Red Card Loses: Why I Play Blue
Deck selection is one of the most important factors in tournament success. Choosing the right deck can allow you to do well despite a lack of preparation or being a weaker player than your opponents, while choosing the wrong deck will end your tournament before it begins regardless of any edge you have in play skill, experience, or knowledge of the format.
I consider myself a Spike, and any tournament I enter I intend to win. Since I came back to the game after a hiatus and started playing competitively near the end of Ravnica block I have played UR IzzeTron, UW UrzaTron, UB Mystical Teachings, Four/Five Color Control, UW Control, Mythic, UW Control, CawGo, and CawBlade. All of these but Mythic were the premier control decks of their time. Part of the reason I have always chosen these decks was that I am familiar with and enjoy playing control, but the Spike part of me makes me think that I would play a different deck if I thought it was the best deck for a given tournament.
I almost always play control decks instead of aggressive or combo decks for two reasons–they allow me more room to outplay my opponent than other decks and they are more resilient to hate than others attempts to defeat them.
I spend a good amount of time playtesting before any major tournament. I try to test the major decks against each other, before and after sideboarding, and through a number of permutations. I check all the major websites for tournament results, read the articles by the pros, and have an understanding of the format before I sit down for round one.
I am aware this puts me in a different bracket than most players. Most players at any given tournament do not have the practice under their belts that I do and have not been playing as long as I have. This is a significant advantage I have against a given opponent, and it would seem foolish not to take advantage of it.
In my eyes, control decks have more decisions per turn than aggressive decks, and because they take longer to win there are more turns. This means that there are more opportunities for me to make the correct decision that someone else may have botched, and there is more time for me to take advantage of the fact that I am a stronger, more prepared player than most of my opponents.
As an example, suppose you are playing with Boros against CawBlade. On every turn you have to decide whether or not to play another creature based on whether or not you think the opponent may be holding a Day of Judgment or other sweeper, perhaps if you want to sacrifice a fetchland like Scalding Tarn to pump a Plated Geopede or save it, and how to attack.
Compare that to a given turn of CawBlade playing against Boros. You have to decide if you want to play another Squadron Hawk to block with or if you should play your Day of Judgment now, whether it is better to play two Hawks or one and equip it, if you equip it whether you should stick it with the Mortarpod, Sword of Feast and Famine, or Sylvok Lifestaff. You have to decide if you should Brainstorm, Fateseal, or Unsummon with Jace, +2, -2, or +0 Gideon Jura, and if you want to attack with your Hawks or save them to block.
When there are more decisions to make and more turns in the game I feel I have more room to outplay my opponents and more ways to take advantage of the fact I usually have a better idea of what matters than they do.
Any deck has weaknesses that can be exploited. Combo decks are generally weak to discard, particularly targeted, aggressive decks are vulnerable to board sweepers and card advantage, and control decks can be taken down by a quick attack that can win the game before their more powerful spells and card advantage can take over the game. If your only goal is to beat one deck it is nearly always possible to do so.
The difference in my eyes is the ease with which these weaknesses can be exploited. It does not take more than a few discard spells or resolved permanents like Arcane Laboratory or Gaddock Teeg to take the wind from the sails of all but the best combo decks. There are very few beatdown decks that can survive one Wrath of God, much less two and a Doom Blade. Control decks, however, are significantly more difficult to effectively hate out.
I have won games with UW Control after being Duressed or Thoughtsiezed multiple times, Memoricided twice, and seen a Vampire Hexmage imprinted on a Mimic Vat. I have seen control decks go down to two life by the fourth turn against a MonoRed deck and emerge victorious on the twentieth turn. There is no single type of card that can take down a control deck the same way a Day of Judgment can destroy an aggressive deck or a Meddling Mage can take down a combo deck.
The ability to resist the opponent’s attempts to take you down is extremely appealing when choosing a deck. Occasionally a specific and powerful strategy that can be taken down by targeted hate, such as Dredge, will none-the-less be a good choice because the metagame is not expecting it and no hate exists, but this is a rare case. Most of the time all the tier one decks in a format are well known, and any random opponent is going to have a handful of cards in their sideboard ready to board in. If an opponent is going to have cards to sideboard in against you, would you rather play a deck that automatically loses if the opponent draws one of their hate cards or a deck that is slightly hurt if the opponent draws their hate cards?
As an example, look at the major decks in standard. Valakut is easily disrupted by a Memoricide to strip them of their Primeval Titans followed by some creature kill because they are more a combo deck than a beatdown deck, WW Quest will lose almost any game that sees multiple targeted removal spells cast against it because it quickly runs out of steam, and Elves! is vulnerable to board sweepers that can disrupt its synergy and stop a critical mass of power/mana from forming. MonoRed is vulnerable to even the small amount of life provided by a Sylvok Lifestaff successfully equipped, not to mention a Kor Firewalker, Kuldotha Red can not beat a Pyroclasm effect on turn two, and Vampires’ attempts to beat a Leyline of Sanctity would be hilarious if they were not so sad. These decks all have clear answers to their game plan and are easily disrupted. If you decide to beat these decks, you can do it.
What about public enemy number one, CawBlade? Some people like to bring in Duress, which can certainly hurt, but it does not stop them from presenting an army of blockers in the form of Squadron Hawk to buy them enough time to recover. If you bring in targeted removal they can simply play out one Hawk at a time and attack the Sword of Feast and Famine to it, forcing you to trade your removal one-for-one. When you trade four removal spells for four Squadron Hawks you have lost four cards in hand to the opponent’s one, which is a worse deal than simply letting them cast Ancestral Recall. If you try to play something like Memoricide or Sadistic Sacrament to strip them of their Swords they can easily win with Gideon Jura and Celestial Colonnade, or mill you out with Jace, the Mind Sculptor. If you take away their planeswalkers the Hawks and Swords will make quick work of you. If you try to overwhelm them in the early game you are walking right into their Day of Judgments and if you try to last into the late game you will fall to their card advantage. No matter what plan you choose to execute against CawBlade they are able to attack from another angle. This is not unique to CawBlade, it is a characteristic that many if not all control decks share.