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Does Deception Work Outside of Boomer Magic?


Our hero had gotten the jump on his longtime friend. Dust Bowl was working.

Dust Bowl

And despite a Mulch, Lan D. Ho could only play one land per turn.

Luckily for me, so many of his lands were nonbasics. I just kept working him; keeping him down and under four. Mind Stone. Moss Diamond. A little ahead - for me - but my clock wasn't the best.

I couldn't deploy Exalted Angel because, before I had manascrewed my Very Good Friend of more than a quarter century, he had gotten Oath of Druids down. So, I was basically reduced to taking swipes with Cursed Scroll... But with like seven cards in hand.

... This was going to take a while.

Only it wasn't.

Lan had been discarding every turn; manascrewed as he was. I was keeping him down with Rishadan Port, so that even his basics were betraying him; but all it took was one good Wasteland turn; then another Mulch, and my soft lock softened and further softened.

Then... The jig was entirely up. Mox Diamond (a sandbag, obviously) and a land drop later: He had 4 mana. Enough for a Replenish.


Now all the cards that Lan had been discarding came back all at once. Some of them were Parallax Tides so that was about all she wrote for Our Hero.

He'd go on to win the meetup - advertised as a $1,000 affair - with a mint Mox Diamond as the first place kicker. His deck went on to inspire the other Lan H. in this year's Premodern Super Series:

What had happened there?

I was operating on one axis - that manascrewing the elder Lan H. was doing much of anything. That the game was about his ability to operate; that fair Magic was going to rule the day (or at least that game); and that given sufficient turns, I'd eventually be able to cobble together enough low probability Cursed Scroll hits to add up to 20.

The problem was that, at best, I was pretending.

Lan was certainly pretending. He was pretending that anything I did mattered. When in fact, his game plan all along was to bust straight to four mana in one turn and cast Replenish. I was certainly giving him sufficient time.

This was a textbook game of deception. Deception is the highest form of Magic strategy.

Deception is the Highest Form of Magic Strategy


How can it be the highest form of Magic strategy if I've never even heard of it?

Well in that case I'm very sorry, but your education has been lacking.

The barest form of Magic strategy occurs at the card level. Some cards are better than others. Some cards are Doom Blades; some cards die to Doom Blades.

Cards can be assembled into decks (whether 40- or 60-) and combinations of cards - generally in the context of decks - can provide richer strategies. Some cards go in more than one deck; and cards can have different roles or functions depending on which deck they're in at the time.

For instance Three Steps Ahead can be a flex one-of in a Temur Lands deck; or a four-of backbone to Dimir Control in Standard. If you're a vanilla Mono-Red (generally beatdown) deck, you're terrified of one of the Three Steps Ahead decks (Temur) and can almost never lose to the other (Dimir). In this way strategies at the deck level are richer than strategies at the mere card level.

There are more levels. How one plays a particular deck tends to be important at more competitive tiers, but the highest of these is deception. It is at the level of deception that two players are fighting a battle that occurs much more in their imaginations than on the cards. Strategy fights strategy itself... And one of the players is almost always horrifically wrong.

Imagine the typical case of a Control deck with few or no creatures in Game 1. Going into Game 2 (provided this is not a stupid open deck lists tournament), the other player may remove most or all of their creature removal - or as much as they can afford to given the space in their sideboard - because in Game 1, every piece of point removal was like a mid-game mulligan.

Only the clever opponent now brings in creatures.

This is called The Old Switcheroo, and it is one of the more basic types of deception.

The most successful example of The Old Switcheroo was executed by Jon Finkel at Pro Tour Chicago 1997; which marked Jon's first individual Pro Tour Top 8.

In Game 1 Jon presented an artifact Prison deck. He could operate using Marble Diamond and Sky Diamond; while his opponent might be slowed down by Winter Orb.

Or he could get Icy Manipulator + Icy Manipulator + Winter Orb, which would allow full untaps every turn (but keep his opponent to essentially zero active mana).

There were a lot of ways one might go about combatting Jon after sideboarding; but most of them involved bringing in a lot of Disenchants or Shatters. You could go after the Orbs - the cards that were slowing you down - or you could go after the cards that gave Jon his asymmetrical advantages: The Icy Manipulators or his own operating mana.

These different paths (especially in different games) represented different ways one could play the same cards. But they all involved siding in artifact removal.

What might you side out to get there?


Jon, for his part, brought in Erhnam Djinn and Wildfire Emissary.

The default creature removal at the time was Lightning Bolt for Red and Swords to Plowshares for White. Both creatures were too big for Lightning Bolt; and at least Wildfire Emissary could laugh off a Swords to Plowshares. Jon executed The Old Switcheroo all the way to his first Top 8; 3d place in fact... A feat famous 27 years later that would not have been possible under open deck lists.

Now the greatest player of all time was playing a lock-combo deck that would demand particular answers that would have been sideboarded anyway. And he was playing at the height of his abilities. But he was also actively engaging in deception. His opponents would be reconfiguring their decks one way, and he would become a mid-range creature deck, catching them completely unawares.

Hold up, MichaelJ...

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Does Deception Work Outside of Boomer Magic?

I'm glad you asked! The design shift in recent years toward snowballing card advantage has definitely shifted strategies away from the imagination, homogenized decks to some degree, and made decisions about cards more than anything else, more than ever.


Here is the deck I played at the Regional Championships earlier this month:

To begin with, this belongs to a style of uw decks that play Jace.

If you play Jace you have a built-in deception setting. I remember distinctly a gorgeous play-test mirror where I navigated Roman Fusco's The Wandering Emperor and Mirrex expertly, came back from behind in cards and tempo, and...

Got brained by Jace.

I had been trash talking the whole time; Roman was uncharacteristically silent. Until he tapped me good and landed both Jaces in a single turn.

"ALL WAR IS DECEPTION, MichaelJ!" he yelled.

The Jace setting is simply an important extra feature; especially when you consider the Pro Tour Finalist version played more soft counters but no supplemental Planeswalker. You can't ignore Plan A. There is going to be The Wandering Emperor. Restless Anchorage is going to come in, tapped, in the late game. You'll have to decide between that and Mirrex with your Field of Ruin.

But get your mana tapped at the wrong time? Spend Three Steps Ahead on the wrong threat?

Jace gets you. Boom!

But that's not all. This is also a switcheroo deck of the Finkel school. Boon-Bringer Valkyrie has multiple synergies (especially with Three Steps Ahead) but it gets the nod over Ezrim, Agency Chief for its dominance over the Lightning Bolt or Swords to Plowshares of 2024: Namely that its first strike trumps Urabrask's Forge.

But this build has lots of creatures. Chrome Host Seedshark was my most sided-in card. I'd bring it in against Domain; against beatdown decks as an early blocker. In the mirror as a threat cheaper than four. Almost half my sideboard was creatures!

As it was an open deck lists tournament I couldn't get the full Finkel, but I did have a Dimir player tell me he'd left in all his removal, because the downside risk was just too great.

Full Circle

Look at this PT winning deck from just last year. Look past all the banned cards for a sec, please

If you could encapsulate its strategy in one word, what would it be? You only get one, so "naturally card advantageous" or "incrementally advantageous" aren't eligible.

But that's what all the cards are, aren't they? Beatdown creature Bloodtithe Harvester puts a token into play. Graveyard Trespasser // Graveyard Glutton is a Titan in miniature; burning, gaining life, and resilient all at the same time. Fable of the Mirror-Breaker // Reflection of Kiki-Jiki is like three cards... And that's without the first Goblin ever getting in to make Treasure.

No one would blame you if you called it, "grindy."

Playing against Nathan's deck on the grinding axis is just natural. That's how most of the Rakdos decks at his Pro Tour - with so many cards in common - operated. Just none of the ones in Top 8.

You see Steuer and his Handshake cohorts could play a game of deception. They could make it seem like it was your card advantage against theirs, and that the game was about eking out a small advantage on cardboard, which you could blow up with the snowball avenue available to any Rakdos mage.

The "secret" here - and maybe it wasn't so much of a secret - is that Rakdos was also a burn deck. Invoke Despiar had that angle; but you also knew to play against it; by putting out the right permanents.

Not so Light Up the Night.

This one-of - so synergistic with the deck's Planeswalkers - could victimize any opponent using their life total as a resource, mistakenly thinking the game was mostly going to be about the grind.

"All war is deception,"

-MichaelJ Sun Tzu



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