Saturday, June 18, 2011

Abstract Iterations #3 - The Psycholoy of the Red Mage

Hello everyone and welcome back to another edition of The Cardboard Witch.  I'd especially like to welcome everyone who are visiting here from Mana Deprived; Canada's #1 Magic Website!  If you're a little confused don't worry about it; I recently wrote an article for MD ("Fight Music") about playing RDW in Standard which included a link back to this article.  As such this is intended primarily as a companion piece to "Fight Music" and once KYT actually publishes it I'll edit this post to include a link so people who don't regularly visit Mana Deprived (you should be reading this!) can find it. You don't technically need to read the other article to understand what I'm talking about today but it will certainly provide some context for this discussion; at least in terms of its relation to the current Standard format.

Okay so with that out of the way I'd like to talk a little bit about a subject that's both deeply personal to me and often overlooked in the annals of Magic history; the seductive power of playing Mountains.  Confession time folks; the very first tournament deck I ever had any success with was a variation on "Dead Guy Sligh" that I copied from a magazine and modified slightly.  As such some of my fondest memories of Magic revolve around beating my opponent to a paste with cards like Jackal Pup, Mogg Flunkies, Fireblast and Cursed Scroll.  I also distinctly remember why I originally decided to play the deck; I was losing a lot of matches in local tournament play and was seduced by the promise of "free wins" from a deck "so easy to pilot my dog could win a tournament with it."  That's right folks like many RDW pilots in today's metagame I chose the deck because I'd heard it was easy, I was frustrated and I was sick and tired of losing.  The funny thing is that at first it *was* easy; I immediately started registering a lot of 3-1, 4-0 tournament results in my local environment where I had been going 2-2 and 1-3 before.  I even started to get the silly idea that I was clearly smarter than other Magic players; after all Magic was about speed, power and tapping mountains and if they couldn't handle that then my opponents must just be dumb for playing other decks.  After about a month of winning back lost money in local tournaments I decided it was time to scout for "bigger game" and entered a local 100+ player cash prize tournament with of course: Dead Guy Sligh.  To say this experience was a rude awakening would be a mild understatement; my first round opponent was playing Saga-era Elves with Gaea's Cradle and beat me in roughly 8 minutes combined between games 1 and 2.  I then proceeded to lose in 3 to a White Weenie build that seemed to have 10 protection from red creatures in it's sideboard.  When my round 3 opponent turned out to be 12 years old and playing in his first tournament I realized that the day was pretty much over for me already.  I quickly won game 1 but decided to throw game 2 and concede the match when it looked like my opponent was about to cry; he wasn't a bad kid but he was clearly out of his depth and frankly so was I.  Unfortunately at that point in time I wasn't old enough or mature enough to properly learn from this experience and I went home firmly convinced that both fate and my deck had somehow cheated me.  It's too bad I didn't stick around for the rest of the tournament because I would have seen a very good player win the whole thing with a version of Sligh that was only 5-7 cards different than mine.

So what went wrong?  Why did my day end at 0-3 while someone else was able to win the entire tournament with virtually the same deck?  For starters as it turned out I wasn't nearly as good a player as I thought I was.  I made multiple play mistakes during my first two matches and essentially played with little or no regard whatsoever to my opponent's decks.  This wasn't the only problem however and looking back with more experienced eyes I think it's safe to say that I lost because I didn't truly understand how to play red aggro yet.  You see the truth is that mono red aggro is *not* an easy deck to play either historically or in the current Standard format.  While it's certainly true that these decks absolutely destroy unprepared opponents once you start to play good pilots with proper sideboards most of that advantage will evaporate right before your very eyes.  Properly unlocking the win potential of this powerful deck requires a special mindset; a distinct style of thinking that simply does not apply to the other colors in Magic.  Personally I call this mindset "the Psychology of the Red Mage" and identify those who adopt it by their adherence to the following "holy" tenents:

"Thou shalt count to twenty": While on the surface this concept may seem almost insultingly obvious it's at once both the most important and difficult to master idea for beginning red mages.  The game ends when your opponent is at zero life; for the red mage there is no other reality, no alternate win conditions and no shortcuts.  The red deck does not win by maintaining board control, it does not win through overwhelming card advantage and it doesn't care who has more or better creatures on the table.  Despite the common misconception otherwise red aggro decks don't even win by being faster so much as through a single-minded focus on their opponent's life total and how best to reduce that number to zero.  Every good red player I know is a master at observing their opponent's current life total while simultaneously accounting for their opponent's *real* life total based on the cards in their hands, likely future plays and the expected flow of the match.  What's more is these players will be constantly "updating" their internal calculations for each new card drawn on either side or change in board state.  This perpetual, almost subconscious computation allows you to know exactly when to play each card for maximum life stomping value.  A good (if somewhat simplistic) example of this came up just recently for me during a friendly match of my RDW against my buddy Lucas' Valakut build.  My opponent was at 13 life and had pretty much blunted my assault in the early game by 'Bolting back to back Kiln Fiends before they could touch him.  He'd established firm board control by dropping a Beast Within on my Shrine of Burning Rage (5 tokens) on my last end step and casting a Primeval Titan.  My entire side of the table was 2x Furnace Scamp and the 3/3 Beast that Lucas had just given me but I had been milking a couple of Lightning Bolts for most of the game and my internal calculator was working just fine.  When Lucas attempted to ship the turn I asked him "are you tapped out?" and when he replied "yes" I responded by double Bolting him to the head and informing him that he was dead unless he "packed Gutshot".  I hate to admit this but as a younger/less experienced player I am almost 100% certain I would have double Bolted the Titan and promptly lost the game on the next turn when Lucas cast another copy.

"Never settle for a little damage now when you can do a whole lot of damage later":  Once again this is a seemingly simple concept but you'd be surprised at how few players actually keep this in mind.  Successfully playing red aggro is all about squeezing enough raw damage out of your cards to drag your opponent to zero; you can rarely afford to give your opponent extra life in the long term simply to satisfy a short term goal.  Probably the simplest example of this would be choosing to burn out your opponent's "bear" with a Lightning Bolt or a Staggershock instead of a Burst Lighting so that you can "dome" him for 4 with a kicked Burst several turns later.  Alternately imagine for a moment that you are on the play and for whatever terrible reason you have a hand consisting of Furnace Scamp, Goblin Guide and 5 Mountains.  With only 2 possible plays can you make the right choice?  While there's certainly some temptation to cast the Goblin Guide and immediately swing for 2 the correct answer is to play the Furnace Scamp on turn 1 and wait until turn 2 to unleash your hasty Goblin.  This is of course because the Furnace Scamp is worth 4 damage to you unblocked and a turn 2 attack is your best opportunity to create that situation.  Alternately the Goblin Guide's value changes very little from turn to turn in the early game; he's pretty much *always* going to be a shock on legs.  Okay one more example and then we can move on I promise; recently I was playing a game with a version of RDW called 'Fried Chicken" against a mono white aggro opponent. I had won game 1 and my opponent had promptly mulled to 6 so I decided to keep a hand of Mountain, Mountain, Teetering Peaks, Goblin Guide, Lightning Bolt, Staggershock and Koth.   As my opponent was shuffling he casually mentioned that his hand "even had the Leyline but no lands" before presenting me with his deck and deciding to keep the next 6 cards he drew.  To make a long story short I started the game by playing Bolt to my opponent's head, Searing Blaze on his first creature and a turn 3 Staggershock to the dome again rather than casting any creatures.  Sure enough my opponent played a turn 4 Leyeline of Sanctity but by then I'd already done 8 points of damage directly to him and could easily win the match with Goblin Guides and Koth.  While this may seem contradictory to my previous advice the simple truth is I chose to forgo the short term advantage casting creatures would have given me in exchange for more damage over the course of the game as a whole because I knew my opponent had the Leyline at his disposal.

"It doesn't matter if it hurts me, so long as it hurts you":  To the accomplished Red mage everything is a resource that can be sacrificed towards the greater goal of killing your opponent.  This includes cards in hand, lands, creatures and most commonly your own life total.  To this end some of the most important and powerful cards in the history of red aggro have included some sort of downside or required a sacrifice of some kind to be effective.  Good historical examples include Jackal Pup, Char and Mogg Fanatic while modern RDW gives us cards like Ember Hauler, Devastating Summons, Furnace Scamp and even "off-color" effects like Dismember.  The key to winning with these type of cards revolves around learning to properly manage and or minimize the "self inflicted" pain involved.  For example you don't sacrifice Ember Hauler while he still has value to you as a 2/2 creature; even if it means taking a few beats in return from an enemy "bear".  Only once your opponent is about the kill the Hauler, has played a creature you simply must kill or the board state has progressed beyond the point where a 2/2 would be relevant do you finally trade your creature for a "Shock".  Following the same line of thinking there's very little point in sacrificing all of your land to play a Devastating Summons if your opponent is just going to wipe the board immediately afterward.  A good red mage will either wait for the Goblin Bushwhacker to give the tokens Haste and set up lethal damage or alternately save most of his land and simply create 2 smaller tokens.  There's a time and a place for everything; Dismembering your opponent's Obliterator when you are ahead on life and over 4 is a good play while attempting to cast Char on 2 life is most certainly not.  Learning to properly managed the "downside" of your own cards is one of the key skills that separates excellent red players from guys who are just tapping mountains.

"Fortune favors the bold": Barring an extremely unlikely reprint of Wheel of Fortune there remain two constant problems all red mages must address; red aggro decks are at once extremely hard to mulligan with and eternally chained to the top of their libraries. This first point is rather self-evident; if your counting to 20 you'll only need to deal 2.86 damage with each of your cards in a 7 card hand but 3.33 with a 6 card hand and 4.0 with a 5 card hand.  This may be over simplifying things a little bit but when virtually every card in your deck doubles as a Lightning Bolt/Shock you really can't afford to give away too many cards before the game starts.  This requires two major adaptations on the part of a successful red mage; first he must build his decks to be as smooth and consistent as possible to reduce the need for mulligans and second he must learn to play more marginal hands than he would otherwise playing another color.  This isn't to say you can't or shouldn't ever mulligan with a good RDW build but learning not to depend on aggressive mulligan strategies is an absolutely *must* for the aspiring red mage.  The second point is a little more esoteric but equally important; red decks simply do not draw cards very easily and you're going to have to win the vast majority of your games with your opening hand and the top 4-5 cards of your library.  To this end you need to strike a careful balance between refusing to play into situations where only a specific card gets you out and playing a confident game knowing that your deck will probably feed you "more of the same" because every card in the build is basically a burn spell.  Sometimes this means spending your last burn spell to clear out a pesky blocker and sometimes it means saving it for the one card you can't answer otherwise but either way this constant duality of thought is absolutely necessary to compete with mono red aggro decks.  I warned you it was a little esoteric didn't I? :)

"Don't miss your window": Finally the one key trait common to all good red mages in my experience is an understanding of both timing and pressure.  Too many aspiring red aggro pilots will start games off by going "all-in" as soon as possible; fearing their opponent's potential answers they try to race against the enemy's draw step only to run out of gas once their opponent has stabilized.  Alternately I've also seen timid players pilot this deck far too cautiously and thereby drag the game out so long that their deck is no longer capable of winning!  Typically most mono red aggro builds will focus on dominating turns 3-5 because traditionally this is what red cards are good at.  For every turn after turn 5 that your opponent is alive the vast majority of the cards in these decks will lose effectiveness while simultaneously allowing our opponent to drop huge creatures that are difficult to burn out.  On the other side of the coin while a typical RDW is certainly capable of throwing piles of damage around on turns 1 and 2 it's usually a better idea to use these turns to set up more potential damage in the future.  For example as previously mentioned you'll want to play Furnace Scamp on turn 1 over Goblin Guide or say Kiln Fiend/Shrine of Burning Rage over Goblin Bushwhacker on turn 2.  Regardless of how you build your version of mono red aggro knowing when to "drop the hammer" and when to play for the future will go a long way towards winning your matches.  As a final word of advice; never make a play just because it would kill your opponent unless you have no other choice or you are absolutely *100%* certain he can not answer it.  I've seen too many 10 power Kiln Fiends felled by a lowly Condemn already and nobody wants to hear you cry about how you "would have won if you'd just draw some more burn" when you wasted a bunch of Shocks pumping it up too early.

Well folks there you have it; a detailed study of the mindset common to one of Magic's rarest and most dangerous creatures: the experienced red mage.   Hopefully you've all enjoyed this article and found at least a morsel or two of insight to chew on the next time you're "slangin' mountains".  I especially hope those of you visiting here from Mana Deprived enjoyed your visit; feel free to stick around for a while and check out my other articles.  Two of my favorites are a beginner's primer on drafting that I wrote way back in M11 and a recent standard article about U/W Mystic in the post-NPH environment.  As always thanks for reading guys and remember to keep counting to twenty!

1 comment:

  1. This was a great read, as a addicted dedicated red mage myself you've explained it very well, I've been around magic players since the 90's but only started becoming addicted from 2012 (my loss ;) and when I started delving into red i could not truly enjoy a victory without burning my opponents face in some regard, so much that even In defeat if my cards did what they were supposed too and didn't grant me a win I enjoyed the battle and pressure of hell that my opponents felt and knowing at different stages of the game their confidence in their own strategy gets doubtful