One of the most important ways to win at Magic is knowing what to do, and one of the most widely shared aphorisms related to this is usually attributed to Jon Finkel:
For many of us, easier said than done. The most effective way to accomplish this isn't just practice, practice, practice, but playing thoughtfully and reflecting on games, trying to learn what they mean. Gather the empirical information and apply it moving forward. Empiricism is the usual best way to play good Magic.
However, empiricism really only works out if you have experienced the situations before. In new situations, theory is an important way to get a head start. I was incredibly pleased when one-third of my favorite Magic Team teammate, Zac Hill, said that the decklist I took down Milwaukee with was a coup for theory.
The biggest reason for this is that people have been misunderstanding how Niv-Mizzet, Parun functions in Standard. They think Niz-Mizzet is a play that you make at the top end of a control deck - which is true - without realizing the card is so powerful that it is better suited for an entirely different strategy.
First, a small discussion on the Physics of Magic.
Magic has fundamental elements that create a structure of interaction that affects how we play. We start with 20 life; we draw seven cards to begin, and then one card a turn; we play a single land a turn. The base rules create a framework that overlays all of Magic.
The cards that get printed in the game affect what is powerful within this framework. We all know that certain strategies become more or less powerful over time. In certain moments, for example, Mono-Red Aggro is just terribly weak, and in others it is seemingly oppressively strong. This is because of the particular card pool in play in relation to the entire pool.
When Wizards of the Coast prints cards, it affects things. One of the most dramatic moments of this was the decision by Wizards of the Coast to utterly crush the deck Faeries. Witness this Top 8: US Nationals 2009, with 31 Volcanic Fallout and 32 Great Sable Stag. They really didn't want Faeries to take the top slot in Magic.
Faeries is one of the most powerful decks in Magic. It is also one of the most misunderstood. People sometimes called the classic Faeries deck "a control deck" or sometimes "an aggro-control deck", but these are both wrong. This mistake usually doesn't matter, because the deck was so powerful, having your empirical knowledge should be enough. But sometimes it does matter.
Faeries is from a rare strategic archetype that I call "Hybrid Control".
Let's take a look back on history.
U/B Faeries | Shards of Alara Standard | Masashi Oiso, 6-0 Standard at Worlds
- Planeswalkers (3)
- 3 Jace Beleren
- Sorceries (3)
- 3 Thoughtseize
- Enchantments (4)
- 4 Bitterblossom
- Lands (25)
- 3 Swamp
- 5 Island
- 2 Faerie Conclave
- 3 Underground River
- 4 Mutavault
- 4 Secluded Glen
- 4 Sunken Ruins
This was just one example of a 6-0 Faeries list from Worlds 2008. There were five 6-0 lists in Standard at Worlds that year: three Faeries, one "Boat Brew", one Mono-White Kithkin.
Faeries dominated Magic by such a degree, Wizards printed hate cards for it in the form of Volcanic Fallout and Great Sable Stag, and when both cards were in print, Faeries was finally done for, and US Nationals in 2009 was just the final, clear showing of just how done the archetype was.
So, what was it about Faeries that was so powerful?
For people that thought it was an Aggro-Control deck, they were wrong because of what Aggro-Control is. An Aggro-Control deck puts down a clock, and then uses time-control elements to keep the opponent from being able to stay alive. In current Standard, one example of this archetype is the so-called Mono-Blue Tempo or Mono-Blue Aggro (or, as I like to call it "Curious George" that has been seeing some decent success for a little while. The nature of the disruption is important: to be Aggro-Control, you have to use up your opponent's time, and discard as disruption may be effective, but it doesn't stop the opponent from having wasted their time like a Dive Down or sideboard Negate does. Another example, from Modern, would be Bant Spirits and Spirits, both of which lean pretty heavily on Spell Queller and Mausoleum Wanderer to be Aggro-Control decks.
Faeries is not an Aggro-Control deck because Faeries doesn't put down a clock early. The very fastest thing a Faeries deck can do to take an aggressive role involves Bitterblossom on turn two and attacking on turn four, most usually for one, if it attacks at all.
That is not the play of an aggressive deck.
Faeries is not a pure Control deck either, though. While it starts out in a controlling role, there is typically a moment where suddenly it seems very, very much like an Aggro-Control deck, attacking viciously. When Faeries turns the corner from "Control" to "Aggro-Control", tempo-oriented traps like the classic "Mistbind Clique or Cryptic Command" conundrum create difficult situations for the opponent, and suddenly they can be looking down the barrel of a very short clock, with the defensive deck taking the game in a few turns backed by powerful instant plays.
Compare this to the more classic Teferi-Control decks that just, well, end things eventually (or, we could say, to use Zvi Mowshowitz's classic theory, Inevitably).
U/W Teferi Control | Dominaria Standard | Brad Nelson, 2nd Place, Grand Prix
- Planeswalkers (4)
- 4 Teferi, Hero of Dominaria
- Instants (19)
- 1 Commit // Memory
- 1 Negate
- 2 Pull from Tomorrow
- 2 Syncopate
- 3 Blink of an Eye
- 3 Essence Scatter
- 3 Settle the Wreckage
- 4 Disallow
- Sorceries (2)
- 2 Fumigate
- Lands (27)
- 7 Island
- 8 Plains
- 2 Field of Ruin
- 2 Memorial to Genius
- 4 Glacial Fortress
- 4 Irrigated Farmland
This control deck is firmly all about playing to an Inevitable end point. Oiso's Faeries, or any Faerie deck for that matter, quite literally cannot play to the Inevitable end point; in an Inevitable world, they will be dead from their own Bitterblossom.
In Magic, decks can be said to exist on two Strategic Continuum: Inevitability versus Immediacy, and Permanent versus Ephemeral. Mike Flores wrote the classic article, "Who's the Beatdown?" way back in 1999 for The Dojo which explored the first concept. In that same early era, I was among several theorists who talked about the second concept.
Laid out, it looks like this, with decks existing along the rim of this circle:
A deck doesn't statically exist somewhere along the edge - an aggressive deck can have a draw that is simply more controlling than it is aggressive. However, in the aggregation of all of the moments that a deck might have, we can begin to understand how the deck typically performs.
Currently, a Golgari deck might be built in such a way that it typically plays for a long game. However, that doesn't mean that when it draws Llanowar Elves into a 4/3 Jadelight Ranger, into a Wildgrowth Walker joined by a 3/2 Merfolk Branchwalker, it might not be fully capable of beating down. A Jeskai Control deck facing down a more controlling version of itself in the mirror might sideboard into 4 Legion Warboss, hoping to gain the more aggressive role more firmly, and becoming a kind of weak Aggro-Control deck. A Red Aggro deck might start out aggressive versus Boros Aggro, get stymied, then find itself laying an Experimental Frenzy, and suddenly controlling the game outright with burn spells and Goblin Chainwhirler until it has seized advantage on the board, and then finishes the game with whatever it has handy, in classic Midrange Control fashion.
If we add to the circle the names of the various archetypes, going around the circle like a clock: from roughly 11 to 1 is Control; the "Mid-" Strategies from 1 to 5 are Midrange Control (1 to 3) and Midrange Aggro (3 to 5); at 5 to 7 is Aggro; from 7 to 11 are the "Mixed" Strategies, with Aggro-Control at 7 to 9 and Hybrid Control from 9 to 11.
Put altogether The Strategic Archetype Circle looks like this:
Midrange decks live on the board. They care deeply about having an advantage in play. More controlling decks care about reaching an inevitable end game. More aggressive decks care about ending the game as immediately as possible. The mixed strategies employ an active combination of aggressive elements and time controlling elements, with Aggro-Control starting out aggressively and then protecting their clock with time-control elements, and Hybrid Control starting out defensively and then shifting into an aggressive posture later in the game, protected by time-control elements.
We see more pure Control and Aggro decks all the time. Wizards of the Coast has spent much of the last ten years printing cards that make Midrange strategies very effective (though before that, they were often loathe to do so). Good cards to make Aggro-Control decks are fairly rare, making it one of the least seen archetypes. Good cards for Hybrid Control are so hard to find that we almost never see the archetype.
Faeries. Vintage Oath. Thing in the Ice Blue Moon. These are a few examples of Hybrid Control. My Niz-Mizzet Jeskai deck is another - a true "Chevy", for you old-schoolers.
Jeskai Hybrid Control | Guilds Standard | Adrian Sullivan, 1st Place Grand Prix Milwaukee
- Planeswalkers (3)
- 3 Teferi, Hero of Dominaria
- Instants (16)
- 1 Settle the Wreckage
- 1 Shock
- 1 Spell Pierce
- 2 Dive Down
- 2 Ionize
- 2 Syncopate
- 3 Expansion // Explosion
- 4 Opt
- Artifacts (4)
- 4 Treasure Map
- Lands (25)
- 5 Island
- 4 Clifftop Retreat
- 4 Glacial Fortress
- 4 Sacred Foundry
- 4 Steam Vents
- 4 Sulfur Falls
So, why is this deck not a Control deck in Strategic Archetype terms?
There will certainly be games where, like any deck, you shift gently away from where you typically "live". A Hybrid Control deck will sometimes just have a full-on, pure Control game just like an Aggro deck might shift into an Aggro-Control game or, with powerful enough cards, even a bigger shift (I'm looking at you, Experimental Frenzy and Goblin Chainwhirler).
However, Niv-Mizzet, Parun does some messed up things. As a completely uncounterable card, it breaks the rules of Control-on-Control wars about how they fight with each other. The triggering on most important spells in this kind of conflict completely strips away the ability of the other Control deck to maintain control. Adding damage on top of this for every card draw makes games end rapidly. Adding onto this the incredible damage potential of Explosion from Expansion // Explosion or the damage from sideboard Banefire means games close out if not figuratively, then literally, nearly immediately.
This is not the way of a control deck.
Building it like a control deck, then, denies the power of what Niv-Mizzet, Parun does. You can build such a deck more controlling, but in so doing, you weaken the potential for your absurd Izzet dragon to take games down.
You never get the opportunity to win games like this Game 1 of the GP Milwaukee finals if you aren't prepared to go for the throat and just kill the opponent:
Take the four decks from this last weekend's Standard MOCS which riffed on my deck: of them, I only actually like the build played by qtaro, whose 7-1 finish came with a 74 of 75 on my build, only cutting my singleton Rekindling Phoenix for a fourth Deafening Clarion.
Qtaro's choice only gently moves the deck into a more controlling role. Every other build of the deck I saw at the MOCS clearly resulted in enough success to be in the top portion of the field, but absolutely took the deck away from the things that make it most fundamentally strong.
If you have a watch, but it is missing the sliver of time between 9:01 and 11:00, most of the time you are going to be just fine, but you might get things a little wrong if something important is happening during that time. The existence of decks along the Strategic Archetype Circle don't get equal representation. In this stretched analogy, it is pretty rare that something is between 9 and 11, but when it is, it matters a lot.
Adding in Sinister Sabotage makes a lot of sense if you don't know that Hybrid Control exists. That change is the most common decision I see for people who "update" the deck. Mana issues aside, this gently moves the deck away from maximizing the ability of Niv-Mizzet, Parun to end games. I believe they make this decision because, in a vacuum, not only is Sinister Sabotage a better card, but it is the better Control card. From here, it becomes easy to also do things like cut an extra Niv-Mizzet, Parun, since you are trying to maximize yourself as a Control deck, or add in Crackling Drake over Enigma Drake.
All of these decisions make you slide ever closer to "12:00" on the Strategic Archetype Circle. This would be great if Niv-Mizzet, Parun was best as a Control card, but Niv-Mizzet, Parun ends games; he most likely prefers to live somewhere between 8:00 and 11:00.
When I built my GP-winning Jeskai Hybrid Control, I understood the existence of this rare Strategic Archetype. As I kept working and working on the deck, at a certain point, I realized that my Jeskai deck was not a control deck, and that's when a huge amount of decisions that differentiated my deck from other decks came into being.
There are some gentle changes I plan on making to the deck, moving forward, but making the deck more controlling is not one of them. This deck ends games. Making choices in the deck-building process to minimize that is a mistake that goes against the very nature of the Strategic Archetype where it resides. If you want to make changes, remember to keep in mind the very nature of what the deck is, and keep in mind that you need to maintain its ability to close out games.
Understanding what the six Strategic Archetypes are is a fundamental lesson that, when learned, can help your understanding of the game and lead to more wins. Typically, empiricism is the more powerful means to get wins in this game, but when situations don't come up very often, a proper understanding of the underlying physics of the game matters, and that is where theory is at its most important.
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