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By: one million words, Pete Jahn
Mar 29 2007 5:00pm
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A Tale of Two Decks
Pete Jahn 
I want to talk about the two decks I played last weekend.   One was full of cool effects. The other just turned men sideways, then threw burn at the opponent’s head. One could make 18/13 Giant Solifuges, draw 20 cards a turn and kill anything from Teferi to Spectral Force to a Skeletal Vampire in the midst of a flight of bats. The other, well, can’t. I used one to win back to back tournaments, and the other is strictly casual. 
Want to guess which is which?
It isn’t the one with cool effects. It’s the one that just wins.
Here’s a cool effect.
 Super Solifuges
Yes, you can get counters on a Solifuge.  Yes, turning these sideways tends to win games. 
Yes, I had them both in the same game. 
Getting double Solifuges countered up like this is hard.  Typically, once the first Solifuge hits, and gets a half dozen counters, the opponents concede. 
Here’s my "showing off" screenshot.  It's an example of just how ridiculous this deck can get.   This was a solitaire game. I had no opponent trying to kill me, so I wasted time setting up. I let the game run to turn 16, before I attacked for an even 150 points. 
doubling season 3
Actually, this is a heavily cropped version.  The full screenshot was way too wide.  It included all the other creatures - the other two Rootkin, the Spikes, etc. etc. 
So, other than attacking for 150 points of damage that turn,could I have managed other cool effects? 
I could have drawn my deck.
I could have gained well over 100 life this turn. Probably quadruple that next turn.
Next turn, I would have been attacking with a 154/154 Fungal Behemoth if i did nothing else - but I could probably have gotten it to a  300/300 with a little effort.
This deck can do amazing things.
What it cannot do is go much better than 50/50 in the casual rooms. 
Since you are probably wondering, here’s the deck, and the card it is built around. 
Double the Bad Double the Bad
6 Forest
5 Island
Doubling Season
This is one of my current "goof around and have fun" decks.   Having a Doubling Season in play is fun - having two is insane.   With two Doubling Seasons, a single graft creature puts four counters on a Solifuge.  Discarding a card to Mindless Automaton means four coutners - and it means you can draw two cards by removing those counters.  For two mana, Spikes can give themselves three more counters.  And, if you don't like one of your creatures (or if it being targeted by removal), you can Pongify it and get four elephants.
It just doesn't win games.  It either gets a concession or get beat.  
For comparison, here's another deck.  It does not have cool tricks.  On the other hand, I just played it in two eight-man single elimination tourneys.  It did not get eliminated.  In six matches, I lost just one game. 
 Here's that deck.
Gruul Deck Wins
6 Mountain
6 Forest


 This deck does not have the ability to draw a ton of cards, make huge guys or gain a lot of life.  This deck has one pirimary plan, and sticks tightly to it.
The plan is to make a 3 power guy on turn two, and another on turn three.  And then kill you with them.
Scab-Clan Mauler is a huge part of this plan.  The deck has 16 cards it can play on turn one, to make sure you take damage on turn two.  Those cards include all the one drops (Elves, Kird Apes and Rusalkas), as well as the Seals of Fire and Rift Bolts that can be deployed on turn one and deal damage turn two. 
The (Burning Tree Shaman)s punish other decks for playing pump lands like Dreadship Reef, or morph creatures. 
The deck's plan is simple - drop fast, hard hitting creatures, get some quick beats in and, if the opponent manages to stabilize on the ground, throw burn at his head until he dies.
It's not a complex plan.  It's not tricky.  It's not cool. 
But it wins.
Comparing the Decks
Last night, while Jasper and I were waiting for a draft to start, we played some paper Standard.   I had a version of the doubling season deck.  Jasper had a variant of the Gruul deck.  We played a couple dozen games.  I won 2-3 games, total.  I won one because he was mana screwed, and one because I dropped Giant Solifuges on turns three, four and five, and he had no blockers.  I won maybe one game because parts of my deck started working as planned.
He won all the others because his deck was just plain better than mine.
Why Decks Win
When I was first plotting out this article, I was going to start by saying that your deck needs a plan.  That's true, but it is not really enough.
The Gruul deck has a plan.  That plan is to deal a lot of damage with creatures early one, then finish later with burn.
The Doubling Season deck also has a plan.  It's plan is to play Doubling Season, preferably two Doubling Seasons, then play creatures that get counters or move counters around. 
It's not enough to say that you need a plan.  It's also not enought to say that the plan has to be good.  That's just circular reasoning.
Gruul wins because it has a good plan. 
It's plan is good because it wins.
A good plan needs to meet a couple criteria:
1)  It has to be focused on winning the game.
2)  It has to consider the opponent.
3) It has to be robust.
1) Focus on Winning the Game
The comprehensive rules for Magic: the Gathering - comp rules, for short - explain how you play the game.  Section  102.2 and 102.3 describe how you win and lose a game of Magic.   Section 102.2 - winning the game - does not include "make a really cool play."   Instead, you win by making your opponent concede, decking him, reducing his life total to zero, giving him ten poison counters or getting a Coalition Victory-type effect to resolve.
The Gruul deck is tightly focused on reducing your opponent's life total to zero.  Every card in the deck does damage - and at least one point of power per mana cost for creatures, and more than one point of damage per mana for the burn spells.  
The Doubling Season deck is more concerned with getting lots of counters on stuff.  Yes, eventually it will want to swing with some counter-laden creature and win the game, but it is not really focused on that.  Mindless Automaton and Plaxcaster Frogling are not great beatdown creatures on their own.  
2)  Consider the Opponent
Magic is not a game of solitaire.  You have an opponent.  You have to think about what that opponent can do.  Your deck has to have a plan for dealing with your opponent.   Disrupting your opponent - and surviving their disruption - is what wins games.  
Gruul's early game is to drop creatures and smash them home.  I is full of creatures that are very cheap, and that are larger than most other early drops.  Most of the Gruul deck is unaffected by Icatian Javelineers or two damage burn spells, and Bruning Tree Shaman survives blocks by Teferi and Lightning Angel.   About the only early blocker that can provide reasonable defense - and is actually played by any serious deck - is Wall of Roots.    
By mid game, once opposing decks can start casting powerful blockers, Gruul will have already done a fair amount of damage, and it can shift to the "burn to the face" plan.  This works:  one game against UG Tron, my opponent got a Silklash Spider and Wall of Roots down to block, and cast - directly and via Deadwood Treefolk - Spike Feeder four times.  He still died. 
Gruul also has some ability to play around counters and control elements.  For example, in recent games I  have dropped a Llanowar Elf on turn one, facing a control decks.  Generally, I would beat with the elf, then dropped a Bloodthirsted Mauler.  When I suspect the opponent has Spell Snare, and he has just one mana up, I play a three drop instead.  When the opponent has two mana up, indicating a possible Remand or Mana Leak, I play another weak one casting cost spell, like Seal of Fire or Scorched Rusalka and/or suspend a Rift Bolt.  If my opponent wants to waste counters on those, fine.  If not, also fine.  Rift Bolt is a very important weapon against control.  Typically, control wins by countering everything that matters.  I have frequently won games, however, by suspending a Rift Bolt or two on my turn, then casting Sulfur Elemental at the end of my opponent's turn, then forcing more damage through.  My opponent may, indeed, have multiple counters in hand - but probably not the mana to counter the Sulfur Elemental, the Rift Bolt and everything I could cast on my turn - all without untapping in between. 
The Doublig Season deck, on the other hand, simply tries to assemble it's combo and make monsters.   It cannot change its plans to play around Damnation, or counters.  It does have three (Remands), but Remand simply buys one turn, and the Doubling Season deck needs a lot of luck to use that one turn to flat-out win the game. 
The Doubling Season deck is also not very resilient to losingh Doubling Season.  It hurts if that card gets countered.  It hurts even more if it gets discarded and Extripated.
3) Winning Decks are Robust
Good decks have to be robust.  They have to be redundant - or, if they rely on critical cards, they have to have good ways to get those cards.  The Tier One decks, like Dragonstorm and UB Dralnu, have plenty of card drawing.  Dralnu also has Mystical Teachings to tutor for everything important..
Gruul has no card drawing or tutoring, but it does have a lot of redundancy.   As I mentioned, it has 16 cards that it can play on turn one to enable a Bloodlusted Mauler on turn two.   It has none three power creatures to play turns three and four.  It has Giant Solifuges for later turns.  It has ten burn spells, plus psuedo-burn in Stonewood Invocation and Scorched Rusalka.  That means that it will draw what it needs game after game. 
The Doubling Season deck, on the other hand, has a minimum amount of card drawing and the Remands to dig through the deck.  It has no tutors, and nothing to really stall the ground until it begins to combo off.  That makes extremely draw dependent.   It even fails the basic rule of combos:  the elements of combo decks either have to be good on thier own or faciltate finding the other parts of the combo.  That's certainly not true here.  While drawing a two Doubling Seasons and a Mindless Automaton is a lot of fun, drawin three of either is a pain. 
Fortunately, the pain does not last.  You will lose very quickly thereafter.
1) Focus on Winning the Game
 2)  Consider the Opponent
 3) Winning Decks are Robust
Things to think about when you are building your next deck.
"one million words" on MODO and in the forums
pete {dot} jahn at verizon {dot} net


Very true by Ambitious_//_Javasci (not verified) at Mon, 04/02/2007 - 09:07
Ambitious_//_Javasci's picture

This will be a great read for any players new to the tournament scene, because it teaches them the first lesson of tournaments without them having to scrub out and lose an entry fee.

Great Article by addmagic (Unregistered) (not verified) at Fri, 03/30/2007 - 10:22
addmagic (Unregistered)'s picture

I felt compelled to comment that I had great fun reading this article.

Thanks for writing it.

Nice story by Scottsmusic (Unregistered) (not verified) at Fri, 03/30/2007 - 07:45
Scottsmusic (Unregistered)'s picture

Thanks for giving me more ideas and more incentives to refine my deck. The problem really is my skills, I get excited with a cool deck and start making mistakes. Pilot error will destroy even the best made composition.


Thanks for the comments by one million words at Fri, 03/30/2007 - 06:25
one million words's picture

Morkje: Technically, all the creatures can beat, but they are not really very good at it. Frogling is the second best of a bad lot, with Solifuge the only one that would ever win a slot in a beatdown deck on his own merits. And I probably should have said something like "spend mana to deal with Sulfur Elemental and Rift Bolt and ...." Control decks are going to Last Gasp or Electrolyze it. It's not countering, per se, but it still takes mana and a card to get rid of it.

m' Lord: You may be right. A lot of good decks focus on strange interactions of combos - and work. Rift/Slide from years bacl, Affinity, Martyr / Procalamation, Dragonstorm - they all used strange interactions, but they all focused on using them in ways that won the game or controlled the baord. Doubling Season just "focused" on Doubling Season.

To be cool or not to be cool... by Lord Erman at Fri, 03/30/2007 - 02:12
Lord Erman's picture

I believe that FOCUS is the key word, both when building a deck and when playing it. Cards like Doubling Season are traps that lure people into building "cool decks". And when it's cool, then it's focus is being cool rather than winning. And that makes the difference between tier1 decks and the rest. Tier1 decks, no matter what their strategy is, are focused on what they are doing or what they plan to do. And I think that those 2 decks above are very good examples to that.

Great Article by mtgotraders at Thu, 03/29/2007 - 17:03
mtgotraders's picture

Very good article and very true. I must say it's so much more fun playing those decks that when they do win your like man i had 3 20/20 creatures out but at the same time those decks rarely go as planned and by the time you get the cool stuff our your opponent has stomped your butt into the ground.

by Morkje (Unregistered) (not verified) at Fri, 03/30/2007 - 02:03
Morkje (Unregistered)'s picture

Cool article but some mistakes,

Mindless Automaton and Plaxcaster Frogling are not great beatdown creatures on their own.
Automation isnt a beatmacine indeed, but the frogling is a 3 mana 3/3 creature, which by your own definition ( power equel or higher than casting cost) is pretty good for beatdown.

Oh, and about you opponent nt having enough mana to counter both the sulfur elemental and the suspended rift bolts.
Elemental has Split Second, he cant counter it if he wanted too.

Nice article, just wanted to point it out