Entries Tagged 'Theory' ↓

Giant Solifuge and Stuff I Wish I Did Better

I wrote another article on sideboarding this week, over at TCGPlayer.com

The article was generally well-received but per usual with these kinds of examples-laden, detail-oriented articles I always end up with things that I wish I had added but forgot to, or didn’t think of until after I had submitted, or whatever.

Luckily I have a highly trafficked blog where I can add the odd DVD Extras (P.S. you’re reading it).

Osyp pointed out on Twitter…

Aside on Osyp on Twitter.

Basically I have been stealing everything worthwhile — ultimately including this blog post — from things Osyp said on Twitter. Examples include #FloresRewards (if you haven’t signed up for #FloresRewards yet… you should), and my most recent #FloresRewards video / Feat of Strength [chocolate peanut butter buckeyes]. By the way these went over quite well at Jonny Magic’s tonight.

If you’re not following Osyp on Twitter yet… you should.


End aside.

Anyway, what my man Osyp said was that I should have called out the URzaTron sideboard as a good example of what we were talking about in the sideboarding article. In case you don’t know, URzaTron was a deck that Osyp used to make Top 8 of Pro Tour Honolulu (Heezy’s). The main deck was mostly designed by me, with Osyp, Andrew Cuneo, Josh Ravitz, and Chris Pikula on the team. But the important part — the Giant Solifuges — were Osyp’s doing.

This is the deck list:

URzaTron – Osyp Lebedowicz

4 Izzet Signet

4 Compulsive Research
2 Confiscate
4 Keiga, the Tide Star
4 Mana Leak
4 Meloku, the Clouded Mirror
4 Remand
2 Telling Time
1 Tidings

4 Electrolyze
1 Invoke the Firemind

1 Blaze
2 Pyroclasm

1 Minamo, School at Water’s Edge

4 Shivan Reef
4 Steam Vents
2 Tendo Ice Bridge
4 Urza’s Mine
4 Urza’s Power Plant
4 Urza’s Tower

4 Annex
4 Giant Solifuge
2 Pyroclasm
2 Repeal
1 Ryusei, the Falling Star
2 Smash

The cool thing about the  main deck (in case you didn’t notice) is that there were no double mana requirements… Just the one Invoke the Firemind. The Giant Solifuge sideboarding swap actually broke that rule (but like I said, Osyp made that part… which was in all honesty the best part of the deck).

The philosophy of this deck was that it went Over The Top relative to the rest of the metagame. You play Keiga or Meloku… What is the other guy supposed to do, even?

The deck was typically the beatdown, even if it looks like a control deck. It used the Counterspells (as Eugene Harvey explained) simply for time management, but it was all about setting the tempo of the game with its superior threats. The Giant Solifuges allowed the deck to obtain greater speed when faced with decks that had comparable or more powerful end games. Really inspired, not-obvious work by Osyp.

The part of the article I wanted to address myself (that is, without Osyp’s prompting) was around enhancing the practicals section at the bottom. I’ll do so now.

Rebels – A modern example might be Pyromancer Ascension. People who are not really intimate with the deck might only think of it as a Pyromancer Ascension + Time Warp [functionally] infinite combo deck. LSV recently talked about siding out Time Warps in some matches. We have seen transformational decks around Polymorph (JVL actually had that in the very first version he showed me, before we even had Call to Mind). Even semi-transformation around Kiln Fiend might count here, but in any case we have examples where one or both of the core “combo pieces” (one of which is the namesake) might be removed in order to reposition the deck while sideboarding. While it is not purely a sideboarding execution, the genius of Gerry Thompson’s hybrid Thopter Foundry / Dark Depths deck was rooted very much in the flavor of this philosophy. His deck, while on its face was much more like a Vampire Hexmage / Dark Depths deck, exhibited exactly the flexibility of “I guess I can side out all my Rebels if you are just going to aim at them”, which allowed for the equally powerful Sword of the Meek combo to kill them to death while they stared at a hand full of Repeals and Ghost Quarters.

G/W – Something interesting here is the ability to create a corner case. Something that I have always been cognizant of when designing rogue decks is how to produce a corner case, push the opponent into it, and then win 100% of the time that this comes up. Most of these examples work around decking, actually, and the G/W one is no different. Despite the presence of extraordinarily card advantageous threats like Decree of Justice and Eternal Dragon, it is theoretically possible to deck the G/W deck. The deck did a lot of cycling, and the Eternal Dragons could be overcome by a combination of Pulse of the Fields and maybe Scrabbling Claws. In addition to facilitating the semi-transformation, Darksteel Colossus makes it almost impossible to deck the G/W deck… In fact, the G/W deck can play to deck the opponent, if it came down to it; but a more realistic position would probably be having tons of mana and playing and re-playing Darksteel Colossus over and over again.

Kuroda-style Red – Something to be wary of with these fancy sideboarding switches is the control of information. For example, in real life, we were out-thunk by Heezy and Neil. They had a different sideboard than the then-default, and moreover, Heezy was aware of our sideboarding strategy, which in turn, allowed them to apply a sweep-capable sidebaord switch in the face of our supposedly unbeatable anti-Blue sideboarding strategy. A recent example might be Little D over Ma in the Top 8 of Amsterdam. Ma theoretically had a 90% matchup v. Little D, but Little D executed the sweep with his Relic of Progenitus switch-in, which impaired the effectiveness of Ma’s Tarmogoyf and Kitchen Finks. In theory had Conley been looking over Ma’s shoulder, they could have executed a couner-Nassif sideboarding strategy that would have blunted the effectiveness of the Relic plan… But insted, Little D was in a position of liking the Relic so much he kept a mana light hand just because there were Relics present.

Critical Mass – The holy grail of Constructed Magic is to be the beatdown and the control simultaneously. That makes it impossible for the opponent to Execute on a Who’s the Beatdown equation. Generally speaking the optimal sideboarding strategy is to position yourself as both the beatdown and the control if possible. Both Brian Kibler’s Rubin Zoo deck and the Mythic Conscription deck exhibit qualities of seizing both beatdown and control capabilities. Talk to Kibler about Rubin Zoo. If you draw Wild Nacatl, you win on speed; if you don’t, you slow play and win on power. Play the Mythic Conscription deck. It is just like Critical Mass against control… It does the same thing they do, but faster due to Lotus Cobra and so on. Meanwhile, it is also the fastest, most powerful, attack deck thanks to the speed of Sovereigns of Lost Alara. While neither the Naya or the Bant decks discussed in this subsection rely on sideboarding, you can see how they can play either role, fluidly, and in some cases both simultaneously. For example against another Zoo deck, Kibler could go first, play a 3/3 on the first turn (beatdown), trumping a Goblin Guide or Kird Ape, attack the face, and then play lockdown with the Grove of the Burnwillows combo (control), until locking down the game entirely with Baneslayer Angel (a really controlling beatdown). Poor beatdown.

Well, that’s most of what I wanted to say about that.


You Make the Play: How Else Are You Going to Cast Your Esper Charm?

A simple solution.

Finkel’s second Law.

… And Esper Charm.

When last we rocked and rolled I presented the following situation…

[Y]ou run out the Vivid Creek.

Your remainding cards are:

Bloodbraid Elf
Bloodbraid Elf
Enlisted Wurm
Reflecting Pool

Who knows what your next card is going to be?

But there is an interesting mental exercise…

What land do you play?

… So, why is this interesting again?

Share photos on twitter with TwitpicAs you could probably tell from the screen shot, this actually came up for me last week, playing with my Mono-Cascade deck*. I was going to just run out Mountain…

Why would I run out Mountain?

When you play this kind of a deck enough–even now that we’ve layered it with four main deck Baneslayer Angels–you try to play around Anathemancer. I know it’s only turn two… But really, you start to train yourself to play Mountain in these kinds of spots as a default.

Anyway, I thought to myself, if I pull Blightning, I can play it on turn three anyway.

It was at that point that I realized my error.

There is only one right play: Reflecting Pool.


Because you have an equal chance of drawing Blightning or Esper Charm!

Your path is clear starting on turn four. If you only want to consider four mana spells, you have no issue. Any order of your next three lands will allow you to play a pair of Bloodbraid Elves. In this deck, that two-turn sequence is automatically devastating. The opponent will be under pressure and will be down four cards… That’s just how the deck is designed.

But if you draw an actual three mana spell, you can put yourself so far ahead come turn four or five that the opponent will be in topdeck mode whereas you will be playing Ultimatum Magic (that is actually part of the reason I like the Mono-Cascade deck the best… It is just ferociously more powerful than basically everything else that people seem to be playing… but more on that later).

So in this case, you can see that playing Reflecting Pool is the best turn two play. The next best play is Plains.

If you play Plains and then draw Blightning, you can play Reflecting Pool or Mountain and cast the Blightning; it is inferior to Reflecting Pool on turn two because in this case you will have to take a counter off of your Vivid Creek in order to play the Blightning. This may or may not be relevant in the particular game at hand, but this kind of haphazard play can and will have a negative effect on your long term victory prospects if you are not aware of it.


… For the exact same reason that playing Reflecting Pool is better than playing Mountain on turn two.

We sometimes talk about the general rules in Magic.

Zvi calls this one “Finkel’s Law” (it was made popular by myself and Justin Polin during our short term at Brainburst Premium): Focus Only On What Matters.

Some people who listen to the Top 8 Magic Podcast know that Finkel actually has more than one law. This is a second one: Magic is a game of options. Generally the better play is the one that preserves the most options.

So in this case, playing a Reflecting Pool on the second turn is better than a Mountain because it helps leave open your options… You will be able to play Esper Charm or Blightning on turn three, regardless of which (if either) you draw.

By the same token, playing Plains is better than playing Mountain on turn two, but worse than playing Reflecting Pool because it shines a similar light (or lack thereof) on your options. You will theoretically be able to play either three mana spell, but if you draw Blightning, you will have to spend a counter on your Vivid Creek that you would not have to spend if you instead played Reflecting Pool first. That Vivid counter might end up mattering.

So what really happened?

I actually just pulled another land (either Plains or Exotic Orchard, I don’t remember). He was playing a U/W deck of some sort and got annihilated by discard into more discard into sixth turn Enlisted Ultimatum… Just like they all do! 🙂


Currently Reading: The Italian

* Yes, yes, yes dear readers, I know this whole hypothetical is based on an imaginary, now-outdated mana base. And yes, I made a new one. Check back tomorrow-ish 🙂

A Theory of Going Big

As you might have read on Top 8 Magic, Bloodbraid Elf is probably going to be a very popular card in the Constructed portion of this weekend’s Pro Tour Honolulu.

The tournament described there (and mentioned again in my column Top Decks at the mother ship) included four copies of Bloodbraid Elf in every deck in the Top 8, plus a gigantic percentage of “four Bloodbraid Elf” listings in the decks of the Top 96. As far as starting points go, this is a profound one. I’ll tell you why…

(And by the way this is a theory I put forth both at movie night at Jonny Magic’s on Wednesday and again at lunch today with Matt Wang, Will Price, Becker, Mark Young [happy birthday!], and the duo of Seth Burn and Zvi Mowshowitz… pretty much everyone agreed on both occasions).

In most formats we have beatdown decks, and they try to do something pretty quick.

Then we have combo decks, and they try to do something pretty dumb.

“I’m still with you!” -Zvi

Then we have control decks, and they either try to slow down the beatdown decks or prevent the combo decks from doing something dumb, but they’re not usually particularly good at both at the same time.

Now in some formats we have another kind of deck called The Rock.

The Rock is not usually fundamentally good, but it can be good against some of the other decks in the metagame.

The Rock is characterized by being slower than the beatdown decks (but typically full of creatures), less controlling than the control decks, but either via disruption or progressive card advantage, capable of competing with two if not all three of the other decks types we have described.

One thing to remember for purposes of this discussion is that The Rock is not Not NOT (necessarily) a B/G big guys and discard deck. It can be that (of course!) but Zvi taught me that The Rock is a way of thinking. A mono-White deck might be The Rock; a B/U/R tempo-oriented Block deck can be The Rock too (especially if it is about getting a bunch of two-for-ones instead of actually controlling and dominating the game).

The reason the 32 Bloodbraid Elves are interesting is that — maybe for the first time ever — we are approaching a format where The Rock is the default.

What does this mean?

It’s pretty interesting, actually!

When a mid-range creature deck is the default deck, typically the best deck is the slowest version.

Do you remember an Extended Pro Tour a few years ago where The Rock was one of the most popular decks? Which was the best version?

“I’ve got four Spiritmongers!”

“I’ve got four Spiritmongers and a Visara the Dreadful.”

Which is the best deck?

The guy with four Spiritmongers, two Visaras, and another one in the sideboard!

So how does that intersect with the initial discussion of Bloodbraid Elf?

My idea was that in order to trump in a world where everybody has Cascade two-for-ones, the best strategy would be to go big — as big as you can.

You’ll notice that a fair amount of the Jund-colored Bloodbraid Elf decks have Broodmate Dragon… Why not play a couple of copies of Karrthus main deck?

That’s not enough for me… If the mana is good enough for every deck under the sun to splash for Bloodbraid Elf, then it’s good enough to stretch to play Cruel Ultimatum!

But that’s not all!

I would also have played a couple of copies of Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker, at least in my sideboard.

I don’t know exactly how I would have laid out the mana, but I think I would have played only Terminate and Maelstrom Pulse for low curve (then I could ensure that my Bloodbraid Elf and/or Captured Sunlight would always hit removal), Traumatic Visions to counter other people’s bombs and keep me drawing lands, a couple of copies of Voices of the Void to exploit the card advantage inefficiencies of the format, and then top up on the big threat bombs… Broodmate Dragon, Karrthus, Cruel Ultimatum, and Nicol Bolas.

Bolas might not be as silly as he sounds… Think about it like this. A lot of the decks out there play Obelisk of Alara. For eight mana they get five life, a -2/-2, you know. For eight mana I GET NICOL MOTHERLOVING BOLAS.

I haven’t seen any of the decks from Honolulu yet…

And to be perfectly honest, I haven’t tested very much Alara at all…

But that’s what I would have suggested 🙂


How to Cheat

If you just want to get to the part about how to cheat, please raise your left hand and say “I solemnly swear I am up to no good,” and click the matching text below (but only if you promise to come back to understand the context)…

I solemnly swear I am up to no good. 

If you haven’t seen this episode of The Magic Show, I am embedding it here for you to watch (thanks good old YouTube!):

First of all I want to say that I really enjoyed this episode of The Magic Show and I don’t want this blog post to in any way be considered an attack on Evan or the Show. In fact, I generally liked his theme this week and can see players really improving their tournament performances by focusing on especially one skill at a time.

My motivation on this is about shuffling and how Evan suggests players shuffle only. I am working under the assumption that Evan is repeating something that someone represented to him as having some basis in mathematics (it doesn’t) and that person just thinks he smarter than he is, and that Evan is good-hearted and has no background in wrongdoing so didn’t realize what he was saying.

Unfortunately I am going to pull back the curtain on this one and it might not be pretty for a lot of you at home.

Let’s start at 2:20; Evan begins with…

One of the facets of this skill that I believe is much overlooked is actually randomizing your deck…

(And here Evan appropriately positions a picture of someone riffle shuffling a deck of regular cards.)

He goes on with an…

If you’re not OCD about it, then GET OCD about it!

I’m there!

My old playtest partner Scott McCord even argued that poor shuffling in playtest games was the number one source of bad playtest data!

I am personally a relentless shuffler and have practiced the mechanics of shuffling for hours, trying to figure out the best way to randomize my deck between rounds. I have done table shuffles, practiced riffling really well, and certainly studied every type of set formula (table) shuffle that cheaters use to set their decks (and see below!) that I have ever heard of. I actually spent several years doing 7-14 sets of pull shuffles in between five- or ten-pile table shuffles in addition to 7-14 riffle shuffles, which fascinated the top end of the Pro Tour.

Zvi Mowshowitz, for example, was very intrigued by my pull shuffle technique that he went on to study it himself back when his hobbies included “Magic and thinking about Magic.”

Pull shuffling, by the way, is very similar “mathematically” to riffle shuffling except 1) it takes about twenty times more time, and 2) a perfectly executed pull shuffle doesn’t actually randomize your deck; rather it simply mixes your deck base-two (like a riffle), albeit in a less predictable way than a perfect table shuffle (but almost equally not random to a table shuffle).

Anyway, Evan goes on to criticize players who don’t shuffle sufficiently between mulligans, which I can get behind.

The troubling bit comes up around 2:47, where Evan suggests:

At least two pile shuffles, if not three, with plenty of side / riffle shuffles to go along with it.

I would point out that even if pile shuffling randomized your deck (it doesn’t), these are not “OCD” numbers… But I’ll waive opinions / definitions this time for facts.

The really bad part is at 2:56, when he suggests in particular 5- or 7- card piles for table shuffling due to some mathematical word that I don’t know but that certainly doesn’t lead to randomized table shuffling.

I am going to approach this issue with three major points:

1) Table shuffling is a waste of time
2) Table shuffling doesn’t actually randomize your deck
3) Evan actually just told you to stack your deck

1) Table Shuffling is a Waste of Time

First of all, yes, I table shuffle almost every match.

I will typically do a five- or a ten-pile table shuffle (depending on how big my play area is) to open up my shuffling regimen, then do seven to fourteen superb riffles (I am an excellent riffle shuffler because I bothered to practice ten years ago when I realized I was losing to considerably worse players due to manascrews), then I do another five or ten, then another seven to fourteen. In fact I will keep riffling if my opponent hasn’t finished yet, and I don’t typically present unless I have done over 21 sets of riffle shuffles or my opponent has already presented.

“Mathematically” it takes just north of seven riffle shuffles to randomize a Magic deck.

By the way there was a point in the rules where players were forced to “end” shuffling regimens with at least three riffle shuffles but unfortunately that specific stricture has been removed from the books (I think it should be returned — but at seven rather than three — and I think that policy makers and judges who disagree with me simply don’t understand how shuffling works).

Remember we are tasked to randomize our decks, not separate mana clumps. Most arguments for “shuffling” styles other than riffle shuffling advocate separation of mana clumps when no one other than your imaginary guardian angel (who apparently doesn’t know math) is looking for that, certainly not the rules.

Remember I said it takes north of seven riffle shuffles to randomize a deck? Well as you randomize a deck more and more, guess what? Your mana is actually better and better distributed!

I am not up to speed on how judges today try to catch cheaters but I know if I were the policy maker I would do it like this:

Players would be penalized strictly based on technique. I am 100% sure a well known Japanese pro who has money finishes this year and impressive wins over some local GP and PT champions is a gigantic cheater. He stacks his deck, apparently every match. The problem is that some judges don’t understand how shuffling works (and he does) so he keeps getting away with it and they keep failing to see his pattern.

At the last Pro Tour I played in (Charleston teams), I, Josh Ravitz, and Morgan Douglass all separately caught him stacking and all called Judge! on him. I will say with complete confidence that if I say my opponent was stacking, he was stacking. End.

I am that sure I can recognize stacking when I am looking. When I was a more active PTQ player I had judges in multiple regions all commend me on how good I was at catching cheaters. I played in a Grand Prix where I caught a player stacking two matches over (against my friend edt), raised my hand, and he conceded the match on the spot, before the judge got there, because he knew he was kold; I actually got paired against him the next round so it was awesome 🙂

But for me, Josh, and Morgan to all catch the same Japanese player has to be something. He of course appealed to a Japanese judge and got a pass all three times, feigning an inability to speak English. The Japanese judge was either in his pocket (which I doubt) or (more likely) didn’t know what to look for and refused to recognize my arguments. By the end of this blog post you will not.

The unfortunate reality is that most judges — at least when I have encountered stacking but not gotten the penalty to stick, which is usually — look for a pattern but fail to find one. Here is my simple rule: The fact that my opponent is not very good at cheating, or that you couldn’t see how he was doing it, should not be the measure of whether or not he should be punished. The measure should simply be that he was stacking, intentionally cheating, sayonara.

I have been able to show judges how the patterns fall — with the cards face down even — and amazingly not gotten the call. I remember one PTQ where I was up a game with two rounds to go (undefeated) and my opponent cheated going into game two. I called the judge, he didn’t see the pattern; I set aside eleven face-down cards and told him to look at them. All eleven were sideboard cards!

… And no game loss.

Predictably I went manascrew, manascrew; manascrew next match, 12th. My opponent made the finals, cheating the whole way.

I didn’t mean this to be a rant about how cheating should be dealt with regarding shuffling. Sorry.

Think about a jar that can contain a little more than 1,000 marbles.

You put 500 white marbles into the jar.

You put 500 black marbles into the jar (these marbles are indistinguishable from the white but for their color).

What do you have?

A full jar of white marbles topped with black marbles.

Now shake the jar once; what do you have?

A full jar of white marbles topped with black marbles.

But shake it again and again, and they start to mix.

Shake it enough and what happens?

The marbles mix and mingle more and more.

This is how randomizing works: The more you shake, the more mixed they become! You can’t shake Shake SHAKE and come out with all 500 white on the bottom and all 500 black on top as you started. The system just gets more chaotic; it never becomes more orderly.

This is the problem with judges looking for a pattern, unfortunately: A perfectly randomized deck looks stacked.

Read that again: A perfectly randomized deck looks stacked.

The essential crux is that you actually get a more “stacked” [looking] deck by correctly randomizing (think of more and more repetitions with our jar) whereas you never randomize by table shuffling (the primary method of stacking).

Because as we saw with the marbles, the more you randomize, the more mixed the cards become. If you randomize really, really, well… No land clumps. Spells are distributed. Et cetera.

Riffle shuffling is a form of randomization. In fact, it is the best form for card games!

Table shuffling is “bad” for two reasons, and you already know them. The first is that it is a waste of time.

I am going to be generous and say that it takes you 30 seconds to pile shuffle your deck one time. In actuality it probably takes you 45 seconds if you are very good with your hands, but I am going to say that it only takes you 30 seconds. One pile shuffle doesn’t even distribute your mana clumps.

On balance, given 30 seconds you can riffle shuffle your deck 15 times. It only takes seven riffle shuffles to randomize your deck. You have now done twice what you had to do to randomize your deck in the time it would have taken you to do one pile shuffle, which not only doesn’t randomize your deck at all… it doesn’t even do what you wanted (even if you didn’t know you wanted out loud), which was to separate out your mana.

Why would you pile? Isn’t it stupid?

A better question: I’m not stupid. Why do I pile shuffle myself and my opponent?

Simple: Free wins.

I get free wins by not presenting some number of cards other than 60. I can recall being caught presenting non-60 one time. I lost the match for that; fixed my deck and won the next six, had to play the last round due to a first round loss, and finally lost one fair and square (raced by three Disciples of the Vault and a Ravager in the deciding game). My playtest partner with same 75 won the PTQ. I never want to go down for that one again. Ever.

On balance I have advanced from Top 8 to Top 4 because my opponent presented 59, and I wouldn’t have known but for the table shuffle; he was a 70/30 favorite to win Game One by the way, but I stole it; then I got to play two games with my sideboard. Just lucky he screwed up. In fact, I have advanced to Top 8 over a multiple Grand Prix winner because he presented non-60.

A compelling reason to table shuffle (counting)… But it is not a reason that randomizes your deck.

Now that you know that it is much less effective — even for separating out your mana — than riffle shuffling, you should also know that relying on pile shuffling for any other action than counting is tantamount to cheating.

But why?

2) Table Shuffling Doesn’t Actually Randomize Your Deck

The most common table shuffle numbers are 2, 3, 4, and 5.


Those are all numbers that are pretty convenient for 40- or 60-card decks. Simple. People look for patterns, and even piles of 30, 20, 15, or 12 cards make us happy.

Happy… but ignorantly so.

The worst thing about pile shuffling is that it is a waste of time. But it is also self-deceptive in that there is nothing random about it. It’s just a really bad way to separate out your mana (as we showed in the previous segment, simply riffling enough will get you to the point that you are nearly stacked).

Say you are doing a three-pile table shuffle.


And so on. You are on card number three. How many positions can this card fall into?


Don’t answer that.

Say you are doing a four-pile table shuffle.


Same question: How many positions can card number three fall into?

One of three in the first, one of four in the second, right? Simple! Right?


In both cases, card number three will always fall into position three. Now card number four will be in position one or four, respectively, but card number three will always fall into position three, and card number four will… um… always fall into position one in the first example and position four in the second example.

Have you figured this out yet?

If the cards always fall into the exact same scripted positions, with those positions varying only insofar as the number of piles, the system is itself not random.

Ergo, it is not just a poor but completely inappropriate system for randomization.


3) Evan Actually Just Told You to Stack Your Deck

I am fairly certain Evan didn’t know it at the time, but he just told you to commit a “shuffling” technique that has launched more than one Hall of Fame eligible career – The Double Nickel.

The double nickel is one of the simplest card cheats in the history of tournament Magic. When Evan told you to pile shuffle in a five because of a so-called SSS Prime… I don’t know who told him that was any kind of random, but as we saw in the previous section, no patterned pile shuffling is ever random, so I don’t know what kind of bogus bullspit math logic says that fives or sevens are somehow… I don’t even know how to say this other than poor Evan was misinformed by someone who thinks he is much smarter than he really is.

Instead I am just going to teach you a basic cheat.

This cheat always works because pile shuffling is not random.

It’s called the double nickel because you do two (“double”) five-pile table shuffles (“nickel”) and you have a perfect mana weave. It is a particularly effective cheat against those who think that table shuffling is random because they won’t call the judge on you. You can do some poor riffle shuffles or “side shuffles” which simply redistribute your perfectly stacked deck into different perfectly stacked positions and you will never be manascrewed; in fact you will always have a perfect draw.

Because pile shuffling is not random, and five pile shuffling is deviously not just not random, but the best known cheat.

Anyway, here’s how you do it with a Limited deck:

First let’s start off with forty cards numbered 1 through 40. The first eighteen are aquamarine to indicate they are land cards:

Now let’s do ye olde five-pile table. Our cards look like this:

We chunk them together into one forty card pile again, which looks like this:

Now we do a second five-pile:

When we chunk them back into one forty card pile, our, you know, “deck” what do we see?

That’s right! A perfect distribution of land and spells! It gets really dumb when we do the same thing for a 60-card deck with a paltry 20 lands 🙁

Opening stack, with 1-20 being marked as lands:

First piles, five-card pattern:

Deck looks like this:

Second of two nickels:

Final deck:

Now if you — like too many judges — didn’t know what to look for, you would miss the pattern. After all, there are several stretches of consecutive spells that seem — at least from far away — like they could be barren.

I want you to use different criteria.

Cut the deck anywhere.

There is no stretch of seven cards in a completed double nickel that that doesn’t have either two or three lands. In fact (and this could be obvious) there are literally no mana floods because there are no stretches where you get four lands and only three spells.

All you get, every time, is a perfectly distributed deck that doesn’t look to a less experienced judge like there is a mana weave pattern in play.

Take a deck — forty or sixty cards — and try it yourself.

There are equivalent cheats at different numbers that do different things. Four and eight, for example, allow you to reset an already stacked deck when you do them correctly.

But what I wanted you to get out of this blog post is that no pile shuffling is random (we already covered that it is inefficient). You use the table to count your deck. You learn to riffle shuffle to randomize your deck.

Evan, I love you man, but when you tell the readers to do “at least” two piles (read: two) and then tell them to do a five-pile or seven pile (read: five)… Don’t be surprised that their mana is suddenly coming out perfect. It’s because they were doing the double nickel, literally the oldest cheat in the Magic books.


PS And that’s game boys!

I’m sure a lot of you are clapping your hands together and proclaiming Halleluia! A return to old school michaelj!

There is an even easier way to access the aforementioned old school michaelj, of course. Saunter over to Top8Magic.com and grab yourself a copy of Deckade… It’s just ten years of my life, and about 700 pages of stuff like you just read.

Deckade – Because you know you want to.

PPS I am pretty sure I am going to get criticism for “teaching players to cheat” but the fact of the matter is, Double Nickel is the oldest stack in the book, and I hope I taught a judge or two something, too. This post was more a result of my wanting to respond to Evan’s video. I love The Magic Show, but in this case, Evan was accidentally teaching his viewership to do something I doubt he wanted to teach them. That said, if players really wanted to cheat, I doubt they waited until tonight to learn from me. They could have just gone and bought Penn Jillette’s book or whatever: How to Cheat Your Friends at Poker: The Wisdom of Dickie Richard

Currently Reading: Villains United

Mis-assignment of Strategy = Options Amputation

I have gotten a flurry of questions about my opinion on Luis Scott-Vargas’s most recent article on ChannelFireball.com about mid-range decks and Jund Mana Ramp in particular. Luis is a player who for a long time came out of the tradition of The Rock. Even when he was not actually B/G on his colors, Luis played with Loxodon Hierarchs, hand destruction, incremental advantage in general.

Though Luis had a great deal of success with those strategies (US National Champion and all that), he did not enjoy the kind of colossal Pro Tour success that he is riding today until he changed from playing The Rock to combo decks. You will remember his Extended win was with a combo Elves deck; he has since played all manner of Swans, Storm, and so on with peerless results.

This is great for Luis! We have always liked him and wish him every fortune in the world.

The emails and Tweets, though, come from another angle. Luis says that mid-range is an intrinsically flawed strategy, and argues quite strenuously against the strategy that Will Price and I like the best today: Jund Mana Ramp.

To wit:

This is a classic example of the midrange non-blue control deck. It can’t compete with the Cryptic Commands and Cruel Ultimatums of 5-Color Control, and has to settle for running much worse stuff like Primal Command and Garruk Wildspeaker. You may consider this as a 5-CC deck that doesn’t lose to aggro Red, but in return for a better (and not necessarily even good) Red matchup you are so much worse against Faeries or Reveillark. I’m not even convinced that Jund Ramp (or any non-blue Ramp) even beats Token decks.

Well my reaction to this part — which is really the genesis as that is what readers have been asking about specifically — is that it must not apply to us. Let’s look again at our version of Jund Mana Ramp:

Jund Mana Ramp

3 Makeshift Mannequin
3 Shriekmaw

4 Broodmate Dragon
4 Kitchen Finks

4 Civic Wayfinder
4 Cloudthresher
4 Gift of the Gargantuan
4 Rampant Growth

4 Banefire
3 Volcanic Fallout

4 Fire-Lit Thicket
8 Forest
2 Mountain
4 Savage Land
1 Swamp
4 Treetop Village

4 Anathemancer
1 Shriekmaw
1 Terror
3 Caldera Hellion
1 Volcanic Fallout
4 Primal Command
1 Karrthus, Tyrant of Jund

I have for some time been a vocal opponent of the Garruk Wildspeaker version of Jund Mana Ramp as slow and clunky and overly vulnerable to Faeries. Heads up I am not convinced that Garruk does anything … Though it is obvious that the potential for a Violent Ultimatum fueled by the Fertile Ground + Garruk + seven drop draw that only occurs on daytime soap operas is quite the boogeyman. Before I get into details (and what today’s title means), I will address Luis’s paragraph on Jund Mana Ramp…

I would agree that this deck probably doesn’t want to get in a Cruel Ultimatum fight with Reflecting Pool Control. However that has not historically been a problem, and I anticipate it to be less of a problem this coming weekend. At New York States last year, I handily dispatched every Reflecting Pool + Cryptic Command deck I played in that tournament, albeit with the help of Mind Shatter + Gutteral Response (which was like the simpler, faster, Cruel Ultimatum). Point being, I respect the Ultimatum, but don’t anticipate the matchup as being a huge issue. In fact I would have been very happy to play Reflecting Pool Control all day at States; it was in fact the deck I tested against the most and I felt like I had a superb understanding of how to dominate.

For Regionals I am not sure how to consider the comparison. For one, I think that Reflecting Pool Control is a disaster. Not a disaster for Jund Mana Ramp… like it’s an unplayable time bomb waiting to blow up in the face of whoever has decided to play it. I don’t have Mind Shatter + Gutteral Response any more because I don’t plan to have to have those cards. If I did, I would commit the sideboard space. Instead I have a much improved main deck that can torch the opponent out at will and a sideboard that features the card that I believe should extinct the Reflecting Pool Control strategy: Anathemancer.

I already said I don’t like Garruk Wildspeaker… but I grandly disagree that Cryptic Command is in any way better than Primal Command. Remember I have included Primal Command as a four-of… but a sideboard four-of that only comes in when it is an appropriate tool. I have steadily increased the number of Primal Commands in my sideboard because I really want to draw them in these matchups where I want to draw them (beatdown decks, Sanity Grinding, and the mirror). When I played Blightning Beatdown, there was nothing I wanted to play against more than a deck with Cryptic Command, whether it was Reflecting Pool Control or Fae. In both cases I felt like I was a heavy favorite, and I got to play with Gutteral Response to force mana commitments while I still resolved my threats.

Perhaps in agreement with Luis, I actually don’t think Red Decks are that easy for at least my version of Jund Mana Ramp. I feel like I have a good chance, but I would much rather play Fae or Reflecting Pool Control or certainly G/W Tokens than a Red Deck. That is why I have Primal Command. I want to grind the Red Deck into the floor, and gaining seven life while loading up on Kitchen Finks and Broodmate Dragons is the most appropriate way to do that in this format. Against Sanity Grinding, a Primal Command is actual card advantage, trading for multiple spells the opponent has played, and hwen it resolves, demoralizing the Millstone strategy. And of course in the mirror Primal Command is arguably the single strongest card, setting the opponent back on a comes into play tapped land and putting Karrthus into my hand.

I don’t look forward to playing Reveillark, but I actually think Fae is a very easy matchup for this version of Jund Mana Ramp. I lost to Fae to miss Top 8 of States, but I think that that deck — and even more this deck — were and are heavy favorites against Faeries. In fact, I think that my version of Jund Mana Ramp is a nightmare for most Faeries players. I side into eight copies of Volcanic Fallout and Cloudthresher (seven starting) and I have very little dead weight (only Shriekmaw) and no obvious targets. The paths to losing are being manascrewed or the opponent drawing multiple uncontesed Mistbind Cliques. I respect the latter, though, and am considering playing a second Terror in the sideboard specifically to help deal with this draw.

But Tokens? In our testing B/W Tokens can be competitive but Jund is the favorite; I don’t think G/W Tokens has very much of a shot. Testing online (where admittedly G/W Tokens doesn’t have Dauntless Escort yet we have yet to drop a game. Will Dauntless Escort matter? Sure! It will have a non-zero impact but we don’t tend to rely on sweeping the opponent to win, more dominating with tempo plays until we can get the opponent to concede with Broodmate Dragons.

So we’ve already decided that Luis must have not been talking about us when he made his comment. After all, he invoked the name of Garruk Wildspeaker. But would he dislike our deck anyway? I think maybe not.

You see our version of Jund Mana Ramp isn’t a mid-range control deck. I think that that is the source of the misunderstanding. Jund Mana Ramp — ours anyway — is a Tinker deck (in the sense of “Finding the Tinker Deck”). This is a deck that is full of mana and bombs. It doesn’t really seek to interact with the opponent’s cards like most mid-range control decks so much as to dominate them. I don’t want to get a one-for-one on a Thoughtseize; I want you to commit four mana to your Wilt-Leaf Liege so that I can get a two-for-one on you with my Makeshift Mannequin. Once I hit turn five or six I am going to tap out for a card every turn, each copy being more dramatically powerful (not necessarily “better”) than any card in your deck.

That is not a “mid-range” strategy. That is a power strategy.

Is interesting because Luis’s passion in argumentation comes as someone who sees himself as having “recovered” from the plague of mid-range mediocrity. I would reiterate that I very much respect his opinion and recent accomplishments, but would argue that his stiff-backed model may ultimately lead down a path of inflexibility. Mid-range can be sub-optimal in some rooms (especially formats with good Extended options), but be the absolute best deck to play in other rooms. It might tend to be wrong, but removing mid-range from our palettes in its entirety teaches us essentially nothing. Magic is a game of options, and the players who preserve their options tend to be the most successful. Mid-range (even if the deck at hand is not necessarily mid-range) is just another tool to be used or left in the drawer. I see no reason to remove it entirely.


How Card Advantage Works, Part 2: Picture of Consistency

Literally a picture of consistency… or in this case, inconsistency:

I have gotten a lot of comments about this screen shot.

What the heck is going on?

Why did I put that in the blog post?


Imagine if you will that this was your hand and board, instead:

  1. You are attacking with a Firebrand Ranger.
  2. You have three basic Mountains in play.
  3. Your hand is two basic Mountains and an, um… Tribal Flames (there is no burn spell bad enough to use a stand-in).
  4. Your opponent is at 19.


How bad is it?

You would be hard pressed to win against a well-built sealed deck with those tools only.

And while “cards in hand” have a non-zero value if for no other reason than you can bluff, that is what was depicted in the previous post’s screen shot.

So why am I bringing this up? Surely there is something productive to talk about beyond “Blood Moon is good against Zoo.” And there is! Zoo is just a perfect example.

I told Josh today that I took out one of the Sacred Foundries from the Zoo deck I listed last time around and replaced it with an Overgrown Tomb. This was night and day better than the previous version, just one card different. Why would this be, and why would I have previously played two Sacred Foundries?

The bonus to this deck from having an overgrown Tomb is simply that it can run another set of “opposites” to cast spells. Zoo is a much more challenging deck to play that it seems at first glance, to a novice. The reason is that in most Zoo games you will have access to 10-13 mana total… That is over the course of the whole game. So you have to make sure you have lands that can cast your spells.

A two land combination that functions pretty well together is Sacred Foundry plus Overgrown Tomb; not the best, but pretty well. Ironically, Sacred Foundry ha[d] no natural partner. If you only have two lands, you are likely to have an extra source of Red, but be unable to play half your hand.

To wit:

Godless Shrine goes with Stomping Ground.

Temple Garden goes with Blood Crypt.

And now… finally…. You have the option to play Overgrown Tomb and Sacred Foundry. Of the three combinations, this is the worst. You can’t play Lightning Helix and you can’t pump Viashino Slaughtermaster. But the reason I didn’t have it is that I was phoning in my mana base reminiscing about pre-Berlin testing, when Overgrown Tomb couldn’t pump Figure of Destiny. It’s the worst land in the deck, but not applicable to this deck.

Anyway, point being, if you get the wrong lands early, even though you have access to ten to twelve taps… You don’t actually get to cast a lot of your spells.

And when you can’t cast a spell… It’s almost like it wasn’t there at all.

  • Why don’t we play Nicol Bolas in Zoo?
  • Why are fast decks with low mana costs consitently better performers than ponderous mid-range decks that play a lot of weird and expensive stuff?
  • Why did I cut some Incinerates from Naya Burn, replacing them with Tarfires?
  • Why does Cruel Ultimatum leave a bad taste in GerryT’s mouth?

The answers to these questions aren’t all exactly the same, but they are pretty closely related. In essence, the value of a card is very closely correlated with our ability to utilize it. We don’t play Nicol Bolas in Zoo because it is essentially impossible to cast; ever drawing it would be a mulligan.

Why are fast decks with low mana costs consistently better performers than ponderous mid-range decks yadda yadda yadda? Because if the slower deck stumbles, it loses more than a potential land drop: It loses the efficacy of the cards in its hands. On balance the fast deck “stuck” at two lands will usually be able to knock over an entire city, let alone slow mid-range opponents. Time is also an issue. It doesn’t matter if the slower deck is packing Future Sight or just Future Sight cards.

So card utility — an element on which card advantage inextricably relies — has to do with one three-letter word: Now.

We don’t play Nicol Bolas in Zoo because we can’t cast it now (well… in this case, ever).

Fast decks with low mana costs consistently out-perform ponderous mid-range decks because the fast decks can typically use their spells now whereas the ponderous decks often have their hands clogged, doing nothing, for many turns. When they are mana screwed, fast decks can usually still play a lot of their spells; on balance, the slower decks go from being unable to play their spells this turn to being unable to play their spells ever. Why? Because the game is over and they are dead.

Why did I cut some Incinerates from Naya Burn, replacing them with Tarfires? This one is subtler. I could usually play the Incinerates… But because the Naya Burn deck would often have to operate with only two or three lands in play, I wouldn’t necessarily be able to play the Incinerate and something else. That took immediate utility away from me (even a little bit)… But with three mana I might be able to play a Tarmogoyf and get a blocker out of the way with a Tarfire so I could get in for three the same turn. In a format like Extended — which is essentially all about racing, in so many matchups — not being able to play the right spell this turn might as well be like being unable to play that spell ever.

The thing that I like best about this line of thinking is that there are immediate practical applications.

The most obvious one is how it might affect your mulligan algorithm.

Now a lot of us play with general rules like “you have to keep every hand with two lands” … Let’s see how those theories work out when we think about how many cards we functionally have, based on our ability to cast our spells right now.

(These screen shots are all courtesy of my Domain Zoo deck. Deck list at the bottom.)

This opening hand is about all you could ask for. You go and get Overgrown Tomb with the Bloodstained Mire and lay out a 1/1. You are striking for three on turn two thanks to the Sacred Foundry. This hand can’t fundamentally pump the Viashino and can’t cast Lightning Helix… But you don’t have Lightning Helix.

This second hand isn’t too bad. I know that your instinct is to not Mulligan it. That instinct would be correct. But there is a very concrete reason why you wouldn’t mulligan it. When you mulligan, you are trading this hand for a six-card hand of unknown quantity. This is a six-card hand that’s actually pretty good (you have about a one-in-four chance of speculating it into a full-on seven-card hand with the right topdeck).

Six card hand? Huh?

To wit:

The “seven” card hand only has the immediate utility of a six-card hand. With an Overgrown Tomb the natural land to go and get is a Sacred Foundry. You can’t play Lightning Helix with those lands.

This next “six-card” seven-card hand is a little bit worse than the previous one. I’ve already grayed out the Might of Alara. You actually get to play Lightning Helix for the first time, but with no Green mana you can’t play the Might of Alara. I would not mulligan this hand because you actually have some action… But unless you get to Green, you not only can’t play the Might, you can’t pump the Viashinos (so you basically have some Firebrand Rangers). It goes without saying that the Tribal Flames is a mere Volcanic Hammer… But there’s nothing wrong with that, expressly.

This hand is obviously poop. Clear mulligan – no action due to having no lands. Let’s examine the mulligan hand:

You would have to deeply consider going to five cards on this one. Of the six cards present, two are completely grayed out and I did a little half-thingie on the Wild Nacatls (no one is excited about a 2/2). I would be more inclined to keep this hand on the draw. 

Just something to think about:

  • You have a little bit better than a one-in-three to draw a land on your first pull.
  • Unless that land is a Blood Crypt or a Blood Crypt proxy such as a Bloodstained Mire or Wooded Foothills — NOT a Windswept Heath — the marginal utility nothing to write home about (by the way a Windswept Heath can’t get a Steam Vents, either). So now you are down to 16% to pull the land “you want” on your next pull.
  • If your hand doesn’t improve quickly, you are certain to lose to any competitive Extended deck.
When we talk about “doing the math” … This is what we are talking about. Are you better off with an unknown five-card hand or one of the above percentages? I would be hesitant to mulligan… It would depend on more than a screen shot in the abstract.

So when we talk about consistencyI think that these black-and-white images are what we are talking about. The decks we think of as less consistent play with functionally less card advantage, at least from an opening hand perspective. Now usually they are paired with greater power… There is no doubt that a Zoo deck that can attack for lethal damage on the third turn is “more powerful” than a ho hum Naya Burn deck that needs the stars to align very nicely in order to get a fourth turn concession (not necessarily kill), but at the same time, its ability to set up those kinds of draws with so many five-card openers means that it might have certain disincentives for play.

Think of the decks we complain about most in terms of “more mulligans” … A lot of those decks only play 20 lands (or not even 20 lands). Unless they are Elves (a deck of all one drops) these decks often have problems getting past Stage One (“basically manascrewed”)… And even a modest Stage Two deck will habitually beat a manascrewed opponent.

One more time for the road:

2 Umezawa’s Jitte

4 Dark Confidant

4 Lightning Helix

4 Might of Alara
4 Tarmogoyf
4 Wild Nacatl

4 Kird Ape
4 Mogg Fanatic
1 Seal of Fire
1 Tarfire
4 Tribal Flames
4 Viashino Slaughtermaster

1 Blood Crypt
4 Bloodstained Mire
1 Godless Shrine
1 Mountain
1 Overgrown Tomb
1 Sacred Foundry
1 Steam Vents
1 Stomping Ground
1 Temple Garden
4 Windswept Heath
4 Wooded Foothills

2 Umezawa’s Jitte
4 Duergar Hedge-Mage
4 Ancient Grudge
1 Volcanic Fallout
4 Ethersworn Canonist


How Card Advantage Works, Part 3: How All-in Red Works

That, or my deck for this weekend… One of the two!


How Card Advantage Works, Part 1: Bad Decks, Good Theory

Ironically these terrible decks I made last week will ultimately produce a very nice and useful model for card advantage that you may not be using at present. Really!

It might not be all-inclusive, but I am pretty sure it will change how at least some readers look at card economics.

To begin, I made some bad Extended decks.

Inspired by LSV in Kyoto, I decided to make B/W Tokens in Extended.


I mean B/W Tokens is a competitive deck in Standard, and recently the Philly 5K champion showed us that you can translate Block Kithkin to an easy Extended Top 4 (and if he hadn’t lost to Osyp’s infinite creature control, I’m guessing Corey could have beaten Josh and his Fae in the finals)… Fae is an Extended Deck. Kithkin can be one. Why not B/W Tokens?

Here is the first iteration:

3 Umezawa’s Jitte

4 Bitterblossom
2 False Cure
1 Ghost-Lit Stalker

3 Beacon of Immortality
4 Eternal Dragon
4 Martyr of Sands
4 Path to Exile
3 Proclamation of Rebirth
4 Ranger of Eos
4 Spectral Procession

4 Fetid Heath
2 Ghost Quarter
4 Godless Shrine
2 Mistveil Plains
4 Plains
4 Windbrisk Heights
4 Windswept Heath

3 Relic of Progenitus
4 Thoughtseize
4 Kataki, War’s Wage
1 Proclamation of Rebirth
3 Wrath of God

I decided I wanted to hybridize three major principles:

1) Three-for-ones. Two-for-ones are so passe. I played many cards that can single-handedly trip a Windbrisk Heights, viz. Spectral Procession and Ranger of Eos.

2) Martyr Combo. I figured that as long as I was running Ranger of Eos for card advantage, I might as well go and get the bestest available ones, and splash in some copies of Proclamation of Rebirth. At last check, Fae was the most popular Extended deck, and I wouldn’t be frightened of Fae with Rangers, Martyrs, and Proclamations at my beck and call.

3) False Cure combo. For those of you who haven’t seen it, the combo is Beacon of Immortality + False Cure. I pulled this off one time, ever. In a game I was just going to win with Dragon beatdown anyway.

The dream was to get in there with Windbrisk Heights to complete the False Cure + Beacon of Immortality combo. This never fit together and I think I won a total of one match with the deck.

This version was going nowhere so I tried one with Ghost Council of Orzhova. I have a soft spot for the Guildpact mobsters (especially Teysa), so I tried to make it a little bit differently.

4 Umezawa’s Jitte

4 Bitterblossom
1 Ghost-Lit Stalker

4 Ghost Council of Orzhova
1 Teysa, Orzhov Scion

4 Eternal Dragon
4 Martyr of Sands
4 Path to Exile
2 Proclamation of Rebirth
4 Ranger of Eos
4 Spectral Procession

4 Fetid Heath
2 Ghost Quarter
4 Godless Shrine
2 Mistveil Plains
4 Plains
4 Windbrisk Heights
4 Windswept Heath

3 Relic of Progenitus
4 Thoughtseize
4 Kataki, War’s Wage
1 Proclamation of Rebirth
3 Wrath of God

Like in my Pro Tour Charleston deck Teysa can do some damage with token teammates.

Between the two builds I don’t think I took down an actual match. That means they are probably pretty dismal.

But I decided I could try to resurrect a different old deck. This time I went for Gaea’s Might Get There.

2 Umezawa’s Jitte

4 Dark Confidant

4 Lightning Helix

4 Might of Alara
4 Tarmogoyf
4 Wild Nacatl

4 Kird Ape
4 Mogg Fanatic
1 Seal of Fire
1 Tarfire
4 Tribal Flames
4 Viashino Slaughtermaster

1 Blood Crypt
4 Bloodstained Mire
1 Godless Shrine
1 Mountain
2 Sacred Foundry
1 Steam Vents
1 Stomping Ground
1 Temple Garden
4 Windswept Heath
4 Wooded Foothills

2 Umezawa’s Jitte
4 Duergar Hedge-Mage
4 Ancient Grudge
1 Volcanic Fallout
4 Ethersworn Canonist

Gaea’s Might Get There was a respectable deck, and Viashino Slaughtermaster is offensively just better than Boros Swiftblade in a deck like this one.

Sad to say I have only ever completed the turn three big swing one time, but stuck on two lands, was only capable of striking for 10. I lost that game to Swans when he locked me down with a Blood Moon the following turn (though I “got there” match-wise, eventually).

I am not hugely in love with this deck, and if you asked me today what I would play at the next PTQ, I would for certain speak the words “Naya Burn” … But this strategy definitely has legs. The reason I like it less than the somewhat similar (though admittedly “less powerful”) Naya Burn is an issue of consistency.

Consistency is a word that gets batted around a bit in Magic (especially with regards to opening hands evaluations)… And thinking about this consistency was the catalyst to this three (or so) part article set on card advantage.


What do you think about this screen shot?

Fabulous winks!