This is first PureMTGO article so be gentle.
As we all know WOTC are great at reinventing the game of Magic. Whether a new mechanic/aspect is broken or not, is up for debate/application/regulation – however it always interests us players and affects the game in some way.
With SOM and the introduction of Infect, proliferate, metalcraft and of course a bunch of new cards, it brings up a lot of thought again about how a deck tries to win. Often we encounter decks which are susceptible to other decks – without any real hate added. It is interesting every now and then to take a look back at things which now more so could become relevant going forward. Rather than rant on about SOM, infect etc – this is designed to visit and explore areas which help us all as players think, play and enjoy MTG even more. We all like to win, whatever we do – so today the focus is on that. Winning and more importantly looking at it from a practical POV.
Win Condition 1: Damage aka Life to Zero
Regardless of your format this is probably (at the moment) the most common form of win condition. Reduce your opponent to 0 or less life (20 damage or so) and you win. It is as easy as that.
In order to achieve a Damage win generally speaking - Red decks hit you over time (or all saved/stormed up), likewise black with or without creatures. Green runs you over with critters (big or big numbers), while blue and white – as mostly lacking direct damage follow suit behind. Naturally there are exceptions in every case (that is the beauty of such a diverse game as MTG), but for simplicity I will leave it there.
The beauty of this win condition is its simplicity. A creature, whether it a beater or utility, can add to the overall goal of reducing your opponents life to 0. A spell or effect can add to the overall damage/enhance it. Even something my opponent does can add to the overall damage. Aggro decks thrive on the early game lull that some decks have – and as such with no life-gain or other diverted damage means – they are sitting ducks. Add in any card advantage… you know the rest. Good Game.
"It all adds up"
Win Condition 2: Life
WOTC being the demons that they are introduced life-gain from the get go. (Healing Salve) was a common, and Green had it too in Stream of Life. Then there are cards like Transcendence and Lich which completely change the approach to life and it’s ‘staying in game’ relativity.
Felidar Sovereign is a classic one for an example of a Life-Gain win condition. Life-gain is not something to be laughed at. A deck that uses the simple Damage win condition often will outdo another of such kind simply with the aid of a little life-gain/damage prevention (remember the player essentially gets a 20 point head start and can just as if not more efficiently gain life than life can be burnt). A burn deck nemesis is a card like Heroes’ Reunion – 2 mana for 7 life. Not even 2 Bolts do that. I often discard little beaters/chump blockers in a deck for cards that provide a considerable effect like Heroes’ Reunion. Especially when you intend to Wrath of God shortly anyway. It also ensures you have a safety net against most decks default win conditions. Of course WOTC do have answers in this case such as Blood Tribute, Mirror Universe and Sorin Markov to name a few.
Another aspect of Life Wins is life control. That is a card such as Near-Death Experience. Pretty self-explanatory. Get to almost dead and stay there till next turn (thankfully Leyline of Anticipation could make this a beast….nice deck idea right there people)
"Life - It can keep you alive & win you the game"
Win Condition 3: Library Denial
One of the oldest rules in MTG was if you couldn't draw a card when required - you lost. From this developed strategies such as milling, which with introduction of other cards went on to literal card denial e.g. exiling, removing, cannot play.
In fact it reminds me of many, many years ago when UL/Beta and Arabian Nights were all there was. One of the most successful decks ran at the time revolved around swords to plowshares and Time Twister. This variant of a mill/denial slowly removed all threats (which in those days was mostly creature) and then would reshuffle your reduced threat deck, rinse, repeat etc.
With milling becoming a viable win condition, defense from such attacks also arose. Whether it was a simple Feldons Cane, Progenitus or Gaea's Blessing they all aim to help achieve something to defeat the mill. (Sometimes the desired effect may be more than that).
"Thou Shall Not Cast!"
Win Condition 4: Poison
A few expansions into MTG new mechanics were introduced. A few creatures Legends had the ability to deal poison counters to an opponent. When the required level of counters was reached (current level in game is 10) the player would die. This mechanic was often unused/unnoticed and with SOM is nice to see an addition to Poison with the infect ability return in strength. This infect has raised the bar for us on poison in that we would all love if our other creatures did infect damage (instant secondary win condition).
One notable thing here is that WOTC has very few solutions for poison at the moment. Aside from Platinum Angel, Leeches and a few other cards, there is really not much to fight infect/poison with. In fact in light of the growing number of life gain/life recovery cards in decks - poison is more relevant to counter this.
A player who has 9 poison counters can gain 1,000,000 life. Just 1 more poison counter needed to die. Likewise 1,000,000 life won't win you a game if you are required to draw a card and cannot.
"When a little damage is not the issue"
Win Condition 5: Cards that Win
There are certain cards that win the game themselves. That is in simplicity that they state on the card – “ .... You Win the Game.... .” or "...Target Player Loses the Game.") Examples overlap some of the discussed items above e.g. Felidar Sovereign, Near-Death Experience, whereas others include - Mayael's Aria, Mortal Combat, Helix Pinnacle, Barren Glory, Coalition Victory, Battle of Wits, Darksteel Reactor, Epic Struggle, Test of Endurance, Chance Encounter, Celestial Convergence, Door to Nothingness.
In some instance e.g. Darksteel Reacotr or Helix Pinnacle – by themselves can win a game if left unchecked. Most of the others require some kind of deck condition/game condition/synergy. Actually here is where I find it funny that to date we have not got a card which says “If you have xx or more lands in play – you win the game”. Considering how most decks struggle to have 20 total stay in play lands (fetches bringing down the total) I believe this card at that power level in most decks is worthless – or if the land count was too low (e.g. 10 lands by turn 5/6 is easy to regularly achieve with green) it could be a broken card.
The true origination of many of these kind of tactics came about from ante days. I loved ante. If your old enough to have played ante in MTG original paper days - you know what I'm talking about.
"When the rules...kind of apply...."
Win Condition 6: Lockdown
This is reminiscent of the old tradewind rider/bounce days. Similar variants include – Orim’s Chant/Isochoron Scepter, removing all mana sources in play/from opponents’ deck. Basically whatever the case – your opponent is forced to concede – or sit thru powerless while u tear them apart (often piece by piece). Note this is sometimes breakable. Instant speed removal, split second and other such things are exactly for that. Losing all your mana sources in play and from your deck however pretty much screws you’re unless your on board state has your opponent on the clock. Even Discard can get itself into there.
One thing I would like to see introduced one day is “hand shroud”. Allowing a defense from discard or exile or any kind of in hand/in library targeting e.g. Bribery, Telemin Performance and conversely Summoning Trap, Buried Alive. Some creatures we have seen so far are considered too powerful to let sit in a graveyard e.g. Progenitus, Emrakul, the Aeons Torn, Darksteel Colossus – for which WOTC we are thankful (An Animate Dead Emrakul would not be nice on turn 2). Control decks almost come in here with their approach to winning. Often their actual win condition is Damage but their control creates a kind of lock down
"It's your move now!"
I will leave it there with win conditions – any I have missed will be in a Part 2 article. Now to look at it relative to the game with some small examples.
Building a Winning Deck? - Does it WIN?
It is important to look back at these when building a deck. A goal of any deck should be to WIN. If it doesn’t then it should be designed to make an opponent lose (MTG is a game of choices and you would be surprised how many people lose a game themselves). Let me put a simplistic example forward of looking at your win aspects.
Enough Burn??? The Eternal Question ...
A deck with 56 Mountains and a 4 x Lightning Bolt is not a good example of a deck that wins/makes an opponent lose. Why?
"All that Land"
It is more so for lack of win conditions. First off it‘s ONLY win condition in the list above is Damage. But for that to be relevant/work our opponent must be at 12 or less life (e.g. we rely on 8 points of damage to be inflicted by our opponent). And of course that is assuming you draw all 4 Bolts – land will not be a issue. Obviously this deck is not playable and anyone who loses to this deck needs to go back to the drawing board. But it is a fine simplistic example.
Now let’s take a look a bit further into it and add in a little more...
50 x Mountain, 4 x Staggershock, 4 x Lightning Bolt. 2 x Iron Star
Likewise this deck has a primary win condition of damage. Notice that this decks burn can total 28 Damage. With an ideal draw it is enough to kill an opponent.... or is it? This is where it is important to look at players’ life. As mentioned above Life is a win condition, but it is also a way of ensuring your around to kill your opponent when your deck goes off (and theirs has burnt out – or is now irrelevant). This list as mentioned can do 28 Damage. If their opponent cast 1 Heroes’ Reunion this deck would only just manage to kill them utilizing all its cards. Now again that is assuming all the damage cards were drawn (in time – as people often forget your opponent is playing also).
This is a key area where I am finding lately that many decks are weak. They can do 20 damage relatively quickly. But 30, 40 or more.... are really struggling. Things like burnt out burn decks and tired goblins target a opponent with 20 or so life. You would see a bit of a change in the RDW and others if the starting life total alone was 25 or 30. This is where efficient cards become important. A lightning bolt for example can do 3 damage for 1 mana. Whereas a Llanowar elves left unblocked/unchecked on the board can over the course of a game – completely kill an opponent (assuming they are not gaining at a greater rate each turn e.g. sun droplet). Often the efficiencies of certain cards are overlooked by players, creatures from the get go have always been one of, if not the most efficient Direct Damage method in MTG. And the efficiency matters a lot. Naturally this is simplistic – but I feel it highlights the fact if you are burning/trying to win on Damage and don’t draw 20 Damage – how are you going to win? And if they have 30 life?
That was a very simple example of how to look at your deck and it's Win Condition. In the real world (where we play with less than 30 lands) on average (without draw aid - worst case scenario) and an average game of say 5 - 10 turns, you potentially see 1/3 of your deck (fetchlands and the odd included card cantrip can increase this) - so then once you take land ratio out you will probably have a maximum of 10 - 15 playable cards to work with. They either must solidify a win or increase your time to get your win. Also take the 10 worst cards and combine them to see actually how weak to strong your deck is in the win method. eg. 1 x Thopter founder & 1 Sword of The Meek - is not very combo ensuing in a 60 card deck - what else can work with them if you are stuck with 1 and not the other?.
Cards like mystical tutor are great for making a toolkit and then picking from it - but at the same time not overloading your deck with expensive and often too many or 'unwanted in hand' copies of cards. I have had people laugh and say it's no problem I have 15 creature removal spells. I am like great - so potentially your could do nothing for a lot of the game.. What happens if they aren't using creatures. Does your deck have any included way of restoring early damage because your mana short for the numbers of critters - or that damn enchantment is killing me. Hand/mana/any disruption. How does it handle. The curve is also something to take into account often decks sit there and do nothing. Play 90% of games with this 'in case' card in hand and instead should be saying - is Life Gain better? Or a Alternative Win Condition than this card? There is no reason not to explore it - that is if you want to win.
Following on from this I would to like to look at a new card from M11 that many have potentially overlooked. It can help most decks in 1 of 2 ways.
As soon as M11 came out I got a play set of these. Not because they win you games themselves, but more so because they could introduce Life Gain for any color and an anti mill effect in whatever deck they were put in. I am surprised the number of games I have simply won because a deck could only deal less than 25 damage (in some cases 19) – in fact I am struggling to recall a game where I have used the Elixir and subsequently lost.. This coupled with the fact in later game – which you may be over ½ ways thru your deck and want to redraw played spells. This sucker gives you that ability. Not a bad cad for 1 colorless and 2 colorless activation.
In an effort to further prove this point I took out a Sanguine Blood variant deck of mine out in the casual zone. Amazing results (over 90% win rate). And the reason – simply because the decks could not take away all my life.... regardless of whether control, elves or whatever. In fact this deck has only 7 cards that can be used to damage my opponent Sanguine Bond – beyond that there is 2 Direct Damage Spells and a random manland that is it. The reason I did this is to highlight that damage is weak in many decks and as such – their win conditions is often hindered/removed/weak.
Note this is casual so not a fully tuned deck but hilarious. I recommend testing a deck or 2 of yours against this list - see if it can kill it. It is actually quite a fun deck. It is probably a little light on lands but I haven't had too much issue. There is a bit of creature hate in there but it certainly can hold out the board till Sanguine Bond comes out. That coupled with life gain as needed makes for quite a strong deck. Tainted Æther is possibly the best anti creature spell around. I have watched it ruin elves, kick vampires and ensure that any time they bring a critter in I maintain card advantage.
4 x Bayou 4 x Swamp 4 x Scrubland 4 x Savannah 1 x Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth 1 x The Tabernacle at Pendrell Vale 1 x Strip Mine 1 x Maze Of Ith 1 x Stirring Wildwood
4 x Tainted Æther 2 x Chainer's Edict 2 x Consuming Vapors 4 x Maelstrom Pulse 2 x Vindicate 4 x Path To Exile
4 x Survival Cache 4 x Heroes' Reunion 4 x Captured Sunlight 2 x Elixir of Immortality
1 x Sol Ring 2 x Death Grasp 4 x Sanguine Bond
Rather than a Turn by turn recap I will summarise some matchups.
Sol Ring ensured a swift Tainted Æther vs the mono black critter based deck. Even a blood tribute didn't phase me - and by turn 4 had a 2nd Tainted Æther in play (and sides splitting with laughter). He then proceeded to very slowly over 6 turns try and summon 3 critters (largest to smallest) which each was removed and finally when Sanguine Bond hits the table he concedes after a Captured Sunlight into a Heroes Reunion meant 11 for me and 11 less for him.
It was a matter of controlling the troublesome elves first and of course once Tainted Æther hits the deck they usually concede. This guy however had a lot of forest searchers so handled till Sanguine Bond hit turn 6 and then had 3 Heroes' Reunion's promptly follow the next turn. The beauty with life gain, elves and Maelstrom Pulse is it can also be a 2 3 or 100 token for 1.
vs Vise/Underworld Dreams
This game was a heck of a lot of fun. I am not a fan of letting my opponent draw cards regardless if it does 1 damage. Thats like a sign in blood for acceleration. Which in burn/fast decks is lethal. In this deck means I have all he land i need and am gaining twice what he inflicts most turns. Oh and with Sanguine Bond and a Death Grasp to finish. Easy.
vs Soul Sister Variant
This was interesting. We both were at over 40 life. He led me for only 2 turns the whole game. Quite a laugh to play and he died to Sanguine Bond like most. It's strength is in it's creatures. With removal and life-gain to counteract. He had no show once Sanguine hits. In this game I had to recycle my library twice due to the high number of cascades I was getting.
Understand this is not the easiest deck to play either - it is all about making the right decisions at the right time. But isn't every MTG game. I will leave the topic here for now - no doubt some discussion will ensue. A Part 2 may be in the near future. Hopefully my first article was okay to read and gave you something to think about when you build your next deck. And remember:
+ + = OUCH!