know, and the vast canon of Patrick Chapin, Zvi Mowshowitz, and Frank Karsten that has come before to draw upon… And try to imagine a world almost 20 years ago, when USENET was the pinnacle of the strategic universe, perhaps THE DUELIST, which came out once per month. Succeeding back then was easier in the sense that the “haves” had a lot more than the “have-nots”… But in another sense, getting to be a “have” took a heck of a lot more work.
* Sorry, wrong kind of “gorilla” [guerilla]. Very pun-ny.