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By: wappla, wappla
Aug 17 2015 12:00pm
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Schoenberg always complained that his American pupils didn’t do enough work. There was one girl in the class in particular who, it is true, did almost no work at all. He asked her one day why she didn’t accomplish more. She said, “I don’t have any time.” He said, “How many hours are there in the day?” She said, “Twenty-four.” He said, “Nonsense: there are as many hours in a day as you put into it.”
— John Cage

No time like the present
To get ripped apart
– Mudhoney

Several weeks ago I wrote about some Monastery Mentor decks. I claimed that we were failing to identify them by their strategic positioning and thinking about them solely in terms of their card choices or the size of their mana bases. In writing that and the follow-up article I was interested in examining the best performing Vintage decks by their strategic archetype. Control or Fenton Oath was a Hybrid Control deck, I argued, as was BUG Fish and some Mentor decks, usually ones playing neither Lightning Bolt nor Mystic Remora. Placing a bunch of decks on the chart, I felt least confident about Martello, which I tentatively labeled at the time as Midrange Control.

Presently, Martello is the only clearly top tier deck in Vintage. At the most recent NYSE, Martello not only consumed more than 60% of Workshop decks but was the single most popular archetype in the entire field by a large margin. Even more broadly defined archetypes such as Grixis measured up to only half Martello’s numbers. Workshops overall also consumes roughly half of Vintage sideboard slots, and it’s no accident that Ingot Chewer is among the most popular creatures in the format. Martello specifically is so widespread that entire other Workshop strategies have sprung up, designed to win the mono-brown mirror.

I was uneasy not having a confident hold on how the deck operated on a fundamental strategic level. I mean I knew how the deck worked. It has a ton of disruption and inhibits its opponents from casting meaningful spells. But it certainly didn’t seem like a prison deck, at least not purely a prison deck. Because we’ve seen those in Vintage, something like Stax, with Smokestack and maindeck Crucible of Worlds, recurring a single Wasteland turn after turn. Martello just is not like that. It has all these aggro moments. It has these giant robots that steal games.

The problem was cards like Sphere of Resistance, Thorn of Amethyst, Tangle Wire, Chalice of the Void, and even and Phyrexian Revoker have such fundamental and abstract effects on the game of Magic that they don’t necessarily make it clear how they position a deck. In many ways this is nothing unusual. Force of Will is used in the most controlling Landstill lists and the most degenerate City Vault decks. Lightning Bolt can push through the last points of damage, but it can also sanitize a battlefield of its only creature. Gush can find threats or answers, build storm for a lethal Tendrils or find Flusterstorm to stop one. In each case, however, when we cast Lightning Bolt and Force of Will, we can see what the card is actually doing.

Lightning Bolt, whether it is killing a Monastery Mentor, removing Jace, the Mind Sculptor from the field, being played midstack to turn on Flusterstorm, or ending the game, has an immediate impact. We literally declare a target and then the Lightning Bolt hits the target and then the Lightning Bolt does three damage. It is as immediate as it is versatile. It always deals three damage, but never only deals three damage. Bolt always is doing something else when it does damage, and that something can be a lot of things.

Lightning BoltThorn of Amethyst

So what to make of Thorn of Amethyst? Or Tangle Wire? Just like Lightning Bolt, these cards always do exactly the same thing, and just like Bolt, that one thing can mean a lot of different things. Thorn always makes non-creature cards more expensive to cast. It always slows down a player by making Preordain cost two and Force of Will cost one. It makes Wasteland a lot better since a player is already down a mana per spell per turn. Thorn makes Ingot Chewer better, which in turn makes Tangle Wire better. We could continue spiraling down a tactical rabbit hole, but I want to stay pretty basic here. Thorn makes non-creature spells cost more. What does that mean? Fundamentally, what Thorn does is it changes the time scale of the game. It does not always slow the game down, but it is a tempo card. It is concerned with time.

Before I go any further, I want to be very clear by what I mean by tempo. I do not mean aggressive, as the term is sometimes used. Aggressive decks, sometimes called tempo decks, are not even close to the only decks concerned with time. In truth, all decks care about tempo to some extent. Consider the card Supreme Verdict. The deck that plays this is highly concerned with time. They want more time to control the game. The deck that sideboards in Illness in the Ranks against Delver and Mentor is concerned with time as much as the Delver deck that is playing Pyromancer before Gushing to generate that extra token, sequencing be damned. Tempo can be manipulated by players in both a negative and positive sense. The same way Hymn to Tourach and Gush both create card advantage, casting a Delver and Misstepping one are both plays made with tempo in mind. We might assume that the player on the Delver side of this exchange is the aggressor, seeking to speed up the game via combat damage, and the Misstep player the controller, hoping to buy some more time, but the roles could easily be reversed. Maybe the Delver is being played as a blocker to hold off a lethal attack, and the Misstep is played as a way to win the game next turn.

Cards are funny things. Consider Grizzly Bears and Punishing Fire, or just imagine an even simpler Shock that returns to your hand on each of your upkeeps, Squee Goblin Nabob style. On the one hand, Squee Shock can deal two damage a turn, regardless of blockers, and it can remove any creature with toughness two, including something like Insectile Aberration, a flier. Grizzly Bears can also deal two damage a turn, but blockers matter. Grizzly Bears can also remove, or remove from combat, any creature with toughness two, except that stuff like flying and first strike matters, power matters, but abilities like hexproof do not. If we want to get a Revoker off the table, we need the Squee Shock. If we want to stay alive for a turn against a swinging Blighsteel Colossus, we need the Grizzly Bears. Against Young Pyromancer, a recurrable Shock is playable. Grizzly Bears; not so much.

Grizzly Bears

The key to this comparison is time and role assignment. Grizzly Bears could be amazing in an aggro-control role. We can swing for damage against a more pure control deck without tapping mana every turn. To do the same damage output with our recurring Shock would be a mana intensive proposition, inhibiting our ability to hold up and play countermagic and card draw. Shock is much better at removing enemy creatures, something the control role usually desires. But we can’t just go ahead and label Grizzly Bears as the aggro card and Shock the control card. Again, in a chump blocker rich environment, Bear is a blank while Shock can end the game by going over the top of the virtual Moat. And conversely, facing down something big, Bear in blocking mode represents a turn— a draw step, an untap step, and a land drop— where Shock is irrelevant. The cards both have the capacity to slow the game down or speed it up, they just do it in different ways.

So, when I say Thorn is a tempo card, I do not mean it is an aggro card, although sometimes it is. Sometimes Thorn of Amethyst is played to slow down an opponent just enough to make artifact creature hits pile up towards lethal. This would be an aggro or aggro-control role. By increasing the mana cost of non-creature spells, Thorn is functionally retarding the game a turn— often more than a turn since its impact is not felt just once, the way a Wasteland destroys a single land, but on every spell played. But in this situation, when what the Workshop player cares about is attack steps, by “slowing” the game down, Thorn is actually increasing the density of attack steps relative to mana production. Even though Thorn slows down our development, it is actually speeding the game up in this scenario. In this moment, attack steps are the relevant measurement of time, and Thorn makes more of them per total mana available to players.

This is not Thorn’s only role. Sometimes it is played to slow the game down. Sometimes instead of being played to increase attack density relative to mana production it is played to increase draw steps relative to mana production. By limiting our mana, the Workshop player makes it harder for us to end the game, meaning the Workshop player gets more draw steps. Thorn is artificially extending the number of turns the game will go. This is Thorn in a control role.

Thorn can be purely aggressive as well. Sometimes it is played with the aim of shutting off countermagic or removal in order to stick a threat. Sometimes one can play turn one Thorn, turn two Wasteland, destroy your dual, resolve uncounterable Lodestone Golem. That’s not control or aggro-control, that’s just you’re-probably-dead aggro.

The other “prison” cards in Workshops all have multiple modes as well. Tangle Wire is perhaps the most obviously concerned with time. Sometimes it taps down blockers and lands so the robots can swing. Sometimes it taps down attackers and lands so the Workshop pilot can have some more draw steps. Sometimes it taps down lands and mox to turn off Force of Will and sorcery speed removal. It can do all the things that Thorn does, it just does them in different ways. It is similarly concerned with time, but it just interacts with the rules of Magic in different ways.

Tangle Wire

Likewise with Chalice. Chalice at zero clearly is designed to deny mana accelerants, and again, this can either create or deny time. Chalice at one can stop Bolts and Swords or Delvers, Ancestrals, Nature’s Claim, and Voltaic Keys. It can protect a Lodestone Golem, or it can ensure the Workshop player gets three more draw steps. Chalice is so good because at zero it is a weapon against decks that want to ramp with a lot of moxen, and at one is a weapon against decks that want to keep their mana costs down so they can play few moxen and lands to service spell density. Were it only able to counter either, it would exploited by the other half of the blue decks. This is why Null Rod is so bad in Workshops right now. So many blue decks just don’t care about it. In those matchups, it doesn’t create or destroy any tempo and actually accomplishes its self-stated goal of doing nothing.

All this disruption functions with the same versatility as card draw and countermagic in blue decks. It is much more than just mana denial. Blue decks use card advantage and card selection to advance or delay the game from reaching its conclusion. When we Preordain, we can look for a threat to start advancing the game, or we can look for a counterspell to stop our opponent from advancing the game, or we can just look for more card draw and card selection. And then sometimes we are in the position where countermagic advances our game plan a creature or threat slows down our opponent. Force of Will is often an aggressive card and Young Pyromancer is occasionally a controlling one. But regardless of what we are looking for when we cast Preordain, we are looking for something to either advance the game towards its conclusion or delay that conclusion until we can have more draw steps, untap steps, and land drops.

Whereas blue decks fundamentally interact with the game on the axis of card advantage, Workshops interacts on the axis of time itself. Many blue decks and all Shops decks have creatures, one of their most important areas of overlap. Creatures are inherently versatile since most of them can attack and block. Even the simplest creatures have often dynamic effects on the game. A single Elemental Token can hold off a pair of Phyrexian Revokers and therefore the contextual ability to far outstrip any expectation of what it should do to a game of Magic. A Mishra’s Factory can buy an outsized number of turns by holding a token platoon at bay. Likewise, an Insectile Aberration or a Lodestone Golem’s ability to end a game can sometimes make most of the cards in an opponent's deck irrelevant. Workshops gets an astounding amount of utility from its creatures, the most significant of which are all relatively recent printings.

Lodestone Golem requires no introduction. He is a double sphere, arguably on par with Black Lotus in terms of tempo power. First, he has a sphere effect actually printed on him. This has all the impact of Thorn, although the non-artifact clause obviously hits the metagame in a different spot than Thorn. Second, he is a 5/3. The ability to swing for huge chunks of damage cuts off turns and mana almost as much as a whole second sphere effect. Either one has to race that much faster, with less total mana available over the course of the game, or one has to spend what usually amounts to an entire turn removing him.

Being a creature of considerable size is in some cases similar to a Thorn effect, but these cases exist only when the battlefield is not stable. Lodestone is a double-sphere if we can’t block. But if we had our old friend Grizzly Bears and that handy Elemental token hanging out, the tempo power of Lodestone’s creature status has vanished. We neither need to race the damage output nor necessarily spend a turn removing him. Likewise with any creature. Insectile Aberration is a tempo threat, a sphere of sorts, but not if the opponent has a Baleful Strix on board, nor if they have enough power of their own to profitably race.

Lodestone Golem

The reason this matters is that when playing Workshops, role considerations can change dramatically when a creature is played. All the Tangle Wires and Chalices and Thorns that had been played in a control role to buy draw steps can be immediately flipped into aggro-control or even aggro cards when a Golem or Forgemaster or some other threat is cast. Now instead of the preventing us from ending the game, instead of slowing down the game, all those cards are reducing tempo, reducing draw steps and untap steps for us to answer the threat.

This is part of why I was struggling to identify Martello’s strategic archetype. It can be hellbent, draw a Golem, and completely switch roles. Or they can draw another Tangle Wire and just continue their control role. Or they can draw a Tangle Wire and suddenly their stranded Revoker and their dormant Factory become real threats to end the game. This actually isn’t that different from a blue player, it just feels very different. A Mentor player, for instance, who is hellbent as well, but has a board full of Mentor tokens is actually in a somewhat controlling position via their damage capacity. In other words, they have so much tempo power that they are significantly limiting their opponent’s ability to the play the game, the same way countermagic and spheres might.

Workshops is just very consistent at controlling tempo because all its card interact with the game that way. And they are able to play with all these cards because Mishra’s Workshop has such incredible tempo power itself. Producing three mana a turn with one land allows the Workshop deck to mostly do what it wants with the time element of the game of Magic. It can slow it down or speed it up. If Workshop means the deck starts the game on turn three, then playing a Sphere to retard the game a turn still leaves the Workshop deck at least a turn ahead. It’s perhaps not surprising that a land that makes three mana every turn is best exploited in a deck full of cards that are themselves concerned with time.

All this tempo power makes it very hard for blue decks to dictate the pace of the game against Workshops. Dredge, on the other hand, generates so much tempo by getting creatures and draw steps way ahead of schedule that Workshops’ time control elements struggle to keep up. For blue decks, though, it always feels, even in games we are doing ok, that we are not in control. Sometimes we may be in the control role, and we may think that we have adequate answers- we may actually have adequate answers- but the inability to dictate the tempo of the game makes things feel precarious. If our anti-Workshop cards are counterspells and spot removal, there exists the possibility where they topdeck too many threats in a row and we haven’t draw enough answers.

What makes Martello stand apart from both the aggressive Workshop decks and the more controlling lists is its namesake card. Forgemaster really changes a lot because the ability to get a Steel Hellkite or Sundering Titan means that Martello can win games in which its tempo elements have been answered via lands, moxen, removal, or creatures on board. Crucially, Forgemaster can reestablish control by finding the appropriate answer. Sundering Titan can turn back on all the spheres, Hellkite can clear the board of relevant creatures. Forgemaster represents a fatty, but also an answer. Just like Jace or Yawgmoth’s Will or Monastery Mentor, Forgemaster is a Midrange card. It beats aggro by being bigger than aggro and controlling at the same time, and it beats control by being very hard to deal with and posing an existential threat.

All the tempo elements of Martello serve this Midrange robot, Kuldotha Forgemaster. Tempo control makes the Forgemaster and its friends much scarier. In a placid world free of Spheres, Chalices, and Wires, a Hellkite is a 5/5 flier that can blow stuff up. That’s scary, perhaps, but hardly unanswerable. Relative to something like Griselbrand or Blightsteel, it seems practically innocuous. But with Tangle Wire tapping us out of our sorcery speed Ingot Chewer, or Chalice turning off our Swords to Plowshares or Nature’s Claim, or all our removal already in the yard, spent on Golems of turns past, that last fatty is just going to kill us.

Framing the game state another way, it is not that difficult under normal circumstances for a Vintage deck to deal with a 5/5 flier on turn four or five or six. That late in the game, either we have some way to remove it, the capacity to find removal, or the ability to race. Workshops’ tempo cards can speed the game up, though, so that turn five is actually more like turn one or turn zero. When it’s turn six of a game against Shops and we can’t cast a two mana spell, it’s really just turn one. Well, except for the 5/5 flier we have to deal with. Or the 6/6 deathtouch lifelinker, or the 4/4 vigilance lifelinker or whatever else they feel like swinging with.

The consequence of all of this is how we pilot against Workshops and how we build sideboards. Against Workshops we need more than hate cards, we need to decide how we are going to interact with their strategy. There are two options: we can fight fire with fire, try to win back control over tempo, or we can fight fire with card advantage. Realistically, most all blue decks do both to varying degrees.

Combatting their tempo with tempo means we place a premium on counterspells and our own creatures. The deck best at doing this is BUG Fish, while the best deck capable of doing this is RUG Delver. Both these decks have cheap creatures to interact with the combat element of Workshop’s tempo plan. BUG Fish has free removal like Snuff Out, a mana accelerant in Deathrite Shaman, and Wastelands of its own. Wasting their Workshop is often better than destroying the Spheres in the first place. Effectively denying mana flips the nominally symmetrical spheres and thorns to our favor. RUG Delver can’t match BUG’s strength against Shops, but it has unmatched capacity to find and play Force of Will and a more overall powerful cohort of creatures.

Force of Will in the decks that can support it is critical for fighting back against the tempo plan. It is weak as a control card against Workshops, but it has a lot of merit in gaining tempo. To gain ground in the tempo war, we need to remove their cards faster than they play them. This means we either need to create two-for-ones on a card for card basis- this would be fighting on the card advantage axis- or we need create two-for-ones on a turn for turn basis. In other words, if they are playing a threat per turn, we need to have a turn where we counter a threat and remove one. Force of Will is great in this type of spot because it’s the cheapest way to remove a threat. This type of two-for-one gives us a turn of our own, to do with what we want, and we’ve gained some tempo back. Not all decks want this that badly. For some, the card advantage axis is much more important, and they aren’t set up to take advantage of the tempo in a significant way. The value of Force of Will in Delver, for instances, differs dramatically from the value of Force in a deck with less spell density and greater variance in spell power. Frankly, the reason to play Delver is because of how good Force of Will is in that archetype.

Delver used to have a very strong Workshop matchup. Red and Green are the best colors for attacking artifacts, and it was full of efficient creatures. Young Pyromancer inherently answers a sphere since it is pretty undercosted. Delver’s ability to trade with a Lodestone Golem for one mana is the type of tempo answer that makes running fourteen land viable. The printing of the delve spells has significant reduced not only Delver but most blue deck’s Workshop matchup. Draw engines have swollen, crowding out Trygon Predators and Ancient Grudges, but more importantly the presence of Dig through Time has made Pyroblast a lot better metagame call than Spell Pierce, shorting blue decks an efficient counterspell for gaining tempo early in the Workshop match. It’s not that Spell Pierce is amazing against Workshops, but it’s playable and good when relevant. Sphere of Resistance and Thorn of Amethyst cost two mana, being able to trade up with a one-mana counterspell is just so much more tempo efficient than removing them after the fact when the tax is in effect. Preventing permanents from entering play without using Force is just very powerful against Workshops.

Simply trading one-for-one, card for card, turn for turn, can work, but it relies on our answers lining up well with their threats. If we answer their Golem with an Ingot Chewer only to later draw Lightning Bolt when we need to answer their subsequent Forgemaster, we may be in trouble.

The tempo cards that Workshops have are all slightly different and they ask for different answers. I think one of the most important aspects to building a sideboard for Workshops is having different types of hate. One-mana spells like Nature’s Claim and Steel Sabotage are just so efficient, especially Steel Sabotage, that preemptively shutting oneself off from one-mana spells to dodge potential Chalices is adding a self-imposed sphere effect. With a diversity of hate, Chalice at one can be a good thing, since it took up a portion or an entire turn from the Workshop player and is not always especially relevant. If the card we have in hand doesn’t care about Chalice at one, then we’re getting ahead. Conversely, if our removal spell cost one mana, maybe that new sphere doesn’t matter so much. When their tempo card doesn’t significantly affect our removal spells, it’s not doing its job.

Knowing what to remove or counter is probably as important as running the right cards. There are not really heuristics for this, either. The tempo power of each piece of their board depends entirely on the situation. Sometimes their Chalice on one is worth spending a turn to remove, sometimes it’s a low priority. Sometimes we care about another sphere, sometimes it’s not particularly relevant. Sometimes getting that Revoker off the table will be game winning; we might have Dack in hand. Sometimes it’s just a 2/1. Figuring out what matters in a given game is not always easy. It’s important, I think, to consider the way a Workshop deck is functioning at a particular moment. This is role assignment, like always, and it’s playing to one’s outs. It’s easy to be self-defeating against Workshops by trying to be too controlling or by trying to be the aggressor when sustaining that role for the game’s duration is unlikely.

Strategy, in any endeavor, is often more concerned with ordering priorities rather than deciding what they are. Given a problem, it’s generally trivial to create a list of what needs to be done to solve it. Strategy is the task of sequencing all those different things. What is the most important? What do we do first? What matters?

Workshops cares a lot about time and almost all their cards interact with it. And because Workshops places us under so much time pressure, the margins for error in our sequencing are almost non-existent. We can’t sequence correctly without figuring out what matters most, what we need to prioritize. Understanding our role in each strategic moment at least helps a bit to decide what to do.


When I wrote my first article by Joe Fiorini at Mon, 08/17/2015 - 15:30
Joe Fiorini's picture

When I wrote my first article about workshop decks, I misclassified Martello Shops as Workshop Prison, when it is in fact considered Workshop Aggro. The thing is, Martello in particular leans much more heavily toward Prison than say Affinity builds or "FroBots" with it's porcelain legionnaire.

I like to think of the mana-denial cards as proactive counterspells. Instead of stopping a spell when it it is cast, they make it impossible to cast in the first place. Tanglewire is like a Time Walk, as it basically gives you an extra turn by negating your opponent's turn.

The Time Walk analogy was used in the description of Aggro Shops that I read. While prison decks try to establish a hard lock prior to closing out a game, the Aggro decks will just try to keep up the pressure while using the mana-taxing cards as a set of Time Walks.

While I was playing Shops, the games I lost were sometimes due to not being able to win fast enough and an opponent would barely outlast my lock pieces, leading to them "breaking out of prison".

Keep up the good work!