Of Giant Growth, Burning Wish & Variance

Let’s take a small detour to the time of M14 Limited. Imagine the following situation:

We’re playing a UB deck against our opponents UG deck. It’s game three. We’re at three life with double Minotaur Abomination and six lands on the board. Our opponent is on four life, and also has six lands, with a Sporemound and a Saproling token. On their turn, they cast Divination and played a land, generating the Saproling.

We don’t have any removal left in our deck. Earlier in the game we cast Duress and saw a Colossal Whale which they didn’t have the mana to cast yet, so out of their two cards, we know one is the Whale and the other might be anything. Further, we know they have Giant Growth somewhere in their deck.

We drew land for our turn and now we’re thinking about attacks. If we attack with both creatures, they have to block both of them. If they’re unable to deal with both Minotaurs on their next turn, they’re dead to our next attack. Sounds good. But what if they have that Giant Growth!? Sporemound would survive combat and kill us on the counterattack. We surely don’t want to lose that way!

So what are our alternatives? If we attack with just one Minotaur, they can just chump with the Saproling. Or, if they have Giant Growth, they can block with Sporemound, but at least we’re not dead then.

We could also be smart and play around the Giant Growth by not attacking – we might draw another creature to punch through their defences after all. So clearly, the right play here is to hold back both of our creatures.

Until our opponent drew two lands off his Divination last turn, untaps, plays a land, and casts Whale. Good game.

I think we can all agree that we clearly have to attack with both of our creatures. If we don’t force them to block with both creatures, we’re dead if one out of two cards is a land. If we do attack with both, the only way to lose is if the one unknown card they have is exactly Giant Growth, which is much less likely.

What makes this situation interesting? For one, it shows that, when given an option of what to beat, it is usually correct to choose to beat what is more likely to happen. Secondly, sometimes it seems we can plan for something, but in reality we can’t – in the above example, it looks like we can play around them having Giant Growth, but actually, we will always lose when they have it.

The most important question we have to ask ourselves is almost always this: What do we have to beat and what can we actually beat? The answer to that question leads to another one: How are we going to beat X? X can be a specific card our group of cards in-game, but these questions also apply to deck construction.

In-game, these questions are usually answered easily. We have a specific situation and can just go throw the motions in our heads, just as we did in our example earlier. During deckbuilding, however, finding the correct answers is much harder. Most of the time, the tools exist to beat anything, but it’s not possible to beat everything at the same time. This means we have to make sacrifices and find the configuration that gives us the highest expected win-rate.

Let’s say we have already established what deck we want to play, but aren’t sure on the exact list yet. Most often, this means we have decided on 55 or more cards in the maindeck, but our sideboard is still pretty much up in the air. If there are, say, eight important decks, we can maybe tune our maindeck to beat three and use our sideboard to beat three more, which will leave us with two bad matchups.

In this kind of situation most players want to beat even more decks (who can blame them), but it’s rarely possible. We might play broader cards to free up slots, but these clearly aren’t optimal – if they were, we’d already have them. With the space we freed up this way, we could devote cards to more matchups. It’s rarely worth it though – losing 5% in two important matchups will generally outweigh gaining 20% against a much less popular deck.

Of course there will still be a few rogue and fringe decks we can’t account for. Here, the same principle applies – unless we have access to a card that’s good against all of these decks, it will not be worth it. In rare cases, this can be done. If it actually is possible, it will likely involve running what I like to call proactive answers.

This means one of two things: either there is an additional angle of attack our opponents won’t be able to answer (like playing Jace, Memory Adept or Assemble the Legion in an all-creatures deck) or there’s a way to change the typical matchup paradigm, for example boarding into a much lower curve to try and go underneath interaction.

Sometimes, we have a deck that makes heavy use of tutoring – Modern Melira Pod comes to mind. In these kind of decks, playing so-called “silverbullets” comes at a very low cost. We can run one copy of a card and still draw it at will. We want to be able to beat Storm? Why not run an Ethersworn Canonist? How about Splinter Twin? Better pack Linvala, Keeper of Silence! Scapeshift? Fulminator Mage!

See where this is going? If we keep going on with this, we will end up with dozens of silverbullets and will inevitably draw too many of these situational cards when they’re essentially vanilla creatures.

In Legacy, we have cards like Burning Wish, which let us run these situational cards without having to draw them when they’re unwanted. We can run up to four copies of a silverbullet at the meagre cost of a single sideboard slot. If we’re never boarding more than two cards anyway, sure we might devote up to seven slots to Wish-targets, but are they really needed?

It might be profitable to cut a generic removal spell in our Storm sideboard for a Wish-able Massacre to improve our odds against Death & Taxes. What about Elves? Wouldn’t it be good to have Perish as well? And a discard spell against blue decks? We know that one guy is always running creature-less Spiral Tide, so why not include Telemin Performance? We’re already down that road anyway and Burning Wish is not a dead card, as it can always get Tendrils of Agony, Empty the Warrens or even an engine spell. That’s good value!

In my eyes, Burning Wish is the posterchild for trying to beat too many things and thus sacrificing game across the board. When I first started playing, I always tried to include solutions to all kinds of problems in my wishboards, whereas I’m gladly willing to ignore even major archetypes in my deckbuilding process by now.

It doesn’t always have to be that extreme, though. Sometimes you can account for all major decks. Take our RUG Delver sideboard from Legacy GP Ghent for example:

2 Grafdigger’s Cage
1 Mind Harness
1 Ancient Grudge
2 Flusterstorm
3 Pyroblast
1 Spell Pierce
2 Submerge
1 Surgical Extraction
2 Rough // Tumble

At the time, the major decks were RUG Delver, UW Miracles, Esper Stoneblade, GW Maverick, Sneak & Show, Reanimator, Dredge and small amounts of tribal decks. This sideboard had it all covered. Notably absent? Krosan Grip. While many players thought Krosan Grip was a nice tool against equipment that could also deal with Counterbalance, we chose to run Ancient Grudge to deal with equipment better.

To this day, people still often run Krosan Grip in their RUG Delver sideboards. Let’s think about that for a moment. Its purpose is, mainly, to get rid of a resolved Counterbalance. A resolved Counterbalance. Between all of RUG’s countermagic, how often is that going to happen? In those instances, how often are we already losing anyway? Further, with Counterbalance being active, how are we supposed to dig for the one-off Grip with our cantrips? It’s highly unlikely we’re going to resolve even a single one of those.

To me, this seems like massive waste of a sideboard slot. It directly relates to the Giant Growth scenario outlined at the beginning of this article – if we can’t beat a certain card or configuration anyway, we shouldn’t even bother trying. We always have to keep in mind the payoff.

As I said when discussing Burning Wish, I can certainly see where this fear comes from. We don’t want to lose. We want to have control over what’s happening. Here’s another hypothetical scenario:

We have a Deck X that wins 90% of the time if you play better than your opponent and always loses if you don’t. Player A is, on average, better than 70% of the people they are going to play against. This makes for a 63% win ratio. Then, there is Deck Y. It wins 65% of the time you’re able to count to seven. Player A can count to seven 100% of the time.

Which deck is Player A going to play? It’s highly likely they’re going to think that Deck X actually wins more in their hands than Deck Y would. After all, an idiot could pilot Deck Y, and they’re better than an idiot. Way too often, we are unwilling to put the game out of our control instead of just playing the odds, even if doing so was only for the better.

It is not bad per se to play Mono Red Burn. There is nothing wrong with playing Sneak and Show if it wins the most. If the metagame calls for it, why not play Bant Hexproof? Once we can acknowledge that sometimes we just have to play the odds, we can be willing to not have a way to beat a Sneak & Show player with Leyline of Sanctity in play and three counters in hand.

Or we could concede that we can’t beat that Giant Growth and just swing in.

Magic is a game of variance, and we have to hedge our bets. We won’t be able to beat everything. If we always focus on figuring out what we have to beat and what we can ignore, who’s going to stop us?

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